Knut Åsdam

Ever given much thought to the human figures populating architectural models? Those tiny characters involved in a variety of generic activities indicating the potential life of spaces yet to be constructed? Ciphers of normality, Man and Woman Engaged in Conversation, Group of Businessmen Crossing a Square, and Teenagers Hanging Out are placed there to convince us of the purposeful plenitude of a design in which the interests of all relevant parties can be served. Imagine, then, what such abstract figures would look like if the construction in question were no longer on the drawing board but in a state of half-finished abandonment. Or, alternatively, integrated into the messy heterogeneity of an urban landscape where human “designs” of various orders compete for attention.

To engage in this mental exercise is to start approaching Knut Åsdam’s new films Abyss and Tripoli (all works 2010), which were presented at Bergen Kunsthall alongside two photographic works (one documents a 1960s suburban project outside Oslo, and the other is a tapestry-like photomontage of global urbanisms). Yet the real protagonists of these films are not human subjects but architecture itself: in Tripoli, a sprawling, dreamlike setting for an international fairground in Lebanon, conceived in 1966 by Oscar Niemeyer and left unfinished with the 1975 outbreak of civil war; in Abyss, a London cityscape where the futuristic megaconstructions for the 2012 Olympic Games emerge as if mediated through a dismal array of subway stations, cheap market stalls, gyms, and metered parking spaces. Both sites hold enough complexity and fascination to materialize as fully formed cinematic subjects in their own right, but the authority with which they impose themselves is of course also a function of a well-established and multiply determined relation between architecture and film. Film and architecture share a quality of sensorial surround that may (as Walter Benjamin claimed) be received in a mode of distraction—which is perhaps also why cinema has played a key role in a modern spectacularization of space that formats geographic sites into the “destinations” of the tourism industry.

Still, relatively few directors make architecture the central element the way Åsdam does. A series of characters, as elliptical and sketchy as architectural model figures, traverse the constructions as if for no other reason than to allow us to suss out peculiar spatial secrets. The stilted and overly theatrical confessional dialogues that pass for their conversation—painfully embarrassing to listen to from the realist perspective of “good dialogue,” even when they seem to express specifically spatial experiences—relegate these characters to a realm of artifice and disassociation that shows them for the marginal figures they are, mere attributes of spaces at once real and cinematic. And in this way the dialogues also undo the normal affirmative function of the figures in architectural models. The characters’ disconnected mode of speech only underscores the absolute opposition between the current pseudocinematic virtual modeling of architecture and a properly cinematic unfolding of the built environment. For cinema is always about what is beyond the frame or in the interstices between frames, and here it brings out what is already the condition of Åsdam’s chosen protagonist-spaces: a condition of permanent suspension and displacement, supported by scenarios of violence and exclusion. I can think of no better demonstration of the fact that humans are the products and not the masters of their own designs.

Ina Blom