South Bank Surreal

Psycho Buildings: why artists should plan our cities.

Nobody ever says – hey, let’s go to the Hayward Gallery, the way they do of the Tate or the National Gallery or any museum. Apart from having no permanent display, the Hayward is strangely invisible, considering how powerful its Brutalist 1960s South Bank architecture is. It is not a marketable brand. So is it an insanely rash move for director/curator Ralph Rugoff to ask artists to respond to this gritty building in celebration of the Hayward Gallery’s 40th birthday? No, it is not. Artists being alchemists, they have turned the weird concrete monolith into a palace of intriguing follies.

“Psycho Buildings” is a brilliant title for a show that deserves to be one of the Hayward’s biggest hits for ages. Firstly because, self-evidently, the place is a Psycho Building itself. It’s getting fashionable to admire it now, probably because it is so brazenly incorrect – the full-fat opposite of the skinny-latte white cube approach which has come to dominate gallery design in recent years. Its raw, factory-like quality is exactly the sort of space installation artists dream of. Their works colonise and feed off the building like fungus. They have responded with vigour, humour, ingenuity and something that looks a lot like love.

So you can paddle little two-person boats around on one of the flooded upper sculpture terraces, courtesy of the Austrian artists’ collective Gelitin. You can ascend into a large transparent geodesic dome high on the roof and bounce around in it like maniacs, courtesy of Argentinian-born Tomas Saraceno who thinks of this work as a cloud-like floating metropolis. You can go to the cinema on another slice of the Hayward’s often overlooked roofscape, and sit in Slovenian Tobias Putrih’s miniature oval picture house made of plywood and PVC and called “Venetian Atmospheric”. Inspired by a 1929 cinema in the Bronx, the films it shows are of other artists’ takes on architecture. The disorientating thing is to be in what is normally a sound-insulated space, and to hear all the noise of the city around you.

Inside, the weakest contribution is the one that is most pictured: “Show Room” by the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros. An apartment or showroom filled with Ikea and B&Q furniture is caught in the act of a huge explosion. Something – an imagined bomb or tornado – has ripped through the wall and blown the place and its contents to smithereens. The fragments are held in mid-blast, suspended on fishing line. So what, I felt. Cornelia Parker has made better work out of the aftermath of such disasters, and in her case they are real ones.

But there is something much more rewarding in the next basement room. Rachel Whiteread’s “Place” is a hill town at twilight, made from her vast hoard of second-hand dolls’ houses. The lights are on – each house is lit from within – but there’s nobody at home. It is an appealing but mysterious place – where is everybody? Individual houses, all different, but lacking the individuals they represent? That aside, it is quite simply a beautiful composition, a room you will want to linger in.

Upstairs you’ll find two more dolls’ houses, so large they are given a room to themselves. Korean-born Do Ho Suh’s “Fallen Star” is all to do with his arrival in America: his old Korean home is crashing into his New York apartment block like a meteorite, blasting it apart and presenting us with an astonishingly detailed depiction of the lives lived in the two cultures – object-rich in the West, sparse in the East. Its forensic exactitude is almost too much. I prefer the more sensory environments made by Brazilian Ernesto Neto (organically-shaped mesh cage seemingly growing fruiting bodies, emitting gorgeous spicy scents) or German Michael Beutler, who has made a magical place of filtered, coloured light, as if deep on some forest floor, out of wire mesh and coloured tissue paper.

I should mention the only architects in the show. Since they come from Japan and are known as Atelier Bow-Wow, it’s obvious that these are not the sort of designers who run up district general hospitals for a living. Their “Life Tunnel” is however highly architectural – responding directly to the Hayward’s interiors, precisely-assembled out of galvanised steel plate, it is like some crazy air duct. Generated by a child-like outline of a house, it twists into something more like a Vorticist composition. And you can walk right through it.

In all this work, whether by accident of design, there is something of a post-apocalyptic feel. No more so than upstairs in what is carefully manipulated to feel like some forgotten two-room attic. A rough wooden hatch has carelessly been left open, it seems. Some hideous Jabberwocky, has escaped. Pray you don’t run into it. Because while it was incarcerated up there it has gouged and ripped the walls with its mighty talons and teeth: the evidence is everywhere but the beast has gone.

Called “To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft”, it’s a parody of a parody of a tale of supernatural horror, by British artist Mike Nelson. You must traverse this dread domain in order to get to some of the jolly outdoor stuff. And it’s this bonkers diversity that makes this show so rewarding. A “psychobuilding”, in German artist Michael Kippenburger’s definition, is a spirited riposte to mainstream modernism. Rather like the Hayward itself, which was always frankly barking, and all the better for it. Go to see this show, and you’ll come away, as I did, wondering why we don’t just put artists in charge of all our cities.

Words and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on 8 June 2008, as “Model Villages”.


Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture is at London’s Hayward Gallery on the South Bank until August 25.