Tadishi Kawamata

Tadashi Kawamata’s outdoor installation at Documenta 8, with its stylized wooden scaffolding built in and around the bombed-out ruins of a Kassel church, made an impressive and poignant war monument. Its splintered boards and unsteady, ramshackle appearance recaptured a sense of one single, terrible moment of collapse under Allied bombing. The piece became a pathway back to that 45-year-old experience, underscoring the lingering impress of the war and its physical and emotional devastation. It took advantage of its own access to 20th-century history and to one of the sites of that history’s making.

Such historically impacted sites aren’t always available, and Kawamata’s new Toronto Project, 1989, raises the issue of what happens when contextually dependent work like his must make do with a more modestly signifying site. Certainly the artist shows no lack of energy in trying to maintain the scale of meaning. Site in Kawamata’s work is always augmented by construction, and it is the relationship between the two, between the site and the artist’s own tense, animated scaffolding, that is at the heart of the work. In Kassel, the deconstructive aspect of the scaffolding had a tragic dimension; in Toronto, the same look seemed artificial. This was partly an appropriate reaction to the installation’s locale, a park across from one of the main downtown shopping malls. The 50-by-105-foot lot used to be the site of a well-known jazz club. Now it is a green void, with benches between two turn-of-the-century architectural landmarks (both bank buildings), one of them built according to a domed Roman model, the other to a Greek Revival one. Kawamata’s swirling lumber construction broadly contextualizes the site. The street frontage portion of the piece mimics that of the many construction sites in downtown Toronto, while the upper framework recalls the support structures of some nearby advertising billboards. Together, these elements denote an ironic, wary relationship with the commercial forces of urban redevelopment. Kawamata’s piece is a token reaction to a bland and endless modernity.

But the work also strains for a grander emotional impact. Sited between the two older buildings, it implicitly serves as a marker for loss—the loss of what, in context, registers as higher standards, better care, deeper vision. But given the slim attention these neighboring buildings pay to anything other than their own facades—this is a longstanding tradition of Toronto architecture—the presumption of a clear-cut notion of cultural loss is questionable. Before its demolition, the jazz club had degenerated into a lunchtime strip joint; the sense of loss, then, is both imaginary and polemical. The conceptual drift of the installation is largely nostalgic. It laudably frames urban development as an art issue and as a civic issue, but the expressive, fragile, broken, uplifting structure employs a stereotypically romantic vocabulary. It proffers only a generic spiritualization and seems a symptom of the urban malaise it tries to picture. It also reveals the outline of a messier, less understood context, in which a comfortable, taste-proud generation has learned to tell itself subtly insulated stories about cultural distress.

Richard Rhodes