Prefab and Uncertain

The Semi-Architectural Spaces of Jan De Cock

Monica Amor


The social space bristles with monuments – imposing stone buildings, discreet mud shrines –which may not be directly functional but give every individual the justified feeling that, for the most part, they pre-existed him and will survive him. Strangely, it is a set of breaks and discontinuities in space that expresses continuity of time. Marc Augé, Non Places, 1995


Browsing through the mammoth publication that constitutes volume number one of Jan De Cock’s encyclopaedia, the reader encounters a visual plethora of references that bespeak the artist’s formal and historical interests: European cinema; the Belgian aristocracy; Russian Constructivism; the work of Marcel Broodthaers; Beaux-Arts, Modern and Fascist architecture; the theory of perspective; Renaissance painting, and many other things. These visual references are organised in modules of pictures, and the corresponding credits are given a few pages later in blocks of text. The numbers that identify image and credit are not continuous and so the reader is forced to recreate the erratic wanderings prompted by De Cock’s installations. The reader does wonder, however, how all these references emerge in the work of the artist, on both a formal and conceptual level. How do they operate within the architectural tendencies and public dimension of De Cock’s (semi-) architectural installations?


The term Denkmal, consistently used by De Cock to name his works, is the German word for both ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’. It alludes to Adolf Loos’s 1909 essay ‘Architecture’, in which he states that the monument and the tomb are the only architectural forms that can be considered to be art.[1] De Cock’s work is clearly positioned at the intersection between art and architecture, continuing an old-age trajectory that in the twentieth century finds paradigmatic examples in the work of important historical avant-garde figures such as Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, and Piet Mondrian. Overlaps between art and architecture were further explored, although with radically different intentions, in the most significant postwar aesthetic proposals by such artists as Constant, Hélio Oiticica, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, and Dan Graham and this investigation is continued today in the practices of a diverse range of contemporary artists.


De Cock’s work undeniably belongs to a Constructivist/Neo-plastic heredity, first delineated by the constellation of utopian artists that proliferated in the 1920s. It oscillates between a purist, autonomous, and contemplative use of space – as we detect in Mondrian’s atelier – and a functional, social, and participative use of space – represented for example by Rodchenko’s Worker’s Club. The latter, built on the occasion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, was a hyper-functional, economical, and practical environment, representative of the Constructive ideals fostered by Rodchenko and the communist principles of the Soviet state. The worker’s club was to be, according to the political rhetoric that fueled the period, the communicative space par excellence. In it, social interaction would rehearse and exemplify the revolutionary social models demanded by the new political system. Created for a specific audience, the club contained tables, chairs, shelves and other elements that were collapsible for easy storage and spatial flexibility. The emphasis was on structure, precision, standardisation and economy of materials and space. Despite what may appear today to be a Constructivist ‘style’, the objective was to strip the furniture and architecture to its essentials, to purify it of the stylistic excess of aristocratic and bourgeois culture. Rodchenko’s functionalist aesthetic was preceded by an urge to articulate visually, materially, and symbolically the ideals of the October Revolution, to weave the urban fabric of the Russian cities with the sociopolitical ideologies of communism. New monuments would rise, Lenin proposed in his 1918 ‘Plan for Monumental Propaganda’, “to outstanding persons in the field of revolutionary and social activity, philosophy, literature, science and art”.[2] But despite the Plan’s emphasis on propaganda and civic pedagogy, on the insertion of sculpture, music, and architecture into the streets of the city, and on the inclusive nature of its proposed celebratory events, the new monuments were exemplars of a worn-out figurative aesthetics that would soon be the officially enthroned language of social realism. High on their pedestals, Marx and Garibaldi looked down from above, oblivious of the current realities that the Russian avant-garde so wanted to affect.


