‘Water - Instance No. 1’
Text for the solo show ‘Water’ (Curator: Jo-ey Tang)
Beeler Gallery, Columbus College of Art and Design Columbus, Ohio, USA, 10 Oct 2019 - 15 Mar 2020
Paris-based artist Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann‘s project WATER is structured as an active score. Referring to water’s states from liquid to solid, from filtration to contamination, the artist is interested in how multiple voices from the past and the present materialize, in traversing various nodes: the disappearance of the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Japan and the craft and design history of architect Charlotte Perriand during World War II.
For Instance No. 1 at Beeler Gallery, Badaut Haussmann addresses a case of, what art historian Aby Warburg calls, Nachleben, the survival, or afterlife, of one cultural tradition within another. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Warburg was concerned with understanding how the cultural traditions of Greco-Roman antiquity “survived” into the European Renaissance, stripped of their original meaning yet, nevertheless, preserved intact.
Reversing the terms of Warburg’s analysis, Badaut Haussmann’s project considers the survival of modernity within a semi-feudal setting: At the center of her installation, Water, is the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, Japan, a building designed by Japanese architect Sakakura Junzo in 1951 as the nation’s first public contemporary art center. Located on the grounds of a medieval shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, and sited overlooking Heike Pond, a water garden designed in the year 1182, the museum enacts a confrontation between Japanese landscape aesthetics and the landscape-denying principles of European modernism, which Sakakura had absorbed as a trainee in the Paris atelier of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. A two-story concrete box supported by bare steel girders, the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura contrasts sharply with its surroundings, interrupting the traditional harmony of “wild nature” versus “artificial nature.” Even so, water remains a dominant element in Sakakura’s design. Channeling visitors toward a covered walkway and sculpture garden overlooking the lotus pond, the museum ends up “exhibiting” the aquatic landscape as a primary object of display—a spectacle on par with the artworks within its galleries.
The career of the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura formally ended in 2016 when the prefectural government declined to renew the museum’s land lease with Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, citing the highcosts of retrofitting and upkeep. Soon thereafter, Sakakura’s building would be transferred to its former landlord, which initially considered demolishing the museum, sparking an international outcry from architects and preservationists. As of June 2019 the museum has been repurposed by the shrine to display Shinto artificats and relics—an about-face marking a reversal, not just of the museum’s fortunes, but also of historical time itself, rehousing antiquity within modernity’s empty shell.
Upon learning of the museum’s potential (but eventually thwarted) demolition, Badaut Haussmann traveled to Kamakura in 2017 during an artist residency at Villa Kujoyama, Kyoto, shooting a series of photographs of the museum’s empty galleries and shuttered grounds. For Instance No. 1 at Beeler Gallery, she continues to explore the temporal rift between the museum’s closure and its reopening, reconstructing Sakakura’s original museum ticket booth in the entrance to Beeler Gallery. Once inside the galleries, visitors confront a shimmering floor-to-ceiling curtain, which might evoke the meeting place of architecture and water; or, perhaps, the margin between different cultural regimes and historical temporalities. Over the course of Season Two: Follow the Mud, Badaut Haussmann will take charge of the gallery’s illumination, bypassing the existing overhead lighting in order to reveal (and conceal) the traces of each Instance.
Interjected throughout the galleries are other objects and elements reflecting Badaut Haussmann’s engagement with the margins of modern architecture. Among them is her recreation of a bamboo stool that the architect-cum-designer Charlotte Perriand—also a collaborator of Le Courbusier and friend of Sakakura—included in her exhibition, Sélection, Tradition, Création, held at the Takashimaya department stores in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, from March to May 1941. Although Perriand had been commissioned by Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry to explore traditional Japanese design techniques, these stools, which she had seen at the home of Kyoto-based ceramicist Kawai Kanjiro, were in fact low-cost furnishings designed and manufactured in he Japanese colony of Taiwan (Perriand worked with Japanese craftsmen to recreate the design for Sélection, Tradition, Création), and would thus have served as a covert reminder of capitalist imperialism and subaltern resistance.
In Badaut Haussmann’s installation, the bamboo stool entwines histories of modernist Orientalism and anti-Colonial Leftism (Perriand was, among other things, a staunch anti-fascist) with the experience and perspective of motherhood. As demonstrated in Perriand’s promotional photos from Sélection, Tradition, Création, the stool, when turned over on its side, served as a makeshift high chair for infants, cradling the child’s body within its lattice of bamboo struts. Amplifying this maternal aspect of the stool, Badaut Haussmann tailors her replicas to the dimensions of her won daughter’s body and, in so doing, weaves her artistic practice into the unwritten story of feminist design—a legacy as dark and shapeless as mud.
In the history of architecture, the element of water is most often treated like a zoo animal, charming to look at, but only from a safe distance. Channeled Into waterfalls and reflecting pools, water plays the part of architecture’s foil, performing the beguilements of Nature—the Eternal feminine—opposite hard-dicked Culture. But the powers of water are not so easily constrained. Shrugging off the zookeeper’s commands, water eats away at hard-set concrete, penetrating skylights and casements, disintegrating fac¸ades, and spreading rot and ruin in its wake. Reluctant to confront water on equal footing, most architects opt for a pantomime of mastery, conjuring spurting fountains and supine ponds fit for Narcissus. In the end, however, water dominates: the ceiling drips, the pool leaks, and the forces of fluidity advance.
Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann is a friend of water. Her work explores hidden currents and counter-flows in the archives of modern art, architecture, and design, focusing on the role of women architects and artists, non- Westerners, and vernacular makers both inside and along the margins of the avant-garde.