God Status

Timing is everything, banal but true. Especially if you are looking to become an immortal god, be it rock, art, or architecture. The proof is in the pudding, like a fine French souffle, timing is everything. This adage is even more essential when death is involved. All the right factors need to be in place: fame - people need to miss you when you are gone, youth old people die all the time, youth is potential and the death of potential is far more tragic than potential realized, talent - added loss, the media goes crazy with this one, documentation - pictures, video, 16 mm footage, just make sure your work is acid free for posterity, you never know how much the Getty will pay for you paper napkin sketches.

A slight variance in any of these factors and your god status will never be reached. Right now, I could never achieve immortality. Yeah, I have talent, potential and youth, but no fame and I always forget to take slides of my models. Perhaps a better example is Michael Hutchence, former lead singer of INXS. The poor bloke killed himself at exactly the wrong time.

When I was in high school, that man was it. He had it all, a pair of ripped jeans for every day of the week (acid washed to perfection,) hair to toss, a sexy pout (or was it sexy eyes?) and teenage girls placing lip-gloss kissed TeenBeat photos of him in lockers and on notebooks. He was sex, and he even had a giant chrome pin that said so. It gleamed from his leather jacket as he lunged towards the camera in the "I Need You Tonight" video. Yet, when he died last month, apparently of self-strangulation with his belt, an inadvertent, auto-erotic suicide, his Aussie hotel room littered with bottle of speculative prescription drugs, his timing couldn’t have been more off. Seven or eight years earlier and the stardom/martyrdom equation would have emblazoned his name next to Kurt, Tupac, or even Buddy Holly - suicide, murder, plane crash. Or if he had waited, his second coming may have catapulted him into the limelight along side John Travolta, whose career boom is a recent example of life after coma. Or is it coma after coma? Whatever the case may be, Michael missed out on the upcoming INXS twenty city tour. An undertaking which may have brought him to the attention of Quentin Tarantino’s Lazarus spotting eye.

Alas, Mr. Hutchence’s rhythm was off, thus he is doomed to be the poor soul who pulled the belt a hit too tight, and offed himself when things got sour, not sickly sweet as in the glorified deaths of James (James Dean wore khakis) Dean or Kurt (Courtney’s big career move) Cobain. Even Allanis could see the true meaning of irony in the title of the last INXS record, "Elegantly Wasted", for his demise was anything but elegant.

Like Jimmy or Kurt, Gordon Matta-Clark has achieved god status among cults of architects. His early death from cancer in 1978, at the zenith of his career, marked him for immortality. Matta-Clark’s split open buildings and other types of de-installations, are undeniably beautiful, dangerous, and a challenge to the rigid confines of architectural form. Yet, the genius myths (and truths) which have swirled around his life and death (especially since decon hit the scene) have given him glamour, fame, and deathlessness.

Wielding a chain saw, a hack saw, a crow bar and miles of extension cords, Matta-Clark cut gaping holes into existing buildings, exposing other meanings, other layers and other spaces, as he might have put it. To document his artwork, since the buildings he attacked were usually slated for total demolition, he photographed these dangerous spaces and filmed the anarchitecture (his term.) Seduced by the act of Matta-Clark’s unbuilding, architects are inspired to make again these spaces. But to attempt to build in this manner is to patently ignore the critical stance towards architecture which Matta-Clark took. It is to fall into the trap of the temple of Matta-Clark, icon. Yve-Alain Bois writes in Formless, a User’s Guide, the book of the month:

"Matta-Clark considered architecture a clownish and pretentious enterprise, and he would have been particularly enraged at having become a model, enraged to see his provisional disruptions of building stylized under the label of "deconstructionism" in the architectural projects of certain of his former professors at Cornell. If the architect takes himself for a sculptor,he masks his own role in capitalist society, which is to build rabbit warrens to the order of real estate developers." (p.191)

Not really interested in bridging any gap between architecture and art, Matta-Clark spurned his Cornell education and the uptight binds of the gentleman’s profession. When I was at Cornell in the early 90’s Matta-Clark’s work was not taught, or even acknowledged, except as a subterranean find, which student after groupiesque student would shuttle home from the library to study as a guide to living out the promise of deconstruction. A Matta-Clark and a Libeskind monograph were as de rigueur as a Sonic Youth CD and a pair of Doc Martins. But Richard Meier, who has now taken to traipsing around the Getty in a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired cape, wasn’t subject matter at Cornell either. We students were taken way back to the early cannon of Modernism. Danger came from a chance brush with the members of the historic avant-garde. So when we unearthed Matta-Clark, a folk hero was born. His past was like our present and he had gotten enraged by it. He had danger, youth, talent, fame and a future which was cut short just in time for him not to make any crucial mistakes which would hinder his cult status. Most importantly, he made sure to document his work. So it was glory be and all praise.

