“What If: Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design”

After centuries of experimentation, it might have seemed that there was nothing new under the sun where that glamorous fetish object non plus ultra, the woman’s shoe, was concerned. Then along came NikeTown, with its mutant materials and space technologies, and haute couture joined this revolution from below. Of all “the stuff that surrounds us,” footwear has perhaps taken the biggest design leap.

Spring Summer 2000, 2000, Sylvie Fleury’s display of shoes from the Paris season, testifies to a deep fascination with luxury goods and their “magical qualities,” as Karl Marx would have it. Such a fascination, verging on the obsessive, has been a part of art since Surrealism, but Fleury’s elegant installation, included in the Moderna Museet’s “What If: Art on the Verge of Architecture and Design,” takes commodity fetishism to a whole new level. Her shoes really are magic.

With “What If,” curator Maria Lind endeavors to take “the temperature of contemporary art” by looking at its relationship to two neighboring fields. “Artists cannibalize these kindred disciplines for formalistic purposes and in order to reflect and question the concrete, designed reality that surrounds us,” Lind writes in the catalogue. The show, which was laid out (or, as the Moderna Museet puts it, “filtered”) by artist Liam Gillick, comprises works by thirty-odd individuals or creative teams who arrived on the scene during the ’90s. The past decade has been characterized by an increasing hybridization of genres, a tendency that has a long history. In the early ’20s, Malevich designed tableware and maquettes of buildings, and his mother decorated textiles with Suprematist geometries. The Bauhaus and De Stijl made similar transgressions. Looking back further, the Baroque period achieved, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, “a unity of the arts”; it was an era when masters created paintings in concert with the sculpture and architecture surrounding them. “From one end of the chain to the other, the painter has become an urban designer,” Deleuze observed in The Fold (1988).

The codes and conventions of architecture, fashion, and city planning preoccupy the contemporary artists in “What If,” but unlike the crossover artists of earlier periods, few seem to want to escape the boundaries of the art world altogether. Tobias Rehberger and Rirkrit Tiravanija have constructed small houses, made from wood and other materials, that will be disassembled after the exhibition closes and transported to northern Thailand, where Tiravanija is establishing a new community. The huts are less about achieving the dream of becoming an architect than they are steps in Tiravanija’s ongoing exploration of social situations and Rehberger’s observation of the vicissitudes of style.

Likewise, Fleury has little intention of becoming a fashion designer, though her contributions to “What If” relate to the world of couture, as do those of Lotta Antonsson and Jason Dodge. In Antonsson’s tender ink drawings of young women, female identity seems as ephemeral as the latest look launched in Harper’s Bazaar. Dodge, on the other hand, builds confusing, labyrinthine installations in which prestigious brands sit side by side with receipts, tickets, and other ordinary design objects.

Stockholm, itself an extreme highmodernist design experiment where art, architecture, and urban planning come together, is a fitting backdrop for this show, if only because it casts the practical vision of most “What If” participants in sharp relief. “The utopias that do occur are often pragmatic micro-utopias that can be tested in reality,” curator Lind points out in the catalogue. A possible exception is Spaceframe, 1998-2000, by the Copenhagen collective N55. Based on the geodesic system of R. Buckminster Fuller, it is a four-and-a-half-ton living unit meant for three or four people. The modular Spaceframe can be assembled and dismantled easily and barely requires heating or maintenance. It presents a concrete solution to something—though it isn’t quite clear exactly what problem N55 thinks it’s addressing. One wonders whether the collective is seriously proposing a sweeping change in the way humans inhabit the planet.

Visually, there are a few highlights in the show, including Brasilia Hall, 2000, a large installation by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster that meditates on the “tropical modernity” of Brazil, and Sarah Morris’s riveting Las Vegas movie, AM/PM, 1999, which turns anonymous pedestrians on the Strip into protagonists in a dramatic if ultimately incomprehensible big-city thriller. Seen as an attempt to sum up recent discussion of the impulse toward interdisciplinary practices, “What If” is idiosyncratic and intriguing. But the true strength of the exhibition is Gillick’s eccentric design. He confines each project in a tight display, thus producing the overall effect of an enormous bento box with vast empty areas between the individual dishes. Some of what’s served up are strange composites, produced, as it were, by several chefs. It’s rigorous, yet playful. Seen as a huge installation by Gillick, the master chef, “What If” is outrageous and spectacular.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.