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Centring the edges of Matta-Clark’s work reveals the value found in the margins
The Architectural Review is joined in this episode of the AR Bookshelf by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. On our bookshelf in this chapter is the CCA’s CP138 Gordon Matta-Clark: Readings of the archive by Yann Chateigné, Kitty Scott and Hila Peleg, co-published with Koenig Books in July 2020. This episode dwells on the peripheries of Matta-Clark’s work – in his library, his travel snaps, and his discarded film footage – to reveal the value that hides in the margins and on the cutting room floor. Our future on this planet could depend on it.
Guests include Francesco Garutti (Curator of Contemporary Architecture, CCA), Yann Chateigné (curator and writer), Kitty Scott (Deputy Director and Chief Curator, National Gallery of Canada) and Laura Phipps (Assistant Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art).
In collaboration with the CCA, we have carefully selected from their recent and upcoming publications to place on our bookshelf, to tell their stories, and reach outside their pages, taking them for a walk. CP138 Gordon Matta-Clark: Readings of the archive is the culmination of three exhibitions held at the CCA between June 2019 and September last year that were part of the CCA’s continued Out of the Box series. The exhibition series is now being expanded through a new instalment, created in dialogue with the Generali Foundation Collection and on view until 6 March at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg.
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CP138 Gordon Matta-Clark: Readings of the archive, 2020
Documents from Gordon Matta-Clark’s personal library, Stefano Graziani, CCA Singles, 2020
‘Body unbuilding: on cuts, stitching and anarchitecture’, Jack Halberstam, AR March 2019
‘Reading the ruins’, Catherine Slessor, AR December 2017 / January 2018
‘Sentimental value: from Gordon Matta-Clark to emotional capitalism’, Eleanor Beaumont, AR September 2019
‘Come dine with me: the dinner party, art, and revolution’, Rahel Aima, AR October 2018
List of works
(Gordon Matta-Clark unless otherwise stated):
Cherry Tree, 1971
Fresh Air Cart, 1972
Fake Estates, 1973
Day’s End, 1975
Day’s End, 2021, David Hammons
The Architectural Review: On our bookshelf in this chapter is CP138 Gordon Matta-Clark: Readings of the archive, published in July 2020, and the culmination of three exhibitions between June 2019 and September last year that were part of the CCA’s continued Out of the Box series. The project’s director and contemporary architecture curator at the CCA, Francesco Garutti explains why this book and Matta-Clark’s archive has relevance today.
Francesco Garutti: I really feel that we are living in a moment in which neoliberal urbanism is swallowing up or absorbing the capacity of the architect in terms of being an influential agent to transform space. I really feel that more and more spatial practitioners are invited into a kind of camouflage attached to real estate developments in our cities; adding a bit of wellbeing, a bit of an idea of sustainability, but not really being able to structurally define what contemporary space is. Gordon Matta-Clark was, in the ’70s, one of the stronger critical actors physically, radically and conceptually deconstructing what architecture meant – and not only the idea of public space, but the idea in itself of conceiving spaces. This idea of reconceiving space – making practice as a technique to open up space to the public, to a social dimension, to inclusivity, to incorporating and finding a way of incorporating neglected spaces and social minorities – is super important today for us.
The margins are becoming a new narrative
AR: The CCA’s Gordon Matta-Clark archive includes 1,200 photographs, sketchbooks, over a hundred drawings, nearly 300 film reels and 71 books. In many ways, this material – the discarded offcuts, the private correspondence, the personal snaps – constitutes the remaining evidence of Matta-Clark’s artworks, which were largely building-scale interventions that were then demolished.
Francesca Garutti: The Gordon Matta-Clark collection at the CCA has a specific nature in the sense that it is more focussed on what is after, before and around the art works. We are talking of archival material related to the production of the pieces: personal correspondences, travels, annotations, sidenotes, sketches, unrealised projects, everything that is at the margins of what we can define as the core production of a piece of work. The market throughout the years has defined the pieces that are basically potentially consumed or commercialised in the market.
