PRINT September 2008


THE FILM 10104 ANGELO VIEW DRIVE, made in 2004 by Vienna- and Los Angeles–based artist Dorit Margreiter, is a portrait of the Sheats/Goldstein residence in Beverly Hills. Designed by celebrity architect John Lautner in 1963, the building is one of California’s most futuristic homes, literally anchored to its furniture in a way that radically overturns architectural hierarchies: Sofas, beds, dining room tables, and the like are set into concrete, while the walls, generally made of glass, are movable and can be remotely controlled. As is typical of warmed-over, commercial depictions of modernism, the house has a quasi-bachelor-pad ethos—indeed, it is probably most familiar as the home of bad guys and psychos in a series of Hollywood blockbusters, including The Big Lebowski (1998), Charlie’s Angels (2000), and Mullholland Drive (2001).

The identification of this modernist building with masculinity in the Hollywood unconscious is key to Margreiter’s film, which investigates the intertwined artificial worlds of film sets and 1960s architecture—and, in doing so, reconceptualizes “reality” as an overlap of history and theatricality. In the more commonly seen of the film’s two versions, Margreiter splices classic documentary-style shots of the building’s moving parts with a series of briefly glimpsed tableaux vivants, in which the queer Los Angeles–based performance group the Toxic Titties depict charged scenarios, including a rock-’n’-roll-style orgy in the master bedroom and a sci-fi laboratory scene in the kitchen. These static visual flashes counter the dynamic activity of the house’s design and serve to point up and disrupt the fantasy of male domination that the building seems to embody in both its technological sophistication and its setting high above Los Angeles. The distinction between the real and the imagined is also exploited, more subtly, in scenes depicting stacks of literature aimed at women, including novels, homemaking manuals, comics, and classics of feminism: La Femme soviétique, Amazon Odyssey, The Betty Betz Career Book, Lesbo, and Twisted Sisters are casually displayed alongside memorabilia owned by the home’s current owner, real estate investor and basketball fanatic James Goldstein.

Margreiter’s exhibitions have likewise focused on the social construction of architectural space, playing out the fictional and the documentary along the blurred boundary of popular and high culture. When 10104 Angelo View Drive was presented at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in 2004, it was screened as part of an installation in which a model of the home’s television set—which is seen ascending out of a concrete base in the film—was incorporated as a sculptural element. (The credits for the film ran in a loop on this monitor, while the 16-mm film itself was projected on an adjacent screen.) This partial reconstruction of the house (and film set) within the exhibition extended the work’s premise that the Sheats/Goldstein residence is equally fictional and real. Moreover, by covering the gallery walls and ceiling with black paint and using theatrical spotlights to guide the viewer through the installation, Margreiter physically enforced the interplay between illusion and reality—thus making the image-politics of her film equally applicable to the representational and architectural context of the art institution. As MuMoK curator Matthias Michalka argued in his catalogue text for this exhibition, “through the act of reproduction . . . the conditions of reproduction [themselves] are . . . ‘retroactively’ fictionalized and redefined.”

The concurrent disappearance and glorification of modernism’s former utopias are at the core of this time-traveling practice. The artist’s recent video Exquisite Function, 2007, for instance, centers on the politics of interior design during the economic boom in ’50s West Germany, investigating the history of the Hansaviertel, a modernist model-city district built in Berlin between 1957 and 1961. The cultural mission of the Hansaviertel’s architects—who included Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, and Oscar Niemeyer—was to look to the future and to forget the monstrosities of the past. Margreiter in turn bypasses the district’s classically modernist exteriors and instead places her emphasis on the intimacy of the interior. As a voice-over in the form of a narrated film script describes scenarios of ’50s domestic life, a series of tables, chairs, lamps, books, and even plants are filmed individually and dramatically lit against a black background, with the camera seeming almost to touch the surfaces of its isolated prey. Exposed like precious antiques in a museum—or, alternatively, like objects for sale at IKEA—these objects reflect not only the marketability of a nostalgically desired past but also the accompanying loss of its political origins and implications.

Margreiter’s preoccupation with modernism’s contingent relationship to politics is most fully evident in a sequence of works made for a 2006 exhibition at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig, Germany, all based on a neon sign affixed to the Brühlzentrum, a modernist housing project in the East German city. The building and the sign bearing its name date from 1963, the heyday of the GDR’s neon craze (which was allegedly sparked by General Tito’s having remarked on the dreary impression made by the cities of East Germany). But times change: The impending demolition of the Brühlzentrum had already been announced when Margreiter made her film zentrum, 2006, in which we see the hundreds of neon tubes that give the round-edged, full-bodied letters their shapes light up one last time.

