By Hagere Selam “shimby” Zegeye-Gebrehiwot
Siegmund Skalar has an infatuation with socialist housing and failed utopias. His interdisciplinary practice currently engages the medium of furniture, inspired by how spaces such as corridors are affectively activated and the late designer Charlotte Perriand. Skalar’s objects borrow an inconspicuousness from the materials he uses like MDF boards. He replicates a sense of institutional ubiquity with the placement of the custom built, IKEA-like objects, camouflaging them in muted tones. His furniture plays with subversiveness when installed just outside of the gallery. I think of the stools/bookshelves he’s designed and built as unassuming aberrations. Skalar’s aim: disrupt aesthetic notions of high-end, commodifiable art objects while dreaming of corridors as the new commons.
I’m curious about all the twists and turns of your arts practice and your creative histories, how they brought you to where you are now. Maybe we could start on that very introductory level of hearing about your practice, what you’ve worked on and what you’re working on now.
My background is in photography and filmmaking. I’m a graduate of the Arts Academy in Vienna, and I did a bunch of video work, which takes quite a while. I was attached to one group of filmmakers in a community institution and would take a lot of time searching for public funds and applying for them. I enjoyed that kind of work.
When I came to the US in 2019, I had to change that method of working. With that method of working, you have to either do one big film a year or find an agency, which is kind of unsustainable. The work I’m doing in the US is more interdisciplinary, combining how institutions work and totally different media. Thinking about narration, thinking about using media as something to narrate a reality or communicate a reality.
I made this piece for the Henry show, which is going to be situated in the corridor of the gallery. It’s a very tiny corridor between three different gallery rooms, and I have made some specific furniture for that corridor. I want the corridor to be used, to be seen differently, and I want people to engage with the corridor and the objects that I’ve placed there. The objects that I’ve made are replicas of 70s modernist wooden furniture.
There’s a designer who was collaborating with Le Corbusier, her name is Charlotte Perriand. Specifically, I took a lot of inspiration from the pieces she made for the Maison du Brésil, which is an institution in Paris that houses students and researchers from Brazil. The pieces are kind of iconic.
There’s a bunch of these boxes I’ve been creating about the size of a stool. I also made two bookshelves, which were part of that room Corbusier or Charlotte Perriand designed. I’m not a woodworker, but I remade those objects using materials that Ikea or any other company would have used. These are going to be placed in a corridor. Adjacent to the corridor, there’s a gallery space where I will have a small metal plaque explaining part of the building code that’s talking about corridors, specifically the rules of egress. Where you place certain objects in a corridor, you can’t place them everywhere or anywhere but there has to be space to walk.
When you started your program were you thinking more spatially or materially?
My practice was interested in areas that were experiencing difficulties or areas on the outskirts of cities, how that interrelated with economics or how these areas got to the place they were in. I remember visiting areas in Rome that had histories of that. I would see modernist housing blocks that were a kilometer long, and I documented that place and was interested in that space. Why they don’t work anymore as that idea of utopia and all these other modernist propositions. Anyways, an infatuation with Corbusier and socialist housing.
I keep thinking about the domestic and wonder if that’s as strong of a theme as I’m understanding or am I making it a bigger thing than it is?
I think implicitly, maybe not explicitly on my part to be honest. I think the connection that I have is that I started walking in these areas and talking to people on the street. I think that domestically it’s not that much. For me it was more like an interest in experiencing that space where these objects have been or that specific city part where they were. And also to talk about the dynamics of that specific area. Perhaps jobs have been lost or certain industries have been. I think it was more these macro dynamics that were interesting for me rather than the domestic setting.
So, when you started doing furniture, was it because of your MFA? Were you working through these themes or did that work happen at a different timeline?
The furniture I made here, I was just having the opportunity of working with wood. I just never had that space, I had a tiny apartment in Vienna. I did not have a woodshop, and I liked the idea of working with MDF board, usually in some form or another. Were you asking in terms of media?
I tried to develop a media out of a project, which is something I didn’t do before as I was constricted to video making or photography.
With this more interdisciplinary turn there was room for you to have these ideas and shift your media to this new medium because you had access to the materials and tools.
Absolutely. I also wanted to try these things out, which was the reason why I came here. Sometimes when you do videos you’re stuck in a cutting room and you miss the actual amount of physical engagement. It’s kind of nice to make stuff and when you’re tired you go home and you’re really really tired! Doing something that’s not just sitting in front of a computer but having a physical interaction with the work.
Could you tell me a bit more about the writing you’ve been doing with this project? I’d also like to hear a bit more about the text related element as well.
I’ve written this short essay on corridors, about how the importance of corridors have changed. I’ve been working in the states as a journalist, I’m a correspondent for German Austrian news media so writing had a very deep role suddenly as I came to the States, and I think that informed my work. There’s always a research component that goes into finding facts or specific things like the history of commodities or the histories of the artifacts, architectural history. There’s definitely that kind of research component.
For this work, I also think about how the scarcity of all of these different materials like wood materials plays a role. If I take that into the museum, I have a feeling that these building materials are now 200% more expensive than before the pandemic and, in a way, the ability of people to afford wood in order to buy a home can enshrine the existing social dynamics. One can see the triviality of using wood or MDF boards because their prices are sky high.
I’m wondering how you came to the replica of the furniture objects you’ve been building. I hear the links between wanting to engage with certain modernist styles and also what context enabled that.
I’ve arranged these pieces of furniture in the corridors in the Art Building. I feel like corridors have that intersection of public and private in a way and that’s why they feel like they’re crucial. I like the idea of people interacting in these spaces or using these objects in a way that somehow could be mass produced, that don’t have any aesthetic value in a commodified art object sense but seem to be overlooked. I’ve been doing some work on building codes and what they enshrine and actually mean. If there’s a law that specifies the corridor is a certain length, what does that actually mean and how does that translate all the way. An institution only admits a certain amount of people from a certain demographic but there’s a precise reason to that, that is enshrined in a certain piece of legislation that is buried all the way down. If you want to change anything you have to go all the way down to legislation that is hidden someplace where nobody can see it.