In Between Spaces – On the Sculptural Works of Andrea Pichl
I have several times tried to think of an apartment in which there would be a useless room, absolutely and intentionally useless. It wouldn’t be a junkroom, it wouldn’t be an extra bedroom, or a corridor, or a cubby-hole, or a corner. It would be a functionless space. It would serve for nothing, relate to nothing.
For all of my efforts, I found it impossible to follow this idea through to the end. Language itself, seemingly, proved unsuited to describing this nothing, this void, as if we could only speak of what is full, useful and functional.
—Georges Perec, Species of Spaces
The architectonic models and urban plans of classic modernism and postwar modernism frame the reference points for the sculptures, photographs, drawings, collages, stage sets, and exhibition displays of Andrea Pichl. With this work, the artist, who grew up in East Berlin, continuously explores the design of public and private space in the GDR and other socialist countries, as well as the processes of reconstruction following Germany’s reunification. Her research also includes housing developments and public plazas in Western European cities such as Paris, Dublin, and London. She places a central focus on the social visions associated with modern architecture. By doing so, she gives preference to imperfect and dissonant architectural elements, to grotesque decorative components, to the monuments that time has forgot, and to gaps in the urban structure. With an eye for detail, Pichl questions the modernist utopia that found its specific expression in socialist urban and residential development. Her work is dedicated to certain situations of urban space in which different architectonic and social systems clash. “I am not so interested in utopia itself, but more so in its shortcomings. More specifically, what are the faulty and dysfunctional elements and the aesthetic mistakes, which often arose out of economic necessity?”1
Prefabricated construction is a theme central to her investigation as this method has been elemental to the design of apartment complexes in the context of functional city planning since the 1920s.2 Her drawings, photographs, and sculptures refer to a range of related examples: the modular system developed by architects of the Czech city Zlín, newly built in the 1920s by the industrialist Tomáš Baťa; Plattenbau-type prefab construction as it was practiced in the GDR; the Prefabricated Building System propagated by Fluxus manager George Maciunas in 1965, which was geared toward the soviet concrete housing block; and the socialist mass-housing of the 1970s and 1980s on the outskirts of Paris. Pichl draws upon single elements and modules from these architectonic systems. She reduces these in scale or highlights details in order to compile new structures. In doing so, she counters the ideal of the perfect, functional solution. This counteraction comes across both in her sculptural works, constructed of standard materials such as cardboard, wooden boards, Plexiglass, or plastic panels, and in the photographic details she records while wandering through different urban zones. Her view is adjusted to the “inherent shortcomings”3 of mass-housing structures, without ever engaging in an all-inclusive query of modern architecture: “But I am excited by the deformities, and by exaggerating these. For instance, next to the entryways of the GDR Plattenbau buildings, the balconies are positioned somewhat higher, and they are enhanced by very Brutalist, bulky concrete slabs. Above these, and often beneath them, one frequently finds unused, in-between spaces, which have no function or aesthetic value, as though nothing fits together.”4 Her piece entitled Doublebind, originally created for the 2011 exhibition “Architektonika” at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, exemplifies this. With this work, the artist broaches the issue of the standardized, optimized living formats of the GDR Plattenbau. The contour shapes of three apartment units are joined—four-room, two-room, and one-room flats at half the scale of the originals—one upon the other, much like the construction of a house of cards. Photographs are projected onto the various materials and surfaces of this system’s finished panels. The images show architectural details of housing developments from different countries and rival political systems. What this expansive sculpture brings into focus is the contradiction of mass-housing projects: the promise of prosperity associated with them, in some way or another, and the disenchantment of their everyday life.
The artist’s work, with its orientation to modern residential construction, exists within the context of an artistic inquiry of modernity. There are earlier suggestions of this line of questioning as well, for example, documenta 12 with its first leitmotif “Is modernity our antiquity?” or the 2009 exhibition “Modernologies: Contemporary Artists Researching Modernity and Modernism” that took place in Barcelona.5 Against the backdrop of a broad analysis of modernisms’ aesthetic, social, economic, and philosophical paradigms, artists such as Dan Graham, Stephen Willats, Absalon, Dorit Margreiter, David Maljkovic, Sabine Hornig, Maix Mayer, and Pichl have centered their investigations on both Eastern and Western modern architecture. Thereby, it is often the discrepancy between the ideal and reality—between an imagined future and the reality that actually occurs—that has provided the occasion for artistic expression.
In the urban realm, as well, it is the gaps and in betweens that interest Pichl. A group of three sculptures from 2012 entitled zwischen (“between”) references a number of overlooked voids found between historical buildings and 1980s Plattenbaus on Linienstraße in Mitte, Berlin. With affixed wooden panels, Pichl reconstructs these gaps at a ratio of one to ten, describing the small spaces between the angular, older buildings and the squared Plattenbaus. The work was inspired by an essay in the architecture magazine Arch+ as part of an issue dedicated to urban development in Berlin. The author gave an account of these empty lots and their measurements, and drew a connection to artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates. In the 1970s, Matta-Clark purchased similar leftover New York City sites at auction in order to write about and photograph them, with the intention of selling these documents and the property deeds as artworks.6 Though the work was not fully realized, Matta-Clark was able to reflect upon property speculation in a city like New York, and to present the urban space as something that should be experienced as a product of political, social, and economic processes. The vacant spaces in the center of Berlin, on the other hand, can be seen as “holes in the plot” and “windows of opportunity,” indicating the “difference between a bourgeois past and modern socialism.”7
Pichl sculpturally interprets the negative, urban space, following on from Bruce Nauman’s sculptural practice during the 1960s where he materialized “negative space,” found under a chair for instance, or between two rectangular objects. He was concerned with the relationship between inside and outside, and with the entanglement of sculptural bodies and their surroundings: “Negative space for me is thinking about the underside and the backside of things. […] Both what’s inside and what‘s outside determine our physical, physiological, and psychological responses—how we look at an object.”8 Nauman’s practice, executed in various materials lends itself to an experience with objects in terms of their presence and absence, and the relationship between these states. “In converting such negative space into material, a volume—an in between space—becomes tangible, whereas this is hardly noticeable otherwise. At the same time, the corresponding sculpture communicates a strong sense of absence: the absence of the positive form.”9 In contrast to Nauman’s work, or that of the artist Rachel Whiteread who transforms negative space into solid form and reconstructs complete interiors to scale, the dimensions of Pichl’s zwischen differ from that of the original vacant lots. This discrepancy lends Pichl’s group of sculptures an autonomy, which carries the abstract, polygonal bodies away from their origin. At the same time, their placement within the exhibition space corresponds to their actual placement within the urban space. Thus, Pichl has managed to locate her sculptural works in the space in between the abstract and the concrete.