Designing for the Elements

As part of our new, occasional series of conversations, artist Katrín Sigurðardóttir talked with associate editor Frances Richard about the ways in which built space and organic forces interact with systems of representation; the seductions of the model and the mock-up; and the slippery distinctions between art and architecture. Their conversation was conducted by email, and edited for publication.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Gypsum, resin, epoxy, craft paper; dimensions variable. Installation view, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute, 2017. [Gregory Goode]

Frances Richard: I’m writing to begin our conversation, Katrín, about art-making — specifically, your own practice in sculpture and installation — and to think together about how that practice explores ideas embedded in or coded by architecture and design.

In fact, we began this conversation long ago, in 2005, when you took part in the exhibition “Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates that I co-organized (with Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner) for Cabinet magazine. We’ve since extended the discussion many times, when I’ve visited your studio and written about your work, and just recently when we met at your eponymously titled exhibition on view at the MSU Broad Museum, at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

I hesitate to open with a giant, unanswerable question. But I can’t help it, because as a writer I’m always brushing up against a fundamental sense that language is baffling, as if I can’t make lasting peace with the proposition that words refer to things, that semiotic signs float around mediating our experiences of embodiment and matter and phenomena like weather — yet are not embodiment or matter. All the while, my sensations pass through language almost as they pass through my body; life without language is not only unthinkable, but for me barely palpable. I’m constantly forgetting, or losing track of, what is language and what isn’t. It’s not surprising that you and I have talked about architecture as a language — an idiom that you adapt to “speak” sculpture. As we were preparing for this exchange, you wrote to me:

In architecture, everything is named; you could even say that architecture begins in language. In order to be designed and created by the human mind — and for issues of safety and classified function — everything is defined within a semantic system.

I don’t think you’re being metaphorical. Isn’t it Hegel who says that the Tower of Babel was the fundamental architecture, because it gathered people into a society? Until, of course, they sinned through architectural hubris, and God shattered the earthling language community into mutually unintelligible camps. So, I want to ask: when you say “architecture begins in language,” what do you mean? Is it too easy to say that architecture is useful (concerned with “safety and classified function”), and art isn’t? Except, of course, insofar as soliciting or containing aesthetic and conceptual attention, which is what art does, is useful …

Katrín Sigurðardóttir: It is fitting that the comparison we are discussing here between language and architecture emerges in response to Matta-Clark, whose work exemplifies the intricate connections between language and architecture.

Relationships between language, embodiment, and matter are things I think about a lot. Language about space, embodiment in space, and matter as space.

The cyclical relationships between language, embodiment, and matter are things I think about a lot too … language about space, embodiment in space, and matter as space. In order to draw a space, to draw a function — in the literal sense of drawing on paper (or, of course, on a screen), but also in the larger sense of projecting or planning a space or a function — in order to make such plans that can be shared with or executed by others, one relies on concepts, forms, logics that have passed through language. In this way, everything in architecture is named. Architecture relies on semantic systems, although I guess one could argue that language — the use of words — is only one part of that system.

I like to think of architecture and design as “prospective” practices. You draw something that will then become an actual form in actual matter. It begins as a drawing; it is in the language of the drawing that you visualize and conceive the design. Then there is the retrospective drawing, where matter and tangible forms are brought back into language by being described, or entered into a history or taxonomy. When I talk about retrospective drawing, I am usually referring to archaeological practices. And this then begets more drawing, more language, and so on.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. [Gregory Goode]

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. [Eat Pomegranate Photography]

FR: What you’re calling “prospective” is another way of saying that architecture and design, even in conceptual states or stages, are premised on use, on practical function, right? There’s a symmetry here with the fact that one way of defining art — after the readymade, anyway — is that it’s functionless. Or its functions are irrational, gratuitous. (In what I’m pretty sure is a riff on Duchamp’s Fountain [1917], Matta-Clark says, “one of my favorite definitions of the difference between architecture and sculpture is whether there is plumbing.”) In that earlier note to me, you go on to write:

As I borrow from all the fields of spatial record in my work, including architecture, archeology, and geography, I am keenly aware of this aspect of human-made structures. Natural and elemental processes come before human language, and I am increasingly interested in the pairing of unnamed reality with named reality in space.

