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Et in arcadia ego

Ayla Lepine reviews the exhibition White Cube Green Maze: New Art Landscapes taking place at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery

Each day for weeks, TJ Clark spent hours in the company of Poussin’s c1648 painting, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, which was on loan from London’s National Gallery. He honed in on its psychological and material details with a microscopic, introspective rigour; he wrote poetry delving deeper into his experience of looking hard at an old master painting in such a manner that simultaneously made sense of and complicated his existence as an art historian and as a man with mortality on his mind.

The resulting book in 2006, The Sight of Death, was never meant to be. Clark came to the Getty in LA to look at Picasso, to confront modernity, to wrestle with that impossible and seductive modern master. Instead, he unexpectedly neglected his beloved Picasso for a time and formed a serious Poussin habit. It reframed his way of writing as a manifestation of a mental landscape, punctuated by emotional and personal inner pavilions.

In the exhibition White Cube, Green Maze, Frank Gehry’s Getty Museum in LA is singled out as the epitome of the white cube and its legacy for world-class and minor art museums alike. These structures, which rose up in the midst of Modernism, became so pervasive as models for art display that they began to stand for museology itself rather than a contemporary turn in museological practice.

Hotly − and rightly − critiqued by Brian O’Doherty in Inside the White Cube almost 40 years ago, the never-neutral arrangement of apparently empty voids in which art works might be liberated to speak for themselves without historicist architectural intervention swiftly dominated how art looked and how it should be housed. The white cube determined the terms through which spectacle and contemplation could be produced.

Perhaps the most interesting trend within what we might call white cube culture was its hybridisation with architecture that had once served other purposes. A classic and not uncontroversial case is the modifications by Herzog and de Meuron to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station to create Tate Modern. The ‘cathedral of power’ opposite St Paul’s was partially transformed into a cavernous post-industrial set of spaces for pilgrims seeking encounter with post-1900 artistic divines.

We are still in the age of the white cube, though we are also in the midst of a growing and compelling array of reflective and exciting alternatives. White Cube, Green Maze explores six collaborative projects constructed within re-purposed, wild and remote places, ranging across Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Germany and America.

In each case, landscapes have been carefully crafted to allow visitors, architects and artists opportunities to explore and create freely through spatial experiences that question the permeability of inside and outside. The exhibition therefore asks the viewer to perceive Paul Rudolph’s assertive multi-layered concrete gallery at the core of Yale’s School of Architecture as a set of global pavilions. It implies the ‘green maze’, placing architecture and works of art within a landscape that allows for interior and exterior, nature and culture, construction and destruction, to coexist in collaborative dialogue.

Visitors begin in a small open-topped cube space. Instead of the walls of this museum within a museum declaring a white, sparse, pseudo-neutrality, they are saturated with lush forest imagery. This introduces two elements present throughout the exhibition: productive tension between the land and architectural intervention in wild places, and the photographic practice of Iwan Baan.

The curatorial challenge of how to create a stable yet flexible aesthetic across several very different projects was met through inviting Baan to photograph each of the sites. His educated eye introduces exhibition audiences to the verdant playfulness, rawness, serenity and ambiguity of post-industrial islands in Japan, botanical gardens in Latin America, and a park intended to heal and unite a scarred urban landscape in Seattle.

Superb models, illuminating plans and sketches, and an arresting video of one of the project sculptures being produced by dropping monumental rusted beams from a crane into a vast lake of wet concrete, aim to bring us closer to these diverse lands, enticing us to come and see them for ourselves.

A distinct feeling of irritation at being in New Haven, Connecticut rather than Raketenstation Insel Hombroich in Germany or the remote island of Naoshima in Japan is a common sensation among visitors. This frustration is allayed in part by a generously illustrated and sensitively designed catalogue that expands on the debates housed within the exhibition’s pavilion spaces, featuring sophisticated essays from Marc Treib, Raymund Ryan and Brian O’Doherty on the emergence of landscape-art-architecture’s immersive experiences and the multiplicity of perspectives they offer. 

More than exhibition accompaniment, the book is a critical commentary on the current rise of these projects worldwide, noting international parallels such as re-purposing industrial structures, engaging artists and architects in new interactions, and making space for engaging the public in fresh conversation regarding environmental art and social change.

A notable paradox in White Cube, Green Maze, both in print and in the gallery, is that many architects including established masters such as Tadao Ando and Álvaro Siza, as well as emerging practitioners including Tatiana Bilbao and Johnston Marklee, are consciously referring back to the paradigm of the white cube within these jungle, brownfield and grassland sites.

In doing so, are they really doing something new, or is the very old idea of the pavilion merely merging with the very established modern trope of the white cube as a kind of artistic reflexivity? Is a classic modern art strategy being interrogated, or is it simply being repeated in a mutated form in new landscapes?

By way of an open-ended answer that allows for permeability between past and present, and nature and culture, it is useful to return to Poussin, perhaps. Et in arcadia ego. Among the promotion of organic growth and reclamation and artistic pilgrimage to sites that once were damaged, neglected or stripped of their natural beauty, the artistic and architectural practices that allow for the inevitability of deconstruction and decay are perhaps the most exciting. They situate visitors in composed landscapes to remind us that the site of new life is often the sight of death, and the spirit of the white cube is never far away.

White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes, Yale School of Architecture Gallery, New Haven, CT, USA, until 4 May 2013

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