“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” The first sentence of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise, a gigantic brutalist apartment block the epitomizes “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments” (the Collins dictionary definition of the word „Ballardian“).
While Ballard’s work often portrays buildings as containers, representing and at the same time obscuring what their proprietors and inhabitants would prefer to hide, Tiril Hasselknippe’s works comes in a whole apocalypse later. Her “tubs”, subtitled “balconies”, are not so much metaphors for parts of ourselves that we ignore or are unaware of, but rather parts of a post-apocalyptic storyline. “In everything I see its possibility” is the first line of the press text. It sounds remarkably hopeful, given that the four concrete pieces look like relics of another time and possibly a different kind of architecture.
Displaced in the white cube, they unfold a remarkable physical presence. You encounter the first one upon entry: a heavy, oval monster of a concrete cast, all but jammed into the minuscule anteroom. The inside of the tub is lined with the kind of thin sheet steel the artist uses frequently, which, next to the rough concrete, feels nearly as fragile as wrapping paper, rusting in a residue of murky water at the bottom of the cavity, as if left over from the casting process (concrete heats up when drying, and absorbs water in the process, so it needs to be kept wet). The form is elegantly askew with the architecture, a warped cylinder, with a slightly bevelled bottom, as if shaped accidentally by having been dropped.
The pieces in the main room are neatly spaced out and even more rugged than the first, with forms that look makeshift, rickety, and materials like plastic sheets or fiberglass tissue showing. Their single or multiple cavities contain more water, in one instance water of a bright blue colour. Standing at slightly more than hip height, they remind one of fairy-tale wells. Responding by mail, the artist writes of a nightmarish scenario, of balconies dropping from disintegrating buildings, becoming tubs, collecting water for a post-apocalyptic society that has to relearn basic social skills, from hygiene to mutual trust.
I like the story in the press release, but looking at the work, I realize I don’t need it. Somehow the work in this location, however mute, tells its own story. As a very physical work in what used to be part of the sculpture department of the Royal Academy. Latches in the corner of the space show where the sculptors of old kept the clay for their models. Considering the work that was produced here through history, negotiating the qualities of sculpture, of volume, scale, weight, material and, over and over again, the authority of physical presence, it dawns on me why I am touched by this work. You have to be there, it’s a matter of immediate experience.
The narratives Tiril Hasselknippe evokes may connect her to the post-Internet crowd she started out with. But her recent work itself points in a different direction, more sculptural, more abstract, more archaic, nearly overpowering if not contradicting her own storyline. It brings you back to the narratives that inspired brutalist architecture. It also reminds me of the conflicting stories and artistic narratives in the proto-abstract and pre-assemblage monuments by 18th-century sculptor Johannes Wiedewelt in Jægerspris. This “Danish Phidias”, who was director of the art academy twice, created this park of memorial stones dedicated to great countrymen, not as portraits of their features, but as formal abstractions referring to their accomplishments and maybe their characters, thinking quite far out of the box of his times.
It’s no wonder the protagonist in Ballard’s novel reflects on what has been going on while seated on the balcony. Balconies are often bulge-like, jutting out of the body of the architecture, offering a different perspective, including on the façade of the house you are in, even while you are outside. Maybe brutalism is becoming our neo-classicism?