herman van ingelgem

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. The house, the dog and the coffee pot: architecture in Herman Van Ingelgem's work


Reference to architecture is not unusual in contemporary art. All kinds of artists document the house, the urban or public space as an externalisation of social life, or find a theme in building itself as a mediation of social and political relations. This collective run on architecture is, as such, not entirely surprising. As art critic Wouter Davidts recently indicated quite rightly, the architectural promise of permanence, weight and materiality constitutes a vehicle of resistance against the general rarefaction and alienation of contemporary visual culture.(1) On more than one occasion, architecture is appropriated within artistic registers as a expression of the 'real' world, whereas reality slips into a mist of simulacra and simulations.
The placement of architecture against a visual culture is paradoxical as well. Indeed, the post-modern discourse on the spectacle and its social uprooting developed in parallel with - or even emerged from - the architectural debates between, among others, Robert Venturi and Aldo Rossi in the late 1960s.(2) Not only did Rossi and Venturi recognise the definitive failing of the social project of modernism, but they also increasingly saw the socially representative role of architecture slip away towards a capitalist infrastructure of billboards, logos and other 'public' symbols. The visual culture thus had led the social representation of architecture to a state of crisis: architecture as a direct manifestation of the public, the true or the real was, in Rossi's words, "long gone". Although a select group of architects embraced the spectacle in their practice - see Venturi, or later on Frank Gehry - the eighties would, architecturally, be dominated by a 'critical' attitude towards visual culture. Within both architectural theory and practice, strategies were developed to safeguard the architectural project from a capitalist deterioration, and to provide it with the resistance that artists gladly appropriate.
As the mixing of the architectural and artistic registers is inherent in Herman Van Ingelgem's oeuvre, the question arises as to how he relates to the many other artists who wield notions of architecture or 'building'. Rather than referring to art history or artistic discourse, it pays here to focus on a few works via the aforementioned architectural polemics of the seventies and eighties. Using two voices from this period - respectively Kenneth Frampton and Bernard Tschumi - I will argue that Van Ingelgem's idiosyncrasy stretches between their widened definitions of architectural practice. This analysis serves to interpret Van Ingelgem's work, as well as to distinguish his position concerning this architectural practice. Eventually, this essay attempts to trace an evolution in his oeuvre leading to the recently finished project in Lokaal 01.


I wish to employ the term (Critical Regionalism) to allude to a hypothetical and real condition in which a local culture of architecture is consciously evolved in express opposition to the domination of hegemonic power.
- Kenneth Frampton(3)

One strategy with which prominent architectural theoreticians such as Kenneth Frampton and Anthony Vidler countered the post-modern crisis within the architectural practice, was the semantic widening of the concept of architecture. In line with the social memory that Aldo Rossi ascribed in his practice to age-old forms and recognisable types, Frampton, too, treated architecture as a negotiator of social and political relations. Frampton hereto transposed the intrinsic value of architecture from its aims to its means: not the edifice as a product, but building as an activity could transcend the economic or functional aims of architectural practice. According to Frampton, architecture becomes a practice of resistance only when it puts forward the social ritual of building, and, as such, generates the edifice as a cultural construction.
The inherent presence of this critical regionalism in the Flemish urban landscape has not escaped Herman Van Ingelgem. Just about his entire oeuvre celebrates the cosy extensions and crooked shoddiness characterising the Flemish hinterland - an ode to a marginal but supremely efficient form of architectural resistance. It is clear that in Van Ingelgem's view, the fabled Flemish aspiration to home ownership leads to an unending quest for cultural identity: Flemish building as a collective wave of personification. The installation Home (2007), a suggestion of a saddle-backed house on an empty plot, symbolises this point of view. Whereas the paced-out building envelope presents an abandoned structure by day, the installed strip lights betray human activity or figurative presence at night. With poetic simplicity, Van Ingelgem bends architectural legibility around into a significantly less 'transparent' expression of human life. In other words: how the unambiguous forms of the Flemish landscape irrevocably pay heed to a complex social content.
The photographic series Location (2008) and Remove (2008) likewise refer to an architectural notion of cultural identity. In the latter, Van Ingelgem frames a window including matching curtains from the outside, the view flitting between the homely interior, the curtain as such and the reflection of the outside. Similarly to architectural theoretician Anthony Vidler, following Frampton, subjects architecture to psycho-analysis, these photos, too, give expression to a deeper subjectivity. Whereas transparency usually provides a view into the home atmosphere, the image here too contains its counterpart - reflection, or opacity. According to Vidler, architecture is also a cultural construct on this level: it negotiates the obscurity of human fears, hidden from all that is public. The curtain and the accompanying reflection argue how fearful the Flemish household is of interference from the public, as imposed by the window - transparency itself as fear for the Flemish identity. Through architecture, the artist represents a Flemish psyche that literally resists the 'outside' and the rational logic that rages there.


