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Gordon Matta-Clark and Anu Vahtra in dialogue

Andreas Trossek (1/2019)

Curator Anu Allas and artist Anu Vahtra gave an interview to Andreas Trossek.

 


22. II–8. VI 2019
Kumu Art Museum, the Great Hall
"Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect. Anu Vahtra: Completion through removal"
Curators: Sergio Bessa (The Bronx Museum of the Arts), Jessamyn Fiore (The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark), Anu Allas (Kumu Art Museum).


Andreas Trossek (AT): This interview is taking place at a time when probably one of the most important exhibitions this year at Kumu Art Museum is still being meticulously installed. An international star of the calibre of Gordon Matta-Clark (1943–1978) is not exhibited every day in little Estonia.

Therefore, I would like to start by asking both of you the most obvious questions. How did the exhibition come to be in the first place? Who got the ball rolling and when and how did the process thankfully reach the point when it was a certainty: Gordon Matta-Clark and Anu Vahtra would have a dialogue in Tallinn?

 

Anu Allas (AA): It started when Karin Laansoo, the director of the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center, invited Jessamyn Fiore, one of the curators of the Matta-Clark exhibition, to Tallinn from New York in 2015, and among other things, Fiore paid a visit to Anu's studio. Later, when Jessamyn was putting together the Matta-Clark exhibition with Sergio Bessa at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, they had the plan to bring the exhibition to Europe and this proposal also reached the curator at Kumu, Kati Ilves.

We receive quite a few offers and we consider them thoroughly, but when it came to Matta-Clark, Kati and I voted in favour of it single-mindedly and together forced it into the exhibition programme at Kumu. In the interim, Kati went to Amsterdam to educate herself in the field and it became my project. I can't even remember if there was a point when I hadn't known that it had to be done with Anu Vahtra. I wrote to her. Anu was at a book fair in Moscow with Lugemik publishing initiative and agreed straight away. Since then, there have been many coincidences that considerably influenced the exhibition.

 

Anu Vahtra (AV): Around the same time I found out that I would be on residency with ISCP (International Studio and Curatorial Program) in New York in the autumn of 2017 and later it also turned out that I would be participating at Performa Biennial at the same time. For Performa I made a performance in the format of a guided tour in SoHo, "Open House Closing. A Walk" (2017), as part of which, in addition to many empty commercial spaces, I presented locations that were more or less directly connected to Matta-Clark – the video documentation of the tour is now part of the exhibition at Kumu. It happened that Matta-Clark's exhibition in the Bronx was opening precisely during Performa, without them really having any connection, so in addition to the research I conducted in preparation for the performance, I could also get acquainted with the content of the exhibition.

 

AT: An awkward question, but how did you resolve the misalignment or shift in time and the relative weighting that is inevitably apparent with such a pairing?

The works of Matta-Clark, who worked mainly in the 1970s and died at only 35, can now be found in almost every history of contemporary art and conceptual art; his interventions in (urban) space and the documentation of his "deconstructions" are the stuff of the top museums in the world, but you, Anu Vahtra, were not even born then. That said, I realise that the name Anu Vahtra may paradoxically be better known to the local audience at the moment, because we can name many exhibition projects that have received much positive attention in recent years and, for instance, the main prize at the 2015 Köler Prize, to mention but one accolade among many.

 

AV: Hanno Soans contemplates the same subject in the book that accompanies the exhibition, "Perhaps, based on the works and attitudes of the two artists, one ought to generate a textual common ground, a hybrid soil on which they are both present, thus enabling their works to intermingle in an interpretative tension, possibly serving as the ferment for something new in art or even society".1

 

AA: Bringing different contexts together and renegotiating the categories of status is one of the most important agendas of the exhibition for me. We are not bringing Matta-Clark here to Kumu to present a great artist who has done something of general importance somewhere else a long time ago, but because he has a reference point here – both in contemporary art as well for example, in a very intriguing way with regard to the 1970s Estonian artist Jüri Okas.

There is no abstract space where we could "objectively" compare all the artists and find out which one is the most important. They can only be important in a specific place and for a specific person or audience. Hierarchies are produced – by the market, institutions, approaches – they aren't provided by some higher power and they should be approached critically.

This doesn't mean the creation of some kind of subverted hierarchy, wherein that which is close is more important than that which is far away, certainly not. These are simply two artists whose work appeared at different times, and in different spaces and contexts, whose practices have many common threads, but also differences, and bringing them together is productive, creates something more than one or the other could accomplish alone. They are equal in the context of this exhibition.

 

AT: Let's talk some more about the shifts in time the exhibition spans for the viewer. What is it about Matta-Clark's work that engages people today? Is it some hippie vibe from the 1960s and 1970s? A time when many crazy things were done (usually with help from some chemical component), and if something was done, they went all in, imagination was the only limit. Or America, New York – when people travelled there to make their mark, practically from around the entire world, with only a few hundred dollars in their pocket? In short, some cultural nostalgia? Or does his literally cutting wit (ahem) inversely have some timeless effect?

 

AA: There have indeed been many successive Matta-Clark exhibitions recently. In addition to the Bronx, last year in Paris, Tokyo and London, but I am not sure whether there is one specific reason for this… Perhaps there is also a certain dose of nostalgia, but the processes taking place in the urban space – gentrification, the abandonment of certain areas, arbitrary restructurings and so on – and conflicts between residential spaces dependent on people and architectural structures, which generally express someone's economic interests, haven't disappeared.

