By Megan Gnanasihamany
You know this surface intimately. Walking past a window, you catch your reflection walking with you—an intangible body double, flat and eerily transparent, skimming the line between interior and exterior until you reach the building’s edge, and the reflected “you” disappears. In Gabriel Peña Tijerina’s more., the architectural glass surface is at once screen and mirror; an invocation of the ghosts of its own mass production. Glass and plastic invite looking at and through their surfaces at the same time, and a window is never just a window when your reflection is also blinking back. Both architect and artist himself, Peña Tijerina’s research into the modality of glass examines Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s adopted aphorism “less is more” (1) in Tap Art Space’s final exhibition, siphoning out the sticky substance of capitalism from our ever seductive mirrored selves in glass.
In 1967, Mies’ firm, MvdR, completed one of its final commissions—an Esso service station on Montreal’s Nun’s Island, located in the Saint Lawrence river. Mies had championed an architecture of transparency; glass-enclosed steel frameworks which allowed light to move seamlessly from inside to outside, blurring the wall between architecture and nature through a visual passage. Mass production encourages overuse, and as industry’s relation to materials shifted during the twentieth century, the heavy use of glass that had become characteristic of modernist architecture (2) became a design norm, as still evidenced in the shimmering exteriors of downtown cores and financial districts the world over. By the time the gas station was commissioned as part of a larger project of residential buildings on Nun’s Island, Mies was no longer producing the designs outputted by the firm. However, the architect’s ethos carried through the project, resulting in a building whose glassy exteriors now house an intergenerational community centre called La Station.
In a conversation with Tap’s co-organizer Marx Ruiz Wilson, (3) Peña Tijerina notes there was an advertising campaign issued for Nun’s Island within which Mies’ name was packaged as a brand, a selling point for the residential units his firm was designing. Here, an incongruity emerges between the ideological vision for an architectural future and capitalism’s repurposing of everyone and everything into an opportunity for profit. Beyond its material definition, transparency is also seeing through a surface representation to make visible the underlying motivations and influences that propel action. Peña Tijerina examines the Esso filling station’s materials and history, sculpturally tracking how a design ethos based on pure form and synthesis between interior and exterior (4) came to be used in the production of a Montreal filling station. “Less is more” takes on new meaning within the context of Esso and the petrochemical industry’s exploitation of land and labour in service of endless production, and Ellen Belshaw’s curation draws the viewer in a reflective circle that starts with More III (2018), a thermoform sculpture that takes the place of a flat pane of glass looking into the garage-turned-gallery. Notably, the Nun’s Island gas station-turned-community centre is also the original site of More III; it bubbles outward in a horror-like mimicry of a window suddenly pregnant with the absence that transparency carries—body horror for the architectural subject. A digital print of the piece in its first installation sits behind the bulging form itself, documenting the curved reflections it shoots back on a viewer in golden licks of light.
In the centre of the small room are the two shining black ovals of More IV & V (2019) which echo the company’s logo as they face each other from floor and ceiling. The bottom plate ripples like a digital rendering of a body of water, unreal in an apocalyptic freezeframe. It is reflected back in the impossibly smooth, black gloss of its double on the ceiling, like the seamless depiction of an oil spill that elides all responsibility for the “more is more” march of capitalism and industry. Like generation loss in a file that’s edited and copied over and over, Peña Tijerina’s objects repeat and echo each other, distorting any clarity of form and purpose that the original might have laid claim to. Smaller renditions of the More IV & V ovals hang on the wall, their surfaces embossed with the exhibition title in unassuming lowercase type. The repetition implicates mass production as legibility decreases with each number in the edition, and the embossed letters bend the reflections they pick up—your mirrored double is everywhere in more., but is never entirely clear.
(In)transparency, in more., is both temporal and material. The window of More III distorts, disallowing a clear view through to the outside, and the reflective plastics and mirrored surfaces on the gallery walls implicate their viewers. We can hardly look away from our own reflection once it’s offered, and to watch ourselves reflected back in more. is like watching a movie with a familiar star. Calling back through time, the spectre of modernist design lives in the glass of contemporary industry, cohabitating comfortably with a secondary ghost—that of the automobile that occupied both the repurposed gas station and the transformed garage. Mies’ legacy outlives him in the perpetually returning spirit of modernist architecture, which makes Less (2019), the only reference to the man himself, feel like a digression from the architectural haunting that the rest of the exhibition elicits. Less is a slab of granite with a single, mounted cigar and a gradient of polish that mimics smoke in its shifting opacity. In summoning the architect forth through Less, the broad consideration of “less is more” in the age of capitalist mass production is pulled back to focus on a single man. Capitalism is in league with the neoliberal cult of the individual, uncritically reproducing the notion that a single, genius eye can change the course of history, and Mies himself was already far removed from the material he helped champion by the time La Station was constructed.
more. marks Tap Art Space’s last exhibition in Montreal, as co-organizers Marx Ruiz-Wilson and Audrey-Anne Morin have relocated to Toronto with the project in order to pursue an opportunity in the paid, professional work that makes Ruiz-Wilson’s investment in artistic experimentation possible. Peña Tijerina’s capitalist critique is a fitting send off for the space, as art, architecture, and all ideological attempts to reshape the future are inextricably tied to work we do and support, in spite of capitalism. Mass production is a game of repetition, mimicking artistry over and over until the material that once signified an innovative turn towards new philosophies in design is now a glimmering surface employed by capitalist industry where we are reflected back at every turn. In summoning the modernist specter through form and history, Peña Tijerina’s critical relationships to oil, architecture, and consumerism are formed through cold mimicry of the subject—at once capturing the art of looking at yourself, while seeing through to the other side at the same time.
1. “Less is more” is widely attributed to Mies, and although sources differ as to the phrase’s origin it became associated with his Modernist ethos. “Less is more” is well exemplified in Gevork Hartoonian’s description of Mies’s “intention … to dissociate the wall from all its figurative and connotative dimensions until the wall would signify just a wall.” (Hartoonian, Gevork. “Mies Van Der Rohe: The Genealogy of Column and Wall.” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), vol. 42, no. 2, 1989, pp. 43–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1425090. Accessed 27 Jan. 2020).
2. In History of Modern Design, David Raizman uses Mies’s Seagram Building as an example of the “beauty, efficiency, and responsible use of standardized and industrial methods of construction” that defined Modernist architecture (Raizman, David. “Modernism After World War II: From Theory to Practice.” History of Modern Design, Lawrence King Publishing, 2004, 289).
3. Recorded conversation between Marx Ruiz Wilson and Gabriel Peña Tijerina for a not yet released episode of Into This Podcast
4. In Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography, Franz Schulze positions Mies’s “practical considerations” for efficient use of materials and structural integrity as expressions of “a uniquely modern spatial relationship between the built and the natural environments” (Schulze, 112). In reference to the drawings for Brick Country House (1923-1924), Schulze states that the “glass walls … disappear, and a distinction between interior and exterior seems to dissolve” (Schulze, Franz. “Europe out of the Ashes.” Mies Van Der Rohe: A Critical Biography, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, 109-117. Google Books, (preview), https://books.google.ca. Accessed 27 Jan. 2020).
more. ran from September 20 – October 12, 2019 at TAP Art Space in Montreal, QC.
Feature Image: Installation view of more. by Gabriel Peña Tijerina. All photos by Morgane Clément-Gagnon, courtesy of TAP Art Space.