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Body unbuilding: on cuts, stitching and anarchitecture

2. pioneers gordon matta clark splitting

If the human form can be depicted as a house, what does it mean to dismantle it?

This piece is based on a longer original text, ‘Unbuilding Gender’ published by Places Journal and supported by the Arcus / Places Prize – click here to read the original

All bodies pass through some version of building and unbuilding. Feminist art is filled with examples of such construction and deconstruction, often taking literal form as the projections of houses onto bodies and vice versa. Femme Maison (1946-47), an early series of paintings, drawings, sculptures and assemblages by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), depicts female bodies lodged within houses. It then inverts the relation between body and building and puts the house into the body, and then situates the female body as literally exceeding the limits imposed by the house or by domestic space in general. Here, the artist who would later create a massive sculpture of a spider titled Maman (1999) envisions multiple fusions of femaleness into built structures. While some of Bourgeois’s spider sculptures form wall-less rooms in their own right, at least one, Spider (Cell) (1997), additionally contains a small room within the legs, as if to cement the link between the home and the maternal body.

All these works map maternity onto the notion of housing, and then call into question the whole signifying system that makes such an association meaningful. The woman/house and spider/house constructions are creepy because they suggest that the female body has become so entangled with ideas of nature, and of domestic architecture as well, that we perhaps cannot imagine femininity otherwise. At the same time, if the Femme Maison works demand anything of the viewer, they seem to beg that we reach into the structures and pull the bodies out, alive or dead. Like conjoined twins, the bodies and buildings are so fused that any attempt to detach one from the other would, we sense, kill both. Perhaps this is the point. We must destroy both the woman in the building and the building in the woman. In so doing we can begin to reimagine the (re) constructed body as it intersects the coordinates of gender, the social constructions of identity, and the familiar contours of the built environment.

Femme building2

Femme Maison Louise Bourgeois Body unbuilding

In Louise Bourgeois’s series Femme Maison (1946-47), the house consumes and deforms the female body. Painted at a time when Bourgeois was raising three sons, the works explore the relationship between women and the home, using architectural imagery to signify both a refuge and a trap. Images © The Easton Foundation / VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

While progressive architectural theory has long since turned away from the imperial project of building worlds, gender theory has also subtly moved away from oppositions between essence and constructedness, and found new lexicons for embodiment. If feminist and queer and trans* debates in the 1980s and 1990s asked whether bodies were born a certain way or made into ‘men’ and ‘women’, in the last few decades the emphasis has shifted in both biopolitical and architectural directions. In an enormous paradigm shift, we have begun to think less about definitive transition and more about a continuous building and unbuilding of the body. We have begun to engage in conversations about the various kinds of cuts and scars that unmake the normatively gendered body and make up a transgender body. What was previously theorised as a becoming, a stubborn pursuit of a seemingly impossible goal, now appears as a project of dismantling and remaking, a sculpting of flesh and molecular form – using the tools of surgery and hormones, for sure, but also deploying the concept of transgender as a kind of wrecking ball that can knock and batter at the fortress of binary gender.

A case in point is the work of Paul B Preciado, whose book Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics considers the spatial dynamics of sex and power. This is an imaginative reading of sex and gender through the topography of Hugh Hefner’s pleasure palace the Playboy Mansion, in which he considers the distance travelled from Virginia Woolf’s feminist call in the early decades of the century for ‘a room of one’s own’ to Hefner’s call at the century’s end for a bachelor pad of one’s own. Preciado proposes that, just as women fled domestic space under the influence of second-wave feminism in the postwar years (think Betty Friedan’s farewell to suburban life), men were moving back in, to create pornotopic spaces not only beyond but within domestic spheres. The implication is that patriarchy must not simply be challenged. It must be unbuilt.

‘It is time to tear the bouncy house down, and to turn to the language of unmaking, unbuilding, undoing, refusing capital’s vertiginous techniques of litigious accusation and criminalisation’

In making this point, Preciado echoes a maxim from Audre Lorde, who in 1979 famously cautioned that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. For both Lorde and Preciado, race, sex, gender and, by extension, class are represented in metaphors of built space. According to both theorists, change will only come through demolition. It follows that if patriarchal systems of domination are understood as architectural, then queer/trans*/feminist activist responses can be received as anarchitectural. 

Over the past few decades, then, conceptions of gender have changed irrevocably, from binary to multiple; from a centring of physical embodiment to the spatialising of identities; from definitive to fractal. And as new genders have been formed, old genders have also been destroyed. Gender ideologies that once facilitated intuitive connections – between the home and the maternal body, or the skyscraper or the gun and the male body, or the city or the ship and femaleness, and so on — are now thoroughly disarranged. The current tendency to describe queerness as a verb more than a noun is relevant here; you can queer something, but you cannot fashion an identity around queerness, which in current usage signals an anti-identiarian sense of personhood. This rhymes nicely with Richard Buckminster Fuller’s utopian pronouncement about being a verb: ‘I seem to be a verb, / an evolutionary process – / an integral function of the universe’.

