Hybrid Vigour

Over the past four hundred years or so, the interface between sculpture and architecture has been the subject of much discussion. There has been some amusement, as well: Marcel Duchamp famously quipped that the difference is that ‘one has plumbing’. More recently, Rafael Vignoly is reputed to have joked that the difference lies ‘in the waterproofing’. Of course these are funny because they are overly glib, and they play down the vast complexities of the debate by reducing them to a single, pragmatic element. There is much more at stake here than function, even though that is the simplest line of demarcation – that architecture must fulfil a functional role, while sculpture is never an instrument for anything other than the specific purposes of art. Australia’s own Richard Goodwin said in a 2001 interview that ‘my things are speculative and experimental and increasingly now they occupy territory between [architecture and non-architecture]. But it’s still art, not architecture. I don’t do anything with toilets and light switches. So whatever it is, it is.’ Goodwin is the foremost local proponent of the particular strand of art practice that explicitly takes the distinction, and overlap, between sculpture and architecture as its subject.

Goodwin was born in Sydney in 1953. He studied Architecture at the University of New South Wales, with his time there broken by a long stay in Europe between 1974 and 1976, when he began to engage in performance art. He did eventually return to his studies, but in the end practiced conventional architecture only briefly before turning to sculpture. Since then, he has held numerous solo and group exhibitions, been the subject of one monograph with another on the way, and has made a name as one of the most well-known and significant artists working in the public domain in Sydney. At present, following the completion of a masters degree in Architecture at RMIT in 1999, he is a Professor at the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Art (COFA), where he runs the Porosity Studio, a research centre dedicated to teaching and researching issues around art and urban space. He is currently undertaking a PhD in Fine Arts through COFA, and is the recipient of an Australian Research Council large grant to extend his work on porosity in and of the city. Goodwin is at pains to point out that he also maintains his registration as an architect. ‘Without equal power the artist is forever marginalised’, he says. ‘I am and remain an architect. I am and remain an artist.’

He maintains a workshop and studio in Leichhardt, where much of the fabrication of his work takes place, and where he employs several assistants. Like many artists’ studios, this space is fascinating, with its crowded miscellany of models, books, artworks, raw materials, drawings, magazines and photographs. With such a sheer amount of stuff, of such disparate, spiky things, there could be an air of disorder. But in fact there isn’t; calm prevails. Several architectural collaborators are seated at CAD stations, another works in the workshop, and there is an air of quiet productivity; this is the workplace of a thoughtful, intelligent, seasoned professional. All of this, though, belies the radical scope and polemical intent of Goodwin’s vision for public art, for architecture, and for the city.

Goodwin conceives of his art practice quite openly as an ‘attack on architecture’. He is opposed to the way in which he sees public art as being subjugated by architecture, the way it ‘is still objects in space between buildings’, rather than being something more enmeshed, more integral. This is an exciting time for architecture, Goodwin believes, precisely because this is the point at which it is floundering, struggling, that it is seeking some kind of productive clash. And the site for that clash will be public art: ‘I want public art to be empowered again’, he says, unlike the ‘polite, fairly meaningless’ work that he believes is sometimes currently done. What is interesting here is the idea that art – specifically sculpture that works at the scale of architecture, that manipulates space and human movement and subjective experience – might have a critical role. A similar notion has been well stated by the sculptor Richard Serra, in a fascinating and highly antagonistic interview with Peter Eisenman. Serra argues that ‘[o]ne reason architects consume and use traditional sculpture is to control and domesticise art. Architects are openly reactionary in their adaptation of watered-down artistic conventions. Their continual misuse of art as ornamentation, decoration, and garnish denies the inventions of the past. […] as soon as art is forced or persuaded to serve alien values it ceases to serve its own. To deprive art of its uselessness is to make other than art.’  Goodwin’s work, and his conceptual schema more broadly, is indebted to Serra, and he is generous in acknowledging his influences. These also include Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, and Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, all of whom walk the line between architecture and non-architecture, making forays in both directions, pursuing a level of hybridity.

