When I entered the art world, in the `70s, the question asked, half joking and half dead-serious, was, "Who is the best artist?"
Nothing has come of that. The question was, after all, sterile. But it leads now to a new question, growing more immanent with each new round of shows, and that is, "Who is making the new architecture?"It is not enough to make a work, or even an installation. One must be somehow making an architectural prototype. Or a model. Or an exercise. This appears with Max Estenger's exhibition at Steffany Martz, titled "Headquarters."
In this show, Estenger treats space not as a void but as a gas. As something you breathe, something that can be manipulated with materials or machines. In Untitled, press a switch and a vacuum machine installed in the wall begins to suck the air out of the room (not too much, fortunately). For the site-specific installation Perfect Day, a part of the room has been sealed off with wood studs and sheets of clear plastic. Of course nobody in that narrow space can breathe for very long.
The only possible use of the space is suggested by a 20-inch-high orange door, installed in the plastic wall at floor level as if meant for a pet. The disproportionately great height of the narrow, sealed-off space means that any animal put in there could survive for quite a while; the clear plastic means that visitors could see it lose consciousness from lack of air and finally die. With or without an animal sealed within, we are witness to a macabre fact: any room only functions if, like the body itself, it allows gases in and out.
Other wall-mounted works also can serve as architectural comments. International Style features a framed paper invitation to a Dan Flavin show, here presented with its own fluorescent light source. This work comments in general on Dan Flavin, whose works elevate a simple architectural gesture -- the placing of a fluorescent tube -- to the status of art. But as it has happened, the art dealer and the art market, rather than serving to broaden or extrapolate the scale or scope of individual works in the built environment, keeps them firmly within the realm of preciousness.
On the floor sits a shredded document sealed air-tight inside a clear plastic sack. The checklist tells you that the object is called Ottoman with Shredded Bible (Homage to Madylyn Murray O'Hair). Page Six of the New York Post (of Apr. 26, 1997) made an issue of this. So what? Shock no longer works as a technique, and all the piece on the floor says is -- in line with the sense of the room -- suffocation. Why is anything shredded put in an airtight clear-plastic container, a mini-room? As with Damien Hirst's work, the contents (though offered as "shocking") are not important. Rather, the point is the act of visible containment. If Estenger had wanted to truly shred (Christian) religion, he would have left the strands in a pile in an open box. Ironically, the plastic wrapping protects the contents more than it denies them, much as does the see-through casing around the body in Lenin's Tomb. A coffin is an architectural object.
In the office is Art and Objecthood Moratorium -- a neatly torn up copy of the Summer 1967 issue of Artforum magazine containing Michael Fried's famous 1967 thesis on the object status of art works. Next to it are two clean strips of shiny aluminum, each printed with a black-and-white image of a signal home -- or architectural object -- of our time: the shack of the Unabomber, who tried to destroy the present technology culture, and the larger, far more expensive mausoleum of real-estate tycoon Harry Helmsley. One is open to the air; the other is sealed up. Which gives us more room to breathe in?