Architecture constitutes the abstraction of absolute truth, while this very truth gets in the way of feeling. We cannot both experience and think that we experience. "The concept of dog does not bark;" the concept of space is not space.
- Bernard Tschumi(4)

Another way to weren architecture of the visual culture, took the shape of rejecting its social represenation. With a philosophy rooted in French structuralism, architects such as Peter Eisenman, Daniel Liebeskind and Coop Himmelb(l)au refrained from social agendas, and brought their practice back to a hermetic formalism. Deconstructivist architecture, as this movement was named, withdrew from mass culture in only referring to itself, representing nothing outside its own critical moment.
The conceptual framework of German architect Bernard Tschumi also was unmistakably marked by the theories of, among others, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. In his writings of the mid-seventies, Tschumi regularly incorporated concepts from other disciplines - up to and including indiscriminate copying - to support his spatial theories. This also applies to his polemic text The Architectural Paradox (1975), which is based on the semiotics of Roland Barthes's The Pleasure of Text (1972). Just as Barthes considers the meaning of a text to be split between the ideas of the writer and the interpretation of the reader, mediated by the materiality of language, so Tschumi views architecture as a conflict between the invention and the experience of a spatial form. According to Tschumi, architectural space is always stretched between a mental construct and a physical experience that never fully coincide, between conceptualisation and phenomenology of a spatial form. According to the architect, the notion of 'space' is therefore structurally incomplete: it is either a reality or an abstraction, never both at once - "the concept of a dog does not bark". The resistance of architecture is enclosed in the gap between the two, says Tschumi; it is to be found in the field between the concept of space and space itself.
Early on in his oeuvre, Van Ingelgem was already exploring this field, be it within an artistic register. The installation Parcours, his final project at the HISK [Higher Institute for Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium] in 2000, clearly shows the artist exploring the line between conception and perception of architecture. By means of skirting boards, doorframes, a floor slab or a strip of wallpaper, the work represents a minimal suggestion of a number of spaces, assisted by a speaker with a coughing noise or a video with a urinating sequence. The pictures and sounds complement the architectural gesture with the experience of the homely, and even with purely bodily expression. As a result, the notion of the 'architectural' in the work hovers somewhere between a spatial concept and pure phenomenology, between skirting board and the sound of peeing, always escaping just when we try to pin it down.
Tschumi's architectural duality is also apparent in the recent series of line drawings, Location (2010). In what appear to be architectural designs for future installations, Van Ingelgem draws setting-like spaces that show their public character in the occasional piece of house front or street light. Yet the 'squares' and 'streets' are too narrow, and always show the viewer their back or their construction. Van Ingelgem did not design a public space here, but only its simulation. He defines spaces that truthfully show their own artificiality, reducing their public status to a mere condition. In reconciling the conception and perception of architecture with dry wit, Van Ingelgem succeeds in simultaneously depicting and problematising the constructed public sphere.


The philosophical framework, however convenient above, only develops its full potential when applied to Van Ingelgem's main artistic activity. Since 2006, the artist models existing spaces in plasterboard scale models, usually presented on a wooden scaffold. In doing this, Van Ingelgem does not aim to be true to life; he does not even aspire to recognizability, but only materialises the characteristic elements that have struck him. The provisional facades, wall vents or tiling are a projection of the architecture of his memory fragments rather than of the real space; they are designs of and for an architectural phenomenology, like the line drawings. Van Ingelgem makes neither space nor the concept of space, but explores the borderline between both with conceptual bravura.
Critical regionalism also creeps into the scale models, and here, too, the engagement goes beyond mere content. Indeed, the artist makes his models in plasterboard, normally used for the partitioning walls and false ceilings of Flemish DIY. He literally describes the use of plasterboard as amateurish, or as 'something that people can identify with'. With amateurism structurally embedded into the design range of the scale models, Van Ingelgem uses regionalism as an artistic standard material, and skilfully manipulates the notions of cultural identity that come with it.
In the jumble of personal objets trouvées in Objects, thoughts and obstacles (2010) in Lokaal 01, we can see the entanglement of Framptons critical regionalism and Tschumi's architectural paradox from the scale models reappear, maybe even more directly than could initially be suspected. Indeed, could we not see the overhanging plank on the ball or the fridge on display as ready-made scale models of a possible architecture, respectively of a bridge and a block of flats? Just as Aldo Rossi saw a possible tower block in his design for an Alessi coffee pot in 1984, so Van Ingelgem projects notions of architecture on quotidian objects.
Van Ingelgem seems to continue the line of his scale models with this installation. Whereas he formerly used to construct a mental architecture from DIY material, he now 'finds' pseudo-architecture in the obstacle of the supporting plank or in the stacking of different levels in the fridge. Such thematisation, however, is not in line with the critical strategies of Frampton and Tschumi, on the contrary. The widening of architecture's field to fridges and footballs leans less to a rejection then well to an adaptation of visual culture, as was pleaded by postmodern architects as Robert Venturi and Hans Hollein - the latter's claim 'alles is architektur' is not unfamiliar to Van Ingelgem either. In spite of the fact that the artist does not fully put the gratuitous image on a level with architectural form - if anything he is looking for ready-made expressions of tectonics - he does play the card of an architectural visual culture, and of the contrasting critical attitudes mentioned earlier. With the architectural impulse of the installation simultaneously opposite to and in line with the rest of the oeuvre, the question arises as to whether the artist will in future expand on his critical implementation of architecture or, rather, take an entirely different course.

Stefaan Vervoort

(1) Wouter Davidts, Pedro Cabrita Reis, in: De Witte Raaf, no. 107, January 2004.
(2) For a summary background to both debates, cf. Scott Rothkopff, Four Critical Vignettes, in: Artforum, March 2003, p. 46.
(3) Kenneth Frampton, Place-Form and Cultural Identity, in: John Thackara, et al., Design After Modernism, p. 56.
(4) Bernard Tschumi, The Architectural Paradox, in: Bernard Tschumi, Architecture and Disjunction, p. 48.

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