The Architecture of Coincidence

 

In September 2010 Stian Ådlandsvik and Lutz-Rainer Müller completed the project You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk. The project consisted of a house transformed into a temporary sculpture, located on Askøy outside of Bergen, and an exhibition in the gallery at Hordaland Art Centre. Eva Rem Hansen discusses with Ådlandsvik and Müller the background for, the realization of, and the experiences from the project.

The building contractors

In the autumn of 2008 artist Stian Ådlandsvik heard that an older villa was to be torn down in the town where he grew up, in Askøy outside Bergen. The news gave Ådlandsvik the idea to realize a work of art based on the house that was to be demolished.

SÅ: I was immediately fascinated by the opportunity to create such a large sculpture, to work on a scale I have never attempted before. At that point I thought that this opportunity would also allow us to work on a large format without great material costs.

Ådlandsvik contacted the owners, who were positive to the suggestion. He then contacted Lutz-Rainer Müller, his partner-in-art for a number of years. Ådlandsvik and Müller got to know each other in 2004, when they both studied at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Their collaboration began two years later, when they together with a third artist, Frode Markhus, distinguished themselves by inviting the motorcycle club Hell’s Angels to celebrate its tenth anniversary outside of the National Gallery in Oslo. Since then, Ådlandsvik and Müller have had exhibitions such as Sketches for the meantime at Fotogalleriet in Oslo in 2006, and Still life with modern guilt at MOT International in London in 2010.

Transformation and deconstruction are common denominators for several of Ådlandsvik and Müller’s earlier works, and the chance to work deconstructively once more stirred Müller’s interest when he was introduced to the plans:

LRM: When Stian called me and told me that there was a house we maybe could use as the material for a sculpture, I first thought that it could be a great summer job. I could visit him in Bergen and we could go out to the house with a chainsaw and work, inspired by the house and by our collaboration, just play with it.

The plans, however, developed into something more than a summer job for the two artists. Early in the process they decided to involve an art institute in Bergen in the project, primarily for the sake of communication. Working with several active partners in this way is something the artists have done before; as an example, the exhibition If it won’t fly, try using it as a reducing machine from 2008 was shown at four different locations in Hamburg on the same opening night. The distribution of an exhibition over several arenas ties into Ådlandsvik and Müller’s general interest for deconstruction and variety of approaches.

SÅ: We thought from the start that it would be interesting to involve some others, and to divide the project up. If not into four different places, then at least into two. That’s why we went to Hordaland Art Centre and met Anne Szefer Karlsen.

At the art centre the artists quickly received approval for their somewhat undefined plan:

SÅ: Anne congenially said “Absolutely! All I know is that there’s a house, and that you’re going to do something with it. We’re in!” So we did it.

The site

There was a long interval from the first conversations to the actual physical alterations to the house, and during this period the artists found time to reflect over the project’s conceptual content. The two of them often begin work in particular circumstances that are either already existent, or that they create themselves. The concrete situation behind this specific work was the modest, green-painted house from 1956, set in the little housing estate Holmedalshammaren on Askøy, that had been bought by an investor group and was going to be demolished to make room for two housing complexes with a total of eleven apartments. In the start-up phase the artists were concerned with the economic and social structures behind such a situation.

LRM: The house was totally fine, and people lived there. It is a bit odd to demolish a house that’s in use. Destroying a house like this one somewhere else in the world would have been… very strange. Norway is a small, but extremely rich country, and the economic situation in the country was definitively a kind of contribution to our project.

SÅ: We talked a lot about how the attitude to our homes has changed since the 50s. This is an example of the “Swedish houses” that were built in large numbers after the war, in which the materials were a gift from Sweden. It’s to be demolished in order to better exploit the plot’s acreage, and to build more apartments. In the same way, I have friends that buy houses and renovate them, but not necessarily according to their own taste. They renovate in order to get a good price afterwards. It’s not about it being yours, but an investment. People think about houses and living in a new way, and this can be seen as a connection to economic development.

