Designing for the Elements

Designing for the Elements

As part of our new, occasional series of conversations, artist Katrín Sigurðardóttir talked with associate editor Frances Richard about the ways in which built space and organic forces interact with systems of representation; the seductions of the model and the mock-up; and the slippery distinctions between art and architecture. Their conversation was conducted by email, and edited for publication.

Frances Richard: I’m writing to begin our conversation, Katrín, about art-making — specifically, your own practice in sculpture and installation — and to think together about how that practice explores ideas embedded in or coded by architecture and design.

In fact, we began this conversation long ago, in 2005, when you took part in the exhibition “Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates that I co-organized (with Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner) for Cabinet magazine. We’ve since extended the discussion many times, when I’ve visited your studio and written about your work, and just recently when we met at your eponymously titled exhibition on view at the MSU Broad Museum, at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

I hesitate to open with a giant, unanswerable question. But I can’t help it, because as a writer I’m always brushing up against a fundamental sense that language is baffling, as if I can’t make lasting peace with the proposition that words refer to things, that semiotic signs float around mediating our experiences of embodiment and matter and phenomena like weather — yet are not embodiment or matter. All the while, my sensations pass through language almost as they pass through my body; life without language is not only unthinkable, but for me barely palpable. I’m constantly forgetting, or losing track of, what is language and what isn’t . It’s not surprising that you and I have talked about architecture as a language — an idiom that you adapt to “speak” sculpture. As we were preparing for this exchange, you wrote to me:

In architecture, everything is named; you could even say that architecture begins in language. In order to be designed and created by the human mind — and for issues of safety and classified function — everything is defined within a semantic system.

I don’t think you’re being metaphorical. Isn’t it Hegel who says that the Tower of Babel was the fundamental architecture, because it gathered people into a society? Until, of course, they sinned through architectural hubris, and God shattered the earthling language community into mutually unintelligible camps. So, I want to ask: when you say “architecture begins in language,” what do you mean? Is it too easy to say that architecture is useful (concerned with “safety and classified function”), and art isn’t? Except, of course, insofar as soliciting or containing aesthetic and conceptual attention, which is what art does, is useful …

Katrín Sigurðardóttir: It is fitting that the comparison we are discussing here between language and architecture emerges in response to Matta-Clark, whose work exemplifies the intricate connections between language and architecture.

Relationships between language, embodiment, and matter are things I think about a lot. Language about space, embodiment in space, and matter as space.

The cyclical relationships between language, embodiment, and matter are things I think about a lot too … language about space, embodiment in space, and matter as space. In order to draw a space, to draw a function — in the literal sense of drawing on paper (or, of course, on a screen), but also in the larger sense of projecting or planning a space or a function — in order to make such plans that can be shared with or executed by others, one relies on concepts, forms, logics that have passed through language. In this way, everything in architecture is named. Architecture relies on semantic systems, although I guess one could argue that language — the use of words — is only one part of that system.

I like to think of architecture and design as “prospective” practices. You draw something that will then become an actual form in actual matter. It begins as a drawing; it is in the language of the drawing that you visualize and conceive the design. Then there is the retrospective drawing, where matter and tangible forms are brought back into language by being described, or entered into a history or taxonomy. When I talk about retrospective drawing, I am usually referring to archaeological practices. And this then begets more drawing, more language, and so on.

What you’re calling “prospective” is another way of saying that architecture and design, even in conceptual states or stages, are premised on use, on practical function, right? There’s a symmetry here with the fact that one way of defining art — after the readymade, anyway — is that it’s functionless. Or its functions are irrational, gratuitous. (In what I’m pretty sure is a riff on Duchamp’s Fountain [1917], Matta-Clark says, “one of my favorite definitions of the difference between architecture and sculpture is whether there is plumbing.”) In that earlier note to me, you go on to write:

As I borrow from all the fields of spatial record in my work, including architecture, archeology, and geography, I am keenly aware of this aspect of human-made structures. Natural and elemental processes come before human language, and I am increasingly interested in the pairing of unnamed reality with named reality in space.

Do you feel that architecture also contains “unnamed reality in space”? But contains it “differently”?

And, suppose we flip this, and go back to social and spatial operations as named and structured by the semantic system of building — with its doors and floors and walls and furnishings and gardens — and even more specific details like 18th century boiseries , or Baroque tiles, or midcentury-modern teak living-room sets. What happens to these interlocking systems of functional design when you pull them over into realms of noninstrumental contemplation, realms friendly to the unnameable, that for lack of a better word we call “art”? Are you distorting design logics? Emptying them out? Reifying them? Dreaming them? Is “translation” a good way of describing what happens when art borrows architectural syntax — making an “art text” instead of a “building text,” which “reads” differently because its terms are different?

KS: I think this goes back to what I mentioned earlier about architecture versus archaeology.  An early art-school assignment has stayed with me throughout my practice; in fact, it was the starting point for Metamorphic , one of the works in the exhibition in Michigan. It came from an English class — it began in language — where we were asked to describe a room. In some ways, I feel I have been describing places ever since, trying to spin these descriptions in ever-new ways, and to go further into the implications of this practice; what it means to describe a place. What began as a written exercise has segued into a number of sculptures and installations, works with dimensional, material form. These places are commonly architectural, although not always.