ESSAYS Mousse 50
L’esprit De L’escalier: On (Marriage) Affairs of Art and Architecture
by Sabrina Tarasoff
Clara Peters, Neuf coquillages exotiques, XVII century
What fatal attraction draws art and architecture together? Sabrina Tarasoff, starting with the hard-to-translate French expression l’esprit de l’escalier, analyzes the bedazed feeling of looking at works endowed with an undeniable surface power, works whose details strive to disorient, whose outer tension subverts meaning through an unexpected ability to suddenly take on structure. Tarasoff explores works that risk being classed as ornamental, yet reveal themselves in sudden intuitions that come on the heels of perturbment, taking us back to the bottom step of the staircase with a new, clearer awareness: the eroticism implicit in the conventional (superficial) character of the work has a precise motivation linked to the breakdown of the very aesthetic elements that are being investigated.
In Denis Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le Comédien, first written in 1773—later amended into its current version, for sticklers of precision—he describes a particular situation that took place at the “greatest place in the state”; the state, of course, being France, and the place the home of Director-General Jacques Necker. During a postprandial debate presumably fuelled by free-flowing spirits and the amour-propre of those “men of letters” also present, Diderot found himself put at a loss for words by his host—confronted, that is, with an argument for which he had no retort. “A sensitive man, such as myself,” he writes, “overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs.” This familiar predicament of the suspended retort, the sudden rush of blood out of the head, became fixed in expression as l’esprit de l’escalier, the spirit of the staircase. The term has since become somewhat ubiquitous, with variations existing in a number of languages (the German Treppenwitz, for example; or the Anglicized elevator wit), all of which deftly convey a number of situations, from, say, being made speechless by ghostlike wit, to falling silent at the sight of something unexpected.
In Diderot’s particular case, the situation is haunted—determined, almost—by its aesthetic context. This is already acknowledged in his proclamation of Necker being in the “greatest place”—a double entendre, really, on both his position in state and residence. The Director-General of finances during the period would have sans doute been comfortably accommodated in an hôtel particulier—a freestanding private townhouse, occupied mainly by French aristocrats and dignitaries in the late 18th century. Structurally, the nondescript ground floors of such buildings would have been reserved for servicemen and wait staff, with the first floor used as the primary space for social gatherings and receptions. This floor, unabashedly dubbed the bel étage or étage noble, was originally only accessible via an elaborately decorated staircase, which amongst other reasons (such as better views off better balconies) negated the necessity of wait staff and guests ever having to use the same entrance. As social convention would have it, the staircase also marked a point of definite entry and exit—a spatial code of conduct that would preside over Monsieur Diderot’s inability to simply return to his prior conversation. To return would have been to commit a faux pas, yet to leave, well, would imply being overwhelmed by l’esprit de l’escalier.
Vincent Fecteau, You Have Did the Right Thing When You Put That Skylight In installation view at Kunsthalle Basel, 2015. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; greengrassi, London; Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; Kunsthalle Basel, Basel. Photo: Philipp Hänger
From this end, the concept of staircase wit (along with its anecdotal etymology) could be usefully considered as a stage set to discuss art and architecture as a structural affair—with all the Fatal Attraction-sensibility I can infuse into the term—in which an ongoing and slippery psychological exchange is set in motion. For Diderot and his companion, this is an exchange of surface effects, an exchange of ornamental ideology that is carried by its spatial (read: social) context. In other words, it’s a narrative plot for some sort of (17)70s château Diderotica, where space itself shapes not only the behaviors or the desires of its inhabitants or guests, but also the respective outcomes. Translated into contemplation on artistic practice, Diderot’s esprit—the collapse and resurgence of thought—marks a moment of inversion in which space—or, alternately, surface—is given the potential to articulate or to form thought, where thought was previously eclipsed. The staircase becomes an analogy for form that speaks for itself, form that in all its complex ambiguity invents its own sculptural language.
