A Vernacular Of Life

Rob Voerman

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

Antonin Artaud. "To Have Done with the Judgment of God" in Antonin Artaud Selected Writings. Susan Sontag (ed). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976, p. 571.




From an art historical point of view, Rob Voerman’s installations introduce an element of life into the art of assemblage. And in the context of the current project especially, it is at hands to say that this element comes into play as architecture: For it is its clear reference to precarious architecture that situates Voerman’s own technique of assemblage in a waste economy of deficit and lack. Yet life comes into play first as survival. What language does survival speak? In order to approach the question, one could draw a connection between two exhibitions held at MoMA in the 60s: "The Art of Assemblage" in 1961 and Bernard Rudofksy’s "Architecture Without Architects" in 1964. For does not survival reduce the architecture to the vernacular of life? "The Art of Assemblage" included works of Joseph Cornell, Picasso and Marcel Duchamp among others, and has since been discussed in connection to "bricolage", that concept brought up by Claude Levi-Strauss in his seminal book "The Savage Mind", which describes a whole way of relating to the world through the operative mode of trial and error, of creative improvisation and collage, characterised by sensuous knowledge rather then abstract engineering. But does this appeal to sensuous knowledge necessarily lead to the essentialisation so well known from both the discourse around "Architects Without Architecture" as well as the role of "primitivism" in modern art, where the desire for authenticity and truth effects gives way to powerful essentialisations of otherness?

Two explosive issues are thus at work in the installation and sculptures of Rob Voerman: something of an "organic" architecture (which is read often as "natural") and the bricolage necessitated by survival. But are they saying that only the creativity unleashed by the need to survive produces authentic architecture? Not quite. Rather, the desire for authenticity itself is broken, interlaced with modernist elements, and folded upon itself, thus giving way to a powerful statement about the contemporary relationship of architecture and desire – an architecture as a self-organised field of conflict created by different vectors of power. Rob Voerman uses references to utopian hippie communities and their architecture next to the references to slums and the utilitarian design of farmhouse sheds and brings them together in one body. Rather than exploiting the nexus between survival and the authentic, the desire for the authentic is estranged from itself – as if in a dream, the shapes of these installations appear as products of anonymous, individualised labour of unknown origins (he himself speaks of elements of terror, as if the escapist return to nature could possibly only end in the heart of darkness, in Godville or in a termite state). Yet whatever these beings could be, termites, colonialists, slumdwellers or sectarian hippies, the relationship of the individual vectors to the overall structure remains unclear – since the structure has a life on its own. This is at the same time a moment of shock and curiosity: This life, if one sees and feels it, is one’s own desire for the authentic send back to oneself like in a mirror. There is a specific sense of uncanniness in Voermans structures - as if in every moment ones own thoughts and desires could come to life and present itself as the inhabitants of the structure, reminding us that we are still on a trip.

A trip as a time travel, too, as ancient worlds unfold, as if in an underwater world. Voerman explains how he sees ancient principles in contemporary manifestations, a gaze that, once acquired, tends to stick. Indeed, for this gaze, time itself ceases to be linear and tends to materialise in matter, in bodies that regulate flows, structures that organise relations. History thus becomes architecture in motion: structures of space and the surfacing and resurfacing of active elements, of organs. Is such a body not the planetary body (just like the underwaterworld), with no clear distinction between organic and inorganic life? I wonder whether it is by chance that the art of assemblage, of bricolage is often using cosmic forms: this is not only an association apparent when encountering Voermans structures, but his conscious and unconscious references, too: Joseph Cornell’s assembled vitrines as much as the forms of the american hippie communities Voerman refers to. What is interesting in this phenomena is not so much the spiritual aspect (although, upon investigation, it may resonate in interesting ways with the uncanninessinorganic and the power of the community and the sectarian), but the bodily surface and the structure of the sphere: the spheres seems to refer to subjectivity, to what we call to built and inhabit "a world", to relational forces and their material base. The surface is more complicated: For at second sight, there are only membranes, forms of both organic and inorganic origins. The surfaces of the planetary body are relative: states of matter in constant self organised movement of materialisation and dematerialisation. Inorganic crystallisation and the organic life of collectives bodies thus blur: the shape of materiality becomes synonymous to the collective unconscious. Voermans works thus remind us that architecture is a relational device, a medium, which is not merely shaped and does not merely shape on a conscious level or by concepts and ideas. Rather, the surface as well as all the contact zones between several surfaces of inhabited spheres are subjected to forces of physical and chemical states just as much as to those vectors that make up our desires, a life of flows and energy that conditions an unconscious material base. In the end, one thing that they might say: It is in sensuous knowledge that spiritualism and materialism come close.


(Anselm Franke is a curator and writer and the artistic director of Extra City, Center for Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium.)