Saturday, June 23, 2012

The magic of weird angles

Since the Schaulager building is closed for the rest of the year due to enhancement work, the institution decided to put up a “Schaulager Satellite” right in the middle of Messeplatz to keep its presence during Art Basel.

The overall form of the HdM-design “Satellite” makes obvious geometric references to the main Schaulager building. The distorted triangle is composed of two indentations similar to the one on the Schaulager facade, acting as two welcoming sides facing the two main access directions of Messeplatz. These two sides are combined in a very smart way to form a distinct gesture that looks as if it comes out from the Messe Hall 2, and diminishes at one sharp corner pointing into Messeplatz. Underneath the big triangle are several little houses with gable roofs – obvious instances of the Schaulager gatehouse. But compared to the ingenious recreation of the indentation, these scattered volumes seem a bit like just kitschy mimicry.

The datum between the two parts introduces a clear dichotomy. Structurally, it’s supporting vs. supported; and programmatically, it’s public functions (reception, bookstore, food stand) vs. core exhibition. The material choice follows the division: soft perforated PVC foil above and rough OSB below. But the white paint on the outside of the OSB houses seems to take a step back and undermine the otherwise sharper contrast. There is also one exceptional small house: the video room. One may argue that it’s a black box so it’s different from the display above. But I still think it goes against the conceptual clarity.

After several visits, I decided that this pavilion is one of the most difficult-to-photograph buildings I’ve seen in recent years. In the camera viewfinder, you see lines flying around in different angles. You can’t judge what’s perpendicular and what’s vertical any more. The strange form is completely anti-compositional. It’s not meant to create beautiful pictures. But all the funny angles work together magically and make the space very interesting.

Following the stair/auditorium that flips down like a spaceship, one arrives at the upper galleries around a triangular opening. There are several videos playing at the same time. In order to balance the acoustic environment, the walls are made of molton fabric – a material often used for theatre curtains. This smart material choice also results in a soft and monolithic interior surface. Very cozy.

In terms of exhibition, I found the “sourcebook” curation concept very interesting. Instead of featuring “real art,” the galleries show the making of art in a series of “shop windows.” The objects on display include the four red balls John Baldessari tossed in his pictures, the shoes Matthew Barney used to stamp the petroleum-jelly footsteps onto the floor, a rare leftover from the paper model Thomas Demand built for his photographs, plaster models and negative moulds from Katharina Fritsch, props and costumes from Cindy Sherman, a model of Monika Sosnowska’s monumental sculpture 1:1, and of course, a wooden model of the Schaulager building by HdM.
Thomas Ruff’s 3D photographs
Clockwise from top left: Herzog & de Meuron, Peter Fischli & David Weiss; Katharina Fritsch; Matthew Barney, Paul Chan; Cindy Sherman, Thomas Demand, John Baldessari

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The new rebel

Yesterday, Microsoft unveiled their new tablet product line – Surface. It’s another attempt of Microsoft trying to be also “Microhard,” and obviously an attempt to catch up with the iPad. I can’t tell how competitive it would be. But I have to say, Microsoft did manage to surprise us with some cool new things that Apple didn’t think of.

Overall, Surface looks a bit boring just like any other PC or Google hardware. The kickstand seems redundant and so retro-looking, but the magnesium casing looks pretty sweet. It's also going for a 16:9 aspect ratio, with built-in USB connection.

What’s truly ingenious is the keyboard on the Touch Cover. You can buy a Smart Cover for your iPad, but it’s not smart enough now. Microsoft takes a step forward to include a keyboard using pressure-sensitive technology. When connected, Surface would even change the screen background color according to the color of the Touch Cover! I can’t wait to try hand-on and see how well the typing works.

Another cool thing is that the higher version runs full Windows 8 Pro (although it gets to 1.35cm thick). This means you can install any other programs built on Windows, like Office and Photoshop, not just mobile apps. It is full PC power, merging the notions of tablet and desktop.

The press event was nothing compared to the Apple ones. The demos seemed very clumsy and Steve Ballmer didn’t even smile when he introduced the products. But at the end the coolest thing happened – an amazing video featuring the awesome dubstep “SRFC in C Minor” by Keith Rivers Films. It feels fresh and exciting compared to the recent Apple ads. There is no running or hammering, but I sense a kind of the Apple “1984” ad aura. I guess when the underdog becomes mainstream, the old leader will act as the new rebel.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Space station on the roof

Soap bubble packing is yesterday’s news, and modular structure is even the day before yesterday’s. But when Tomás Saraceno puts his “Cloud City” on the roof of the Met, it still looks futuristic, at least for most general visitors. When stepping out of the staircase, the guy in front of me roared “Wow holy smoke! This is awesome!” I was slightly caught off guard because I almost forgot how Americans react to things.

But my first impression was: this is tiny! Instead of taking the advantage of the modular system and spread it all across the roof (like the Starn twins’ “Big Bambú” or the metallic tree by Roxy Paine), “Cloud City” is more like a freestanding object. But it’s not really “free” standing. This cluster of 16 interconnected polyhedrons has to be anchored by a network of steel cables. Weighing about 20 tons, the structure is nowhere near being light, not mentioning “floating.” Actually there is not even the illusion of floating, since the cantilevers are not so great after all.

However, the 100+ surfaces of the installation do create amazing effects. Either transparent (clear plexiglass) or reflective (polished steel), they juxtapose reality with reflections of the surrounding buildings, greenery in the park, sky, and people – upside down or sideways, like in a kaleidoscope.

I always love Tomás Saraceno’s work. Maybe it’s the fused sensibilities between art, architecture and science from his original training as an architect.
This installation on the Met’s roof is the latest and largest iteration of his almost 10-year-long project “Cloud Cities/Air Port City” that investigates and expands the ways in which we inhabit and experience our environment. This Bucky Fuller-inspired geodesic structure is “an international space station,” as Saraceno himself described. A prototype of a future airborne habitation, a utopian environment coming to life. Unfortunately, this edition on the roof doesn’t fly as those in the illustration.

Let’s be fair. The little portion of “Cloud City” took a year longer to secure all the necessary building permits in New York (it was originally scheduled to be on view last summer). There is always a gap between an artist’s visions and reality, and there are always compromises to make (maybe including the prudent structure). Especially in this case, Saraceno is operating in what Le Corbusier called “the land of the timid.”