The development the artists highlight is national, if not international, but at the same time the actual place they are working with, the site on Askøy, is especially representative of the trend they describe. Askøy is of old one of the largest fishing municipalities in the country, the jobs have been tied to nature, and people’s connection to the island was based on family bonds or the natural resources found there. However, during the house’s lifetime the community has gone through enormous changes. An increase in population from 7000 to 25000 the last 60 years has made Askøy one of Norway’s most rapidly growing municipalities, [1] and rather a suburb of Bergen than a small local community.

LRM: I think the placement of the house is really good, especially because the municipality is in such growth. Moreover, the house was on a really nice plot with views to the ocean, the centre of Bergen, the sea and the bridge to the mainland, so that it looked out over everything that represents change in the area.

The population increase, of course, poses relevant questions about spatial planning and utilization, and makes the issue “rights of the owner or rights of the community” the most inflamed theme in local politics on Askøy. But the artists have not wanted to enter that debate directly with their project:

SÅ: Our aim was never to criticize the fact that the house was bought in order to be demolished, we didn’t have an agenda stating that we thought it sad that the house must disappear and new things appear. It was simply a reality that we wanted to play with, and we had a pretty pragmatic approach to the situation.

The Model

The physical alterations planned by the artists did not only have a political undertone but also one of art-history. A number of renowned artists have previously transformed buildings, and Ådlandsvik and Müller highlight Gordon Matta-Clark as an important reference for their own work.

SÅ: Matta-Clark’s approach to architecture is in line with our thoughts about sculpture, because much of what we do is to remodel already existent objects. Nevertheless, it is clearly important for us to present something new, and not just re-use the methods other artists have already used on other houses.

The artists used a year to think and sketch in order to find their independent approach to the building, and ended up with a 1:27 scale exact model of the house. The model was precisely formed with a build and materials corresponding to the original house, so that the artists gained an extended understanding of the principles of construction behind the house they would later deconstruct. This model of the house would also become a model for the creation of the house sculpture.

SÅ: Our idea was to use the model as a kind of voodoo doll, where what happens with the model also happens to the big house. We thought that not just damages but also the experiences of the smaller house would be transferred to the larger house.

LRM: We wanted to give the house an experience, and decided in the end to send it on a journey. We thought that was the most appropriate, because if one is an immobile house soon to be destroyed, then it must be quite nice to see a bit of the world.

The artists therefore chose to send the model on a trip with the postal service, and the destinations were big world cities in which one can also experience great architecture. The artists’ aim was that the model would show signs of the journey when it returned.

SÅ: It was very difficult to predict how the model would be damaged. One thing we feared was that it would return without anything having happened to it. That would have been very boring.

LRM: That’s why we made sure that the house’s packaging was pretty unstable…

Ådlandsvik chuckles and confirms that his colleague took great pleasure in making sure that this particular part of the project was carried out with utmost care.

ERH: And how did it go?

SÅ: The first stage was a journey to Beijing. There it was stopped by Chinese customs because we had put too high a value on it. When it got out of there, it was relatively complete, only the balcony had disappeared. But then something happened en route from Beijing to Sydney, because when it got there we were told that the ground floor was starting to fall apart and that it looked pretty battered.

LRM: We didn’t know if the house would get completely destroyed, but at least we knew then that it wouldn’t carry on looking the way it used to. We had no contact with the house for about two months, before we saw the first pictures from New York. By that point it was pretty damaged, the ground floor was completely gone. It looked much the same when it came home to us from Paris, and we were very pleased with the result – after all, we work with destruction!

The (de)construction

After a long period of preparation the artists were finally ready for the construction period – or deconstruction period – in august 2010. This phase consisted of transferring the damage to the model over to the real house, a construction method Ådlandsvik and Müller describe as “The Architecture of Coincidence“.

LRM: It all started with an awareness that the house is in the periphery of interesting architecture. If the house had been a fine example of any given direction within architecture, then it probably wouldn’t have been demolished. That’s why we wanted to change the house so that it would no longer look ordinary; we wanted to give it a new and interesting appearance. If one personifies the house then one can think of it as an old lady dressing up to avoid old-age and death. We had, at least, a certain comic approach to it, and that is also how we got the idea of making coincidence the architect.

