1997, the year in which Graham Gussin made Studio (Dry Ice), was a fascinating year in the history of the artist’s studio and in the conceptualisation of its representation and re-staging. Early that year, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the new reconstruction of the studio of Constantin Brancusi opened to the public. Known as ‘L’Atelier Brancusi’ and designed by the architect Renzo Piano, the newly reconstructed studio presented the sculptures and the studio contents within floor to ceiling glass walls, enabling visitors, once inside the outer stone building, to walk around the glass-walled studio and look through them at the objects and ensembles inside. It was a stunning and beautiful solution to a challenging curatorial and museological problem and one which lifted the studio at once into a large scale vitrine and white cube. It was, nevertheless, not without its detractors, a number of whom missed the older ramshackle studio reconstruction, which had stood on the same spot since the Pompidou opened, not least because it evoked the rustic look of Brancusi’s original studio in impasse Ronsin and harked back to an earlier romance of Montparnasse and its communal, artistic studio life.
Studio (Dry Ice) made a fascinating contribution to the intensified studio discourse that year and one that continues to resonate today. It shows the artist, then thirty-seven years of age, standing in his London studio and looking as if something has suddenly and unsettlingly caught his attention. Eyes downcast, the artist looks at and to the studio floor – that famous horizontal site of endings and new beginnings, of success and failure, where things end up once gravity has taken its toll. Or rather, and quite surprisingly, what he is looking at is a layer of dry ice that shrouds the studio floor, hugging it like a deep carpet.
It is pitch black outside and for a moment it seems as if some strange and malevolent forces have entered the black and white world of this studio, coming in under the door like the mysterious white fog or mist of many a ‘B’ movie. This white substance, despite its evident lightness and immateriality, grounds the scene depicted, intensifying the horizontal and expanding narrative of this photograph. It is a kind of sculpture: a whiteness, gaseous sculpture, perhaps akin to the earlier plaster dust of the modern sculptor’s studio, and a sculpture (as this photograph demonstrates) that doesn’t require a plinth or elevation to enable consideration at eye level. Like so many studio photographs, this monochromatic photograph presents a carefully staged if highly ambiguous event in which the studio here serves as a set – both a film set and a photographic set. This set is provided with a spot light on a tripod stand, a television set and a plinth – another box without the sound of its own making in this silent image. If Studio (Dry Ice) points perhaps to the B movie as a reference, it does so via its artificiality. It is, after all, as the title serves emphatically to remind us, dry ice which is in this studio. This, in turn, brings an additional playfulness to the work, as if we might also imagine this studio as a 1980s discotheque (or a ‘Top of the Pops’ set) as much as a house of horror.
Through these manoeuvres and associations, the romance of the studio in Studio (Dry Ice) is both set up and sent up: staged and caricatured, in ways that relish the combination of fantasy and reality, the mundane and the extraterrestrial, the overwhelming and the underwhelming, the banal and the magical. This is, of course, is now well-trodden Gussin terrain. In addition to this, the studio is much more than just an incidental environment here: it is an integral part of the work itself – the place where the work is made, where it is displayed and what it is made of.
It is here that the Brancusi studio returns, but through the writing of that exponent of site-specificity and studio mistrust, Daniel Buren. For Buren, writing in 1986 at the end of his reprinted ‘The Function of the Studio’ (orig. 1971) essay, the particular and peculiar charm of Brancusi’s studio is that fact that the sculpture is conceived, made and displayed in the same place. The hundreds of black and white studio photographs that Brancusi took are for Buren crucial and reinforcing testimonies to this interconnectedness between art work and place – testimonies that have been passed down well and that Gussin takes up and explores, with a twinkle in his eye, within the daily comings and goings of his own studio.
Jon Wood 2014