13 October 2012

A house to die in

Since 2011 the artist Bjarne Melgaard and the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta have been exchanging drawings, models and documents as they work towards the realisation of a purpose-built house for the artist ‘to die in’.  The exhibition ‘Bjarne Melgaard: A House to Die In’ at the ICA in London brings together their paper architecture, along with cluttered but related ephemera from the artist’s studio, laying bare the details of their design process and also their unusual client/architect relationship.

Looming ominously over the lower gallery space is a 1:1 fa├žade of the proposed building, its angled black surfaces glowing red from within.  The model seems at once bestial and otherworldly, an alien space shuttle that has landed accidentally in a similarly distorted domestic setting, complete with rucked yellow carpet scrawled with purple heads.

Tables in this lower gallery space groan under the weight of further, smaller, models, reams of printed correspondence, Melgaard’s scribbled drawings and the aforementioned ephemera from his studio.  Most of this ephemera is related to tigers: a kitsch collection of objects, with plastic tigers seated alongside their cuddly counterparts, a purple velour tiger sleeping on a drawing of its cousin, and all blown by the wind of a monstrous tiger fan.

Whether this collection is evidence of research or obsessive compulsion it is clear that the tiger was the inspiration behind Melgaard’s original design for his house.  Snohetta’s architectural drawings, which here occupy the corridor of the ICA, overlooking the lower gallery, show how they sought to rationalise Melgaard’s drawings and clutter into propositions and models, abstracting the naturalistic form into a proposal for a building that more relates to their known practice. 

These rationalised drawings are hard to interpret, however, as they have, in-situ, been drawn over by Melgaard.  Through the process of exhibition, if not through the process of design, Snohetta are seemingly erased (or even scribbled out).  Their collaboration seems more destructive than productive and this violence is echoed in the upstairs gallery where paintings, which were begun by Melgaard and completed by a group of artists with little connection to the art world (and several of whom are in recovery or suffering from schizophrenia), are hung alongside their collaborative sculptures.  Melgaard professes to having been surprised that his initial drawings – principally self-portraits – were, for the most part, effaced by his collaborators, but this effacement seems to echo the situation downstairs.

There is a huge amount of energy contained in this exhibition, and much invention, but perhaps not any joy.  Just as Melgaard twists the logic to focus on dying in a house rather than living in it, there is no happy ending to be found here.  Whether the house will be built in its proposed site outside Oslo, also remains to be seen.

'Bjarne Melgaard: A House to Die In'
continues at the ICA, London until 18 November