In 1980, at the first Venice Architectural Biennale, Hans Hollein installed a series of columns that radically displaced their iconography and undermined their meaning as any sense of a support structure. Installed in a row of five within the façade of the Strada Novissima, the architect played on the materiality and the load bearing nature of the columns themselves: while the first and second in the series toyed with an aged, faux finish; the third took for its base a neo-classical building; the fourth was cut off at the lower third to form an entry; and the fifth was covered with ivy that seemed to be growing. Ironically, what resulted was one of the most powerful yet playful images of the biennale to date—an image that not only radically rethought the representational meaning of the column but one which installed itself as a new icon of postmodern architecture and architecture exhibitions. A perverse play such as this is difficult to achieve and yet it is these sorts of visual and spatial puns to which the recent work of Maruša Sagadin aspires, almost forty years later.
Sagadin lives in Vienna and studied architecture at the Technical University of Graz before studying Performative Art and Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She likewise attempts to invert the iconic and structural function of the column in her most recent installation at SPACE. Sagadin’s installation takes the form of two benches: one installed along Mare Street just outside the gallery and another, sister bench, in the interior of the gallery. Yet what can be perceived as a purple, pop-ish bench outside the gallery is actually a column now subverted, turned on its side, reduced to a two-dimensional flatness, in which the entasis or swelling in the middle of the body is still evident, and where “iconic”—a deliberate play on the word “ionic”—is inscribed at one end in a graffiti-like font. Inside the gallery, this inscription takes the form of “Doris,” now a play on “doric” and a move that deliberately genders the columns. The question in terms of Sagadin’s work then is why? Or to what effect?
The turning of the column on its side may provide one clue. This simple gesture, which literally casts the column off its pedestal, immediately establishes a human scale, provoking the functions of both seat and stage, on which to perform a host of activities. No longer passive but active and instrumental, this gesture radically subverts the iconography of the column in a way that even supersedes Hollein’s attempt; what is now reappropriated is a new function beyond that of a representational sign. The purple paint contributes to the playfulness of the column’s new role, and its function as stage or ground in relation to one of the most primary architectural elements. The column—a bench measuring six metres long by one metre wide—becomes a support structure, implying a gendered subversion from monumentality to use. Such gender specificity and stereotypes are reinforced by the colour of the interior walls and works—pink, purple, orange—that form the backdrop for the bench outside.
Indeed this is not the only way that Sagadin plays with columnar forms in her attempts to appropriate form to sculpture and to redefine the column’s monumentality and ideas of representation in a gendered architecture. Such plays take place in the array of objects she chooses to place on the bench, for example, in her idea of a concrete lipstick skyscraper; or a pair of high-heel shoes in the form of an O2 arena or stadium; or a twinned “P” of a seeming logo. These puns reference the giant lipstick of Claes Oldenburg or Philip Johnson’s postmodern Lipstick Building of the 1980s; the O2 stadium in London; and the People’s Palace, a work of public architecture in East London formerly for recreation, amusement and education. The three small structures or gendered symbols made of concrete, play out on the surface of the bench itself. Representing an urban skyline, they also form backrests to lean against when seated on the bench, now maintaining a liminal space between sign and function, prop and support.
Similarly in the interior installation, Sagadin excerpts fragments from buildings in two-dimensional form, or rather in forms that exist somewhere between the flat surface of painting and the three-dimensionality of sculptural objects. Here materials found on a usual building site are appropriated. Polystyrene is incised and filled with cement: in white polystyrene the cement becomes the word “iconic”; in pink, a poured form seems at once a stretched skyscraper or a tall building walking on platform shoes, perhaps a hidden reference to Ron Herron’s Walking City; and in green, is a wave-like shape mirroring Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park. In each case, architectonic form becomes a gendered space through colour and through reference, at once apart from, and now as commentary, on architecture. So it is suitable that the installation cites a broader context of London buildings and conjures up a critical stance specific to places for consuming leisure and entertainment. These sites for self-improvement, depicted in the sculptures and the wall works, embody the idea of a consumable self image, highlighting the irony of the weighted cement lipstick or platform shoes, seductive yet literally unbearable and unwearable.
To speak with Sagadin, is to speak to someone who is as unassuming as her sculptures in their deference to monumentality. She stresses that these works are meant to be seen as sculptures—bright, punchy and large—yet functional as opposed to merely representational, used rather than merely seen, going beyond the symbolic to provide the role of support. Such a seeming reinterpretation of sculpture condones and foregrounds its performative value, a gendered and bodily space of architecture itself, visually present in the public space of the street.
Tina Di Carlo is a Europe-based writer and curator. She holds Master’s degrees in philosophy and art history from the Courtauld Institute, London, a Masters in Architectural Design from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and is currently a PhD Fellow in Place and Displacement: Exhibiting Architecture, funded by the Norwegian Research Council at the Oslo Center for Critical Architectural Studies, Oslo School of Architecture. From 2000-2007 she was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York where she curated and assisted on numerous exhibitions. In 2009 she was awarded a Graham Foundation Grant for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts for a forthcoming publication entitled Exhibitionism. In 2010 she was the consulting editor for LOG 20, the first compendium on curating architecture. In 2011 she founded ASAP, an archive dedicated to the collection and exhibition of critical spatial practice, whose objects reside between art and architecture. She has taught at the Berlage Institute, The Netherlands, been a guest critic at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, UCLA the Architectural Association, London, and The Royal College of Art, among others.
Maruša Sagadin (b. Ljubljana, Slovenia) is based in Vienna and Doris Ionic Iconic is her first exhibition in the UK. Her practice incorporates references to architecture, feminism, pop and subcultures, as well as urban street culture. The resulting sculptural works articulate a seductive version of the built environment that is double-edged, both colourfully celebratory and critical.
Sagadin’s work has been shown widely in Europe and USA, including the selected upcoming and recent exhibitions at the Austrian Cultural Forum, New York (2016); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2015); Kunstraum Kreuzberg, Berlin (2014); Neue Galerie, Innsbruck (2014); 21er Haus, Vienna (2012) and MAK Center, Los Angeles (2010).
Maruša Sagadin’s Doris Ionic Iconic is kindly supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum London, Federal Chancellery of Austria and Province of Styria.