Designing for the Elements


Frances Richard: I’m writing to begin our conversation, Katrín, about art-making — specifically, your own practice in sculpture and installation — and to think together about how that practice explores ideas embedded in or coded by architecture and design.

In fact, we began this conversation long ago, in 2005, when you took part in the exhibition “Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates” that I co-organized (with Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner) for Cabinet magazine. We’ve since extended the discussion many times, when I’ve visited your studio and written about your work, and just recently when we met at your eponymously titled exhibition on view at the MSU Broad Museum, at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

I hesitate to open with a giant, unanswerable question. But I can’t help it, because as a writer I’m always brushing up against a fundamental sense that language is baffling, as if I can’t make lasting peace with the proposition that words refer to things, that semiotic signs float around mediating our experiences of embodiment and matter and phenomena like weather — yet are not embodiment or matter. All the while, my sensations pass through language almost as they pass through my body; life without language is not only unthinkable, but for me barely palpable. I’m constantly forgetting, or losing track of, what is language and what isn’t. It’s not surprising that you and I have talked about architecture as a language — an idiom that you adapt to “speak” sculpture. As we were preparing for this exchange, you wrote to me:

In architecture, everything is named; you could even say that architecture begins in language. In order to be designed and created by the human mind — and for issues of safety and classified function — everything is defined within a semantic system.

I don’t think you’re being metaphorical. Isn’t it Hegel who says that the Tower of Babel was the fundamental architecture, because it gathered people into a society? Until, of course, they sinned through architectural hubris, and God shattered the earthling language community into mutually unintelligible camps. So, I want to ask: when you say “architecture begins in language,” what do you mean? Is it too easy to say that architecture is useful (concerned with “safety and classified function”), and art isn’t? Except, of course, insofar as soliciting or containing aesthetic and conceptual attention, which is what art does, is useful …