*This is a variation on an article I wrote for Questa Non Arte, to be found here: https://questanonearte.com/2016/04/26/quarrelling-with-the-world-marusa-sagadin/
Having never been to Hackney neighbourhood in London before, it took me a good while to find my way to the Space Gallery where I intended to see Maruša Sagadin’s first UK exhibition. Uncertain about the direction I should take, I proceeded slowly, eyes fastened on the local buildings. I passed a car wash, a district office of a major political party, an immigrant society and even V&A Museum of Childhood- a fairly eclectic mix that aligns very well with Sagadin’s artistic and urban interests as I found out soon enough.
Maruša (b.1978) is a Vienna-based artist who, having studied architecture and sculpture, delves into questions of form, utilisation, representation and consumerism in relation to built structures in cities. Her exhibition begins outside the gallery where she installed a brashly purple bench made out of concrete and wood, neatly finished and seductively polished. A selection of objects, among them a large concrete lipstick and a lavender-coloured necklace, sit on top of Maruša’s public sculpture. At the time of my visit, passers-by glanced at the piece while hurrying past but nobody actually used it to rest or to read their newspaper- maybe they were not interested, maybe they did not know if it was allowed. And maybe it was sufficient that the work was available to them, regardless of their (non-) participation.
Another bench thrones in the centre of the small exhibition space inside, this time claiming the visitors’ attention with its orange hues and the word ‘DORIS’ carved onto its surface. The one outside had the term ‘ICONIC’ shaped on to it, which, as Tina Di Carlo explains in her essay, are the artist’s playful verbal puns on ‘doric’ and ‘ionic’, respectively. Borrowing from tradition and history, Sagadin ‘excavates’ two of the three classical column designs widely employed in antiquity. Ionic columns tended to be thin, grooved and associated with female characteristics contrary to which Doric ones had a thicker body and provoked male comparisons. Both of them are virtually knocked down by the artist’s simple, yet ingenious gesture of turning them into benches or tables – verticality collapses into horizontality, spot into site, privileging height into democratising plane. What once used to be a supportive, passive building unit carrying the weight of god-invoking temples assumes a new role as an active platform which enables a collective, non-hierarchical experience.
The irreverent, almost anti-establishment attitude to columns runs parallel to another area of exploration in Sagadin’s oeuvre and that is rampant consumerism, particularly its sticky tendrils fiercely coiling around public spaces. Its invasion of our visual and experiential field in the form of branding and signage, labelling anything from fashion accessories to terraces and bus stops, has been alluded to by the saturated colours applied to benches, making them instantly obtrusive. Sagadin is treading a fine line between appropriation and subversion here, knowing that in order to compete with capitalist and consumerist mechanisms she has to, ironically, play according to their rules. The precedent for such irresolvable contradiction is embodied in her video for MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Lost Angeles in 2010 that drew on the visibility and impact of advertising signs in the city streets. A young performer skilfully demonstrated his sign spinning, a common marketing practice in urban centres, combining spectacle, acrobatics and product promotion for the pleasure of the onlookers. Maruša, however, swapped the commercial rhymes and phrases found on the boards for her own cryptic, nonsensical or provocative messages: ‘MAMMUT/KAPPUTT; PLEASE LEASE/FREE ME FROM THESE; I DIDN’T KNOW/L.A. IS MEXICO.’ Not only does this raise questions about what visual information circulates the streets but also alerts us to how urban space increasingly more hosts the corporate culture. Maruša explains: ‘That is why the sculpture outside Space is easily accessible- you don’t have the obligation to enter the gallery – so its placement stresses the urge for spots and fragments that don’t have a certain function and that are not connected to consumerism, institution or an action.’
The desire for deregulated areas is further apparent in the arrangement of two wall posters inside: one of them is placed too high, the other too low and, as a result, a sizeable interstice opens up between them. Whether this unused portion of space stands for a cavity flanked by two posters as if by parted lips or simply for a territory claimed by nothing and no one, it is eloquent precisely because it does not utter anything, paused in mid-sentence, delineated solely by its contingent energy.
