Beyond Buildings


Palimpsests and Prosthetics: The Architecture of Markus Schinwald

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Photo: Aaron Betsky


The artist Markus Schinwald is obsessed with legs. He is also one of the better architects I have encountered in a while. I make both of those observations after visiting the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale last week. Schinwald took over the whole Josef Hoffman-designed building and filled it with an alternate architecture. His contribution consists of white walls hanging down to just about crotch height, forming a labyrinth that limits the building’s occupancy to two hundred and twenty at any one time–which just happens to be the amount of square meters the Pavilion contains. The installation eliminates about a quarter of that, so that what was an empty container has now become a machine for making you aware of the building's nature, size, and character.


Photo: Aaron Betsky


Photo: Aaron Betsky


The Austrian Pavilion sits in the “back forty” of the Biennale’s Giardini, or garden exposition area. While the big countries, such as the U.S., German, and France, occupy the front, you have to cross over a small canal to find Brazil, Greece, Austria, and a long building containing mainly contributions from countries from Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslav Republic. This year, this area was a site of serenity, austerity, and geometric complexity. In addition to Schinwald’s work, the Greek Pavilion, filled with water, a beam of light, and not much else, stood out, as did a crumbling concrete construction by Oscar Tuazon that sat in the garden between the buildings.


Schinwald, a young artist who has made a career of working in sculpture, installation, video, and this kind of quasi-architecture, does actually exhibit some things within his building-in-a-building. At the end of axes or in niches off the parallel paths you will suddenly find a 19th- or early 20th-century portrait he bought at an antique store or fair, and to which he has added prosthetics: a chin guard in one case, string leading from a woman’s ears into her mouth, a shroud over another woman’s face. These additions appear to be in the same style and technique as that of the original painting. Like the pendant walls, they are without function, a palimpsest that in its tracing opens up many possible relations between the first object and the second one. The nature of technology as an extension of the human body and perhaps even its torture potential come to mind as you observe these tracings, but so does the prosthetics of art and architecture itself, which extend the artist's hand and body and imposes itself over the reality. These palimpsests have the function of complicating structures to reveal something that is difficult to name, but that is present to your experience.


A second palimpsest consists of table and chair legs Schinwald has hung high up around corners or cornices. They are all Chippendale in style, their curves looping away from the reiteration of the walls in all their straight and narrow force. You look up at the artificial legs and down at the legs of your fellow visitors, which is all you can see of them. You wonder about the rest of these wooden and human bodies. You concentrate on the curves and sense the restrictions and incompletions.  Perhaps a kind of perverted desire wells up.


Finally, Schinwald presents you with videos in which actors strike poses, each a fragment of geometry, within what appears to be an abandoned hospital or spa.< Shown in the Pavilion’s side wings, which were later additions, they would seem to bring the missing relationships between people, prosthetics (including chairs and tables) into view. There are no answers here, however, just moving sculpture in space.


Wandering through this work, you cannot help but think of Wittgenstein and his villa, Freud and Jung and their mental labyrinths, and the sexualized art.  These are all the achievements for which we remember fin-de-siecle Vienna. Here in Venice, however, what you get is not so much anxiety, desire, and the need to question or even do away with humanity, as a desire to reawaken curiosity, to make the incompletion of both our human bodies and what we as humans make evident, and to create new relations between them that you can explore in time and space. That is what I can effective architecture.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.