Blithe Spirits

Pageant: In Diller + Scofidio's 1999 installation, Master/Slave, robots are true social X-rays.Photo: From the collection of Rolf Fehlbaum.

Something blithe and a little intoxicating happened a couple of decades ago when New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio started looking to Marcel Duchamp as an intellectual model rather than, say, Prussia’s Bauhaus. Their designs got insouciant, strange, even giddy as they expanded modern architecture’s traditional range of subjects—space, form, function—to include words and concepts of an ironic sort. The husband-and-wife partners emphasized content over form, mind over retina.

In their Duchampian architectural universe, more than just buildings matter, and the architects-cum-artists blur disciplines to create environments of thought. The larger world came under the scrutiny of their installations “mildly, lightly, unimportantly,” as Duchamp said in another context. In Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio, their mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum, the many installations make you think—perchance to laugh. From the first steps, we encounter elegant works that comment critically on everyday social conventions with gentle ironies that leave no assumption standing. But the eye alone doesn’t explain the pieces; you have to think them through.

In Bad Press, you may wonder, for example, what to make of the image of a model wearing a crisp dress shirt on a huge video screen. In an explanatory panel, the architects cite ironing and folding instructions recommended for maximum efficiency, and on the larger-than-life screen, the starched, creased shirt effectively wears the wearer, who looks stiff and robotic. As a subversive alternative, the architects propose a row of deviant shirts, some misbuttoned, some configured like origami petals, all unwearable. The architects are pointing out that an industrial logic has infiltrated our houses and minds via notions of home economics. Our very bearing internalizes the machine, and we dress for the mechanized world like compliant little soldiers. Diller and Scofidio specialize in undoing packaged thought to expose underlying implications. The industrial revolution may have given us repressive take-home pseudo-science, but the digital age has compounded and intensified forms of cultural conformity. In the installation “Master/Slave,” scores of miniature robots riding conveyor belts file through a flat, monotonous landscape, all under antiseptic acrylic, on their way to an X-ray machine that displays their innards publicly, onscreen. A bank of video monitors displays the mechanized pageant from every angle. The robots, many of them antique, seem to stand in for people being screened and processed, like travelers wading through Customs with their luggage. Our lives are not only mechanized but also mediated: For each action, there’s an equal and opposite video display. We are never quite alone in this sinister Orwellian space.

In the Loop: Computer rendering of Diller + Scofidio's plan for the Eyebeam Atelier building in Chelsea.

As if to show that the walls around us are alive, the architects have launched a robotic drill that rides on tracks 24/7, boring holes in the gallery walls like an obsessed woodpecker. A week into the show, the white museum walls already look like Dada wallpaper. Diller + Scofidio here switch the container and the contained. For the next several months, the partitions will become riddled with holes, offering peeks into other rooms as light seeps through dots. The museum wall is no longer neutral and passive.

Of course, the architects also exhibit actual buildings in their retrospective, which was co-curated by Aaron Betsky and Michael Hays. Once few and far between, their commissions are now accelerating. The gaseous Blur Building was constructed last summer on Lake Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, where a steel structure spewing mist formed a permanent and hilarious cloud into which the intrepid ventured. New Yorkers have encountered the architects’ off-kilter delirium at Brasserie in the Seagram building, where an acrylic wall blurs the stacked wine bottles behind the bar, giving the distinct feeling you’ve already drunk too much. Last year, the architects won the competition for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, a building that opens gloriously onto the harbor, extroverted rather than introverted. In New York, the Eyebeam Atelier building, a school and gallery for the digital arts planned in Chelsea, is a fascinating configuration of involuted floors that loop their way up some twelve stories, like paper clips winding through each other.

This is a high-IQ show that delights in its combination of cutting humor, strangeness, and insight. But the best news for New Yorkers is that the couple just won the competition for the redesign of the outdoor public spaces at Lincoln Center. Ideas are under wraps, but early leaks suggest a transformation of the plazas with platform elevators emerging from the underground parking and other participatory contraptions, all orchestrated in an urban ballet mécanique. Like the Whitney walls, the passive ground becomes alive. The architects are taking the stage out of the theater, shaping a real-life performance piece that turns New Yorkers into actors dancing in an outdoor choreography. At last, their work is escaping the protected confines of the museums and galleries that long supported their alternative practice.

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Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio
Whitney Museum of American Art.

Blithe Spirits