Do you feel that architecture also contains “unnamed reality in space”? But contains it “differently”?

And, suppose we flip this, and go back to social and spatial operations as named and structured by the semantic system of building — with its doors and floors and walls and furnishings and gardens — and even more specific details like 18th century boiseries, or Baroque tiles, or midcentury-modern teak living-room sets. What happens to these interlocking systems of functional design when you pull them over into realms of noninstrumental contemplation, realms friendly to the unnameable, that for lack of a better word we call “art”? Are you distorting design logics? Emptying them out? Reifying them? Dreaming them? Is “translation” a good way of describing what happens when art borrows architectural syntax — making an “art text” instead of a “building text,” which “reads” differently because its terms are different?

KS: I think this goes back to what I mentioned earlier about architecture versus archaeology.  An early art-school assignment has stayed with me throughout my practice; in fact, it was the starting point for Metamorphic, one of the works in the exhibition in Michigan. It came from an English class — it began in language — where we were asked to describe a room. In some ways, I feel I have been describing places ever since, trying to spin these descriptions in ever-new ways, and to go further into the implications of this practice; what it means to describe a place. What began as a written exercise has segued into a number of sculptures and installations, works with dimensional, material form. These places are commonly architectural, although not always.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Unbuilt series, 2005-2015. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. [Eat Pomegranate Photography]

Sometimes the “description” is autobiographical; sometimes it deals more with a collective, historical memory of a place. Often it deals with how we as a culture remember and describe places, and what strategies come into play in presenting the past. Going back to the distinction between prospective and retrospective spatializations, my work concerns itself with the past, but often with how the future was envisioned in the past. That is where the Unbuilt houses — sculptures modeled on archival blueprints that were never realized as buildings — deal with architecture, with prospective drawing.

You bring up the issue of function; I do think of architecture as being concerned with solving functional problems. So, in a post-readymade fashion, we could say that I am not concerned with solving functional problems. There is no “plumbing” in my work, to use Matta-Clark’s term.

I also think of Matta-Clark as negotiating the past and future in built spaces. His word “anarchitecture” seems a very fitting name for his emptying out of architecture. Even if material has been taken away or structure altered, the void is framed by material structure; the void is the shape of an action of taking away.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
1501 N Grand River Ave, Lansing, MI, USA, 2019. Digital chromogenic print, 164cm x 127cm.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Namesake, 2019. Handmade paving-stones in Icelandic clay; dimensions variable. [Aaron Word/MSU Broad]

FR: What you say about anarchitecture does seem close to what seduces me in thinking about semiotic systems — whether language or architecture or art — and how semiosis, the process of making communicable meaning, rubs against or frames or cloaks matter as such. The relation is anarchic.

Let’s turn to the specific works in your exhibition at the MSU Broad Museum, where so many of these issues are being explored. There are three works on view: Unbuilt (2005 – 2015), Metamorphic (2017 – ongoing), and Namesake (2019). You made this particular version of Namesake specifically for this exhibition. It’s a subtle piece, sited outdoors, in what is now the middle of winter — and, when you and I and the MSU Broad curator Steven L. Bridges went to visit it along the banks of the Grand River in Lansing, we found it completely under water. That’s a pretty dramatic statement about function and functionlessness. So perhaps we could talk about this work first.

KS: In early 2018, I started going to the west of Iceland to dig holes, and then used the unearthed earth to plug holes in the United States. The MSU Broad installation is the third iteration of the project, the first two having been installed in various outdoor locations in Cleveland, and Akron, Ohio, in 2018. 1

Asserting an in-between status for materials and structures is the artist’s prerogative. But this is also the prerogative of nature and time.

As part of the journey from the ground in Iceland to my studio in New York, and on into the ground in these midwestern cities, the material was processed; I filtered sand and gravel out so I had usable clay. Then I cast small bricks or paving stones. The stones were laid in simple patterns, to fill potholes, repair pavements, etc. In Lansing, a small, flat, muddy place along a path beside the river was paved. But the pavers were not fired, and over a few weeks they dissolved. A brick can be seen as a metonym for architecture, and perhaps more generally for human intention in nature. But here the Icelandic earth that I had consolidated into units merged with the mud in Michigan.

