In the Studio: Pablo Bronstein

Pablo Bronstein’s dance installation Magnificent Triumphal Arch in Pompeian Colours, 2010, MDF, plaster casts and paint, 118 by 78¾ by 39¼ inches. All images courtesy Herald St, London, and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin.


Pablo Bronstein’s ground-floor apartment in an 18th-century brick house feels far removed from the urban hustle of this East London neighborhood. The building next door, Bronstein tells me, is the oldest house in the area. Its cellars date back to the 15th century and were built on the site of a chapel belonging to Bishop Bonner, known as “Bloody Bonner,” a notorious persecutor of Protestants in the time of Queen Mary. In Bronstein’s apartment, which until recently was his sole living and working space, there are no concessions to modernity in sight—no streamlined minimalist furniture or hints of cheap Ikea functionalism. The small rooms with creaking wooden floorboards are sparsely furnished with antiques and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The study where we talk is Bronstein’s studio: rolls of paper and stacks of ornate vintage frames lean against the walls, while a tall walnut sideboard with dozens of tiny drawers, from 1690, holds his supplies of ink and dip pens.

Though this is still his base when he is in London, Bronstein now lives primarily in an even older house, built in the 17th century, in a seaside town in Kent. He is currently renovating the structure, not to return it to its original state but to push it even farther back into history. “A lot of it is faked,” the artist says. “The idea is to create a sort of fantasy.” This intertwining of history and imagination characterizes both Bronstein’s anachronistic way of life and his art practice, which takes architecture as its subject matter and drawing as its primary medium.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, Bronstein moved to England with his family as a young boy, ending up in the decidedly dull London suburb of Neasden. There he spent his childhood compulsively drawing buildings. After a brief stint in architectural college (he lasted only three weeks), he moved on to London’s Saint Martins College of Art and Design for a year, then to the Slade School of Fine Art and finally Goldsmiths College—institutions where he could indulge his vision, free from the practical demands of having to design something that could actually be constructed.

The fabulously elaborate pencil or pen-and-ink drawings that have become central to Bronstein’s practice began around 2004. Since 2006, they have occasionally been shown in conjunction with performances in which the players’ extravagant gestures suggest alignments with decorative building details. Bronstein’s sculptures in the form of architectural fragments or schematic monuments often function more as props than as autonomous objects. Magnificent Triumphal Arch in Pompeian Colours (2010), for example, debuted as a stage set for a leotard-clad dancer in London’s Hayward Gallery.

Bronstein’s creation of artist’s books began with A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London, an enlightening pocket-size volume from 2008. Most recently, he published Gilded Keyholes (2013), comprising 30 drawings of baroquely imagined keyhole decorations. “A is Building, B is Architecture,” a survey exhibition of his drawings, shown along with a new monumental sculpture of the same title, was held at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva in fall 2013, and an exhibition of new sculptural works and related performances opened at REDCAT in Los Angeles in January 2014.

KIRSTY BELL  Your drawings make free use of history but combine it with pure invention, without distinguishing between the two. For viewers, this can create a slight anxiety—for instance when they’re faced with a very Baroque-looking image but don’t know how to gauge its authenticity. Similarly, your performance pieces are often highly complex and seductive, but it’s hard to know from what they derive or what they are meant to convey.

PABLO BRONSTEIN  There’s a good amount of deliberate bullshit in the work, but this doesn’t stem from any sense of superiority. I’m not trying to con people into thinking I know what I’m talking about, so much as trying to con myself. It’s not pure irony, though; a part of me wants these things to really exist. That has to be the case for the drawing to have any kind of vibrancy or the dance to give any kind of pleasure. You can lie, but it’s not about an infinity of postmodern mirrors, an endless recession of meaning and truth. It’s more about creating a sort of legitimate world that you can identify with.

BELL  You have talked about how you compulsively drew architectural structures as a child. But there came a certain moment after art school when this kind of drawing took a conceptual turn.

BRONSTEIN  At first I was literally drawing my fantasy buildings, but then I realized I could control the process. To start with, I had to learn how to draw, because there had to be real love and investment in the pictures. So I taught myself, through endless copying, practice and doing, doing, doing. The first drawings in pen and ink I did at the end of art school were rough and badly conceived and didn’t really do what I wanted them to do, but conceptually they were a real move.

