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Siah Armajani The Last Room for Noam Chomsky,

Studio View metal, tile, aluminum, wood, and ceramic


Within the low walls of PS 1's outdoor yard sits Siah Armajani's most recent uncommissioned work, somewhat seriously named for North America's most famous leftist intellectual.

Viewers are greeted by a quiet, sacerdotal arrangement of three structures: a small room of component materials, bridge models astride urns, and a wooden table with two forward-facing chairs in front of it. The shed, an engaging structure with its playful color-coded elements (red metal door and wall, green tile and aluminum walls, yellow windows), contains a charming diorama of differently scaled models of wood furniture and houses in one of its windows.

The models which simultaneously recall The Waltons and Home Depot reference the culture of self-reliance and functionality of the American Midwest. Armajani, born in Iran, draws heavily from this culture, by, for example, embossing the words of American Romantics Emerson, Melville, and Whitman on his public art projects.

Armajani's project for public art can be seen as an effort to update Whitman's "dialect of common sense" into the `90s. His pronouncements about fundamentals ("We believe that art is good because it is useful" and "sculpture is architecture and architecture is sculpture") echo that of the American Romantics, as does his self-conscious public role as artist, and his self-conscious use of culture to forge something new. Back in the great age of the American railroad, the artist was a national identity to vie with "the courtly muses of Europe." But what now? The Citibank building, which looms as backdrop to the piece at PS 1, gives us more than enough of a clue to our changed context. In the age of the faceless technocratic corporate culture, an older anthropocentric national culture, albeit hinged on a specifically white male vernacular, can seem soulful. It certainly lacks public controversy.

"The Last Room for Noam Chomsky" features a familiar Armajani leitmotif. Since ë68 he has built functional and non-functional bridges based on the nineteenth century American railroad trestle bridge. The commitment is based on the symbolic meaning of the architectural form as socially integrative. (Uncoincidentally, Armajani's aesthetic also draws from Russian Constructivist strategies.)

A recent Armajani catalog emphasizes that "Public Sculpture Is Not Artistic Creation Alone But Rather Social and Cultural Productions Based Upon Concrete Needs." The insistence on making public art functional has lead to structures that look, well, functional. Looking at a photo of an aerial view of "The Whitney Pedestrian Bridge" in Minneapolis, one is struck not by its mixed static plan, the evocation of quotidian beauty by the John Ashbury quote but by what to pedestrians must surely be the more immediate experienceóthat of walking above sixteen lanes of highway. "Bridge, Tower, and Cauldron" for the `96 Atlanta Olympics opened to mixed reviewsóand the Atlanta Braves lobbied for the structure's removal after the games. The massive painted-steel open-trusswork-lined structure was a bulky, overbearing tribute to a bulky, overbearing international sports event.

What is pleasing about "Last Room" is its formal fluidity compared with this earlier commissioned work. A trademark house sits on top of one bridge model, and a model diesel engine on the bridge on top of the room. The idioms are familiar, but their combinations are not. There is a sense that most elements are simply piled on top of one other, creating a sense of looseness absent in Armajani's public work. What is being revived is the earlier experimentational practices of "Elements" and "Dictionary for Building," his compositional studies from the `70s and `80s. Add too, the structure's creation of open spaces, optical play among the green, red, yellow, and blue, and the viewer's ability to walk around the form.

"The Last Room For Noam Chomsky" has benefited from being free from the rigid iconicity, functionalism, and impersonal scale of the public commissions. The result is a striking piece of art which celebrates the dematerialization of the art object in a way that his commissions could not. In "Last Room," older archetypes are renewed by formal play, and there are surprising turns, such as the diorama in the window. The scene, which includes the water towers of the New York and Long Island City skylines, feels intimate, even tender.

Akiko Ichikawa

New York, New York