FR: A form is also broken, though not literally dissolved, in Metamorphic. This project centers on a set of furniture from your family’s home in Reykjavík. You cast the chairs and loveseat and table and so forth in plaster — this non-load-bearing, inappropriate, blank material. Now, as part of the ongoing process of the piece, you ship the works in normal art-handler’s crates to wherever they’re going to be displayed. The material is such that it’s almost impossible to transport the sculptures without damage. So upon arrival at the exhibition venue, you unpack the broken works and painstakingly reconstruct them, repairing the cracks and replacing pulverized bits with more resilient structural fillers. The Namesake bricks are allowed to melt into invisibility, but the Metamorphic objects keep reasserting their form even as their materiality alters.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Namesake, 2019. Handmade paving-stones in Icelandic clay; dimensions variable. [Aaron Word/MSU Broad]

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. [Eat Pomegranate Photography]

In an interview with Constance Lewallen, on the occasion of Metamorphic at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2017, you discuss the work in relation to the Japanese practice of kintsugi, where broken pottery is mended with gold seams; other discussions of this project relate it to the mythical Ship of Theseus, which was rebuilt piece by piece until every timber was new. In the interview, you add, beautifully, that the patches of filler are also comparable to the striations in marble, traces of metamorphic mineral change. The chair has been under pressure yet remains itself, while at the same time reappearing as a model, a copy, a representation, like Plato’s Third Bed in The Republic, or Joseph Kosuth’s famous artwork One and Three Chairs (1965) — although Metamorphic is more sensual, more curious and wistful about instability.

When does an object become a copy of itself? When have reconstruction and replacement begotten a new object?

The paving stone in Namesake is different, in that it isn’t cast from an “original” paver. But in both cases, you’re experimenting with the stand-in, the version of the thing that is-and-yet-isn’t. It’s tempting to say that this obsession with in-between status is an artist’s prerogative more than an architect’s, since a building that denies its function too fully will be uninhabitable. Matta-Clark worried that, as he said, “people live in their space with a temerity that is frightening”; he wanted ordinary people to take charge of their living conditions, whether spatial or economic or interpersonal. 2 Still, the word-idea anarchitecture denies architecture as an ordering principle for social space. It denies the ambitions of architectural or urbanist problem-solving, and embraces failure and absurdity instead. It’s an artist’s word.

KS: I agree with you that asserting an in-between status for materials and structures is the artist’s prerogative, but this is also the prerogative of nature and time. Think about ruins.  What makes them so rich for the viewer is exactly this thing that is-and-yet-isn’t. And in Namesake I am thinking specifically about the dissolution of form and structure in architecture, how nature and time engulf human intention.

You are right that the clay paver is not a copy; the reference lies in the material’s origin. The plaster in Metamorphic is of an unknown origin — but in Namesake, the extraction of the Icelandic clay is key.

The Metamorphic objects started as nonfunctional copies; they looked like chairs, but if you tried to sit in them, they would have broken. As they move and are repaired, they are “metamorphosing” to functional objects, chairs that will hold up and support a body. They tell a story of home, a place to rest, but are also becoming objects on which you really can sit. Plaster is traditionally the material of the copy — think of plaster casts of classical statues. In Metamorphic, the plaster objects copy the real furniture in one specific room in the house where I grew up. They begin as a memory about a home that’s been left behind. They end up as another home, a new resting place.

I am using the trope of the Ship of Theseus to differentiate between iterations, shifts in an object’s identity. When does an object become a copy of itself? When have reconstruction and replacement begotten a new object? When I started Metamorphic, I had completed the Unbuilt series, which also involved mending and rebuilding — in this case, scale models of houses that were designed for various clients in Reykjavík in the 1920s, but never realized. I constructed the models according to plans sourced from the Archives of the Association of Icelandic Architects. Then I deliberately “ruined” them, by smashing, dropping, burning. And then I rebuilt the ruins, piece by piece.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Unbuilt series, 2005-2015. Installation view from the exhibition “Drawing Apart,” MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2015. [Peter Harris]

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Unbuilt series, 2005-2015. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. [Eat Pomegranate Photography]

From the time of Unbuilt, I was already thinking about kintsugi. In Japanese aesthetics, kintsugi originates in the appreciation of impermanence. A broken thing is mended with lacquer that is then leafed with gold. The crack is celebrated, and the object’s cataclysmic history raises its aesthetic value. The damage adds depth, integrity — an idea contradictory to the western precept that things are perfect when new.

