Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard

Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard

Earlier this year at the Gagosain gallery in London, there was a rather dissonant exhibition, Crash, of artworks notionally inspired or reflective of the work of JG Ballard. A highlight for me was the installation 'Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard' by Jane and Louise Wilson, which induced an attack of hyperkulturemia.

Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard

Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard

The installation, first shown in 2001, consists of 2 double video screens, mounted in opposite corners of a darkened space, so that they faced each other across a rectangular space. Footage from the Soviet space program, of the Blizzard1 shuttle craft ('Buran'), the Energy ('Energia') rocket module, the Proton rocket, and the Unity rocket ('Soyuz'), gives the installation its title. The camera dollies slowly across the exterior length of the enormous rockets, both inside the assembly facility and also on the launch site at Baikonur.

As obsessed as I am with the dream of the Soviet space programme, the architectonic qualities of launch towers, Constructivist visions made solid, a technological will to power made manifest, this was an unexpected sight, which totally caught me by surprise. I stood transfixed in the middle of the room slowly twisting from screen to screen.

Slowly it becomes apparent that the facing screens are not simply showing identical footage. Sometimes the footage is slightly out of sync, or taken from a slightly different angle, at other times the direction of panning is reversed on one screen pair. The effect of this, and also the fact that the space is not square - they screens do face each other directly - creates a very unsettling experience. For me, the presentation and the subject matter created such a overwhelming experience that I felt myself becoming dizzy, my knees starting to wobble. This was the strongest visceral reaction to a piece of art that I have ever felt, a form of Stendhal Syndrome.

Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard

Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard

This is what Space Place had to say:

"The installation Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard is a pure exploration of architecture. Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard, shows the Cosmodrome of Baikonur in the south of Kazakstan. It was from Baikonur that in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man to be launched into space. The title of the work refers to the three launch sites that appear in the film. Proton, a military site, Unity (Soyuz), the site for manned missions to space, and Energy (Energiya), which was designed to carry the Russian space shuttle Blizzard (Buran). The opening shots show the launch site of Energy and Blizzard, now abandoned for over ten years. The film then changes to the operational Proton launch site. The sequence, which includes interior shots of the assembly factory, culminates in the transport of a Proton rocket to the launch site at dawn. After a series of pictures from Korkytu-ata, a Muslim memorial site of comparative architectural significance near Baikonur, the film returns to the launch sites of Unity, which remains almost unchanged since the times of Gagarin, and Proton, with its vast arms reaching out into the desert. In the final sequence, with the Energia/Buran site in the distance and camels grazing in the foreground, it seems as if the desert is reclaiming its land."

Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard is a companion to an earlier piece by the Wilson sisters. Star City , which uses the same 4-screen device, described here:

"Viewers are caught up between juxtaposed shots of the same scene and images sliding across the four screens of the installation as the camera pans across the rooms and their contents. Feelings of discomfort and paranoia develop as the viewers positioned in the open cube of the screens are forced to be “on constant alert … lest they miss something”(12). The endless loops of the roller coaster mystery tour through Star City create a 'sense of going somewhere and nowhere at once'"

Elsewhere, the Wilson's work is described thus:

"Like Leni Riefenstahl, the British twins Jane and Louise Wilson create works that estheticize power, but to obviously different ends. Unlike Hitler's favorite filmmaker, their film installations are more funereal than triumphant.

For their newest odes to eroded power and faded glory, a pair of videos called Star City and Proton, Unity, Energy, Blizzard, the Wilsons were granted access to high-security sites of the financially stricken and scaled-back Russian space program. The videos were shot, respectively, at Star City, the main training center for Russian cosmonauts just outside Moscow, and the Baikonur cosmodrome, the massive base of the space program located in modern-day Kazakhstan (though the program is still operated by Russia). These sites, once beacons of Soviet power, are now in such a state of decline that it is sometimes difficult to tell which facilities are still in use and which are abandoned. This sense of desolation is heightened by the near-total absence of people in their footage."