The artists of the avant-garde, fired by the social revolution that transformed the life of their cities, sought to express content through form, to produce aesthetico-political meaning from within the work of art, and to bypass the transparent semantics upon which figurative art was predicated. The monument too, as a symbol of historical and public significance, was to be re-evaluated. At the high point of artistic organisation and political turmoil of this ’first period‘, a moment in which the conventional monument’s representational function was collapsing, it was nevertheless needed more than ever, to articulate the collective will of the Revolution.[3] It was in this context that Tatlin’s Pamiatnik III-emu Internatsionalu was conceived in 1919-1920. Arguably the most important symbol of the Revolution, the Monument to the Third International was to represent precisely what the Revolution stood for: a liaison between the bourgeois-free-communist-Bolshevik revolution and the industrialised nations of the West.[4] This internationalist thrust, later betrayed by Stalin’s nationalist politics, lies at the conceptual core of Tatlin’s monument, a work that was a direct homage to the heroic and utopian goals of the Revolution: communism for all. More importantly, the Monument itself was to be revolutionary, to be functional and operative in order to fulfil the propagandistic and educational goals of the new society. It was to facilitate governmental tasks and international communication – a telegraph office was to crown the structure. The avant-garde aimed to transform the materialist base of society (the structure) and not merely the superstructure, and this is nowhere more clear than in Tatlin’s tower.[5] But despite his practical and functional considerations, Tatlin never projected or fleshed out the technical generalities, let alone details, of his construction, which explains why today the work is seen mostly as a powerful symbol of the Revolution.


While Rodchenko and Tatlin delivered models of utopia that attempted to materialise the grandiose ideology of the period, Mondrian submitted planarity, linearity, and the schematic qualities of geometric shapes to the abstract conceptuality of mental models. In line with De Stijl thinking about the possible harmonious relations between art and the urban environment he engaged, starting in 1919, in the compositional treatment of his studio through painted cardboard panels. Using domestic architecture as he would use a canvas, he experimented with white walls, furniture (some of which he also painted white), planes of primary color, and his own canvases which he incorporated into the interior in a symbolic attempt to merge art and life. Romanticising and abstracting the ethical utopianism that the collaborative and collective project of De Stijl had embraced in its inception, Mondrian declared: “the artist can be fully satisfied only when his conception of the beautiful is reflected in the world around him”.[6] Unlike Rodchenko’s Worker’s Club or Tatlin’s tower, Mondrian’s studio was an ideal personal environment, with no audience or function, with no rationale, subject only to the will of the artist.


De Cock’s work seems to firmly belong to this Constructivist/Neo-plastic lineage, to ebb and flow between the rational and economic order of Rodchenko’s work, and the intuitive and formal imperatives of Mondrian’s space. It also appeals to architecture as still one of the most progressive ways to think the space of art, and utilises modular industrial abstraction as a viable way to avoid the pitfalls of representation. But De Cock does not seem to indulge in utopian discursivity, such as that which has been rescued by an artist like Liam Gillick. Neither is he particularly invested in developing the social ramifications of the public and semi-public spaces that he constructs and reconstructs. Faithful to a formalist heritage that identifies its historical opposites in the work of Mondrian and Donald Judd, De Cock’s site-specific dynamics respond first and foremost to the spatial givens of the institution where he is working. Take for example De Cock’s Denkmal 9 (2004) for the Ghent University Library, designed by Henry Van de Velde. The historical space of the central reading room was given a second skin by the application, on desks, shelves, and chairs, of prefabricated plates of fibreboard sealed with a glossy greenish surface. The installation followed the structure of the reading room, its furniture and orthogonal design, but De Cock introduced extra shelves and reorganised part of the library in ways that disturbed the hyper-rational logic of cataloguing books and knowledge. This was achieved simply by breaking down the linearity and sequencing of volumes, by reorganising the shelves in short, long and layered modules that subverted the clarity of open perspectives, by using fragmentary organisational strategies. Ergonomics was not the artist’s concern, neither was public participation. The public and the work simply coexisted.