Granted, marble has often served as a kind of trophy of European conquest, to illustrate the far journeys of those who acquired it. Nevertheless, marble is metamorphic: the mass breaks, and minerals of different colors migrate into it. When you look at marble, you are looking at material that has undergone pressure, disruption, disintegration — and exactly this fact is what has made it more beautiful. The aesthetics of mending in Metamorphic and the Unbuilt series go alongside a wide-ranging inquiry into the phenomenon of fragmentation in my other works during the same period.

FR: Let’s talk about scale. You choose these design objects — furniture; blueprints — but as they pass through your mind and hands, their usable-ness falls away. At the same time, the histories or uses they imply are exaggerated, made hypertrophic. I think this holds true even if what you’ve literally done is to make the designed thing smaller.

The Unbuilt works, for example, are dollhouse sized, with all that this suggests about a child’s fantasies of immersion in and control over miniature worlds, so that when you  smash or set fire to the houses, the sense of violence is tempered by that toylike size. Or maybe not; maybe the destruction of the little houses implies all the terror and surreality of childhood nightmares. Still, the size of the houses affects their emotional register. (Compare this to other artist’s projects based on the recreation of dwelling spaces, a Rachel Whiteread house, or a Do-ho Suh house.) A dollhouse is a mini-theater of domesticity — and here’s a good place to reference one of my favorite Matta-Clark anecdotes, which I’ll quote because he tells it better than I could paraphrase. It’s in an interview with the architectural historian and fellow Cornell School of Architecture grad, the aptly-named Donald Wall:

Wall: A strong image that is forming in my mind has to do with doll houses, with the peeling away of barriers, where sides are removed with the exposure of hidden and denied activity …

Matta-Clark: Now we are getting very personal. Actually, the first birthday present I can ever remember insisting upon and getting is a doll house. And, well, I wanted to be a voyeur ever since I was four years old …. That’s when I got the doll house. The thing about voyeurism and the doll house has to do with confronting secrecy and being in control secretly. 3

Your Unbuilt Structures don’t have open fourth walls. Yet these kinds of play with revelation, theatricality, intrusion, spatial bewilderment, and perceptual surprise do occur all the time in your work. Can you talk about these emotional or social feeling-tones, and the ways in which they arise from architectures that aren’t behaving as architecture “should,” or as architecture must? Would you use words like “voyeurism” or “control” to describe what you’re interested in? Or is it less about voyeurism, and more about exploring the fantasies inherent in spaces that are distant, imagined, inaccessible, vanished?

KS: Let me begin by discussing another set of projects related to these topics, that were made within the timespan of the ten Unbuilt sculptures, between 2005 and 2015. In 2010, I made an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where I focused on boiseries in the museum’s collection. These are wooden wall panels that serve as ornamental skins in interiors, and are treated in historian’s terms much like antique furniture. I was drawn to boiseries through thinking about museum strategies of display, specifically the period room.

The period room is a fantasy device. In a museum, it is usually presented as portraying the intimate way of life of a specific person or family. But these rooms cull from many sources — so even if they appear historically correct, they are not authentic, in that the objects rarely derive from one original room, house, group of inhabitants. It’s this deceptive presentation of integrated life — this implicit, but denied fragmentation and dispersal — that drew me in.

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For the Met, I made two works. Boiserie Hôtel de Crillon is a polyhedric chamber built in a slightly reduced scale, hermetically sealed so that the viewer looks into it from impossible vantage points. These are essentially the vantage points of the wall against which the boiserie panels would be installed, views that would be “seen” by the building itself. Inside the chamber I built, all the components of the period room were copied: hand-carved furniture, upholstered seats, woven carpet and curtains, chandeliers, and so on, all re-fabricated in same materials as the original objects. The windows and doors offer no view or entry. Instead, the viewer looks in through multiple mirrors that adorn the chamber — these were part of the original décor from the room, a boudoir in the Hôtel de Crillon. But I replaced the mirrors with one-way glass. The impossibility of this view into the closed room is then accentuated by the empty reflections in the mirrors; you’re looking through the back of something, through a surveillance mirror, from a space you should not be able to inhabit, and the mirrors reflect each other ad infinitum without any trace of the viewer. Matta-Clark’s analysis of the dollhouse as voyeuristic is appropriate for this work: “confronting secrecy and being in control secretly.”

