criticismArchitecture and Design
Friday, January 13th, 2017

A Machine For Living In: ReActor at Architecture Omi

Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley: ReActor at Omi International Arts Center

ReActor is part of the 2016-17 Architecture Omi exhibitionWOOD: From Structure to Enclosure
1405 County Route 22
Ghent, New York,

Atop a grassy hill, a typical Modernist slab house is hoisted aloft by a slender concrete pillar. Visitors to Architecture Omi in rural Columbia County, New York are struck by this magical, topsy-turvy vision as they emerge from the woods at the foot of a large open field. As they climb through mown grass toward the apparition, it becomes clear that the pillar is highway-overpass grade, and that the house is fully habitable, complete with plumbing and cooking systems neatly diagrammed in primary colors visible through transparent walls. This impressive engineering feat is ReActor, the fifth collaboration of artist Ward Shelley and architect Alex Schweder. All their joint projects have involved physically occupying, or as they put it “performing,” their deviant architectural inventions. ReActor is the least demanding so far in terms of performance, and the most ambitious structurally and aesthetically. It is also the first to directly address architectural genre, with the legacy of the high Modernist glass house placed onto a figurative, no less than literal, pedestal.

In my first visit to ReActor, under baking August sun, the sculpture was unoccupied. As I was trying to decipher how the weight of the house and its contents was secured to the cylindrical pillar, a welcome breeze began to spin and tip the house with the sluggish, machined majesty of a George Rickey kinetic sculpture. The structure, rather than being solidly attached, was simply resting the transverse beam of its roof –– a very Mies van der Rohe beam –– on a swivel point on the pillar, thrust through its interior.

My second visit took place on a dramatically overcast October afternoon, with the artists in residence (as they periodically will be during the two year installation). Their weight, as well as a gusty wind, made for far more spinning and tipping than before, although they took it in stride like veteran sailors. The house’s symmetry is rigorous, with dual balconies at the ends, dual beds and desks (lamps, chairs and personal items may be akimbo), and a central core of bathroom and kitchen, exposed like the HVAC systems of the Centre Pompidou. There is a theatrics of quarantine in the performances of Shelley and Schweder. As in an ocean crossing or space travel, all food and water must be cached in advance, five days for the performance I saw. Cooking and dining elements can be assembled when needed; stowed, they make a witty, De Stijl-style grid of primary colors, a detente between Rietveldt and Ikea. Closer in one notices a delightful detail that recalls the decorative survivalism of Andrea Zittel: two ready-to-use place settings made from colored boards hung sideways on the kitchen wall, each with magnetized cup, plate and silverware stuck in place.

Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, In Orbit, at The Boiler, 2014. Courtesy of the artists and Pierogi
Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley, In Orbit, at The Boiler, 2014. Courtesy of the artists and Pierogi

The artists’ fourth collaboration, In Orbit (2014), was an immense mill wheel of bolted plywood built into The Boiler, Pierogi’s cavernous Brooklyn project space. It could be rotated freely on a sewer pipe rigged from the ceiling. For 11 days within the five week run of the show, Shelley lived perilously on the outer, upper slope, some 30 feet above the concrete floor, while Schweder occupied the lower, inner edge. Reciprocal furniture, kitchens and chemical toilets were distributed around the wheel, and the artists, walking in lock step, oppositely, could spin the required sector, hamster-like, to vertical. Every mood and whim of hygiene was thus a gravely serious comedy of negotiation. If Shelley and Schweder performed the architecture, it performed them, too.

Unlike the forced cooperation of In Orbit, however, ReActor’s architectural script allows for Shelley and Schweder to wander freely about their own wings, or to congregate in the middle. A rough reciprocity is observed, nevertheless, as eccentric distribution causes some tipping. (Joining one another for a drink on either’s balcony is out of the question.) Still, ReActor is neither perilous nor claustrophobic compared to In Orbit, or to Shelley’s other occupied sculptures (in collaboration with Schweder or otherwise), which include tunnels, elevated platforms, flattened ant-farm colonies, and secret mouse-like quarters inside a gallery’s walls. ReActor, by contrast, is a bucolic retreat. Even Shelley’s usual drama of endurance was deemed superfluous here, the artists only sporadically taking up residence. And fair enough: uninhabited, ReActor’s bold structure and setting strike the iconic, coffee-table-book pose of a Modernist masterpiece all the more –– without humans, that is, to mess up the architecture.

There has always been a respectful kinship between Modernist architecture and abstract art — whether geometric or biomorphic — since their mutual origins in the post-World War I European avant-garde. The relationship still thrives, though a sidelong critique began to hit “home” with Richard Hamilton’s interiors, along with Roy Lichtenstein’s better behaved ones. A bit later, Richard Artschwager’s textured paintings and flattened furniture and David Hockney’s cliffside L.A pools, among other projects, widened the ambiguous Pop embrace. And recently, Modernist architecture, in all its daring glamor, totalitarian hubris, and trickle down banality, has been gathering momentum as a subject, per se, of contemporary art practice. Across a broad spectrum, from the contemptuous to the fondly nostalgic, even perhaps to the credulous, Günther Förg, Enoc Perez, R.H. Quaytman, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Amie Siegel, Thomas Ruff, Marsha Cottrell, Jorge Pardo, Mike Kelley, Jeremy Blake, Matthew Barney and numerous others have addressed their work to the legacy, direct or indirect, of Modernist masters.

