The Square of the Three Powers 2011
50 x 70 cm
Out on the Platform
By placing the cemeteries at the ends of the residential highway axis, funeral processions will not need to cross the urban center. These cemeteries will be landscaped with lawns and suitable trees, the tombs to be smooth and the headstones simple — in the English tradition — the whole to be…
By placing the cemeteries at the ends of the residential highway axis, funeral processions will not need to cross the urban center. These cemeteries will be landscaped with lawns and suitable trees, the tombs to be smooth and the headstones simple — in the English tradition — the whole to be completely unostentatious.
Lúcio Costa, Report of a Pilot Plan for Brasilia (1957)
Some years ago Nathan Coley took a series of photographs in the Square of the Three Powers (Praça dos Três Pdoderes) in Brasília. He pinned them up in his studio, where they became the objects of a certain fascination: ‘I kept going back to the images, not knowing why.’ The square in question, and its attendant administrative buildings, was among the first public spaces completed for the inauguration of the new Brazilian capital on 21 April 1960. To the west stand the twin towers of the Brazilian Congress, to the north the Palácio do Planato, the administrative seat of the republic’s president, with its glass walls, expansive flat roof and sail-like white supports. To the south, 400 metres away across a vast open plaza interrupted only by a statue of the blind figure of Justice, sits a building of similar design, on a smaller scale: the Supreme Federal Court. The square, around which Brasília was originally conceived, is both a meaningful expanse — symbolic of both the state powers that flank it and of the immense flat plain on which the city is built — and a public space for the use and enjoyment of citizens and tourists. (It is also, lest one forget the civic and national function of the place, home to the largest continuously flown national flag in the world.)
Aerial photographs of the Square of the Three Powers suggest (because this writer has not been there) that the space is uninterrupted apart from flagpoles and sculpture. But Coley’s photographs reveal that a structure — perhaps mundane, maybe extraordinary — rises at its southern side and complicates the flatness or platitude of this utopian precinct. The images depict in a monochrome that looks as if it might date from the square’s completion (but for the clothes of the few people that appear there and the trees behind the court building) a low, stained-concrete platform, rectangular in shape and several metres in horizontal extent. It seems to hover above the rougher paving of the square. A dark void subtends the floating upper surface, and two perpendicular sides are interrupted by shallow flights of four steps each, which may bring visiting tourists or native flaneurs up onto the platform. Nobody has ventured onto this surface itself, but in Coley’s photographs five figures sit at the edges of the structure — at least one lounges relaxed, one foot raised onto the concrete. Behind them, the Supreme Federal Court mirrors distortedly the government buildings at the other side of the square; from another vantage, a vast, curving, glass-fronted building (a much later addition to this space, conceived with a clear unity of purpose, design and significance in mind) reflects a lower, grey cloudscape. The court itself contributes both rectilinear and curving, organic forms to the scene, but almost all else is starkly perpendicular. A thin vertical of concrete — perhaps a sculpture, an observation or bell tower — divides one photograph in two, and off to the right a pair of low and unpeopled concrete benches rhyme modestly with the central platform.
It is unclear what function this laconic object performs in the square, beyond the apparent and perhaps unofficial one of a place of rest. It is patently of a piece, design-wise, with the contemporary building and the other minimal furnishings that surround it. The thing might, as the artists suggests, be a kind of stage or bandstand designed for carrying out official functions or ceremonies, less formal celebrations or spontaneous entertainments, even demonstrations, on the part of the citizenry. It is both oddly self-involved and mysterious, and a type of invitation to the performance of state-sanctioned or unofficial rituals. As Coley notes, it looks distinctly unfinished, as if another building were meant to rise at the southern extremity of the plaza but has remained incomplete; it is perhaps a vacant space in which to dream of another building on a more human or intimate scale than those that flank the square. Most strikingly, it adds another level, another stratum, to a portion of the city that already rises above the surrounding plain: one ascends by steps to the Square of the Three Powers and looks down on the city that it is meant to govern and control, and has to some degree famously failed. Looking at the artist’s photographs of the platform — and perhaps this is what Coley himself began to discern — one begins to imagine Brasília as a stratified city, a series of layers somehow at odds with the concept essential to its original vision of a city radiating horizontally, along cross-wise axes, from its administrative centre. This enigmatic structure seems to suggest, especially as one tries to plumb the blackness under it, unknowable depths beneath the public facade.
