Gordon Matta-Clark’s Films and Videos

While I was at the CCA for the Teddy Cruz lecture, I also checked out the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition. He's on show with 3 architects – Cedric Price, Aldo Rossi, and James Stirling, in a show called Out of the Box / Sortis du Cadre.

Matta-Clark was the New York artist most famous for Splitting, a project in which he cut a house in two. He died in the late 1970s from cancer, which is a shame, as his work seems to have become very influential only recently. He co-founded a restaurant called FOOD, in SoHo, in the early 1970s – a project very much about creating a social space (…rather than an economic enterprise – the restaurant went broke after a few years.) He made architectural cuts into houses, office spaces, and vast steel warehouses, both with an eye to formal concerns (transfer of light, underlying construction, shapes etc), and to social concerns (such as real estate markets and anarchist-squatted buildings).

None of his significant projects exists today in any form other than documentary photographs, texts, stories, object fragments, super8/16mm films, and video tapes. I find his activities inspiring precisely because they exist in an imaginary state – and have not been fetishised into "mere" art objects.

Out of the Box presents video and film documents from Matta-Clark's work. In some cases, the video seems to be rough documentary evidence, say of various urban explorations (as in Paris Underground, or Substrait (from New York )), whereas other pieces are constructed as films in themselves. Indeed, some of the films were shown in the CCA's theatre, including Food, Fresh Kill, and Chinatown Voyeur. Jane and I went to some of these screenings late last year.

As interesting as Matta-Clark is, I found some of his "stand alone" films to be less-than satisfying. Perhaps this was because I was hungry for any information I could get my hands on about the artist and his activities – yet films like Food and Chinatown Voyeur were too piecemeal when presented within a cinema context.

Perhaps this is only to be expected. FOOD (the restaurant), unlike Splitting, is a complex and unwieldy project – it can't be summed up with a sequence of well-framed shots. What Food, the film, presents, is a day in the life of the restaurant: disorganised (bounced cheques); grisly (gutting and cutting a fish); chaotic (a dozen raucus friends gathered for lunch, and dishes piling up on the table); and also beautifully poetic (the final sequence showing the kneading and baking of bread). It left me wanting more, and made me feel like I, too, could open up a restaurant – and wouldn't it be fantastic! One thing it didn't do, though, was leave me feeling intimidated about the process of making a documentary film…

Fresh Kill, on the other hand, was specifically made for cinema viewing, using a professional film-crew. It's a kind of film-poem about the trashing of Matta-Clark's old red pick-up truck, as it is left at the garbage dump, and crushed, repeatedly, by bulldozers, until no longer recognisable. The analogy implied in the title is fairly obvious – the red truck is a sacrificial cow gored by predators, and picked over by vultures (there are many shots of circling gulls). I think Jane felt it was a bit too un-reconstructedly macho, but I wasn't so sure, I felt it was simultaneously beautiful and ironic.

The screening of Fresh Kill was juxtaposed with a bizarre early Spielberg number, which certainly deserved Jane's irritation. Entitled Duel, the film was a "made-for-TV feature starring Dennis Weaver as a motorist plagued by a crazed truck driver." The truck repeatedly tries to run the car off the road, but is eventually fooled by the fed-up motorist, and ends up flying off the edge of a cliff in a ball of flames. It's ghastly, but arguably simpler and better than a lot of Spielberg's later work.

Chinatown Voyeur, I would argue, shouldn't have been screened in a theatre context at all. Matta-Clark filmed the cracks in windows, looking into peoples apartments, one hot hot New York summer night. What you get on screen is a totally black field with these white punctuated window spaces, and some very minor activity within. like an old fella washing his jocks and hanging them to dry. It is long and boring. Shortly after seeing the film, I wrote:

"Chinatown Voyeur was originally intended to be projected ON THE SIDE OF BUILDINGS out in the street. Can you imagine? It would punch a window into a solid wall! And you wouldn't be forced to sit there like a zombie in the cinema watching the thing, it would be as fascinating as being a real voyeur looking up at windows, wondering what would happen next."

