Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics


Words by Nicholas Korody

“I had almost become completely abstracted,” writes David Wojnarowicz at the onset of a 1991 essay titled, “In the Shadow of the American Dream: Soon All This Will Be Ruins.” As he slowly wakes up, the narrator struggles to locate himself in time and space. He compares his motel room to a sensory deprivation chamber, as if his hypnagogic state extended into a sort of ontology. Sight, sound, and meaning have lost their tether, and form cannot be wrested from shadow. The only vision the narrator can access is a “sub-vision”: “the magnified abstraction of a shiny black abdomen like a motorcycle gas tank or a mirrored black globe.”
A few pages later, he’s giving head to a stranger on a service road near Meteor Crater, some sixty kilo-meters east of Flagstaff, Arizona. Right before his partner climaxes, the narrator asks: “If light come[s] from within does that make us walking movie projectors? Are we casting form onto a dark screen?” The text—part of a collection subtitled “a memoir of disintegration,” written as Wojnarowicz was dying of AIDS—reads like a strobe rendered into prose. It switches rapidly, almost violently, between narration, reflection, and polemic, as well as between themes such as sex and death, and automobiles. More than anything else, though, the essay is about light. As such, it approximates a religious text: light and sound are the stuff of which divinity is made, and the desert is often where it’s found. Most creation stories begin with a primordial darkness that gets illuminated—“let there be,” and then, “there was.” Moses encountered his creator on Mount Horeb as fire and a disembodied voice, as did Paul on the road to Damascus, and the Apostles during Pentecost. God is not so much a thing as an ambient experience. First it surrounds you and then it penetrates you.

Most creation stories begin with a primordial darkness that gets illuminated—“let there be,” and then, “there was.”

But the American Southwest is far from the Judean wilderness where John the Baptist ate locusts and Jesus chose starvation over temptation. Here, the ground is not only arid but also irradiated. Isolation is broken by tourists and truckers, and deprivation by gas stations and drive-thru restaurants. And yet the intrusion of modernity has not so much divested the landscape of holiness as digested it. The region is rich in a regional, techno-ecclesiastical architecture, from Walter de Maria’s Jovian lightning rods to Nancy Holt’s readymade solar shrines. And, if you drive about an hour from Wojnarowicz’s hookup spot, you’ll arrive at Roden Crater, another art world pilgrimage destination. Purchased by the artist James Turrell in 1979, about 400,000 years after subterranean magma pushed it toward the sky, the mound has since become the central focus of his practice: a massive enterprise of excavation and construction in order to fashion a naked-eye observatory. Like his smaller-scale “skyspaces” that comprise enclosed rooms with minimal architectural elements aside an aperture in the ceiling, the “work” does not lie so much in the spatial construction as the squaring of the firmament. “I’m working to bring celestial objects like the sun and moon into the spaces that we inhabit,” Turrell told the Los Angeles Times in 2013 on the occasion of a major retrospective at LACMA. His motivation is explicitly religious: Turrell is a lifelong Quaker, a religious denomination that positions “the light within” (the same phrase employed by Wojnarowicz) as the central organizing metaphor of its faith.
Turrell has influenced several generations of artists including, recently, Kanye West. In 2019, West was given rare access to Roden Crater to film Jesus Is King, and the project’s website lists him as a major donator—a member of the Roden Crater Celestial Circle. West, like Turrell, is unapologetic about the religious character of his work. Among its many groundbreaking syntheses, his music has been hailed for its incorporation of gospel music, in particular with the 2019 album that shares a name with the film he made at Roden Crater. That same year, he founded Sunday Service Choir, a gospel group that performs weekly. And when he campaigned for president in 2020, his campaign primarily advocated for a religiously-motivated “consistent life ethic.” But more than through explicit declarations, the theological ground shared by both Turrell and West is indexed formally: through the construction of multimedia, immersive environments as a means to spiritual experience. God is again rendered ambient.

