The Infinity Pool Contradiction

A conversation between Ian Monroe and Suhail Malik

First published 2006 in the solo show catalog, All Possibilities are Visible But UnknownUpstairs Berlin, Berlin.


Suhail: It's pretty clear that central to your work is the relation or distance to architecture. But even in saying something that straightforward there's already a qualification because it doesn't look to me that what you are engaged with in your wall pieces is architecture itself - spatial, bodily, material, controlled by gravity, load-bearing, etc - but architectural plans, designs and diagrams. These are free-er of the constraints to which architecture is necessarily bound as a material production (though in different ways with the use of CAD systems). That openness is apparent in the dis-assembly and floatiness of the elements in your wall pieces which seem to be almost converging or composing into more or less stable structures but, importantly, don't. The elements in these pieces hold themselves off from cohering into architecturally sensible units (that is, buildings) but verge towards the architectural.


Ian: I have always found the latent possibility of spatial fluidity (i.e. lack of sensibility) in architectural plans, diagrams and drawings as compelling as the final structures; while the building itself forces one into a external, phenomenological spatial awareness, the diagram remains a cerebral exercise. It becomes internalised in a sense when one 'constructs' the image in their mind. It is as if the diagram is continually 'verging' towards the final structure in the spatial suggestion of perspective but it only materialises when it is viewed. (This begs the question: does the perspectival image exist when it is not being observed?)


S: So the involvement of the one looking at the construction (in both verbal and substantive senses of the term) is as important for you as the internal relationship between the elements?  


I: Yes, I am demanding a complicity from the observer; not with myself but rather with the somewhat 'illegal' manipulations of space and (non)gravity performed in the images.


S: Are you proposing that the openness between the elements of your wall pieces (and to some extent for your floor pieces to), an openness which differentiates it from architecture or building(s) straight-up, is a way of implicating the viewer as an interactant of the work rather than just an external observer or as someone who looks upon a building? Just as more is demanded of the one looking at the architectural plan or, even more so, the engineering blueprint than in seeing the final constructed building where, in some ways, all the work has been done for you. Is it something closer to being inside a construction and understanding not only how you are positioned by it but also how you complete the space through your perceptual synthesis rather than being one of those small silhouetted figures on the model/computer image of what the building will look like? Your work heads towards prohibiting this final representational completion of the building as something one could look upon or into rather than in. Implicating the viewer in the construction-process would connect with the comments you make below about interactivity in Copenhagen School quantum mechanics.  


I: At its core the Copenhagen Interpretation directly links the observer and the observed such that the former gives rise to the latter, but more importantly also suggests that the systems used to create these observations are inextricably linked to the end results such that it becomes impossible to extrapolate a 'singular' viewpoint or neutral ground. This seems to be very close to the phenomenological and thus cerebral mechanics connecting the perspectival image and the viewer.   


S: When we previously spoke about dis-assembly or incompleteness of the elements in your pieces in relation to the conventional sense of a finished building you mentioned the construction and testing of the funnel-like columns that Frank Lloyd Wright drew up. What seemed to interest you in that was the way that the geometry and shape of their (at the time) unusual non-tube structure captured and materialised the tension of forces, loads, stresses and pressures that any building is. The column became a kind of concretisation of the set of virtual pressures or demands that are the construction of any building, one that effectively allowed those demands and the interacting relations between them to be re-conceptualised and reorganised in new ways (this, it seems to me, is what CAD engineering continues with). However, in relation to your own work including your sculptural pieces there seemed to me to be a very strong disobedience against the kinds of structural imperatives that Wright, for example, was tarrying with in his column design. A disobedience because even representationally you hold off from observing and following the demands of weight, intersection, structural support, and the rest of it. And though the elements you work with seem to be elements towards a construction, you push up instead a more abstract and spatial over material relation of these elements, suspending them in the virtuality of forces which are then much more in play rather than determined structural relation. (Perhaps the move here is from sculpture to drawing.)


I: I think this 'disobedience to forces' is tied into the move from a structural/architectural boundedness to the ironically infinite space of the flat drawing. It is the hypothetical Eucliedean model of space that we rely on to convert the flattened image where parallel lines actually converge into a final structure where these lines never meet that allows for a model to be built that contradicts the reality it is representing.


S: What comes to the fore here is what Philippe Raum (quoted in an earlier catalogue of yours) called, in relation to Le Corbusier, 'small piles that cause the volume to float'. That is, what the elements in your wall pieces open up and your floor pieces also organise though very differently is a spatial volume that emphasises a multi-directional vectoring of spatial relations (I think Raum is being a bit optimistic around Courbusier himself in this regard).


