PRINT April 1999


One chestnut of modernist architecture has been the gradual transformation of the role of the window. Once simply a source of light and a framed view of the external world, in the International Style skyscraper the window has become a semi-transparent membrane and an allover surface. Whatever view is afforded from inside to out, a reciprocal perspective isn’t guaranteed. The architectural ambivalence of such spatial boundaries is a recurrent theme in the crude sculptural models of Manfred Pernice. Comparable to architect Jean Nouvel’s facades, in which walls become screens onto which constantly changing information from the urban surround is projected, the walls of Pernice’s small-scale architectural models are frequently papered with images clipped from magazines or bills taken from packing cases—gigantic billboards on which the various images seem way out of scale with respect to the miniature structures. But unlike Nouvel’s supercool high-tech aesthetic, Pernice opts for the junky readymade potential of cardboard, creating models that intentionally give away their crude folded-and-glued construction.

If at first glance Pernice’s pieces seem to be models for realizable structures, under closer observation their absurd details—say, the lack of an entryway or the displacement of relations of scale—become apparent. Windows are too small. Signs are too large. The size of towers or other elements, like balconies,
doesn’t scale with the model. What’s more, the use of everyday objects such as spent coffee cans or throwaway cylindrical containers further plays up the provisional nature of the work. The fragile, slapdash air of both Pernice’s small models and larger sculptures made of roughly joined plywood is at odds with the rage in Germany, particularly in Berlin, for monumental architecture with facades covered in massive stone panels.

The thirty-six-year-old Pernice is among a group of young German artists, including Kai Althoff, Franz Ackermann, and Tobias Rehberger, who are attracting increasing international attention. After his studies in Braunschweig, Pernice moved to the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. His 1995 one-person show at NEU in that city led to invitations to participate in a handful of major exhibitions (the Biennale de Lyon, the Berlin Biennale) as well as to a solo effort at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris.

One immediate reason for the surge of interest in Pernice’s work is its commentary on architecture, a cipher for any number of social and political issues in the New Berlin. But for all the architectural subtext, his works are thoroughly engaged with basic sculptural issues of form, assembly, and surface. His contribution to the Berlin Biennale—Tatlintower, 1998, a hulking construction of horizontally layered wooden boards that seems like an abstract riff on Chicago’s Marina City, the combination apartment complex, office building, and aboveground parking lot that became an icon of ’60s architecture—oscillates between an organic and technoid appearance. Pernice succeeds in fusing the social and political implications registered in his towering structure (here, a revisitation and reconsideration of utopian multifunctional architecture) with a genuinely sculptural sensibility. The lines of the horizontally layered slats circumscribe the volume of the sculpture and define a large area of surface tension. The “cumulative” arrangement of the slats and their relationship to the inner core of the structure thematize the inherently sculptural aspects of structural support and distribution of load. Pernice simultaneously reveals and conceals by allowing a view into the interior of the sculpture without, however, fully exposing the construction.

Pernice continued his engagement with surface and volume in his recent series of wooden “container” structures. While on stipend in the northern German seaport of Bremerhaven, the artist became interested in the cargo holds in which ships transport their goods. He built abstract plywood imitations of these containers, some with their sides painted in dull reds or blues, colors similar to those of actual cargo containers. Arranging the rectangular crates in the exhibiting venue so that the visitor’s path is hampered at every turn, Pernice used the sculptures to prompt an awareness of the spatial boundaries of the gallery. This sense of obdurate unwieldiness is not merely a figurative characteristic of his work, though. Large wooden false walls are typically a component of his installations as well, further compartmentalizing the space and offering views of an interior while barring immediate access.

Given that fact, it’s no wonder that, at the most recent Lyon biennial, curator Harald Szeemann presented Pernice’s Stahlau I and Am Brunnen (both 1996) immediately beside Bruce Nauman’s Model for Trench and Four Buried Passages, 1977. The enclosing of a volume of space that remains partially hidden is one way in which Pernice’s large-scale installations are reminiscent of Nauman’s early works, particularly the plaster-cast sculptures from the ’60s and ’70s. Both artists activate a similar sense of withholding in the treatment of surface and consciously make use of sometimes oppressive spatial effects in their installations. A more obvious comparison could be made to the works of the ’80s Düsseldorf model builders such as Harald Klingelhöller, Reinhard Mucha, or Thomas Schütte. Where these artists sought a formal perfection in the execution of their models, however, Pernice’s approach is closer to that of Rem Koolhaas in mining disparate materials and forms. When his work is most convincing, it still appears as if the artist has simply taken advantage of whatever materials happened to be at hand. It’s through precisely the hodgepodge of heterogeneous elements that Pernice achieves what he’s after—a directness that overwhelms the observer in spite of, or maybe because of, the decidedly low-fi appearance. Here a fundamental sensibility emerges, one engaged with the world as it presents itself. Pernice avoids any claims to formal perfection in favor of a sculptural, architectural, and ultimately social utopia: It is a question not of building a perfect world, but of changing an imperfect one.

Yilmaz Dziewior is a Cologne-based writer.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.