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Diller + Scofidio: Whitney Museum of American Art New York. (Reviews).

For all the recent talk of blurred boundaries between architecture and the visual arts, nobody's made much of a splash in both fields since Michelangelo hit Saint Peter's. The twentieth century spawned its share of architect/artists, such as Le Corbusier, Theo van Doesburg, and Tony Smith, but all were more renowned for their work on one side of the disciplinary divide than the other. Recently, artists as diverse as Vito Acconci, Pierre Huyghe, and Jorge Pardo have tried their hand at some form of architecture, while numerous architects have submitted their drawings and even sculptures to the glare of gallery lights. Today the architects Diller + Scofidio are our most fashionable fence-sitters, known less for buildings than for their work in performance and video, as well as their much-acclaimed exhibition designs. Yet the team's recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum, "Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio," unwittingly demonstrated the gulf between the art of installation and install ation art.

Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio formed their partnership in 1979, when a sour economy offered architects few opportunities to build. Rather than pursuing "paper architecture" like some of their colleagues, they chose to design sets for experimental theater and dance, public artworks, and sculptural installations, many of which address social issues, including our contemporary culture of surveillance, and "everyday rituals and gender prejudices," in the words of the exhibition's cocurators, Aaron Betsky and K. Michael Hays. At the Whitney, Diller + Scofidlo's investigation into domestic codes and gender roles is represented by a group of white dress shirts ironed into origami-like constructions, as well as by household objects, including a bar of soap and his-and-hers towels inscribed with punchy slogans. Like much of their work, these objects have visual flair, but their overdetermined critical take on "domestic habits" and propriety seems anachronistic--a better comment on the era when June Cleaver sta rched Ward's shirts than our own age of domestic partnerships and business-casual attire.

This sense of belatedness extends in more troubling ways to Diller + Scofidio's relationship to recent art history, since their practice often seems to involve dressing the once threatening wolf of Conceptual art in chic clothing. Take, for example, their retrospective's centerpiece, Mural, 2003, a snazzy robotic drill that navigates the galleries on a track and perforates the exhibition's walls. A label describes the piece as a comment on the "so-called neutrality of museum walls," but the "white cube" hasn't been seen as neutral for more than thirty years (one wonders if the architects are aware of the work of Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, or the numerous artists who have painted, scratched, buffed, or chipped away at museums and galleries alike). Mural, along with much of the writing on Duller + Scofidio, suggests the architects suffer from a bad case of Duchamp envy: They want to do for architecture what Duchamp did for art. They make their reverence for him almost embarrassingly explicit by inserting a ch unk of wall from MOMA (formerly covered by one of his paintings) into a wall of their retrospective. But in some ways Duchamp himself may already have been the Duchamp of architecture, insofar as his readymades drew attention to the semantic capacity of their physical surroundings. The fact that an elaborately folded shirt can today pass as a comment on architecture, so long as an architect says it is, only serves to confirm the master's reach.

While their installations often feel like slavish, if stylish, illustrations of hardboiled critical theory, Diller + Scofidio are at their best when working within rather than outside the constraints of a given architectural program. As is evident at the Whitney, the functional and social implications of a particular commission provide meaningful traction for their interests and talents. This sort of engagement is readily apparent in their handsome and witty redesign of the Seagram Building's Brasserie, where hidden cameras and an absurdly proportioned stairway make for grand entrances while making light of them too. Their design for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, grows directly out of its site on the city's new boardwalk, which the architects fold up into their building in a seamless indoor! outdoor grandstand for viewing spectacles of the natural, urban, and artistic variety. Although the folded forms of this project and the team's plans for Eyebeam echo the work of Rem Koolhaas and MVRDV, the d esign demonstrates Diller + Scofidio's keen sensitivity to the physical and cultural characteristics of a particular site, a quality permeating nearly all of their architectural projects, from the 1991 Slow House to their Blur Building for Swiss Expo 2002, which literally transformed its watery site into a pavilion in the guise of a cloud.

Regrettably, apart from Blur Building, these projects received scant attention at the Whitney, where they were either crammed into a shoebox of a gallery or omitted altogether. Perhaps the exhibition's organizers feared that models or photographs of buildings would be less engaging than multimedia installations, but ultimately it was Diller + Scofidio's "art" that paled in comparison to their "architecture." Of course, their hybrid practice aims to muddle this distinction, and over the past thirty years many artists and architects have pursued an allied cause. Yet despite these efforts, there may still be some truth to the modernist dogma that a particular discipline's limits or edges--no matter how frayed--can offer productive stimulus for artistic practice. This is certainly the case with Diller + Scofidio, for it is precisely when grappling with the constraints of a given architectural program that they generate buildings that embody, rather than simply illustrate, their most compelling formal and social c ommentary.

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian living in Cambridge, MA.
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Author:Rothkopf, Scott
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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