This tension, marked and released (however you want to interpret that) in the staircase inevitably suggests an erotic undertone, bound as it is into etiquette, convention and society. But if the likes of Sade, Pauline Réage or even Tom Burr have taught us anything, restrictions—particularly when clad in social convention—are compelling, even sexy. Surface, at that, can be seen as the ultimate restriction: a fact reinforced time and again—politically, economically, aesthetically—by its characterization as a mask or a veil. As Mark Wigley eagerly points out in his essay Theoretical Slippage: The Architecture of the Fetish, “it is too easy to describe that which identifies itself as a mask as a mask.” What he is getting at is the questionability of separating the decorative or the superficial from social reality, particularly when you run the risk of miscalculating where power actually lies—yet he just as easily could be describing the paradoxical situation of surface in contemporary art.
Burr, for example, alongside colleagues like Vincent Fecteau or Pablo Bronstein, seems to recognize this subtle potential of surface, particularly when it is rendered with an attention to detail that carefully confounds, displaces and defers. By identifying with tenets of ornamentation, decorum, poise, convention, and banality where applicable, they each disarm with a presupposed flatness that which is often overlooked or easily dismissed. This surface tension, like the blank drawn by Diderot, is precisely what subverts, perhaps due to its unexpected, and rather ghostly, ability to assume sudden structure.
Tom Burr, An American Garden, 1993. Courtesy: the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York
Take Burr’s An American Garden (1993), in which the artist meticulously reconstructed a portion of Central Park in the Netherlands—precisely, mind you, as architect Frederick Law Olmsted saw it in 1858. The piece, playing with both cultural exchange and displacement, could have easily been misconstrued as flat or lacking in depth. After all, it came a decade or so late for Land Art and was definitely past a point when sculpture fused with social space as such would have made anyone think twice. Yet as George Baker notes, “Burr’s reconstructed and pristine garden threw into relief the difference between planned design and public use, focusing on […] the alterations to which public space can be subjected.” These alterations in question refer both to Burr’s selection of a portion of Central Park mainly used for bird-watching, gay cruisers, illicit nudity, and public sex, but also to the creation of desire lines—a landscape design term, according to the artist, used to describe the paths and marks made by “cutting corners” across lawns. Moreover, Burr’s positioning of the replica near an area in the Netherlands used to similar ends marks a painstaking accuracy that grants the space the privilege of anonymity and, with it, ambivalence. This, however, becomes a vague and impressionistic space, a surreptitious form of architecture produced somewhat unwittingly by its viewers. As you observe, as you meander, the alterations appear as cracks in the surface, or signs of some latent fixation embedded in the very structure of the land.
The experience of such works is confounding, much in the same way as I’d imagine it would be to walk into a park, only to witness a couple fucking in the bushes. Nothing is hidden or obscured, but rather served straight up. Not façade, but literal surface. Meaning, here, fixates in subtle detail, and though you realize you probably shouldn’t be staring, you can’t move, either. Words elude you, you freeze, observe silently, and it isn’t until much later in the privacy of your room that the possible scenarios of action, participation, or commentary come to you. A rush of blood everywhere but the head. It is here that the adulterous exchanges between architecture and art, or structure and surface, begin to slip and reveal. Then again, removed from the situation, you might also be confronted with the sensation of waking from a dream, as though what you saw or experienced was some sort of insight that slips further away with every sip of coffee you swallow. In his reconstruction, Burr achieves just this: an unnerving and disorienting precision, a “kind of anonymous architectural practice” that incites a psychological and physical exchange—of desires, of affects, of sudden whims.
Led along these lines, surface becomes volatile and unpredictable, dissolved, really, into its underlying structure. Whatever exchange may have occurred or is still occurring can no longer be categorized as simply dialectical, no matter how complexly so, as it is lost in contemplation over some vague meaning that was either just on the tip of your tongue or just about to get there. This is the sense carried by the works of Vincent Fecteau, whose “desire lines”, to borrow the term, lead less to sudden insights at the bottom of a staircase than away from them. His work could, in some ways, be a persistent attempt to try to reconstruct form that exists inside this vague and unnerving place between meanings—except that such reconstructions are necessarily always impossible due to an entirely human tendency to project and add on. An excerpt from Dennis Cooper’s novel Closer was recently brought to my attention, and it comes closer, or as close as it gets, to properly wording what this space may be (it is, after all, dedicated to Fecteau): “I just woke up from a dream,” he writes, “the kind where you recognize where you are and how you’re acting, but not why or what it means. It made me think of some underground films I’ve watched, so cheaply made you can feel the director’s hands, and see the actors as well as the characters, but too poetic to follow.” Fecteau follows a similar logic, in that his provisional, dreamy objects suggest a dalliance between formal gesture and its psychological ornamentation—a mutual, though somewhat clumsy entanglement between the materially unpoetic and abstract idée fixe.
