Christiane Blattmann on Port House and Magasin Wolfers

Piero Bisello and Christiane Blattmann

At the show with the artist: we’ve been with Christiane Blatmann at Zaha Hadid’s building for the Port House of Antwerp and the Magasin Wolfers collection.

‘Architecture is superficial! […] It is hollow! […] We are sculpture’. This odd statement is what artist Christiane Blattmann thought a building could utter when personified for a strange conversation between itself and the other equally strange character of Nervous Breakdown. This scenario is from her 2014 artist book called Sessions 1-8, in which Christiane Blattmann plays the role of sculptural buildings, the Torres de Satélite in Ciudad Satélite Mexico to be more precise. She, acting as the buildings, engages in conversation with fellow artist Than Hussein Clark—a.k.a. Nervous Breakdown—for an associative exchange of ideas, or to somehow delve into the deep unconscious territories of the towers’ identity crisis (here is the link to our writing about Than Hussein Clark).

Twisting architecture and pushing its limits into other mediums, sometimes literally, other times metaphorically, is one of the starting points of Christiane Blattmann’s practice. Even at first sight, her sculptures and installations reveal how much they converse with buildings. As easily guessed, found architectures are never taken only for their prima facie function. Seen more generally, what seems to be at the core of her art is a certain desire to take the formal qualities of otherwise functional objects, whether applied art, buildings, or clothes, to see whether these qualities can count as sculptural ones. In this process, the autonomy of each of these mediums and their functional “duty” are put into question.

For this installment of ‘At The Show With The Artist‘, we looked at two Belgian sites: Zaha Hadid’s building for the Port House of Antwerp and the Magasin Wolfers collection of silverware, at the Cinquantenarie Museum in Brussels. What you find here is our conversation, in which the many references to art historians, architects and artists helped us navigate a theoretical landscape with fruitful results.


Let’s start with a thought from Walter Benjamin, whom you quoted at the beginning of our meeting at the Cinquantenaire Museum. The philosopher distinguishes between the contemplating experience of a building (for example a tourist looking at the Empire State Building in New York for the first time) and the “tactile” one, in which the viewer becomes a user through habitual participation. This distinction doesn’t need to be limited to architecture of course, and looking at some of the pieces in the Wolfers collection like the Van de Velde candleholders, we could say that their forms could become merely “tactile” no matter how daring and easy-to-contemplate they are.

Christiane Blattmann: There is something funny going on where the objects in these vitrines, which are mostly silverware pieces or little ivory figures, are turned into memorabilia. All objects of daily use in there are so much kept at a distance that they reveal their “sculpturousness”, much more than they give evidence of their practical value.

The Horta architecture of the shop might be playing an important role here. Like a transparent maze, this architecture of glass vitrines creates a certain detachment from the objects, totally stripping them bare of their functional aspects. A potential tactility is more turned into a desire than it is a possibility, right? At the same time, it’s a question about the viewers themselves, the pleasure as well as monitoring relations of seeing and not being seen in the glass labyrinth.

But apart from how they are displayed, I find the pieces in the Wolfers collection interesting because they are really pondering between the poles. They are designed so eccentrically and claim the physical space and the formal language of a sculptural object – and still they are originally designed to be used and to be touched. This double-bind is something that really interests me when I start thinking about a work.

Funny enough they have all these ivory pieces in the collection that make me think of Pygmalion and the idea that his sculpture, which in the first place was made for nothing else but to be looked at and contemplated upon, became the object of his desire. He crossed the threshold of touching so fiercely that the ivory lady ended up with bruises.

Let’s turn to Zaha Hadid’s Antwerp Port House. Her building stands on top of — or better, it dominates — a previous architecture, which looks rather conventional in comparison. Through this contrast, its presence is affirmed even further and the possibility to be ever experienced “tactilely” seems to disappear almost completely. Your 2015 pieces “Throwing Her Head Around” presented at Oracle in Berlin, which were molded from a building by Marlene Moeschke & Hans Poelzig, seem to deal precisely with this attitude of architecture.

Christiane Blattmann: For a while I was looking at a lot of Poelzig’s buildings and photographs in the archive. I had been wondering about their outstanding sculptural quality – and then I found out that his wife, who collaborated with him in many projects, was in fact a sculptor. As things work or used to work, she was forgotten and she is hard to come across even in the Poelzig archive. I was fascinated by her language speaking through the works.

Hadid of course is a different story. She takes it to the extreme. In a weird fascination I am drawn to, and at the same time repelled by the way everything she touches falls under her aesthetic doctrine in the same manner. There is no difference whether she designed a museum, a table, jewelry or a housing complex – it all looks the same, only the scale varies.
Her example is one of architecture as a very political subject. This was important for me when first thinking about the shoes, the piece that you have mentioned: changing the dimension of a building to a domestic scale, to something that you would wear directly on your body – yet keeping in mind the same questions that are at work in architecture. At the same time, what is shaping pieces like “Throwing Her Head Around” is my own intuition and reacting to material qualities.

How would you say architects are legitimized in playing their role in public? Is there a difference between a building with a strong visual identity and a sculpture in public space for example?

Christiane Blattmann: I guess this is just what I had in mind. The operations behind the construction of a building and those behind placing a sculpture in public space might somewhat have both political implications, but what is at work in architecture is a question of access. It’s a matter of allowing or denying access – and that’s not only controlled by technical or structural aspects of a building but also by aesthetical ones.