Denkmal 47 (2004) at Stella Lohaus Gallery in Antwerpen exacerbated De Cock’s disregard for architectural correspondences between body and space, construction and structure. The work occupied the whole gallery space, which could be entered through a narrow lateral door. The work itself could be accessed through a small staircase in the centre of what looked like a viewing platform. While the viewer could survey the outer surface of the work from above, the limited access provided from this point of view made clear that De Cock had reserved his intricate manipulations of space, walls, gaps and frames for the inside. And the interior denied any possibility of continuity, rational organisation, and perceptual clarity. Inside, confinement had replaced the protection that architecture customarily provides, and the vistas that De Cock’s exploded model-like spaces manipulate, were here reduced to claustrophobic encounters.


Sometimes highly dysfunctional and unwelcoming, but making direct reference to the rationalised and instrumentalised spaces of architecture and interior design, De Cock’s installations might then be more indebted to Malevich’s arkhitektons than to Mondrian’s atelier or Rodchenko’s Workers Club. A response to the retrograde and compromised state of architecture, Malevich’s position was that art and architecture “were independent from ‘naked utilitarianism’”, timeless and absolute when compared to the built-in vulnerability of the machine, which is destined to change over time.[7] These works, made of white plaster and assuming the format of architectural models, used a rectangular shape as the core structure and relied on an accumulative method to build upward and sideways, displaying a range of cubic forms. Here, cubes and frames resembled rooms, terraces, floors and ceilings, growing parasitically over the main rectangular body. When recreated on paper, these ’buildings‘, rendered axonometrically, echoed the spare and essential structures of Bauhaus architecture. But Malevich’s imaginary architectures lacked a real site and purpose, real practical foundations. The aggregational logic of the arkhitektons, their assembly of volumes was more in line with his desire “to recreate the world in a Suprematist mould […] rebuild the world according to a non-objective system” than with any attempt to house a specific program, such as a Pilot’s House.[8]


De Cock’s work uncompromisingly sustains the avant-gardist determination to ‘construct’. Unlike an artist such as Gordon Matta-Clark, whose architectural cuts manifested a clear anti-architectural impulse and an absolute negation of the constructive will, De Cock insists on the possibility of new spaces. But De Cock nevertheless shares Matta-Clark’s engagement with exposing the layers, the “strata [of] uniform surfaces”.[9] The younger artist also seems to regard the sculptural as “a vigorous transformation process that starts to redefine the given”, that concerns itself with “the notion of mutable space”, with “non-monumentality”, and a critique of architecture’s functionality and social moralising.[10] Dan Graham, who in the seventies and eighties also espoused architecture as a field to be interrogated, has rightly argued that Matta-Clark’s work was anti-monumental in its attempt to reconstitute “subversive memory”, to “’open up’ history and historical memory” while in a sign of profound pessimism it presented itself as “something of a useless gesture as opposed to a permanent symbolic form”.[11] In 1976, Matta-Clark stated that he considered his work to be part “of an immensely wasteful condition”, echoing Robert Smithson’s essay ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ from 1966.[12] Here, Smithson saw Malevich’s “non-objective world” as an immense desert “made of null structure and surfaces”.[13] Prophetically, Smithson seems to be suggesting, Malevich’s non-objective world announced the “lethargy”, the obstructiveness, the standardisation, neutrality, and dysfunctionality embodied in the geometric abstract sculpture, soon to be known as minimalism, of the sixties.




