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The Berlin-based artist Markus Draper depicts bleak landscapes of rubble and decay in a body of work that is decidedly architectural. The ruins of the built environment—and buildings of the twentieth century, in particular—are the unmistakable protagonists of his current exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie. On display through June 23.
In his novel High Rise from the year 1975, the English science fiction author J.G. Ballard takes the modernist housing block as the backdrop for a lurid, dystopian thriller. The story is set on the outskirts of London, in a gleaming new residential tower that’s viewed as the picture of rational, contemporary living. This image soon fades, however, as the building’s thousands of residents—mostly upper-middle-class professionals and their children—begin to feel isolated in their apartments. Neighbors grow estranged from one another, and then hostile. These developments stick fairly close to now familiar arguments about the corrosive social effects of mass housing—arguments that are certainly not beyond scrutiny (see, for example, ARCH+ 209 and 213). But Ballard takes this contested line of critique a step further—or maybe a few. Soon, the residents of the high rise are vandalizing hallways, destroying the elevators, and dumping trash out the windows. They form warring factions on the basis of familial status and floor number; armed gangs roam the stairwells. One hundred pages, a lot of dead dogs, some incest, and some cannibalism later, and Ballard’s modern men and women have reverted back to a state of nature. All because of a building.
Markus Draper, a Berlin-based artist with a decidedly architectural body of work, picks up where Ballard left off. If Ballard made absurdist science-fiction fantasy out of the claims that certain forms of modern architecture erode social codes and bonds, Draper imagines a world in which society’s dissolution has already run its course. While the artist doesn’t attribute this downfall to architecture, the ruins of the built environment—and buildings of the twentieth century, in particular—are the unmistakable protagonists of his current exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie. The works on display travel through bleak landscapes of rubble and decay, through haunted places littered with the abandoned and destroyed structures of modernism—and all of them are entirely devoid of human life. Nary a soul is to be found in Draper’s post-apocalyptic world, just the architectural relics that we left behind.
Or might leave behind, rather—or will. Quietly but insistently, Draper reminds us that his grim fantasies are grounded in just enough reality to be cause for concern. Windsor Tower, a five-meter-tall model of wood, polystyrene, and cardboard from 2007, is based on a 32-story office tower of the same name that was built in Madrid from 1973 to 1979 and destroyed in a massive fire in 2005. Draper’s scale recreation of the burnt-out high rise is faithful and detailed—miniature pieces of would-be steel lie scattered around the model’s base, as if they fell from an upper story. But the work retains elements of abstraction as well. The entire piece, including its pedestal, is coated in the same ashen black acrylic, and Draper allowed it to clot into thick globs on many of the sculpture’s surfaces—features that are evocative but hardly literal.
The hand of the artist is conspicuous in other works in the show as well, like Stadtfeld (2003-2004), a painting hung high on a gallery wall that depicts another tall, bland, modernist building—this one riddled with broken windows and absent any trace of human activity. The structure is rendered in a range of washed-out grays, with splotches of paint left to drip down its facade. The bare branches of a tree snake across the foreground of the image. Painted in a deep black, the limbs stand out sharply against the hazy figure of the building.
This juxtaposition of architecture and nature is a central motif in Draper’s work. The majority of the pieces in the exhibition refer to the natural world in one way or another, and always in direct contrast to the built environment. In the era of melting ice caps and rising sea levels, the persistence of this motif comes to feel topical. Is that how the world will look once we’ve ruined it? And—more specifically, as far as Draper is concerned—how will architecture and nature get along once we’re no longer around to mediate between them?
The artist’s answer to this question seems fairly clear. Alpenblick, a small collage of torn printouts from the year 2004, for example, depicts a raw concrete building shell (with wooden construction railings still enclosing its upper story) surrounded on all sides by craggy, snow-covered peaks and alpine tree groves. There’s something menacing about the juxtaposition, as if the mountains were closing in on the abandoned structure, ready to claim it as their own. It’s certainly a less harmonious depiction of building in the natural world than what Bruno Taut had to offer in Alpine Architektur, his illustrated volume from the year 1919 that Draper seems to be alluding to with his collage. In Taut’s book, which coincided with the advent of high modernism, the radical architect imagined fluid structures of glass and steel covering the mountainsides of Europe—a utopian synthesis of the built and natural environments, and a construction project that, Taut hoped, would redirect humanity’s productive capacities away from devastating international warfare and toward more peaceful endeavors. Appearing nearly a hundred years later—in which time the shortcomings of the modernist project have been discussed ad nauseam—Draper’s collage seems like a bookend to Taut’s idealistic vision, or maybe a postmortem.
Despite its end-of-history feel, the exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie does include some small stirrings of new life. Portrait as a Building (2009) consists of three video monitors, each showing a pile of wooden scraps. A closer look reveals the images to change ever so slightly over time: a mound on one screen rises up just a hair, then falls back down. These small, repetitive movements, paired with the pulsing, vaguely industrial soundtrack, give the Cronenbergian scenes the faintest feeling of life. Something is growing in all these heaps of waste that we’re accumulating—but what, exactly, remains unclear. For that, we’ll have to wait and see.
Markus Draper. Aus der Sammlung
20 February 2014 – 23 June 2014
Alte Jakobstraße 124–128
From the News section of ARCH+ 217