The focus of this project was not to somehow rewrite the history of the legacy of an artist, was not about trying to investigate again a career, but in a way was about expanding the terrain or the context. The word ‘context’ to me is the conceptual but also physical definition of the context around the practice of Gordon Matta-Clark. The margins are becoming a new narrative, and this process didn’t allow us only to study how Matta-Clark had been exploring Day’s End from the sea, imagining the industrial site as a big environmental project, looking at the sky and the water. But it has also allowed us to study what was around something like the house in Splitting in New Jersey: seeing the neighbourhood, seeing the people and the social fabric around them. It’s a process that is able to restate something that maybe the process of commercialisation and the iconic character of some of the performances that Matta-Clark did in a way pushed apart. Because we know Splitting is that house, is that kind of a work, but through Hila Peleg’s incorporation of the outtakes, we are able to see the neighbourhood of that house. We are able to understand even more the critique of the standardisation of the single-family house in North America in those years, because we see what is around.
AR: Three curators were selected for their different approaches to the archive: Hila Peleg who chose to look at archived film; Yann Chateigné who was drawn to Matta-Clark’s library; and Kitty Scott who delved into his travel photographs.
Francesco Garutti: There’s a figure like Hela Peleg, who has always been in between the production of films or filmmaking, and as a curator and scholar investigating filmmaking. Then a figure like Yann Chateigné has always been exploring archives as tools for investigating the present, making them powerful active instruments. And then we also have Kitty Scott and an interest in the anthropological reading of the figure of the artist or the relationship between an artwork and the artist.
They were going directly to the different components of our collection. It was interesting that they approached these margins or these edges – these liminal components of the archive – and attaching what was part of their way of looking at the archive, but also the art. Yann Chateigné immediately decided to tackle Matta-Clark’s private library, and Kitty Scott this huge number of private photographs of all the travels and the journeys that Matta-Clark had been conducting throughout the years around the globe, being even a sort of a pioneer figure of an artist traveller. And then Hila Peleg entered into the cinematographic production: not at the core of it, but again at the margin trying to recuperate, re-analyse or re-study what was discarded –all the outtakes that were somehow part of the production but then taken out by Matta-Clark or the different figures who had been involved in the production of the films in the editing process – highlighting that ‘the marginal is the centre’ was part of his own statement.
The three levels – going from the problem of the archive in itself, the curatorial approach, and the notion of context as actually a physical one – are coming together as a statement, which is the statement of the CCA, but also the statement of the approach to space and to art that was at the core of the Matta-Clark’s practice.
It’s one of the greatest gifts artists give us: if they do anything, they show us another way of looking, another way of seeing
Kitty Scott: The experience of going through all of this material, I think would give any researcher great insight into how he was looking.
AR: In his travel photographs of Italy, Mexico, Guatemala and other places all over the world. Kitty Scott could see the careful and deliberate way Matta-Clark captured and saw the world, even outside what is traditionally defined as his artworks.
Kitty Scott: It’s one of the greatest gifts artists give us: if they do anything, they show us another way of looking, another way of seeing. And I think this particular treasure trove of material is exemplary in that way. So much of his work exists as photography, that’s how we know it, and so there are these kinds of iconic photographs that we see over and over again and we experience, and are fragments of buildings and such. But I think what’s really nice is that these photographs give us deeper insight into how he was using the medium, how he was thinking about the medium.
I didn’t necessarily focus on what I would call his work here, but he goes to Paris at one point and, like any tourist, photographs the side, looking out the window of the plane and the engines and the wing and such, and he does it repeatedly over the visit there. And of course, we’ve probably all done that at one point in time. So he immediately becomes relatable in that way as well.
AR: In many ways, the three curators mirrored Gordon Matta-Clark’s practice – looking where others are not looking, to pick up from the cutting room floor, to find value in the discarded, the quiet and the marginal: the books sat quietly on the shelf, the film footage cut and rejected, the photographs carefully stored.
