It is fitting that the new installation at the Menil Collection has, as its core creators, a family: Lars Lerup, dean of the Rice University School of Architecture (RSA); painter Sohela Farokhi, his wife; and their ten-year-old son and Lego-master, Darius. All contributed to the design of what purports to be a domestic environment entitled, generically, "room." The gallery, which customarily houses the museum's surrealism collection, is now entered by squeezing through a stretchy rubber membrane as if crawling through a pet door. Inside, one finds various pieces of couture-quality furniture, paintings and even, embedded neatly in one wall, a television.
On one level, "room" is an industrial design show. The furniture, fabricated by Raymond Brochstein's shop, is sleek and inventive. The Maus 2 coffee table, for example, consists of an oval top with one stationary leg and one round hole that fits over a bowling ball, which functions simultaneously as a leg and somewhat like the ball on the bottom of a computer mouse, giving the table some limited mobility. I describe Maus 2 as a "coffee table" only to let you know that it's low to the ground; the show's creators are not nearly so bourgeois as to call something a coffee table, and all the pieces in room are intended to have a fluid functionality.
Even pieces one might normally think of as stationary, such as the wardrobe and the tallboy, are outfitted with big polyurethane wheels and are referred to as "household vehicles." Museum visitors are invited to roll things around (unfortunately, the guards restore things to their original places, so it's hard to study the traffic patterns), lounge in the chairs and even kick open a cabinet door (which is designed with a kickable little tab near the ground, instead of a knob). The show is informed by Samuel Beckett's novel Watt, which concerns a servant, Watt, whose master, Knott, is a most peculiar man who not only changes from fat to skinny and from pale to "ginger" and back, but also seems to be awkward and unfamiliar with his residence and garden.
Only in his own room does Knott seem "least a stranger," and there he subjects his furniture "to frequent changes of position, both absolute and relative," Beckett writes. "Thus it was not rare to find, on the Sunday, the tallboy on its feet by the fire, and the dressing-table on its head by the bed, and the nightstool on its face by the door, and the washhand-stand on its back by the window; and, on the Monday, the tallboy on its back by the bed, and the dressing-table on its face by the door, and the nightstool on its back by the window, and the washhand-stand on its feet by the fire..." and so on for an entire two pages. I'm told the book was written to preserve the author's sanity -- a feat achieved, apparently, by driving his readers crazy.
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Made from plywood with beautifully grainy wood veneers, the show's furniture looks straight out of a Museum of Modern Art catalog. I leave it to the literary to debate the finer points of the show's Beckettian pretenses, but, on the face of it, its polished aesthetic doesn't seem to match the Irishman's. Yet the furniture does have a bit of Beckett's grumpy fascination with discomfort. Despite the luxurious materials and craftsmanship, the objects do not always coddle their users. Where rods are called for, Lerup uses shiny aluminum ones with suggestively rounded ends -- very S&M. On one chair, a rod protrudes through the seat and pokes up a few inches. If you sit down, it goes right up your butt. Even more unnerving, a giant freestanding "Wobbly Wall" at the back of the gallery shakes fearsomely when its sensor is triggered.
This is not, then, altogether about beautiful home furnishings. This "room" is firmly fastened to a scaffold of complex and somewhat grandiose ideas. Since this exhibit was made primarily by architects (many students, graduates and professors of the RSA contributed), you've got to expect a lot of jawing about the city and urbanism and things such as "superfluidity" and "the vaporsphere." I used to think architecture was about designing buildings and houses, but a lot of architecture is actually about deconstructing buildings and houses, and about thinking up words like "vaporsphere" and using them calmly as if everybody already knows what they mean. Lerup has been working on such things for years. (He even told me he's "not really an architect" -- and he didn't seem worried that Rice might find out.)
As part of his assault on the conventional house, he has proposed houses with "zones of passion," internal windows that allow kids to peep into their parents' bedrooms, and a feminist Last Supper Table (as in, "this is the last supper I will serve"). In "room," he and Farokhi have done away with the house altogether, which is not to say they've done away with architecture. Instead, the furniture pieces are little chunks of architecture, miniature buildings with shoe racks like seesaws, shelves made of thick felt and assertive personalities (the shelves, for example, swing out softly when one opens the leaning wardrobe. An earlier version was more violent, popping out and knocking one on the jaw). Miniarchitectures are a smart idea -- small-time aggressions are sometimes more practical, and palatable, than all-out war.
The most basic idea behind "room" is that in the electronic age, walls no longer confine us or protect us, and "interior" is now defined virtually (by what the catalog calls "a global metropolis") rather than physically. In other words, we are always "inside" a constructed, man-made world, which Farokhi symbolizes as pollution. I'm not sure quite what to make of her luscious yet oddly pedestrian paintings -- one of a cow grazing, another of Farokhi from the back, looking out over a mountain view. Like the rest of the show, the paintings' production values are stratospheric, but their potentially pastoral quality is firmly canceled by the yellow-brown, brackish color that counts for a sky. A third painting is a darkly romantic cityscape, with refinery chimneys rising gracefully against a lurid orange evening. Above, a mass of black smog spreads like the cape of a vampire, ready to wrap the whole affair in a baroque embrace. These are postcards from the global metropolis, views that didactically illustrate how the city preys on the country.
If this sour and sullen atmosphere forms the "walls" of our new interior, then the television is the window. Movable furniture or no, when I saw the TV I quickly became a Menil couch potato. Or rather, an ultrasuede-chair-with-rubbery-pipe-for-lumbar-support potato. Yum. The video in "room" is one of those arty, hyperedited, postmodern montage things, with footage of Farokhi's heartbeat, Houston, people working on the exhibit, junky white noise, corporate logos spinning toward the viewer like Ninja stars, a garbled recording of Lerup reading Watt. It's as self-reverential and personal as a window into your parents' bedroom. Usually I hate this kind of stuff, but Brian Heiss and Michael Morrow, two grad students at Rice, put in just the right amount of humor -- including episodes of "Buysum," a takeoff on the Home Shopping Network featuring products such as "Happiness" -- and tweaked the pacing to car-chase precision, creating a mesmerizing megachannel that does your surfing for you.
"room" attempts to serve the restless, nomadic and unconventional citizens of the global metropolis by offering the ability to manipulate their surroundings. If the tables and bookshelves are indeed little buildings, the city has come into the room and become our plaything, meeting much the same fate as Darius's Legos. (Photographs of his creations are displayed behind the Wobbly Wall, in a space that has been designated the "closet," with Lerup and Farokhi's studies.)
From the video to the furniture to the catalog, the energy in this show comes from people who like to make things. There's the expert deployment of technology, a confident pleasure in constructing objects that earn their pride by refusing to be completely servile. On top of that goes the conceptual scaffolding. It's not that I question the sincerity of the ideas -- the urge to foster domestic liberty is absolutely genuine. But I feel like I missed part of the argument -- why, if our world is destabilized, electronically shook up, permeable and changeable and virtual -- why does that mean I might want to trundle my sock drawers out to the kitchen?
As characters go, Beckett's Knott is an odd one. He looks different every day. He moves his furniture every day. His manner of hawking and spitting fluctuates, as does his hairdress. Is he a different person every day? Is there a Knott, and how can Watt be sure? And is that the deeper issue at work in "room"? That the megachannel changes us? In Watt, the idea is somewhat nerve-racking and sinister. In "room," the sinister is made pretty, lively and hopeful. It bites, yes, but it doesn't bite hard.
"room" is on view through June 6 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, (713)525-9400.
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