Surveying photographs of De Cock’s many installations in museums, galleries and other venues, one has the impression that a similar ambition to Malevich’s Suprematist aim – recreating the world in a mould – mobilises the artist’s oeuvre. The same commercial, ordinary, prefabricated materials have been arranged over and over to convey the sleek, corporate, undetermined look of his installations. We are in the presence of a body of work that spreads out forcefully, that wants to take over, that grows parasitically while erasing our sense of place. Indeed, despite De Cock’s claims that his work is site-specific, the particular mode of prefabrication, and the sleek amalgamation of sculpture and architecture defy specificity. Despite responding to the peculiar qualities of a given site, De Cock’s structures seem to belong nowhere and everywhere, to easily adapt to the regal spaces of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (Denkmal 23, 2003) as well as to the industrial landscape of Ondartxo in the Basque city of San Sebastian (Denkmal 2, 2004). Circumventing strong references to the locality of the site, national culture, local symbolism, and traditional forms of remembrance the Denkmäler prescribe their incapacity to commemorate and monumentalise. But “[g]eography”, Bernard Cache writes, “is not the surrounding of the building, but rather the impossibility of its closure”.[14] In this sense De Cock’s work does not impose itself on the locales it occupies. It is rather a symptom of those geographical outsides where the environment has willingly adapted to the ubiquitous look and modality of prefab memories. The work’s seductive but monotonous aesthetic recalls those spaces of indeterminacy which one might associate with airports, lounges, reception areas, lobbies and all sort of transitive and discreet public spaces.


It has been suggested that De Cock’s Denkmäler “court social engagement while mourning its apparent futility”.[15] I would like to propose instead that his monuments bypass the transformative aspirations of the avant-garde and appropriate its constructive methods and environmental drive to underline the condition of placelessness of our everyday utopia. For what else are our technology-smart spaces of public transit such as the airport and the supermarket but a residue of the utopias of industry, progress and mobility, of the early twentieth century? Clinging to the volition that one associates with construction, the latter operates in the work of De Cock as a process more than as a final product, its spreading fibreboard sheets stopped by practical considerations and institutional confinement more than by the logic of the work, a skeletal skin that defines without delimiting, constructs without building.


Earlier projects by De Cock have been seen as moving in “the direction of a service-oriented and democratic space”, but the recent spaces deployed by the artist in the context of museums, galleries and biennials are more ambivalent.[16] They are both welcoming and hostile, uneasily contributing to the discussion about participatory and relational aesthetics that is so pervasive in contemporary art circles.[17] Orthogonal, modular, reflective, and sleek, these spaces mobilise a language of abstraction that has been assimilated by corporate and commercial space. It is almost this image, of the rational and controlled spaces of the everyday, that De Cock’s installations figure forth. Almost, I say, since the fragmentary, partial framing devices invite other possibilities, a fluidity that escapes the monumental legacies that these structures, at least nominally, seem to also invoke. De Cock’s works are presented to the viewer as neither alternative nor blunt critique but simply as unstable situations that underline the dynamics of spatial organisation that rule over the public institutions and spaces of our everyday life. As the artist suggested at the start of his installation at Tate Modern, the museum’s exhibition space, café and bookstore all seem to flow smoothly, to connect unproblematically.[18] De Cock’s works do not necessarily disturb this state of things, but first and foremost interrogate the ideological fluidity and flimsiness that is pervasive among museums and in other art contexts. They demarcate the conceptual insubstantiality of the public institution not through the bureaucratic and service oriented techniques that characterise so much institutional critique and site-specific art, but by underlining the social spatiality and ideological topography of the site. De Cock seems determined to circumvent the moralising and direct pedagogical methodologies of the more socially involved artistic corps. A manifested faith in the power of architectural and spatial strategies compliments his distrust of the effectiveness and institutional autonomy of more socially engaged projects. Further proof of the artist’s sceptical attitude towards the transparency between signifier and signified, discourse and truth, audience participation and institutional transformation, is the persistence in his installations of partial photographic representations of previous projects. Despite the stubborn materiality and demand for presence that one can detect in his work as a whole, De Cock seems to defer mnemonic responsibility to these very partial records of spaces that live on only through representation.



…And the impossibility of monuments.