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Donda Experience Performance Miami. Photo credit: Martina Hoogland Ivanow.

Last year, with the release of his tenth album Donda, named after his recently-deceased mother, West began collaborating with the Berlin-based architecture studio sub on a series of accompanying “Experience Performances,” which were staged at various stadiums across the United States. Massive filmed spectacles, they featured pools of water, motorcyclists, fog, and a to-scale model of West’s childhood home set ablaze. More than one reviewer described the experience as transcendental, noting, in particular, the production design. A rare example of an architecture practice less well-known than the things they make, sub have been quietly acting as the wizards-behind-the-curtain for Balenciaga for several years now. Helmed by the Swedish-born Niklas Bildstein Zaar and Italian-born Andrea Faraguna, the studio has produced some of the most celebrated spectacles in fashion of the last decade, including, most recently, the haunting Winter 22 show, which featured models struggling through artificial snow in a 360-degree, glazed wind tunnel.
There is a spiritual sensibility to sub’s practice that can be easy to miss, perhaps as much due to the commercialism of their clientele as the winking BDSM of their alias. And yet the work they produce is imbued with a certain quality—a sense of longing, perhaps, and of sincerity—that suggests another reading of their prefix-turned-moniker is possible, akin to the “sub-vision” described by Wojnarowicz. The Fall 2020 show they produced for Balenciaga, for example, with its flooded floor and tumultuous LED-sky, was widely read as apocalyptic—certainly a religious theme in itself—but it might be better understood as a representation of the deluge: a longing for beauty amidst disaster rather than a fetishizing of ones to come. Commentary about Afterworld, the video game that served as the Fall 21 exposition for Balenciaga, primarily circled around the medium—fashion entering the metaverse, etc.—but the content itself was pure Joseph Campbell—archetypes and myth-making. In fact, Afterworld was less a game than an allegory, with little for the “player” to do but follow a path from a subterranean parking garage to a mountain peak, and from darkness to dawn. The spiraling structure of the SS22 show conjured parliamentary-associations, but more than anything, the project constituted a hermeneutic investigation into the color blue—the spatial equivalent of an Yves Klein canvas. And, as the painter (a devout Catholic) once said, “At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity."


Balenciaga 360° Show Winter 22. Photo credit: Thyago Sainte.

Concurrent with this work for Balenciaga and West, sub spent several years working on a commission to build a memorial at Babyn Yar in Kyiv. The site of one of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust, the project would have been breaking ground this year if not for the Russian invasion. Inspired by a kurgan, or an earthen burial mound found throughout the wider Caucasus region, their models and renderings depict a structure with a heavy monumentality and a coarse materiality. The effect, if achieved, would have been like a grotto or a tomb. Light, again, was the theme, but in this case through its twinned other: shadow.
One of the casualties of the contemporary is that its signifiers often appear to us as fundamentally secular. Where the medieval church made ready use of nascent technologies to fashion cathedrals, a high-definition screen almost feels further from the divine than Dante’s inferno. The widespread acceptance of Turrell’s transcendental claims about his work is at least partially attributable to the artist’s facility for masking its modernity. But converting a volcanic crater into an art installation demands technologies both advanced and expensive, and some of the artist’s early (and equally effective) works employed only artificial light and readymades: a projector, a corner, and your cornea. Similarly, it’s easy to dismiss the spiritual authenticity of an experience purchased on Ticketmaster, and few would admit to seeing God in what are ultimately launch events for new luxury goods. And yet, the appeal of such spectacles is not entirely reducible to the dopamine they generate or the status that access confers. There is a vision beneath the visible: a dark screen awaiting the projection of inner light. Like a mirrored globe, they present an abstracted and magnified reflection of the world, and what they promise is a place for you within it.

Niklas Bildstein Zaar is an art director based in Berlin. Along with architect Andrea Faraguna, in 2017 he co-founded the architecture studio, design office, and research institute sub.

Nicholas Korody is a writer and editor based in Milan.

Image courtesy of sub.

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