imomus (imomus) wrote,

Partition: the spatial logic of new humans

I first met artist Mika Tajima (Japanese roots, LA-born, New York resident) during the 2006 Whitney Biennial, when her band (with Howie Chen) New Humans put on the most visually-striking performance I think I've ever seen -- sheets of pure white noise lit from below by pure white strips of fluorescent light. Mika is in the current Whitney Biennial too, with relics of a 2007 performance called Disassociate which ended with Eames chairs being thrown into a wall of champagne glasses.

Last week Mika opened her new painting show at COMA in Berlin, and it's full of the same visual intelligence as her performances with collaborators like C. Spencer Yeh and Vito Acconci. Like Disassociate, her Berlin show sees the gallery space partitioned by a row of sound-baffles -- double-sided paintings on wheels. Mika has painted angular Modernist modular forms onto the baffles (which look like swing mirrors too -- in fact, some of them are mirrored on one side), their purples and oranges derived from the late-60s decor of a San Francisco subway station.

The baffle-forms partition the COMA gallery -- not far, itself, from the site of that infamous partition, the Berlin Wall -- but make other references too. A very interesting mesh of references, in fact.

1. Mika told me she was referencing the Iraq partition currently being built in Sadr City in Baghdad. This isn't just to protect the Green Zone from rocket attacks, but to control the upcoming vote and try to diffuse support for Moktada al-Sadr, who looks likely to triumph in the upcoming Iraqi elections.

The Sadr City Wall is a concrete barrier which rises to about 12 feet. It's being built along the main street dividing the southern part of Sadr City from the northern part, where al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters are concentrated. Taking a cue from the Berlin Wall, perhaps, Moktada al-Sadr has called for his followers "to draw magnificent tableaux that depict the ugliness and terrorist nature of the occupier, and the sedition, car bombings, blood and the like he has brought upon Iraqis" on the partition.

It hardly needs to be added that the Iraq wall resembles the Israeli security barrier rising on the West Bank, and that there's a real double standard in the way the Berlin Wall is depicted as an oppressive relic, but the walls we're currently building to cage Palestinians and Iraqis aren't.

2. Mika is also referencing the studio sound baffles in Jean-Luc Godard's film about the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil (1968).

This is a more positive, creative take on partitioning. In a recording studio, baffles allow the clean recording of sounds, free of reverberation and separated from ambient sounds.

Studio baffles symbolize creative collaboration, but also give each musician a semi-private space to work in, so there's a balance between teamwork and autonomy. And these screens are structures on wheels, designed to change the open layout of a studio's big live room quickly and easily. Partition can make things possible, as well as make things intolerable. Which brings us to the final reference Mika is making.

3. Mika could have referenced Japanese screens (also about quick, light room transformations) or hospital screens (about giving privacy to moments of agony or embarrassment in open hospital wards) in this work, but instead she's decorated the screens with photocopies of utopian articles about the Herman Miller Action Office, pioneered by systems designer Robert Probst in the 1960s.

In a project started in 1964 and brought -- with massive success -- to market in 1968, Probst devised the world's first open-plan office system of reconfigurable components. "Today's office is a wasteland," he said. "It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort."

"The new system included plenty of work surfaces and display shelves," reported Fortune. "Partitions were a part of it, intended to provide privacy and places to pin up works in process. The Action Office even included varying desk levels to enable employees to work part of the time standing up, thereby encouraging blood flow and staving off exhaustion."

But, as Time reported, rationalization and economic greed transformed the Action Office utopia, over the years, into a dystopia. "Today 70% of U.S. office workers sit in cubicles... A typical workstation in the 1970s measured 12 ft. by 12 ft., according to the American Society of Interior Designers. By 1995 it had shrunk to 10 ft. by 10 ft. Today's cubicles average 6 ft. by 8 ft."

Some people feel the Action Office is, by now, more devil than sympathy.

Spatial definition doesn't have to be malign, though. When I got home from Mika Tajima's opening I noticed that she's defined my own space: her imagery (you can see it on the left side of this photo) has been a part of my living room ever since I moved into my Neukolln apartment.

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