26 novembre 2010

The sentimental and theoretical osmosis of a Dutch couple – Madelon and Rem. Sex and skyscrapers: an esoteric art

by Maurizio De Caro*

“Other people create for lack of power.
I do not need work: I live.”
Albert Camus, Caligula

Madelon Vriesendorp’s world of esoteric art was for too many years frozen and crushed by over-exposure to the disproportionate fortunes of the OMA think tank, created together with her ex-super-husband. “My name is Koolhaas, Rem Koolhaas,” one of the planet’s most influential architects seems to repeat. On carefully reading this beautiful complex book, one understands many of the processes that shaped OMA, a container of all the anxieties, perversions, intimate contradictions and inanities of architecture in the last quarter of the 20th century. A lot more can be understood too. Maddie is “an almost unknown brilliant Dutch artist”, who did not believe in the upheaval and in the “terrifying beauty” of the media project for the newborn interstellar colony of archistars.
She is “just” an artist-designer-craftswoman and compulsive collector who unintentionally built the archetypes of her husband’s mental process, without hanging any blame or claiming the credit. It is significant that her work, though built up in four decades, is linked above all to one episode, one illustration, albeit for an epochal publication like Delirious New York. In fact, the watercolour Flagrant Délit, of 1975, became the book’s cover and its metonymy. No one at the time could have imagined that behind the author’s organic delirium lay perhaps the artist’s inspiring imprint.

The drawing was used by OMA (and not commissioned, as wrongly believed) as a demonstration of Vriesendorp’s autonomy and of the originality of her development. She herself, moreover, recounts that the essay was completed in New York (of course!) in her discreet presence. To this conceptual “crime”, and others, we shall be coming back later.
MV: the omnivorous collector of objects, postcards and linguistic connections that were to have so (too) much importance in the cultural development of the studio she co-founded in 1975 in New York, with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis. She drew, painted, assembled and composed ready-mades, but most of all waited. Madelon’s first drawings for OMA were exhibited and often sold in numerous European and American galleries, paving the way for art drawing lent to architecture. She became the design team’s controlled and guiding instinct, almost a would-be architect looking for new roads into expression with architectural paintings never previously seen. Those images were to be the team’s beginning as well as its legacy. The exhibition of 2008 at the Architectural Association was warmly encouraged by its director Brett Steele. This book – the exhibition catalogue – helps to sum up a number of interconnections between diverse arts. In the relations between the artist and the “Stone Guest”, these interconnections saw one of the most interesting expressive points in their career, though hardly probed by militant and military critics. I refer to the reversibility of their two working positions: Madelon’s art which explains Rem’s architecture, and Rem’s architecture which seeks new alternative ways into the early avant-garde art movements.

The exhibition and the book illustrate a process of composition very similar to the paranoiacally critical method mediated by numerous, even contrasting references, artificial cells frozen in the work of MV: Dalí, Balthus and Delvaux, but also Frida Kahlo or some of the drawings by De Chirico, pop art, cultural rather than visual experiences and influences, a story four decades long (1967-2007) in sixty “pictures”. This artistic parabola hints at a perhaps discontinuous, intellectual liveliness, a conceptual impetus and a necessity to live fast, to burn up energy, by mixing, superimposing and squashing forms, formulas, ideas and colours, buildings, architectures and mysterious characters; to reconstruct from “a simple everyday world (our ordinary universe of architecture), a single, fantastic, unexpected and always slightly delirious planet”. These lines may also be used for the anarchic design and post-paranoiac critical survey of Rem and OMA, because they are forces behind both their mental processes and originality, the exclusive fruit of apt quotations. This contradiction very much embodies both Maddie and the OMA and, naturally, their intrinsic fragility. In the hefty collection of essays accompanying the exhibition, flattering judgements of the capacity for theoretical research alternate with an analytical lightness, the self-erotic pleasures of punning, witticisms and wordplay, and self-celebratory platitudes on the wave of an apparent simplicity – shunned by Madelon with all her cultural strength while pretending to play.

“Play” is the most recurrent word in the 278 pages of the book-catalogue. In a game, only seemingly simple, every passage and every detail seems calculated to defy us by appearing ugly and aesthetically ungainly but ultimately fascinating. This also applies to some works that may not be significant for contemporary art. But they hide something that makes them unique, in a dense mystery of deep contents to be discovered: a superimposition of arcane theories masked by minor platitudes.
They evoke, refer to and pose a challenge, just like the Chrysler and the Empire State, discovered redhanded, après l’amour by a dismayed and cheated Rockefeller Center (though we will never know by whom).
MV adds to the architecture of her paintings an erotic touch, a delicate comic-pornography, compelling us to look at buildings as physical, sexual machines capable of loving, suffering and betraying.
The world in Vriesendorp’s paintings is chained to many forms of obsessions, cataloguings, omens and intuitions. The extraordinary titles of their works in themselves contain the whole drama of contemporary architecture (in general) and of OMA (in particular), its delirium of sense and its inevitable unattainability or not necessary attainability.
We shall never know whether the idea of “voluntary prisoners”, “swimming pool/rafts”, “cities of the prisoner globe”, “Freud unlimited”, and a lot more still, indicated moments that were actually free from onanist thought, or whether they represent only the glamorous side dictated by the artist.

Inappropriate conclusions and undue appropriations

What we don’t like about the cultural journey described, by MV and RK, is the constant and evident necessity to use art to stage the normality of an existence, and the useless effort of rendering the ordinary extraordinary, possibly a little bit quicker.
Unconvincing is the mythological construction – after the event – of a frankly overrated phenomenon (OMA/AMO and all its by-products), weighed down with quotations, foreseeable interconnections and presumed intersections arising from chance (witness the over-simple Freud/Dalí/MV virtuous circle). These, however, represent an elitist and self-referential theoretic basis, which, with a touch of ingenuity, has been likened by the critics to the major 20th-century movements. If Koolhaas is the most influential living architect, Madelon has been his source, indeed his conceptual foster-mother. But the phenomenon must now be considered to have fizzled out quite some time ago. A number of embarrassing recent OMA works and projects show that the work of Madelon Vriesendorp has done what it could, and for as long as she wished to do so.

Koolhaas’s essay at the end of the catalogue receives no mention here, as it adds nothing to our awareness of Madelon’s theoretic, conceptual, and stylistic independence, except in its spasmodic but feeble linguistic research. “A worrying kindness and definitive wisdom” is the title of the sermon that speaks to all about everything, without saying anything. It merely recites the usual role of the rock star wallowing in success and money and still singing Yesterday or Sympathy for the Devil, aware that the voice and the pencil (and pen) are no longer the same.

But we nevertheless accord due artistic and human merit only to the lovely Madelon Vriesendorp, with her capacity to fabricate a myth and to survive living with it, without losing the freshness of her own language or ever letting herself be browbeaten.
Refractory to the calls of a “reflected fame”, she has succeeded in maintaining a childlike capacity to look and to be amazed, to construct fantastic worlds without claiming to become the other demiurge of the family. She is an enigmatic artist in her controlled normality, with a great desire to seek and to experiment, to construct “mind games” and to learn. Thus she has kept her brain in good shape while, even among archistars, the brain is prone to sudden ageing.

The World of Madelon Vriesendorp
Edited by Shumon Basar & Stephan Trüby
Graphic design by Kasia Korczak. Photography by Sue Barr
Architectural Association, London 2008, 278 pp.

* Publication authorized (author): Maurizio De Caro, The sentimental and theoretical osmosis of a Dutch couple – Madelon and Rem. Sex and skyscrapers: an esoteric art, Domus n.941, november 2010, 98-102 pp.