As to public sculpture, I really like it because you can go so wrong with it. It is interesting to see what happens to a piece of art without the protective white walls around it. I appreciate this vulnerability and how it easily comes to questions of taste, both in the case of public sculptures and architecture.

In our discussion, we often went back to the 19th century architect and art historian Gottfried Semper, who had a very revolutionary idea about the origin of architecture. For him, art in general begun when some ritualistic practices were translated into objects, especially textile. For example, musical rhythm in ceremonies was reified into the motif of the braided branch, which then became sewn in fabric and knots. For Semper, heavy-material art like pottery, architecture, metalwork, etc. were the “incrustation” of these early fabrics, and their ornaments eventually lost their religious symbolism. Having a cross temporal thought-experiment and looking at Antwerp Port House from Semper’s perspective, we can imagine that he would face a problem: on the one hand, Hadid’s building might be just an odd “incrustation” of some primordial motifs, a dressing. As he might say, it could be the expression of the very human desire to imitate and participate in the laws of nature, a “cosmic lawfulness”. On the other hand, the individuality of the architect (let’s call it genius for the sake of the argument) would still need a proper account in this theory.

Christiane Blattmann: I do assume that at his time Semper already had to take the self-centered, ambitious artist or architect into account. What I like about his theories is that they are as much revolutionary as they are questionable. He tries to make everything fit his argument, his scheme – and on this stylistic level he might actually be very related to someone like Hadid. It is funny how much he had to improvise and stretch his theories to apply his argument to different times in history and to different cultures. Apart from his anthropological research, his understanding of linguistics also played an important role for him: he looked at textiles first, as the ur-material of building, asserting that “textile” is related to “tekton” – carpenter or constructor.

If I think about the idea of constructing with textiles maybe the Port House starts making more sense. Semper takes clothing and abstracts it from the body, from, let’s say a first-layer shelter. He keeps all the logic and properties of clothes and dressing, applying them to the art of building.

I wonder whether his “trick” anticipates today’s computer generated aesthetics in architecture? What we are witnessing is that the more abstract and technically wild one can go with digital designing, the more the forms tend to come back to organic shapes and principles.

Anyway, I see what you are saying about the building in Antwerp, it does seem as though it’s striving to defeat certain laws of nature. I think this ambition is quite old actually.

In both your installation at Mathew Gallery and the recent pieces Einstein Boots, you seem to comment on this idea of crossing building and clothing.

Christiane Blattmann: The series ‘Die Öffnung’ shown at Mathew Gallery started with playing around with an idea of wall painting, from looking at it as something that you would be constantly surrounded by, as something that becomes part of your built environment. Then the idea about taking painting into a third dimension and how this third dimension would work spatially.

I think that walls made out of stone or glass should appear to us as very tangible, even if this is not the intention behind. There is something quite unconscious in this relation. I remember a line from Lisa Robertson where she says, passivity of furniture is deceptively complex. A table, a chair and a cupboard each await and receive gesture differently. We are not always able to discern whether our body’s customs shape furnishing or if it is furnishing that shapes our bodies. The direction of volition or relation blurs, and this is where intuition locates itself.

Another recurring name you brought up in our conversation is Paul B. Preciado, who wrote a book on contemporary architecture and interior design as found in Playboy magazine. Preciado describes the objects in the magazine as what defines the playboy, the powerful heterosexual bachelor who elevates himself from the banality of the suburban American middle class. In terms of style, nothing could be further from the Wolfers collection. And yet, these two might relate in some political respect, insofar as they are the expression of some new ruling social class: the American post WWII new man and the Art Nouveau Belgian bourgeoisie of the Wolfers commissions. I now wonder about Hadid’s building. Do you think it’s fruitful to read it through a new political control it might exercise, as Preciado read the objects of Playboy?

Christiane Blattmann: Yes, definitely. There is this example in which Preciado compares the round dispenser of the contraceptive pill to the layout of the Panopticon. Sometimes it almost needs a playful imagination to look behind these facades. The layers of interests that are at work in and behind a building of such scale are so intertwined. That’s why I like the exercise to play back and forth between sculpture and architecture.

In your recent exhibition at Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof, some sculptures were presented on top of images of cutlery. They were sort of straps that solidified, both in their shape and because of the paint that curdled on them. At the same time, the images of the cutlery were rather cartoonish in their style, as the objects were melted and stretched before fixing on the surface. Beside a formal association between these two components of the installation, the concept of applied arts crossing with sculpture comes back again.

Christiane Blattmann: The show works without any light source from the exhibition space. The sculptures you describe function as lamps. They all have a light bulb and illuminate themselves as well as the rest of the pieces in the show. The cutlery sets printed on the fabrics, which are stretched on stage platform modules, work a bit like shadows. I think that’s their cartoonish moment. The images follow the stretch of the lycra fabric on which they are printed. Of course they are not the shadows of the actual sculptures that stand on top of the prints, they are in a weirder relationship with each other.

The first set of cutlery I looked at when making the prints was actually one designed by Zaha Hadid – and it was again her ignoring the scale of a piece that fascinated me in an ambiguous way. The fork could be the outline of a public library as well. But then, when you think about what we use cutlery for – it comes even closer to our body than textiles do. Or let’s say, it crosses a threshold.

For the lamps on the other hand, I looked at furniture pieces by Carlo Mollino who had the habit of photographing naked models in his interiors as soon as the work was finished. I was comparing those chairs and tables to the overstretched and distorted girls in Balthus’ paintings. But then certainly this all gets perceived through the filter of one’s own formal language and imagination.

February 10, 2020