With only eight works in the exhibition, Sagadin shows a great breadth of investigated notions from history, architecture, urban design and communal living. Complementing her enquiry into the horizontal street plane, the display features other wall posters and objects that conjure up monumental, towering buildings by famous architects, legendary in scale and in alterations to their environment. For instance, Screen (Lina) is an image of dark pink paper suspended over fence wire, perforated by rugged holes, or ‘cave mouths’. Clipped to it is a photograph of People’s Place in East London, a community space for the local neighbourhood and a small-scale English version of what Lina Bo Bardi designed in Sao Paolo between 1977 and 1986. The truly iconic building which she built from an old steel drum factory has since transformed urban planners’ and architects’ ideas about the possibilities arising at the intersection of the urban, the collective and the ambitious. Part of her plan was to enable the free-flowing street life to spill into her structure which Bo Bardi reinforced by calling it ‘a leisure centre’, thus knocking out any sense of pressure or duty for the visitors. (The aversion to unimaginative standardisation and oppressive normativity seems to be a source of connection between Sagadin’s and Bo Bardi’s work). It was a ‘place where old men play chess and children play with building blocks’ and whose façade was, evocatively, punctuated by the same exploded windows as the holes in Screen (Lina).
The late Zaha Hadid’s excellent output inspired another piece in which a wave of concrete imitates Hadid’s swimming pool of the nearby Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park. My favourite piece of the show, O-Two, lies directly next to it and comprises of a lean anthropomorphic figure teetering-tottering on high platform shoes against an electrifying pink background (after all, the word ‘ionic’ denotes not only a column type but also a charged atom.). It is here, I believe, that Sagadin unleashes the full matrix of associations, creating a wall object out of architectural materials- concrete and polystyrene- in a painting frame with sculptural tactility. Again, colour becomes one of the entry points for understanding the work: ‘The presence of pink is indicative, I have used it in my past works, too. It could be read as a feminine but also as a feminist colour. Or, as one of my older show posters claimed: Pink is Punk and Silver is Space.‘
Could the heeled figure therefore be a representation of an empowered woman in the city? Donning the shoes, indeed, makes her taller, more visible and, yes, even emancipated. Still, the weight and form of the footwear that Sagadin inflicts on her and which distorts her somewhat belies a more problematic situation- the artist eventually describes these accessories as something ‘unbearable and unwearable’. (Issues of asymmetrical occupation of the city by genders have long been a matter of rigorous research, widespread debate and also cinematography. I remember a brilliant short film by a feminist filmmaker in which she visualises the gendered body language, comparing close-ups of women’s strained feet in high heels with waists of men with hands casually inserted in their pockets. As Amy Taubin says: ‘Juxtaposed, the two genders appear as if from totally different species; the film left me with a yen to see one of those heels planted splat in the middle of one of those bellies.’)
At the same time, with concrete being used as a generative material in many exhibited pieces, it is impossible not to think of architects like Le Corbusier whose rationalist and functionalist designs were constructed in large out of steel, sheet glass and an abundance of concrete. Le Corbusier envisioned a utopian ‘radiant city’ in which cars zipped through the streets, along highways and effectively abolished the street, possibly even the foot. Faced with this strand in architectural development, Sagadin’s firm materialisation of feet in heels (heels as the modernist pilotis? A fashionable reimagination of columns, perhaps?) aligns with voices demanding more assured occupation of streets and public places; her pinks, greens and defiant blues highlight the efforts for freer navigation of the city. The artist ‘insulates’ her works, like a good builder would, with references to graffiti, rap and hip-hop culture where not only feet but hands and whole bodies spin to generate alternative ways of inhabiting spaces. Some writers of feminist theory assert that ‘the form, structure and norms of the city seep into and affect all other elements that go into the constitution of corporeality. It impacts on the way we live space.’
We can sit on one of the coffee chains’ designated terraces or we can break-dance around a bench. Do we dare to throw our arms and legs to the air?
Marusa Sagadin: Doris Ionic Iconic is on until 11 June 2016 at Space Gallery, Mare Street, London.