Mario Airò/Christian Philipp Müller

For this exhibition both Mario Airò, and Christian Philipp Müller appropriated modes of architecture that speak directly to notions of perfection. While Airò, chose to represent the monastic living quarters of the nearby Certosa di Pavia, located just south of Milan, in the gallery, Müller’s activity was based on this city’s wholesale showrooms, but the two distinctly different installations worked together to create a discourse that quickly moved beyond the obvious dichotomies to attempt to analyze the gallery’s role in conferring both spiritual and monetary value.

Both Airò and Muller manipulated the physical space of the gallery and the titles they gave to their interventions—Unité d’Habitation (Living unit, 1994) and Showroom, 1994, respectively—reflect their underlying involvement with architecture. For Unité d’Habitation, Airò constructed a life-sized replica of the dwellings used by the cloistered monks at the Certosa di Pavia from brick, cement, plaster, wood, and terra-cotta roof tiles. These dwellings are simple windowless brick houses that stand at the perimeter of a large courtyard. Here Airò constructed his replica inside the gallery: the structure was tangential to the outside wall and built around the window that opens onto the entrance-courtyard. Airò allowed us to see into his construction from outside the gallery; from within the gallery we were presented with the oddly powerful presence of this windowless structure and thrust toward the surreal.

For Closed and Exposed, 1994, the major piece in Müller’s installation, the artist sealed off the two smaller exhibition spaces and constructed two slightly different rectangular volumes in one-to-one scale in white wall-like materials, placing the smaller one on top of the larger in the corner of the main exhibition space. For those familiar with this gallery, the resulting piece looked like an oversized post-Minimalist variation of the space; for those unfamiliar with the space, the intervention camouflaged itself as an awkward architectural interruption of the standard open gallery. For a smaller work accompanying this installation entitled A Small Fine Art Museum, Müller has adopted a quote from the Japanese Shotenkenchiu-Sha publication Store and Showroom 2, to create a gray and beige flaglike banner inscribed with the text “the showroom should be regarded not merely as a place for simply displaying commodities, but also as a gallery—‘small fine-art museum’—which is comfortably decorated. This is specially important when displaying various items from one manufacturer.” Through a backhanded nihilism that underlines the absurdity of the appropriation of the art world’s display mechanisms for commercial ends, Müller attempts to negate any intrinsic value the physical space of the gallery might have by literally presenting its spaces as sculpture and camouflaging that sculpture behind this seemingly empty language of display.

Airò has literally created a plastic representation of display, while Müller presents a description of display, transformed into language not simply by the presence of the text, but by the absence of the commodities the text refers to. Airò’s work is carried by the strength of his image, while Müller’s work is carried by the complexity of the discourse that surrounds it. But both works also succeed in underlining the void within which they attempt to function. The drama here lies in this interplay—and in the challenge posed for making art today. These installations were neither nostalgic nor did they attempt to inflate the issues, rather they contextualized them, making us see the questions raised not merely as arising from a contemporary controversy but as a symbolic turning point in our cultural history.

Anthony Iannacci