Terence Gower Interviewed by Julia Schäfer for the exhibition Was wäre wenn… at Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig
Julia: Where does your specific interest in modernism and architecture come from?
Terence: This interest comes from my personal family history. My father was an architect in western Canada, and I grew up surrounded by Modernist architecture, both physically and conceptually. As a child, I was not only interested in Modernist forms, I was also fascinated by urbanism, housing, and the relationship between the architect and society. My current work with architecture often triggers memories of my years as a precocious architect’s son.
What criteria do you have for the selection and choice of the buildings you want to work with? Do they have to fulfil something?
The casual training I received from my father was extremely formative for me, and consisted mostly in my reading the books on early and mid-20th Century Modernism that helped form his thinking. I inherited a set of strict functionalist beliefs, but then decided to become an artist and not an architect. The question arose: what do I do with these utilitarian beliefs as an artist? A lot of my work over the past 10 years has been an investigation of the “use-value” of the art object. I did a lot of comparison between art and merchandise display, with an interest in how function is suspended or transformed while an object is on display. Three years ago, I came back to architecture, and my early interest in functionalism.
Looking for an architectural model for the merchandise display I arrived at the pavilion typology. Pavilions don’t perform like other buildings—they are usually designed as supports for displays, or as displays themselves. Often pavilions have been built as models for new architectural ideas—they look like functional buildings, but they are for display purposes only. To me they fulfil a similar role to merchandise displays.
In the work you are showing here you mainly focus on pavilions of world fairs. We do have models also of models, because the pavilion supposed to stand for „a“ country. Can you say something about this aspect in your work?
My primary interest in the pavilion is the tension between function and display I describe above. I am also interested in the ephemeral quality of the pavilion, and how we know them principally through documentation. All the structures I study have had an influence on the course of Modernist architecture—if you study monographs on these architects, these ephemeral buildings are among their most well-known, though very few people have actually experienced them spatially.
I’m creating new documents of these buildings and new experiences, using the originals as models. A viewer unaware of the history of these pavilions might enter the work quite formally, but there are other narratives in the work as well. One of the pavilions represented, Jose Lluis Sert’s Spanish Republic Pavilion (Paris, 1937) was extremely elegant in its stripped-down economy of means. This was partly due to the architect’s aesthetic and building ideology, but largely due to the scarcity of resources available to the threatened republic at war. These ideological aspects of the pavilion don’t interest me as much, as I think the pavilion is not so much a model for, but rather is modelled on the state it represents: It is one of many vehicles for the state to express its ideology. More important to me is how the pavilion expresses something about building ideology in its very being, in a performative way.
You kind of create a new little fair and revival of pavilions that never met before. How do they correspond? In which positions should viewers be put into?
This is where the temporal aspect comes into play. I think there’s a certain charge when the viewer realizes these are all temporary buildings which existed in distinct places in different years. This is a juxtaposition which never occurred in reality, but is occurring in this ghost-like way in the video and photograph. To an architect this gathering is a kind of fantasy—a critical mass of great Modernist architecture.
Why do you put together those in specific?
The five pavilions I chose for this piece were narrowed down from a list of twenty. This was not an entirely analytical process: it was also governed by personal taste and an understanding of the limitations of the material (archival corrugated cardboard) used to make the scale reproductions.
You made a print in a light-box, let’s say as a trailer for the video, which let’s us travel around the area of the buildings. What is the film about?
The video is a documentary experiment: another layer of documentation added onto the subject to see what happens. It’s like the photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy experiment. In 5 Notable Pavilions we are seeing a document (video and photograph) of a document (scale reproductions in cardboard), which has been constructed according to documents (photographs and published plans), of a structure which was itself a kind of model. But the final document (the video) is probably the closest approximation to experiencing the space of these structures.
I have been using period photographic documents for a few years, most notably in “Functionalism” in which a 1964 archival photograph of the Mexico City Polytechnic is rephotographed and shown as a photo-mural. The light-box photograph from 5 Notable Pavilions is taken in the spirit of this era of architectural photography. It is a tonal study, sharpened by the illumination of the light-box.
The video element was also produced in the spirit of mid 20th Century architectural documentaries, but in an extremely reduced way. It’s like a repeat of an early experiment in introducing motion to photography to reveal architectonic space.
You can see there are things going on in the media in these works which are supplementary to the pavilion theme, though both my subject and media concerns are also indigenous to mid-century Modernism.
