MEET MISTER LIBEDINSKY
23 September 2014
We have had the opportunity to meet with the Argentinian artist Gaspar Libedinsky, who will be presenting two of his works, Vitrau (Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes) and Mister Trapo (Frac Bretagne), for PLAY TIME,the 4th edition of Les Ateliers de Rennes, Biennale d’art contemporain, taking place from 27 September – 30 November. Together with him, we decided to briefly retrace a good part of his work through his diverse background. Indeed, one of the most notable aspects of his character is precisely his eclectic and mutable practice.
Let’s start saying that Mr. Libedinsky is, and has been, an artist, an architect and a professional juggler. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1976 and lives between Buenos Aires, London and New York. His artistic work operates within private and public spaces, mediating the realm between the urban scale and the intimacy of the human body. He moulds arguments as raw material for his works to be developed around the theme of the city and domesticity, the appropriation of space by the individual and the generation of urban identities. In a first approximation, his work generates a “primary emotion,” as in a child’s unintelectualized reaction to fantasy. The experience continues and takes on new dimensions while discovering its complexity and multiplicity of layers. As a Renaissance atelier, Gaspar Libedinsky’s studio processes with equal rigor works of a minimal scale, such as a pair of slippers, and works as monumental as Buenos Aires’s Obelisk.
Libedinsky was trained at the Architectural Association (AA) in London, where he was awarded the 1999 RIBA’s Part 1 Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the world’s most prestigious student prize. He worked for OMA/Rem Koolhaas (Pritzker Prize – 2000) in Rotterdam as designer of the winning competition entry for the Student’s Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. He worked for four years for Diller Scofidio + Renfro (MacArthur ‘genius’ Award – 1999) in New York, a studio renowned for blurring the boundaries between architecture and the visual and performing arts. At DS+R Libedinsky acted as lead designer from competition to construction phase of Manhattan’s new High Line Park. He was designer for the redevelopment of Lincoln Center’s new public spaces, Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall. He was also part of the design team of the new Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in Boston and was in charge of design and construction of ‘Pure Mix’, an installation built in ice for the ‘Snowshow’ within Finland’s arctic polar circle. He was also in charge of the design and installation of the High Line exhibition at MoMA.
Gaspar Libedinsky is also a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in Cambridge (MA) and at the Architectural Association (AA) in London. He is a regular guest critic and lecturer at Columbia, Pratt and Cornell Universities and at the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam.
What is particularly notable about his background and career, though, is that everything started in a quite unpredictable way:
“I started as a juggler, a self-taught juggler. And when I began juggling, at the age of 12, there were no jugglers in Buenos Aires. I learned through books that I used to buy on my trips to London, particularly in the Camden area, where I also bought my firstballs, clubs, diabolo, devil sticks, torches and unicycle. When I was still at school I was already known as the ‘talent’ who was able to do ‘little tricks’ with the soccer ball. I was infinitely superior as a juggler than as a player. When I was 13 I had my first own street show in Plaza Francia en Recoleta in Buenos Aires and Gorlero Street in Punta el Este (Uruguay). It was the same street where I first saw the street artist and breakdancer ‘El Choni’, a pioneer that was definitely my main influence as a street artist.”
Libedinsky’s work today is somehow deeply related with a peculiar idea about the city that he developed from his early times on the streets. For him, the city has always been a structure of human relations that needs to be approached and questioned:
“In Buenos Aires I was the first to juggle ‘passing the hat’ (in my case passing a top-hat) at traffic lights. I was interested in the possibility of working with a ‘captive’ audience through a show that was modulated by the duration of the red light: a urban choreography that worked on the relationship between the body and the infrastructures and rhythm of the city.”
His experience as an architect started during those years, while he was still studying and juggling on the streets:
“In 1996 during an event in Buenos Aires I met the dutch architecture historian Thomas A. P. Van Leeuwen, with whom I started a conversation – which eventually became a close friendship. He was fascinated by the juggling I was performing at the event. After I told him that I was a student in architecture, Thomas said that he was professionally linked to one of the architects I admired the most, Rem Koolhaas, and told me that Rem was particularly interested in the proposal being developed by the Government of transferring the domestic airport of Buenos Aires to an artificial island in the Rio de la Plata. This project served as a reference for OMA’s project of transferring Amsterdam Schipoll’s Airport to the sea.
