Breaking the space
The interiors of Libia Pérez de Siles de Castro and Ólafur Árni Ólafsson.
The most interesting and by far the most intriguing of allclassical representations in visual art are the works of art where space isproblematized in order to get us to reconsider the way in which we observethe world and make sense of the order of things surrounding us. Already inHellenistic painting, known to us mostly from villas in Pompeii and Rome,spatial entanglement is given an ever impressive role in the overallfrescos which adorned the dwellings of the wealthy. In the 1st century B.C.the anonymous masters in the various towns around the Bay of Naples hadintroduced a complex architectural setting in their wall paintings wheredecorative imaginary riddles in form of doors, windows and colonnadesopened up to ever changing motifs and scenery. The multiplicity ofperspective made it difficult to distinguish between realistic handling ofmythological scenes, landscape and still-lifes, and surreal trompe-l´¦ilsettings, harshly criticized by the contemporaneous architect Vitruvius,who accused painers of deceiving the public´s perception by deviatinggravely from plausible reality.
These Hellenistic and Roman spatial concerns set the standard formost subsequent experiments in Western art, whether they had to do withperspective in the Renaissance era, the Baroque age´s fascination formirrors and trompe l´¦il effects, or modernism´s ceaseless attempts toredefine space and dimensions. Piero´s Flagellation is as revelatorya testimony of the Italian 15th century concerns for geometrical complexityas Velázquez´ Meninas is a brilliant example of its century´srelational order. Moving to the roots of modernism we can observe similartend, in Manet´s Bar at the Folies Bergères, to disclose the essenceof late 19th century social perspective through means of extraneous,incongruous spatial rendering.
While following in the footsteps of this long tradition Libia Pérezand Ólafur Árni Ólafsson also go against the determination of a clearly andstatically defined space, however complex it may be. The biggest differencebetween their approach and aforementioned painters is the fact that theirspatial account surrounds and overwhelmes the spectator. It can of coursebe contended that Hellenistic and Roman painting was all-embracing since itcomprised the four walls of a room giving a sense of a complete environmentwith the illusion that it opened on to an adventurous exterior beyond. Butno matter how jolting the ancient wall painting may have been it did notundermine the onlooker´s sense of rationality in the way Libia Pérez´ andÓlafur Árni´s installations do. Although Vitruvius may have considered themost imaginary styles of ancient painting to be dangerous examples of purefantasy they now seem quite orderly and Apollonian compared to the almostpsychadelic environment presented by Pérez and Ólafsson.
By disrupting actual space with extraneous elements, discordant colours, chaotic constructions, disparity of industrial matter and materials, inconstant lighting, sound of miscellaneous sources and arunning slide-show the artist couple leads us beyond any tranquil,deliberate contemplation. Bombarded by all these disturbing elements we arenot able to make a clear distinction anymore between our own subjectiveperson and the environment. As soon as we enter Libia´s and Ólafur´scarnavalesque hangouts we become an inegral part of the Dionysiacatmosphere which prevails in their random environments. Our senses aredisturbed at every instance by a mixture of fragrances, common and exotic,while complementary colour schemes hit our eyes. These are often carefullylaid in a geometric, or optical manner, together with furniture whichreverberates the pattern on the walls. But as soon as it tends to dominatethe space it is confronted by an informal muddy substance of earth, pigmentand spilled paint, crumbling or leaking on the floor and blending withhoses, cords and flexes which criss-cross the space as tatty cobwebs.
The introduction of mirrors in the most imaginable way bring yetanother set of perspective to Libia Pérez´ and Ólafur Árni´s disorientinginteriors. There are certainly ample parallels between these mirrors andthe mirrors we encounter in the works of the classical masters, especiallythose who, like van Eyck, Velázquez and Manet, used them in the mostsurprising way in order to question our spatial perception. There ishowever a new sense of impetus, impatience in the young couple´sarrangement which cannot be exempted from certain socio-politicaltendencies. Disruption of rational space is in itself a latent indicationof criticism, a certain kind of irascibility directed against theshortcoming of conventional pespective, which of course is a token ofconventional opinion at large. By tampering with convention oneautomatically creates a new set of perspective which is bound to deviatethe spectator´s opinion.
We are not far from the Situationist position of Debord andLebovici, which hit the art world through the powerful influence it exertedon the champions of Cobra, Asger Jorn and Constant, who were ultimatelydrawn to its Utopian ideals. Although Debord played down the Situationists´debt to Dada and Surrealism, Jorn´s and Constant´s revolutionary ideas ofarchitecture and urban planning – The New Babylon for the nomadic,ever drifting homo ludens – cannot be easily separated from KurtSchwitters´ Merzbau, which he rebuilt three times, in Hannover, inthe wake of the Third Reich, in Norway just before the Second World War,and in England´s Lake District at the end of the war. Titles of the varioussections of the Hannover Merzbau – The Cathedral of EroticMisery, The Great Cave of Love and The Cave of Sexual Murder -bear witness to the highly psychological context of the curious interior.Schwitters´ constructions at last caught the critics´ attention in 1956,the same year as Constant started working seriously on his NewBabylon models. Although the date is a pure coincidence it is less of achance that environmental art should gain momentum in the following years.
Standing firmly on the relatively fresh ground paved by thepioneers of experimental interiors, Libia Pérez and Ólafur Árni continueadding new elements and features to the category. What neither Schwittersnor the Situationists considered to be an integral and necessary part oftheir work was the public which enters the labyrinthic corridors of theartist couple and completes the environment with its presence. These peopleare as important as consecutive components of Libia and Ólafur´s interiorsas the meninas, the infanta, the royal couple, the dog and the painter inVelázquez´ classical masterpiece. The public is also the haphazard elementwhich the artists are unable to controle; the mark of contingency whichmakes these exciting artworks as venturous for them as for us. This is whythe openings – the merry party which mingles with the various elements -become so important for the sake of the installation. They are the sourceof everchanging reflections in the mirrors caught by our eyes as fleetingimpressions of faces which cut the space as flashing images, obstructing ordividing the persons or elements behind them.
Asger Jorn had the dream of a city where homo ludens, theplaying man would be free from any sedentary constraints and would be ableto drift from one sector of the town to the other. Constant even foresawour artificial control of lighting and climate. Libia Pérez and Ólafur Árniseem to be proceeding from that small scale model to an actual interior,thus furthering the futuristic vision of the Situationist Internatinaltowards a tangible realization.
Halldór Björn Runólfsson