for folder published by Artspace (Sydney, Australia), 2003
Copyright the author and Artspace
The Partial Architecture of Ruins
Germaine Koh, Homemaking, 2002
for an architecture
Whose aesthetic and social bases are pragmatically real—rather than ideologically correct,
Whose juxtapositions of form and symbol engage the extraordinary and the ordinary—rather than the extraordinary ad nauseam,
Whose content projects human meaning—rather than abstract expression.
Koh's spontanous environments and crafted sculptures have more in common with the ideas of Robert Venturi than may first appear. Venturi, the flamboyantly vocal architectural postmodernist, earned his notoriety through advocating built forms whose response to urban lives is immediate, reflexive and fluid, not generic and encoded with a purity that oversteps the whims and dreams of those around it. He decried conformity to abstract rules whose outcomes were incoherent to immediate, local interests. Among so many who drew sustenance from the demise of the modernist dream, Venturi's writings and work represent an effort to manage the endlessly churning hybridity of urban lifestyles through advocating a fusion of high and low analogous to how we may listen to Mozart on our discman while walking through a slum. In this sense, Koh is an artist whose work thrives on disrupting the kind of order that is given to objects and materials in an ordered environment. Koh is an intensely urban artist who travels a great deal, and likes either collecting from or altering her surrounds. It is these creative interventions which mark her recent installation, Homemaking. What she shares with the likes of Venturi is a dissatisfaction of the ability of city spaces, despite their supposed heterogeneity, to accommodate different lives and individuals, for what continue to reign are still the crisp modernist enclosures which promise more than deliver a better life.
Even in welfare states, which Australia still more-or-less is, there will always be the homeless and dispossessed, for the reason that they cannot always function according to expected logic of utilitarian spaces and their rhythms. For some, drug-addiction and alcoholism are not paths of laziness, but manifestations of a deep psychological crises which make them unfit to conform to everyday life, with its organisations, its laws and its manners. At this point I'll bring in my second reference, now with David Cronenberg's recent film, Spider, which is a further development of Cronenberg's obsession with disjunctive degenerative pathologies, in this case a man released too early from a mental institution whose exaggerated responses to the simplest phenomena around him are symptoms of a brutal childhood. Cronenberg creates atmospheres in which the credible and incredible occur at once, and where the outward struggle are signs of psychic dischord which only increases with the self-defeating attempts to set things right. The protagonist gets tangled in a web of his own making.
To us, the web is where vermin, spiders, feed on other vermin. It is a zone of comfort and of danger. For Homemaking, Koh used the spider's web as a metaphor for adaptable homemaking, a home which is at once both vernacular and essential. A web is sanctuary, not shelter, and possible entrapment. And spiders are all equally undesirable when viewed by an ignorant eye, like the indigent whose dirt and mental disorientation are construed as potentially dangerous by those of us whom society deems 'well adjusted'. It is fascinating to see the kinds of homes that the homeless make for themselves, obsessively staking out a small region of public territory for themselves out of materials that are most likely the refuse of others. It is a melancholy partial architecture made from small ruins.
Koh's webs, woven from white nylon twine, occupied the middle space near the entry of Artspace between the more defined, boxed-up spaces on either end. For some artists who exhibit in this space, the thick wooden columns are an obstruction, but Koh's oversize synthetic webs were installed precisely to obstruct in a partial manner, and to announce certain areas of indeterminate space. Like the nooks of rooms which have been allowed to colonise with spiders, the webs were allowed to run into one another and weave their weaves through one another. Not all the webs were complete, suggesting disturbance of some kind, and several threads lay carelessly on the floor. Barely visible at first, in certain places throughout the room were small snapshots of other webs in areas throughout Sydney that Koh had woven prior to those in the gallery.
Handiwork, or handcraft, has comprised a longstanding project for Koh who is best known for the open-ended work, Knitwork, a project as much as an object, that began in 1992 and which involves unraveling found garments and reintegrating them into a massive textile that grows with every year. Inscribed by ritual and hum-drum labour, its references to the female-gendered handiwork tradition have been widely commented upon, and in a sense the driving-force behind Knitwork has underscored everything that Koh has done since then. Along with the curiosity in manipulating inexpensive everyday materials into objects or environments, Koh is interested in the manner in which any material can be shown to harbour cultural value. This is not necessarily a new idea given the wide-ranging experiments with the non-precious and ordinary that sprang from Dada Surrealism, Fluxus and Pop, but what appears to distinguish her practice is her interest in materials whose usefulness lie in providing the possibility for something else, thus objects and places whose transitional nature cause them to surrender to forces before or after them. This relationship is forcibly evident in Fair-weather forces: wind speed (2002) which was a turnstile in the middle of an unobstructed gallery floor, turning at a varying speed that was directly related, in real time, to the exterior wind speed; you could see it speed up and down. It turned automatically, or uncannily, sometimes alarmingly, although it was actually always under control. This object marked not the beginning nor the end, but the in between of inside and outside space. In Knitwork, Koh is making things (clothing) into something else (fibres) in order to create something that is continually becoming. The notion of what becomes of an object when it is taken from the outside to the inside of the gallery has already been explored by thousands of artists, but what persists in Koh's work is that removal and resituation, that movement, that threshold, that point of semantic or material metamorphosis which is the passage from 'there was', 'to there is', to 'there will be'. Insofar as any work of art refers to something, Koh's point of reference is not quite like that of a signifier to a signified, but rather to the development of that signifier into new and different signifier altogether. The work points to something out of its reach, but this may not be an indecipherable sublime; with Koh the references to absence are more material, such as a friend you have missed because you arrived two minutes too late. In terms of her art, the museum is usually thought of as temporary refuge.
Granted, as a bias and a necessity, there is no way to prevent the institutional hold of the gallery or museum, yet most if not all of Koh's works within the gallery space are decoys to other works and efforts which have occurred outside it. They thereby urge the viewer to want to leave gallery environment, though not out of boredom or disgust, but out of inquisitiveness and due to the inherent aesthetic of incompleteness that circumambulates her work within the gallery context. It puts the viewer into a singular position of feeling undermined in his/her aesthetic response, since neither what exists inside or outside the gallery is sufficient in itself. What Koh is proposing is that this is in fact the truth of all art: the separateness of art as a priveleged discourse requires an indefinite series of externalities—whether those be seen in terms of inside or outside—in order for it to function as a discrete entity. Koh's work consists as a body of psychological prompts and material echoes. You are never there. Home is never reached. This disorientation and spatial collapse is what Deleuze and Guattari have referred to as 'nomad space', the locus of non-loci. The true nomad, they say, does not need to rove very far, if at all, since the effects are felt in actions and thoughts which do not consider things as delimited or fixed but smoothly within an ever multiplying reservoir of forces. Nomadology as they call it, is always partiala and limitless.
Given the suggested reference in Homemaking to the city's homeless, the idea of nomad spaces is resurfaces in a somewhat more applied fashion. Koh marked out spaces which offered some possibility of shelter and others which largely nondescript, almost what could be called 'designated nowheres'. Between trees, or by an embankment where a bridge meets the land, Koh's oversize webs stood out like the remnants of some strange, lost race, as if taken from a scene in a story by H.P. Lovecraft, their outward charm hiding some vague threat. And the threat of the unusual is such that one of Koh's outside webs was destroyed very soon after its installation. Koh would not have been phased by this, as it is anticipated in the work: spider webs are easily cleared away, and homeless people are often asked by authorities to move on, to move out of sight. For the webs that remained for some time, it was the absence of its denizen that was felt strongest. The webs registered an emptiness in the spaces which might not have been perceived as acutely without them. The feeling that something is parted is consistent with so many of Koh's projects which are never finished, only to be continued.
As to the relevance of Koh's work to Sydney, it begins with the endless thirst for urban development and the love-affair that the city has with its own sky-line. Compared to cities like Detroit or Nairobi or Calcutta, Sydney has relatively few homeless people that are visible, which makes the city attractive to tourists who go to destinations to forget, not to be reminded of what they have set out to leave behind. But urban growth is never without its after-effects which are primarily those which relegate the poor to the periphery, out of reach and out of sight of the city centre. Venturi once again: 'So how about architecture as shelter rather than architecture as photo; architecture as background rather than backdrop—for life rather than theatre'. In the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics, Sydney joined hands with other build-happy cities like Berlin and Shanghai in an architectural orgy of rejuvenation. But as is so often the case, the architectural vision of the prosperous metropolis ignored the idea of home. In the age of terrorism, home, sanctuary is precisely what is under threat. And in times of threat, there are always a lot of scapegoats. Koh's art of remainders and endless becomings recall the spaces and gestures that have been purposively blotted out by the better judgement of urban hygiene.
1. Robert Venturi, 'A Not So Gentle Manifesto', Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press 1996, 11-15.
2. Venturi, '"Ceci tuera cela" is now "Cela est devenu ceci"', Iconography and Electronics, 276.