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In her recently published Other Planes of There: Selected Writings, artist Renée Green describes her 1999 exhibition Partially Buried in Three Parts as an exploration “of genealogical traces,” where overlapping investigations examine the ways people reinterpret their past to their “contemporary relations to a natal patria” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014, 275–276). The exhibition, for Green, was also a meditation on what site-specificity might mean when the concept of location is increasingly “affected for many by circuit relations, meaning that a sense of place and time can depend largely on where one’s computer screen is and when memory is heavily mediated for some by computer storage capacity” (276). Beyond the information-age metaphors, what is interesting about this passage is Green’s odd association of site-specificity with “natal patria”—the time and place of one’s birth. This particular articulation of site-specificity underscores a recurrent theme in Green’s work, that of site as a biographical index or a temporal inscription of the body. This interest in the body as a “circuit” for time lurks in the crevices of Renée Green: Begin Again, Begin Again at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. The exhibition, an assemblage of old and new works that span almost ten years of activity, are configured into a total installation, transforming Rudolph Schindler’s iconic West Hollywood home into an immersive experience. In doing so, Green presents the site as a kind of conduit for multiple bodies’—Schindler, Paul Robeson, Muriel Rukeyser, Albert Einstein, among others—movement through time and space.
Temporality as a source of inspiration within architectural thought, especially in moments of massive technological shifts, is not unprecedented. As Linda Dalrymple Henderson has argued in The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), the historical avant-garde was deeply influenced by the popularization of Einsteinian and non-Euclidian spatial theories such as the fourth-dimension—a level of reality where time and space unify into a single continuum. According to Henderson, such ideas were routinely deployed—often incorrectly and with a heavily mystical connotation—in early twentieth-century manifestos to theorize a burgeoning notion of the fourth-dimension as a veritable new medium of architecture. Strategies for embodying this new theory of dimensionality abounded, often vacillating between mimetic and kinetic programs, but if one motif might characterize notions of space at the time, it is the concept’s routinely temporal register. Perhaps, then, architecture’s unrealized fourth-dimensional future was already lurking in the recesses of Schindler’s thoughts when in 1912 he proclaimed that the architect “has finally discovered the medium of his art: SPACE” (Schindler’s emphasis). This quote, from his early architectural manifesto, appears to have captured Green’s interest, as she has decided to include a reprinting of its contents on a pair of 18” x 22’’ letterpress prints titled A Manifesto: A Program (2015). In addition to the prints, excerpts from Schindler’s writings are interspersed within a succession of years that begin at his birth and lead to the present day in several video, sculptural, and sound installations. Whether or not Schindler’s concept of space possesses such historical valences, Green’s novel understanding of site-specificity permeates the exhibition. In this way, she has successfully created an atmosphere that reanimates much of the mystical character of her forerunners’ elusive theories of “architectural time.”
This esoteric tone is echoed in the exhibition’s statement, which describes the various installations as a “circulatory experience,” where all facets—material and immaterial—combine to “perform” the Schindler House through “converging contrapuntal points.” What might these melodic convergences be? It would appear they are the “genealogical traces,” which in Green’s view entangle her biography with that of the Austrian architect himself (both lived between Vienna and California). Circulatory, then, is indeed an apt description of Begin Again, Begin Again as one tends to find oneself wandering through and around the house searching for some point—contrapuntal or otherwise—to hone in on as the specific concern tying together the show. Be that as it may, Green’s transformation of the house into a meandering soundscape produces a sensory experience in which the interior and exterior of the home take on decidedly different personas, thereby reinforcing the theme of collapsing two biographies.
For example, installed in the rear courtyard is an older work—the fifty-minute, single-channel sound installation Muriel’s Words (2004). In a soft and scarcely audible voice, Green gently whispers a series of discontinuous excerpts from the work of the U.S. poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (a continual source of fascination for the artist). Cryptic passages such as “it is their violence” and “land, allow me to stand” are read under the breath. The hushed tone leaves one with the sensation of rudely eavesdropping on someone secretly reciting journal entries. Moreover, the texture of Green’s voice feminizes the back exterior of the building in a way distinctly different from the ominous low-toned voice that inhabits the house itself.
