CCA pays tribute to an architecture iconoclast

Rough Cuts and Outtakes is the museum’s second of three collections of anarchitectural work by Gordon Matta-Clark.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture’s small Octagonal Gallery, accessed through dove grey curtains, is currently home to Rough Cuts and Outtakes, an archival homage to prolific architectural weirdo Gordon Matta-Clark, subject of a three-part series at the CCA of which this is the second. Matta-Clark’s career was brief — he died from pancreatic cancer at 35 — but during the late ’60s and ’70s he made “anarchitectural” critiques of the “so-called urban renewal” he witnessed in New York and Paris that still resonate as thoughtful and peculiar ways of expressing his anti-gentrification sentiment directly on the built environment.

Matta-Clark is perhaps best known for his “building cuts,” performative interventions in which he cut massive holes in abandoned buildings. He meticulously documented these performances so that they endure now as plans, photographs and digitized 16mm film, a selection of which — in particular working cuts and many films never previously screened publically — have here been selected by curator Hila Peleg.

While Matta-Clark was certainly absorbed by the esoteric world of experimental architecture, and is quoted as hoping that his building cuts could be perceived as creating “alternative vocabulary with which to question the static inert building environment,” his site-specific work was also practically engaged in his community, most notably demonstrated by his involvement in creating FOOD, an artist-run restaurant and meeting place open in SOHO during the early 1970s, and footage of which appears in Rough Cuts and Outtakes. You get a clear sense from Matta-Clark’s documentaries of the singular thinker behind all these projects, someone with a deep sense of the absurd (who else would carve a massive “conical void through two derelict 17th-century buildings”?) but also an architect for whom his more poetically goofy sensibilities were inextricable from his social consciousness.

Like most CCA exhibits, including the adjacent and highly pertinent Our Happy Life (on until Oct. 13), Rough Cuts and Outtakes is heavily text-reliant, an ambitious and pleasantly hopeful assumption on the part of the curatorial staff that viewers will want to take their time and read. The texts reward with insight into the assembled films — often footage of the adorable and surreal home-movie variety. There is something sweet and mesmerizing about much of the material: blown-out or darkened spaces in which, for instance, two figures in dust masks nuzzle their faces together in “Outtakes, Conical Intersect,” or where gathered workers in collared shirts peer down into the crevice created by cutting an abandoned townhouse pristinely in two, in “Splitting.”

An archival exhibition’s interest often comes from how an artist’s work can be brought to bear on present phenomena, and here was the one moment where I had hoped that curator Peleg’s selection might more acutely point a finger at contemporary cities. There are several videos as you exit the gallery in which curators talk about Matta-Clark’s work, Yann Chateigné referring to him at one point as one of the “pioneers of socially engaged art,” but these interviews would be a perfect moment to editorialize on how his archive can provide counter-narratives to gentrification as it manifests in our own cities rather than to let his work remain situated in the political idealism of his own era.

Still, it is always a pleasure to revisit the work of someone whose career was small and distinct. In the sea of bigwig retrospectives it is comforting indeed to know that the iconoclasts live on. ■

Rough Cuts and Outtakes is on at the CCA (1920 Baile) until Jan. 19, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Wed & Fri–Sun, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Thu, $7–$10, free for students, children, Friends of the CCA and for everyone Thursdays after 5:30 p.m. and the first Sunday of every month.