Queer theorists have long used architectural language to examine how heterosexist hegemony prevails, and how it must be confronted. In an essay on ‘Queer Phenomenology’, Sara Ahmed explains how heterosexuality literally grounds itself as normative: ‘Heterosexuality in a way becomes a field, a space that gives ground to, or even grounds, heterosexual action through the renunciation of what it is not, and also by the production of what it is.’ 

Heterosexuality, Ahmed claims, governs both how objects are placed in space, and how objects are cleared from space. She discusses, as examples, not only the family home and the arrangement of bodies within it, but also the family as an absence of other kinds of bodies. This absence is as important as what is present. The heteronormative cultural field is shaped to encompass the home as if it lacks nothing. But anarchitectural performances insist on attention to what is not there, what has been removed, what is lacking – what has been destroyed, erased, or blacked out in order for what remains present to look permanent. Anarchitectural endeavours seek not to orientate the subject properly to the object, nor to locate either in space and time. Rather anarchitecture chases disorientation, cultivates vertigo, and tilts the opposition between building and ruin on its axis, such that the body itself is no longer available to simple binary inscriptions. Instead, like the destroyed building, the body becomes a leaky vessel, a shattered surface, a mess of entrails, a discontinuous circuit for fluids and electricity, ideas and desires. As Christina Crosby proposes in A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain, her devastating memoir about becoming a quadriplegic, the body becomes ‘undone’.

‘The act of splitting grammatically and structurally removes the building from its place in an architectural language centred on the home – that ideological site that purports to hold family, neighbourhood, market, and nation securely in place’

If the discipline of Modernist architecture, as imagined by Ayn Rand and others, exemplified a monumental will to power in general, and a masculinist desire for imperial power in particular, then the counter-architectural project that came to be known as ‘anarchitecture’ attempted to expose such projects and replace them with activist gestures. In the 1970s in New York City, the artists’ group that called itself Anarchitecture sought to unmake the schemas within which such connections between power and architecture resonate as right and true. The Soho-based group eschewed notions of genius, and basked in anarchist principles of improvisation and collaboration. Nonetheless, anarchitecture as a counter-proposal to mainstream architecture was, and remains, ‘largely Matta-Clark’s brainchild’. The cuts that make up the gestural repertoire of Matta-Clark’s projects – I am thinking particularly of Splitting (1974), Day’s End, and Conical Intersect (both 1975) – rehearse not only an undoing of architectural theory and a refusal of certain political paradigms for the urban environment. They also, perhaps unwittingly, posit the unmaking of certain binary logics of the body.

Matta-Clark’s work is often described in terms of anatomical dissection, using the language of a surgical ‘operation’. This is not at all to say that Matta-Clark’s cuts into built structures mimic the cuts of sex reassignment surgery – only that these cuts, to the extent that they trouble the conventional gendering of the artist as male and the building as female, run parallel to later queer and trans* critiques.  Athina Angelopoulou (in a special issue of Footprint focused on ‘Trans-Bodies/Queering Spaces’) looks to architecture in a discussion of gender transitioning to explore the spatial dimensions of bodily transformation, medical or otherwise. Angelopoulou proposes that we think about architecture and surgery together, in order to locate the very specific remaking of space that the trans* body represents. The cutting and stitching that the trans* body undergoes creates a corporeal surface marked by the encounter with technologies of fabrication. This is a body that has been made and unmade, undone, frayed, opened up and then closed – imperfectly, and in ways that challenge many more binaries beyond male versus female. 

In Splitting (1974), Matta-Clark did not simply destroy a house; he bisected it and laid it open. The house at 322 Humphrey Street in Englewood, New Jersey, sat on a lot recently purchased by Matta-Clark’s art dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, and was slated for demolition anyway. Like many homes in the area, the empty house, whose tenants had been evicted, represented the failure of a postwar economic dream of space, safety, and consolidation; 322 Humphrey Street registered the decline of the suburbs from utopian enclaves to domestic prisons. Matta-Clark excised a slice from the centre of the house while rocking the structure back on its foundation, and removed the four corners of the eaves; he filmed the whole process. His approach to this anatomical operation was methodical and deliberate. He had to open the house up – but, like a body under the surgeon’s knife, it had to be able to survive the incision.