One could say that both the period room and the scale model provoke desire and a sense of control.

The second Boiserie, Hôtel de Cabris, is a set of some 50 folding panels, where I meticulously copied another period room in the Met’s collection, which came originally from the Hôtel de Cabris in Grasse, in the south of France. I’ve manipulated the scale, so that viewers enter through a set of doors at full size, but as they begin to move through the installation, the panels shrink and the successive doorways become harder and harder to pass through. The work goes from full scale down to a miniature at about 5% scale. It is experienced both as an architectural environment and as an object. I was interested in bridging the gap between how we commonly relate, on one hand, to immersive installations — or, for that matter, to “actual” architectures — and on the other hand to sculptural objects. As in the Hotel de Crillon, this work plays tricks with perception.

FR: That interest in perceptual trickery is notably absent from Unbuilt, which is completely up front about the kinds of destruction and reconstruction the models have undergone — right up to the fact that you show photographs of the models after they’ve been broken and before they’ve been repaired, so your viewers can see how devastating the damage was.

KS: I don’t agree that perceptual trickery is absent in Unbuilt: the scale model and the period room are both devices of perceptual trickery. But my manipulation of the strategies they employ is different between, say Boiserie Hotel de Crillon and Unbuilt. The scale standard in Unbuilt varies from one work to the next and is arrived at more through a qualitative process than a quantitative one. One model might be 1:25 while another is 1:32.736. Still, I always think of these works as categorically related to scale models. You mention the dollhouse, which is perhaps the originating object for both scale models and period rooms. One could say that both the period room and the scale model provoke desire and a sense of control. It’s all nicely evasive, because miniaturization means that details can’t be fully precise. Scale models in design often serve to sell a client an idea. But I tend to think about scale as a metaphor for distance, temporal or spatial. When a miniature is not made for the purpose of selling a proposed design, but in order to look back in time, then it allows for a comfortable fantasy about the past — just as a conventional scale model allows for fantasy about the future.

When I break the model, I intend to break the possibility of forgetting its objecthood, of submitting to its seductive play.

When I break the model, I intend to break the possibility of forgetting its objecthood, of submitting to its seductive play, where the viewer or the model-builder can arrange the world according to their objectives. When I place the viewer behind the boiseries in the museum, in a non-space where you are able to view the back of the panel in a way that you never could in an actual room, I am trying to deconstruct this display, to draw attention the fact that both the period room and the scale model are strategic viewing devices. Thinking of the period room as a puzzle arranged from disparate parts — and having made broken scale models that then are puzzled back together — I started to compare the fragmentation of the two. I read George Perec’s La Vie Mode d’Emploi (1978), where a parallel is drawn between solving a jigsaw puzzle and telling the collective story of lives in an apartment building in Paris, one room at a time. This led to a series of other works based on the operations of a jigsaw puzzle. 4

FR: It’s not insignificant that the reference here is a novel. Maybe an artwork made of language isn’t precisely a “viewing device” — and I don’t mean to deny distinctions between looking at a sculpture, or being in a building, or walking through a landscape, and reading a book. But narrative and history are language-based systems that order our experience. Words and stories are “devices,” and if you pay attention, the relation amongst their parts — in relation to fact and symbol, belief and evidence, presence and absence, and so forth — is deeply puzzling. As puzzling and slippery as the relation of Icelandic mud to Michigan mud, or the relation of a sculpture you can see to one that has dissolved and slipped downriver.

KS: In 2013, I made a large work for the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, titled Foundation, that was also designed as a gigantic puzzle. It was paradoxically lacking a foundation, in a similar way as the boiseries at the Met were lacking their original built containers. The Biennale piece presented a faux 18th-century pavilion floor of hand-cast concrete tiles, which like the boiseries could be understood as an ornamental skin that delineates a fictional architectural space.

These works deal with site, shelter, history — and with transit, disorientation, damage, as if we can’t contemplate place without confronting placelessness.