A type of elevated flatness or horizontality has, in fact, long been intrinsic to the vision of Brasília as an administrative, political and urban centre. Central to its legendary origins is a vision that Dom Bosco, subsequently patron saint of the capital, claimed to have had on 30 August 1883, while traversing Brazil’s great central plain. He dreamed that while travelling across the Andes he was joined by a celestial guide:
I saw the bowels of the mountains and the depths of the plains. I had before my eyes the incomprehensible riches… which would one day be discovered. I saw numerous mines of precious metals and fossil coals, and deposits of oil of such abundance as had never before been seen in other places. But that was not all. Between the fifteenth and the twentieth degrees of latitude, there was a long and wide stretch of land which arose at a point where a lake was forming. Then a voice said repeatedly: when people come to excavate the mines hidden in the middle of these mountains, there will appear in this place the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. It will be of incomprehensible richness.
Bosco’s vision was officially sanctioned in the Republican Constitution of 1891. It was not a wholly visionary plan: the 14,000 square metres of the central plain envisaged for the city constituted, among other things, a safe haven from naval attack — always a danger in the then capital of Rio de Janeiro — but languished unfulfilled until the mid-1950s, when President Juscelino Kubitschek made it state policy to build the city by 1960.
The city’s subsequent history is well known. Urban planner Lúcio Costa drew up a scheme and his chief architect, Oscar Niemeyer, designed much of the fabric of the city in a style that consciously combined the modernism of Le Corbusier with the organic forms of native architecture. Brasília stands today as both a monument to the progressive, even utopian, ambition of modernism and a notorious lesson in its limitations; the socially and physically zoned ‘horizontal’ city soon stratified itself in precisely the terms it was planned to avoid. Class distinctions asserted themselves in the ostensibly communal and open city centre, a vast hinterland of the poor grew up to service that centre and the city’s inhabitants began to speak of suffering from brasilite, or Brasília-itis, an urban disorder brought on by the starkness and inhuman scale of the place.
What does it mean today to remake, obliquely, such a structure as the concrete platform that Coley discovered in Brasília? In part, the gesture is in keeping with a certain archaeology of modernism that has been undertaken by many artists in the last decade or so. It seems that the forms and the ideologies of modernist architecture, in particular, have returned to haunt a present that lacks both the aesthetic vision and the progressive political ambition of the mid-20th century. Inevitably, much of the work made in this vein engages the past in a melancholic fashion; the modernist ruin has become a familiar motif in contemporary art, so much so that it is possible to speak of the architecture of last century as having attained, in a prodigious acceleration of decay and regret, the status that classical ruins had for the ruin enthusiasts of the Romantic period. There were artists who knew this in the immediate wake of modernism. Robert Smithson is the prime example, with his concept of ‘ruins in reverse’: those structures and sites that seem to fall into ruin at the same time as they are being built or rebuilt. The concrete ruins of the recent past, on this reading, are dialectical entities, facing past and future at the same time.
