The Danish artist Kasper Akhøj works with photographs, slide-projections and sculptural installations, gathering facts and testimonies in a way that resembles the methodology of a historian. With his work, he proposes a counterpoint to the established written history of modern design and architecture. Through an accumulation of collected narratives, historical layers, associations, digressions and formal play, Akhøj arrives at a reconfiguration of significant, but lesser-known architectural endeavours which have been sidelined by force of circumstance. The thoroughness of his working method provides a counterbalance to the general volatility that is more or less omnipresent today, in art as well as in life.
The project Abstracta (a work in progress since 2006) refers to the modular display system designed in the sixties by the architect Poul Cadovius. In this work, he follows the journey of a specific object across a surprising number of spaces and histories. In the earlier work Untitled (SCHINDLER/GRAY, 2006), he interrelates the histories of two early modern houses: Rudolph M. Schindler's Kings Road House in Hollywood (1921-1922), and once again, Eileen Gray's villa, E.1027, in Roquebrune–Cap-Martin. Over the presentation of a slide installation, a voiceover narrates the related paths that have contributed to a circular tale of love, murder and ruin that would not seem out of place in the pages of a tabloid newspaper.
Angelique Campens: The history of Architecture and Design provides the starting points for your work. Where does this passion come from?
Kasper Akhøj: That is difficult to answer. My interest in different types of architecture and design, urban issues in general and my interest in the built environment have all been there for as long as I can remember. I was less conscious of it at the time, but when I look back now I realise it was always there. Despite that I don't have any architects in the family. My father is a photographer though, and he works a lot with applied arts, design and also architecture, so for sure there is some kind of link there, spending time in the studio as a child and so on. Details from that environment left a lasting impression on me I guess.
Perhaps it comes in a way from taking an interest in material and context, rather than the person or the name behind a piece of work. With the Abstracta project, for example, I had no idea which architect or designer might have been behind it. When I saw it on my trip through the former Yugoslavia, I assumed it was some sort of generic design. And I could see that it had been a very popular one at a certain time, at least until recently. There were so many variations of it as well, with only minor morphed details. It looked as if it had been a kind of 'Kalashnikov' of Yugoslavian metal shelving, or modular display systems, because at that time you really could see it everywhere. Everywhere that had not changed too much since the wars. It had a very elegant presence somehow, of one system carrying another, and of being connected with the past. It became a sort of symbol, really, of a former connection and of a former network. And it came as a complete surprise to me when I started working on the project and found out that it was not a Yugoslavian Kalashnikov, but a Danish one.
I had never heard of Cadovius before. He had certainly made a name for himself, in the 60's and 70's, but not so much that it had lasted. He actually won a gold medal for Abstracta at the 1962 Brussels expo, which means that the current show at Wiels represents the system making a return to that same city, where original leftovers of the Danish system from that time can still be found scattered around town. Abstracta was produced, or copied, in turns, in Denmark, China, Yugoslavia and finally the United States. At the time, Communist China and Yugoslavia were 'beyond the horizon' so to say, or outside the field of vision for Cadovius, who was unaware that his system had expanded into those parts of the world, way beyond his own control. That situation is of course very different now. I heard someone recently comment that the Communist Congress in China of 1992 was something that changed the world, really, much more than 9/11 did. It took place as the war was raging in Yugoslavia and just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it was an event that led to the state of the global economy today. I believe the slogan of the congress was something to do with the building of a "socialist market economy", which people found quite puzzling at the time.
In terms of how that came about? The Schindler House is an exhibition space now, and it's one of a handful of early west coast modernist houses that you can visit if you are in LA, like the Eames Case Study House. You might go and visit if you are interested in the history of modern architecture and Modernism.
But often lacking in the narratives around those early sites of experiment, I found, is the background story of why, Schindler for example, decided to built his house the way he did, and what role his wife Pauline had in the project as well. The initial thoughts behind that project and the peculiar history that ties to the place in the time between it being built and becoming a museum, was not something that had been written about and it was really something that I came across by coincidence. I was speaking to an architectural historian who had worked in Los Angeles in the nineteen eighties and had passed by the Schindler House once to have a look out of his own interest. He found the building in a state of disrepair, but also someone, a small team of enthusiasts, working on restoring it. It was in very poor condition. When he went there was still a lot of traces left from the last person to inhabit the house, which was Schindlers former wife, Pauline. Traces from a completely different life having been led there, quite oblivious to that of the modern architect perhaps. He gave me a couple of different hints about another story that might have been hidden in the rubble, that the small restoration team at that point was carrying out on wheelbarrows. I started looking into it and speaking to different people. First of all, I went to speak to the architect behind the restoration, who is also the director of the organization looking after the house. He is somehow very much a part of that whole complicated and interesting story and he provided me with a lot of information, material and images from the time of the restoration and from the times when the Schindler family lived there.
Is this written down?
No, at that time not so much had been written. He himself had done some writing, and also had a special interest in Pauline Schindler, but with a very different focus. At the time, however, not much information was available. The sources for the slide piece, are a combination of historical writing, canonical speech about the project, as well as all the other more personal stories and elements connected to it that I was able to dig up. Thus it is a blend of material that had been widely published and a lot that was unearthed as part of the process.
Yes, from architecture theory through to very local gossip. It fast becomes a very large network of people that I involve in the projects, and of course they all have different interests, and in different fields, and that's really the way I like to navigate.
You have worked on two projects related to the history of Villa E.1027, which is clearly an important building for your work. How did you start to become interested in the Villa E.1027?
I had known about the house of Eileen Gray for quite a long time, from general interest, and study of architecture. The idea for Welcome (To The Teknival) started after I had done the slide piece in 2006, which I had been working on for quite some time around 2003-2005. When I was there, I knew about the project to restore the house, but at that point in 2005 the first plans had just been cancelled. They had wanted to carry out the restoration in the traditional sense, and to take the house back to when it had first stood finished in 1929, which would also have meant removing the murals of Le Corbusier. The plans were drawn and they were about to start, but in the end it didn't go through. It took another couple of years before a new plan was made, for which a new architect was appointed. A new plan that was to include the murals of Le Corbusier. I was kind of waiting for that work to start to happen, and I had known for some time that I wanted to try and follow the process of the restoration, documenting it through the use of Gray's original portfolio. I waited 2 years for the restoration to start, and to be able to begin working on the project.
You don't compose any stories. Is there any place left for fiction?
I think that I try to be as true to the material as possible, but I use things that I find on my way along various paths, and while those things might not necessarily be the truth, they are part of the material that I gather, so in that sense, yes, there is a place for fiction—but it is a sort of fiction that is created by other people.
I think it's important to leave the material open for some kind of fictional aspect, but it's not something of which I am the sole author.
*Mark Wigley, "Whatever happened to Total Design?", Harvard Design Magazine, no. 5 (summer, 1998), p. 25