Foundation continues the observation of ornamental surfaces in Boiseries, and also manipulates viewers’ spatial experience. In Venice, it “floated” half inside and half outside an old laundry building at a real 18th century palazzo in Dorsoduro. Because the faux floor was raised, visitors had to make their way through a door which had been halved in height. As is common in archaeological excavation, a floor can be found underneath a floor, and different architectural footprints overlap. Foundation floated through the present-day building like a ghost.

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The footprint of the old laundry was smaller than Foundation itself, and the piece and the real floorplan weren’t the same shape. To accommodate the differences, the floor was interrupted by cutouts that broke into the tile patterns. As the exhibition went on, I replaced these pieces step by step with a neutral cementitious material. This was the first time I put my work in relation to the philosophical paradox named after the Ship of Theseus.

FR: All these works deal with site, shelter, location, histories embedded in a built space or a particular piece of ground — and, simultaneously with transit, disorientation, disruption, damage, as if we can’t contemplate place without confronting placelessness. You’re always dealing with fictions on some level, and with the ways in which the process of detaching a space, a room or a circumscribed piece of land, from its matrix in a house or a city or a terrain, isolating it and reframing it — how this reframing is what we do in memory in order to preserve a place we’ve lost. But it’s also an act of destruction. We understand this theoretically, in terms of the fact that memory is selective and unreliable. But you present us with a kind of dreamlike physical result, as if our memories had been turned into sculptures.

KS: Locality and transit are an elemental pair in so many of my works. The Boiseries mock up rooms that are actually across the Atlantic. And the interlocking panels of Foundation were constructed in my studio in Long Island City to become one continuous floor — a place — that moves. It was conceived as a triad of installations for Venice, Reykjavík, and Long Island City, and each time this floor is installed in a new location, it shows the scars where it was cut for the buildings that housed it previously, and has since been repaired. Over time, this scarring becomes the true pattern, contrasting with the tile patterns of the floor — which are fictional in that they are my interpretations of baroque floor patterns.

Namesake also deals with transit, fragmentation, transformation. The brick shape is the simplest, most straightforward and functional I could come up with. Laid in the ground, the paving stones draw out a grid; they suggest architectonic integrity. But they only appear as pavement. As soon as they are stepped on or rained on, their form gives way.

All the works, including Unbuilt, emphasize the fragility of the art object, the object that is experienced primarily through sight, even when it suggests physical utility. Confronted by the body, forces of nature, and logistics, the objects break down — which is just when architecture is most expected to hold up, to provide stability and shelter.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Unbuilt 10 – N. Manscher Residence, Garðastræti 37, Reykjavik – Architect: Einar Erlendsson, 1929 – 1, 2015. Digital chromogenic print, 85 x 115 cm.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Unbuilt 10 – N. Manscher Residence, Garðastræti 37, Reykjavik – Architect: Einar Erlendsson, 1929 – 2, 2015. Digital chromogenic print, 85 x 115 cm.

FR: I brought up translation at the beginning of the conversation, and I want to mention it again. There’s a way in which translation could be the name for what’s going on in all these works. It could also be called iteration, generation, version, migration; it could be called transdisciplinarity or collaboration. But you are literally a bilingual, bicultural person, and as you say, one of the core modes of the work is that it’s restless; it doesn’t ever seem to arrive at one place and stay there. Can you talk about translation as a practice, an operation, a way of understanding what you’re making, what you’re causing materials to do, how you’re using spaces — and, more particularly, using furniture and interior design and architecture?

KS: The Latin word translatio means to carry across, and in the context of the show at the MSU Broad, particularly Namesake and Metamorphic, translation is a particularly poignant description of what I am doing. I am literally carrying materials across from Iceland to the United States. There is also a carrying across of meaning, of utility and purpose. The plaster objects that begin as copies of furniture little by little become functional furniture. The mud takes on a rectilinear form and builds a simple square, or a floor, and then returns to nature’s forms — which are too complex for the human eye and mind to capture. These are all translations.

FR: What has it been like to collaborate, as it were, with the Met, with the city of Venice, with Paffard Keatinge-Clay — who in 1963 designed the Brutalist extension to SFAI’s Italianate campus, where the Walter and McBean Galleries are housed — or with Zaha Hadid, who designed the MSU Broad Museum in 2012? Each of these settings is fundamental to the works sited there. At the same time, as we’ve just said, the works aren’t made to be “at home” in these buildings, in the sense of being anchored to these sites. Can you talk about how the literal architectures, and the institutions they represent, inflect or shape your projects?