Brasília, of course, is not a literal ruin, though it is certainly a relic. The functioning city — its serenely or thrillingly open spaces now considerably complicated by further construction, traffic and the messiness of actual urban life — is also a repository of utopian memories of a possible future. Coley’s vacant platform is a tabula rasa on which the hopes of the mid-century and their subsequent protracted dashing may be written. It is not exactly a melancholy object, and nor do its avatars in the gallery simply recall, in a nostalgic or ironic fashion, the futurism it once embodied. Coley’s sculptural response to the platform is a series of varied iterations of the original, their concrete poured in the gallery itself. The moment of their solidification in that space is an inauguration of sorts, an invitation to slightly elevate oneself above the gallery floor, thereby entering into a subtly different ritual or performative space and state. One of the platforms intrudes between two rooms of the gallery, becoming both and obstacle and a means of passage. There are reminders, too, of the site of the original platform itself — mirrored steel panels on the gallery wall reflect the spectator who has mounted a platform, recalling the glass architecture of the Square of the Three Powers. They open the gallery up to another place and time in which transparency and spatial openness were intended to foster something similar at the level of political and social interaction. At the same time, the work makes clear references to the minimalist sculpture of the 1960s, and Robert Morris’s notorious assertion that sculpture had simply declined (spatially speaking) from the vertical to the horizontal.
This material becoming and spatial alteration has a ritual or sacred aspect, quite coterminous with Coley’s longstanding critical interest in spaces of worship and the alternative cartography they describe around a city. We may recall his installation The Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh (2004), with its massed cardboard scale models of every church in the city. Or more materially his In Memory (2010), a modestly sized family graveyard constructed at the Jupiter Artland sculpture garden in Edinburgh, in which the headstones lack names and the whole is surrounded protectively by a blank concrete wall. The very enclosure and discretion of the work become the condition by which it opens itself to the memory and imagination of the visitor. It is not so much a work of mourning or melancholia as a space and substance in which certain possibilities, and a fluid relation with time and memory, are broached. The Brasília platform maintains something of this unostentatious openness. Its very self-sameness (the fluid concrete hardening to a uniform solid) is once more a sort of invitation, not merely to ascend the steps but to reflect on the stubborn survival of the original object and the continued uncertainty of its status in such an ordered and ‘cold’ environment.
Many photographs exist of the Brazilian capital under construction in the late 1950s, and they include black-and-white and colour views of the southern side of the Square of the Three Powers. One depicts the area as a scratted and apparently unruly building site, with the plain on which the city was constructed stretching in the distance. The impression is of an emptiness or flatness from which Bosco’s dream of 1883 is about to emerge. A shallow ramp of earth delivers materials to the site of the Supreme Federal Court, a single structure rising from the mass of crosshatched scaffolding: the thin white curve of the first support for the building’s roof. The support is massive but frail-looking from a distance, a tentative assertion of utopian ambition on the empty and hostile plain. It is exactly this intrusion of the lonely and hopeful vertical into the vacant landscape that Coley’s art asks us to consider, with its fragile, garish remnant of fairground architecture interrupting tree-like between the concrete plateaux hovering just above the gallery floor. It is an image of solitary presence — like the model of Scots’ Church perched on an adjacent platform — that holds promises at the same time that it holds the possibility of collective being and the persistence of a sense that here on the platform anything might happen.
Razzle Dazzle, The Situation Now
The most provocative structure in Nathan Coley’s Appearances is a concrete platform that traverses ACCA’s large gallery, passing into its smaller niche gallery. Occupying the only access between the two galleries, it is a summons to ascend and descend from one philosophical space to another. It…
The most provocative structure in Nathan Coley’s Appearances is a concrete platform that traverses ACCA’s large gallery, passing into its smaller niche gallery. Occupying the only access between the two galleries, it is a summons to ascend and descend from one philosophical space to another. It is an incitement, if you will — a taunt, a dare and an invitation — to prevaricate upon a proposition of certainty to uncertainty as you traverse between spaces.
The proposition of certainty resides on both sides of the concrete platform. In the large space we encounter the certitude of the modern civic space — open planned, spacious, secular — democratically available to any and all who wish to loiter in its vast egalitarianism. On the other side, in the smaller gallery, we enter into the ecclesiastical sanctuary — inexorable, cloistered, iconic and singular. Neither side is neutral or straightforward; each proposition, in its own way, is a loaded and coded congregational place.
