19 January–24 February 2008, Herald St, London
The quip ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ (variously attributed to Frank Zappa and Steve Martin among others), is subverted by the centrepiece to Pablo Bronstein’s new show.
Paternoster Square, all works 2008, is a video installation comprised of four screens bordering a square. On each we see ballet dancers on a stage which has three postmodern architectural props designed by Bronstein and Etienne Descloux. Bronstein’s voice is heard at regular intervals directing the green Lycra clad dancers to pose or change positions.
Their elegant movements within the sets, these models of public spaces, are regulated by the director in an attempt to turn the dancers into ‘idealized, ornamental citizens’. Bronstein thus slyly interrogates the Olympian notion of public spaces coercing us into behaving in a civilized manner.
Clearly, he finds this notion ironic in a London of gun crime, and at a time when the Home Secretary is scared to go out for a kebab. He is no doubt aware though of Czeslaw Milosz’s line that irony is the glory of slaves. And it is this sad awareness that gives his musings poignancy. His nuanced relationship with postmodern architecture is outlined further in a perfectly rendered ink drawing ‘Erecting of the Paternoster Square Column’ and an exquisite oil painting, ‘Paternoster Square Cappriccio’. But it is in Bronstein’s new book that accompanies the show—Postmodern Architecture in London—that his arguments are fully realised.
Acknowledging that the style was fun and brash, he is quick to remind us of its excesses, ‘all those Playdoh pediments, Lego walls and cheap multicoloured facings’. You can imagine the architects hanging out at Club Tropicana listening to Wham! Bronstein’s obsession recalls those nostalgia TV shows that muse on the legacy of the 1980s with their Kracauer wannabes analysing the semiotic significance of the New Romantics or whatever.
And maybe we can see Terry Farrell as the George Michael of Thatcherite architecture in all its bombastic preening. Bronstein’s detached amused tone for the period recalls that other seminal commentator on the times Jonathan Meades.
The mood overall though is sombre; he writes, ‘It is hard for us to remember a time in which the recovery of beauty seemed imperative’. It is one thing to laugh at the past, another to realise that we live in even grimmer times. The artist is alternately nostalgic and critical of this architectural period pre-9/11, wildly optimistic in its ‘pre-crash euphoria... as if it were all about to go wrong’. Bronstein has an eye for the ‘pathos and tragedy’ of these immodest buildings, as embarrassing now as an old Heaven 17 album with all that hokey celebration of high finance.
His illustrations in ink of Charing Cross station and the MI6 building in Vauxhall are rendered with an obvious love for detail and precision and the book ends with a splendid Becher-like ABC of postmodern detail with photographs of the various obelisks, cupolas and pavillions that dot the capital. Like a latter day Clough Williams-Ellis, that other architect errant, Bronstein has a whimsical sympathy with the outmoded, the unloved and asks us to look again.
John Quin is a writer based in London and Berlin