The public forum Modernism, Art & Architecture was held at MUMA on Wednesday 23 May 2012. Speakers Ann Stephen, Callum Morton and Karen Burns discussed aspects of the exhibition Narelle Jubelin: Vision in Motion.
We are pleased to publish the following notes from the presentation given by Dr Karen Burns, architectural historian, theorist and critic.
Narelle Jubelin: Vedute
Dr Karen Burns
Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, the University of Melbourne
I can’t do ample justice to the full range of Narelle Jubelin’s body of work in this brief talk so I’m going to discuss one topic: how her work addresses architecture through the relationship between architecture and image. That might sound like a given but it’s not. There are many ways in which contemporary visual artists can explore architecture: through models, through installations in spaces, through performances and Jubelin has by and large worked with the image, although there’s a shift in the last few years into site specific interventions. If I have time I’ll discuss those within this image economy.
Jubelin’s work invokes a particular genre of representing architecture: the view (vedute). This genre is old and circulated across high culture painting, elite leisure practices, the elite souvenir industry and today in many media from images, to postage stamps to tea towels to contemporary tourist artefacts (such as this one from the private collection of Karen Burns). It’s a very established genre for seeing architecture and it alerts us to how architecture circulates as an image. I don’t mean that somehow architecture is insubstantial or a mere commodity, but the “view” produces a particular, culturally codified way of seeing and relating to buildings.
Working with the genre of the view we can see continuities across Jubelin’s early and later practice. Even in the earliest works the small asymmetrically placed monument nevertheless constructs the image – illuminating and observing space – and in a kind of Greenburgian hurrah, the path of light re-enforces the horizontal picture frame. In the view genre buildings fill the middle ground, they are often centred in the image plane and we face the front elevation of a building. They easily organise conventional perspective. And for many reasons (stillness being one) building views were a dominant subject of the first photographs. The view is a social ordering device that establishes the viewer’s place through this perspectival familiarity.
Jubelin’s preference is for small-scale modernist buildings or buildings reduced to a small scale. The building produced as a view survives the dramatic reduction in scale to petit point. The way the building is depicted it is still highly recognisable and legible. I think this is important. Whilst many commentaries have discussed the potential political meaning of the work I would observe that architectural modernism probably also has other attractions for contemporary artists. It’s purely speculative on my part but it looks like part of the attraction is for forbidden aesthetics: abstraction and beauty for example. Such dirty words! Jubelin’s views (even the view of the mirror) emphasise the compositional relationships, the careful formal ordering of elements that was such a part of modernism.
There is of course also a convergence between the two media of architecture and petit point. The stitches are set on a matrix which is geometrically organised. Classical and modernist buildings are formed from geometric modules. The matrix allows certain compositional forms to be reiterated – particularly the play of horizontal and vertical framing elements that dominate modernist composition. The stitch suppresses the particular materiality of buildings – of stone, brick and concrete – to highlight image capacities. The materiality most emulated is glass and its reflective capacity. Reflection has long been a sign of modernity in the image economy and it’s also a meta commentary on the work of making images.
Jubelin’s works tell us something of the relations between architecture and petit point as the relationship is mediated by images, particularly photography. I think photography is the other element at play here. And my comments in the next part are heavily indebted to a wonderful essay written by a friend, Rosemary Hawker’s article “Idiom Post medium Richter Painting Photography” published in The Oxford Art Journal (32/2) in 2009.
Rose’s essay is a sophisticated exploration of medium, questions of medium hybridity and medium specificity in the post modern era, using Gerhard Richter’s work as an exemplary instance.
After reading the essay I would argue that Jubelin doesn’t just make architecture the content of her work, she doesn’t just show it or paraphrase architecture but she cites and more particularly she cites the photographic image of buildings. Perhaps the petit point simulation of reflection is a reality effect we associate with photography. The glare and reflective capacities of glass are much more exaggerated in photography than they are in everyday viewing. In the everyday dust grime and changing light conditions mitigate reflection. Glare and reflection impede the view or rather impede our clear view of the building. This produces a profound paradox around modernist architecture’s interest in transparency. It is difficult to just look through the window into the interior. Jubelin chooses to reinscribe this paradox. What appears easily legible – a room space is veiled at its edges by curtains. In interiors she writes on the glass, transforming glass from light source and view to something more like a screen a highly mediated device for looking at not looking through.
Reflection signals architectural modernism’s instability – its potential to sometimes elude strictures of meaning. Architecture as the view seems like such a legible object – comprehended at miniature scale but Jubelin’s works are also about not seeing clearly, about not understanding, an effect sometimes amplified by the petit point stitching. Modernist architecture was capable of mysticism – Taut’s glass architecture cited by Jubelin just as modernism was used to demonstrate a technocratic rationality. The works show us tension between the promise of the view –the centred, legible object – and the blockages to total vision. Moreover the mysterious, the irrational, the inexplicable are part of her vision of modernist places; exploding bombs, the hand repeatedly drawing the curtain, bodies falling down in front of modernist icons, colour theory charts that become curtains or screens, writing that’s decorative rather than communicative. These devices restore puzzles and mysteries to places and place making. They shatter simple claims about architectural modernism’s effects.
Note: These are the presenter’s notes only and not the full talk presented by Dr Burns at the Modernism, Art & Architecture Forum on 23 May 2012. MUMA acknowledges Karen Burns’ generosity in making them available for the MUMA Blog.