In the large gallery Coley has created the appearance of the modernist public plaza. He has exploited the elongation of the gallery to create a vista of space — extended, planar and recurring. His concrete platforms, poured in-situ to present uniform height and a confident, ‘true’ material weight, provide plateaus of encounter. These sentinel grey forms step across the space to angle the visitor’s view towards the end wall, which, punctuated with a section of mirrored steel grid, seems open, endless and utopian.
Referencing the ‘expansion-join’ grid of the gallery floor and the system of metal conduit covers that run through the space, Coley has positioned his platforms to accentuate a sense of an infinite two-way spatial stretch. He creates a kind of continuous moment and total urbanisation, one favoured by theoretical architects like Superstudio and actual architects such as Oscar Niemeyer, whose plazas aim for heroic infinity and whose Brasília urban platform Coley reinvents and iterates as his own.
Across the provocative platform, which challenges us to trespass onto the other side, its frontier edge is a ledge upon which a wooden model church has been placed. Handmade from raw plywood, with joins visible and pencil marks evident, the little neo-Gothic church, it’s spire reaching 1.8 metres high, is like a curio, a newly made relic from an era preceding secular modernism. Its smallness implies its undemonstrative demeanour. It is like a doll’s house that we tower over. We can command it, practice our faith without long-term commitment.
Coley’s concrete plinth becomes an island for his model church. He conforms to and confirms the necessity of the utopian, sequestered, uncontaminated private space for this Lilliputian item, so that we may look down upon the perfection of the miniature, which we cherish, like a child, because of our opportunity to oversee its proportions and balance in totality.
Coley’s little church is the antithesis of modern standardisation of mass-produced structures and things. His hand-crafted model is unique — an item that excites our nostalgia for craft and for pre-industrial, authentic labour. In miniaturisation, the church seems a perfect gem, a charismatically charming thing.
To emphasise its seductive lure, Coley has added a decorative ‘razzle dazzle’ to the external walls of the church. Black-and-white striations rise around the structure in jaunty fashion, like a happy zebra herd. The dazzle is a riff on the camouflage painted on battleships during WWI: an optical illusion intended to confuse the enemy by disguising the direction of the boat. The dazzle was first tested on models by its instigator, Norman Wilkinson, and his team, who bunkered down in the basement of the Royal Academy workshop in London. With its modern, bold patterned design, it is perhaps one of the first examples of non-figurative painting in British art.
Perhaps the ‘razzle dazzle’ is also a tilt to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Dazzle Ships album (1983), the band’s less successful successor to its Architecture and Morality of 1981. Coley is, after all, drawn to examine unspoken things contained within structures: morality, faith, fear and arrogance. The dazzle lends a certain jewel-like quality to the church, but the decorative origins, nevertheless, are about deceit and trickery, a kind of mirage.
The viewer is drawn to peer inside the church’s hyper-enclosed interior, which emphasises the phenomenological and psychological difference between the private and public space that has just been crossed. But it also confirms the perfection of its sanctuary for the select who might inhabit its nostalgic meaning.
Appearances can be deceiving, and so we might assume Coley’s dazzle also suggests a metaphor about the seductions of the religion, or, more sympathetically, that it acknowledges that religions are now embattled and have become targets in the newly drawn religio-geopolitical landscape. In this sense Coley’s church is the every-church, a symbol under siege.
Coley has said that he thinks of the black-and-white pattern as referencing Judaism, perhaps because of the prayer shawls he observed while in Jerusalem. So it may be that his camouflage recalls the Judaic foundations that prop up the Christian religions symbolised by his model. Rather than referencing the generic, however, Coley’s methodology points to places of worship in specific locations in which he works.
The local, Melbourne reference is the Scottish Church, a well-known city landmark at the corner of Russell and Collins Streets. With its bluestone and its restrained Gothic style, it is reminiscent of the parish Presbyterian churches — ‘Kirks’ — from Coley’s own country. The ‘Scots’ Church, as it is known colloquially here in Melbourne, is a colonial outpost of its homeland mission, whose ‘distinctive call and duty [is] to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry’.