That’s when I had the sharpest and smartest pro-active reaction in my lifetime and generated by my own initiative in 5 days without rest a comprehensive report on the proposed initiative for Buenos Aires domestic airport transfer, which included architect Amancio Williams’ original design for an airport installed in the Rio de la Plata. It is then that I approached Thomas A.P. Van Leeuwen with my report and asked him to deliver it to Rem while expressing my desire to work at Koolhaas’ OMA office in Rotterdam.”
Thomas gave Rem my report.
“Is Gaspar a good designer?”
”Hmm… I don’t know” replied Thomas
“Is he good with Autocad? “
“Is Gaspar a good model-maker?” Rem insisted
“Hmm… no clue… but he’s an amazing juggler!” Thomas ended
“He’s hired!”, Rem replied.
Following that line of events I was then expected to send my portfolio to OMA (‘portfolio’ being a nonexistent word in Buenos Aires in 1997). Rather than sending a portfolio with projects on architecture I sent a booklet showing only my work as a street artist. At the age of 20 I became the first Argentine to work in OMA architecture without an architectural portfolio!”
He continued his studies and career as an architect and had the opportunity to work on several important architectural and urbanistic projects. More recently, in 2010, he was awarded the Kuitca/UTDT scholarship to participate in South America’s most prestigious arts program led throughout 2010-2011 by artist Guillermo Kuitca in Buenos Aires. In 2014 he exhibited Monumento al hombre común at Centro Metropolitano de Diseño (CMD) in Buenos Aires and his series Mister Trapo in Praxis (New York), the same that he showed at Miart in Milan and which will be shown shortly at Les Ateliers de Rennes – Contemporary Art Biennial. In this series, Libedinsky deals directly with issues of urbanism and social interactions, approaching a specific figure of the urban landscape as the subject of his work. But instead of working on the human subject, he moves slightly towards the object that they use as a tool, focusing on its status as a symbol which defines their social and political status, using it and its derivates as the matter of his work:
“Systems of informal workers act on the city of Buenos Aires. Their “operations” go through a transformation that wavers between the marginal and the institutional.
What are called “trapitos” – literally “little rags,” this term refers to those who ask for money in exchange for helping people find parking places and looking after their cars once parked – have generated their own urban identity with an extreme economy of resources: their “uniform” is, in fact, a rag.
The trapito, or rag, in their hand identifies them as trapitos. On a practical level, the trapitos direct traffic towards parking spaces. On a conceptual level, the rag is a planted flag, a conquered, colonized, appropriated space.
For eight months, each time I parked my car and a trapito offered to look after it, I would propose tipping him a little extra in exchange for his rag. “How can I keep working if you’ve got my rag?” was the instinctive response, confirming that without that piece of domestic cloth he would be bared of his identity.
Vitraux (2011) is a tapestry made from sixty-four of these rags bought from “trapitos” on the streets of Buenos Aires and then sewn together. It is a “textile map” generated from sixty-four discrete acts of negotiation, sixty-four transactions, in which pieces of flannel in different shades of orange predominate. The work measures 5 x 2.5 meters, that is, the unit of space allocated for a parking place.
Argentina has what could be called an extraordinary “rag culture” for domestic tasks. The gondolas of home supply stores and supermarkets hold an endless variety of 100% cotton rags for the home: floor rags, flannel rags, dishrags, kitchen towels.
Míster Trapo (2011-13) is a series of sixteen “uniforms” made from this wide palette of rags where each model identifies what it “wants” to be: the rag’s intrinsic desire.
The Carrefour-brand beehive-pattern floor rag clearly wanted to be a cardigan sweater. The kitchen towel from Easy Home Center wanted to be a guayabera. The Media Naranja-brand flannel cloth from Jumbo supermarket asked to be made into a coat. The professional dishcloth was fated to be an English-style sports set while the table rag wanted to be made into a shawl. The floor rag was just right for a reversible outfit: an elegant pinstriped suit with textile on one side or a casual jean outfit when the side bearing the hexagonal weave is exposed.
The unit of each work in the series is the rag and its dimensions. In an ambiguous interplay, at times the “uniform” appears to be a rag as its details surface, and at times it is clearly a garment.
