Dutch Retreat

In a recent presentation of his work, Joep Van Lieshout of Atelier Van Lieshout (AVL), baited designers with hedonistic nihilism and disdain for their practice. Many of the capacity audience were left wondering what the lecture had to do with architecture. Yet where Van Lieshout is by turns radical and reactionary, at once banal and spectacular, the collaborative work of AVL manages in moments to outflank both art and architecture, using one against the other.

From architecture, Van Lieshout has borrowed space and pro- gram as a means to invigorate sculpture with inhabitation and use. In the mid-nineties, AVL began making fibreglass structures for different activities: public washrooms, mobile bedrooms, information kiosks, and “slave units.” Most of these minimal architectural environments provided well-designed space for ordinary events, while a few were inflected toward particular activities that contained loose narratives. This practice oscillated between the everyday and exceptional, the mundane taking on erotic or ominous possibilities or the extraordinary rendered plausible. Through this work, AVL has managed to inspire the current architectural fetishization of mobile homes and containers. In a more subtle way, the reductive and utilitarian qualities of the artwork prefigure the recent move in architectural practice away from representation and towards operation and efficacy. Ironically, AVL’s work over the same period has become increasingly symbolic, descending into personal fantasy while losing the intent of its original mobility.

As Van Lieshout came to this work as an artist, AVL utilizes a relatively unmediated approach in the production of architectonic enclosures which are normally subcontracted and assembled from disparate elements in standard building processes. This lends a wonderfully seamless quality to AVL’s structures, as they are often made at once, in one piece, by hand. Architectural practice always separates design, the legitimate realm of the architect, from construction, the sphere of the builder. In contrast, AVL deliberately fuses these two domains. Its work of this period has the optimism of do-it-yourself science fiction, resonating with punk bravado. However because of their scale, AVL’s projects are no longer possible to produce alone, so imbalanced relations of production creep back into the equation. The professional distance of the architect, who keeps his hands clean, is transgressed in more ways than one. There’s a considerable distance between making art in your bedroom and manufacturing a bedroom in the factory you own.

In the late nineties AVL began to take these disparate spaces, fragmentary interventions in urban and rural settings, and weave them into an elaborate Gesamtkunstwerk. What was evocative and open in earlier projects descends into dystopian theatrics such as the project for AVL-Ville. Half commune, half company town, AVL-Ville is smothered under the weight of its own perverse contradictions. There is an essential incongruity between Van Lieshout’s self-proclaimed search for freedom, his own freedom, or ‘autarky’, and independence from those forms of liberation that are possible in the collaborative communities from which he steals the program for his “free-state.”

Van Lieshout is not above or beyond authoritarian power play when it is used in the service of autonomy. He posits the Unabomber as his favourite terrorist: intellectual, reclusive and resourceful. His project dabbles in the world of terror: he speaks as a combatant outside the existing systems, constantly hounded and shut down by the law. The difficulties that he confronts in his projects are not in fact external to it. The harder AVL struggles for its own productive self- sufficiency, the more it approaches those terrifying freedoms and repressions that lie deep in the roots of bourgeois democracy itself.

Adrian Blackwell is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and an artist, activist and urban/architectural designer. Joep Van Lieshout gave a presentation of his work at the Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto on February 5. The event was co-presented by al&d and The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. For more information on AVL see www.ateliervanlieshout.com