Art News & Views

Cutting the Edges of Architecture


by Lijo and Reni Jos

Lijo and Reni Jos, the architect-couple defies the conventional notions of architecture and art. Based in Thrissur, Kerala they have been instrumental in redefining the architecture and site specific art practice there. In an auto-interview mode, they assume various personalities and speak of their art and architecture vis-à-vis the cutting edge art practices.

This is what you call a writer's block, is it? We never knew what it was like, until being asked to churn out an article on a specific topic within a specific time frame. We have never been asked to do so as we only wrote when we wanted to (though nothing qualifies as 'writing' after our architectural thesis which happened a few years back) and only did art and architecture the way we wanted whenever we wanted to. So being asked to do this piece came as a surprise and we quickly agreed, thinking that it would be an opportunity to brush our love for words. Little did we know that the 'brushing' would soon give way for 'scraping' of our brain and would bring nightmare in which every English teacher of ours returned as ghosts.

But soon the architect in us (used to tackling the pressure/deadlines from the clients and site) helped in 'fabricating' a solution after systematically analyzing the situation and context. The analysis brought to light that the present hiccup was in producing a linear write-up which was to glide effortlessly connecting several details. Then why not try the unconventional?

The easiest non linear format is an Interview. Though there is a danger of being taken as Narcissists, given below is an interview by 'Us' (Reni Lijo and Lijo Jos) with the 'Artist in Us' and the 'Architect in Us'

'Us': What prompted you to do Art, especially Installation Art?

The Artist in 'Us': We call ourselves Architects by profession and Artists by passion. We are both self taught artists and, as far as we can remember, have been making art since our childhood.

The Architect in Us: We believe that every good architect is a good artist. Moreover we see architecture as Installation art (as it's done with the viewer/user in mind.) We were always interested in how spaces/objects influence people as well as how they react to situations/spatial conditions. This helped us overlap our architecture and art practices. We have great example such as Le Corbusier, Santiago Calatrava, Will Alsop, etc. who have effortlessly done the same.

The Artist in 'Us': Most of our so far known works are either site or space specific installations.

'Us': Do you see Art and Architecture differently?

The Architect in Us: We believe that all art is not architecture but all architecture should essentially be art. Unfortunately this is not the case as most architecture does not transcend the level of being just a product. Most of the architects are not sensitive any more as the market pressures numb the artist in them. With as little refinement in aesthetics even the most utilitarian of buildings can be elevated to the level of fine art. We tend to sensitize ourselves by doing and being in touch with art.

The Artist in 'Us': There are several artists who blur the line between art and architecture like Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor, etc. More and more artists are taking inspiration from architecture and architects look forward to art for the same. In a short period of time we have seen a great body of work in the international art and architecture which lie in a zone that is difficult to categorize.

The Architect in Us: There are also several buildings that blur the line, for example the blur building by Architects Diller and Scofidio. Though most of our present architectural experiments are space and programme based, we look forward to blur the line on a much literal level.

'Us': There are lots of 'We' in your answers! Could you tell us how you manage to make art/architecture together?

The Artist in 'Us': As long as you understand each other's caliber or the lack of it, we think it's easy to work together. We know exactly how much we can push each other's limit to attain a productive/satisfying output. When we are doing art we take responsibilities of areas each one is good at. There might be this topic or issue that, one of us or both of us are interested in. We discuss it in detail and later leave ourselves free to formulate our own individual idea after which the strongest idea takes over. This base material is then further refined considering the execution and the presentation aspects. We then list details that help us in easy execution of the project. Sometimes just one of us does all the above and the other person critically analyses the work to refine it.

The Architect in Us: The process is slightly different when we deal with an architectural project. One of us (based on who is free when the project comes in) works on the base concept and the other person reviews it later. By doing so, we see the project in two different perspectives and later refine the project considering the observations made during these reviews. The end result of such a partnership has always been satisfying

'Us': Can you tell us more about your first public art project - Whirlpool of Life?

The Artist in 'Us': This was in 2001 (done by Lijo) in a school (his alma mater) ground in Thrissur. It was a site specific work using the benches and desks form that school as well as the (movable) goal posts form the same ground. A small group of students were volunteering and it later turned into a workshop on installation art as they were new to this medium. We make sure that at least a small group participates with us in the making of most of our large scale work so that they can learn. It is a process of give and take. It is our way of spreading the medium. This 'work' happened at a time when many, in Kerala other than the art fraternity, didn't know what installation art was (the scene is not any better now.) The awareness was so bad then that one of the news papers, after the show, wrote something that sounded as if Lijo was the father of Installation Art.

