Katarina Burin, Irrational Attachments, 2019–20, concrete, vinyl, plants. Installation view.

Katarina Burin, Irrational Attachments, 2019–20, concrete, vinyl, plants. Installation view.

Katarina Burin

Providence College—Galleries

Reading to the letter is the ancient lie of fundamentalisms everywhere. As Michel de Certeau has written, the dream of a “‘literal’ meaning is the index and the result of a social power, that of an elite.” When I consider Katarina Burin’s disarticulated architectural imaginary of the Eastern Bloc, I think of how a certain kind of mundane object also manifests a claim to literality, a building-to-the-letter of how people live. Her architectonic vocabulary derived from Soviet plazas and public housing—abstract fragments, mostly béton brut of course, spread in reticulated clusters with a humorously straight Constructivist sensibility—speaks to the way that modern power showed itself in the erotics that backhandedly accrued to the supposedly utilitarian. Burin’s work in general often addresses the enactment of high modernism in vernacular Soviet architecture—that inevitable whiff of an aesthetic “in excess of mere survival” (to quote Elizabeth Grosz) by which, despite the Communist directive to nip the commodity fetish in the phenomenological bud, Soviet subjects, like everyone else, formed “irrational attachments” (as this show’s title suggests) to their built environments.

Paul Celan writes of “feeling-walls,” the psychic scene for what Trisha Low (in Socialist Realism [2019]) has described as a “collaborative choreography between people and objects.” In Burin’s installation, the tendency of the psyche to project itself into the structure it occupies materialized as free-associative images embedded in her concrete surfaces: a deadpan photo of a blow-up mattress, a picture of a blank projection screen—because that’s what houses are for us, no less than for someone more resembling a late–Kazimir Malevich tiller of the fields. (Low finds the vestiges of aesthetic excess even in that artist’s last capitulations to state mandate, as in one portrait where “each person wears a blank-colored circle instead of a face.”) Life finds a way—thus the living presence of plants sprouting from Burin’s abstract tabletops and cornices, specimens of those various annoying species only encountered indoors, valued, like state-constructed subjects, for their predictability. Thus also some extremely strange constrained flamboyance, little flourishes of color—swatches of turquoise pleather here; a squat, brown, Eva Hesse–looking cake of suede up there.

It seemed at first as if my task should be to catalogue these gestures—that’s what critics do, correct? We read more slowly, intricately, etc. But Burin’s installation oriented me otherwise. Spaced with the grace of glacial erratics, the elements claimed absence as their centerpiece, never soliciting a “caricature furnished by direct perception” (Samuel Beckett). Replaying the recording that I made of myself speaking as I wandered among them, I do not hear a critic, normatively conceived, so much as someone simply narrating the events of his attention. The work determined the right way for the viewer to look at it, reflecting how we do not read the space that sculpts our time the same way we’re told to look at paintings, nor indeed the way we look at Instagram. Perhaps Burin has reenvisioned the role of “sculptor of spectatorship” that her Harvard colleague Carrie Lambert-Beatty finds in Yvonne Rainer, substituting architect. In the attentional half-light Burin constructs, reading turns hypnagogic, and one sees her interventions in the gray utopia for what they are: traces of the ungovernable boundlessness of the unconscious even at the point that governance is at its most concrete.