In his second solo show at Matteawan Gallery, on view through Sunday, November 5, Brooklyn artist Björn Meyer-Ebrecht (b. Hamburg, Germany) presents abstract drawings and a site-specific installation that expand his ongoing interest in the basic elements of architecture. Readers may remember the unorthodox exhibitions Meyer-Ebrecht organized during Bushwick Open Studios – Communal Table (2014), Common Room (2015), and Open Space (2016) – for which he created idiosyncratic architectural spaces and platforms inside his studio and then invited artists to display their work within his installations. On the occasion of his solo show at Matteawan, Two Coats of Paint invited Meyer-Ebrecht to share some of the ideas that inform his recent work.
1. A visit to the “Weissenhofsiedlung”
When I was 20 years old, I visited the Weissenhof Estate (“Weissenhofsiedlung”) in Stuttgart. Built in the late 20’s, this housing development is one of the most significant examples of early modernist architecture. With Mies van der Rohe as the lead architect it involved important architects, including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Hans Sharoun. It is sloped on a hillside outside the city. Each building uses a similarly reductive language, yet the results are very different and idiosyncratic. I encountered this ensemble of buildings rather like a group of sculptures then as functional structures. My body moved around between these buildings in present time while my mind was immersed in a historic space. This was my first intense experience of modern architecture, and it stays with me today.
2. Kafka’s “Amerika”
Rereading Kafka’s Amerika last year, I was especially interested by the fact that Kafka wrote this novel without ever having set foot onto this continent. It seems to be a necessary fact for this book, that he only uses second-hand information to construct America as a fictional space. The protagonist Karl moves through a succession of mostly interior spaces. The view of America is never more than partial and obstructed. The description of cities and geography mixes American vernacular with old-world imagery of cities and landscape. I find this idea of constructed space in my own work. In my drawings place and space are not the same. Each drawing creates its own fictional space and leaves the idea of place behind. The context instead is the space in front of the drawing – the space the viewer inhabits, which becomes stage for viewer’s (or my own) projection.
3. Malevich’s sketches
A while ago I saw a retrospective by Kazimir Malevich at the Tate in London. Within this show, there was a room full of Malevich’s pencil sketches. In the most economical way each drawing here outlines the design for a painting by marking the canvas as a small rectangle on a sheet of paper. Hung in chronological order, these drawings created a miniature retrospective on their own terms. While looking at Malevich’s paintings, one had to see through dirt, patina, cracks, and other signs of their age to get to what the painting may have looked like, when it was painted. These drawings instead looked fresh, precise, and immediate. It seemed like all the ideas for the paintings were already contained in these drawings. It made me think about how idea and execution often happen in separate stages. Work and idea always belong together, yet they are also two slightly different things.
4. Robert Morris: “The box with the sound of its own making”
During my first year of art school in Berlin I saw Robert Morris’ retrospective “The Mind/Body Problem” in Hamburg. The box with the sound of its own making from 1961 stayed especially relevant as a memory from that show. No more then the title describes, this sculpture consists of a simple unpainted closed wooden box, playing a recording of sawing and hammering and other noises related to it’s production. It obviously presages process art. But to me this work resonates, because in the simplest way it admits its own historicity. It acknowledges that it was made under certain circumstances, with a specific idea at a specific moment in history. Idea and object are not the same. This idea of contingency has an important place in my own work. As an example, in my recent installation at Matteawan, I built a wall, which has colorful geometric pattern on the front, and an unfinished backside, revealing the support structure I as built it and pointing to the fact that it is temporary structure. Here I find the notion of a backside as the more intimate or even ‘honest’ side especially intriguing. And the box with the sound of its own making may also suggest a similar morality of “truthfulness.”
5. Helio Oiticica’s “Penetrables”
I encountered Helio Oiticica’s work on a trip to Brazil – both the early “Neo-concrete” work from the ’50s and ’60s and his later immersive installations. Just recently I was able to revisit his work at his retrospective at the Whitney Museum. This show put special emphasis on how much Oiticica’s work was rooted in different continents – influenced by European constructivism, while reacting to the oppression of Brazilian dictatorial regime and the experience of the New York counterculture.
My main interest lies in the way Oiticica transitioned away from abstract painting. It is not that he straightforwardly set out to overcome formalism, but rather that he applied its principles to an ever-expanding context. He opened painting up into space, before opening up his sculpture to become immersive installation. The “Penetrables” series is a great example, in which Oiticica creates architecture almost like a garden and invites the visitor in to participate in a communal experience. These installations invite casual interactions (often barefoot) and still retain a formal and architectural rigor.
6. Franz Erhard Walther “1. Work Series” (1963-1969)
Franz Erhard Walther’s sculptures have been in the back of my mind for a long time, although I am mostly familiar with his work as reproduction. These black-and-white photographs, in which people interact with Walther’s objects, are especially intriguing to me. Interaction with his work is not participatory in the sense that the art opens itself up to the life of the viewer. Quite the opposite is the case: the viewer becomes part of a highly formal artwork. This phenomenon is emphasized by the settings of the photographs – either in empty gallery or studio spaces or in expansive fields of grass with no further context or landscape. Art and life do meet here, yet on the most choreographed and artificial terms.
7. My collection of architectural images
I have large collection of architectural images, mostly in old architecture books and magazines. It connects my studio practice to the outside world. Architectural photographs are representations of a physical reality. At the same time, they are historical documents, capturing a specific moment in history. Paradoxically, while my body projects itself into the physical spaces represented in a picture, my mind is acutely aware of my disconnectedness from its specific historic circumstances. This push/pull relationship serves as the underlying principle of my ink drawings.
In photographs of modernist architecture, buildings and spaces are almost always empty. In my mind, these spaces turn into stages, settings for imaginary scenes. The buildings look like models – not even intended for real usage. Sometimes I think that the real purpose of modernist architecture was to be photographed and experienced through pictures. Its actual use was close to irrelevant, and the ensuing decay not even considered.
8. Gerrit Rietveld’s “Crate Furniture”
Rietveld’s thinking about architecture starts where one board touches the next. In a way, the chair is the smallest architectural unit to create a structure in relation to the body, and it seems perfect for Rietveld’s purposes. The simplicity in the design of Rietveld “Crate Furniture” gave me the decisive clue about how to conceive and build my own architectural objects. Through Rietveld I realized that utilitarian furniture can be sculpture, and that sculpture can serve as a utilitarian object.