PRINT February 2007


Pablo Bronstein, Plaza Minuet, 2006. Installation view, Tate Britain, London.

PABLO BRONSTEIN KNOCKED DOWN London Bridge and commissioned two architects—ostentatious postmodernist Terry Farrell and eighteenth-century purveyor of Neoclassical elegance William Chambers—to collaborate on its replacement, a passé riot of disharmonious ornament crowned with a giant precariously balanced globe. He seated Filippo Juvarra, Baroque pioneer of illusionistic perspectives for theater sets and designer of basilicas, at a draftsman’s desk beside Michael Graves, architect of Disneyland’s resort hotels, and left them to foment an unholy mix of elegant piazzas and pyramid-topped dwellings glowing a sickly yellow. He restructured aspects of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo in the style of seventeenth-century architect Carlo Rainaldi. What’s more, the twenty-nine-year-old Buenos Aires–born, London-bred Bronstein pulled off all this (and dozens more implausible projects besides) just in the last few years, during and after his MFA at Goldsmiths College in London.

At least, that’s what his drawings suggest. Appropriately, Bronstein works in a dazzling mesh of styles: There are machinelike architectural plans, meticulously detailed elevations, inky pastiches of Piranesi, and hobbyist watercolors, which are typically encased in battered, antiquated frames, as if beamed back from a future where his necromantic syntheses of architectural pasts are the actual stuff of history. Quixotic as his architectural marriages might appear, however, the artist’s interest in hitching these seemingly removed periods together is rooted in real life—through both the contingencies of his own biography and his ongoing attention to those power plays inherent in the built environment.

Reaching maturity at a time when po-mo architecture was already outdated, and living in London, a city littered with gaudy examples of the house style of Thatcherism, Bronstein—a natural antiquarian and an innate contrarian—became fascinated with these newly historical edifices. First, because it felt (and still feels) deliriously naughty to be so, but also because their Neoclassical borrowings were his entrée into an era he wholeheartedly loves: that earlier age of resurgent classicism, the eighteenth century. By way of example, Bronstein has for the past two years been a fixture at London’s Publish and Be Damned (a fair devoted to self-publishing), hawking—at a financial loss—homemade copies, with hand-drawn cover designs, of books by the likes of Gothic Revivalists Horace Walpole and William Beckford.

But it’s increasingly clear that an ascendant part of his interest in these two particular eras is in the distance between their differing appropriations of classicism—specifically, how and to what extent they underscore authority. As Bronstein argued in a fine essay published last summer in the British art magazine Untitled, with the deceptively upbeat title “On the Forgotten Glories of the Inner-London Postmodern,” ’80s architecture isn’t yet ripe for reassessment on an aesthetic level. Dismissing it as what he in later conversation drily called “Thatcher’s erection” means we don’t consider the deleterious effects its grip on public space continues to have on our physical and mental lives. Bronstein is particularly interested in how the architects of these recent buildings, in contrast with their eighteenth-century forebears, used space and image politics to ensure the unimpeded circulation of consumers. For example, icons of statehood such as the classical piazza were wheeled on in the UK precisely as the welfare state was being dismantled; ringed by shops, such spaces encourage hard commerce to disguise itself as social provision.

Quiet compulsion was evidently also on Bronstein’s mind when, for last year’s Tate Triennial, he produced Plaza Minuet, 2006, an installation and performance in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. Originally intended for sculpture, these high-ceilinged rooms now usually serve as an unlovable thoroughfare for the exhibition halls they open onto. Bronstein complexly reanimated the galleries, turning the space into a zone of subtle coercion in which movement was determined by tacit guidelines, only to reclaim it symbolically through self-expressive dance within the preset parameters. He marked one of the gallery’s floors with a simple pattern—a crossed box, in a green borrowed from the museum’s Clore Gallery, the 1987 po-mo annex designed by James Stirling—and placed at either end of it sleek freestanding wooden arches (which also echoed a feature of Stirling’s design). As video documentation reveals, visitors tended unconsciously to allow their passage to be guided by the lines on the floor and the position of the arches. Countermanding his own prior hijacking of the space, Bronstein commissioned a quartet of dancers to walk down the lines (a nod to Bruce Nauman’s self-restrictive video piece Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square [Square Dance], 1967–68) in graceful sprezzatura, borrowing the style of understated gestures that originated in High Renaissance Italy and was later formalized into ballet itself.

There is in this work an implicit recognition that life in and among buildings equates to theater—an inference redoubled by the artist’s many intricate drawings based on architectural stage designs (in the style of Juvarra and Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, among others). But Bronstein is not always so compensatory, as was demonstrated by his rebarbative installation, Concept for a Public Square, 2005, for the portmanteau exhibition “London in Six Easy Steps” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 2005. Almost filling the floor space in one gallery, the work consisted of a low, rectangular, fencelike structure into which Bronstein had jigsawed miniature archways and doorways in a po-mo Neoclassical style. Etiquette determined that, even at the crushed opening, no one dare step over this “fence” into the empty arena within. Instead, viewers maneuvered awkwardly between its exterior and the walls.

The implication of control is sometimes exaggerated to a fabulous degree, especially in the theoretical twilight world of Bronstein’s drawings. In Large Building with Courtyard, 2005, for example, the courtyard is a sleek triangle cut whimsically into the center of a densely authoritarian, heavily pillared mass of Neoclassicism. Lately, though, Bronstein has increasingly been taking his projects to the streets. During last year’s Frieze Art Fair, he presented his Tour of London’s Postmodern Architecture, a narrated bus journey to buildings both famous and overlooked, which, he argued, form “a backdrop to the climate that gave rise to the possibility of an international art fair.” Later this year there’s a planned outdoor commission for a piazza in Turin (and a show at the city’s Galleria Franco Noero), sketches for which show a giant, X-shaped barricade, albeit one inset with occasional doors. Any local councillors who recall the debates about Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc will be glad it isn’t intended to be permanent.

Bronstein’s art represents a fantasy of agency, one that defines itself in opposition to existing determining forces that are barely visible—and not just because they’ve become too familiar or are so easily construed as relics of an old regime. At its most ambitious, his multistranded production is a hopeful model of engagement not only with ideology’s ghosting of the built monuments of yesterday, but also its obscured presence in those of today—the cool wood, glass, and concrete constructs of Herzog & de Meuron, for instance, those hushed icons of our postindustrial era that claim to be “neutral” architecture. As if that were possible; as if silence and frictionlessness were not qualities equally desirable in big business and in culture palaces. Maybe what it takes for the quieter imperfections to pop out is an admiring eye to spend long enough looking; if Bronstein’s art began in some kind of love, it surely doesn’t end there.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.