The collection produces infatuation. The rag is steeped in desire.
Relevant to this work is the moment in our homes when a worn piece of clothing becomes a rag: this work inverts that process, revealing new identities in the move from trapito to Míster Trapo.”
Jumping back into the urban, monumental scale, Gaspar Libedinsky is also responsible for the work Obelisk, a temporary structure for people to inhabit and appropiate Buenos Aires’ iconic monument to be built in 2016 as part of a series of urban interventions of a minimal footprint but with a maximum impact on the city’s life, providing Buenos Aires with new tipologies of public spaces as an integral part of his masterplan to generate ‘social fabric’ (community) through spaces that fill up the city with fantasy.
Other selected projects by Libedinsky are:
Arquitectura para el cuerpo
After serving as lead designer of the new High Line ‘elevated’ park in New York, the architect and artist Gaspar Libedinsky jumps from the urban to the domestic scale. ‘Architecture for the body’ works on the border of art and design. In this first ‘collection’, “operations are superficial”. According to its creator, the work consists of two ‘winged’ silhouettes cut-out of an 100% pure wool carpet matt, folded and sewn to become a pair of angelic slippers with their own ‘parking space’.”
Monumento al hombre común
Neither a Monument to the national hero nor a Monument to the worker: Monument to the common man . A batallion of office clerks line up and using their bodies as textile construction modules generate their own monumental organization. In cyclic turns, they transform from their organized 9-meter-high human pyramid, heroic and triumphant, into a collapsed surrendered pile of clothes, where the entire hierarchy vanishes. Shifting from one format into another, the settings ritually repeats the process of ‘collapse’, ‘implosion’ and ‘socio-structural’ fall and the process of ‘lifting’ the pile into its monumental iconic configuration.
The ‘tails’ of the men’s suits serve as ‘parachutes’ to cushion the impact with the floor. The suits used are used and have walked the streets of Buenos Aires. After sneaking into a ‘mountain’ of clothes at the Salvation Army, they are reincorporated into the system, whose ‘uniform’ is, symbolically, a men’s suit. Clothes as minimal architecture, one that is to the body. Architecture as uniform. The ‘Monument to the Common Man’ is an inverted diagram of forces where instead of being a compression structure where the strongest elements below support the weakest elements above, the equation is reversed into a tension structure where the strongest are hanging from the less fit: a social puppet operated by a single thread.
Caseros Prison was demolished 21 years after its opening. It took 15 months of mechanical work to bring down the 22-storey building. A dynamite implosion was aborted to prevent the toxic dust cloud from contaminating the neighbouring hospitals. Caseros was designed as a short-term remand prison but instead it housed convicts serving their time. Inmates demanded what its architecture could not offer. Consequently, in May 1984, prisoners had their cell gates permanently opened to the corridors. Keys stopped being an instrument of power. A highly orchestrated riot marked the beginning of the inmates’ “DIY” architectural transformation of the prison to achieve their desired spatial conditions. The destruction of one system was the construction of another. Boquetes (holes) were made in facades to talk to the city. Prisoners climbed like spider-men from hole to hole. Architecture was transformed into an enemy of surveillance rather than serving its primary role as a Panopticon. While the prison system attempts to transform human conduct through architecture, Caseros represents the antithesis: the transformation of architecture through human conduct. The “Productos Caseros” exhibition focuses on the boquete as the most notorious “product” resulting from Caseros’s DIY transformation. A video displays the two faces of Caseros’s facade as it is hammered to create a boquete, exploring the wall’s material performance. A series of 1:1 photographs shows Buenos Aires as viewed and framed by various boquetes. An original boquete made by inmates is saved from Caseros’s demolition. Video footage documents the seven-hour “surgical” operation to extract a 2×2 metre wall section containing the boquete. Paradoxically, a “void” is the most relevant element to preserve. A video documents Buenos Aires using the preserved boquete as a lens while being transported throughout the city. Residential projects, a park, a school and a cultural centre are planned for Caseros’s former site. More importantly, its 64,000 m3 of demolition material was transformed, as land infill, into a new coastal park.
“Cuckoo” is “video architecture:” a miniature stage on which domestic activities unfold for the viewer through customized video projection and placement. A birdhouse becomes an apartment as its occupants struggle to co-exist in the small space. “Cuckoo” is both a TV sitcom, where a series of absurd activities emerge from the structure in a clock-like fashion, and a comment on the public and private aspects of a domestic relationship.