And it is surely a mixed legacy. Ruskin, some fifty years in advance of Mies’ defining less-is-more dictum, defended fertile Gothic inventiveness from Renaissance symmetry with a prophecy: “No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple.” The haughtiness, as much as the simplicity, seems to be just what interests many contemporary artists about modernism. In any case, despite the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus, its invocation of Medieval brotherhoods and democratic transparency, a dark side inheres in the corporate accommodations of Gropius and Mies in the new world, and generally to the International Style as it came to be cluelessly and expediently practiced in America: not only numberless crass glass towers, including a certain orange pustule on Fifth Avenue, but bland suburban high schools, like the ghostly one modeled in Kelly’s Educational Complex. Worst of all is the legacy of so-called urban renewal, symbolized by the failure of mass housing projects such as the imploded Pruitt-Igoe, which was inescapably, if clumsily, derived from Le Corbusier’s Vichy-commissioned studies in urban planning. If ReActor’s concrete piloti reminds us of the rigor of the Villa Savoye, it also beckons to Léon Krier’s observation that Corbu’s later, highly expressive innovations in concrete were inspired by Albert Speer’s Atlantic Wall defense bunkers. And speaking of opportunistic fascist sympathizers, Philip Johnson’s baronially sited Glass House in nearby Connecticut may be ReActor’s most immediate paradigm.

Part of what makes the legacy of Mies and Corbu, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, et al. such compelling subject matter for contempoary art may be that the dark side of Modernism was subliminally reinforced by Hollywood. In Thom Anderson’s brilliant documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, we learn how Modernist trophy houses, perched on cliffs above the city, came to be the default mise-en-scène for evil foreigners, insinuating perverts, drug lords, and corrupt politicians by an accident of convenience. Over a location shot from L.A. Confidential, a 1997 throwback to classic noir, in which Richard Neutra’s seminal 1929 Lovell House plays the airy, cantilevered home of a murdered pornographer, Anderson’s narrator sums it up: “The movies have shown these pure modern machines for better living are dens of vice.” Anderson’s film also examines the numerous roles played by Jack Lautner’s1960 Chemosphere house, a hexagonal flying saucer that, not unlike ReActor, is perched atop a slender concrete pole. Cast as “the bachelor pad of a lunatic driller killer” in Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock homage, Body Double, Lautner’s structural audacity, influenced by a long mentorship with Wright, went down as camp.

Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder in ReActor, July 2016, Architecture Omi.
Ward Shelley and Alex Schweder in ReActor, July 2016, Architecture Omi.

 There is a touch of camp, actually, in the “body double” jump suits, one orange, the other red, worn by Shelley and Schweder as they go about their roughly symmetrical business. Suggesting both maximum security prisoners and operators of heavy machinery, the costumes function most of all to diagram the architectural narrative through ReActor’s transparent walls, the bright colors drawing the eye as in an Oskar Schlemmer dance-lecture at the Bauhaus. Diagramming narrative is, of course, Shelley’s artistic obsession. Aside from sculpture, he draws and paints intricate timelines of untold histories, including avant-garde art scenes and movements, television shows, car stylistics, and intimate autobiography. The shape of time, in his deeply opinionated, visually inventive telling, is a spaghetti of interweaving plots. Shelley’s intestinal timelines have been getting richer and more encrusted, with illustrational content now punctuating the flow, and the whole scheme often assuming punning outlines in the infographics tradition of gnarly “trees” of life –– or, in Shelley’s case, a “giant squid” of science fiction. To a conference of data visualization professionals, no less, he has spoken of how a map or data spread is merely informational, until a line is plotted across the data, connecting the dots. The line narrates, it interprets. It turns information into explanation.

Similarly, Shelley has sought to draw a human line through architectural data. With Schweder and his other collaborators, he has explored how the constraints of buildings and enclosures imply narrative, which his social-sculptural performances elicit. International Style architecture as a subject for contemporary art has become so fashionable that it now verges on cliché. But Shelley and Schweder invert the cliché, rebuilding Modernist architecture from the ground up –– or rather, from the sky down ––reclaiming something of its visionary purity in the process, and adding an all-American, can-do spirit. Despite the ambitious engineering of ReActor, the narrative here –– with sheeting standing in for glass, Home Depot for Knoll, and MDF for black steel –– is not so much nostalgia for Modernism’s sheen of perfection, as it is the contrarian, DIY spirit of “doing a dumb thing in a difficult way,” Shelley’s motto since the late 1990s. Floating above the trees, tilting ingeniously and absurdly in the wind, the artists have invented their own machine for living. It is a raft drifting between the Catskills and the Taconics as truantly as Huck Finn wending his way down the Mississipi.