Correction to This Article
This review of a Hirshhorn Museum exhibition on modernist architecture, in a mention of the music of Charlotte Gainsbourg, misstated the first name of her late father, who was also a singer. He was Serge Gainsbourg, not Charles Gainsbourg.

Hirshhorn "Directions" show looks back at modern buildings

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:00 AM

They say that the building you are in can affect how you think. That seems true at the Hirshhorn Museum.

The museum is housed in an elegant concrete cylinder completed in 1974, now recognized as a gem of late-modern architecture. And over the last few years, curators there have hosted work after work that addresses the "problem" of modernist architecture.

There was Terence Gower and his video riff, in 2008, on the original plans to include the Hirshhorn in a modernist utopia in the wilds of Canada. There was the video by Chris Chong Chan Fui, screened this past summer: It showed people in Malaysia learning to repurpose a minimal-modern apartment building to their un-minimal needs. Even many of the works in the this fall's survey of Argentine painter Guillermo Kuitca feature modernist structures.

And now we've got the Hirshhorn's latest "Directions" exhibition, in which the 30-year-old French artist Cyprien Gaillard and the Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres, who is 35, each contribute an installation that focuses on buildings of the modern age.

Garcia Torres's installation, titled "Je ne sais si c'en est la cause," ("I don't know if that's what caused it") is built around two slide projections. One fills a sidewall with a single black-and-white photo of an early-1960s hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. The image was shot poolside during the stylish building's long-ago heyday. The other projector fills the room's main wall with a sequence of recent color shots of the ruins of the same hotel, which was abandoned in 1989 and is now weed-filled and crumbling. About the only surviving grace note is the wreckage of ceramic murals designed by Daniel Buren, the great French conceptual artist - but before he had become "Daniel Buren, the great French conceptual artist." In St. Croix, he seemed to be crafting decor.

As we watch these images click through on their archaic projection equipment, an equally archaic turntable plays a custom vinyl record with a brief voice-over about what we're seeing. That's preceded by a song, in French chansonnier style, whose lyrics are taken from grumpy letters written by Buren from St. Croix. (The words are mostly unintelligible, even if you speak French.)

This is the umpteenth piece of contemporary art I've seen that addresses the "failed dreams of modern design." When such pieces first started appearing, in the late 1970s or so, they had a clear job to do: Modernism had been the dominant doctrine across all of visual culture, so it was only natural for postmodernism to question it as fiercely as possible.

Over the last decade or more, however, modern-themed postmodern art has slowly changed its tone. Instead of launching pointed critiques, it has come packed with nostalgia - the same nostalgia that fills Ikea with kidney-shaped tables and sells the music of Saint Etienne and other heirs to 1960s pop. In fact, the song in "Cause" evokes recent recordings by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose music revisits the late-modern moment when her father Charles, the great chansonnier, and her mother the actress Jane Birkin were major cultural figures.

The plangent tone of loss in "Cause" is hard to resist, but it also feels a touch more sentimental than barbed. It may be that a hotel in the Caribbean never really stood for that much, and certainly not for any dreams beyond making a quick buck. Which means there's not that much to make of its passing.

One gallery over, Gaillard presents a fiercer vision. His single-screen video projection called "Desniansky Raion" (named after a modernist complex in Belgrade) is divided into three "chapters." It starts with footage of a choreographed riot near St. Petersburg, moves on to the explosive demolition of a modern apartment block in the French suburbs - which was staged for the public with a laser-and-fireworks show - and closes with helicopter shots of the drabbest of skyscraper forests, housing thousands on the outskirts of Kiev.

There's some sense that the riot, organized in advance by two opposing gangs wanting to rumble, might have roots in the suburban-modern architecture that frames it. But the feeling of the footage isn't so much of mourning for the damage done, as of reveling in the perverse energy that's been created.

That reveling continues in Gaillard's demolition footage. The building being leveled, which looks like it might have been built in the 1970s, is neither being pitied nor denounced. Its destruction feels like nothing more than the occasion for sounds, lights and a party.

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