Kitty Scott: He’s often somebody is looking on the edges of things. He’s often looking between. Of course, when he was working in the United States, he was often looking for these locations that were ruins, that were on the edges, that were not the places where other people were going. They were kind of marginal. He was looking to see.
AR: Matta-Clark found value where others saw none – where some might see an unremarkable market scene or semi-derelict warehouse, Matta-Clark saw beauty and potential. One of his first works was Photo Fry – an almost literal process of alchemy that sought to question humans’ long fruitless quest to turn things into gold.
Yann Chateigné: For his first show in New York in a gallery, he decided to install a pan in the very space of the exhibition and fry – properly transform – a photograph by exposing it to extreme heat.
AR: Yann Chateigné, who explored Matta-Clark’s personal library in the CCA archive, describes the preoccupation he had with the idea of alchemy.
Yann Chateigné: His very first works of art, or very first interventions in the art world, were based on this very idea of an alchemical process, of transformation. On these bookshelves, the most important kind of ensemble of his library was dedicated to alchemy. It’s actually something that he developed from proper research – not academic at all, I guess, always pretty intuitive and organic, but it’s very well-documented by a very precise selection of books on this particular subject. And Photo-Fry can also be read as a sort of anthropological / political way to invent a new technique, that is not to photograph, but to ‘photo-fry’ something.
And the image is a way to destruct the support, to destroy the paper and to, in the meantime, create something new using this gold leaf. To create an unpredictable way of transforming the matter into something that becomes a sculpture that is used as a gift for several friends for Christmas and sent in small boxes in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp or Joseph Cornell. Or art made perhaps in a way that was a sort of remnant of a performance. His documentation of alchemy was not a fascination for only the mysteries of the occult tradition, but a way to renew his approach to art making.
AR: And alchemy, a transformation and molecular reconfiguring of material, ran more deeply in Matta-Clark’s work than literally turning things to gold.
Yann Chateigné: For Matta-Clark, an exhibition or a work of art was first a series of ingredients, and in the exhibition we showed one document that is actually entitled Ingredients that came from his different notebooks that we found in the archive. And he really properly conceived an exhibition as a series of elements that you can, of course, arrange in different ways, but also kind of melt into each other, or that can, if you put an ingredient with another, create an unexpected alchemy in the technical sense.
FOOD was a restaurant / social space / collaborative sculpture in the form of a communitarian place, where anyone could eat and cook and meet and talk and transform matter in this alchemical spirit. It was also a sort of continuous performance, a continuous way to integrate in the social fabric of New York City at the time, in relation to the evolution of the real estate situation. Perhaps this is one of the lessons of Matta-Clark that we could take, and understand that what is happening today is something that is supposed to be shared as a meal or as a party, as a gathering.
AR: In Matta-Clark’s collection of travel snaps, Kitty Scott found that this interest in ingredients, and the processes and economies of food resurfaced there too
Kitty Scott: There’s a lot of photographs at markets which are quite fantastic, and a lot of photographs of food, of course, and a lot of photographs of raw meat and cuts of meat, people walking through with big pieces of meat. I think a real interest in the kind of social gatherings, collective communities is shown through that. You can see how he goes on to open something like FOOD in SoHo. Food is obviously a topic for him and the kind of sociality that forms around food; he sees the value in that kind of gathering, and that piques his interest,
AR: As well as transforming materials, chemicals into photography, raw ingredients into food, Matta-Clark turned his gaze to the city and the way that land was transformed, by yet another alchemical process, into a commodity and cold hard cash.
Yann Chateigné: In his studio, in his very first experiment, one of the first things that he organised was an exhibition that was based on the growth of a tree that was growing in the centre of his work / exhibition / activist space in New York. And the tree was growing inside the building and was destroying the building in the meantime. It was confronting this very special time of the growth of an organic or living element and the decay and the remains and the ruins of real estate speculation and modern activity and the capitalist society in New York.
AR: Laura Phipps, curator at the Whitney Museum, examined Hila Peleg’s work for the CCA’s Gordon Matta Clark Out of the box series, which focussed on film footage outtakes that captured some of the artist’s most famous works, including Day’s End, which encompassed the cutting of a large hole in the dilapidated Pier 52 building on the Hudson River.
