On Sketches for Regency Living

Pablo Bronstein, Large Cabinet / Office, 2011

There’s one particular moment in Pablo Bronstein’s great show at the ICA Sketches for Regency Living where the idea of architecture, style, ideology come together, where his ping ponging of reference shudders to a strange conclusion.

Illustration of Chippendale furniture from Style In Furniture by R. Davis Benn

First we find it as an overscaled hulking piece of furniture that reminding us of a Chippendale case. Sited within the galleries Nash’s architecture, this seems both appropriate (stylistically) and strange (in its giant size).

But we also recognise this particular object as part of a tradition of Chippendale progenies – knock offs, faux antiques, Lovejoyesque masquerades churned out of workshops and factories. Here, its MDF that has been boot polished into an approximation of mahogany.

AT&T Building (now Sony Center), New York, Philip Johnson & John Burgee, 1984

We can’t help but think also, in the context of Bronstein’s interest in post modern architecture, of Philip Johnson’s AT&T building. This biggest of Chippendale knock offs famously restages the top of a 1980s speculative office block as a Chippendale highboy, at its summit a huge broken pediment. In Bronstein’s piece, it this building – once transformed from furniture to architecture is remade again as furniture. But we can still read the trace of its skyscraper version in its re-domesticated form. What might that mean? The corporatisation of the domestic? The reforming of our homes as an indivisible extension of the landscape of entities such as AT&T & Sony? The extension of speculative, generic office space everywhere? The voracious consumption of everything, even history, by capitalism? The fact that any organisation of substance into form or utility (architecture, design, art) can’t escape the ideologies of power that frames them? That all they can ever do is restage that power in ways that make it consumable?

Here we see Johnson posing with a model of AT&T. He has become the size of a building, the building has shrunk to smaller-than-furniture size.

This autumn, the V&A will be showing this 7 feet tall high elevational drawing that Johnson’s office produced. From furniture to building to representation of building, the motif oscillates in scale as though it were subjected to an endless cycle of Alice in Wonderland transformations. Its jumps between the scale of furniture and the city remains restless even (or maybe especially) for Johnson. Looking back at this project, we might now understand Johnson’s AT&T not as some giant sized joke, but as a prophetic comment on the domestication of the city. Perhaps nowhere more than Manhattan has flipped from a state of delirious overproduction of urbanness to one of domestic interiority (think of the High Line as the apogee of this phenomenon – the transformation of urban industry into city-scaled patio. Also see this review of Sex & The City 2 I wrote for Icon for more on this idea).

Under Bronstein’s instruction that the piece should be opened in a ‘sober manner’, the gallery assistants unfold its internal mechanisms. Doors open, tables fold down, sections hinge out with all of the ingeniousness of something from a shopping channel – and with the same aluminium fixtures too. This double jointed unfurling talks the language sub-IKEA furniture, the fold-out computer desks, sofa beds and so on: All examples of the compression of space and use within the domestic landscape, of the ingenuity and limits of imagination, of the paucity of liberty that our socio-economic conception of ‘home’ gives us.

It reminds us of this kind of thing, a ‘Regency Computer Desk’. Lets run that past us again. Regency. Computer. Desk. The ease with which history is atomised and recondensed in alternative form in that phrase tells us how the codings – the design language – of neoclassicism has slipped through and slid over the surfaces of history, even into the present.

Pablo Bronstein, Pair of Consoles, 2011

The idea that a piece of furniture – or as in this case more specifically, the staging of furniture by an artist – can operate as a piece of rhetoric exploring ideology is made explicit in the adjoining room. Here, in another dual-use object, two console tables pushed against either side of the room are rolled together into the centre of the room. They unfold to become a campaign bed. The transformation then is from a object of refined domesticity, of cultured lifestyle into an infrastructure of warfare. Bronstein’s object pairs these spheres within the same object. He forces them to occupy the same physical fabric, suggesting grand domesticity is inseparable from war. Through the frame of this object we can understand the gentile grandeur of, say the Nash building that the ICA occupies as a result both of Imperialism and war as well as an exercise in stylistic refinement.

These, lets say ‘extreme’ versions of furniture are manufactured by Bronstein with embedded narratives and symbolism intended to reveal the thread of ideology that runs through the physical world of objects. Alongside this he also tells us to think about our own world too. Though Sketches for Regency Living riffs on its Nash setting and also resurrects the ghost of post modern architecture (which seems to us now just as alien, impossible and historically frozen as the 18th century) there are a few fragments of our own world in the show.

Pablo Bronstein, Tragic Stage, 2011

In the ground floor gallery a giant painting of a Regency palace or some such acts as the backdrop to a piece of choreography. The dancer performs an abstracted courtly dance. In costume and in front of the image of architecture the piece seems to refer to the ways in which the power of court is manifested though image, space and occupation. We could think of the codified sequence and hierarchy of rooms that one must progress through in order to enjoy and audience with the monarch for example, the social language of movement or the architecture of dress that both express and enforce a particular kind of behavior in relation to power. Architecture – in its widest sense – is used to represent the image of power but also is the means of enacting the idea of power through its marshalling of languages and styles. The kind of power referenced in this part of the piece is visible power. Yet within the same space are other objects. On one side, an everyday chair, next to which sits a bottle of water and on whose back hangs a hoodie. On the other, a group of white plinths. These props seem – against the obvious artifice of Regency-ism – seem incongruous and isolated. Yet the choreography includes them too. Part of the dancers movements involve sitting in the chair and arranging herself amongst the plinths. Here Bronstein seems to extend the zone of artifice to these objects that seem real-er, less scenographic. Both chair and plinths are revealed to be part of the same world as that of the historical court. Though shorn of all apparent ornament, these objects too enact ideology and power: the plinth manifests the power of the art world white cube; the chair/water/hoodie an idea of relaxed individualism. These then are examples of contemporary power, which in comparison to that of the 18th century court is a kind of invisible power.

Bronstein’s interests in moments of over-the-top architecture: the Baroque, Rococo and Post Modern might be driven because these are moments when the relationship between power and architecture becomes most visible. These he uses to talk not simply about their excess but as a way to interrogate the seemingly innocent forms of all architecture. The suggestion is that architecture – in the form of its image, its choreography of space, and its utility – is always an embodiment of economics and ideology. Even that which seems simply beautiful or presents itself as belonging outside the spheres of such influence are forms of staging and enacting power.

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