by Meredith Tromble
Architecture of Life is floppy. Not a flop — it is a wonderful show — but floppy as in playful and sprawling, at home in the new Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive (BAMPFA). BAMPFA’s director and curator, Larry Rinder, gives us a forward-looking exhibition, introducing a new era for the Bay Area’s art audience. To widen that audience, the new building’s design is street-smart, with big windows giving free previews of the exhibitions and an exterior, mural-size LED screen showing media art to passers-by. In its integration of still and moving images the museum acknowledges a fundamental reality of contemporary art: artists are no longer bound to one medium; they now work with a spectrum of image-making techniques. Digital tools are remixing the traditional disciplines of art; the hybrid museum, which conjoins an existing boxy modern building with a postmodern, faceted structure, embodies those changes. It is a fluid building for a fluid time.
I have memories of BAMPFA’s old home, a hulking concrete stack of a building designed by Mario Ciampi, dating back to student days when I puzzled over color theory with the help of the Hans Hoffman paintings in the
uppermost gallery. But as I call up those memories, they all seem to be in the dark. That was a quality of the building, an embodiment of 1970s Brutalism that could soak up any number of photons without brightening. In contrast, the new building welcomes light. Even the basement galleries shine. It will serve art well, and along with designers, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it’s getting the attention it richly deserves.
To headline The Architecture of Life, Rinder chose an internationally known Chinese artist, Qiu Zhijie. His monumental mural, The World Garden (2016), appears just inside the entry in a space the museum dubs “The Wall,” which will feature a changing program of murals and also backdrop a performance area. Zhijie, who teaches “Total Art” and whose paintings can be integrated with sculptures that are also performance props, was an apt selection. His mural, which is part map, part traditional Chinese landscape painting, depicts an imaginary territory with poetically named locales such as “The Lake of Symbolism” and “Access to Secrets by Detours.” It recalls the Garden of Forking Paths, the famous story by Jorge Luis Borges in which he describes a “dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” Like the story, Zhijie’s mural depicts a landscape of interconnected possibilities so vast that one can only wander through them, not decipher them.
From this grand viewpoint, the show plummets back to human scale with The Trees of Pakistan by David Chalmers Alesworth. Look past the encyclopedic title and you see a series of small watercolors depicting something humble: trees that have been imaginatively adapted as structures for daily life. One of them has become an outdoor barbershop with a chair at its base, and curtains hanging from its limbs. Another cradles a painted wood box that serves as a sniper’s nest at a checkpoint. In the rhythm of the exhibition, the staccato transition from the cosmic scale of Zhijies’ mural to the street scale of Alesworth’s trees establishes Rinder’s vision. His subject is not the discipline of architecture; it’s the relationship between structure and imagination.
To communicate it, Rinder calls on artists as diverse as George Copeland Ault, a modernist painter whose August Night at Russell’s Corners (1948) makes loneliness tangible; Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the “father of neuroscience,” represented by the drawings from which he learned to see neural structures; and Tomás Saraceno, an architect/artist who offers webs woven by spiders under unusual conditions that he established. Ruth Asawa’s woven wire sculptures, which emerged from the generative artistic atmosphere at Black Mountain College in the 1950s, are complemented by 16th century lace made by a “craftsman” for a customer; and Kimsooja’s film Thread Routes — Chapter II (2011), a six-part film that establishes poetic links between textile production, architecture, nature, agriculture and gender relations.
The familiar categories of art history are not much help in parsing The Architecture of Life, which brings 262 objects as diverse as the handful named above into a conversation that bounds through different times and cultures. Qiu Zhijie has been quoted as saying “…my ideal media is the relation of all objects,” an ideal that
Rinder approaches curatorially. That approach, to “relate all objects,” may disappoint viewers who enter the museum hoping to find new facts to plug into their existing taxonomy of art. But there is another perspective from which to view the exhibition that is incredibly exciting. That viewpoint is “complexism,”so named by the artist and theorist of electronic art, Philip Galanter. In his 2008 complexist manifesto Galanter attempts to “reconcile the sciences and the humanities through a higher synthesis of the modern and the postmodern.”
Rinder does exactly that when he arranges, in close proximity, sketches of radiolaria by the 19th century biologist Ernst Haeckel and the snowflake portraits of contemporary artist Yuji Obata. Presented in this manner, the objects in this show demonstrate the viability of simultaneously appreciating form, engaging in scientific inquiry, discovering facts and pursuing artistic questions. To take another example: if we compare biologist Nipam Patel’s contemporary confocal microscope images of radiolarians with Haeckel’s
drawings, we see material evidence that objective truth is fictive — an insight of postmodernism. Patel’s crisply focused images are not truer than Haeckel’s drawings; they reveal different things. A complexist analysis resolves this contradiction by describing truth as a moving target, a network of propositions that is always in flux.
Thinking along these lines, there is much pleasure to be had in finding networks that connect the objects — noticing similar rhythms of density and openness in 17th century Point Plat de Venise lace and in Ferdinand Leger’s drawing Study for Nude Model in the Studio I (1912), for example. Or comparing the mapping of space in Noriko Ambe’s sculpture A Piece of Flat Globe Vol. 12 (2010), Buckminster Fuller’s drawing 4D Tower: Time Interval I Meter (1928), and Micronesian navigational charts made of sticks. We have a more familiar
word than “complexist” to describe these associative networks: poetic. Poetry attends simultaneously to physical forms and multiple meanings. In his catalog essay Rinder describes the exhibition as “a poetic excursion rather than an argument or comprehensive history.” As an epigraph, he uses a poem by Sabrina Del Valle that includes the lines:
"Essence of awareness comes down to
this: we yearn for presence, yet we
pursue sequence. It is not in the order,
nor in the things for which we long.
It is in the still sense of how things
Architecture of Life shows that art doesn’t need protection from other forms of image making; it holds its own in active relationship with all the forms and histories of culture around us.
“Architecture of Life” @ Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through May 29, 2016.
About the author:
Meredith Tromble is an intermedia artist and writer based in Oakland. She is the co-editor, with Charissa Terranova, of Routledge Companion to Biology in Art & Architecture, forthcoming from Routledge in August, 2016.