Quite what all this had to do with JG Ballard I'm not sure, except some forlorn sense of humans not being entirely in control of the technologies they create, and that visions of the future are often crushed by the realities of the present. Baikonur, the original Kosmograd, represents the genius-loci of lost future dreams, one of the most mythically charged places on the Earth.

1. 'Buran' is more often translated as 'Snowstorm' but here the Wilson twins have chosen to interpret it as 'Blizzard'. In the book Energiya-Buran by Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis it is more precisely defined a a snowstorm that is unique to the steppes of Kazakhstan.

Unit: Design/Research 02: Space and structure

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Recently I picked up the second issue of the design newspaper Unit: Design/ Research from Unit Editions, edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy.

The second issue, titled 'Space and structure' is devoted to the magazine Form, which from 1966 to 1969 published 12 issues in an uncompromisingly modern format, and filled with avant-garde material in the fields of art and architecture.

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Unit: Design/ Research 2

U:D/R 2 includes an interview with Philip Steadman, co-editor and designer of Form, as well as facsimiles of much of the content from Form itself. So you'll find bits of articles from Van Doesburg and Rodchenko, articles about structuralism, essays by Roland Barthes, and plans for Black Mountain College by Gropius and Breuer, amongst others. It's hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when everything wasn't instantly at your fingertips, and little gems like Form were therefore that much more precious.

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Form, with its Swiss-influenced modernist design, square format and use of white space, was unusual for an English publication at the time, and Steadman struggled to find a printer who held the Helvetica typeface it was set in. Form represents an early synthesis between typography and architecture, something that seems increasingly relevant today, and this publication is a great celebration of this pioneering magazine.


The current exhibition Crash at the Gagosian is a mish-mash of artworks, by a stellar cast of artists, with a vaguely 'Ballardian' connatation, however tenuous (I'm still struggling to connect Jeff Koons "New Hoover Convertibles" to Ballard, for instance - perhaps I'm just not trying).

To me, the recent exhibition of Ed Ruscha at the Hayward Gallery had a much stronger Ballardian resonance. The most potent evocation of Ballard was in the painting 'Los Angeles County Museum on Fire', completed in 1968. In planning this painting, Ruscha commented that "he always planned to assault the building somehow".

Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

In a 2006 interview, Ruscha commented:

"I’m not lighting fires," he said. "It’s a way of attaching an additional meaning to the painting that would otherwise not have fire — if I can be so simple to say. And it's fun to paint fire." Asked if "there isn’t an embedded desire to burn the Los Angeles County Museum," Ruscha said, "No. But if you want to see that as a political painting, you can — a revolt against an authority figure."

At first glance this carefully painted aerial perspective looks almost like an architect's presentation drawing. The newly finished museum, designed in 1965 by William Pereira, is a pristine temple to art, in a mid-century Intenational style. Looking closer reveals a sinister subtext: the building is on fire. Ruscha metaphorically tries to destroy the building before it has even opened. The fire and smoke helps create the powerful diagonal visual element which is present in many of Ruscha's paintings such as Standard Station (which Ruscha also painted on fire in a later work).

Blue Collar Tech Chem

The Old Tech Chem Building

There are strong recurrent themes in Ruscha's work that echo with a Ballardian sensibility. In 2005, Ruscha revisited the Blue Collar series of paintings of buildings first made in 1992. Thus the building in Blue Collar Tech-Chem becomes a Fat Boy fastfood restaurant, the Blue Collar Tool and Die is now a Japanese factory, while the Trade School has become a derelict ruin. This ephemerality of the environment, the narrative of built form, has been a constant theme of Ballard's work from The Drowned World right up to Kingdom Come.

City of signs 9


Well covered by the blogerati, (such as here, here and here) but worth investigating further, Logorama is a short film by H5 that has been doing the recent round of film festivals including onedotzero, In the animation all characters, objects and buildings are represented by logos, the city of signs in the most literal way possible.

Logorama_02 Logorama_03

The film takes the concept that we are immersed in a saturated advertising landscape to its logical conclusion, the city becomes a brandscape of overlapping marks and symbols. The ubiquity of these logos as part of a collective visual consciousness has overtaken their role as badges denoting a product's provenance.


A trailer can be watched here.