The paving stones suggest architectonic integrity. But they only appear as pavement. As soon as they are stepped on or rained on, their form gives way.

And what about the architects of the Unbuilt houses, or the Icelandic designer of the furniture set? These too are your collaborators, albeit in different ways, given that the houses weren’t realized, and the furniture (or at least your iteration of it) is destroyed and transformed — that is, translated. How do you think about your engagement with these designers and what they’ve made?

KS: Your question brings to the foreground the fact that in so many of my works I take other people’s designs as my subject. I read the Hadid and Keatinge-Clay buildings in terms of how, in very different ways, they pay tribute to nature — or rather how these two architects look at nature and interpret it through their designs and building processes. At the MSU Broad, I think about the shapes and volumes, and to a lesser extent the appearance of the material. I think you can see in the building that Zaha Hadid was also a painter, inspired by natural form, who had a genius for translating a painterly geometry into a built structure. The forms in the building make it easy to forget that this building, like every other, is firmed down by gravity; the design suggests suspension, dynamism, where everything feels as if it’s flying off the ground. I find it to be a very visual experience, being in this building, and I don’t think that’s a given in architecture. Sometimes, even, the embodied and visual experiences are at odds. One can admire the drawing in the building as an elegant abstraction of a natural topography, and at the same time experience, physically, the same hesitation as when navigating a natural cave, where you have to “learn” the space to feel safe in it.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. [Gregory Goode]

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. [Eat Pomegranate Photography]

In Keatinge-Clay’s gallery at SFAI, the natural properties of concrete are manipulated much less; the shapes and volumes of the space feel a lot less “drawn.” Hadid’s building speaks to me about how the human eye (Hadid’s eye) sees and draws nature. The SFAI building states to me that the material has its own nature. I’m thinking specifically about the presence of exposed cast concrete, where Keatinge-Clay does not go nearly as far in disguising the material and its natural properties. Hadid’s concrete, even if it’s also exposed, is much more refined, transformed. And, generally, there is a lot more visual illusion at work in Hadid’s building than Keatinge Clay’s. Looking at Keatinge-Clay’s concrete, you never forget you are looking at concrete; it’s been cast, and it’s taking on the patina of time, along with everything that occurs at an art school. In this way it is minimalist. The material and technical processes, and the natural attributes of the material, are not disguised.

There is also a difference in that the objects themselves as exhibited at the Broad have changed, have broken and been mended twice more since San Francisco. And the floor design is different. When installing exhibitions, it’s futile to think that the objects and the architecture live wholly unrelated lives. I try not to compete with the space, or prioritize my sculptures over the spaces they are in, because when they are together they will inevitably dialogue with each other, affect each other — and this specific dialogue greets the visitor. In this, the art and the architecture are dependent on each other, and as an experience they become one and the same thing.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. [Gregory Goode]

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Metamorphic, 2017-ongoing. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2019. [Eat Pomegranate Photography]

It’s also important to acknowledge that the floor work in Metamorphic is produced by international students at the respective institutions, SFAI and MSU. The original occasion for making Metamorphic was an invitation from SFAI to produce a work in collaboration with international students, and since SFAI is my alma mater, I chose that same assignment from my first week there in 1988: to describe a room. I completed the assignment myself by producing (or reproducing) the furniture from a room in the home I grew up in, and the students contributed drawings and photographs from their own homes outside the USA. I merged these into an abstracted composite artwork, a large-scale cutout in brown craft paper, that is mounted on the floor and serves as a “carpet” under the furniture. The process at MSU was the same. However, this work can be understood as a new commission each time it’s exhibited, in collaboration with the foreign students of each respective institution.

When an object and gravity interlock in unexpected ways, our pretexts about that object, what it is and how it should function, are put into question.

Then there are the designs of the seven Icelandic architects in Unbuilt, and the furniture designer in Metamorphic. 5 In each instance, I am retracing the designer’s work, although in Unbuilt I am using a quasi-architectural process, the making of a scale model, and Metamorphic lends itself more to archaeology. My project is the restaging of a space from the past, through plaster copies of its interior topography, furniture and objects. It’s not drawing into the future as is more customary in design.