Laura Phipps: Matta-Clark’s Day’s End was really meant to be transformative, to alter one’s relationship with the city and with the river and with the sun. But what I also came to think is that he was really also raising concerns about the way that the city had failed to address the architectural and structural needs of its citizens. There was never an understanding that any of this would be permanent, that these buildings would stay forever. You don’t have to know that much about the history of New York City to get to that understanding – in particular, these buildings and this waterfront that really have changed, just was in constant flux since the beginning of New York as a colonial space.
It was really important for me to remember when this work was taking place and what the state of the city really was. In 1975, I think maybe a couple of months before he started actually cutting, New York City had been on the precipice of bankruptcy and had just been rescued. Municipal social services had been cut and jobs related to those; all these things that made New York City liveable and affordable for those without extensive means were disappearing. I think that there’s a way in which the art world has tended to look at this time in the city’s history and romanticise the inexpensive living expenses and loss of studio spaces. And I don’t think it should be discounted that the ability to live cheaply for some people did empower artists and engender creativity.
But the gentrification and the increasing economic instability that rose out of this rescue of the city and took root there, has really taken a toll on the city, and in some ways, Matta-Clark’s commentary on that felt prescient and maybe even predictive somehow. Obviously, you see more strident references to this failure of a city to provide shelter in works like Jacks, where he was creating these makeshift shelters, or Fake Estates where he’s actually purchasing up this property that has, quote unquote, no value. But at this moment to try and create a space that really highlights a different relationship with the city, I think is not far removed from those concerns.
Francesco Garutti: We are talking of basically an abandoned industrial site that was part of those areas of the city of New York that were really not considered part of the urban in itself. It’s not by chance that then an artist like Matta-Clark imagines reincorporating a piece of the city like that one, as a sort of park for water and air, into something that was pushed out.
AR: Francesco Garutti explains how, in Day’s End, Matta-Clark brought this marginalised part of the city back into the centre. Yann Chateigné sees the same re-evaluation of public space in Matta-Clark’s FOOD project.
Yann Chateigné: Matta-Clark managed in some way to redirect all this energy and money and visibility from a certain elite to some kind of shared space, with people who perhaps need to be supported and taken care of. There’s a certain radicality in Matta-Clark’s practice that made him produce works that were more situations, that were more like shared moments with an audience, that were based on this idea of a work of art as a preparation, and then shared a time space: more than a commodity or an object that you can just produce in the studio and hang on the wall and on which you can speculate. Which makes his work now almost invisible in a certain way because lots of his works were destroyed afterwards.
AR: Matta-Clark even turned his chainsaw to the art market itself, questioning the idea of value and financialisation within the discipline itself.
Matta-Clark passed away in 1978 at the age of 35. He was in New York at the same time as his contemporary the artist David Hammons, who was born in the same year, 1943, though their paths never crossed. Nearly 50 years after Matta-Clark made his incision in Pier 52, and on almost exactly the same site, David Hammons has made his own Day’s End, a monument to Gordon Matta-Clark.
Laura Phipps: Essentially it is a minimalist sculpture, a line drawing in space, that exactly outlines the Pier shed that was there: so it’s 320 feet long and 52 feet high. It’s made from essentially the narrowest or thinnest metal that could support that structure. Hammons doesn’t recall knowing anything about Day’s End when it was made or while it was still existent, so I’ve been very careful not to create or to overstate any connections or affinities necessarily, but it’s obvious through the careers of both artists and their practices that there are these shared concerns around a changing city, about the thinking of what is available and to whom as the city changes. Throughout both of their practices, they’re really employing their work to expose and to interrogate and to manipulate power structures and to really, I think, aggressively re-imagine the substance of everyday life, of the cityscape.
