Searching for Dan Graham
A GLOBAL TOUR of the American artist’s enigmatic pavilions
POSTED: MARCH 1, 2010
Since the mid-1960s, the New York–based artist Dan Graham has had a huge impact on contemporary art-making, writing and thinking. His work is an untidy, polyamorous marriage of conceptual art’s self-reflexiveness, Pop art’s populist humour, existentialism’s confrontation with being in the world, phenomenology’s focus on sensation and rock ’n’ roll’s ecstasy—all relayed through the obstinate materiality of minimal forms.
As part of his practice, Graham has made a series of pavilions, architectural structures you can enter that are most often made of stainless steel and semi-reflective glass. Their materials and forms mimic the functionalist architecture of recent modernism, particularly corporate buildings from the 1980s, which often use two-way mirrored glass to disappear into the surrounding cityscape and sky. This, Graham has said, is an attempt by the corporation to appear innocuous, in harmony with the city and nature, while preserving the one-way gaze that keeps the public ignorant of what goes on inside.
While the pavilions aren’t the totality of Graham’s work, they constitute the bulk of his production over the last 30 years. It would be easy to dismiss the project’s serial nature as mere habit or shtick, but in Graham’s case (as with a few other great artists, such as Ad Reinhardt, with his late paintings) I consider it a conscious refusal to adapt his practice for the sake of a renewed sales proposition.
I remember my first experiences of Graham’s pavilions, in the early 2000s. Some friends and I happened across a couple of them in New York City: Two-Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube (1981/1991), on the roof of Dia:Chelsea, and Bisected Triangle, Interior Curve (2002), in Madison Square Park (most, though not all, of the pavilions are located in parks or other green spaces).
Since then, both of these works have been deinstalled (Dia plans to remount its piece), but they remain as clear in my mind as ever. I remember how stark these forms initially appeared. It didn’t take long, though, for the complexity of the works to emerge: the encounter involved superposed images, glinting reflections, the necessity of my own movement, changes in light as the sun moved through the sky. It was time to reconsider the city, perhaps critically or analytically, but it was also time to linger and play.
For years afterward, I wanted to visit more of Graham’s pavilions, but I didn’t know how to reliably find them. Travels through France and Italy took me close to Graham’s works several times, but I missed them because I didn’t know they were there. Information about many of the works was available from diverse sources, but you never knew if the pavilions were still standing or if they were open to the public.
So I decided to consult Graham himself, proposing to research and assemble a modest resource of some sort. To my relief, he welcomed my interest and supported the project. So in the late, hot days of July, 2008, we met at his Manhattan studio to start. He greeted me wearing a T-shirt that said “I’m Dan.”
Graham himself wasn’t sure of the status of certain of the works, or, since it had been a while in some cases, how to find some of them. After many hours of international calls, I learned that there are about 50 publicly accessible pavilions in parks, city squares, museum courtyards and rooftops around the world. Sometimes you have to pay to visit them, and occasionally the work is difficult to access, but for the most part you might just stumble across one on the way to work or as you explore a new city.
There are also a good number in storage, some awaiting future exhibition, some in private collections unavailable to the public. The task I set myself was to identify and locate only those pavilions that are there for you and me, today. Or that will be soon, at least. That’s not to say that I got to see them all, not by a long shot, but I certainly have gotten to know them better, and they’re great. Let me tell you why.
Graham’s pavilions are many things: shelters, meeting places, sites for chance encounters, psychedelic folds in the cityscape, weird convolutions of the built and natural environments, reflections on recreation, photo ops for tourists and playgrounds for kids. And, partly because most are situated in open areas, they are also among those rare sites in the developed world that don’t attempt to usher you into some kind of transaction.
I like the range of possibilities inherent in these structures: they are subject to the rain and wind, sometimes accessible through the night and available to pretty much anyone in town—infants and elders, bureaucrats and street vendors. As Graham sees it, “They’re populist in the end.”
And although they adopt the rhetoric of downtown urban architecture, the public pavilions do more than collaborate with it; their scale and usability present a different vision of the human-architecture encounter. They are street level (mostly), human-scaled and open to all, like phone booths and bus shelters. But unlike most other structures, the pavilions’ only function is to relate to their surroundings and the bodies of those who visit them—they are empty shells of modern ethics and aesthetics no longer playing their part.