Through the experimental processes these objects undergo, cataclysm and reconstruction, one might think of a forensic aspect of them as well. You read history through the material composition, through cracks, tears, holes … and the secondary materials, the wooden structural supports in Unbuilt and the multicolored fillers in Metamorphic become part of the work itself.

FR: The cracks, after all, are the results of chance, and in this case, another name for what we call chance is natural process. When you drop an Unbuilt house made of plaster or concrete and it shatters, that’s because gravity has taken over; when you take one made of wood and set it on fire, wood and fire react to one another according to their own elemental rules. When you ship Metamorphic, you could say that you’re relying on the logistics company as an intermediary, but it isn’t their fault that the work breaks. (It’s not because it was put on a truck in inadequate packaging, as was famously the case with Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass [1915-23] and its celebrated cracks.) This is most explicit, again, with Namesake, where you invite the river and the weather to consume the architectonic form. Could you talk about this collaboration with organic forces? How does that interest relate to what we’ve said about art and architecture, and language and drawing, as systems?

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.

Art by Katrín Sigurdardóttir.
Namesake, 2018. Handmade paving-stones in Icelandic clay; dimensions variable. Installation view, Detroit-Superior Bridge, Cleveland. [Field Studio]

KS: I am glad you bring this up, as this issue of natural forces is such an important counterpoint, and not only to the designs and structural form of these works — time and the elements are also the relentless counterpoints to all architecture. The ruin reverses the presumed hierarchy between nature and humans. To quote Georg Simmel, “what was raised by the spirit becomes the object of the same forces which form the contour of the mountain and the bank of the river.” 6

I am always hesitant to describe what I do as destructive, because “destructive” is a qualitative, value-based term, and implies an objective, a human intention. I like to think of my processes as more like designing a program for the elements. Setting up certain parameters so that when an object and gravity interlock in unexpected ways, really all that happens is that our pretexts about that object, what it is and how it should function, are put into question. I am sure that many architects can attest to this as well. Perhaps architecture is exactly that, to design a program for the elements — to a functional, purposeful end. My “design program” leads the expected function and purpose to be questioned, analyzed, and eventually reinvented.

Notes
  1. Namesake was installed in the FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, July 14 – Sept. 30, 2018.
  2. Donald Wall, “Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections,” Arts 50, no. 9 (May 1976):  79.
  3. Donald Wall, edited transcript of an interview with Gordon Matta-Clark, 1975 (18). On deposit in the Gordon Matta-Clark Archive at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
  4. Ellefu Series (2011-2015). Works in this series map sections of a residential building in Reykjavík, and can hypothetically be puzzled together to constitute the entire building.
  5. The furniture quoted in Metamorphic was designed by Árni Jónsson (1929-1983). The architectural drafts quoted in the Unbuilt series are as follows: Ólafur Briem Residence, Fjólugata, Reykjavík–Architect: Guðmundur K.Þorláksson, 1926; Bjarni Jónsson Residence, Sóleyjargata 13, Reykjavík–Architect: Einar Erlendsson, 1925; Kristján Gestson Residence, Skothúslóð, Reykjavík–Architects: Einar Sveinsson, Gunnlaugur Halldórsson, 1930; Magnús Th. S. Blöndal Residence, Sólvellir 18, Reykjavík–Architect: Einar Erlendsson, 1925; Dentist Hallur Hallsson Residence, Bergstaðarstræti 73, Reykjavík–Architect: Sigurður Guðmundsson, 19…; Þorsteinn Árnason Residence,Bræðraborgarstigur 23A, Reykjavík–Architects: Sigurður Pjetursson, Þorleifur Eyjólfsson, 1926; Carl Olsen Residence, Túngata 14, Reykjavík–Architect: Einar Erlendsson, 1929; Doctor Gunnlaugur Einarsson Residence, Sóleyjargata 5, Reykjavík– Architect: Sigurður Guðmundsson, 1926; N. Manscher Residence, Garðastræti 37, Reykjavík–Architect: Einar Erlendsson, 1929.
  6. Georg Simmel, “Two Essays,” The  Hudson  Review, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn, 1958), 381.
Cite
Katrín Sigurðardóttir in conversation with Frances Richard, “Designing for the Elements,” Places Journal, February 2020. Accessed 05 Apr 2020. <>

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