La Norme Idéale
with Alfredo Aceto, Beatrice Balcou, Valerian Goalec, Erika Hock / Manuel Graf, Ištvan Išt Huzjan, G. Küng, Tom Lowe, Alex Morrison, David de Tscharner
date_from 16/11/2017 — 20/01/2018
While discussing with Ištvan Išt Huzjan during the making of the show, it appeared that our perception of the modernist utopia was different. According to him, ways of life rationalization and its actualization through standardization was perceived in Eastern Europe as successful: it was a motor of urban and social progress. Yet, in Western Europe, it seemed to be the concrete proof of the modernist thinking limits and of its naïveté. Couldn’t modernist thinking become real in the capitalist society?
Let’s take for instance Le Quartier des Etats-Unis in Lyon, designed by Tony Garnier between 1919 and 1933: the huge urbanistic project commissioned by l’Office des Habitations à Bon Marché (one of the first instances of modern social housing) was eventually disfigured by public authorities. Originally harmonious and egalitarian, standardisation soon meant saving money and dehumanizing. Tony Garnier was maybe one of the first to consider the Ideal City no longer from a philosopher’s or theologian’s point of view, but from an urbanist’s: he wanted to actually build it. Admittedly some of Fourier’s “phalansters” were built, but these heterotopias , as defined by Foucault, were the mere applications of a philosophical theory.
More or less at the same time, Walter Gropius asks similar questions in a kind of manifesto:
“The assumption that the industrialization of construction creates violence toward the individuals and the disfigurement of buildings is utterly wrong. It’s basically the result of a misunderstanding of the schematic application of types, which keep a part of subjectivity or the result of economical benefits of some isolated groups. Type isn’t slowing the cultural development but is rather one of its bases. (…) It makes the difference between the supra-individual and the subjective. Type was always part of the civilizing order of the society.”
(Normung und Wohnungsnot, 1926)
Two culprits are pointed out by Gropius: subjectivity and money; romanticism and capitalism.
Was the modernist ideal hijacked? Is there a good and a bad modernism? The artists of the show have been invited to answer this question: what remains of the modernist ideal of standardization?
Designers and architects could have been invited too; yet artists embody better our (postmodern?) ambiguity toward modernism: while they dismantle past forms in a critical and analytical way, they stay nonetheless attached to self-expression, and thus to subjectivity.
According to John Ruskin, self expression played an important part in medieval work and was perceived as a token of Christian fallibility. Together with William Morris, they were preaching a social art where life can dwell and thrive: an art of the imperfection, the opposite of Hegel’s idealism. Thus Morris (one of Alex Morrison’s big inspiration) wanted to create a middle way with his streamlined hand-crafted furniture collections built in humane working conditions.
Morris was looking for a compromise between producing an ideal and universal form (thus modernist) and a pre-standardized means of production. As for him, over-standardized production creates only “makeshifts”. The mechanization of production leads to the disappearance of the humane in the creation process, and then, also on other levels of the object’s life cycle. But Morris’ point of view relies on the same mistake as the blind modernity he denounces: to presuppose a universal a universal taste and use, beyond the individuals. Once again, is it only misinterpretation of the “norm”?
Setting types and technical norms (…) should be done step by step. Otherwise, a forced transformation would favor the model when it’s the individual who should be the starting point. ” (Gropius, idem)
Why then ask the question to artists? Adolf Loos made fun of them because, unlike craftsmen, they were disconnected from reality. But the slight gap is precisely what allows a critical approach to productivity; they’re able to get around the material constraints that altered the modernists ideals.
The question the show is based on leads to reflect also on the concept of subjectivity. Still very present in most of today’s art practices, it has evolved through the prism of post-modernism and become flexible and multi-faceted. Detached from the unchanging romantic and modernist historical ideals, the artists bring material answers to ever open questions.