COLLECTIVE NUMBING OR ARCHITECTURE AS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS
Protagoras' famous Sophist phrase “Man is the measure of all things” is one of the most eminent – and at the same time gloomy – axioms of human existence. In the history of art, the Vitruvian man of Leonardo Da Vinci and The Modulor of Le Corbusier, are specifically imposed in relation to two essential archetypes. While the first model, faithful to the renaissance ideal, incarnated the perfect proportions of the human body, in the case of the second, exponent of architectural rationalism, we are witness to an anthropomorphic scale applied to the architectural space, a humanist expression of the habitable space.
In the case of Gustavo Acosta (Havana, 1958), we could agree that the procedure takes place the other way around. Interested in having access to the human scale – increasingly inaccessible these days, Acosta surveys the architectural space, breaks it down, questions it, submitting it to dissimilar systems of analysis to, perhaps, gain access to the human. We are thus witness to a sort of urban archaeology where architecture becomes, I dare to affirm, the measure of all things.
Ever since Acosta's earliest incursions, in which he explored architectural typologies (train stations, parks, amphitheaters) that were rundown or once in ruins, even his most recent series, Inventory of Omissions, the interest has always been the same: the unraveling of human nature based on the inhabited or seconded space.
The procedures for the deconstruction of space are dissimilar. The monumental scale where the architectural colossus stands as the antipode of the human predominates in some of his series. In others, it is precisely the incisive selection of the magnified detail – as a sort of very detailed foreground, the clue to new existential concerns. In all of them, the masterful use of color which is an essential psychological component contributes new layers of meaning in the deciphering of the pieces.
Located in the modern city, Inventory of Omissions, recently exhibited in the New York Thomas Jaeckel Gallery, rethinks the urban outline and the contemporary habitable space. The images of reference from dissimilar places (Havana, Miami, New York, Aleppo) have as a common factor the imminent sense of disaster where human beings look oppressed, exiled or definitively absent.
Inventory of Omissions imposes a fundamental historic referent that cannot be avoided: the rationalist functionalism of modern architecture. The movement which emerged in Europe precisely after the ravages of World War I, characterized by the formal simplification, the divestment of vacuous decorations as well as the incorporation of new materials like steel and reinforced concrete, the exponent of a new international style, and that soon, with the arrival to power of German nationalism, sees a great many of its exponents migrate, continuing their experimentations in other countries. It is not by chance that Acosta makes such different countries cohabitate. Aleppo – an essential counterpoint – becomes the symbol of contemporary displacement: one of the most highlighted problems of current society.
In this sense, the particular use of color in this series becomes emblematic. Distributed in geometrically flat areas superimposed on the urban landscape in a sort of concrete outline, the color would seem to give back certain structure and harmony to the desolated places they support. Indissolubly linked to modern architecture, concrete art is also an expression of the unfinished historical avant–gardes in Europe due to the ravages of the war and whose culmination took place in the American continent. This is the essential nucleus sustained by Inventory of Omissions.
In some cases, like in Archeology News and Concordia (both from 2016), we are witness to geometrical compositions in which the artist uses the brise–soleil as a leitmotif. In them, the flat detail of the serialized architectural module becomes a wall and impossibility, a cacophony or sort of pixelization of the image that would seem to enter in frank contradiction with the sense of clarity of modern art and the society it incarnates. This “noise of the image” is reaffirmed by other pieces included in the display (The Shortcut, The Temptation to Look Back, both from 2017), in which the pixelization of the color zones is evident. This series of pieces functions within the collection as flat details extracted from the panoramic views that also make up the present display and which have been carefully subdivided by flat color areas that establish a checkerboard composition. This sort of superimposed grille generates a new perceptive dynamics suggested by the stylistic and chromatic treatment of each new window that is opened inside the square in a sui generis compositional hierarchy.
Auto de fe (2017) is an exponent of this group. Subdivided into five color areas, the title of the piece emphasizes one of the zones of the canvas (lower left), highlighting the autonomy of each area. This effect of synecdoche is another vital tool in the series where the fragment stands as a sign and symptom of a society in crisis. The color areas function as filters superimposed on the canvas which determine the stylistic treatment of each area and act as a hint of the extended notion of the canvas as a window. The depth – not just of field but of communication – has been supplanted by that “glossy skin” sensation expressed by Fred Jameson. Inventory of Omissions – as its name indicates – points to the perceptive capacity of a recipient who, overexposed to the continuous media bombardment, experiences a chronic numbing feeling or what Sianne Ngai defines as “Stuplimity.”
While Kant's sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call “stuplimity” is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation and combination, and taxonomic classification. Though both encounters give rise to negative affect, “stuplimity” involves comic exhaustion rather than terror.
The affective dimensions of the small subject's encounter with a “total system”.
The pinnacle of rationalist architecture and of concrete art takes place in postwar America. It is also the moment when television becomes a landmark, launching the popular culture of the masses. Regarding this, Inventory of Omissions encloses a clin d'oeil associated to the notion of status and chimera associated with the media. In Cuba, during the 1980s, many homes in the interior of the country did not have access to a color TV set, opting for capricious creativity: horizontal color bands were painted on the cathodic screens of black and white TV sets, from the now extinct socialist camp, through which the monochromatic images could be seen… now in color.
Distorted images, loss of depth and collective numbing are some of the most important subplots that inspire Inventory of Omissions.
Catalog of missing parts, 2017 / Mixed media / 43 x 43 in / Courtesy the author Auto de Fe, 2017 / Mixed media / 43 x 96 in / Courtesy the author 1. Ngai, Sianne: Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), p.36