Through both its attention to site and its wilful embrace of the logic of de-territorialisation and ephemerality that characterises so much contemporary art, De Cock’s Denkmäler emerge as temporary figurations of our contemporary urban landscape, marked as it is by the commodification of all things material and abstract, the loss of communication as the foundation of a public sphere, gentrification and historical oblivion. These conditions have rendered the traditional monument, and the collective memory it assumes, as a farce, an outmoded and problematic structure of representation. The demise of the monument goes hand in hand with the enforced transformation of traditional notions of space and time. James E. Young argues that the traditional monument is predicated on “a unified vision of the past”, on shared universal ideals, on national identity, on the illusion of permanence and organic evolution, on ideas of temporal continuity, and spatial contiguity which the instability, heterogeneity, and fragmentation of modern societies have shattered.[19] Marc Augé situates the unattainability of the monument in the condition of ‘supermodernity’, with its excess of time, space and individuality. In our supermodern times, we witness nothing less than a “multiplication of events”, an “acceleration of history”, an access to remote geographies, a mediated simultaneity of events, and unstable forms of “collective identification”.[20] All of these new phenomena have transformed the spatio-temporal coordinates that in the past allowed for the physical and intellectual erection of monuments: centered, located, demarcating borders and spatial distances between ‘us’ and ‘another’. According to Augé, today, in actual space, monuments are bypassed, and highways ‘advertise’ the history of the places they traverse, embodying a phenomenon of re-signification already present in the mediated architecture of signs and symbols that populate our cities. The urban landscape and the media that reorganise it spatially and conceptually, displace direct public interaction in favor of predetermined routes of traffic and patterns of circulation: in the mall, the airport, the highway, the supermarket, or the more generic lounge or lobby, public space is effectively regulated. In these spaces of transit, “neither identity, nor relations, nor history really make any sense; spaces in which solitude is experienced as an overburdening or emptying of individuality, in which only the movement of the fleeting images enables the observer to hypothesise the existence of a past and glimpse the possibility of a future”.[21]


Perhaps it is fair to suggest, then, that De Cock’s Denkmäler are a monument to the impossibility of monuments, to the fallacy of representation and the illusory semantic transparency between place and space. In this conception they would be a subtle indication of the paralysing effects of institutional regulation in the public space we attempt to negotiate, a symptom of the neutrality and anonymity fostered by the ‘non-places’ of a certain contemporary condition. They would be prescriptions of the incapacity to commemorate and monumentalise. While De Cock’s work might be seen as unresolved, uncertain, and indeterminate, containing neutral areas of (most likely) insubstantial and casual interaction, this neutrality demands to be read through the images of previous installations, through the monotony and prefabricated sleekness of its materials, through the abstract and universalist histories that it invokes. There is no nostalgia in De Cock’s installations, but rather a persistent desire to give materiality and physical presence to these non-places of contemporaneity. Without utopianism, the Denkmäler offer a destabilising conglomeration of frames, supports and panels which amount to a morphology of disintegration in which glimpses, rather than clear perceptions, facilitate an encounter between body and place. The parasitic nature of this work, its partial constructiveness (despite its qualified craftedness the elements look like so many incomplete parts, the works like unfinished sites), is an homage to the impossibility of capturing the whole of space, to retrieve memory and history. If relational aesthetics aspires to the creation of a space in which inter-subjectivity is possible, if only momentarily and only as an ideal, De Cock’s Denkmäler, recover the spaces of art to inscribe them within the horizon of the non-place.


But the empty bases that the Denkmäler emulate, the homeless structures without monuments to support, frames without pictures to display, are anything but oppositional. Despite, or because of, their status as ambivalent analogues, they manifest a critical faith in the museum, its spaces, its roles and its functions, by insisting on the constructive will so absent from the sculptural/architectural experiments of the sixties. At the same time the Denkmäler seem to avoid civic morality and dodge, while longing for, meaning. They problematise the notion of place and the relations that it engenders, forcing us to think of the manifold elsewheres that we are constantly inhabiting, while condemning remembrance to the cinematic perceptions between frames that the work incites and the photographic records of past installations.


