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Sentimental value: from Gordon Matta-Clark to emotional capitalism

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Two exhibitions at the CCA take a sledgehammer to traditional economic systems, rip apart property markets, and find value in the rubble

Alchemy has preoccupied civilisations obsessed with the promises of limitless wealth and eternal life for millennia. Far more than vainly attempting to generate gold, alchemy celebrates the magic in cooking, fermenting and emulsifying, turning one thing into another, finding value in the valueless. Gordon Matta-Clark’s first alchemical experiments in 1969 involved frying a selection of Polaroids of spangled Christmas trees, before sprinkling them with gold-leaf, creating small rectangles of blistered golden skin.

The artist quickly graduated from Photo Fry’s most literal reading of alchemy, continuing in the next nine short years of his life to master the ‘magic of transformation’ – collecting a significant library on the subject – and to reframe our ideas of value. This personal library forms the lens for the latest edition of the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (CCA) Out the Box series, Material Thinking: Gordon Matta-Clark, which poignantly finds value in his collection of books, supplemented by a selection of letters and sketches (two proceeding exhibitions will display a selection of the artist’s travel snaps and film offcuts). 

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Sentimental value exhibitions cca architectural review 003

Alchemy has preoccupied artists for hundreds of years. Photo Fry was one of Gordon Matta-Clark’s first dabblings, which he subsequently posted to friends as a Christmas greeting. Image © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / Ars, New York, DACS London 2019

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Sentimental value exhibitions cca architectural review 001

For his Ich series, Simon Fujiwara coated in gold and bronze German waste separation units which come in more than 200 configurations and cost up to €200. Image © Roman März, courtesy Simon Fujiwara / Esther Schipper, Berlin

Under his chainsaw, traditional economic structures and markets were ripped open and displayed for the world to see. But it took until 2008, and the catastrophe of its global financial crisis, for us to sit up and take notice. Until this moment, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had been the accepted measure of national progress and standard of living since its popular adoption in the 1940s. But when the markets crumbled around us, GDP faltered, house prices collapsed, people’s life savings turned to dust and attention turned to a new possible way to quantify the progress of civilisation. Like the ancient alchemists, pursuing the transformation of base metals into gold, we began our quest to reassess and challenge our existing value systems, desperately searching for value in the rubble. 

‘Presenting the image of happiness is now as, if not more, important than experiencing the genuine feeling’

Cynically, and perhaps perversely, in the years following the financial crisis we instead found value in happiness. ‘Everything, including sensations and emotions’, CCA director Mirko Zardini explains, ‘can now be quantified, and in turn can be assigned an economic value.’ After 2008, there was an unlikely proliferation of indicators, rankings and indices of ‘well-being’ and happiness, largely replacing GDP as our measure of progress. Eleven years on, it is time to reflect, suggests Francesco Garutti, curator of the CCA’s concurrent current exhibition, Our Happy Life. In our new ‘marketplace of emotions’ our feelings are harvested by a growing sector of private companies for both commercial uses and governmental policies, and a happy life is sold back to us by a lucrative well-being industry. Our most private thoughts are exposed to, and a key protagonist in, the most public of spheres – the global marketplace.

Our Happy Life surgically dissects and pulls apart our new emotional capitalism and displays its dismembered parts across six galleries, in the same way that Matta-Clark dramatically disembowelled traditional financial structures on a monumental scale. In 1975, the artist cut away a large conical chunk of two 17th-century buildings condemned for demolition to make way for the Centre Pompidou in the district of Les Halles in Paris. By slashing open the innards of the houses, the artist evoked Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s 1852 speech in which he declared: ‘Let us open new streets, make the working-class quarters, which lack air and light, more healthy, and let the beneficial sunlight reach everywhere within our walls’. A year after this speech, Haussmann began to clear huge swathes of Paris, replacing slums with boulevards sparkling with shops, cafés and apartments for the middle classes: the original gentrification paradigm.

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Sentimental value exhibitions cca architectural review 004

Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect deconstructed two houses in Paris, exposing their insides to air and light and evoking Haussmann’s social cleansing of the city in the 19th century. Image courtesy of CCA / © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark

Unsurprisingly, the notions of air, light and health are a key part of Our Happy Life’s ‘happiness manifesto’ (‘#24: Live in a big enough house’; ‘#41: Reduce particulate matter in ambient air to 40 micrograms of PM10 per cubic meter’; ‘#32: Participate in sport for at least 30 minutes once per week’). As Garutti points out, the rash of popular ‘house-flipping’ reality TV programmes, which spawned significantly in the wake of the financial crisis, promote the idea that smashing through a few walls and a lick of paint ‘can really “open up” an interior to better support the pursuit of happiness’. There’s a strange resonance with Matta-Clark’s architectural slicing, particularly as, somewhat ironically, the artist worked on traditional construction projects and loft renovations in New York, alongside his artworks. 

Picking up where Matta-Clark’s sledgehammer left off, Our Happy Life exposes property as ‘a market of dreams’: the home is ‘ideally, the place where we act out our own scenario of happiness’. The dawn of emotional capitalism has revolutionised the way space can be sold to consumers, imitating how Instagram influencers and reality TV stars plug beauty products and fashion labels through their social media platforms. A 35-storey apartment block in Brooklyn, New York – 300 Ashland Place – designed by TEN Arquitectos and Ismael Leyva Architects in 2016, sold the idyllic lifestyle it had to offer through the Instagram feed of one of its inhabitants, 23 year-old actress and writer Tavi Gevinson. Quietly identified as a ‘paid partnership’, the series of posts vary from piles of designer shoes and deliberately casual assemblages of candles, books, posters and pot plants to panoramic scenes viewed from her window: all accompanied by the hashtag #apartmentstories. The premeditated marketing campaign of a real estate developer can now assume the form of ‘authentic’ snapshots shared by a young woman on social media – highly constructed and monetised ‘images of happiness’ hiding in plain sight in the endless digital scroll.  

