Cement, Concrete

Not the least remarkable feature of Cement, Concrete, an exhibition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design’s Eric Arthur Gallery from April to June, was that all of the works were the same colour. I mention this perhaps not overwhelmingly insightful fact because both bodies of work–photographs by Peter MacCallum and graphite drawings and photographs by Mark West–while produced in an ostensibly conventionalized black-and-white, nevertheless attained something closer to a powdery pearlescence which, as curator Kenneth Hayes points out in a splendid essay written to accompany the exhibition, seemed “to mimic the effect of atmospheric cement settling on every surface of the space where it is produced.” This ambiance, he suggests, “is saturated with a light that seems tangible and haptic, but which cannot be properly localized: is it in the photographic image, or in the space itself?”

Hayes, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, is talking, at this point, only about MacCallum’s photographs, but this radiant, sugary greyness was everywhere incarnated in both bodies of work–a fact that speaks subtly but persuasively of the degree to which this inventive exhibition seemed both conceptually and sensuously unified.

“Concrete,” writes Hayes in the first sentence of his essay, “Dry and Sloppy: The Concrete Dialectics of Peter MacCallum and Mark West,” “has the capacity to inspire the most varied and even contradictory visions.” Given that the photographs by Peter MacCallum were selected from the Toronto photographer’s ongoing documentary research into the history and nature of the concrete industry in Ontario (see “Concrete Poetry,” CA May 2000), and that the drawings and photos by Mark West, Director of the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology at the University of Manitoba, are integral to his ongoing research into the radical possibilities offered to building design by the fabric-forming of concrete (see CA April 1995), the fact that the two bodies of work coalesced, extended and amplified one another, rather than breaking the exhibition into halves, became a tribute to Hayes’ museological acuteness.

In the course of a lucid assay of the sometimes vaguely understood differences between concrete and cement (“cement is the active ingredient of concrete, its magical part”) and a neat recounting of how concrete is actually made (“In the imagination, the process by which concrete hardens has much in common with petrification and fossilization; perhaps this is why concrete, no matter how green and newly formed, retains a primordial and ancient air… It is instantly heroic, even archaic”), Hayes provides a helpful context in which to ponder the amplitude of concrete’s vacillating reputation as a utilitarian, fashionable and yet often reviled building material (“For most people concrete is a material witness to all that seems wrong in modernity: the dulling down of existence, the loss of facture, indifference to scale, in short, the death of style”).

Hayes’ musings about “the strange and powerful enthusiasm” mysteriously engendered in concrete’s defenders lifts him to lofty rhetorical heights. “It must be,” he writes, “that concrete triggers the phantasy of a universal fungibility, with all its attendant pleasurable ideas. Despite its obdurate hardness, concrete seems to declare ‘I once might have been anything,’ and thus it appeals to our desire for flight and evasion. Concrete embodies the pleasure of non-choice, and the child-like desire to ward off decision. Behind concrete’s facticity, behind the onerous imperative to always be something, in fact to have a proper self, shines the allure of being nothing at all, or at least nothing definite.”

Having arrived at what he calls “this awkward point,” Hayes then settles down into a more detailed consideration of the work of MacCallum and West and the inter-relationships between them within the exhibition.

Peter MacCallum’s documentary photographs Hayes describes as “dry”–not as in acerbic, but rather as the incarnation of a metaphorically imagined point in the chemical narrative of concrete’s “degree of flow before being poured,” dry and sloppy being seen not as antitheses but rather as “points on a continuum.” Mark West’s work, by this reckoning, is “sloppy”–again, not as in hurried or imprecise (quite the contrary), but rather in its engagement with “the exigencies of process and in heightening the sense of bodily immediacy in architectural form.”

Hayes locates MacCallum’s work as manifesting “the objectivist stance” in photography, citing August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt, and the work of Berndt and Hilla Becher as precedents. MacCallum’s exquisitely careful studies of the concrete industry proceed first and foremost as explication, as a photographic reading-back to the viewer of the processes and episodes of an entire history of industrial method and its ramifications. But Hayes also acknowledges the presence in MacCallum’s photographs of a genuine, if carefully controlled, romanticism. He gets it exactly right when he notes that “MacCallum’s work presented in this show underscores the perennial tension between intellectual agenda and aesthetic judgement.”

There are two related series of MacCallum’s photos in Cement, Concrete. One is about the process of cement-making at the St. Mary’s plant in Bowmanville, Ontario. The other is a collection of photographs of the bare ruined choirs of forsaken cement plants, of poignantly derelict kilns and machine-specimens from the industry’s dead-tech, archaeological fallout. As inescapably romantic as photographs like the fallen fortress of MacCallum’s Ruins of a Warehouse, Belleville Portland Cement Works, Point Anne, Belleville, Ontario, 2000 seem, with their dramatic Ozymandias-like sense of abandonment (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”), these noble photographs, according to Hayes, “do not deliberately attempt to evoke sentiments of lost grandeur,” but are, rather, “the inevitable product of the imperative to record all the sites of cement production in Ontario. Even if any astute observer,” intones Hayes smoothly, “must recognize the image of Caspar David Friedrich in Ruins of a Limestone Building, Belleville, this is unintentional, a mere epiphenomenon.” (I don’t know about “mere,” though. MacCallum’s prodigious reading does include a good deal about Friedrich.)

Mark West’s beautifully meticulous drawings and concomitant photographs are of both completed and potential fabric-formed concrete building projects. Hayes is unfailingly helpful about the history of fabric forming and West’s visionary employment of it. Fabric forming, he explains, was invented to permit the casting of concrete under water without the use of costly rigid frameworks. “The process,” Hayes notes, “relies on the fact that concrete can harden under water, which was the main desideratum of its historical revival. To my knowledge, West has never worked under water, but his pieces often have a particular quality between buoyancy and tumescence that evokes some strange underwater garden.”

Both his photographs, ostensibly dispassionate but in reality effulgent with a Faustian will to transformation, and his delicately phosphorescent drawings both generate and then contain what could well be, in less disciplined hands, a runaway surrealism. Several of the Wests seem deliberately Gaudi-esque. Some of the drawings are of braided or knotted surfaces; I described, in my notebook, one of West’s drawings as looking like an architectural “challah loaf.” But the apparent spontaneity and the unconscious- (or preconscious-) driven nature of West’s works is clearly belied or at least balanced by the rigours of his research and his procedures. Hayes usefully describes West’s balletic employment of synthetics–polypropylene, polyethylene and spandex and such oddities as “hurricane fencing”–in bringing to fruition his morphologically utopian ideas.

Are West and MacCallum here oddly yoked together–MacCallum with his documentary
eye on concrete’s past and present, and West bending the future of concrete construction to his expressive will? Initially it might seem so. In the long run it doesn’t. “Ultimately,” writes Kenneth Hayes, “both these artists pursue their subjects out of a shared recognition that concrete, and the cement from which it is made, is still one of the definitive materials of our modern industrial epoch.” In the end, Cement, Concrete positions itself as a kind of palpable narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end–thus supplying that most omnipresent of building materials with an inspectable past, present, and future.

Gary Michael Dault writes on art for The Globe and Mail. His book Abode: An Everyday Anthropology of Real and Imaginary Spaces will be published next year by Penguin/Viking.