In that sense, Matta-Clark's activity as someone who makes these conflicts visible, is always topical. What he did was not meant to be and did not become a finished project, it must always be continued – to question, undermine, destroy, disturb certain processes, without it necessarily leading to the implementation of some new and better system.

 

AV: I agree. The subjects Matta-Clark tackled in the 1970s, are also topical today, so it probably isn't the hippie vibe. When I first heard of Matta-Clark – a little more than ten years ago, after I had done my first cuts into walls – I was naturally impressed by his massive architectural interventions, a certain combination of brute force and an analytical eye, additionally the ability and decision to work with the existent and not necessarily to bring new objects into the world. After immersing myself in it, I have understood that what really impresses me most about Matta-Clark's work is the meeting of the abstract and social dimension in the work of one artist.

 

AT: Should we also speak more thoroughly about gentrification with regard to the exhibition? That which has already happened in New York, for instance, awaits Tallinn… somewhere up ahead?

 

AA: We should – it isn't really awaiting Tallinn anymore, it is already happening.

 

AV: Exactly, gentrification has already been taking place here for some time. In New York and other larger cities – for instance, Berlin or London in Europe – it just happens quicker and on a greater scale.

 

AT: Anu Vahtra's space-shifting art practice is certainly something that becomes legible via institutional criticism and conceptualism – over the years a lot of work has been done here with the analysis of exhibition spaces and the viewer's gaze. However, how many of the basic problems in the background are in fact specific to photography? Although Matta-Clark's educational background was in architecture, he obviously also took great effort to make sure his temporary interventions would leave a trace at the end of the process – photographs, rolls of film, etc.

AV: Generally, in my work, photography and space meet in the end. Initially, I used photography to document temporary installations – thoroughly considering the shots, as is usual when documenting an exhibition, and later I used photography more consciously, combining it with the spatial circumstances.

For me, the question of when a document becomes a work is still topical. I imagine that Matta-Clark tackled the same question. All Matta-Clark's installations and interventions are diligently documented; however, a category of photo-collages and photo-series and films are clearly separate from his documentation, and although they are connected to one or other of his interventions, they still constitute a separate group in his work.

 

 

Gordon Matta-Clark
Conical Intersect
1975
Gelatin silver print, 27 x 40 cm
© The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

 

AT: Let's speak a bit about site-specificity. The term "anarchitect", which Matta-Clark brought into play, does not cast much doubt, at first, about what he thought of authority and the "eternal" permanence of systems set up by people. His modus operandi could be seen as a certain negative architecture: he didn't produce any new objects in (urban) space, instead, he cut something in half, took something down or bored a hole – seemed to be more on the side of chaos and entropy than order and the systematic.

One of his most famous temporary projects is probably "Conical Intersect" (1975), where he cut an impressive line of sight through a 17th century group of buildings, which had been condemned for demolition in a Parisian quarter, which later became the location for the Pompidou Centre, well-known to all the world's art tourists. Shall we now see something done in the same spirit in Tallinn, for example, the layers of the limestone slope that were once exposed under Kumu?

 

AA: Indeed, there is an installation by Anu Vahtra in the courtyard of Kumu. They are from Harku quarry, though, but the aim is to remind us of a time when there was what looked like a wound in the urban space instead of Kumu between Lasnamäe and Kadriorg. In addition, Anu has created a site-specific installation-based environment for Matta-Clark's work, which is based on the design of the previous exhibition in the Great Hall, "Wild Souls"2.

It is always a complicated question, how to show in a museum such site-specific art practices which were initially aimed away from the institutional environment. Our solution to this question was another artist, who would do the same thing that the documentations of Matta-Clark's work report on, in between and around them.

 

AV: The term "anarchitect" was already around when Gordon Matta-Clark started to give it meaning with his group of friends. That said, it was he and his social circle that brought the term into art discourse, to signify dislocations, absences and non-locations in urban space. When it comes to chaos and entropy in Matta-Clark's practice, I would say that it hides absolute order and the systematic – his work is not destruction, but rather transformation.

My idea with this exhibition, as an artist as well as a designer, was to use similar approaches to those of Matta-Clark: it seemed self-evident that the design of the space from the previous exhibition would remain and become the starting point and raw material for the architectural presentation of the next. My task as an artist was to intervene in the space and my brief as designer was to "cut the space into shape" for the work of Matta-Clark. The vertical cuts piercing the temporary walls of the exhibition space, which reflect Matta-Clark's architectural interventions exhibited at the exhibition and expose the structure within the walls, make all six pillars of the Great Hall visible from one viewpoint.

It was not possible to unpeel Kumu's courtyard, though. I see the installation in the courtyard more as a reference to the limestone quarry that once stood in the location of Kumu and the former "function" of the beams that were exhibited at Tartu Art Museum and at the 2015 Köler Prize. Together they comprise a distinctive construction site.

1 Anu Allas, Anu Vahtra, Indrek Sirkel (eds.), Short Term Eternity. Tallinn: Lugemik & Art Museum of Estonia, 2019, p 20.

2 See, for instance, Jaak Kangilaski, Baltic Symbolism in Paris. – KUNST.EE 2018, No 3, pp 22–25.

 

Anu Allas in an art historian who works at Kumu Art Museum as a curator. Anu Vahtra is an artist, photographer and cofounder of Lugemik publishing initiative. Andreas Trossek works as the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.

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