Friend of AN Jeremiah Joseph visited an exhibition of interest in New York's gallery district. Et in Arcadia Ego, a new exhibition at the Thornton Room in Chelsea, examines the intersection and overlap of natural and man-made landscapes. With the title, roughly translated from Latin, “I am in pastoral utopia,” the show, curated by Blanca de la Torre and Juanli Carrion, could easily devolve into a Nature equals Good, City equals Bad equation. Instead, the way the six artists explore the topic is not so divisive or stale. The work tends to engage the subject from the side, generating surreal results. At the end any answers are farther off than before viewing the work, and this ambiguity is show’s strength. It prevents the viewer from standing too sure-footed and jumping ahead to conclusions and prejudices. In the modest gallery space, Chus Garcia-Fraile 's video Protected Zone is projected in the front window. In the piece, an escalator is placed in a lush forest, running like a waterfall in reverse. The device sits seamlessly in the forest. The viewer knows these components should not co-exist, save perhaps in some Wow-Me mall in Dubai where ski-slopes and the world's largest-something-or-other are commonplace. But here the relationship is eerily correct. Recalling the tension of Michael Heizer's Double Negative—platonic geometry thrust into a rustic landscape—two clearly opposing conditions go deep into dialogue (or not) with each other, forcing us to decide which reading is correct—nature, man-made, or a combination.Carlos Irijalba's video Twilight uses artificial light as a gateway into natural and synthetic landscapes. The video begins with the viewer above an empty soccer stadium where an array of stadium klieg lights flicker on as twilight arrives. With gentle thrumming of the city beyond, the lights run through varying colors until they hit their hottest white light. Dropping down and hovering above the perfectly manicured grass pitch, the light and flora are shown in their most synthetic and controlled states. Relocating to a forest at twilight, a generator rumbles on and the same array of lights reveals a very different context. Standing like the Monolith from Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey the lights are clearly alien among the trees and insects. What does the light Monolith bring to the forest? Simple illumination? Does it turn the forest into an overly dramatic movie setting or bring an impending sense of destruction? Or perhaps a sense of detached and bemused sentimentality? With a different sensibility, the photographic works Catastrophes by Christoph Draeger recall newspaper disaster images. With child-like earnestness, the images show the apparent aftermath of a plant explosion and a tornado strike. The cheekily morbid images, familiar at first glance, quickly reveal they are deliberate constructed narratives. Both pieces in fact are careful staged and photographed models. The fabricated horrors are so thoroughly executed it is difficult to suppress a smile at their morbid nature. But this inversion of bleak sadness leads to a pause. How often do we gloss over these situations in the media with a mild sense of loss, but a greater sense of relief because they are far away? Draeger directly engages the terror, readdressing them as modern fables and foibles. We look at the images as a whole and then trace through to see how they are made. In the deep scanning and study we see fresh the nature and complexities of real world catastrophes. By far the most architectural and accessible but also most troubling piece is J.G. Zimmerman's Dystopia Series: Suburbia (above). In a 24 minute video satellite images of suburbs run by leisurely, hypnotizing as the landscape morphs from one familiar suburban fabric into the next. Initially appearing like a lazy Google Earth, the video is actually a deftly crafted piece of art. By specifically removing details and cues of inhabitation—there are no cars or people—we are left only with houses, streets and a smattering of grass and trees. It would too easy to jump to the conclusion that a suburban existence equals the Boring Life, but the artist sidesteps this reactionary reading. Recalling photos by Hilla and Bernd Becher studying industrial archetypes Zimmerman bends our perception of reality. Even while carpet-bombing the landscape with familiar suburban quadrants, we see an odd duality of sameness and differences everywhere. The effect is spellbinding and disturbing leaving us wondering what is real and what is simulacra – in both the video and real-life. Rob Carter's Landscaping II is a large-scale print of plants growing literally up and through folded, cutout images of traditional buildings. A recurring theme for Carter, nature reclaiming urban territory, in the piece he places two different scales together (real life plants within the tiny pictures of historic buildings) and allows the intermingling to commence. There is no good or bad, winner or loser, only a snap shot of a process. Shot strongly in black and white and printed large scale, the picture is harder to decipher then if it was shown in color and in 1:1 scale. Carter obscures legibility, creating a situation where he and the audience are both first time viewers of this creation. Everyone, artist and viewer, have wait for allow the process to unfold. And all we can do is to try to understand the equilibrium, if there is one, and ponder where the process might lead us next. Et in Arcadia Ego runs through May 23rd at the Thornton Room, 150 West 25th Street, New York City.