Everyday doors separate the public realm from our very own private space. The pivoting action of these architectural ‘valves’ open to certain life stories and closes to others. These devices synthesize the threshold between the urban life and our domesticity. Home sweet home. Do not disturb. Placard doors keep our intimacy, our obsessive compulsive order or our chaotic mess, in or out of the closet. ‘Banquet(te)’ is a work of architecture that manifests itself as a performing piece of furniture. ‘Banquet(te)’ is a 2x6mts spanning table whose surface is entirely made out of catalogue doors. Exterior, interior and placard doors can independently open and close to create several spatial, organizational and social configurations and human relations, from a large common meeting or dining table to individual workstations in the form of ‘cubicles’. The system allows to generate gradients of more or less privacy or exposure according to required needs. ‘Banquet(te)’ is an inhabitable table. The opening of a door to create a partition has an unsolicited simultaneous spatial consequence of generating a void within the table to be occupied by users. ‘Banquet(te)’ can provide table surface for upto 40 persons both along its perimeter and within its own frame.
2014- ‘Mister Trapo’, Les Atelier de Rennes, Biennial d’art Contemporain, France
2014- ‘Mister Trapo’, MiArt, Milan’s Art Fair (Praxis Gallery), Italy
2014- ‘Monumento al hombre común’, Centro Metropolitano de Diseño (CMD), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2014- ‘Boquete’ (‘Productos Caseros’), SOX- Berlin, Germany
2013- ‘Productos Caseros’, Museum of Contemporary Arts (MCA), Denver, Colorado, USA
2013- ‘Draft Urbanism’, co-curator of Biennial of the Americas, Denver, Colorado, USA
2013- ‘Banquet(te), Designer’s Days (Gallery Bensimon), Paris, France
2013- ‘Lego Persa’, ArteBa, Buenos Aires Art Fair (Rea One Day Gallery), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2012- ‘Declaración de principios’, Rea One Day Gallery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
2012- ‘Productos Caseros’, Museo de Arquitectura (Marq), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2012- ‘Mister Trapo’, ‘Revividos’, Praxis Gallery, Buenos Aires, Argentina
2012- ‘Mister Trapo’, ArteBa, Buenos Aires Art Fair (Galería Nora Fisch), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2012- ‘Cuckoo’, ArteBa, Buenos Aires Art Fair (Praxis Gallery), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2012- ‘Cuckoo’, Everson Museum, Syracuse, New York, USA
2011- ‘Arquitectura para el cuerpo’, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2011- ‘Mister Trapo’, Beca Kuitca/UTDT, Buenos Aires, Argentina
2011- ‘Cuckoo’, Bienal de fin del mundo, Ushuaia, Argentina
2011- ‘Mister Trapo’, Premios Fundación Klemm, Buenos Aires, Argentina
2010- ‘Boquete’ (‘Productos Caseros) broadcasted within award winning movie ‘El Hombre de al Lado’, Sundance Film Festival, Utah, USA
2010- ‘Cuckoo’, ‘Post, Post, Post’, Centro Cultural de España en Buenos Aires (CCEBA), Buenos Aires, Argentina
2008- ‘Productos Caseros’, Documentary broadcasted on Buenos Aires City TV channel ‘Ciudad Abierta’, Buenos Aires, Argentina
2005- ‘The High Line’ (collaborating with Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, USA
2003- ‘Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio’ (collaborating with Diller Scofidio + Renfro), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
2002- ‘Mantel’ (collaborating with Enric Ruiz/Cloud 9), ‘Eurocities’, Palacio Pedralbes, Barcelona, Spain
2000- ‘The Mayor’s Public Space’, Architectural Association (AA), London, UK
2001- ‘Urban Prison’, Architectural Association (AA), London, UK
1999- ‘Crazy Paving’, Part 1 President’s Medal Exhibition, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), London, UK
1998- ‘Crazy Paving’, Architectural Association (AA), London, UK
1997- ‘OMA Rem Koolhaas: 9 built projects 1987-97’ (collaborating with OMA/Rem Koolhass), Arc en Reve, Bordeaux, France