The uses of enchantment

Monday 31 Jan 2011

John Soane building hosts architecture-themed exhibition of contemporary British art

The second part of an exhibition originally curated by Matthew Collings and Matt Price, The Witching Hour: Darkness and the Architectural Uncanny presents the work of 10 contemporary British artists who address the power of architecture to invoke intrinsically human anxieties. The gallery space itself forms part of Pitzhanger Manor-House, designed by John Soane in 1800, adding a further dimension to the overarching theme.

In each painting, photograph and film, it is not the architecture itself that forms the focus, but the undefinable presence of the spaces within it; the palpable sense of apprehension, fear and threat that channels through these images reveals the significance of our own cognition in terms of how we experience a building.

With subject matter ranging from 17th-century landscapes to abandoned 1970s industrial sites, the timeless nature of this human phenomenon becomes apparent. Ged Quinn's large-scale oil painting, The Heavenly Machine invites an initial familiarity in its overt reference to a Claude Lorrain pastoral landscape. Yet in the foreground of this proto-Picturesque scene of bucolic harmony are the miniature stagings of Louis XVI's execution and President J F Kennedy's assassination. These demonstrations of violence and political distemper are enacted within archaic scientific mechanisms, inspired by Johannes Kepler's 17th-century model of the laws of planetary motion, while two urns of dull gold become vessels to contain these spectacles of humanity's destructive impulse.

A tiny cluster of modern tower blocks form an ominous anchor between these two worlds; a manipulation of scale and power which further emphasises the metaphysical overtones in Quinn's work. Curator Matt Price suggests that the appearance of this compound in the midst of a neoclassical landscape is a reminder of the relative transience of modern architecture and infrastructure, and is reminiscent of Rem Koolhaas's idea of ‘junkspace': "Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than did all previous generations put together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales. We do not leave pyramids."

The wide-ranging historical influences that inform The Heavenly Machine turn the painting into a modern-day myth; a landscape borne of a selective sifting through Western history, detached from our linear perception of time and the laws of the Universe. Its constituent parts are momentous events in human history that are chronologically incohesive; yet removed from their temporal context they act as monumental symbols of the violence of humanity, and the conflict between natural courses and manmade interventions. Echoing many of the other works in this exhibition, Quinn's painting perhaps most patently conveys the power of violence to change a landscape.

Idris Khan's monotone triptych draws on the work of industrial architecture photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Each image is an obsessive layering of photographs of a particular type of gasholder: prison type, spherical type and gable sided. Khan's almost alchemical process of re-working these images transforms the original buildings from solid, durable structures to something phantasmal, charcoal-like and shuddering, yet pregnant with power. The pages of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, every postcard of Turner paintings in the Tate's collection and every page of the Holy Koran have also been the subject of Khan's process, turning the material into the immaterial through this intensive layering of content from a single body of work.

George Shaw's The Last Summer is an antidote to Khan's intense triptych; using glossy enamel paint, he recreates a suburban housing estate in soft grey hues. Conversely, Richard Billingham's photographs resonate with an instinctive sense of threat, present here in the yellow light that emanates from the spaces between brick walls.

David Rowan's Abandon in Place series comprises photographs taken just moments after a building was abandoned for demolition. With only traces of its recent inhabitation, the sudden desertion of these spaces creates an apocalyptic feeling that wouldn't be amiss in a 1970s sci-fi film. His Pacha Kuti series depicts underground car parks, with an aura of impending danger that references not only the familiar, lurking apprehension that typifies these subterranean spaces, but in the drenched, moss-invaded pillars, ancient Roman cisterns; a juxtaposition that unites these distant epochs in a Ballardian kind of Deep Time.

The notion of the uncanny is by nature diametrically opposed to the calculated logic of architecture. Yet throughout the works in this exhibition, the scientific order that is intrinsic to architectural design is paradoxically tainted with these human projections of darkness and foreboding. Through our superstitious tendencies, the products of our own civilisation become confounded, consumed by our own irrationality.

Yet there are glimmers of optimism amidst the gloom. While Rowan's contemporary subject matter reeks of despair, its nod to Unu Pachakuti, the flood in Incan mythology that destroyed all but two of the human race, signifies the emergence of construction out of deconstruction; of future possibilities arising from the end of an era.

The Witching Hour: Darkness and the Architectural Uncanny is on display at the PM Gallery & House in Ealing, London and runs from 21 January - 12 March 2011.

Amy Knight
Arts & Media Correspondent

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