BELL  The aperture is a device that appears throughout your drawing and seems like a clue to the way you think about historical architecture and fantasy. Whether it’s a keyhole, a frame within a frame, or an unexpected opening into the center of a building, the aperture allows a glimpse inside the architecture and reveals the overlapping of reality and imagination that occurs in your work.

BRONSTEIN  Yes, and even the difference between inner and outer. A hole within a wall is a fundamental principle—a door, light, access. In my 2009 doorway drawings, the walls are extremely thin; five millimeters [roughly a quarter inch]—very thin, very flat, which is not Baroque. Baroque would increase the sense of distance and drama. The aperture is essentially a rhetorical device: it’s in this detail that contemporaneity is made visible, not in the design of the facade itself.

BELL  In A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London, you write: “For all the traditionalists and classicists, the key to the success of postmodern architecture lies in the aphorism: the cheapness of its construction versus the stories it is able to tell. Variations of style motifs pasted thinly onto steel frames make for the most obvious, cost efficient differentiations of identity between it and neighboring buildings.” Were you consciously adopting a similarly postmodern approach and metaphoric use of “aphorism” in your drawings?

BRONSTEIN  Not quite, no. I assemble stuff like a postmodern architect, sure, but the effort that goes into this process is definitely not about a veneer. The actual method of construction is very, very labored.

BELL  Do you start out by making a sketch?

BRONSTEIN  Very often not. Usually I work in pencil. Then dip-pen ink goes on the pencil, then the wash and then the color. Sometimes I start with the frame, as I use old frames that can’t be cut down.

BELL  So the size of an existing antique frame can determine the drawing’s scale and proportion?

BRONSTEIN Yes, but not always. I often order very simple frames so that I can really concentrate on the proportions of the work. My drawings are generally physically very small—even the really big ones are only a meter and a half [about 5 feet], and they take me months. For these very large works I sometimes use an assistant who helps me measure things out. He then spends five weeks measuring thin lines in pencil for hours and hours at a time, poor boy. Afterward, I go in and correct the image and ink it in. A drawing is expected to be in the hand of the artist.

BELL There’s a play on time in your work. You might give us something we know from the present, but place it in the past—yet in a ruined or crumbling state that suggests a projection into the future.

BRONSTEIN Yes, the drawing technique and the idea of ruination evoke the antique, but because the buildings are new, the picture is also about the future. I sometimes see myself as a sort of architectural provocateur. When I began producing the book about postmodern architecture, the topic was very unfashionable. So just the fact that it was being highlighted was risky and a real event—not that I was the first or only one to do that. But I’m not a recorder of the world as it is; I paint its mirror image somehow. For instance, you could say this teapot is the most amazing, valuable thing in the entire universe, but you know it clearly isn’t. And that works both ways: you can also rubbish something that’s incredible. In any case, you are focusing on an object and comparing it, separating it from its environment.

BELL   How does this approach relate to the kind of living tableau with actors that you made for Art Basel 2013?

BRONSTEIN  One of the most important things about that piece is its title. Like my mis-description of the teapot, it’s totally at odds with the subject. The work is called Marie Antoinette and Robespierre engage in an irritable post-coital conversation. Sure, two people were represented having an argument, but it took the form of each one reading a book, ignoring the other: the opposite of conversation. Then, they were not Marie Antoinette and Robespierre; they were actors or dancers—which is obvious, but it’s important to make that distinction. The performers were in a historically impossible situation, because Marie Antoinette and Robespierre never had sex; they probably didn’t even meet. So it was all a lie, but at the same time the image of these people in a pissed-off post-row state was convincing in its own right. There were technical details, like the floppy, elegant, sprezzatura poses the actors were holding and the arrangement of the furniture, that were not how the scene would logically ever be set up. That piece approximated a tableau but wasn’t one really, because the performers were not frozen, they moved. And they didn’t just represent readers, they were actually reading. The whole thing was essentially a sculptural arrangement. The costumes were zero-accurate, fantasy bullshit, all Hollywood glamour: big wigs and silky chiffons.

BELL   The different aspects of your work—drawing, sculpture, performance and publications—all seem to operate in quite distinct ways. Do you see them as separate or contiguous?

