On Retreat: Alfredo Barsuglia at the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington
by Jasper Sharp
For a period of 13 weeks during the fall of this year, three handbuilt architectural modules took temporary possession of the concert hall within the Austrian Embassy Washington. Part art object, part inhabitable utilitarian structure, the compact and variously sized units - bathroom, bedroom and living room - have been conceived and constructed to provide sanctuary to their maker, the artist Alfredo Barsuglia. Mobile Retreat Space is a prototype domestic environment on wheels. Its exteriors of rough, untreated plywood contrast markedly with the individually wallpapered and furnished interiors, disarming in their familiarity. A single power cable connects the structure to its 'host', the concert hall, like a nascent child to its protective mother.
On certain occasions, Barsuglia pulls the three cellular compartments together to create a single interlocking, enclosed space. He remains inside, attending to his domestic needs and pleasures while visitors remain outside looking in, very much the voyeur. At such moments the retreat space becomes an island, its single occupant a voluntary but nevertheless lonesome castaway. The function of the structure suddenly becomes ambivalent. It is a 'cell', but like that word it can be read in two very different ways: as a place of security, positive growth and progress, in the biological sense, but also as a place of confinement, stasis and degeneration.
Barsuglia's action of non-aggressive occupation recalls similar projects by other artists. Some years ago Sophie Calle was challenged by the author Paul Auster to claim and 'cultivate' a piece of public property, to render it private, intimate and her own somehow. She chose a public telephone booth at the crossroads of Greenwich and Harrison Streets in the west of New York City, tending to it each day and stocking it with bottled water, flowers and cigarettes. The results are documented in Auster and Calle's 1998 publication Gotham Handbook. Exploring similar terrain, albeit with a more radical agenda, the artist Andrea Zittel has been working for several years on a series of experimental living units. Her A-Z Travel Units, Homestead Units, Deserted Islands and Escape Vehicles, among others, explore the fears and fantasies connected with enforced isolation, and the liberation that comes with restriction.
Cooped up within his structure, Barsuglia is afforded this unlikely freedom, and a chance to briefly step outside our world of saturated social networking and unlimited mobility. Abandoning such 'privileges', he is permitted to travel inward to the intimacy of a personal, more controllable and ordered existence. A retreat, mobile and gloriously static.
Jasper Sharp is a curator, author, and art historian.