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'Automatic Cities'
at MoCA San Diego, La Jolla, California
Review by Jeanne Willette

This theme show demonstrates all the pitfalls and delights of working outward from an idea to actual art.

“Automatic Cities: The Architectural Imaginary in Contemporary Art” is a theme show and, as such, demonstrates all the pitfalls and delights of working outward from an idea to actual art.  Some of the art is dead on and an unexpected discovery for the viewer, while other works conform to the founding concept but are less interesting than the magic that is the “architectural imaginary.”  The paradox of architecture is that, despite its encroaching physicality, the built environment is never just what it is but always what we remember or imagine.

The exhibition calls on Surrealism as a historical precedent and, indeed, one recalls Atget’s empty and haunted photographs of Paris, but the real connection to Surrealism is écriture automatique (automatic writing). As seen in Paul Nobel’s huge drawings of an imaginary city, the architecture of this exhibition emanates from dream states. Rachael Whiteread plays on the role of memory in architecture by presenting the viewer with a chessboard filled with dollhouse furniture: miniature elements of a kitchen confronting tiny living room furniture across the squares. The game is not about playing house but about the eerie experience of returning to one’s childhood home--once so looming, now so diminutive.
Less well known to American audiences is the work of Ann Lislegaard, a Norwegian video artist. Lislegaard brings together an unlikely combination of “The Crystal World” by the late British author, J. G. Ballard, and the glass house built by the Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. The dual screened black and white video installation places the spectator in Bardi’s house, which is an undulating crystalline structure. The metamorphosis, accompanied by the occasional fragment of Ballard’s writing in Courier font, is mesmerizing and compelling.
Michaël Borremans recycles used paper to capture, in delicate drawings and tentative watercolors, the plight of passive people, trapped in architecture, which threatens to absorb them. Matthew Ritchie is well-known for his lace-like fronds of color that climb walls and walk on floors, but here he has created shiny steel fallen forms, sprawling across the gallery, like collapsed cut lace. The story of cities comes to an end in the apocalypse of Ritchie’s automatic writing dematerialized.


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