Construction of a Rectilinear Motion, 1925

Construction of a Rectilinear Motion, 1925

I discovered these great images of paintings by the artist Ivan Alexeevich Kudriashev here.

Painted in 1925, both entitled Construction of a Rectilinear Motion, they're both stunning examples of Futurism in Soviet art. There is very little about Kudriashev online, so if anyone has any more information, please let us know.

From the book Laboratory of Dreams, edited by John E. Bowlt & Olga Matic, in a chapter "Tsiolkovsky as a moment in the prehistory of the Avant-Garde" by Michael Holquist, about the Soviet father of rocketry Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, we learn the following:

"Kudriashev, an important member of the left-wing movement OST, was the son of a master model builder. In this capacity the elder Kudriashev had been invited by Tsiolkovsky to Kaluga, where the rocket engineer needed someone who could build wooden mock-ups of this machines. The young art student accompanied his father on these journeys, and actually helped translate Tsiolkovsky's technical drawings into miniature space ships.

The relation of the new sense of cosmic, interplanetary space to the manner in which space was perceived on Earth became a major preoccupation of Kudriashev. As the artist himself would write, it was his aim to provide in his paintings 'a realistic expression of the contemporary perception of space ... that is the substantial novelty that today is producing the space-painting ['prostranstvennaiazhivopis'].'

The connection of interplanetary travel to the striving of OST members can be demonstrated in a number of ways, as in the 1922 construction by Vladimir Liushin entitled A Station for Interplanetary Communication."

All of which is getting me very excited for the Futurism show at Tate Modern, starting next week (Friday 12th June 2009).


Kirstie's Homemade Home

Kirstie's Homemade Home is one of the most vile pieces of television that Channel 4 have ever shown. In it, property doyenne Kirstie Allsopp discovers the joys of furnishing your own home, by having a large country house (nauseatingly called Meadow Gate) renovated, and then decorating and furnishing it. Rather than focus on the bricks and mortar, this show is focused on the fixtures and fittings, furnishings and decoration, with each episode focusing on a particular room. In the first show, Kirstie is fitting out her kitchen, the heart of the home.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

The first, glaring, problem with it is Kirstie's dubious CV. The woman's got form. Miss Allsopp has after all, spent the last ten years or more as part of a double-act with Phil Spencer, fronting shows such as 'Location, Location, Location' and 'Relocation, Relocation': househunting shows where each week Kirstie'n'Phil help upwardly mobile couples, invariably with a baby on the way, either move up the property ladder, find a house in the country with a city pied-a-terre, or buy a second home as a buy-to-let investment.

These programs formed the vanguard for a string on Channel 4 shows even more venal and grasping, such as 'Property Ladder' and 'How to be a Property Millionaire'. For over ten years, Channel 4 beamed into our homes the message that property is a failsafe investment opportunity, buy-to-let is the future, that your house is a money making machine, and that if you didn't get on the ladder you'd be left behind, or if you were on the ladder you should put it all on the line to move up to a bigger property with more money-making potential, or expand your portfolio into a property owning empire.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Of course, we know where this all ended. After a decade of growth, fuelled by Channel 4's boosterism, the inevitable slump and credit crunch has ripped many peoples lives apart, with the average burden of debt carried by people in the UK even greater than that in the US. With practically no alternatives to private house-ownership, many people have felt compelled to obtain giant mortgages and climb on the property train wherever it might be headed.

So now we have Kirstie, unbowed and unrepentant, and having ditched Phil, switching tracks with barely a blink. Now it's all about nesting, building your home, making it a warm, special place that reflects your character. Crucially, Kirstie's vision is of a home-made home, not one bought from a store. It should be a place filled with idiosyncratic artefacts that you have made yourself or had made from a local artisan, quirky second-hand furniture bought at a market, or curios you have rescued from destruction from a skip.

This is where Kirstie starts to get strident. To her, this quest for individuality is seen as an antidote to the kind of bland cookie-cutter Ikea moderne style that dominates the interiors of most magazine and style-guides. The vibe Kirstie is going for, as Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh might say, is that "rustic informal look". Buying second hand furniture, commissioning hand-made crockery and glassware from artisans and craftsmen is seen as somehow more authentic than buying mass-produced homewares. It's about downshifting, reusing, recycling, cherishing those precious objects.