The Kirk in Scotland enjoys independence from the state, and although its formal congregation is counted as only nine per cent of the Scottish census, 42 per cent of Scottish people still identify as Church of Scotland when listing their religion. Their ongoing allegiance marks their difference from the British system — the Church of England — and maintains a distinctive nationalism and character. Down among the people, the Kirk, occupying its various territorial parishes in stone buildings, is a vigilant moral niggler.
Never Trust A Loving God — one of Coley’s text pieces — ushers skepticism into this small parish. Hung high and hovering over the diminutive church, it tolls a complicated admonishment: Why not trust a loving God? Isn’t that the point? Isn’t God the trustable divine architect of all things?
The Scottish Enlightenment prepared the way for religious skepticism by banishing arcane, medieval thoughts based on a lack of empirical evidence, even while it maintained a respectful and sometimes fearful coexistence with a more humanist sense of community, moral compass and good works. The Scottish Enlightenment placed responsibility on humankind to know and do the right thing, not on a hereafter concept of divine forgiveness and confessional hedging of bets.
Thus we are made to tower over Coley’s little church. We are now the powerful entity, between a stern God and his children. Like the camouflage symbolism suggests, we are out to sea on our own, and as modern, enlightened citizens we can find ourselves without a clear sense of direction and without the necessary ethical coordinates.
Coley provides an anti-chamber, into which we might retreat to contemplate this new world in which humanism demands the best of us. It is a sanctuary of sorts, decorated with larger striations of blue and white. In the middle gallery of ACCA, it is enclosed at one end of its non-Euclidian shape. Such retreat is to no avail. The bands of colour accentuate the warp of the space to make it disorienting and discombobulating. The only refuge against this derangement appears in the form of three smaller framed abstractions, each a pattern of coloured bands: blue and white, gold and white, black and white. Coley says these represent, to his way of thinking, the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. Each, in its own way, provides a secure resting point in this larger space, which remains unstable and distracting. They are the same but different, separated and distinguished by their frame of reference. To me, the room represents the interior, exterior and phenomenological space in-between.
We need to move from this hallucinogenic, insecure place to more solid ground. The lure of the regimented and expansive plane of the platforms and open space beckons the visitor back across the concrete bridge, into the urban sanity of Coley’s ‘plaza’. But now, having visited the other side, we study these concrete forms anew. As we have with the little church, we can now invest in the comfort, even the optimistic nostalgia, of this newer creed of civic interestedness. The public square, the neo-congregating place of the new world seems full of potential, yet oddly sterile. It’s too still, too monumental perhaps, too monolithic. Without the comfort of the miniature to tower over, we feel small again, daunted afresh by the opportunities of space.
We amble about, go up and down and across the space, utilising the steps and vistas. When they have people walking around, sitting, gathering in conversation, Coley’s platforms come alive and seem purposeful. Like the conceptualism it references, Coley’s project awaits an audience to activate one of his premises — the city square — and to provide counter-proportional relations to the forms. Referencing the minimalist pedigree of monochrome and cubic forms, Coley’s platforms similarly invite an audience to ponder ‘solidness’ and the space around and between these apparently gestalt things.
But these are not certain objects in the Robert Morris catalogue of gestalt things. Coley exploits the inherent complexity of his source — Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília public object — and its open utility as seat, plinth, sculpture and architecture, and adds it to the trajectory of sculptural interrogations commenced by Tony Smith, Donald Judd and Carl Andre. These platforms confound once more the definition of sculpture and its status between object, monument, furniture, architecture and art, and they refresh the theatricality of the audience and object. ‘Trespass and Loiter’ commands the sign, and the audience does, taking the conceptual trajectory one stage further to emphasise the inversion of public and private space that Coley’s project explores.