BRONSTEIN  I don’t think a separation exists in my head. I’ve tended to highlight links between architecture and dance, or between drawing and dance.

BELL   The connection between ornament in architecture and gesture in physical movement is very legible in your work. Your drawings deal not just with the architectural edifice but also with what happens around it, the social space. Do you work with a choreographer?

BRONSTEIN  Only on occasion.

BELL  So your performances are like an imitation of choreography?

BRONSTEIN Absolutely. For me it all feels like it’s slightly make-believe. Just as these aren’t architectural design proper—so the dance is also not choreography.

BELL Your recent show in Geneva, which gave an overview of your drawings from 2005 to 2013, demonstrated how your technique has changed. The earliest drawings were very labored. Now, even though the more recent images are just as detailed, the kind of labor that’s involved has clearly changed, perhaps very pragmatically through practice or learning the tricks.

BRONSTEIN  That is how it evolved, yes. Human beings formed their brains through the process of making tools, and that’s what these early drawings feel like to me. There’s an extreme level of concentration: I was working everything out then, and it played out later. I had my first solo institutional show at the Lenbachhaus in Munich in 2007, which was unfathomably important for me at the time, so I gave it everything. I was also entirely alone for the first time in years, living in Munich in an enormous studio miles away from anyone. This was my peak of technical concentration, though not expertise. When I draw, I go to quite complicated places in my head; I expunge anxieties, panics, fears, nightmares. And then, when I look at the page, the drawing has just sort of happened.

BELL  Is it still like that now?

BRONSTEIN  That crazy tension is so exhausting and damaging that now I listen to audio books when I work—the trashier the better.

BELL The process must be quite different for your performance works, where you find yourself in constant negotiation with your collaborators, rather than working everything out on paper in an isolated state of anxiety.

BRONSTEIN  Yes, but there is also a time during each of these projects when I have to turn the phone off and shut everyone out or go for a walk to decide if this is my work or not. Am I happy with it? Is this how I want to resolve it? If not, how?

BELL  What about the physical situation you work in? You don’t have a separate studio, and until recently you lived in this house and worked in this room.

BRONSTEIN  True, though that was a vast improvement over my previous flat, on the corner of Hackney Road and Columbia Road, which was tiny. That’s where I made a lot of the larger drawings for my Metropolitan Museum exhibition in 2009. One was three and a half meters [about 11½ feet], so I never really saw it all at once. I would work on it in portions and roll it up. The perspective is always a problem, but when I saw the piece up—thank God, it worked!

BELL   Your show at REDCAT in Los Angeles takes metamorphic furniture as its starting point.

BRONSTEIN  That is one starting point. The exhibition consists of a suite of monstrous, ugly “Georgian” furniture that illustrates various ideas about the origins of architecture. When it’s closed, the suite creates a formal living room on a very grand scale—the cabinet, for example, stands 350 centimeters [about 11½ feet]. But every day throughout the run of the show, a dancer opens up the pieces of furniture one after the other. A cabinet opens to unfold a red-and-white-striped tent 10 meters [nearly 33 feet] in length. A pair of Georgian commodes are joined together, opening out to become a tomb. When all the furniture is fully extended, the room is a sort of messy ruin, or a labyrinth of sorts.

BELL   How does this work address the twin guiding myths of modernism and the origins of architecture, one being the primitive hut, and the other the ideal city?

BRONSTEIN  Each item of furniture “demonstrates,” rather improbably, a particular hypothesis. My work is pretty much always characterized by being visibly ridiculous in one way or another. This comes to the fore in the L.A. show, which makes the absurd claim that an ugly suite of pseudo-Georgian furniture is a good vehicle for talking about key principles of early architecture. Notions like the “original” or the “dream” or the “ideal”—all intrinsic to the hut as well as to modernism—are not present in my work, except as a sort of ugly-sister mirror image.  

Pablo Bronstein’s solo exhibition “A is Building, B is Architecture” was on view at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Sept. 13-Nov. 24, 2013.

CURRENTLY ON VIEW Bronstein’s solo exhibition “Enlightenment Discourses on the Origins of Architecture” at REDCAT, Los Angeles, through Mar. 15.

KIRSTY BELL is a writer who lives in Berlin.