Curator's Key

Curators talk about an artwork that is important to them and their work. Philippe Pirotte, Dean of the Städelschule and Director of Portikus in Frankfurt, on "Crystal Chain Letter Complex (Dark Episode)" (2005) by Corey McCorkle

In 2005, the American artist Corey McCorkle blacked out the skylight in the main exhibition hall of Kunsthalle Bern by replacing each of its glass sections with black plastic panels. These forms bulged outwards and evoked the »dark episode« of 80s design. McCorkle’s engagement with darkness, and the use of the skylight’s existing metal lattice at the same time served as a comment on the »gothic« vogue in contemporary art circa 2005. The work’s title also connects it to the Crystal Chain Letters, a yearlong correspondence among architects initiated by Bruno Taut in 1919. In a dazzling series of letters and drawings, the members of the group described their fantastic visions of an ideal society and a beneficent architecture. The notion of crystal played a key role, as a way of both keeping the spirit of Romanticism alive and reinforcing the modern tendency towards rational structure and mass reproducibility.

McCorkle’s allegorical ruin of a modernist nightmare declared such utopian imaginings dead.

Although not unrelated to the awe – or menace – of the sublime, his work appears more akin to a sinister but stylish sci-fi dystopia. On one occasion, the artist parried criticism of his installation by imitating the rasping sound of Darth Vader in the »Star Wars« movies. The plastic panels could indeed be described as similarly oppressive and their sculptural opacity blocked out all natural light. Since the gallery was otherwise empty, it proved impossible not to have one’s gaze beguiled by the glimmering and menacing ceiling. If Marcel Duchamp’s 1200 Coal Sacks (1938) was an obvious precursor of the piece, McCorkle followed Duchamp further in combining two hallowed Surrealist concepts, le merveilleux and le dérèglement, engineering a collision of the marvellous with a kind of disorientation. The Kunsthalle was turned into a revelatory but at the same time foreboding site. The body of the beholder couldn’t escape the physical intrusion of this seemingly fluid ceiling, as if it were thick ink threatening to flood the room. Since each panel mirrored the empty space below it, spectators also found themselves plunged into a fantastic metaphor of surveillance, arrested by a gigantic compound eye.

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Time and again I am fascinated by this idea of an artwork as a folly, devoted on its own terms to fetish and spectacle. Such artworks claim their autonomy within a network of references and inform you about yourself – unbidden. —

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarter N° 41 and is available for purchase at our online-shop.