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Architect and friend of AN Jeremiah Joseph writes in with this report of the March 27 WORKac lecture, "Shovel Ready," at Parsons. Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, of the 2008 PS1 Warm-Up pavilion fame, tag team presented their work to a standing room only crowd. With a range of projects, from buildings to urban proposals, the duo showed the office's penchant for both intelligence and wit. Like many young offices most of WORKac's work is still in the realm of unbuilt projects, but with five competitions already completed in 2009 this office has no intention of waiting around casually for the work to knock on their door. Of the work presented, two New York buildings showed off the office's intelligent concepts executed through reduced forms. They push the ideas, but are careful to not allow overly exuberant design blur the intent of their work. The Headquarters' for Diane von Furstenberg in the Meatpacking district showed their aptitude for laying out simple concepts that are translated, quite directly, into built reality. The project uses the stair, one of the most commonplace and yet ceaselessly studied elements in architecture, to turn what could be a mundane office building into an object of both clarity and poetry. Starting at the ground floor entry the stair slips up through the old warehouse building to reveal in single moment the sky above. A relatively simple move, but deftly handled, it flips the reading of the building's dark brick exterior by lighting the interior and yet at the same moment pulls visitors sense of the space up, through, and out the roof. In their proposal for the Kew Gardens Library in Queens (a project soon to start construction) WORK ac inverts the interior methods of the Diane von Furstenberg HQ by wrapping an existing building with a new facade and roof. Expanding the building's footprint towards the street they apply a new double-bent gull wing roof covered with flora. The new form, boosting the height of the building and allowing clerestory lighting into the interior, is clad at the upper portion of the facade with pre-cast concrete panels and new, open curtain wall down to the street. It is important to credit New York City's Design and Construction Excellence program for allowing WORK ac produce a project like this. It may be a bit self-serving to suggest this project gives hope to the architecture community that it will be able to continue producing good/smart/important work during a time of economic turbulence. But with the likely (and potentially healthy) collapse of the opulent condo market, the program sends a positive message to the community-at-large that quality design benefits everyone, not just the wealthy few. Of the work shown it was interesting to see that to date WORK ac is strongest in their urban proposals. The Green Belt City competition for Las Vegas started off with clear-minded analysis of the site issues. By the middle of the presentation they revealed their OMA pedigree, a tendency to tackle problems as the witty prankster who actually does know best. Yet at the end they zoom past overly reduced forms and slight of hand design moves to produce something both smart and beautiful. With their final project, a preview of a competition yet to be made public, they showed an amusing foray into the world of paper architecture. The project, a tower in lower Manhattan, was commissioned as a real world study of an urban condition, but the architects believe they, the client, and the architecture community are best served by going for broke. With an appropriate suspension of disbelief they stack and pin-wheel a series of slabs composed of archetypal sections of the city's urban fabric onto a hyper-eco-energy-friendly core. Although little of this piece itself is feasible, WORK ac likeably reveals untapped potentials in tower design and brings to light the potential for subtler, real-world solutions that would be just as relevant and powerful. With the amount of work produced so far it is a good bet WORKac will continue to generate engaging architecture. A risk the office faces is becoming typecast as new eco-architects. Although this may help bring attention, and put work on their boards, it would be too narrow of a category for their talent. An exhibition on WORKac is on view at Parsons The New School for Design, 25 East 13 Street, Second Floor, through April 18. A second exhibition, called 49 Cities, will be on view at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare Street, starting on April 14.