Vincent Fecteau, Untitled, 2015. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; greengrassi, London; Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles. Photo: Philipp Hänger
In his recent exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, You Have Did the Right Thing When You Put That Skylight In (2015), Fecteau puts this to work, showing a series of sculptures from the late 1990s to the present alongside new collages. At the center of these latter works is the most extraneous and trivial of ornamental objects: the throw pillow. According to Jeanne Gerrity, this was the result of a flood in Fecteau’s studio, which forced him to re-examine a box filled with cutouts of throw pillows sourced from architecture and interior design magazines. Framed by intimately scaled and provisional shoebox models—notably painted in an austere matte black—the pillows are given vacant but chic housing, in which they suffice as the only ornamentation. My associative consciousness draws me to model homes that use blankness and singular, unobtrusive ornamentation as a way to draw attention to their architectural detail, except that in this case the detailing suggests something out of place, something far less passive. Each box points to the subtle, psychological conditions of its own making, situating both artist and viewer into the equation, yet carefully never revealing what that implies. Phyllida Barlow, observing this closely, commented on his works already in a conversation in 2013: “They prompt the desire to touch and probe. But the only person who touches the sculpture is the artist—everyone else has to imagine those tactile encounters.” The viewer can only grasp at context, whilst submitting to fading insights.
All the same, the image prompted of Fecteau alone in his studio caressing these works is not only intimate, but arousing—more so, perhaps, when considering some of the older sculptures present in the exhibition. An untitled work from 2002, made out of papier mâché with Baroque ambitions, evokes, for example, a Rudolf Steiner building, lost in contemplation of some Clara Peeters work. Another suggests an MDF Aalto, impatiently undressed to raw imperfection. To recall another passage from Closer: “It’s so raw… It looks like someone wanted it so intensely they couldn’t wait.” Architecture’s diligent forcing is always corrupted, broken down by a resistance to the infallibilities of pure structure: “I thought I might try to be an architect,” Fecteau has said, “but in the end I didn’t have that kind of stamina.”
Stephen Prina, As He Remembered It installation view at Secession, Vienna, 2011. © the artist. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London; Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne; Petzel Gallery, New York. Photo: Wolfgan Thaler, Vienna
Pablo Bronstein, for his part, has made similar remarks, stating that to be an architect you have to be a sick bastard. Bronstein is of course referring more to the fetishistic treatment of surface in the field of architecture, which allows for a masking of the economic and political powers underlying cultural production. By a slight perversion of his intent, it isn’t hard to imagine the comment as directed towards an equally fetishistic attention to detail and finish, arguably inherent to the architect mentality. This is a bold generalization, of course (which also notably applies to Florian Graf, Stephen Prina, Thomas Ruff—the list goes on). Yet the Baroque precision Bronstein lends to his drawings exemplifies, in many ways, this unflagging “stamina”—delivered, at all costs, with charm, precociousness and impeccable style. Paired with clear architectural nostalgia and a purported praise of tradition, the work would almost appear as purely aesthetic, decorative even. However, it is well worth letting yourself be seduced by these qualities, as the polished surface carefully gives way to subtle stylistic discrepancies—fantasies—aimed at disfiguring exactly those aesthetic tropes it indulges in. It reads, in short, like Victorian erotica, in using conservatism as a language to explore societal—and aesthetic—fetish. At that, there’s a certain element of elitism involved in this: the implication being that its deepest confidences are reserved not for dilettante art historians, but those sufficiently versed to engage in its subtle detail. It is implicit, nevertheless, that these bourgeois pretensions, when considered as—well, with a pinch of salt—decorative accelerationism, are in fact more efficient in critiquing power structures than those practices that revert to categorical transparency to do so.