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Sentimental value exhibitions cca architectural review 002

The rhetoric of ‘opening up’ spaces also resonates with the craze for home improvement and ‘house-flipping’ TV shows such as Changing Rooms (shown here) and Love it or List It

The question of authenticity, of the ‘real’ in real estate, was challenged by Matta-Clark in 1973, when he purchased 15 tiny parcels of land – slivers of driveway, alleys between houses or tiny residual patches around New York – bought at auction for between $25 and $75. These Fake Estates were ‘left-over properties from an architect’s drawing’ and decidedly unusable and undevelopable: ‘fake commodities’ in Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois’s words. Documented in a series of photographs and maps, Matta-Clark sought ‘to designate spaces that wouldn’t be seen and certainly not occupied’.

Rather than ‘usability’, Our Happy Life argues that today it is social media and reality TV that drive real estate markets and its images. Architects are the masters of constructing and selling images of a happy life. Bovenbouw and Maria Malgorzata Olschowska’s City Scenes is a series of collaged reliefs commissioned for Our Happy Life, capturing different aspects of the exhibition’s ‘happiness manifesto’. Simultaneously beautiful and unnerving, these images are the pinnacle of current architectural image-making – a rejection of hyper-real CGIs in favour of consciously naïve, handmade-style collages. Look closer and they include all the tropes of a desirable, Instagram-able life: MacBooks, a bottle of wine, a bicycle (unlocked), toys, children playing, dogs being walked.

These constructed images of happiness are a disconcerting mirror to the profession’s complicity in the selling of aspirational lifestyles. The same images architects make are used by developers to sell apartments, and are hungrily consumed by ‘tastemaking’ social media feeds. ‘Architects need a shake’, Garutti insists. 

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Sentimental value exhibitions cca architectural review 005

Historically, we have valued property depending on ‘usability’, which Matta-Clark exposed in Fake Estates – his analysis of unusable and almost valueless plots of land. Image courtesy of CCA / © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark

The eight collages are displayed in a room fitted with an inviting shag-pile carpet and bathed in the golden light of an eternal sunset spilling from an Olafur Eliasson-inspired sun-like light fitting, designed, like the rest of the exhibition, by Bernard Dubois Architects. The room imitates the increasingly Instagram-able installations and exhibitions that are taking the world’s art institutions by storm, apparently more interested in ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ than meaningful and present reflection. Although that won’t stop visitors from taking their own snap for their social media feed – a tension and contradiction that goes unsaid. 

The highly constructed nature of the images we consume is brought into sharp relief by the photographs of the Novartis Campus Park in Basel by Swiss landscape architects Vogt. The architects placed taxidermy animals in the landscape ‘as if it were a stage upon which nature is performed’. By enacting in camera a process routinely taken in digital post-production – a kind of quasi-analogue Photoshop – Vogt draw into question the authenticity of the images that circulate on media platforms, as well as challenging the artificial nature of landscape and our perception of what we think natural spaces should be.

Presenting the image of happiness is now as, if not more, important than experiencing the genuine feeling. A moment of self-reflection will expose many of us as complicit in the propagation of the images of the happiness agenda – the blissful holiday snaps on Facebook, a healthy breakfast on Instagram, wholesome educational self-betterment on Twitter. Who cares if you are happy if it is not broadcast on your personal social media channels? ‘It is as if the actual project of space today – previously a political act for conveying a future, and ideally collective vision – has necessarily become an individual and emotional one’, Garutti speculates, ‘atomized into data points that reveal the feelings of individuals right now, which must be retroactively analysed to extract an image of a shared experience.’

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Sentimental value exhibitions cca architectural review 006

Property markets today are driven by constructed images of happiness, disseminated online. Architects are practised at selling happy, aspirational lifestyles, as Bovenbouw and Maria Malgorzata Olschowska’s City Scenes attest. Image by Bovenbouw Architectuur with Maria Malgorzata Olschowska

Matta-Clark was a prolific image-maker, documenting his life and work in film, photographs and photographic collages: very often the only record of short-lived artworks destined for the wrecking ball. ‘Human beings often create images, begin to worship them and then forget the images were initially invented by them’, the artist Marc Quinn claims. ‘They are left with an abstract image that is impossible to measure up to.’ In 2008, Quinn created the largest solid-gold object since the Ancient Egyptians: a life-size sculpture of Kate Moss in an improbable yoga position and cast in 18-carat gold, which ‘creates an image of all the impossible dreams that lure people to wreck their lives on the rocky shore of reality’. One month after the work was unveiled at the British Museum, Lehman Brothers collapsed. 

As our financial system burns around us, capitalism and insatiable economic growth succumbing to the flaming pyre of what remains of our planetary health, our fingers desperately grasp through the smoke for meaning. We snatch blindly at the maelstrom of images whirling around us, gripping tightly any soothing impression of happiness and well-being. Perhaps today, it would be this new era of image-making and consuming, rather than buildings, that would suffer at Matta-Clark’s chainsaw – images of financialised happiness that we have collectively decided are of the highest value, worth more even than gold itself.

Material thinking: Gordon Matta-Clark selected by Yann Chateigné

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal from 7 June to 8 September

Our Happy Life: architecture and well-being in the age of emotional capitalism

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal from 8 May to 13 October 2019

Lead image: in the sophisticated final throes of late capitalism, property developers can now sell real estate through the lens of inhabitants’ phone cameras and their ‘real life’ social media feeds

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today