At the same time, emerging from the house at the brief moment of silence when Muriel’s Words loops is a haunting baritone voice that utters “begin again, begin again.” Not only does the second voice produce an affective shift in the soundscape, but as the command itself asserts, it punctuates a moment when the entire installation seems to reset itself—beginning again. The voice of this masculine persona is that of the artist’s brother, Derrick Green, a frontman for the heavy metal group Sepultura. The singer’s voice emanates from three separate rooms in a five-channel sound installation, naturally titled Begin Again, Begin Again (Circulatory Sound) (2015). Unlike Muriel’s Words, the interior recording is a series of distinctly audible passages sourced from Schindler, Paul Bowles, and Thomas Mann, to name just a few. That said, Green’s numerous references do not lend themselves to easy summarization, and perhaps it is here that the show begins to become a bit oversaturated with material. Nonetheless, what remains consistent among these divergent allusions is the recitation of Schindler’s theses on architecture, which take on an almost catechistic quality as they are literally echoed in both speech and images repeatedly throughout the site.
Take, for instance, what may be considered the show’s centerpiece, the single-channel video Begin Again, Begin Again I. 1887–1929 (2015), a roughly forty-five minute montage interweaving images of the house with historic footage, oceanic tidal scenes, and various architectural sites. The piece’s juxtapositions of human, earthly, and “architectural” time elevates Schindler House into a kind of monastery. Moreover, this piece is unique in that it was an ongoing production throughout the show and thus foregrounded the temporality of the exhibition itself. In this regard, the piece activates Green’s interest in the entire installation as a kind of “performance,” rather than a mere presentation of objects. Begin Again, Begin Again I is situated among and contextualized by older works such as Elsewhere (2002), Here Until October (2004), Climates and Paradoxes (2005), and Selected Life Indexes (2005), intimating ways in which biography, site-specificity, and temporality can undermine routine retrospective formats, albeit not explicitly.
This question of what a retrospective can be is the second major theme Begin Again, Begin Again comes just short of answering. This lingering question is a consistent theme compounded by Green’s resuscitation of her own iconography. For instance, lining the roof of the house is a series of eight double-sided Deko-Tex banners, titled Space Poem #5 (Years & Afters) (2015), which range in alternating chartreuses, magentas, violets, neon yellows, and so on. The color schemes as well as the banners themselves seem to riff on well-known figurative devices Green has deployed throughout her career (Endless Dreams and Time-Based Streams (2010) is a recent example). The banners are divided into two types—those listing a succession of years between Schindler’s and Green’s major life events and others containing cryptic passages (e.g., “after the last cold mountain,” “after the quarrel,” “after Melville,” and “after I am dead darling”). Beginning in the year of Schindler’s birth, 1897, each banner alternates within a series that leads up until the year of the exhibition, 2015. Like other works created specifically for the show, these passages suggest a doubling back onto prior works, as the quotes appear to be retrieved from Selected Life Indexes (2005), again reinforcing the artwork itself as an index of time. This motif further recurs in the various postcards, books, letterpresses, plates, manuscripts, and other ephemera contained within the vitrines exhibited throughout the house.
Pieces such as Vitrine II, Vitrine III, and Vitrine IV (all 2015) also repeat the broader theme of collapsing Green’s biography with those of Schindler, Robeson, Einstein, as well as introducing the work of the contemporary architect Minsuk Cho (whose inclusion can only invite more speculation). The first in the series, Vitrine I (Other Planes of There) (2015), showcases several iterations of her book by the same title at different stages of the publication process. This piece, perhaps more than any others, leaves one with the suspicion that the exhibition is, as Sharon Mizota wrote for the Los Angeles Times, little more than “a retrospective masquerading as an installation,” concealing a lack of a clear goal ( Sharon Mizota, “Renee Green’s Constellation of Personal Moments,” Los Angeles Times (February 6, 2015).
This feeling is perhaps reinforced by the decision to reserve an adjacent room for patrons to lounge and comfortably leaf through Green’s recently published book. However, I am reluctant to cast such a heavy judgment on the exhibition as a whole, as I do believe Green points to compelling ways to think “retrospectively” through the relationship between time-based media, the exhibition as form, and architectural space while also attempting to make large historical connections. That said, Begin Again, Begin Again in many respects strikes one as a first draft in a much larger project—but a project whose next step is to resolve how its contents can feel more than just ancillary to the “performance” that Green wants to activate.
MFA candidate, Critical and Curatorial Studies Program, Department of Art, University of California, Irvine