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Figure Ground Game
The show curated by Jeffrey Kipnis at the SCI-Arc gallery explores the evolution of the relationship that architecture has with the ground, as well as the power struggles and political implications.
“I have certain prejudice against rectitude,” Jefferey Kipnis tells me. “I’m tired of every building telling me I should be young and fit and have good posture. I’m not young, I’m not fit, I like sitting hunched over, I’m often drunk and I like to lean on stuff. So, just once, I would like to walk into a city and have a few buildings tell me: You’re ok, you’re a part of the world and you belong in it.” Well, I should just end the article here.
In “Figure Ground Game” – an exhibition at SCI-Arc, curated by Kipnis and created in close partnership with architect Stephen Turk and his team of John Yurchyk, Paul Adair, and Ryan Docken – the viewer hovers over a model city, before walking into its close-up inside the gallery and joining the ‘conga line,’ as Kipnis calls it, of giant figures within. These structures on display fit the bill – the ‘buildings’ are as talkative as they are accepting. They not only welcome the viewer, but imitate his or her slouch, lean, and movement.
When I speak to Kipnis after seeing the show, he admits that “Figure Ground Game” “flirts with the anthropomorphic a bit,” but its greatest achievement is actually in the way it deadpans that playfulness. Visually and structurally, the exhibition is a “straightforward tectonic environment”: the structures are not biomorphic or representational, they are deliberately without organic curvature. Their familiarity is not an intrinsic property, but one ascribed by viewers who see what they want to see. And in a way, isn’t that what a good work of fiction is? A suggestion, an almost-articulation of what is similarly known and unknown to everyone, but in very different ways.
I’ll go ahead and harp on that word (fiction) because that’s the language in which “Figure Ground Game” speaks of reality. Despite their architectural ‘rectitude’ (‘correctness,’ let’s say), these structures are characters, emotionally charged, quite flexible, and susceptible to mood swings. As much as the structures determine the atmosphere of the gallery space, they also adopt the tempers of the people visiting it, and connect with the nearby abstracted painting of Fabian Marcaccio and Maurice Clifford, as well as the dolls created by Beverly Stephens.
A driving idea behind “Figure Ground Game” is the relationship that architecture has with the ground — as land, property, and foundation. The show explores the evolution of that relationship, as well as the power struggles and political implications inherent to it. As a parallel, the show examines the similar relationship (and sometimes struggle) that artists have with their canvases.
For example, Kipnis explains that Mies van der Rohe elevated his structures above ground to create a stage for his ‘actors’ within existing worlds. Meanwhile, architects like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas are creating new worlds and drawing lines in the ground between building and what exists outside. Kipnis uses The Central Library in Seattle as an example of architecture that creates a ‘new’ environment within its walls, detached from the one outside, and therefore one that isn’t ‘local.’ Instead of an empty stage for a play, a Koolhaas interior is a show in itself.
I don’t take this to be a criticism, but rather a comment on how architecture reflects our time-anchored relationships to land or locality as orientation points within the world. ‘Local’ seems a disingenuous word, the way it’s used today. It’s a sexy word, which immediately makes it suspect. Eat local! Buy local! A word entirely at odds with other sexy ones, like ‘connectedness’ and ‘globalism’ and ‘internationalism.’ Local suggests confinement of some sort, in conflict with the ‘freedom’ of the world/web-is-your-oyster mentality. It’s also entirely at odds with the sources issuing it. “Buy local” is a general, generic, wide-ranging command, often issued by big nouns: chains, corporations, and ads.
So architecture that declares itself ‘local’ runs a risk of seeming disingenuous, too — or at the very least quaint. On the other hand, it’s a no-brainer that good architecture must to be aware of its surroundings, to somehow recognize and communicate with what’s already there. So, here’s where “Figure Ground Game” does its biggest deed in trying to mitigate the absurdity of ‘localness’ in an age when things are ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ globally, and the tragedy of generic, boring, soulless wide-world-ism.
“Basically, what I’m trying to add to the conversation is an element of the fictional field,” says Kipnis. “It’s an architecture that is neither highly local nor so abstractly international that it becomes monolithic.” It’s architecture that takes on a certain character of a place. After all, a character is recognizable universally, even if it is specific to the individual (person, place, or thing). We all understand character, we understand when it’s being compromised, as well as puffed up. Character is ‘built.’ Ultimately, it is also fictional, and its composition varies according to the person appraising it.
The structures of “Figure Ground Game” have undeniable character, which ride the opinion waves rolling through the gallery on any given day. Some see the grey structure in the center of the gallery as a Brutalist structure, for instance, while others (mostly children) as a figure from the game Minecraft – the readings are as correct as they are wildly different. Characters change in response to their environments, so that they can be ‘local’ even when ‘local’ changes; they’re part of the world and they fit in it. They lean on their environments, even as they shape them.
“Have you ever landed at Newark airport and looked out the window to see the field of loading cranes?” Kipnis asks me, laughing before he delivers the punchline. “They look just like dinosaur herds from Jurassic Park. I love the fact that there’s no representational ambition, nobody designed them that way, but the resemblance is unmistakable. In certain terms, that was the inspiration for it all.”