SÅ: Neither I nor Lutz are architects, so if we were going to give the house a new design then one can imagine we would invite a team of architects to redesign the entire house – but then we wouldn’t have been able to control it. Instead, we ended up with a new way of generating or regenerating architecture; we introduced the coincidental so that the architecture was no longer a direct product of human decisions.

The deconstruction itself was done by local manpower, a crane company and an excavator operator from Askøy, in the course of two warm late-summer days.

LRM: First there was a lot of technical talk concerning how the builders would get rid of the ground floor without damaging the roof or the chimney, but they managed to do it pretty quickly when they first got going.

The first workday consisted of sawing holes in the house’s walls and then guiding steel beams through the house to support the roof truss. The next day the roof was sawn loose from the walls and chimney and lifted into the air. There it hung from the crane while the ground floor was removed with the digger.

SÅ: It was quite fun to watch, because the roof-lift was enormous, and it’s amazing that they managed to avoid damaging the chimney.

The artists enthusiastically describe the craftsmen’s precise work with the big machines, and hint that the enthusiasm went both ways. They agree that both the crane and excavator operators showed interest in their involvement with the art project, and appreciated a different and challenging task.

SÅ: It really was precision work, and it felt as though they wanted to show how precisely they could operate. As an example, the excavator operator came back in the final phases and was shown pictures of the model. He sat in his digger with a photograph and looked at the picture, then at the house, battered it a bit and then looked back to the picture again and so on. It was really nice, he was like a painter copying a photo or something.

ERH: So the workers got to try themselves as imitation artists, but did you guys get to try yourselves as craftsmen?

SÅ: On the two toughest days, the work tasks were shared between the crane and the digger. So at that point we were really more commissioners than members of the team – there wasn’t anything that we could do.

ERH: So there wasn’t much physical labour for you?

LRM: Oh, absolutely! We really wanted physical labour to be included, not just us watching things, right from the beginning.

SÅ: The roof-lift was the big operation that we never could have done on our own, but when the craftsmen had threaded the roof back over the chimney and put it in place again, their job was finished. Lutz and I began making the house as exact a copy of the model as possible by knocking down sidewalls and removing panelling just as they had disappeared from the model.

The Home

When Ådlandsvik and Müller worked on the site on Askøy, they got a closer look at the community in Holmedalshammaren and experienced what kind of opinion the neighbourhood had of their project.

LRM: It was a project in a public area, but at the same time it was a half-private area. There are no tourists that drive around the area, most of those who walked by lived there and knew the neighbours.

The artists were strangers on the estate, and the news that nr. 67 was to be transformed into a sculpture stirred the neighbours’ curiosity. Several of them came over to have a chat during the process.

LRM: Even though the Art Centre was very conscious of the need to inform the whole neighbourhood, there were quite a few who didn’t register the fact that the house was to be demolished anyway, and some of them were rather irritated at the fact that two bloody artists could just turn up and destroy a house.

Especially one meeting with the local population can be considered significant.

LRM: The son of the man who had built the house came and told us he had grown up there. His father had built it when he was about 8 years old, and they had to carry all the materials on their backs up a narrow, steep path because there was no road leading directly to the house back then. That was a bit sad to hear about.

SÅ: Yes, I think he was upset because the house got demolished. Another neighbour who came over had known the family who lived there before.

LRM: The neighbour told us that the wife was interested in art and culture, and that she probably would have approved of the house getting a sort of afterlife as art.

The two artists have no trouble understanding that the house’s fate and the extra exposure the demolition gained from their involvement stirred feelings in the neighbours who knew the occupants.

SÅ: Even though we didn’t have any direct connection to those who had lived there, we could predict and understand the emotional responses to somebody’s previous home disappearing.

They also admit that they themselves developed certain emotional ties to the simple abode.

LRM: In the beginning we were concerned with architectural questions and economic questions, but already while we built the model I at least fell quite in love with the house.

