Profiles: Mary Ellen Carroll and Richard Wilson 10.08.11

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The house had just been lifted off the ground when something went wrong. "It was a little bit like watching the 
World Trade Center in New York," says artist Mary Ellen Carroll. "There was a huge crack, and the back end of the foundations concaved."

The house, a modest, single-storey home in Sharpstown, part of Houston's post-Second World War inner ring of suburbs, was being lifted in a single piece onto a flatbed truck. For Carroll, ten years of work was suspended in the air. Her plan was to lift the house, foundations and all, rotate it 180 degrees, and put it at the other end of its long, narrow suburban lot, thus "rotating" the whole site. If the house had been built to code, it should have been able to take the strain of this unexpected ejection from graceful retirement. But the developers who built these homes for returning veterans cut a lot of corners, often stripping steel out of the slab-on-grade foundations after the inspectors had approved them. Save for X-raying the slab, there was no way of telling if it would hold up, and in the end it didn't. A rear corner of the house fell apart.

"It makes for a thicker chapter in the book," says Carroll, philosophically. We spoke shortly after the Sharpstown house had been lowered onto its brand new foundations, completing the most important phase of the New York artist's Prototype 180, a conceptual work of art that aims to "make architecture perform" by treating this suburban lot like a jigsaw puzzle piece. Naturally Carroll wanted the house to survive the journey intact, but she doesn't see the failure of the slab as a failure for the project. "In a sense there was nothing that could happen that would be 'wrong'," says Carroll. "Really it was a process where ... even having that happen would detail the history of the area." The partial disintegration of the house was all part of the performance.

This interest in making a building perform places Carroll in a tradition of artists who have taken architecture as their raw material. In the 1960s and 70s, American artist Gordon Matta-Clark sliced condemned houses in two or cut spherical voids into them. British artist Rachel Whiteread made a name with her concrete casts of houses and rooms in the 1990s. And the most exciting feature of Liverpool's 2008 capital of culture celebrations was Richard Wilson's Turning the Place Over, in which a circular section of the facade of an office block was made to spin and twist in place.

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credit Kenneth Trice

For Wilson, this kind of work is also a sort of performance – an exercise in what he calls "structural daring". Other projects of his have involved carving ships into segments and cutting up the concrete surface of a mini-golf course to make a series of huts. "I want to try and make all ideas as simply as possible," he says. "I don't want them to be difficult to access. So structural daring is, for me, a very, very clever and simple way of capturing the audience, and once you've captured their attention, then they start to unfathom and unravel other very particular, more complex ideas within the piece." And the monumental scale is simply a result of the desire to work with architectural space, rather than an end in itself. "I play around with what's given to me and that's generally gallery spaces or buildings," Wilson says. "It's not that I wanted to work large, [but] if you're playing with architecture you have to take on the scale or size of architecture."

For Carroll, the desire to influence the cityscape on this dramatic scale grew out of an interest in the monumental land art of Robert Smithson, Donald Judd and others. After Frank Gehry's sculptural Guggenheim Bilbao led an invasion by architects into the field of monumental public art, Carroll started to imagine politics and public policy as a new "landscape" for artistic intervention, with architecture as its readymade physical expression.

"Architecture is inherently political," she says. "The moment that anything is put into the public realm and is visible, you immediately have an audience engaging with that ... whether you desire for that to happen or not." The real interest, she says, is "complex systems". As well as being a work of art Prototype 180 has political purpose; it's an architectural act of renewal. The rotated house will be added to Bayland Park, which it abuts, and become carbon neutral, hopefully drawing attention to the positive features of a neglected neighbourhood. "The consideration was how to make something that would continue to be a dynamic process but where people would also be able to engage in some way, so one of the things is that the building is actually the protagonist in the entire narrative."

This kind of architectural intervention has a symbiotic relationship with photography. The buildings that Matta-Clark cut up were promptly demolished – the work only lives on as a carefully commissioned collection of mesmerising photographs. Similarly, Whiteread's House, the cast of a terraced house which won her the Turner prize in 1993, was demolished the following year and survives in photos. Prototype 180's grand moment of performance, when it was lifted off its site, rotated, and moved to the other end of its lot, was recorded in a photographic edition. "It's like what Gordon Matta-Clark said about the 'snapshot view of the world'," says Wilson. 
"I mean, one is constantly being bombarded with images, so one's got to have an image that stands out among the others. Structural daring will do that for me."

Is there also a desire to surprise by disrupting the solid, generally dependable, physical world around us? There's a trangressive quality to the work – Matta-Clark's work provoked anger from some architects, with one stating that it was tantamount to rape. Wilson, of course, takes a much more moderate view. "We don't think that architecture moves," he says, "but in fact our cityscape is being transformed every day – buildings come down and new buildings go up ... and every building is vibrating; when a train goes over my railway arch the whole room vibrates." And while this brand of architectural art can seem pretty rough, Carroll asks: "Is it any rougher than neglect?"

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credit Alexandra Wolkowicz

 

Image

Kenneth Trice

 

Words

William Wiles

quotes story

Structural daring is a very simple way of capturing an audience

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