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Valérie Kolakis: Collapsing Modernity

And all the walls that they built in the 70s finally fall
And all of the houses they built in the 70s finally fall
It meant nothing at all
It meant nothing at all
It meant nothing
                                                               Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs”


In 1967, the reform of post-secondary education in Quebec led to the establishment of a network of publicly funded colleges (or CEGEPs). These institutions were mandated to create an equitable and diversified system of education, available to all. This ambitious promise was pursued through the equally ambitious project of building a network of new campuses across the province. Most of these were built in the 1970s and 80s. Collège Edouard Montpetit, where Plein sud is located, occupies one of these campuses.

Like much institutional architecture of the time, the spatial organization of CEGEP campuses follows a rationalized layout with a uniform repetition of modular units. The construction material is predominantly concrete, the style Brutalist. The buildings are located on extensive grounds, surrounded by landscaped greenery and parking lots; from the outside, many of the campuses echo the layout of suburban shopping malls.

Unheimlich means uncanny, but a literal translation of the German term, first used by Ernst Jentsch and later elaborated on by Sigmund Freud, means un-home-like, not like home, at once familiar and not. The architecture of Collège Edouard Montpetit and of many of the CEGEP campuses from the 1970s follows a béton brut approach which, despite its utopian pretensions to openness, functionality and security, produced buildings often criticized by users for being overly institutional and unfriendly, unconducive to social relations, to feeling at home.

More than forty years after the launch of the CEGEP system, the architectural paradigm of the CEGEP campus has become both overly familiar and rapidly obsolescent. Our point of reference is an institutional space without reference. And this space is collapsing around us. Valérie Kolakis’s work draws on the dual state of mundane redundancy and inevitable collapse now embodied by much of late modern architecture.

Kolakis explores contemporary urban space and the transitory condition of the buildings that constitute it by using everyday and found material. She reconfigures the elements of institutionalized béton brut architecture – steel reinforcement rods, painted steel balusters, cement, tiles, paint – working with both the debris of abandoned buildings and the remnants of construction sites for structures yet to be built. Her interventions evoke the paradox of the post-industrial landscape, what Robert Smithson referred to as “ruins in reverse.” Where Smithson saw monuments in the abandoned factories of New Jersey, Kolakis looks to a more intimate architectural scale, that of the house and home.

The uncanny is at once familiar and strange. It causes a disturbance or cognitive dissonance in the mind through the paradox of being simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by an object. Kolakis's reflection on the space of the home is not an inquiry into the architecture of domesticity but a search for the lost home (land) of the exemplary modern subject, the immigrant. The feeling of displacement becomes ingrained in the immigrant’s day-to-day experience; it becomes strangely familiar yet profoundly evocative of not being at home. This Unheimlichkeit pervades the work of Valérie Kolakis.

With the development of the Video Home System (VHS) in the 1980s, it became common to watch films at home that earlier would have been seen only at a cinema. Unlike television viewing, which affected yet coexisted with movie-going for several decades, the home video phenomenon began the migration of the cinema experience from the semi-public space of the theatre to the private space of the home. Kolakis's sculpture Video Art (2011) uses piles of discarded VHS cassettes, suggesting a random archive of popular entertainment consumed in the home.

In much of her recent work, the artist favours regular geometric shapes, often repeated, making them with uncoloured, unpainted raw material, glass, mirror, concrete, fabric and steel; her work refers to Minimalist and Constructivist sculpture and to the unadorned purity of modern architecture. When figurative and colourful elements are introduced in her exhibitions, they are frequently recycled imagery, remnants of mass-produced images and forms that have gone out of fashion, lace doilies made of latex, or garish floral arrangements on old postcards.

The modernist logic of unadorned architecture resulted in the geometric slabs of concrete typical of Brutalism. It also informed the post-war production of interiors lacking architectural detail. Despite the absence of stuccoed walls and ornate columns, windows and doorframes, people living in these spaces have not refrained from decorating their homes. However, such added ornaments do not function in relationship with the standardized, rationalized architecture; they stand out from it, in isolation. Stripped of their context, they become kitsch.

When Kolakis uses a 14-carat gold pushpin (De retour dans cinq minutes, 2011) to fasten a note to the wall, she turns a very modern, everyday, mass-produced disposable object (the pushpin) into a kitsch objet d'art. The dichotomy between functionality and useless decoration is called into question. But it is the note that the pin holds to the wall that most disturbs: “Back in 5 minutes” calls attention to the anxiety of waiting. The point in time when the sign was pinned up is not indicated; the person returning could be back in a matter of seconds, the wait could last the full five minutes or possibly longer.

In Kolakis's sculptural interventions, an uncanny sense of absence, displacement and transitoriness is raised through the use of the materials and spatial presence of modernity, its cities, and its architecture. With De retour dans cinq minutes the unheimlich trauma is temporal, it is duration without a defined end, an endless waiting, waiting for the walls and houses to finally fall.

Paul Landon, 2011

Originally published in Valérie Kolakis: Unheimlich, Plein sud, Longueuil, Québec 2011


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