Once they ascend the platform the audience become object and sculpture, and this necessary transgression into the artwork activates the participatory aspects of Coley’s continual progression through the minimal conceptual menu. Similarly, the grid of mirrored steel at the end of the space offers the appearance of a detail of a modernist curtain-wall building, lending greater veracity to the similitude of Coley’s public place. But it is also a device within the canon of conceptualism; it provides the inter-subjective moment, a performative methodology explored by artists such as Dan Graham, Joan Jonas and Bruce Nauman, who used mirroring to explore social commonality and shared experience — ultimately the utopian purpose of the people’s square.
In this space the audience is once more made responsible. Coley’s three stages in the large space require the public to make their own decisions about how they interact. They are now small, compared with their status when they stood over the model church, they have been given permission to hang out, fill in time, gather.
This might offer time to contemplate the making of these concrete forms: solid, there to stay, tangible and timeless, compared with the fragility of the handmade wooden church model. But if the audience thinks about it for a few moments they will come to the realisation that these sculptures are not normal to the space, a place given over every two months to a different appearance. They will also realise that the sculptures have been poured onto the floor, as there is no way that they could have been brought into the gallery. They might then think about the nature of their making, the expert form-work that has made each a unique object, similar in detail, but shaped differently in each instance.
The audience has invested in the nostalgia of craft in the miniature church, but they might equally admire, with a kind of nostalgia, the craftsmanship of real concrete plinth-making — like a sculpture — poured into mould, a form-work made from wood with artisanal skills of the highest order. The evidence of ‘handmade-ness’ and wood is found in the details of the casting that traces the edges of the platforms and in the trowel and brushwork that has given the platform its distinctive surface.
These dignified, authentically laboured-over objects demand a lot from the audience. Unlike the ecclesiastical architecture they seem unembellished and without the tricks and illusions of distraction that excite the masses. So Coley has added a new ‘spectacle’: a fun-filled, light sculpture resembling a tree, adorned with various coloured fairground lights. It doesn’t blink, but it could. In the austerity of the modernist square it is a frivolous throwback to bread-and-circus times, to pagan rituals and religious miracles. It is the mass entertainment that pacifies a public and exempts it from a lack of community commitment.
Ultimately, though, it does not provide much in the way of substance. It is a chimera and a fleeting flim-flam. Like its lineage of portable, demountable sideshows and pan-alley attractions it declares its impermanent spirit. It speaks to the ephemeral and quixotic encounter, which will be further explored in Coley’s school of architecture in Another Lecture in which the impossibly shonky, the heroic ‘found’ public object and temporary architecture of transition are given authority and weight by academic and theoretical celebration.
If one is looking for a kindly legacy here, it is found in the humorous and sympathetic project by Richard Wentworth of ‘found sculptures’ in his Making Do and Getting By series of photographs: his homage to the ingenuity and make-do balance and opportunistic ephemeral street ‘sculptures’ enacted by a non-specialist public. Coley’s lecture, by contrast, is a satirical observance of the failure and diminishment of craft in urban design and architecture.
Like the Scot’s Church in Melbourne, here made into an approximate model that refers to its home in Scotland, Another Lecture folds Melbourne and Coley’s hometown of Glasgow together in shared moments of urban dysfunction and dishevelment. Which is more human? To err, as these failures of design suggest, or to ascend to certainty, and perhaps arrogance, as we are invited to do on Coley’s platforms. This is the debate established and enacted by his Appearances.
Rather than ‘architecture and morality’ being up for grabs, I think, eventually, through the public square we have come to a place of situational ethics. Another Lecture and the visitor operations on and off plinths, the meandering through the enfolded public/private space, are Coley’s nod to the recent situationist revival in sculptural practice, which celebrates the transitory, participatory and intangible. Appearances travels across a century of sculptural practice that relates to the language of objects, things and bodies, using architecture and its forms as a renewed devise for interrogation.
Nathan Coley interviewed by Charlotte Day
Coley & Day