Matta-Clark's film and video work presented on monitors within the exhibition itself is all fairly watchable. I particularly liked Tree Dance, a series of super8 moments documenting dancers cavorting in custom-made hammocks and coccoons strung up in a huge old tree. And Splitting, of course, is captivating from start to finish, not only for the wonderful taboo-breaking house-sliced in two, but also for the film's home-made construction – the inter-title sequences look like they were pieced together manually on the kind of text board used for school class photos.
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[ Post-script #1: This "problem" about how to go about presenting or re-staging work (specifically in relation to Matta-Clark) is taken up by Lisa Lefeuvre in an article called The W-hole Story. Originally published in Art Monthly Magazine (UK) April 2002 / No 255, pp12-15. I recommend it. She asks, and then makes a good attempt to answer:
"what does it mean to place an artist working some three decades ago within these contemporary discourses? How can an artist of the 70s who made ephemerality a part of his practice be allied to the present?" ]
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[ Post-script #2: some Gordon Matta-Clark links:
Matta Clarking, a thesis generously posted online by architect Robert Holloway. I haven't read it yet. Also at this site there is a page of links to other GM-C sites. Some of these links don't work, but a few definitely seem worth perusing, especially Visceral Facades: taking Matta-Clark's crowbar to software by Matthew Fuller. ]
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[ Post-script #3: an email from Jake:
"You're a bit tough on Duel, which I think is pretty good myself, but maybe it was the wrong context for it."
Jake, you're right, I was a bit harsh there. Sometimes I can be sloppy and cavalier in my judgement – but thinking back to the screening itself, I think I actually enjoyed watching Duel. It was such a simple concept, without all the pretension of plot and moral-of-the-story etc. It's just this bizarre situation where an ordinary fellow is targeted for no reason by an insane truckie, and begins, in a way, to go mildly insane himself. I think it quite successfully captured that "I can't believe this is happening to me!" sensation that you get when involved in a car accident or near-death experience. So, in that its ambitions were fairly low, I think it was a sturdy piece. I also liked how the maniacal driving of the truckie was superimposed on an otherwise banal and extremely ordinary situation…a salesman returning home, listening to the radio in his car…which sets it apart from The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance. ]
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5 thoughts on “Gordon Matta-Clark’s Films and Videos

  1. Ainsley Post author

    Well.Just yesterday i was sitting in a library in sunny Dullsville looking through one of matta-clark’s books and thinking to myself,gee wizz i’d like to see his film’s one day.
    And today i check my e-mail and was alerted to the existence of this entry.
    Pretty spooky boo Lucas.
    But i get youre point about dovumentaries.
    That got me thinking.Fuck the documentary.In this reality tv day n age wouldn’t it make for a good
    spin on the whole renovation rescue etc where they send someone away for a few days and when they come back their house has been lovingly gentrified.
    Instead, they come back, and are greeted by some stinky artist standing on their front lawn with a look at what ive done expression on their face and pointing to the lovely big incisions made to the abode and the nice new slant on the floorboards.
    I still haven’t thought of the show title.
    Leave that to the execs.
    Fondles.
    p.s. I believe Tree Dance was a student Film.
    In my head i see it filmed on college grounds.If so i like the context.

    ainsley maxwell

    Reply
  2. Lucas Post author

    yep ainsley I was feeling exactly the same thing as you – I knew that GMC’s films were in an archive in France, [Lightcone – http://www.lightcone.org] but I despaired of ever getting to seeing them – the southern hemisphere being the un-great place it is when it comes to accessing interesting culture. So it was tops to be able to see this stuff at the CCA – and to realise that it’s not really the kind of thing I would hire for a cinema screening [with the exception of maybe Tree Dance, and Fresh Kill…] – definitely works better on TV screens running simultaneously in a room…

    However, looking over Light Cone’s archive, there are still plenty of GMC films that were not in the CCA show – like Clockshower, Open House, Conical Intersect, Days End, Fire Child…

    Tree Dance by the looks of it was definitely a College piece – was done at Vassar College NY, 1971, but I don’t think GMC was himself still a student at that stage(?)…The still B/W photos are beautiful too – huge old tree, no leaves, spindly branches spreading in all directions, then these heavy sacs semi-transparent, each couching a human figure some horizontally, some vertically. Humans like ripe fruits on a barren tree.

    By the way, I love your idea of a “Home Degradation” TV show. Have you submitted any of your ideas/projects to the Network of UnCollectable Artists yet? [www.uncollectables.net]

    Reply
  3. Amy

    Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark opens October 30, 2009 and runs until June 5, 2010 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

    “The placement of Matta-Clark’s work in the building by Tadao Ando offers the means to recall the artist’s lost interventions. Ando’s and Matta-Clark’s structures break the visual and symbolic boundaries normally associated with the architectural “box” by allowing light to penetrate spaces in unexpected ways. Moreover, the exhibition programming builds upon Matta-Clark’s desire to give abandoned objects and buildings new meaning by connecting the artist’s social activism to present-day St. Louis.” –http://www.pulitzerarts.org/events/film-poetry-other/mattaclark/

    Urban Alchemy web catalog: http://mattaclark.pulitzerarts.org

    Transformation: http://mattaclark.pulitzerarts.org/translation

    Reply
  4. Amy

    Opening Reception for Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark
    October 30, 2009 5pm – 9pm

    “The placement of Matta-Clark’s work in the building by Tadao Ando offers the means to recall the artist’s lost interventions. Ando’s and Matta-Clark’s structures break the visual and symbolic boundaries normally associated with the architectural “box” by allowing light to penetrate spaces in unexpected ways. Moreover, the exhibition programming builds upon Matta-Clark’s desire to give abandoned objects and buildings new meaning by connecting the artist’s social activism to present-day St. Louis.”

    The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
    http://mattaclark.pulitzerarts.org

    Reply

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