When the films of Matta Clark were restored and screened recently at both UCLA and SCI-Arc, I was giddy. Finally, I had the chance to see the punk granddaddy of deconstruction, the Sid Vicious of architecture on the big screen. So I went to watch. I brought along a friend who I was trying to convince that architecture is cool, and I was appalled. He was bored. What those few yards of film revealed was not the spontaneous energy which I had expected. Nor was it the raw wonderment which is found in early CBGB footage or the films of Warhol’s Factory, or even, the mainstream psychedelic era movies, made just a few years before Matta-Clark’s films, where the actors are so stoned and the camerawork so trippy, that you get a contact high just by pressing play on the VCR. The films by provocateur Gordon Matta-Clark were straight out of the me (not m-m-my) generation school of documentaries and they were boring.

Office Baroque (1977), which I watched primarily on fast forward at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture a couple months after I left the large screen screening, finds Matta-Clark crouched amidst extension cords and ripped up floorboards. He is bare chested and he sports jeans and a jaunty workers cap. In a pose worthy of a Jeff Striker movie, Matta-Clark deftly changes the chain on his saw. His masculinity and roguish edginess are in full command. His glorious voice over, which echoes off the Italian travertine walls of the temples of high art, says that occupying the space of his work is akin to the layers of line in a drawing. A man alone, prying up the floor, hard at work on his anarchitecture, Matta-Clark aims for a complexity which is indecipherable. "An undocumentable documentary" is how he describes his work. From viewing his photographs and even snippets of his films, it seems that he majestically achieves this goal and gets rock god status to boot. A deconstructivist Robert Plant. Who wouldn’t be moved by a house split manually in two? He becomes the hero/martyr of the cult of labor, a grungy, manly tribe found in wood shops and scrap yards everywhere. But, unfortunately for us, Matta-Clark’s films, when viewed in bulk, undermine his successful stabs at complexity and underline a certain godawful staleness to this supposedly cutting edge work.

Clockshower (1973) features Matta-Clark performing his morning ablutions while suspended from the face of a clocktower. The film wants to call into question the banalities of everyday private, indoor life. It challenges routine spaces by placing the bathroom on the face of the clock in public and on a grand scale. Unfortunately, the real time footage and the unrelenting washing off of shaving cream (such a manly, Dada endeavor) smacks of self indulgent, self important, high art film-making. So, even though his work wishes to achieve ruptures in art and life, and to bang hard on the doors of the establishment, Matta-Clark’s anarchy becomes part of (and never was really far from) the world he strived to criticize. If anything, his work serves to give conservative architecture students a surly edginess.

The extent to which Matta-Clark’s work has been deradicalized can be seen at the exhibition currently on display at the MAK Center. About a dozen or so of his photographs, an artist book, and a video collection of his films are all tastefully framed within Shindler’s Kings Road house. All there is warm wood panels, Japanese cum California styling - no angry young man could withstand the treatment. The photographs are small and pretty much forgettable. In case the images don’t engrave themselves on your retina, the MAK has created a catalogue to go along with the exhibition. It is a slim volume, elegantly designed, containing a couple nausea inducing essays, and tiny, to the point of cute, reproductions of Matta-Clark’s work, all bundled in gobs of white space and class.

So the rowdy intellect who thumbed his nose at the establishment of art and architecture, is now absorbed into that culture like one of the original disciples. Just as Cobain’s death allowed grunge to jump in and out of mainstream culture, depositing work boots and white male angst into middle America, Matta-Clark’s death and subsequent rebirth as the lost Jedi knight of deconstruction freed architects to act out their own Rebel With a Cause fantasies of form. But I wonder how enraged (Bois’ term) he would have been by being appropriated by mainstream architects. His brother had committed suicide by jumping out the window of Gordon’s studio, so it would seem that he would be familiar with the death timing principle. Perhaps the best timing Matta-Clark should have used (cancer aside) in order to continue to maintain a critical distance would have been to live, and to keep living into boring ripe old age, thus undermining all the factors for god status.

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