  • Notes
  • [1] Adolf Loos, Architektur’(1910), in Trotzdem 1900-1930 (herausgegeben von Adolf Opel), Wien: Georg Pragner, 1997, pp. 101-103.
  • [2] Christina Loder, Russian Constructivism, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983, p. 53.
  • [3] According to Paul Wood, this, “first period”, was a “period of revolutionary upturn caused by World War I and its aftermath. It was marked domestically by War Communism and the struggle to secure the Revolution, and internationally by the founding of the Third, Communist, International to seize the moment and promote the extension of the Revolution on a worldwide basis”. See Paul Wood, ‘The Politics of the Avant-Garde’, in The Great Utopia. The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde 1915-1932, New York: The Guggenheim Museum, 1992, p. 9.
  • [4] Wood, ‘The Politics of the Avant-Garde’, p. 7.
  • [5] Wood, ‘The Politics of the Avant-Garde’, p. 7.
  • [6] Piet Mondrain, ‘Natuurlijke en abstacte realiteit’, De Stijl II, 8-III, 10 (1919-20), quoted in Nancy J. Troy, The De Stijl Environment, Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 1983, p. 66.
  • [7] K. Malevich, ‘Zametki o arkhitekture’, quoted in Anatolii Strigalev, ‘Nonarchitects in Architecture’, in The Great Utopia. The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde 1915-1932, p. 672.
  • [8] K. Malevich, paper delivered to INKhUK in December 1921, MS, private archive, Moscow, as quoted in Lodder, Russian Constructivism, p. 160. (My italics); The title of a 1924 drawing, now in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, is Future Planits for Leningrad: Pilot’s House.
  • [9] ‘Gordon Matta-Clark: Splitting the Humphrey Street Building’, an interview by Liza Bear, Avalanche (December 1974): 34-37. Reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, London: Phaidon, 2003, p. 165.
  • [10] Donald Wall, ‘Gordon Matta-Clark’s Building Dissections’, Arts Magazine, (May 1976): 74-79, reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, p. 185; ‘Interview with Gordon Matta-Clark, Antwerp, September 1977’, in Gordon Matta-Clark, Antwerp: International Cultureel Centrum, 1977, reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, p.190.
  • [11] Dan Graham, ‘Gordon Matta-Clark’, Kunsforum International (October/November 1985): 114-119, reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, p. 202.
  • [12] ‘Gordon Matta-Clark: Dilemmas’, A Radio Interview by Liza Bear, WBAI-FM, New York, March 1976, reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, p. 176.
  • [13] Robert Smithson, ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ Artforum (June 1966), reprinted in Jack Flam (ed), Robert Smithson. The Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 14.
  • [14] Bernad Cache, Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1995, p. 70.
  • [15] Jordan Kantor, ‘On Jan De Cock’, Artforum (January 2005): 153.
  • [16] Luk Lambrecht, ‘Seconds of History’, in Jan De Cock. Denkmal ISBN 9080842419, Brussel: Atelier Jan De Cock, 2004, p. 229.
  • [17] The seminal text is Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (trans. by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods), Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2002.
  • [18] Jan de Cock in conversation with Monica Amor, Wouter Davidts, Kirstie Skinner, John Welchman and Jon Wood at Tate Modern, London, Friday 1st July 2005.
  • [19] James E. Young, ‘Memory/Monument’, in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds), Critical Terms for Art History, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 234-246.
  • [20] Marc Augé, Non Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (trans. by John Howe), London and New York: Verso, 1995, pp. 28; 37.
  • [21] Augé, Non Places, p. 87. To Smithson, “this sense of extreme past and future”, of time cancelled out by the collapse of a certain, anthropological notion of time “has its partial origin with the Museum of Natural History; there the ‘cave-man’ and the ‘space-man’ may be seen under one roof. In this museum all ‘nature’ is stuffed and interchangeable”. Smithson, ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’, p. 15.