I: I would agree here, the elimination of the base never really happened.


S: The main point here is that virtual image in representation has an excess over the reality that it claims to represent?


I: From an information standpoint this could be true. For example, a three dimensional cube always has at least three unperceived sides, because of time. One can never see the whole thing, thus the information about those other sides is in a sense lost, or becomes a negative value. The diagram of a cube on the other hand never actually contains all the sides, it is simply composed of the sides represented and, in a sense, this 'lack of loss' must at least have a value of zero or greater. Then if you add the observer, who now constructs the cube mentally from the diagram, information is then created, and perhaps this leads to a positive number and in this way the virtual trumps the reality it delineates. This circular disparity for me points out an inherent difficulty between the cerebral manifestation of form and the actual - a bit like stubbing your toe on a Mies van der Rohe glass table, in your mind the corner converged in a different place then your foot is telling you.


S: This brings me to another dimension of your work in relation to the history of architecture which I think is worth exploring a bit though it is almost diametrically opposed to Mies. The kind of ad hoc or syncretic-additive construction we are talking about connects up for me with your mentioning below of church structures as a kind of primary evidence of the race of verticality. They come together through the building of Gothic cathedrals, one of whose the key features compared to earlier and later styles is that the buildings were built almost as they went along. Not entirely but certainly in terms of the façade and the way that decorative elements crossed into structural elements. The semi-improvised additions of Gothic architecture could be understood as a method of building in which any one element is only positioned relative to another without being able to extract it outside of that knot of construction and refer it all to a pre-existing plan or grid of reference beyond the elements. And this construction isn't exactly haphazard – they are definitely building upwards and sideways (in order to go upwards) – but its structuring is only internally or intensively organised and somewhat sporadically so given the length of time those constructions took and the changes of plans, ideas, engineering skills and ambitions and so on that were involved in the construction. I'm wondering about this because thinking of it in terms of construction method rather than style or historical precedent I find it quite provocative to think of your work as somehow Gothic (provocative for how your work would be positioned and also for what we understand the Gothic to be and look like). Even if it's implausible I'll insist on it because it's one of the closest historical point of reference for how things build up in your work, to the method of your work, at least in the field of representations. This isn't just to do with the way that you make the work but also what the paintings (as you call them) show: a kind of Gothic method made apparent because of the incomplete – meaning residually unsettled – construction.


I: I have never really thought of the Gothic connotations of the work before but there are some very strong relations between the two in terms of perceptual impact, most notably the intentions of the Gothic structure to dematerialise, to become a gossamer web of light and line. I am thinking of the gothic column where the fluting went to absolute extremes so that any classical cylindrical perception of the mass was shattered into many thin lines of light and shadow. The use of flying buttresses, the massive rose windows, and the delicate tracery all served to propagate this effect of an accelerating and as you say an unsettled construct. This directly references the 'disobedience of forces' we have been discussing and in terms of a perceived infinity one need look no farther than the nave and the seemingly endless march of columns towards the transepts and into the chancel as this must have been as close to a representation of the infinite as anyone had seen at the time. 


S: This also indexes the deep-space effect in your wall pieces: the elements seem to be in relation in a space that tends towards an infinite horizon, even if there is sometimes a sense of 'room' and therefore enclosed space around them. Perhaps this is a bit like an inifinty-pool is supposed to be: a closed definite area which nonetheless seems to up-end the impression of an edge. 


I: This is very much the kind of contraction of space that interests me. Shall we call it 'the infinity pool contradiction'? To expand on this, because in some ways it reflects a few choices about the nature of the way I make the works as well as the ideas behind them in terms of edges: I have deliberately chosen the material I use because it allows for an unequivocal edge, there is unlike paint or other media a very definite change of state from one zone to another, there is no smearing or blurring, and this is the discomforting thing about the images. We know these kinds of spaces only in our minds, or in a theoretical diagram, yet we are familiar and in fact demand delineated space as part of our daily interactions with the world: in the ways we need geo-political boundaries, or distinct zones of activity like an office, a home, a bank. The infinity pool tries to give you one place that is all places, and it does this because the edge remains both there and invisible, tantalisingly close yet caught in a quantum collapse where you are always rushing toward a receding goal.


