Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster

Wouter Davidts

On Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976)

Windows make great targets. The Breaking of glass has considerable effect: it makes a lot of noise and by default the result is a mess. Moments of anger or revolt nearly always yield an aftermath of shattered windows. Whereas throwing a stone through a window or smashing a windowpane into smithereens can occasionally be liberating, both acts are indisputably violent, regardless of the nature of the regime that governs the interior space. The symbolic impact and gist of banging a door or crashing a window differ respectively to a large extent. Whereas the former is directed primarily at gaining entrance or exit, the latter is aimed at procuring relative freedom or openness. Windows are among the most delicate elements in buildings. They serve as complex interfaces between a life of relative shelter inside and a world of total exposure outside—a lesson dutifully rehearsed in both modern and postmodern architecture.

It may come as no surprise then that windows figure prominently in the relatively short but rich art-historical tradition of symbolic assaults on institutions. Since the 1960s, architecture is duly seen as the discipline and practice that represents and empowers “the system,” or, in other words, institutions and the social order. Architecture indeed provides institutions with a material framework in which to negotiate spaces for their respective regimes within the world at large. By targeting those architectural elements that define and demarcate spaces—the foundations, the walls and the roof, as well as the doors, windows, and staircases—artists have aimed to reveal and challenge the art institution’s very ideological constitution.[1]

Gordon Matta-Clark’s performance and installation Window Blow-Out (1976) for the 1976 Idea as Model exhibition at the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York has secured itself a place within this lineage. When his proposal to cut up an unused and unpopular seminar room couldn’t be realized, the artist ultimately lined the window casements in the exhibition hall with photographs of the broken windows in an abandoned “model project” of modernist housing in the Bronx, but only after he had shot out the actual gallery windows with an air rifle. Matta-Clark was a key figure in the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, a loose assembly of radical urbanites that explored the flotsam and jetsam of the modern city for spatial opportunities for artists.[2] Window Blow-Out targeted the self-indulgent and quixotic design approach of urban reality exemplified by the participating architects, the title of the show, and, ultimately, the hosting institution.

Apart from being one of Matta-Clark’s most notorious works, Window Blow-Out is undeniably one of his most violent—literally, that is. It remains puzzling to this very day why an artist that so delicately negotiated the inferences of spatial violation of buildings by his sculptural cuts, suddenly decided to open fire on architecture, and on the windows of an architecture institution in particular. His attack had a legitimate focus, and it was timely, given the moral responsibility of architects for the rash treatment of the urban fabric of New York and the poor dwelling conditions of many of its inhabitants. Yet surprisingly, Matta-Clark opted for a material execution with an all too literal target.

Recent developments in the sociopolitical world of culture at large calls for a reconsideration of Matta-Clark’s plain assault. Window Blow-Out’s radical antagonism toward the institution and the resulting controversy represent a particular historical moment and grant the work a historical validity. Today, however, the work would meet a rather different context. The relentless questioning of the public legitimacy of both the means and the place of cultural institutions from within those institutions has not fallen on deaf ears. A new alliance with a far from self-critical but plain technocratic agenda skillfully emulates and redirects the critique back at the institution and at those for which the latter serves as a vital resource. The stones and bullets nowadays come from parties that dwell at once outside and inside the edifice.

This state of affairs demands an uncompromising rereading of both the conceptual and material expressions of past forms of institutional critique, and certainly of the critical strategies that remain available. Obviously, as much as destructive action seems obsolete, opportunistic protectionism is an equally false option. Today we face the challenge of exploring those privileged workplaces that institutions provide us with—museum, university, art school, or architecture foundation—sheltered indeed, but with vital windows on the world.

Two more texts on Gordon Matta-Clark’s Window Blow-Out (1976): Enhancing the Reputation of his Building by Letting it be Known that it was Hostile to Humanity by Francis McKee and Users and Abusers by Andrea Phillips.

Wouter Davidts lives and works in Antwerp, Belgium. He is Head of the Visual Arts Programme at Sint Lucas University College of Art and Design, Antwerp. He teaches at the Department of Architecture & Urban Planning, Ghent University (UGent) and the Drama Department of the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. He is the author of Bouwen voor de kunst? (A&S/books, 2006) and edited The Fall of the Studio (Valiz, 2009; with Kim Paice), CRACK: Koen van den Broek (Valiz, 2010), and most recently, Luc Deleu – T.O.P. office: Orban Space (Valiz, 2012; with Guy Châtel & Stefaan Vervoort). He curated Abstract USA 1958–1968. In the Galleries at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede (2010) and Orban Space: Luc Deleu – T.O.P. office at Stroom Den Haag (2012; with Stefaan Vervoort).

Notes:
  1. A list of seminal examples would include Daniel Buren’s sealing off the entrance of the Galerie Apollinaire (1968), Robert Barry’s Closed Gallery (1969), Michael Asher’s removal of the windows of the Clocktower Gallery, New York (1976), Chris Burden’s Exposing the Foundations of the Museum at the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles (1986), and examples in this century, such as Elmgreen and Dragset’s demolition of the interior architecture of the Kunsthalle Zürich (Taking Place, 2001), Santiago Sierra’s removal of the glass windows of a provincial museum in Ghent (Removal of a museum’s glass windows, 2004), Kendell Geers’s blowing up of a wall of the Antwerp Museum of Contemporary Art (MHKA) with explosives (The Devil Never Rests A.K.A. BLOW, 2004), or Doris Salcedo’s cracking open the floor of Tate Modern’s vestibule (Shibboleth, 2007). return to text
  2. The founding figure of the Institute for Art and Urban Resources was the young curator Alanna Heiss of The Municipal Art Society of New York. Inspired by the project SPACE by artists Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley in St. Katharine Docks in London, Heiss found vacant urban spaces and temporarily transformed them into artists’ studios and exhibition spaces, culminating in the alternative space P.S. 1 in 1976. For a analysis of this combined process of spatial and institutional invention and imagination, see Nancy Foote, “The Apotheosis of the Crummy Space,” Artforum, Vol. XV No. 2 (October 1976), pp. 28–37. return to text