Admittedly, this complex of influences, and the genealogy of Goodwin’s work more broadly, is sometimes not immediately evident to the cursory or passing observer. To take one example, the recent ‘Exoskeleton’ installed in the forecourt of the Bond, on Hickson Road in Millers Point, is quite a baffling object to anyone who does not have a knowledge of the artists work and concerns. This is the price that any conceptual artist pays – if the work sets out to be more than sensually pleasing, then there is a certain amount of labour that must go into understanding it, and there must be some background research before you can even know how to approach it. This work does not set out to be a fine formal object, so to ask that of it would be to entirely miss the point. It does not answer to an aesthetic critique, in the sense that it is intentionally not affecting. There is no doubt that the work is interesting, that it is conceptually coherent, that it comes from a long and careful process of development, and that it sets out to undertake an important critique. The work has a high level of craft and finish, particularly in the steel fabrication. Now all of this careful hedging will seem like veiled criticism, or at least damning with faint praise. But the fact is that for this reviewer, at least, there is a schism between liking the work, which I don’t particularly, and finding it interesting and significant and provocative, which I do very strongly. In his own words, much of Goodwin’s work also makes an attempt to be ‘deliberately inconvenient, to be not liked, reviled, ugly – not pretty and tidy… not just, somehow, like rose gardens’. This drive towards artworks which are obstreperous, belligerent, even crude, locates Goodwin’s work squarely within a long tradition of anti-art practices stemming from Dada to Surrealism, and marks him as a subversive in the seemly world of public art commissions.

For those who are willing to make the effort, and with a little digging, it becomes apparent that there is a relatively straightforward taxonomy to Goodwin’s oeuvre. All of the work is, in one way or another, about the idea of prosthesis. It is concerned with instruments (including architectural ones) that serve mechanically to extend, or to redress a lack, in the human body. To an extent the work is thus also about the relation between the organic and the mechanistic, the mutable and the immutable. This central idea of prosthesis is manifest in different ways in the three scales at which Goodwin works. At the scale of the gallery work and small installations, it occurs as ‘exoskeleton’, drawing an analogy between the human body and the insect. At the larger scale of installations and additions in the city, it occurs as ‘parasite’, which occur in the realm of architecture, incised into architectural skin, operating on buildings as sites. Finally, at the large scale of the city, the same thread is manifest in the idea of ‘porosity’, of the permeable city which is not made up of a series of closed architectural vessels, but is rather a leaking, bleeding, organic system of flows and interchanges.

The three scales of work have different intentions, which to an extent build upon one another. Much of the studio and gallery work, including the early figurative work with cloth (see for example ['Rhinoceros' 1989 / 'Kangaroo Exoskeleton' 1981 / 'Soho Horse and Rider' 1984 – whichever we are illustrating]) the performances, and the exoskeletons, can be understood as research and background for the larger projects. Goodwin’s exoskeleton works are very often based on found objects, namely bicycles, motorbikes, and rowing skulls. It is not hard to see the appeal of the rowing skull, in particular – this literal shell that allows humans to skim across the surface of water at speed, and in a distinctly insect-like fashion. This is perhaps the perfect example of a prosthesis, an extension which allows the human body to do things it otherwise could not, but in a way that is still not inconsistent with human anatomy, physiology, and form.

The Parasites and ‘body-buildings’, in turn, begin to enact a significant actual critique by burrowing into the fabric of the city. This can be seen in the 1997 work at the museum of Sydney, ‘Parasite M.O.S’, which combined installation and performance, as well as ‘Exoskeleton Tower Reach’ a major work installed the Galleries Victoria, Sydney, in 2000. There have also been some significant collaborations with other architects, such as the 1998 parasite roof extension to the Union Hotel, North Sydney, where Goodwin was invited to complete an autonomous work by Cracknell Lonergan with Bill MacMahon and Patrick Nicholas; and the verandah of the Shellharbour Workers Club, a notably ‘mechanistic’ attachment of shade and integrated ESD systems, a collaboration between Richard Goodwin Architects and Caroline Pidcock Architects which won the 2004 RAIA Blacket Award.

