French artist Georges Rousse arrived in Durham last week to transform four downtown buildings slated for renovation. Nearly equal parts architecture, architectural history, conceptual art, painting and photography, Rousse's "warehouse interventions" use as their raw material buildings in the process of being demolished or renovated.
To Frank Konhaus, an audio-video systems designer, and local architect Ellen Cassilly, downtown Durham seemed like a perfect fit for Rousse's work. Now this former tobacco capital, which seems perpetually on the verge of rebirth, will host a world-renowned artist for a month-long residency as he creates a public art project funded entirely by private donations.
Rousse began his residency this Monday and will work through Sept. 26 at the Baldwin Building, Bargain Furniture, Liberty Warehouse and the Chesterfield Building.
Konhaus and Cassilly, husband and wife, became interested in Rousse's work several years ago. But Konhaus says that when he first saw a photograph of one of Rousse's projects in a magazine, he was unimpressed.
"It was literally a white circle in a building in Seoul," he says. "And I said, 'Why's this guy getting all the hoopla press for putting a white circle on a building? He's either using Photoshop or painting a white circle. What's the big deal?'" Konhaus put down the magazine and forgot about it until Rousse turned up in another publication. "I said, 'Here's this guy again that's getting all this attention—what's up with that?' Then I finally realized what he really was doing, and it completely, completely entranced me."
It is indeed a bit difficult to fathom a Rousse photograph at first sight. Photography is the tool he uses to document his often ephemeral projects. Rousse creates dramatic trompe-l'oeil illusions—often painted, sometimes constructed within a space—that use the laws of perspective to come together at a specific vantage point. Often, his projects consist of simple, minimalist geometric figures inscribed on a building—in Soisson, France, Rousse created a black disc rendered to look as if it is hovering in the center of a building when seen from above. In Turin, he painted a minimalistic composition of monochromatic blue squares across a foyer. Foreground areas, mid-distance areas, the staircase and stairwell, and back walls were all painted with swaths of paint that, off-axis, look random. However, from the intended viewing point, the painted areas coalesce into a precisely rendered geometric composition.
Rousse documents his work by making large-scale color photographs, five to each edition, often the only record of what he has done. "He has a non-attachment to it," says Cassilly. "He has a very Buddhist relationship to his works after they're done," seconds Konhaus.
Rousse was born in Paris in 1947, and his childhood play included exploration of the ruins and abandoned buildings of that city, vestiges of WWII. He studied architecture, then continued his studies in painting and photography. His work reflects the indelible influence of urban decay and rebuilding.
Rousse displays a vivid and thorough knowledge of contemporary art history, with references to minimalism, pop, op, conceptual and even performance art (several works configure actual fire into spaces) populating his spatial interventions. This kind of work has precedent in the deconstructions of '70s sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark, who in 1974 famously sawed an Englewood, N.J., house vertically in half for a work titled "Splitting: Four Corners."
And rather in the spirit of a Christo project, Rousse mobilizes surprising sectors of the communities in which he works to join forces in creating a vision held in common. Rousse builds on such foundations, imparting to each installation its own particular blend of painted, sculpted or subtracted elements.
Though he makes approximately 30 installations a year, Rousse has made only a handful in America. Before arriving in Durham, he created an installation at the Musée Réattu in Arles, France. "He just e-mailed me this morning from Luxembourg," Konhaus says a few days before the artist's arrival. "He's completing a big one in Malakoff, he's just finishing up one in Paris, and one in Madrid. Durham does not typically fall off the tongue after Seoul, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona," Konhaus laughs. "I think we're incredibly lucky to have him."
What inspired Konhaus and Cassilly to invite Rousse to come to Durham?
"I always think of Durham in terms of a big 'P' for potential," Cassilly says. "Frank's office is here, mine is three blocks down the street, we've both been down here eight years, and I keep thinking, 'OK, this is it, it's really going to happen now.'" Rousse works in buildings that are dilapidated or about to be renovated or demolished; all four of the buildings in the Durham Rousse project are scheduled to be renovated. "It just fits so perfectly the idea of transformation," Cassilly says.
