La grande transformation

by Aram Lee

The Bauhaus movement was, in regards, founded as a universality and as a movement of modernity. Its huge tangible power extolled the concept of western modernity through its transformation of objects, buildings and landscapes over 100 years of global design history. As part of the modernisation process, the Bauhaus aimed to create simplicity and democratic conditions for all. Its style and vision were widely embraced in different contexts and allowed for the blurring of borders between Europe, U.S.A and the Soviet Union: they all followed the ideas of Walter Gropius.

It was because of the Bauhaus’s presiding cultural influence over the very core of modernity that our understanding of things changed. The object was measured, segregated and oppressively transformed so as to become one with an integrated, standard modern way of living life. The urban landscapes, artefacts and our material culture were generalised by this hegemony. It removed the diversity of a material’s culture related to its (ab)original identity, folk culture, personal stories and inscribed histories. This historical movement still stretches and tangles with our own material reality; it functions as an indigenised modernity.

In order to research the excluded voices of the objects that weren’t be involved with modernity we looked to the city of Marseille. A port with a material culture that has been shaped by the (his)story of immigrants and which stretches back to the Middle Ages. Of its 850,000 population 100,000 are foreigners from Algeria, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and beyond. How could we bring to the surface the resonances of the Bauhaus as a privileged western paradigm of progress? How can we give a voice to the excluded? How can we mediate between this monumental material culture and other indigenous objects?

Through La Grande Transformation, and one hundred years after the founding of the Bauhaus, a mediation took place between that movement of modernity and the contemporary local culture of Marseille. The embodiment of this took the form of everyday objects and the personal stories attached to each of them. During the three day performative workshop participants were invited to bring such things from their homes in order for them to be transformed by the historicity of the designer’s discipline. Through this pedagogical approach they became non-original Bauhaus objects which were displayed in the growing collection and exhibition.

The five historical bauhaus designers, architects and photographers guided the transformation of those objects. At the beginning of the process the object was brought in and the story of its owner was recorded, then it went directly to the workshop where it was educated according to the strict Bauhaus principles; this was where the process of the object’s transformation took place.

This ‘act of transformation, as reparation’ was not only to visualise the modernisation process but to also trigger and unfold the excluded stories within them. These included narratives related to migration as well as the diverse personal stories often found in the relationships between others. The personal bodies, immigrated bodies, multiple bodies, authorised bodies and old-fashioned bodies—as the counterpoint to modernity’s objects—are carved, amputated, stitched and glued with other materials through a process of Bauhausian pedagogy to their ‘perfect’ state of being. This performative process illustrates the predominance of a paradigm in object culture while blurring the boundary between the quotidian and seemingly unspectacular and the celebrated, elite and untouchable. It reveals the identity of a city, and its people.

The five different workshops that took place during La Grande Transformation focused on separate subjects: wood, textile, metal, plastic and joints. These seemingly familiar approaches were actually integral to the Bauhaus’s pedagogical approach to design. The modification of these objects questions the fame and lasting influence of the school as part of several modernist design and architecture groups. It confronts the Bauhaus’s aim of mass production and the availability of affordable design for all, with its reality of design ‘classics’ or exhibition pieces.

The framework for the workshops was shaped by the philosophy of five members of the Bauhaus: Gertrud Arndt, Anni Albers, Alma Siedhoff Buscher, Lena Bergner and Arieh Sharon. We interpreted their philosophies and used them as guiding principles. Such as Gertrud Arndt’s theories on how the composition of a portrait could influence its identity and expression; or the belief of Anni Albers in strict patterns by weaving lines; and Alma Siedhoff Buscher’s exploration into how an object can create a flexible authority in the user via units and modules; the use of shifting, mirroring and rotating as universal design principles as theorised by Lena Bergner or Arieh Sharon’s belief in how architecture and the structure of things could create collectivism or different relations with the other.

An example of these principles in action can be applied to a bra that was brought to us. It was something that the participant sometimes used but didn’t feel very comfortable wearing. She believes that for her, wearing a bra is not useful anymore. So during the workshop the identity of the object was transformed through the philosophy of Gertrud Arndt. Arndt is considered to be a pioneer of female self-portraiture and often used masks and costumes to change her identity; playfully reinterpreting such feminine tropes as the widow, socialite and little girl. Using this as inspiration the female object was transformed into a small pocket that could hold things other than a women’s body. Another object that was brought in was a hairbrush that was inherited from the owner’s mother; for her it stands as for the transmission between two generations. After reflecting on the principles of modular systems we divided the object so it could be used as several different things; like a toothbrush, shaving brush, paint brush, washing-up brush or bottle brush. As well as this, another object delivered to us was a nut oil bottle. The empty glass bottle used to contain a special oil from the birthplace of the owner’s father. Her mother and everyone else in the family used to cook with this oil and until today using, smelling and eating it reconnects her to this region, its local culture and her family. Through our interpretation of her story we surmised that her bottle stood for equality within a community. This meant that we could apply the thinking of Arieh Sharon to it and by adding signs that symbolise the owner and her siblings, we emphasised it as a cultural artefact with its own history, heritage and the existence of the owner within a bigger community.

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