The Hammons piece exists: that lives there, it is sort of permanently there. It’s a bit of a buffer, or a rebuff, to urban development. Matta-Clark couldn’t have thought that the space he was using was permanent and probably could have imagined many different things that could have happened there, from wildly commercial to not. Maybe it’s ended up somewhere in between, I’m not sure. The fact that this Hammons work is such a minimal structure, permanently installed: it really makes that space off limits for development. Essentially, it’s a place of ‘undevelopment’. It is this really aggressive reimagining of what development is.
AR: Matta-Clark’s work and practice are frequently mined by architects and spatial practitioners for his acute detangling of the economic, political and social structures on and around which our urban fabrics are woven. Francesco Garutti reminds us why his work is such an important reference for architects.
Francesco Garutti: The problem of designing space in the hands of practitioners means designing services, designing again a fake or placebo effect connected to sustainability. It goes together with the idea of well-being, which is totally superficial in certain cases. The work of Matta-Clark has not only literally been deconstructing or peeling off layers of architectural components, but has also really pushed us to look at what were the structural things composing architecture spaces. It’s about looking at the pipes behind the wall, it’s about looking at what type of sense can I have, the idea of air and air pollution in connection to a project like the Fresh Air Cart, for example. He has been pushing us to study again what is in between infrastructures. What is lost in relationship to the idea itself of property. He’s pushing us to reimagine that a space, in certain cases, is made out of the social relationships of the people and the physical structures that come with that.
AR: As well as working physically in the margins Matta-Clark operated in between disciplines, pushing against the edges of architecture and space-making into other disciplines as Yann Chateigné and Kitty Scott remind us.
Yann Chateigné: This work was in the meantime, coming from architecture, from sculpture, and was a sort of performance of destruction that becomes another way of constructing a situation.
Kitty Scott: He’s somebody who’s pushing against what he learnt in architecture school, what he learnt from Colin Rowe, and I think he’s on the spectrum between architecture and ethnography or architecture and anthropology.
AR: There’s something almost frighteningly prophetic about Matta-Clark’s work, with such an urgent prescience and relevance to the multiple crises we’re facing today.
Matta-Clark managed in some way to redirect all this energy and money and visibility from a certain elite to some kind of shared space
Yann Chateigné: We face a situation now where we understand being isolated in our own space, and the importance of sharing a time-space with others in a moment when the market is so powerful. The anxiety of us and artists and everyone in the art world, not to have context where to work, makes us sometimes forget that 99 per cent of the space where we can work and practise and share what we do with an audience is outside of the institution, of the market and the galleries.
Laura Phipps: I think it’s very easy with a contemporary eye to look back on even a work like Day’s End and be like, ‘Oh well, was that also just a portent of gentrification?’ I don’t think that was the feeling then, but I also think that Matta-Clark had a sophisticated enough grasp on value and society to start questioning that in his own work as well. I don’t see it Matta-Clark as someone who would have clung on to the way things were; I think that’s something he would have had in common with Hammons, that it’s all about adaptability and using your practice to continue to talk about these concerns, but not assume that you can go back to something.
Francesco Garutti: How can we use archives to say something about contemporary time? How can we say something about the present? We are talking of basically a pioneer figure who has been saying and telling us that the marginal should have been the centre.
AR: Out of the Box: Gordon Matta-Clark is more a way of treating or handling an archive than a finished and discrete series of exhibitions, offering visitors and readers a lesson in looking in-between. The exhibitions are in motion, and at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria between 13 November 2021 and 6 March 2022, reimagined as one single exhibition and in dialogue with the Generali Foundation whose Matta-Clark collection the exhibition will combine.
The Out of the Box framework forms the armature for the exhibition, in the same way it forms the structure for the printed publication. Edited by Claire Lubell and co-published by the CCA and Koenig Books, the book itself, CP138 Gordon Matta-Clark: Readings of the archive, is a deliberate and careful exercise in relating a constellation of exhibits and displays spread over three exhibitions into a single linear narrative, allowing overlaps and kinships between the bodies of work to come to the fore. It is the same practice that has guided and informed this podcast, which itself has pulled at threads and woven together in a new medium again, centring and finding value in the selvedge.
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