The Architect in Us: The work Whirlpool of Life was more of an architectural construct than an assemblage. We made a main loop and bypass loops with benches and desks so that they form a walk able pathway. 2 of the sub loops were blocked so that the viewer has to find his way through.

The Artist in 'Us': It was satisfying to see that many behavioural patterns/reaction of the viewer could be metaphorically related/connected to real life situations.

'Us': Tell us more about the 'installation art workshops' you do?

The Architect in Us: Most of the architecture students, as a part of their curriculum or otherwise, make several large scale casual art projects in their colleges. Unfortunately many don't realize the significance of these works but, subconsciously they learn a lesson on space, object, materials, and its relation with the views/user. These later may translate or reflect in their architecture works to come. We too have had such wonderful opportunities during our college days and it was during those days that we had a grip of the medium.

The Artist in 'Us': We do these workshops/talks/presentations to help these students understand the importance of these works. Once they get the logic they apply it in the art as well as the architecture they do. It is quite heartening to see many participants continue doing good work after that.

'Us': What was the Inside-Out workshop about?

The Architect in Us: Inside-Out was an installation art workshop that we did in a college in Karnataka. The idea was to let the architecture students make a structure which bamboo splits, binding wire, butter paper, China paper and glue. We used two camera (HD for clear image and a handy cam for grainy output) to shoot the making of this structure. The HD camera and the handy cam were strategically placed outside and inside the structure, respectively while it was being made.

The Artist in 'Us': As you might know many of us tend to beautify the exteriors of not only the building but even ourselves. The idea of the work was to capture the transformation of the exterior and the interior. Many architects tend to beautify the outside appearance of the building alone and the spaces inside suffer which make a negative impact on the user.

The Architect in Us: It was interesting to note that more and more you do to beautify the exteriors, the interiors suffered. This was recorded live and later played on two different screens kept side by side. The video were time synced so as to show the exact internal changes when the exteriors were worked upon.

The Artist in 'Us': This was to sent a sublime yet strong message to these aspiring architects who might go numb like many doing just attention-grabbers.

'Us': What prompted Attempt-01? Why space specific installations?

The Artist in 'Us': Many of our earlier major art works were in the outdoors and most of them were large scale installations. No matter what the theme was the common factor was that we selected a specific area in a large campus to suit our work and created, mostly, Site Specific Work. We always felt that it was not that challenging as we get to select the area that might suit our work and that very act of selecting makes half our work easy. We wanted to break this routine and challenge ourselves by trying and coming out of our comfort zone. And the perfect choice was to do a show in the Lalithakala Akademi, Art Gallery in Thrissur as we had been eyeing the spaces inside the gallery since last 15 years.

The Architect in Us: In spite of being designed by the renowned Architect, Laurie Baker, the gallery is one of the most disliked art exhibition space in the state. (by artists, architects, management and laymen equally) There are several technical and aesthetic reasons for this. Though the gallery was inadequate for a good painting and sculpture exhibition, it had spaces/possibilities that were not exploited by any artist so far. Excited by this prospect we grabbed the opportunity as the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi was ready to present our show.

The Artist in 'Us': In the present art scenario, even if the installation is done inside a gallery it's called Site Specific Work as the Space/Context is seen as the Site. But as artists dealing with the present situation we wanted the viewers to realise the potential of this gallery space and experience the work in relation with the space. To reinforce our idea we decided to call our show a Space Specific Installations. This really worked as people started seeing the unseen volume of the space on exploring our work.

The Architect in Us: On top of all this there is another reason for doing a Space Specific Work. Being architects we deal with space/context all the time. When most of the designers are solely interested in the external appearance of the building, our primary concern is the spatial experience in any of our projects. If the spaces are detailed well our argument is that the external form would fall into place well. Moreover we have always been interested in the relationship between the 'user and the space', 'objects and space', movement and moods in space, etc

'Us': Why the title Attempt-01 for the show?

The Artist in 'Us': Because we would like to see this as an attempt to showcase the possibilities of the space. Moreover we were flooded with ideas (for the same space) and decided to streamline them and present it in episodes. The title was also meant to give courage to the fellow artists to embark on such similar attempts with the space once considered uninspiring. We hope to do Attempt-02 soon, which might be an exhibition of anaglyphs (3D photographs) of the display from Attempt-01.

The Architect in Us: For Attempt-02, the canvas printed anaglyphs would be placed in the respective exhibition spaces and would be viewed by means of stereographic glasses (cyan and red glasses) By this we hope that the viewer would connect to the spaces (or understand the possibilities of  the space) even though there are no objects filling the space. And Attempt-03 from us would be an exploration of 'light' as a medium in space specific sense.

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