Common Room, an architecture outfit with an exhibition space, is housed in a small modernist office building that seems to have been designed by a student of a student of Mies van der Rohe. A scruffy non-renovated charm and pathos hangs heavily in the air. Set slightly back from the grid of Manhattan and turned slightly it couldn’t be better situated in fast gentrifying Seward Park Coops. Common Room is also nestled in a mushrooming of new art galleries which often take there cues from sixties style conceptual art, a new conceptual district, if I may, right there on the good old lower east side. It’s not location, location, location any more it’s context, context, context.
In the early part of the twentieth century the lower east side of Manhattan was the most densely populated place on earth, full of Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution. Trotsky himself once made his home nearby. Desperately poor people crammed into dangerous and unhygienic slums, as documented in the photos taken by the famous Danish social crusader and bigot Jacob Riis.
The Seward Park Coop apartment buildings were built in the 1950’s and were created in part by the poor workers themselves, as socialistically minded, cleaner and more “modern” homes. The Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (now known as Unite!) was responsible for administering this massive slum removal project with the help of city and state government, Robert Moses was the most important backer of the project outside of the union. The spaces are roomy and glassy, with modern elevators, grass, and sky. The lobbies are clean and orderly, so is the show we look at as we wait for the elevator to arrive.
Keying off the desire to show and not tell, in the tradition of good journalism, Travelogue, Lize Mogel’s contribution, is a photo essay in which she visited the sites of past World Fairs. The Worlds Fair is an institution that is in decline, but in its heyday they were used as nationalistic non-sporting competition in arts, industry and science. The International art fair and/or biennial are the closest thing I can think of today either that or trade shows in general. The fairs often featured architectural whimsies on a vast scale, now the sites look like forgotten cemeteries of failed modernist residue. I am a particular fan of the Montreal’s effort in 1967.
In the piece by Shannon Spanhake, Partial Cross-Section, potholes throughout the bordertown of Tijauna were filled with plants, which in photos, reminded me of monuments or gardens in public plazas. It shows how little effort could trigger those deeply held ideas. This is a minor complaint against a city without public space, which exists mainly to exploit the leftovers of so-cal wealth. The photos of flowers also looked nice in the boring lobby space…everyone likes flowers.
Walk, Talk, Eat, TalkSomeMore by a the Philly based collaborative Basekamp documents walks taken in several cities. In the spirit of the Viennese actionists there was a small notebook where people where invited to write down places that had particular resonance. There was no pen and the book drooped pathically so one questioned how sincere the invitation actually was. On my most recent visit a pen had been helpfully placed to assist people moved to respond. I think this piece was supposed to elicit humor; the writing was consciously stilted and whimsically precise. I like the ephemeral nature of the piece.
There is also a genuine head-scratcher by Martin/Baxi which is a proposal for a book about Gurgaon, a city on the outskirts of New Delhi and New York City, among other things. It was a heavy grid display. The photos looked computer generated and the lighting looked as if there was the impression of speed. A chic computer rendering of what I assume is a building proposal is posed as an answer of sorts, perhaps. That part of the piece seemed to suggest that a glass office tower devoted to interpersonal communication could fix/answer the alienation/interconnectiveness of our global economy.
In the Field is rumination on the homeless situation in Japan. The photos document a community that has sprung up in a highly organized Hoover town in Tokyo. Japan is the Germany of Asia, maker of high quality cars and fiddly cameras. The desire for order is expressed in the neatly cordoned off areas were people live there lives outside. The fact that there is a real housing shortage in the world, even the wealthy developed world, hits home. Again, the piece in Riisian style, has the lightest touch when making the point.
Lasse Lau contributes a piece in which text is used to form the outline of a fighter jet. Apparently this is a protest, of a sort, about a residency that was canceled due to war in Lebanon. This piece was the most aggressive piece in the show in some ways due to the image of weaponry. The spirit of the show is a highly controlled and focused anger and helplessness. I feel the frustrations of being alive in the particular time and of the history we have inherited has been harnessed by these artists and filtered through a highly educated intellect.
You won’t start crying when you see this show at the Common Room exhibition space. If you are anything like me you won’t laugh either. It is hard, however, not to admire the seriousness and thoughtfulness the artists bring to the cultural and social issues they are using in their pieces. The artists were all given a small piece of MDF board to work with, all the same size in the spirit of egalitarianism, and everyone got something going on it. I am glad that Common Room has made this unusual exhibition space and look forward to their future efforts.Wallace Whitney