It's a dubious concept at best, but let's roll with it for now. So we see Kirstie trying her hand at a number of crafts. In the first episode she vists a master potter, and has a go at making a rather dumpy pot, its function unknown and undeclared. She next pitches up at a glassmakers workshop with the intention of making her own glassware, and lustily declares it the best thing ever, "I'm giving up, I'm becoming a glass-maker", then about 5 minutes later drives off to find something else to do.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Similarly, she rediscovers sewing, and with the help of a posh family friend, makes a cushion, "Wow! ... I feel I want to sew and sew and sew!" she heartily exclaims, before heading off and leaving her friend to finish making all the others. Perhaps the fast jump-cut world of a modern TV show is not the ideal format to explore loving, painstaking workmanship.

Cut to Kirstie walking along the street to her local street market in London, haggling with the traders over the price of some pictures, buying some chairs and a bench, before loading them into/ onto her massive Land Rover Discovery which has suddenly appeared, (perhaps like Kitt out of Knight Rider). I've got 5 bedrooms to fit out, she says, forking over banknotes left right and centre, "We're going to need a lot of stuff to fill all those rooms". So much for downshifting.

Next she extols the virtues of dumpster diving for discarded treasures, by driving around the streets in the Land Rover and exploring the contents of skips. Having liberated a mirror from a ignominious end, she boldly states how she is helping to save the world's resources by not buying a new one from a department store. The irony of this statement, delivered to camera as she is driving the aforementioned massive Land Rover Discovery, a 4wd light commercial vehicle with a fuel economy little better than a Humvee, over to Meadow Gate, seems to pass her by.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Next it's onto her parents house, and it's clear the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. The Allsopps live in a massive house, and it's full to the rafters with crap, collected over the years by her antique dealer father, and lovingly arranged by her interior designer mother . They moved house so many times as Kirstie grew up, she explains, because they kept renovating houses. Now, having followed the property ladder aspect of her parents lives, Allsopp sets out to relive their maximalist approach to interiors.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Finally it's back to Meadow Gate, where the builders have gutted the house, and renovated it, ready for Kirstie to fill it with all the crap she's been making, buying, and rescuing. There's just about time to hang some plates on the wall, for reasons that are never explained, and get someone to do some flower arranging for her. The glassblower turns up, hand-delivering Kirstie's effort along with a few of his own. The posh cushion woman brings the rest of the cushions too. I wonder if this will be a recurring theme.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Eventually comes the money shot, as the camera pans back, and the final kitchen and dining space is revealed, transformed from a spartan, light and airy space into a cluttered room full of gaudy crockery, knick-knacks, gew-gaws and beset by a jumble of furniture. With the folksy, rural charm dialled up to 11, it's the sort of space that would probably give John Pawson a heart attack.

You wouldn't want to be the poor bastard who has to clean it all, but then you also get the impression that this won't be Kirstie. There's a Marie-Antoinettish quality about the show, with the impression that Kirstie enjoys the simple life, playing the wife of a country squire in her petit hameau, and that the Barbour jacket, the Aga, and the Land Rover are all but stagey props.

But then, given that you can rent Meadow Gate, it's more likely that the whole house is a prop and Kirstie won't actually be living in it either.

Honing a craft takes time and dedication, something Kirstie seems loath to do, making her rather contradict one of the shows central tenets. So she ends up paying the high price for fine hand-made glassware and furnishings, again contradicting the homely, downshifting theme of the show. But the concept that hand-made craft items are somehow more authentic, eco-friendly and worthy than mass-produced homewares is simply one that doesn't stack up. The craft ethic is a myth.

The problem is that we have confused cheap and utilitarian with disposable, ready to be treated as items of fashion, and thrown away when we have our eyes turned by the latest style magazines, or programs such as this one. But by starting with literally an empty room, a blank slate, Kirstie's Homemade Home tries to sidestep this issue, and in its movie-set stageyness, contradicts the authenticity it claims to seek.