"What an installation, a performance, a concept or a mediated image can do is to make out a possible or real shift with respect to the laws, the customs, the measures, the mores, the technical and organizational devices that define how we must behave, how we may relate to each other...What we look for in art is a different way to live, a fresh chance at co-existence."
A real conversation: "Um, so, I was being very serious about the bathrobe. I really think I need to get a bathrobe," said the architect, and "slippers. Very domestic slippers." The gallery staffer replied, "Ok, well I don't know where to get a good one around here, and a robe isn't something you want to just buy. You want to make sure it fits and is comfortable." Eventually the robe was procured, and this is just one of the many innovative social relations that was produced by architect Jimenez Lai's life-as-art architectural performance piece "Three Little Worlds" at the London Architecture Foundation (LAF).
The exhibit consisted of three super-furnitures: "too small to be a building, too big to be a couch." Each was meant to be interacted with by gallery-goers, and offered a set of CMYK dwellings decked out in a kaleidoscope of fur, carpet and wallpaper. But this was no ordinary architectural installation. Over the course of two weeks during the London Festival of Architecture, Lai inhabited the three small structures, inside the LAF, underneath the London Bridge. While living in the art gallery, he made a series of performative drawings on the walls, giving spectators something to look at, and giving the installation an immersive, ongoing performative element.
The objects are white boxes, approximately 3 metre-high, 3 metre-long, with varying widths. They were painted in smooth white, while cartoonish cutouts were lined in pink fur, blue carpet, and yellow wallpaper. The colorful interiors contrasted strikingly with their white exteriors, like a watermelon, or a kiwi, creating a "little world" that visitors could step into. Lai chose the pink fur super-furniture to sleep in throughout the duration of the exhibition. The three objects had wheels, allowing different arrangements. Depending on the situation, the three worlds could be arranged in response to the front entrance to the gallery, the street, or the physical space of the gallery as a whole.
When oriented toward the door, a view through the three pieces created a composition, greeting attendees into Lai's domestic space. This was an experiment in contorting the public and private elements of life, under the microscope of an exhibition. When oriented to the street, the installation read as a comic book, with three separate panels, implicating the Carmody Groarke-designed LAF building into all of this. Passers-by could get glimpses of the architect living: sleeping, working, and chatting with visitors. If arranged slightly awkwardly, the three masses could hinder movement through the gallery, creating interesting situations and spatial moments. For a party or other gathering, this provides the necessary mess of space that causes users to mingle with other users unexpectedly.
The experiment questioned typical notions of how to behave, or how to misbehave, allowing users to interact with the space however they wanted. Much like the classic happenings of Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Fluxus, or a number of artists in the 1960s, these new spatio-social accidents tease the unexpected out of everyday life. Formally, it is architecture which has stepped so far outside of itself into the realms of performance and social agency, so far away from its supposed function of master-planning and choreographing life, that it has come full circle, imploding into a black hole, a little world lined in pink fur. Inside this little world, Lai displays the act of his everyday life, like a living comic strip.
To add another layer to the exhibition, Lai spent his days drawing a set of "cave paintings" on the bare plywood walls of the space. Drawn in his signature style, the black and white drawings make each visit to the gallery different, and each day richer visually and experientially. Like many recent design exhibitions, the act of making is revealed, obscuring the line between design, art, and theatre. To further this obfuscation, the entire event has been youtubed. Some sequences show time-lapse footage of drawing, the activity on the street, or of the architect sleeping.
Entirely financed through Kickstarter, "Three Little Worlds" was originally (and ambitiously) titled "Hefner/Beuys House," and had a larger scale and ambition, with Lai declaring his intentions of merging the exhibitionism of Hugh Hefner with the live-art of Joseph Beuys. Unfortunately, budget constraints prevented the built elements from being Lai's best formal works.
In this case, however, it is not about the architecture. It is about how the entire extravaganza subverts traditional notions of architectural production, media, and the deployment of spectacle in architecture. In doing so, it rearranges architectures relationship to all people involved. We see here architecture as a temporal experience that merges with its means of support: patrons, users, and protagonists. What is expected of an architect? Why do we act the way we do when confronted with such a spectacle, or when we become the spectacle? How does architecture mediate the social devices we are accustomed to, or more importantly, those that we might become accustomed to? The exhibition offers something rare in architecture these days: a new way of looking at architectures within contexts both physical and social. Matt Shaw (@mockitecture)