Pablo Bronstein, Recent History installation view at Herald St, London, 2014. Courtesy: Herald St, London
To pluck from memory, Bronstein’s last show at Herald St in London, Recent History (2014), turned the gallery into an austere and dimly-lit museum space adorned with emerald-painted wall paneling, contrasted by two rounded alcoves attached to opposing sides of the room. The drawings, as much classicist as Rococo as Thatcherite in style, presented theatrical scenes from periodically varied sources: quirky renderings of buildings featured in dark comedies on gay subculture, to outstretched, almost Mannerist imitations of (what could be) urbanized Casper David Friedrich landscapes. Bronstein’s practice, in this sense, can be highlighted as coquettish and fantastical mimicry—a frivolous sampling, really, of historical tenets that hone in on detail only to collapse into their own fixations. Bronstein’s history is thus nuanced, though selective: it focuses equally on the historical and aesthetic effects of the privatization or “collapse” of public space, as it does on the entirely subjective and whimsical ability of artists to select their subject. Through quick-witted architectural banter, Bronstein confounds even the most sensible viewer, submitting them to a contemplation of space that is beyond clear categorization—aesthetic, historical or otherwise. In this sense, he complicates the viewer’s understanding of space on a psychological level through the affective use of literal or already existing form, to a point at which convention turns in on itself and begins to dissolve. Decoration becomes accessory to its own submission. “That said,” he warns of his own motifs, “to worship power and scale in architecture is like loving men in uniform. It is subversive, but only by default and not by choice.”
Rudolf Steiner, Goetheanum, 1913-1919
So perhaps it is safe to say that what characterizes these subtle and unnerving forms of art—be they museum-front parks for the promiscuous, carefully aligned throw pillows or conservative architectural décor—is not their meticulous command after all, but an atmospheric eroticism rooted in the very idea of its failure. By admitting to confounding material realities, to destructive drives and desires embedded in the surfaces of things (by default or by choice), success can be summoned, like an insight out of a lack of words. It’s best, at that, to admit impediment to the marriage of true minds, and instead opt for their dissolution. Tropes of art and architecture, affiliated instead through these liaisons dangereuses, eschew the didactics of top-down design by opting for a more fallible and detail-oriented approach. A sculptural language of false composure. It recalls a final comment, something noted by Bataille in his plainly-titled essay, “Genet’s Failure”. Bataille (cited here through Derrida,) suggests: “Hasn’t Genet calculated the failure? He repeats it all the time […] And now, through the simple provocation of his text, he constructs a scene that obliges the other to unmask, to stammer, to become unhinged […] It is this, the text that traps, pursues, reads the reader, judgment, criticism.” The failures of desire, in the spirit of the staircase, become the successes of making.
 Denis Diderot, The Paradox of Acting, 1773, p. 77.
 Mark Wigley, “Theoretical Slippage,” Fetish, Vol. 4. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural, 1992, p. 95.
 George Baker, “The Other Side of the Wall,” October 120, Spring 2007, p. 110.
 Tom Burr, “Just outside the Museum…,” Kunst & Museum Journaal, 1993, p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 20.
 Dennis Cooper, Closer, Avalon Travel Publishing, 1994, p. 120.
 Jeanne Gerrity, “Vincent Fecteau: You Have Did the Right Thing When You Put That Skylight In” at Kunsthalle Basel, Mousse, 2015.
 “Phyllida Barlow & Vincent Fecteau,” interview by Phyllida Barlow and Vincent Fecteau in BOMB, 2013.
 Dennis Cooper, op. cit., p. 113.
 “Phyllida Barlow & Vincent Fecteau,” op. cit.
 Jonathan Griffin, “Pablo Bronstein,” Frieze, Issue 99 (2006).
 “Pablo Bronstein,” interview by Timothy Hull in Museo, 2010.
 Jacques Derrida, Glas, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1986.
Sabrina Tarasoff (born in 1991 in Jyväskylä, Finland) is a curator and writer, currently codirecting the Paris-based independent exhibition space Shanaynay. Having graduated from the school formerly known as Parsons Paris, she has since worked on several exhibitions and events, including a record launch with Merlin Carpenter, a Memphis Milano-inspired screening at Paolo Chiasera’s nomadic platform SECONDO STILE, and an exhibition based on blushing forms of bêtise at Fahrenheit in Los Angeles (organized by Shanaynay). In addition to Mousse, Tarasoff is a regular contributor to Frieze, Flash Art, and art-agenda, and has a penchant for erotic novels.
Originally published on Mousse 50 (October–November 2015)