You don’t necessarily give hints to what buildings we do see. Is it important, not to know, what they used to be? And from whom they are?
I’ve always believed in having multiple points of access for a piece. I think my work can be entered on a totally formal level, it can be entered through what I’m doing with media, it can be investigated on an intellectual level, etc. I hope the viewer can find pleasure in the work through one of these access points. As an artist based in New York, perhaps this is partly a survival strategy: the viewer can walk into the gallery for 10 seconds and take something away from my work, but they can also stay longer and discover more in the work. You can also spend three years with the piece and keep finding things there. I do believe in discreet information panels which give the viewer some background information on the piece, but I don’t think this should be obligatory reading.
It seems as if it would be a computer animated simulation, but instead it’s a plateau of models made out of cardboard. How did it came, you decided for this material, where normally boxes are made of? Does it refer to the temporary architecture?
The models were created before I decided how to represent them (photography and video). The cardboard was used for its utilitarian associations, and to show that these reproductions were clearly not standing in for reality: They are not miniature buildings, they are objects made of corrugated cardboard.
I think the fact that these are three dimensional objects shot with a camera in real time is very exciting, and this is why I have left in some of the small flaws in focus and inconsistencies in motion. Everyone is used to seeing digitized architectural animation through public architectural presentations or even video games. The real-time real-space quality of the 5 Notable Pavilions video is clearly a throw-back to the technological era of its subject matter.
What specific meaning to you relate to the colour red? It appears like a Terence Gower logo in many works of yours.
My use of the colour red is probably partly an exercise in branding (though hardly an original one!) But more seriously, it is used in most of my work in an ongoing investigation into the meaning of early Modernist avant-garde colour schemes. It is often simmering on a back-burner in my work, so I can observe and take note of how it functions. The ongoing work The Red Wall is a piece in which I’ve attempted to accelerate my investigation of red and present some of my research. In the Colour/Plane studies I am coupling the colour with axonometric projection to try to develop a kind of “Modernist signifier”.
I’ve coupled black and white photographs with red fields in Colour/Plane studies and photo pieces. In the video element of 5 Notable Pavilions, I am doing the same, but introducing motion. One of my obsessions are the spatial characteristics of the colour red—how the colour transforms and “sculpts” space—and I love to observe how the red “wipes” in the video transform the space of the projection room as they appear and disappear.
What role would you give the people (human beings) in your work? Also in relation to the architecture, you’ve chosen to work with? How about the influence of architecture and living/working in it? (I’m interested in that, because most of the artists dealing with utopia do place these models of the past in a non-defined space)
Because my interest lies in how architecture is represented, I have also been observing how people are represented within architecture. The familiar image many retain of architectural photography is of empty spaces where the volumes are exposed to the viewer without the distraction of people in the frame. In Modernist architectural representation the human being is either incidental or ornamental (a good example of this is Julius Shulman’s photographs of California Modernist architecture.) I am clearly referencing this in my recent video Ciudad Moderna, in which a 1966 film is used as a document of period architecture and the characters in the film are digitally taken out of the settings, which end up looking like pristine architectural photographs.
This uncomfortable relationship described here—between displayed architecture and its users/inhabitants—speaks volumes to my display/function investigation, an important part of which is the 5 Notable Pavilions project. This is another layer to the piece: the unpopulated, almost sterile, spaces in the both the photograph and video clearly reflect Modernist conventions of architectural documentation.
To the Leipzig display. We discussed and decided to install the light-box on the facade of the new building. How do you like this position and what does it mean to you also in reference to the pavilion-like new building of the gallery?
With the exterior installation of the 5 Notable Pavilions light-box, the piece is turning another corner and gathering new associations. The light-box as a medium was appropriated from advertising by visual artists, and will always have an embedded media-critique quality. Thus it is a very rich display form, and one that logically, in my mind, is most at home in the street, close to it’s mass target.
I anticipate a tension or friction between the muteness and tonal subtlety of my light-box photograph and the brilliance of the illuminated publicity format. Advertising is usually made up of an image with text, and here the lack of text blocks a textual reading of the work and encourages the viewer to start investigating other access points. One of these might be to associate the buildings in the photograph with the building on the façade of which it is displayed. I would definitely encourage this kind of association!
What do you associate with the title of the exhibition, „What if …“?
I love this title! Though I am usually researching models of the past, “what if…” perfectly sums up the mind-set of the model-creator: It’s a world of potential, before the masonry is requisitioned and the first bricks are laid.