Cassils 13

Cassils 13

A huge block of clay was pounded before a live audience in a darkened room by the performance artist Cassils. Illumiated only by the intermittent flash of a photographer’s camera, it formed the work Becoming an Image, Performance Still No 6 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, HIstoric Casting Hall), 2016

In a great essay about the feat of engineering that Matta-Clark performed in splitting the house, Éric Alliez remarks that the dismantling was at once a separation and an archaeological dig, in which sections of the house were excised to permanently expose what was left behind. The house had to be cut, supported, and tilted so that the forces holding it upright (Le Corbusier’s conjuring of gravity, statistics, and dynamics comes to mind) could also be deployed to allow the building to fall open. In so doing, Matta-Clark violated a core principle of housing as such – that is, that shelter erects boundaries between internal and external. This operation resembles some of the surgical manoeuvres of sex-reassignment surgery – opening the body up, rearranging the relations between internal and external, and/or removing some piece of the genital architecture in order to punctuate the change. 

The final move made by Matta-Clark and described by Alliez was to remove the first layer of the foundations of the house so that it tilts back at an angle. ‘This tour de force, the outcome of which remained uncertain right up until the last moment, dissociated the architectural box from itself – a synonym for a total, disorienting, and defunctionalized disarticulation of space,’ Alliez writes. ‘The operation used the static structure of the house itself to wrench it from the gravitational inertia that ensured its firm seating, and then to keep it in a state of tension that spread to the whole interior, affecting, disquieting, the very possibility of inhabiting it.’

What Alliez refers to as a tour de force is not the reciprocating-saw-cut through the centre of 322 Humphrey Street, but the tilting back of the house at an angle that opens it and renders it uninhabitable at the same time. It is this move that we might understand as anarchitectural; not the cut per se, but the insertion of what Matta-Clark referred to as an ‘abyss’ into the built form, and hence the destruction of the house’s very purpose. The house was not just a ruin after he split it. Rather, the act of splitting (like the splitting of a verb, say) grammatically and structurally removed the building from its place in an architectural language centred on the home – that ideological site that purports to hold family, neighbourhood, market, and nation securely in place.

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Photo: Cassils with Zachary Hartzell. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

 Anarchitectural voids, demolitions, and abyssal experiments: all find their way into the language of destruction deployed by contemporary trans* artists. To provide an example from 2013: in the ferocious performance piece Becoming an Image, the artist Cassils pounded a huge block of clay before a live audience in a darkened room. The piece was commissioned for an event at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, a repository of LGBTQ+ materials, and Cassils was seeking to draw attention to all that is missing from even gay archives of art and political movements. Becoming an Image comments on the disappearance of bodies and lives, and the unmaking of some worlds via the process of documenting others. The performance was experienced in the dark, with only the sound of Cassils’ monumental exertions filling the air; only the flash of an on-site photographer allowed the audience to see, intermittently, how the performance destroyed the block of clay and the block of clay destroyed Cassils. In the process of becoming an image, both the subject and the object were un/becoming, deforming, demolished and demolishing. What remained were two bodies, present but destroyed.

Becoming an Image, like Matta-Clark’s performances, persists only as a photographic record. These photographs, like those of Splitting, are stunning, but they remain at a distance from the performances themselves; neither witness nor accomplice, the camera cannot totally document what is wild about these live activities. The precarious relation of Cassils’ body to breakdown, on the one hand, and the proximity of Matta-Clark’s building to collapse, on the other, cannot be captured by a still photograph – which records moments of unravelling, but cannot fully reveal it, since the image itself stills the process of collapse. And so, in the wake of their own disappearance, these performances remind us of the abyssal quality of time itself.

Trans* anarchitectural performers are among the most innovative heirs to the project begun by Gordon Matta-Clark and his collaborators in the 1970s, in a New York City where buildings fell or burned down, industries failed, economies collapsed, and artists and activists found a way to push different worlds through the cracks of the crumbling city. These other worlds were not crafted out of a utopian fullness. They emerged from gaps as gaps; worlds conceived as splits, voids, emptyings-out of space and time. Our world, too, needs these cuts and holes, portals to razed spaces and unbuilt futures. 

As real-estate capitalism turns the unoccupied luxury building into the symbol of economic domination, the act of splitting that Matta-Clark performed nearly half a century ago on an abandoned house appears as the first cut into the postwar myth of property. Not a route to middle-class prosperity or a refuge from the storm of poverty, the house as such has proven to be a (tax) shelter for the rich, essential to new modes of exploitation. 

Property is indeed theft on a very grand scale, and it is no wonder that we cannot quite see the contours of our current, rapidly changing political landscape. We are living in an ideological bouncy house, where a few large white Americans jump for joy and at each bounce we lose more people down the edges of the whole grotesque, imploding structure. It is time to tear the bouncy house down, with or without the master’s tools, and to turn to the language of unmaking, unbuilding, undoing, refusing capital’s vertiginous techniques of litigious accusation and criminalisation.

*I use ‘trans*’ rather than ‘trans’ in order to emphasise the bagginess of the category of transgender, and to refuse the conventional work of easy classification that such terminology usually performs.

Lead image: with Splitting (1974), Matta-Clark took a New Jersey house that had been slated for demolition and bisected it like a surgeon, filming the entire process.

 This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today