Los Angeles

Kissing, Architecture, and Mohair that Saves the Day

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Pipilotti Rist, Pour Your Body Out, 2009, installed at MoMA.

“A kiss puts form into slow and stretchy motion,” writes Sylvia Lavin. A kiss “renders geometry fluid.” Our relationship to buildings can be like that too — slow, stretchy, fluid. So Lavin suggests in Kissing Architecture, her new book with a bright pink cover and a delightfully sensual take on architectural criticism.

Lavin is interested in that problem that plagues design disciplines “as a net result of convergent histories of capital and culture”: should contemporary architecture establish itself as autonomous or work to engage its public, and which aim is nobler?

Kissing Architecture begins with a description of Pipilotti Rist’s Pour Your Body Out, an embracing 2008-2009 installation in MoMA’s atrium, where a fleshy, floral, 25 foot high video projection played out. Visitors could sit on pillows on the ground or on a round seating “island” the artist designed. The installation occupied space designed by architect Yoshio Taniguchi as an addition to MoMA in the late 1990s, which is, argues Lavin, decidedly banal and meant to push people through (the “peripatetic visitor” becomes almost an obstacle). Pour Your Body Out didn’t subvert Taniguchi’s banally tall white walls, though; it just offered a “vivid moment,” a “pulsating pink swerve.”

William Leavitt, California Patio, 1972. Mixed media construction. Dimensions variable. Collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Courtesy of William Leavitt.

L.A. artist William Leavitt, whose 2011 MOCA retrospective made a good number of year-end “best of” lists, has since the 1960s devised space for such vivid moments. He’s more interested in the vocabulary of interior and furniture design than architecture, and his “Theater Objects,” sets and curtains and props, tend to be conventionally modern but set up in such a way that they’re also all about the gap between “modern,” “progressive” taste and real people’s real lives.

Leavitt, though much better known in the visual art world than theater, has long written plays that take place inside his sets. One of them, The Particles (of White Naugahyde), played last night in Margo Leavin Gallery’s Annex and will play again tonight and next weekend. Though Leavitt wrote the play in 1979, it hasn’t been performed before and the set is newly built and characteristically minimalist chic — rock wall, glass table, slick white couch — and the plot retro.  A family is stuck in a desert colony, auditioning to be among those sent by NASA to live in outer space. There’s nothing pretentious about the story or the script; none of the dialogue attempts to be needlessly profound and the absurdity is more Modern Family than Harold Pinter (at one point the characters try to scientifically bond with each other by making arm gestures and saying “hydrogen,” “copper,” “aluminum,” etc.).

William Leavitt, set design for The Particles (of White Naugahyde. 2012. Courtesy Margo Leavin Gallery.

But the living room set is a little pretentious, as the family’s neighbors point out during the play, and all throughout the three acts, that slick white couch keeps making characters uncomfortable. They find it sticky, slippery, cold. Then in the last scene, a mohair blanket arrives (the circumstances behind its arrival are a little bit complicated) and is draped over the couch. It’s this lumpy furriness that finally allows the characters to relax. I love that idea: a bit of tactile, sensual material can be redemptive, at least for a moment or two.