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Discursive Intersects: Politics and Space in the work of Gordon Matta-Clark

In an address to the rightwing Hoover Institution, Margaret Thatcher famously asserted that European states were the product of history, not of philosophy. Her statement was meant to favourably contrast the United States with the less organised and intellectually coherent Europe of the immediate post-Cold War period. Thatcher’s pronouncement bears all the hallmarks of the rightwing rhetoric that has underwritten the rise and dominance of Neoliberalism, the fondness of the aphoristic over the analytical, the willful exclusion of messy details, and, perhaps most of all, an overriding desire to find endpoints in philosophical and cultural discourses. It hardly bears stating that Europe’s history is as infused and deformed by philosophy as much as it is the simple progression of events, and America, however deliberately ignorant its media and political class attempts to be of the state’s own historical origins, is as completely a product of history as any European political entity. While it may be unsurprising that someone with Thatcher’s outlook would seek to create simple binaries between philosophy and history, difficulties in disentangling the nature of the ways in which the concepts intertwine can be profound, often it is the work of artists that makes visible points of contact obscured by linguistic engineering, or the banalising effect of familiarity.  While philosophy and history may feed back on each other in ways that are easier to identify when considering questions of social theory and historiography, on a more granular level, these temporal and ideological dynamics also are inscribed in the fabric of the urban environments in which political decisions are made and in which political and social identities are forged. The work of Gordon Matta-Clark offers a profound investigation of how philosophy is inscribed in the physical environment, how philosophy defines, codes, and delimits space as a site for the creation history, and the ways in which the visible and invisible – and, crucially, the obscured – play key roles in forming hierarchies of power.  

The philosophical positioning and structural dynamics of the locations in which Matta-Clark’s most famous interventions have taken place are central to the meanings of the works. The photographs that compose “Window Blow-Out” (1976), for example, express the hollowing out of a particular vision of the philosophical identity of America. Taken of a public housing project in the Bronx, the images that make up the work render visible the ways in which grand political narratives settle into ruin. Familiar from film and hip hop music, the expression “the projects”, has become a byword for deprivation and decay, but these public housing constructions were originally conceived, both in the US as in post-war Britain, as, in part at least, idealistic endeavours aimed at improving conditions of the populations they would house. As “Window Blow-Out” illustrates, history has a way of derailing even the most ambitious and humane attempts to decouple the present from the past. The structural racism on which America was built and which incubated in every aspect of American life over the exactly 200 years from the USA’s declaration of independence from Britain and the creation of Matta-Clark’s work is rendered as bleakly as possible in “Window Blow-Out”’s images in which shards of glass dangle like fangs over the city, precariously near to sinking into human bodies given an adventitious weather event or minor disturbance.

Matts-Clark was as deft at identifying the historical fissures in American society as he was in physically documenting, or creating voids in the ostensibly whole. Indeed, the ruptures created by Matta-Clark in walls, floors and other architectural sites could just as easily be understood as unveilings rather than creations. The frequently quoted line from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, that “all that is solid melts into air”, in light of the work of Matta-Clark, is revealed to be perhaps contain the mirror image of a greater truth: the air itself is the permanent feature, what appears as solid before the eye is the temporary element. The walls one may construct against the elements can be breached wholesale, as in works like “Splitting” (1974), or as small disruptions in otherwise integrated structures as with “Conical Intersects” (1975). This creation, or, indeed, revelation of the space which solid objects disrupt, of necessity, has political as well as aesthetic implications, not the least of which include the ways in which the power conferred by the capacity to be obscured or invisible play out. Workers and employees in the factories and buildings Matta-Clark created works, and potential residents of dwellings like the one used for “Splitting”, are offered the privilege of not being inspected and subject to external judgement constantly, but the works also imply that this sense of security is an illusion. One is always potentially subject to unwanted observation, either by managers, or by political power systems. This interplay of selective visibility takes on both new depth and a sense of requiem in a digital age in which the data created using online platforms is constantly accessible to viewers who can see us, but who are hidden from us by onscreen distractions and legal instruments.

Gordon Matta-Clark
Conical Intersect
silver dye bleach print (Cibachrome)

Viewed from the 21st century, when the factories and offices Matta-Clark documented as manifestations of physical presence have given way to the amorphous platform economy, and various emergent forms of non-material labour, the nexus of philosophy and history in space looks quite different: spatiality and access to space is increasingly a site of contestation in what is referred to as “the sharing economy”, in which physical objects and spaces change hands with greater fluidity than at any point in the post-war history, but in which the dynamics of their exchange are managed by the vagaries of economic forces that rely less and less on stability or endurance. Thus, ironically, time itself could be seen as a primary “site” of economic exchange. Matta-Clark’s “Clock Shower” (1973) in some ways prefigures and literalises this relationship. Consisting of the artist clinging to the hands of a clock reveals both the futility and inescapabilty of attempts to materialise and formalise temporality. In nature, there is no such thing as “three o’clock”—the time toward which the hands of the clock in “Clock Shower” appear to be straining—but nevertheless the concept is universally understood; thus history, temporality and philosophy fuse into a single object. It its estrangement from the everyday, Matta-Clark’s work measures the distance between the quality of quotidian experience and the incongruities which underlie it.

Gordon Matta-Clark
The Notion ofMutable Space
September 9 to November 4, 2017
Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin, Germany
Installation views: © graysc.de
Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York and Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin