Friday, December 18, 2009

Exploded View - Matt Olson: Radical Art/chitecture - Gianni Pettena

Ice House I (1972 Mpls) Gianni Pettena - phot FRAC Centre

"Are you making something or destroying something?"

That was the question posed by a kid who stopped to watch Italian artist/architect Gianni Pettena work on Clay House: Situation #4, a work described in an Artforum article from 1972 as a "common frame house in Minneapolis (that) was completely covered in clay." I'm not sure if the kid knew it, but it was a perfect and somewhat profound question; and one that would have applied to other works that Pettena did while he was here in Minneapolis in 1971-72 as a visiting professor of design at MCAD, which was then part of the MIA.

Gianni Pettena was a key figure in the radical architecture and anti-design movement that happened during the sixties and early seventies. Along with Italians like Superstudio, Archizoom and Ugo La Pietra, as well as collectives like Archigram in England and Haus Rucker Co in Germany, Pettena created works that challenged what architecture's role was. Their work crossed boundaries into other areas of avant-garde culture, music and art. Ultimately, the movement would end up influencing many of today's most heralded architects like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.

Ice House II (1972 Mpls) - Gianni Pettena photo FRAC Centre

A lot of the work created by these radical art/chitecture groups was theoretical and informed by a post-pop art, political and social take on emerging technology and often contained a sense of the youthful violence that was also present in Futurism, another avant-garde movement that was largely Italian. Pettena's work seems a little different though, more abstract, playful and poetic. He was most interested in the boundaries between art and architecture and stated once that "artists build and architects draw", believing that it's usually artists that propose visual languages directed at the transformation of space rather than architects. Pettena was trained as an architect but his actual building has been very limited, preferring in his early years to use the language of conceptual and environmental art, and in later years to work as a teacher and prolific critic.

The work Pettena did while he was in Minneapolis is some of his best. Ice House I was a former school that was turned into a giant block of ice, in Ice House II, a house gets the same treatment.

His installations at the MIA were brilliant. His Wearable Chair was a fantastic, playful piece that involved Pettena and his students taking a directed walk to and from downtown Minneapolis all wearing their chairs. While the piece was mocked in a Star Tribune review at the time, it looks more like an early example of 'experientialist art' rather than furniture design now.

Wearable Chair (1972) - Gianni Pettena

Gianni Pettena is one of my favorite figures in art and architecture because his work while being dense and deeply interesting, both philosophically and intellectually, is also filled with poetry and immediate intuitive possibility.

It's that sense of poetry and possibility that makes me wonder if the kid who asked him "Are you making something or destroying something?" really "got" the work on a deep level.

I highly encourage you to look in to Gianni Pettena's whole career, but especially the work he created here in 1971-72. Also check out some posts at the ROLU studio blog written by last year's winter intern, Nicolas Allinder, here, here and here.

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