SÅ: And so it became clearer and clearer to us when we spent time in and around the house, that this was somebody’s lifework and home. It was no longer an anonymous house from the 50’s, it had warmth, and carried signs of those who had lived there. One saw, as an example, that they had left their mark on the interior through choice of colours. It wasn’t about making something according to the fashion of the times, but furnishing it the way they wanted things around them to be in their everyday lives.

At the same time the artists are concerned that the project should not be centred about a specific family history, but should deal with the relationship between the public sector and private sphere more generally.

SÅ: For me, this was not so much about this particular house and its history, but that it was an obvious example of a family home.

LRM: Yes, all houses enclose very private places. That a house is a kind of protector of everything that happens in private became very important to us.

The relationship between the exterior facade and the unknown that happens within the house’s four walls is also the background for the somewhat cryptic title the artists gave their house sculpture; You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk.

LRM: We discussed many different titles and we thought they were boring and dull, or simply too literal. The title we landed on introduced something intimate, something that could point towards a kind of private sphere.

SÅ: Whilst the title is very intimate, it is also quite open, and it doesn’t really let on as to what’s going on. It was suitable because the house had a private history that we knew nothing about. Even if we had known what had happened there through the years, it was never our aim to bring out that particular story, but to talk about the private sphere in general. It is, after all, an important part of everybody’s lives.

The Exhibition

In September 2010 the sculpture was finished, and the deformed house was ready to be shown. Interested people arrived on chartered busses between Bergen centre and Askøy, where hotdogs and soft drinks were served in the house’s garage. In the garage the public could also see the damaged model of the house, exhibited together with postcards featuring the model at the different places it had visited on its journey.

The same evening Ådlandsvik and Müller also opened an exhibition in the gallery at Hordaland Art Centre, with five sculptures made of materials taken from the house. The exhibited objects were reminiscent of abstract, modernistic sculpture, made from materials like cement, steel and woodwork painted in peach, salmon pink, pastel green and lemon yellow hues.

SÅ: Early on it became clear to us that we wanted to use the materials left over from the deconstruction of the house, we wanted to see what we found in the remains there and make sculptures of them. One of the reasons for this was that it wasn’t possible to enter the house when the sculpture was finished, one could only view it from the outside like a sculpture. For us the ability to use the materials was an opportunity to focus on these traces of a lived life, traces of the fifty years that people had lived there.

LRM: The first idea was to find materials that already had a sort of sculptural quality, that were formed into sculptures through the deconstruction of the house. In this way we adopted the principle of coincidence yet again. Later we decided that this time we wanted to transform the material a little more consciously. We therefore made a rather classical sculptural exhibition, but one in which the materials of course had traces of something that had happened somewhere else.

ERH: The exhibition may have a classical quality, but your sculptures are not timeless. The abstracted, minimalistic expression brings to mind a very particular period in art’s modern history, the fifties and sixties. Is it a coincidence that the sculptures harmonize with the period in which the house on Askøy was built?

LRM: No, we were always thinking about the period the house originated from. At the start we considered building a kind of exhibition architecture, maybe a world exhibition pavilion from the fifties, around the sculptures.

The plans for a pavilion were never realized, instead Ådlandsvik and Müller chose to make a sculpture, shaped like enormous spectacles, from the house’s exterior paneling. But even that, with its Dame Edna design, or what the artists describe as a “celebratory, the future is coming-design,” could easily be associated with the visual language from the middle of the last century.

LRM: We came up with the spectacle idea quite quickly, but didn’t know if it was a good idea. In the end we went for it because the glasses became a viewer of the sculptures, it was the house looking at itself in a way. I think it introduced philosophical questions like “who am I?” in a slightly amusing way, because it was a bit slapstick.

With the glasses in the gallery the artists thematized the role of the beholder and illuminated the project from an artistic perspective.

LRM: We liked the fact that the exhibition at Hordaland Art Centre really was a kind of art perspective on what happened on Askøy, and that had a completely different take on it. There was the project out there, and also a sort of rotation or transformation in the exhibition.

SÅ: It ties into how we work; we tend to come up with an idea that we’re happy with, and then we break it in two or develop it so that it connects to the previous idea, but has gone through a process one more time.