S: Given all that, what I'm wondering about in this multiply-directed and intensively organised deeply volumetric space of your wall pieces, which could also be understood to presenting an architecture for outer space, as though Kubrik didn't take it far enough in 2001, is the definite sense of up and down, the definite vertical organising axis, for these suspended and improper architectures. That is, to take up the space-age description of it, if we say that what you present are some kind of architecture in a floating world, as though you were making an abstract building in space, a deep space at that, up and down are then entirely contingent upon how the body is positioned in relation to its environment than by the structure itself. Without gravity - and I think the crux of what I'm asking is about gravity, which is what organises and conditions architecture in its struggle against it - there's no naturally organised up and down and no pre-orientation of a perspective nor then of the viewing body. Given that your wall pieces - and inevitably your floor pieces too - do present an oriented volumetric space which could otherwise be completely abstractly determined, I'm wondering not just about the constituent elements and how they signify a certain optimistic 60s-70s modernism but also about the what work that orientation does?


I: Architecture, once it goes beyond the simple use of shelter, becomes a race of verticality, in essence a 'gravity defying' exercise; first with church structures trying to literally soar closer to the heavens and then onto the vertiginous heights of that ultimate symbol of modernity, the skyscraper. As you mentioned earlier, the grand claims of piles that float never really seem to achieve their weightlessness, which is the next logical step of the super modern, it moves from a grounded geometry to one of ultimate detachedness, the spacewalk (a very 60s-70s phenomenon). The architecture of zero gravity becomes an architecture of trajectory and vectors; the structure is dispensed with and all one needs are points and velocities. Along the way there are singularities that attract tendencies. These have become the boxes and extrusions in the paintings, they are without a verifiable ground although they do resolve into some overall metric through the use of perspective. I guess I am playing with a kind of uncertainty principle in the paintings - if you were to know exactly where a box is in the imagined space then it would cease to be an image and become a sculpture, but if you can see the entire image then you have to relinquish the exact information regarding the location of an object in the three dimensional space. In this way one is left only with approximate and relative values for the precise nature of any single object in the paintings. In other words, you can only position one thing by citing the location of another, and so on, and so on. Another real world example is the meeting point, whereby you have to describe the location of the meeting point relative to another thing - thus obviating the need for the meeting point. This circularity may be what you are talking about in the stitching together of abstract and bounded space.


S: What I'm trying to get at more is how, given the free-floating relation between elements in your wall-pieces, the up-down orientation is on the one hand arbitrary – you depict a space that is unnecessarily gravitationally organised – and at the same time it stitches together the abstract space you are composing or compositing internal to the piece with the space in which we look at it. That is, the up-down orientation seems to push what is 'represented' in the architectural play of abstraction back into our space, that of the materiality and floor-boundedness in which we look at these pieces. Stitching together abstract space and its open possibilities with the material fact of our bodies and the weighted space in which we comport ourselves, and in which we look. What is suggested then is the weight of our spatialisations and this is exactly what Wright was interested in with his recomposition of what a column could be.


I: Yes, in fact Wright literally wanted that weightlessness to translate into the people who worked beneath these seemingly floating yet load-bearing structures. He envisioned an inversion of the load from relentlessly downward (again a term of gravity) to one of near weightless soaring. 


S: The 'representation' we are speaking of isn't then just the one on the picture plane but also the one in the mind which calls up the issue of how we organise, think – conceive? – space in our minds and psyches and the mis-registering of that spatial sense with real space. Is this dissonance – which is usually very small if we are going about our daily business without much difficulty but becomes more and more noticeable if, for example, you get really, really smashed - of importance to you? 


I: Yes, very much so. 


S: Your work is then involved in this dually representational space (or, rather, spatial representation): the circuit between what can happen on the picture plane and what you call its 'ironically infinite space' and the representational spaces of the mind. Morphing and fluxing between these two moments of spatial representation the demands and limits to vertiginousness imposed by real spatial construction can be eclipsed in favour of its virtual infinity. I like the idea that you stub your toe on the Mies table because you are captivated by such an infinity – a bit like Thales of Miletus falling down a well because he was looking at the stars, apart from that the infinity isn't some far off place receding away from you (into the unimaginable distances of a star) but right here, between the corner you spatially assumed and the one at the intersection of the two edges of the table. No co-incidence that Thales is a recognised founder of Western science: the proximate virtual infinity demonstrates the power of the mind over reality in order to tarry with the perhaps otherwise unbearable infinity of the impossibly far away, to comprehend the ungraspable. This virtual infinity is close-up, inside the texture of space as we represent it (to ourselves and, through your 'paintings' or through the corner of Mies's table, to others).


I: Yes, and in terms of comprehending the ungraspable, the perspectival image contained from its outset the dual function of flattening deep spatial relationships into a measurable system and also predicating the necessity of infinity, of the immeasurable. So you have a method to contain this unbearable infinite, yet its very rules (of never converging parallels for example) again sends one on a headlong acceleration towards the void. At some point in this acceleration, a kind of mental phase transition occurs, and the infinite is internalised – it slams up against you like the corner of the table.