This is an art that does not set out to make something new, or not in the mythological sense of the lone Promethian genius ‘creating’ something from nothing. It is rather a process that values modification and appropriation, the adaptation of an existing thing. This can be seen in a practical way in Goodwin’s working method, where many of the working models for his parasites are constructed from parts cannibalised from plane and helicopter model kits. There is a consideration given to the accidental, to the curious formal possibilities and outcomes of such a method.

But to my mind, Goodwin’s work is at its most impressive, and most revolutionary, when it is at its largest and also most abstract scale – at an urban level, in his ideas about the porosity of the city. His project is to ‘open the pores of the city’, to resist those forces he sees are ‘attempting to close the city down.’ Related to this is his refusal to see buildings in isolation, as compositions, but rather to see them as agglomerations ‘with people and cars and lightposts’, the things that architects refuse to see. ‘Architects’, he claims, ‘have the most fabulously selective sight.’

This idea of the city as a series of flows and shifts is emblematised, for Goodwin, in roads. In his description these are invasive, but also dynamic; they merely need to be controlled. ‘Lines of cars are the most significant buildings in the city, they’re like a highrise lying down’ he says, ‘just not well designed.’ The question for him, then, is why architects tend not to get involved in this level of design, and an involvement in this kind of infrastructural project has become a hallmark of his practice in Sydney, stemming in part from a ten-year association with the NSW Road Transport Authority. This culminated in the Glebe Island Arterial project, stretched over six years of exhaustive community consultation and design, which eventually succeeded in reconfiguring the design of several roads near the Sydney fish market, to make them more pedestrian friendly. This is much more than simply art as decoration; it is the artist as provocateur, advocate, and co-designer.

Of course some of Goodwin’s more general complaints about public art are not new. Derogatory descriptions of so-called ‘plop art’, dropped into the space of the city with no concern for either the surrounding urban tissue or the work itself, are common enough. On the other hand, Goodwin argues that a certain strand of site-specific art practice has gone too far, succumbing to a ‘fetishisation’ of site, a misty-eyed sentimental mythologising of place. Public art takes place, nominally at least, in public space. But this too is contested – how much of the contemporary city is actually and truly public space? And who, exactly, does such art address, who does it constitute as the ‘public’, its audience? These questions are all raised by Goodwin’s thought and work.

In some ways, his work can be seen as an applied deconstruction of much of the ideology that lies behind public art as such. Public art is a thoroughly institutionalised attempt, with the unassailable good intentions of greater accessibility and democratisation, to facilitate a connection between artworks located in the public domain, and ordinary people in their everyday lives. On the one hand this is a fine and idealistic goal. On the other it is a contradiction wrapped inside a tautology: it’s detractors might argue that art is always already public by definition, and anyway it is only through escaping this kind of institutional facilitation and control that art can be redeemed to a genuine, unmediated and meaningful connection with people. Add to this a suitable suspicion over what governments and administrators might actually want to achieve through public art (happier or more compliant citizens? A ‘prettier’ environment, or the concealment of an ugly one?) and you have not only a grave series of reservations over the way that art is here instrumentalised and put to work, but also over the facile nature of the goals that it is being set towards. Goodwin may have a dark and brutally pragmatic vision of the world, but it is one that nevertheless conceives a significant healing role for art. He insists on seeing architecture as never finished and closed and perfect, but as always remaining open to colonisation, incision and invasion, to becoming the site for a critical, interrogating, parasitic art practice.

As this profile goes to press, Goodwin had grand plans afoot. Details can not be revealed here, but watch out for his Porosity project in Sydney over the coming months – it promises to be as provocative as it is spectacular.

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