By Tucker Neel
Originally published in Artillery Magazine Vol. 1 No. 6, May, 2007, 35-36.
Equal parts life-coach, interior designer, and architect, Andrea Zittel wears many hats- and uniforms. While proclaiming the transformative power of a simple life free of clutter and distraction, she positions herself precariously in the role of a multitasking C.E.O., head of A–Z Administrative Services, a bi-coastal corporation that caters to an elite clientele of art collectors and design aficionados. In the past, A-Z Administrative Services sent out newsletters profiling Zittel’s endeavors and spotlighting the lives of her devoted fans. Like any great interior design house, A-Z works directly with clients to customize their products, making sure that each purchase says something poignant about it’s owner. And in true corporate form, Zittel brands each of her works with her signature A-Z logo.
Zittel is most effective when her work pushes corporate branding strategies and the marketing of consumer fantasies to absurd extremes. For example, her Deserted Islands, solitary white shiny miniature ice flows, with folding white chairs perched in the center of each, seem to poke fun at romantic notions of escape and tourism. In what could be a comedic comment on global warming, each private iceberg is branded with the A-Z logo next to a silhouette of a palm tree. Here humor is deployed to effective ends, the butt of the joke being the person who would actually buy such an object on which to live out any sort of escapist fantasy.
Equally engaging is the A-Z Breeding Unit for Averaging Eight Breeds, an inverted triangle of empty cubicle breeding units, originally designed to cross-breed Bantam chickens, show birds prized for their decorative features, to create, not prettier poultry, but instead a more “original” or average chicken. This is not only a wonderful comment on the legacy of modernist notions of purity (read minimalism) and notions of progress in general, but also a calculated use of the mechanics of science in an art context, a shift of one academic field into the sphere of another. Unfortunately, most of the other works in the show are reiterations of an understood and worn-out design fantasy that has trouble coexisting with Zittel’s corporate model.
When, in the early 1950’s, the designer Ken Isaacs created his 8’ square Living Structure, a cube made with thin wooden beams and large decorated panels designating sleeping, eating, and reading areas, he did so out of a need to live with his wife in their cramped studio apartment. His personal domestic quarters, as well as his other innovative ideas like “micro houses,” small portable living units that one could purchase and assemble at little cost, were featured in two issues of Life Magazine and are currently revisited in this year’s April edition of Dwell magazine. Like Buckminster Fuller, Isaacs was socially engaged to the point of evangelism, making it his life’s mission to spread the gospel of “Nomadic Living,” an eco-friendly existence, utilizing transportable and inexpensive housing. After seeing her retrospective, it seems that Zittel not only was inspired by Isaacs, but decided to borrow his designs as well.
The formal and conceptual similarities between Isaacs’ structures and many of Zittel’s living units are undeniable. For example, her A-Z Management and Maintenance Unit Model 003 from 1992, a compact living space made with blonde wood and metal beams separating kitchen, dining, and sleeping areas, looks stunningly similar to both Isaac’s 6’ and 3’ x 6.5’ Living Structures. Both artists’ designs have the same basic structural layout (but Isaac’s work is much more colorful). Now there’s no problem with appropriating and repositioning others’ works in order to create a critical intervention, but when Zittel remakes works of the past without updating the ideas and motivations that underpin these works, one is left to question what her work is really about.
I would argue that the “critical space” in Zittel’s art exists not in the work itself, or in its placement in the gallery, but in how her structures are activated as art objects once they are marketed, sold, and placed in collector’s homes. If they can resist and recontextualize the modernist ideals that underpin their forms, then perhaps Zittel’s works retain a critical value and open a space for thinking differently. Otherwise, her well-crafted and well-intentioned living units simply become interior design objects masquerading as critical interventions.