Halifax

Vittorio Messina

Henry Moore Studio, Dean Clough

The 1996 paperback edition of Architecture and Utopia, Manfredo Tafuri’s important text on urban modernism and ideology originally published in 1973, features an arresting etching by the architect Aldo Rossi: L’architecture assassinée, 1975, depicts teetering buildings, collapsing pylons, fissured walls, and exposed brickwork—a modernist city on the point of disintegration. A Village and Its Surroundings, the outcome of Roman artist Vittorio Messina’s 1998–99 residency at Dean Clough’s Henry Moore Studio in Halifax, presents a comparable (equally ambivalent, equally thought-provoking) “assassination” of urban modernity.

Might the two be distantly related? Messina’s installation work, with its deceptively simple, clean-cut methods of assembly and its recycling of basic everyday objects, is often aligned with Minimalism and arte povera. However, its distinctly narrative, even allegorical character and its diverse historical references set it at a certain distance from these two tendencies and remind us that Messina, a former student of architecture, has a particular interest in the modern movement—both its utopian ambitions and its authoritarian dimensions. His anthropocentric constructions insist on the interdependence of environmental forms and urban human consciousness. Cell-like compartments form the core of his vocabulary, and in this, Messina echoes Tafuri’s insistence on the room, or cell, as the basic building block of the modern city: The shape of the individual cell determines the city’s formation, but reciprocally, the city’s organization, its structures of control and production, influence the cell’s standard form—and ordain the psychic life that may be lived within it.

The installation’s title has an attractively pastoral ring, but the lived existences proposed by its six cells are hardly idyllic. In one of them, a 1952 Eccles coronet, a small-scale, enchanting vintage caravan, is immobilized inside a blue-plastic-ceilinged metal-and-stone structure designated as the village “temple”—an ideal of freedom frustrated by steel and masonry. Less appealing again is the “prison,” a totally exposed, iron-barred cage with a hard bench, a washbasin, a toilet, and an ultraviolet fluorescent tube—an ensemble unpleasantly like a bug zapper adapted for use on higher primates. All the cells, moreover (the one with the Eccles Coronet included), are subject to constant surveillance: A closed-circuit video system enables visitors either to wave at one another in a cheerily intrusive fashion or spy on each other’s movements.

Messina’s ambivalence toward the idea of “progress” is perhaps reflected in the atypical route he plots for viewers going through the installation—from technological complexity to minimal simplicity. Visitors enter the first cell through a passage lurid with low-level red lighting. Sounds of booming and squealing turn out to be a video sound track (a new medium for Messina). Projected onto a screen that simulates, with striking success, the open window of the cell, the video shows squadrons of planes thundering past at terrifyingly close quarters and screeching birds—locustlike swarms or looming monstrously large in a clear blue sky. The mental state of the cell’s hypothetical occupant is suggested by the bed, an iron frame with restraining straps and some kind of electronic monitoring equipment at its head. The theatricality of this opening scene contrasts markedly with the installation’s concluding elements: a pristine, mass-produced greenhouse containing spotless, empty terra-cotta flowerpots, plus a pergola and skeletal passageway built from more characteristic Messina materials (fluorescent tubes, umbrellas, scarlet Plexiglas, cinder blocks, steel window frames, DIY clamps).

Here the artist’s construction processes are laid bare, and the viewer is invited into a much more direct physical relation with the installation’s spaces and materials. This work has a transitional feeling: Alternative, possibly incompatible working methods are being tested out. Fair enough; the Henry Moore Studio is precisely intended as an experimental space, not a museum, and this interesting project does that mandate justice.

Rachel Withers