The couple had no connections to Rousse before inviting him to Durham. "We don't know as much about his work as we might like," Konhaus says, "partly because most of what has been written about Rousse is in French." (Konhaus does not speak French, though Cassilly is fluent.) "What we do know from the little tidbits we've picked up here and there is that he does always want to know about the history of the place."
When the couple sent site proposals to Rousse, he was intrigued by the chance to work in a tobacco warehouse, which he hadn't done before. "That's actually what hooked him," Cassilly adds, "He said, 'I don't smoke, but I like the idea.'"
He came to Durham in March to visit the sites, which at the time included Erwin Mill. About one week later, Rousse wrote and asked for the plans for the mill.
"So he is transforming," Konhaus says. "It is a very obvious and powerful metaphor to take the old to the new, but he still wants to respect the history of that place and find something about it."
Konhaus relates that one of Rousse's projects that most overtly relates to the history of place was created in Japan, where a topographical map of Hiroshima prior to its WWII bombing was superimposed on a library. The paint used for the map actually glows in the dark. "That, of all of his work, is actually the most overtly charged," Konhaus says.
The four sites chosen for Durham are all in the downtown radius. They will be staffed by approximately 150 volunteers working in shifts, managed by four sets of two co-captains, to execute Rousse's designs within each space. Each site's design plan, unknown until the artist's arrival, will take from one week to 10 days to complete. Duke University's French department is filling part of the need for on-site French translators. Because of safety concerns and logistical factors, only those who have filled out the necessary paperwork will be allowed on site, but there will be several opportunities for community members to view the projects in various stages of completion, including during Centerfest, two Family Education days and two Durham Culture Crawl events.
An education and outreach program will bring Durham school kids on site to experience and work on the project while it's under way. A school curriculum project, also organized by volunteers, will coordinate art, history and other subjects. The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University will also participate in the evolving project.
"I think what has been the most gratifying to me is that it has taken on a life of its own," Konhaus says. "It is a phenomenon. The level of just unbridled enthusiasm—we have volunteers that are donating 20 hours of work to this project completely without question."
This community collaboration among downtown Durham artists and businesses is happening without a cent of public money.
Even before the funding came through, Durham filmmakers Kenny Dalsheimer and Penelope Maunsell began to film their documentary about Rousse's Durham project. Last week, $10,000 came through in the form of a gift from Alliance Architecture and Rigsbee Partners principals John Warasila, Vandana Dake and Peter Warasila.
Dave Wofford of Horse and Buggy Press designed and arranged for the printing of the handsome posters and postcards. The Marriott donated a room for Rousse during his March visit, and John Warasila of Alliance Architecture will provide living quarters for the artist and his wife during the residency. Literally hundreds of other community members have stepped up to meaningfully contribute goods, time or money, helping to achieve the original project funding goal of $25,000.
"It really has been an individually, private, citizen-funded piece of public art," Konhaus says, "and I think that's what's really unique about it."
The couple is confident that Rousse's work will reach the public, in turn. "There is not a single person that we've shown this [Rousse's work] to, whether they're literally 2 years old or 95 years old, or it's a good old boy or an art elitist, that has not responded," Konhaus says. "So many pieces of contemporary art are just accessible to the few."
"It is astounding how appealing it is to various levels of folks," Cassilly adds.
Nevertheless, all of this effort is coming together for what Konhaus describes as "an unknown deliverable."
"We're such a commodity-driven society," Cassilly says, volleying impassioned thoughts back and forth with her husband. "We don't actually know what we're going to get. We'll probably end up with something beautiful."
"There's no bronze statue for the center square," Konhaus says.
"Which is a beautiful statement to the participants," Cassilly says, "that they are willing to participate and not know exactly where it's going to go."
"There's a lot of trust here, and it's great," Konhaus adds. "It's the community trusting that it's going to be a good thing."