LRM: We wanted very much to take the exhibition at Hordaland Art Centre as a challenge, and pursue the chain of thoughts and develop our project. We didn’t just want to document the project, but transform it in a way that pointed towards the art world.

SÅ: We wanted to use the gallery as a place of exhibition, not as a place of documentation. Lifting the roof off the house was, I guess, the most spectacular part of the project, and I think we both were scared that it would become the kind of exhibition that only glorifies working with something really big, the popular act of raising a roof. That’s why we ended up removing all documentation of the process from the exhibition room.

LRM: That’s right, I thought it was much more interesting to just show clues of something that has happened without really talking about it. That the sculptures come from a destruction is something one can see regardless, one can see that there has been a previous transformation without needing to know exactly what has happened. I am generally very fascinated by clues, because when you only give clues then you open up for several different stories and a variety of possibilities that might also say something about the future.

The sculptures in the exhibition can in other words also be viewed as independent works, and have also received individual titles. It can be difficult to understand how names like Grab a bite, How fast does that go?, Affinity for mojitos and I’m on my way back can carry echoes of the fifties’ rural Norway, but the artists explain that the connection is there, and can be tied to dreams of the future.

SÅ: Just like You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk, the sculptures’ titles have traces of the private sphere in them, fragments of lived lives.

LRM: Yes, but they were also each other’s contradictions. While the house title was inspired by something that actually might have happened, the sculpture titles were much more inspired by dreams. The thing is, we watched a very bad film…

SÅ: …Miami Vice…we watched Miami Vice…

LRM: …Like forty times, or something.

SÅ: Lutz had already seen it once, and was like, come on, you’ve gotta see it, and…

LRM: No, I’d never seen it!

SÅ: OK…when we watched it together the first time, and it just ended up being that every night before we went to bed, we just had to watch Miami Vice, and in the end it was just like, we fast forwarded to the parts we like, or where we got great comments that we exchanged the whole time we were in Bergen.

LRM: And we took all the different scenes with us to our dreams, because after five to ten minutes we fell asleep. And each morning we were lucky if the computer hadn’t fallen out of the bed. It got very funny, but it’s a bit embarrassing to talk about it.

SÅ: But really, watching the film so many times was actually a kind of research, for the project.

LRM: Sure it was, without us even planning it. Because in the film they make sure the whole time that everything they say is very cool, they live in a trendy, hip area in Miami with loads of money and drugs, and big boats and houses. It was a great contrast to the house on Askøy, a completely ordinary house without any “sex and crime.” If you saw the house, then you really didn’t think of Miami Vice. The film world was rather what the house dreamt of being, and the fun thing was that all the crazy colors in the house, that we didn’t like when we were in it, suddenly became really fantastic when they were transformed into sculptures, and they resembled quite closely the colors from the film we saw. The contrast between reality and dreams inspired us, and therefore we chose elements from a completely different world, comments that recalled the ones from the film, as titles for the sculptures.

Maintenance

After a month as a sculpture the house in Holmedalshammaren was returned to the owners and demolished, and all traces of the house’s periods as both dwelling and sculpture are gone. The green house, however, lives on in Bergen Art Museum’s collection, represented by the little model that stands exhibited on a mount made from original wooden panels from the house’s façade.

In contrast to the house sculpture on Askøy the sculptures shown at Hordaland Art Centre were not destroyed, and the possibility of showing these in other places has been discussed. The artists are curious about how the works would function detached from their original setting. There is, however, a very defined context that Ådlandsvik and Müller ultimately decided they wanted the sculptures to be shown in, a context that connects to the project’s background history and which would give the old modest house in Holmendalshammaren an honorable afterlife:

LRM: It would be nice to put one of the sculptures from Hordaland Art Centre in one of the new houses on the plot. Like a greeting from the past.

 

[1] One should of course also mention that some of the explosive development in the population of Askøy is due to political changes: in 1964 the Northern parts of the island, which previously belonged to the district of Herdla, were given to the district of Askøy.

 

Published in Stian Ådlandsvik & Lutz-Rainer Müller, You only tell me you love me when you´re drunk, Revolver Publishing, 2015.

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