I stood on the bridge again, grabbing the damp iron rail. The water seemed to draw me in, I heard it splashing against the quays and along the boat. The house fronts turned grey… I walked to the house next to ours, climbed the doorstep and put my hand through the letterbox… I felt a chilliness against my fingers, the chilliness of a big hole with the wind blowing through it. I quickly withdrew my hand.

This is one of the few passages in which Dutch writer Marga Minco seems to allude literally to the title of her novel Een leeg huis [1966, An Empty House]. In May 1945 Sepha and Yona, two young Jewish women, together return to their native city Amsterdam after the war, experiencing emptiness there: emptiness behind the fronts of the houses of deported Jewish inhabitants who did not return. Emptiness in a metaphorical sense, especially that. An emptiness caused by the void left by a family that is no longer there, by a past with which the ties have been cut radically and abruptly.

In the above fragment the author does make a momentary exception, though: here, emptiness takes on a spatial form. This is what makes this fragment so poignant. It makes the emptiness felt by the women real, palpable and recognizable. It is Sepha who withdraws her hand. During the course of the story, this impulsive action proves more and more consistent with her character. Sepha prefers contact with the present , with the world that surrounds her, rather than surrendering to a destroyed past.

We people have a body. This basic given causes us to often perceive a mental void as if it is a physical void. And vice versa. Loneliness, for instance, is felt as a space within us, hidden so deep that the outer world cannot reach it anymore.

In the visual arts, it is Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) in particular who made the study of the relationship between physical and mental space one of the basic tenets of his work. His interventions in houses due for demolition were intended to lay bare the ‘soul’ of the condemned buildings. By cutting open rooms, sawing away pieces of floors and ceilings and creating views through several stories he tried to revitalize the buildings by creating new spaces in them. Similar to Rodin, who gave sculpture back the body by amputating an arm, placing the fragment upon a pedestal, Matta-Clark tried to stimulate our perception of space by dismantling and attacking architecture. The leaving out and cutting away of elements causes us to once again experience who or where we are.

In the spring of 2008, on the eve of the first part of her Destroyed House project, Marjan wrote that she felt akin to Matta-Clark’s work. In his reworking of empty buildings, his breaking away of walls and ceilings and cutting away of fragments she saw a similarity to interventions she herself was about to make in a snack bar cum dwelling in her native city ‘s-Hertogenbosch. This kinship is also traceable in her latest project Destroyed House Krasnoyarsk (2009, Siberia), indeed, it seems more emphatically present. If one puts the photos of the Krasnoyarsk project next to those of Matta Clark´s Conical Intersect (Paris 1975), Office Baroque (Antwerp 1977) and Circus Carribean Orange (Chicago 1978), one sees similar cut-out pieces of floors and walls, offering views through several rooms and stories. Even more so than in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the house in Krasnoyarsk has been treated as both a physical and a mental unity.

Another aspect of Teeuwen’s work is less similar to Matta-Clark’s, however. The American left the rooms mostly empty and presented his interventions, the cut-out holes, as bare stigmata, sometimes in an exceptionally spectacular way, such as the huge ovals in the front of a building in Paris. In Krasnoyarsk, the picture is less univocal. The entangled in the baffling spaces, interlinked by wall-filling piles of white or black pieces of planks. Here, the architecture is overgrown by an unstoppable, spreading building and piling rage. In Teeuwen’s work destruction, shown as scars, is simultaneously the fuel of construction, building.

This difference is attributable to a difference in formal background. Matta-Clark was originally an architect. His interventions in buildings, the segments he cut out of them and the holes he created stemmed from a way of thinking to which space and the awareness of space were central. The cut-out shape itself became a sculpture, presented as a three-dimensional object in the building or in a museum. Teeuwen’s work is characterized by attention to the flat surface as well as the spatial aspect. The work is both three- and two-dimensional, her installations are constructed with a background of one or several walls as. Besides an installation builder, a photographer, ‘a painter’ is also at work. A painter, however, who creates her own twist to the discussion on painting as a window on the world (the metaphor introduced in the Renaissance), versus the strictly formal approach of the painting as a flat surface that took on in the twentieth century.

Consequently, Teeuwen’s photos are ambiguous, being three-dimensional and flat all at once. An amalgam of rooms, a chaos of beams, planks and rubble, frozen for a moment, reduced to abstraction, to an interplay of lines and surfaces, to images that, as with Mondrian and Malevich, transcend the recognizable, the material.

In Teeuwen’s images one can be submerged, get lost in her spaces. The latter is a new development in her work, as initially her installations were limited to part of a space, in most cases only the rear wall, which was spectacular enough in itself. But since architecture itself became part of her work, everything – from effort to outcome – seems to have gone into superlative mode. More effort and more effect for a shorter period of time. And on top of that: further from home. In no more than a mere few weeks, in an environment in Central Russia that is completely alien to her, she turns the house in Krasnoyarsk inside out for an installation which – being demolished before it is even finished – is sent out into the world as photographs. Aided by a construction team and volunteers, the exterior of the house in Krasnoyarsk is stripped, floors and ceilings are sawn to pieces, doors and window panes are decimated. In the walls of consecutive spaces and spread over several building layers, large holes are struck. Eventually this creates some sort of central viewpoint, from which thirteen passages are visible, with the remains of walls that have been largely broken away. In many places piles of pieces of planks, floors and ceilings, categorized by colour (painted or not), are overgrowing the walls that still stand, accentuating large holes. Beams or doorposts from the old wall keep everything together. The exterior, the skin, has taken over the interior and is now trying to prop up the house. The apotheosis of a final, ultimate convulsion before the house is taken down.

The elevation from waste to life, the amazement at what can be squeezed from a house in decline, the Sisyphus labour of the artist and her helpers that is as admirable as it is pointless, the overwhelming views that tempt the viewer, but also bring him off balance and disorientate him as the difference between up and down, entrance and passage is blurred, the huge piled walls, alternating with big heaps of rubble, a chaos momentarily checked in harmony and structure, the fragile balance, the defiance of the lurking, soon to be expected collapse, and last but not least: the location, far away, in a culture so different, in which life is, from our Western European point of view, approached with a certain indifference, where destruction has struck in more than one sense, where nature can only be called extreme, where life, as a tear on a ribbon in the wind, is the plaything of the powers that be; all this gives Destroyed House Krasnoyarsk (2009) a surreal feel.

Yet it is precisely this surreality, this excess that inspires the work with an unstoppable optimism. The vitality, the energy defies decline, defies destruction. As if (new) life could struggle from the grasp of death for just a moment, as if the deadlock between life and death could be broken. Essentially, Destroyed House Krasnoyarsk is a metaphor of a struggle the artist and the inhabitants of this city, more than most of us, have to face on a daily basis. A struggle that cannot be won, but must be entered into again and again.

If you look it up in Marga Minco’s novel, you will understand that Marjan Teeuwen forces us to take sides, to take sides for Sepha, a woman who wants to go on living on the ruins of destruction.

January 2010

Wouter Prins

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