In seeking to situate the aesthetics of socialist modernism in the twenty-first century, Margreiter reveals and perpetuates modernity’s ongoing relationship with the moving image: zentrum is also an ode to her fascination with early cinema about the city. In films such as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921) or Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), modernism’s complexity and social dynamism are given form through lighting, mise-en-scène, editing, and cinematography. In her filmic reconstruction of the neon sign, Margreiter likewise pays homage to technical ingenuity: The work is often shown in conjunction with a video documentary depicting the elaborate preparations for the nighttime shoot, which reveals that the sign was not in fact illuminated—the tubes were merely wrapped in white tape that reflected the light of handheld spots. Moreover, although the piece was shot on digital video, it is projected in grainy, black-and-white 16-mm stock. In using the digital to reproduce the aesthetics of the analog, she highlights the historical counterflow in her work, as her deployment of technology points up the shifting social relevance of design and its status as cultural memory. The fleeting moment when the letters light up in the dark appears as the past revived in the present, and so Margreiter marks the constitutive time gap between an event and its reproduction, emphasizing their ontological distance.

Margreiter documents and redeploys the remnants of modernism before they disappear and, subsequently, keeps them “alive.” In this case, the artist saved the Brühlzentrum sign from its complete amnesiac erasure in more ways than one: She also designed a typeface, called zentrum, 2005, using the modular components of the sign’s letters. This font resonates throughout the history of twentieth-century design: In its mode of construction as well as in appearance, it is strongly reminiscent of Josef Albers’s Kombinationsschrift (Combination Type), a stencil-based typeface he designed at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, in the late ’20s. Margreiter thus suggests a third phase for the familiar historical trajectory of modernism. After the initial utopian impulse and the revival of its forms in the fashions of mainstream culture several decades later, there is still the possibility of a new lease on life: as a piece of art that can shift its medial character from image to text to sculpture. Since the zentrum font is neither an homage to the original nor an imitation of its ’60s copy, but rather a graphic set of modules existing between the two- and three-dimensional, the typeface regains presence.

This font will be used in yet another medium in an upcoming project for the website of the Dia Art Foundation, due to appear online in spring 2009. Margreiter’s proposal involves channeling the written information released by the institution into an endless graphic code made up of the modular components of the zentrum font. What we will see on the Web is two frames—one, running in a loop, presents the typographic system in which all the letters of the alphabet are combinations of one or more rectangular or curved elements. In an adjacent frame, a selection of Dia’s outgoing press materials and public announcements will be presented in this code, as an endless feed of text—which looks, it turns out, much like Oskar Fischinger’s early-twentieth-century experiments in animation. The speed of the image sequence in the streaming-text screen determines the level of abstraction—the faster the signs follow one another, the more potentially legible the words, as the constituent parts of each letter follow one another more quickly. Still, Margreiter’s channeling of public information defies the intelligibility demanded by the press release as a format by transforming it into something difficult—if not impossible—to understand. The piece relies on the tension between abstraction and information, a dichotomy that spans history from the font’s Bauhaus roots to its encoding of press materials detailing future events.

If Margreiter’s films and installations usually reflect the social function and representational politics of art within the context of modernist aesthetics and its influence on urban identity, image production, and exhibition making, both the Dia project and a recent commission for the European Kunsthalle in Cologne mark her shift to a direct engagement with the aesthetic and logic of art’s interaction with the public. Margreiter recently designed a temporary outdoor exhibition space, European Kunsthalle c/o Ebertplatz, which opened this past August—three years after the kunsthalle’s founding as a “field of activity” unattached to any physical site. The Ebertplatz itself is a public square typical of ’70s urban planning, with angular, semi-green concrete islands, bleacher-style staircases, and a giant sculpture of bent nails: elements that come together as a bleak hybrid of pedestrian park, busy street crossing, and subway entrance. Yet Margreiter’s proposal does not beautify or cover up the existing site: It involves adding a projection screen, a vitrine, an exhibition wall, a pavilion, and a cubic pedestal to the preexisting architecture. These “architectural modules” are not held together by an outside shell, but unified through their formal interaction with passersby. At the same time, however, European Kunsthalle c/o Ebertplatz is itself a sculptural intervention, shifting between public art and exhibition display. In contrast with Margreiter’s previous emphasis on media-constructed spaces, her own intervention into architectural terrain avoids the imposition of an alternative reality onto what already exists.

Barbara Clausen is an art historian and curator based in Vienna and New York.