James Pallister on a provocative show that takes viewers to the edge of collapse
Overhang by Tobias Putrih and MOS. Level 2, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road, Gateshead, NE8 3BA. Until 31 August
It’s bank holiday Monday and 25-year-old art-lover Sam Rogers has just spent 30 minutes playing with a pile of wooden blocks. He’s on the second floor of Gateshead’s Baltic gallery, at a table strewn with half-built structures.
The wooden blocks are an adjunct to the installation that commands the room, Overhang, a piece by Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih and American architects MOS. It’s made up of a 7m-high Styrofoam structure, precariously arranged in branching, stacking and cantilevered blocks. It looks as if, with the slightest nudge, the whole thing might just fall over. The seemingly haphazard arrangement is a result of MOS and Putrih’s creation of a computer script that builds structures with stacked, overhanging blocks. There’s an obvious visual link with Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment that showed at Tate Modern in 2005, but whereas Embankment could be read as a landscape, Overhang is a standalone structure.
Putrih has previously exhibited in New York, Basel and London, while his principal collaborator, Michael Meredith, is an architect, teacher (at Yale and Harvard) and director of MOS, which describes itself as ‘a collective of designers, architects, thinkers, and state-of-the-art weirdos’. He’s also very interested in widening the possibilities of computer modelling.
‘One of our criticisms [of working with digital models] was the loss of a visceral resistance you can get with physical models. We wanted things to be able to fall. That can be a useful thing to see – you can understand things through that moment of failure,’ says Meredith. The two worked on Platform – an open-source program for software design – to develop a software that creates a test environment with what Meredith calls ‘gravity, weight, mass and friction’.
The viscosity the pair was looking for is shown by a wall-mounted plasma screen adjacent to the installation. It runs on a loop, showing different iterations of individual blocks quickly forming a stacked structure. Once one block is removed, the rapidly generated structure comes tumbling down, its parts scattering.
It seems incongruous to make such a basic structure as Overhang using advanced scripting, a method associated with the complex geometries of buildings such as Foster and Partners nearby Sage music centre, whose squat globules contrast with the Baltic’s slim verticality. Not so, says Meredith: ‘The idea about “digital architecture” is silly because everyone works digitally, and it’s still a relatively new medium. Although it is ubiquitous, it is still up for grabs. We are interested in how you can lose control with it.’
Although digital modelling is ubiquitous, it is still up for grabs. We are interested in how you can lose control with it.
Without insight into its methods of production, and shown without the building blocks and the plasma screen, the installation would struggle to persuade the gaggle of gallery visitors that there is much point in hanging round. Thankfully, the building blocks on the table allow you to scratch the itch set up by the precarious structure – and knock something down. And if you are into the clever stuff, you can puzzle over a laminated document that explores the question: ‘How far can a structure of identical blocks be made to hang over the edge of a table?’ Apparently, it’s a question that has foxed mathematicians for years.
Putrih said that he saw the exhibition as part of constructivist tradition, to which there was always a didactic aspect: ‘People can play with the blocks and gain a reference back to this quite complex process we used. The building blocks mean that there is a reality check to the whole project.’
It’s one aspect of the exhibition that’s worked really well. ‘It makes you appreciate how complex the structure of the installation is. You can see how difficult it would be to make,’ says Sam Rogers, proudly standing by the result of his 30 minutes of block building.
My drive down to Newcastle’s quayside had taken me past Owen Luder’s Trinity Square car park (1967), immortalised in the Geordie gangster flick Get Carter (1971), now mid-way through demolition. The exhibition’s captions links Overhang to the doomed car park. Putrih is interested in the legacy of 20th-century modernism, but is this link slightly tenuous?
’I think what links it to the car park and brutalism is that brutalism didn’t prioritise aesthetics and thought more about processes, construction and materials whose realisation may produce ugliness. With Overhang the result may look like it is about to fail but there is a beauty in the thinking behind it – a pleasure in the ugly awkwardness to it.’
Further down the room, demolition is at the top of the agenda. In front of a picture window that looks east down the Tyne, with views of Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall, is an educational area called ‘Quay’. There’s a set of mini Styrofoam blocks laid out, and several dads – and the toddlers accompanying them – are putting them to good use.
After five minutes of rapt concentration the toddler stops his construction and knocks it down with relish. He has done exactly what everyone in the room wants to do to Overhang, but can’t.
Resume: The Baltic builds it up and tears it down