You can bump and rub up against the pavilions. They are real situations for intersubjective perception, where you move your body, consider your space and see others seeing you and yourself seeing others. Graham notes, “My biggest fans are little girls; it takes boys much longer to appreciate the work. I think girls have a sense of themselves as bodies being seen by other bodies.”
Graham talks often of intersubjectivity; he mentions passages in JeanPaul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness that describe something like a mirror stage, where a child’s gaze meets another’s; they are metaphorically mirrors for one another’s ego. They’re looking at each other looking at each other. This moment of existential crisis represents an ongoing unease that has to do with the self as object versus the self as subject. Some of Jean-Luc Godard’s films (to which Graham also refers) contain rehearsals of moments like these—people watch one another, listen in on one another and describe one another’s actions in a continuous examination of consciousness, perception and knowledge. Graham’s pavilions elicit this examination too, but, mysteriously, they’re not angst-ridden; they invoke laughter and experimentation. Rather than being representations of moments of existential crisis, they create suspensions of existential curiosity: they hold it and fold it into a complex of activity.
To use a term Graham himself has used on more than one occasion, these spaces can be thought of as heterotopias. A heterotopia, according to the French theorist Michel Foucault, refers to a situation of crisis— adolescence, injury, pregnancy, drunkenness—or to an actual space that supports behaviour or psychology outside the norm (whatever that is)—casinos, homes for the elderly, psychiatric clinics, prisons, cemeteries, gardens, libraries, museums, fairs, festivals, hotels, brothels. In other words, speaking to the dead looks odd at the bank, but not in the graveyard. Or, as my friend David Court once put it, spaces like these are “at once within and separate from normative space; they contradict the flows of social space while existing within them.”
These are interesting thoughts for an artist or an architect; he or she might ask, “What psychologies, behaviours or movements become available in the contexts I create?”
Graham’s contexts seem to result in wild gesticulations and positionings of the body, eye contact and meetings between strangers, experimental attitudes about how we perform our objecthood and subjecthood and how all of this is framed by architecture and material culture.
He refers to Herbert Marcuse, a Frankfurt School theorist who challenges the Freudian premise that repression is necessary for civilization. Marcuse describes the repressive tendency as an ethos of capitalist functionality, which promises a progressively “better life for all.” He proposes the possibility of an unrepressed culture that, having successfully sheltered and fed itself, need not labour further and is free to play. “Play is unproductive and useless,” Marcuse writes, “precisely because it cancels the repressive and exploitative traits of labor and leisure; it ‘just plays’ with the reality.”
To my eye, Graham’s pavilions are sites for this kind of unproductive play, sites for lingering rather than for progress. They exist in continuous time, in a kind of dance that is not a simple phenomenology of the present but a complex continuity of perception.
And this play, this complexity of perception and interaction, happens not in a vacuum, but in a particular context. The pavilions take genuine interest in where, when and whom they are for; they address the residents, politics, history and built environment of the sites they inhabit. Some are sarcastic jokes on history and nationalism (Star of David Pavilion in Austria, for example) and some are humorous statements about the public use of a given space (Heart Pavilion, made for the lobby of the Carnegie Museum of Art, is meant as a comment on gallery lobbies as places for romantic rendezvous and pickups).
I’m not sure how to sum this text up—maybe it’s best not to. But I would like to push aside the details of all this for a second and say that what moves me about this body of work, and perhaps a lot of good work, is that it is simultaneously the product of deeply felt affection and empathy for human life and an expression of serious dissatisfaction with civilization’s status quo. It requires constant movement.
Graham himself loves to travel. If he stays too long in New York, he says, he gets bored. As he said in a recent lecture, he’s not against tourism, so he goes around the world giving lectures, meeting people, making work, seeing work, seeing architecture. He likes to casually study a given place’s history and the character of the people living there.
So, in keeping with this attitude, the book, Dan Graham Pavilions: A Guide, is a tourist book. It’s not meant to shed new theoretical light on Graham’s work, it’s just meant to help you get to it if you want to, and I guess also to say, “Dan Graham was here.”