The Utopian Buck Stops Here

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I will be showing two of my film works alongside sculptural work by Matthew Houlding in an exhibition entitled The Utopian Buck Stops Here which opens on Friday the 10th of May at Bureau Gallery in Manchester. Here is some more info about the exhibition:

Bureau is pleased to present ‘The Utopian Buck Stops Here’, an exhibition of new and existing works by Matthew Denniss and Matthew Houlding and the gallery’s second exhibition at 3 Hardman Square, Spinningfields.

In ‘Lance’ (1952), a short story about time and space travel, Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “the future is but the obsolete in reverse,” suggesting that the impulse to hurtle into the future is always, already, shadowed by its own imminent obsolescence, highlighting our complicated relationship with preservation and the passage of time. Matthew Denniss and Matthew Houlding demonstrate a shared interest in cultural mining, reusing existing material in various ways, to create works that share a dialogue between past, present, and proposed futures. This is evidenced in both artists referencing of Modernist architecture as subject matter, but also through a sense of disembodiment, and consideration of the future within their work.

Matthew Denniss’ ‘Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative’ (2013) is a new performance based film work that shows the artist dressed as the architect Buckminster Fuller, complete with Fuller’s eccentricity of wearing three watches; one watch for the time zone he was in, one for the time zone he had just departed, and a third for the time zone he was heading to. Denniss (as Fuller) symbolically builds and destroys a version of Fuller’s famed geodesic dome in the Kent countryside, exploring his interest in how geometry, the body and landscape interact, and representing both the hope and failure of the Modernist dream.

Denniss’ second film in the exhibition, ‘The Utopian Buck Stops Here’ (2012), uses found footage of Brasilia, the capital city of Brasil. Built from the ground up between 1956 and 1960 on a site that was previously dense jungle, Brasilia is a fantasy city, a Modernist Corbusian-esque ‘Utopia’, apparently made real. The films narration makes reference to architecture and movement around an imaginary landscape, a projection of a future cityscape, which draws accidental and incidental parallels with the footage. Robert Hughes (1938-2012), in ‘The Shock of the New’ (1980) discusses the ‘Trouble in Utopia’, specifically referencing Brasilia, and perhaps somewhat optimistically asserting: “Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; and single rather than multiple meanings. It’s what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs. […] This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.” The films aerial, ‘panoptic’, voyeuristic vantage point of the cityscape, further suggests Foucauldian notions of ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’ at play.

Matthew Houlding’s sculptural assemblages are inspired by Structuralist and Formalist ideas of architectural designs, forms and models, and his youth spent in East Africa. Whereas Denniss exposes potential failure and Modernist dissent, Houlding’s work acts as a more positive homage to the utopian zeal of modern architecture. Twinned with a vibrancy and colour scheme influenced by African culture, his work simultaneously exudes both retro and futuristic qualities. However, his constructed environments are always unpopulated, hinting at unease with these architectural ‘ideals’ and a disconnection with human needs (in line with Robert Hughes assertion) that is at odds with their visual seductiveness.

In Houlding’s seminal series of works ‘Sons of Pioneers’ (2009) each constructed environment is suggestive of a significant Modernist structure. For example: Maison Tropicale, a prototype for pre-fabricated housing for French colonial officials working in Africa, designed by Jean Prouvé in 1951. Houlding re-imagines Maison Tropicale as a housing scheme with three variants – differing homes for Artists, Workers and Families (‘Sons of Pioneers: Maison Tropicale – Worker’s Housing’ features in the exhibition) – meticulously built environments in pursuit of ‘utopian’ ideals.

Drawing on such historical and ‘optimistic’ influences, encapsulating elegant, bespoke design, and a predilection for geometric shapes, Houlding’s sculptures explore the intersection between spatial planes, and the relationship between materials. Contrasting geometry is framed by bold, primary coloured Perspex, which casts a ‘golden’ glow over split-level condo-like exteriors and interiors. Yet the juxtaposition with other rudimentary materials he uses, or rather ‘re-purposes’ – from cardboard boxes, reclaimed timber, laminate surfaces, paint and photocopied material – are indicative of human prescience and endeavor, and reflect the experience of architecture and space; hierarchy, opposition, separation, connection, transition and assimilation.

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