From 1987 to 1989, the Polish artist-designer Krzysztof Wodiczko worked on the streets of New York City, interviewing and observing homeless men. His aim was to create a vehicle that they could move about like a shopping cart, to scavenge cans and other goods they could sell for cash, but that they also use as a place to sleep and wash.
A video he made of some of the interviews is part of "Real Estate: Dwelling in Contemporary Art," an exhibition on view through March 18 at the Berman Museum at Ursinus College.
The men speaking to him had detailed and thoughtful suggestions about how such a cart should be designed. They had opinions on the most efficient way to store aluminum cans — and about how to discourage people from tipping the cart while they were sleeping in it. These men, who were otherwise outside the system, were willing and able to take on the role of informed consumers.
Wodiczko made several drawings and prototypes for the cart, which had looked a bit like a cross between a barbecue grill and a primitive rocket. The point of the project was not to create a fleet of vehicles for the homeless, but rather to raise some troubling questions.
The construction of such a cart suggests there will always be people living on the street. The cart embodies both optimism that we can engineer individualist approaches to social problems and pessimism that they will ever be solved. Do we deal with homelessness as a lifestyle choice? Or, perhaps more likely, not deal with it at all?
I am dwelling on this work because it is just about the only one in the show that deals with power, money, and territory — i.e., real estate. That would seem to be a timely topic, if only because we suffered through a real estate-driven economic crash for much of the last decade and now have a property developer in the White House. Instead, the show, curated by Berman director Charles Stainback, is a gathering of works from the last 50 years that address architecture, construction, domesticity, and the manmade environment in general.
It's a peculiar exhibition, because although the arguments made in its wall labels and handsome little catalog don't make much sense, the quality of work on display is quite high. The show is intellectually incoherent, but, aesthetically, it hangs together very well.
I was particularly pleased to see Gordon Matta-Clark's video Splitting (1974), which documents a project that has had tremendous influence in both art and architecture but which I had never seen before. Matta-Clark took a very boxy, cheaply built balloon frame house in Englewood, N.J., jacked it up from its foundation, and cut through the entire structure with a chain saw. He then lowered part of it, creating a wedge-shaped opening between the two parts of the house.
The split made this banal building into something uncanny. The video shows views inside up through the center and out to the sky. Later, other architects, notably Frank Gehry, were able to achieve similar effects in buildings that were meant to endure. Matta-Clark's was a fascinating ruin.
What struck me most, though, was the 11-minute video itself. It is silent, in black and white, with title cards, as though it had been made in the 1920s, not the 1970s. As the artist wields his saw, cutting through the building from top to bottom, I couldn't help being reminded of the ambitiously ridiculous projects Buster Keaton used to carry out in his classic silent comedies. Like Keaton, Matta-Clark is single-minded and almost aggressively inexpressive. It is an image of the American — alone, determined, quietly confident and pursuing an obsession that others think absurd.
Just about all the artists in the show project this attitude of cool neutrality. Ed Ruscha's accordion-folded book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is the show's earliest work and seemingly its inspiration. It documents what everyone remembers as a visually raucous place as a very long line of unimpressive structures. Keaton's deadpan expression is funny because he appears to be oblivious to his situation. Ruscha's deadpan view of the Sunset Strip is memorable because he does not do what everyone else does there — look at the signs. He takes one of the world's capitals of hype and shows what's underneath.
Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym's series of dark-colored metal architectural miniatures, Buildings of Disaster (1998-2008), appears cute and collectible, though the title and the twin towers of the World Trade Center let you know their purpose. The 17 others on display, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the Unabomber Cabin, and Three-Mile Island demonstrate that there is no connection between historical importance and monumentality.
Michael Mergen's series of photographs 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (2008) consists of curbside views of 15 places that share the street address of the White House. Most are dull and ordinary. One shows just a bush, probably a pun. There is one treasure, though, a little house in Lorain, Ohio, from the immediate postwar era, with an enormous dormer at the center. It could be a monument to the Greatest Generation.
The neutrality of the photography in the series Global Village (2003/2005) by Max Becher and Andrea Robbins helps the viewer recognize what is strange about these images of squalor. After a moment, you realize the shacks, made from shipping pallets, cardboard, and other found materials, are just a bit too picturesque, clean, and unpeopled. That's because these are views of art-directed poverty at Habitat for Humanity's simulated slum tourist attraction in Americus, Ga. (The catalog notes that quite a lot of real poor people live nearby.)
Just because an image is neutral doesn't mean it's true. The Belgian artist Filip Dujardin uses digital imagery to create photographs of buildings that look ordinary at first glance, but that are clearly impossible at second glance. He helps by calling them Fictions. One is a somewhat precisionist view of what appears to be the back of a factory, with ducts and windows and staircases going every which way. My favorite is what appears to be an apartment slab in which every window is a different size and style. It's ugly and would cost a fortune to build.
That's unreal estate for you.
"Dwelling in Contemporary Art"
Through March 18
Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College
601 E. Main St., Collegeville
Tues.-Sun , 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.