Writing about Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler, historian Kathryn Smith states, ‘Schindler’s work focused on the integration of interior space and exterior space using complex interlocking volumes and strongly articulated sections.’ This neat summary is one that could equally be applied to the work of British artist Simon Fujiwara, who has just completed a six month residency at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna (MAK)’s Los Angeles outpost. The culmination was an exhibition at the modernist house Schindler built for himself in east Hollywood in 1922.
Though Fujiwara trained as an architect, the comparison is an analogous one, the artist having since largely eschewed building physical structures since graduating from Cambridge in 2005. Instead, it relates to how Fujiwara’s work integrates a deeply personal, and often psycho-sexual, subject matter with something more universal, be it semi-factual erotic stories or the recounting of a personal mission to form the ‘Museum of Incest’ at the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa.
Fujiwara’s performance-based work typically takes on the guise of readings or lectures that, while having initial comic potential, go on to reveal themselves as uncomfortable investigations into the relationship Fujiwara has with his family, and in particular his father, frequently symbolised through references to childhood architectural motifs.
The setting of many of the erotic stories, for example, is a hotel operating during the final years of Franco’s Spain, a reflection of the artist’s parent’s own history. A rare structural project, ‘The Closet’, developed for The Architecture Foundation in July 2008, was a large-scale model of the artist’s childhood wardrobe, aptly linked with the typical struggles of a teenager coming to terms with being gay. This link between the personal, the historic, and the architectural is one that emerged during his studies. At Cambridge, a tutor bemoaned that Fujiwara wrote about buildings as if they were friends, the result of having gained his interest in building design from it being the lone mutual reference between him and his father in their infrequent conversations.
Having tackled this perceived academic weakness, and gone directly to the Städelschule in Frankfurt to study fine art in 2006, his practice was conversely then to be viewed by others through the prism of his architectural training. It seems as though this realisation of the binding of biography with practice, directly led to the ‘Museum of Incest’ work, a performance initially created for Limoncello gallery in London in 2008, and to be restaged as part of the Frieze Art Fair, Frame programme in October, 2009.
Here, Fujiwara gives his critics a building, (described through the medium of a slide lecture and accompanying vitrines of documentation), or at least a design for one, which would trace the interbreeding of DNA that must have occurred during the first stages of human evolution. Yet the building is a joke on the critics, for the subtext is a personal narrative addressing the taboo of sexuality within the family. Fujiwara describes how the museum’s architectural design came from his father’s creation of an interlinking tri-geodesic domed goldfish bowl.
The form seems to represent a formal recreation of the role a son, the artist, has as the result of the sexual relations of his parents, of how there will always be three in a sexual-parental relationship and the place this has within the less emotive subject of prehistoric incest.
The ‘Museum of Incest’ also demonstrates another major strand in Fujiwara’s work, a strand that he went on to develop further throughout his time in Los Angeles: the histiographic blurring of fiction and fact. The narratives Fujiwara presents are given as fact, audiences reassured by the place they are shown within: the museum, the academic slideshow, the autobiographical memoir. Yet peppered through the work are obvious hints of their semi-fictionalised nature. In the ‘Museum of Incest’ a banana skin lies of top of a vitrine; the erotic stories are set in a time that the artist would not yet have been born, and certainly not indulging in illicit sexual acts against a fascist regime. These act as stoppers, perhaps to protect the artist and his family from these biographical myths taking root.
The works, however, have had an accumulative effect; through the fiction we discern the personal power structure of one family life, which in turn reflects those of all families. Perhaps conceding that this psycho-biographical introspection could be a dangerous game to play (one that has interested both Sophie Calle and Lindsay Seers), Fujiwara’s residency work has seen him take his preoccupations—sexualised architecture, the fact/fiction divide, personal and universal histories—and apply them through a proxy in the shape of an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. In his research on Rudolph Schindler, Fujiwara found that there was a report that the real Schwarzenegger had visited the Schindler House with the idea to turn away from bodybuilding and his fellow Austrian into an architecture career. Buoyed by the notion that these two Austrians had both shaped their image by building things, one architecture, the other muscles, Fujiwara began to further investigate the cult of Schwarzenegger, coming across Lyndall Grant, a Schwarzenegger impersonator, who, by coincidence had originally been an architect before finding impersonating more lucrative; fact indeed stranger than fiction. Acting on the discovery, Fujiwara spent the residency conducting interviews with Grant, before researching and writing a script which presents the three intertwining biographies of Schindler, Schwarzenegger and Grant in the form of a guided tour of the Schindler House by Grant, in a room jarringly set up as a home gym.
Fujiwara’s place on the residency adds to his own mythological narrative. The Anglo-Japanese gay artist who moved from Cornwall to Tokyo, to summers in Spain, has another geo-historic narrative to pull from, another set of architectural symbols to incorporate into his evolving persona as an artist. The Simon Fujiwara in the artwork is of course a fiction, as real as Lyndall Grant is the Terminator. Yet, like the reflection Grant sees in the mirror, Fujiwara’s work is a true reflection of a reality where the structures of fact and fiction intermingle to reflect whatever narrative we need them for: family history, sexual mores, dictatorship or evolution.
Oliver Basciano is a writer living in London
Danish and Nordic Pavilions, 53rd Venice Biennale, 7 June – 22 November