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Feature

Conjurer of worlds

Whether confecting a fictitious architect or remaking communist monuments, Katarina Burin wrestles with Modernist design

RENEW Jan-March 2020

Burin 07 Cabin Model

Model of a cabin, Kamp Kosutnjak, Belgrade, 1981. MDF, basswood, plastic, concrete, wire, 2017. Size: 17 x 13 x 23 inches.

Photo courtesy of the artist

In the 1980s, when Katarina Burin was six, she vacationed in Yugoslavia with her parents and brother. That’s how the artist remembers it. “We were in public spaces always, with other people. We’d eat together under a roof on a concrete platform every night.”

Artist Katarina Burin

The reality was that the family fled communist Czechoslovakia and traveled from Yugoslavia to Croatia to Serbia, where they spent three months in a United Nations camp. “My parents . . . were stressed and paranoid. They didn’t tell us what was happening.” The family eventually resettled in Montreal, where her mother—who had been an architect—became a technical draftsperson; her father was an engineer.

The strange collision of social and familial, exterior and interior, concrete public memorialization and ephemeral private memory that she associates with the camp drives her examination of everyday communist-era monuments in the exhibition Irrational Attachments, at Providence College—Galleries through March 14. Burin grew up to be an artist who taps into her parents’ skills to explore the heritage of midcentury European Modernism, a visual scholar who shuffles through archives like decks of cards.

Two months ago, in her studio at Harvard University, where she teaches, she’d made a prototype for the show: a cement planter with an inscription. She calls it an “anti-monument monument.” It resembles a Brutalist public marker.

“I want there to be a cheap, high/low feel,” Burin says. “Bridging the weird campground space with the civic/public space.” She shrugs. This project is only at its inception, and she’s not sure yet how it might evolve. Jamilee Lacy, director and chief curator of the Providence College—Galleries, has scheduled the show in the midst of a year of Bauhaus programming.

The exhibition reflects, Lacy says, “a toolbox the Soviet Union used to design public spaces as vacation spots, so you wouldn’t have to leave the country. . . . It’s quite dark.”

Best known for her investigation of Petra Andrejova-Molnár, a fictional Czechoslovakian architect active during the 1920s, Burin can spend years working on a project. Although Andrejova-Molnár, or P.A., as Burin calls her, didn’t really exist, the fiction is deeply rooted in the reality of Modernist Czech design. Between 2010 and 2017, Burin cultivated a life and an archive for P.A., appropriating and redrawing other architects’ schematics, staging “historic” photographs, mounting exhibitions, writing wall texts, and publishing catalogs.

The fictional architect has now been in exhibitions in the US and Europe, including the 2013 James and Audrey Foster Prize exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. P.A. designed sanitoriums; she also designed furniture and ceramics and opened a store. She’s best known, in this alternate universe, as the architect of the Hotel Nord-Sud—an imaginary cantilevered building with terraces and glass windows near Zadar, in what is now Croatia.

Burin married her made-up architect to a real one—Hungarian Farkas Molnár. She sneaked P.A. into an otherwise straight slideshow about Czech Modernism. “You see Farkas Molnár’s bio, and you see hers,” Burin says. “You think, is his bio real? It starts to undermine our understanding of history.”

Jacob Proctor was a former curator at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago. “P.A. questions notions of authorship and authenticity, the relationship between gender and the archive, and the historical tension between national identity and internationalist aspiration,” he wrote in an essay about Burin’s subversive creation in Contribution and Collaboration: The Work of Petra Andrejova-Molnár and her Contemporaries, the artist’s most extensive catalog of P.A.’s work.

Burin’s fascination with women’s contributions to Modernism arose when she was getting her MFA at Yale University and came across a photo that Czech architect Adolf Loos—the archenemy of ornamentation—captioned as “bedroom for my wife.”

“There was a whole implied world,” she says. It raised questions about a Modernist dialectic that turned away not only from ornament but also from notions of intimacy, privacy, and the feminine. “It opened up 10 years of work for me.”

She began amassing an archive of photos featuring Modernist architecture, sorting images according to gender. There were men with their architectural models, there were men with women. Then there were women alone in architectural settings, “with their backs to us, or reading, or smoking,” she says.

The photos by themselves are a way of framing Modernist values and the notion of the genius male architect.

Contextualizing P.A. with Modernist designers such as Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray, Burin endeavored to puncture the hot-air balloon of male-centered Modernism. “They lived into their late 90s and had careers,” she says. “Petra had a small career. I embed her among her contemporaries and tell the story of all the women doing the work who are not well known. There were a lot of them.”

She found her next project in the archives of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). Fran Hosken was one of the first women to graduate from GSD, in 1944. She had her own furniture company, from approximately 1948 to 1951.

We regret to inform you.... Digitally printed aluminum, 2018.
Photo courtesy of the artist

“Photos of her furniture and jewelry live in the archive,” Burin says. “I found this person’s work, and I thought, ‘It’s the real Petra.’” Her research into Hosken, who left design to become a social activist after twice being rejected for a job at GSD, led to a public art project about Hosken with Now + There and an exhibition of Hosken’s designs at the Fitchburg Art Museum.

“It was lovely to give her work a moment of life,” Burin says. She’s in the midst of putting together a complete Hosken catalog. In the meantime, she’s designing her own postwar communist plaza with anti-monument monuments for Irrational Attachments. “They imply use but don’t really have a use.” The show is her most personal one yet.

Focusing on Modernism until now, she has avoided thinking too deeply about communism, she says. But its stain is still on her. The camp where her family stayed in the 1980s was a gateway between communism and capitalism. That juncture entices.

“I’m thinking of the architecture of leisure and the shackles of that in communist and socialist countries,” she says. Communist leaders attempted to dampen the desire for things—which they associated with capitalism—by shaping citizens’ lifestyles, including vacations, [which gave] a false sense of freedom.

“The idea was that the less you fetishize objects, the more you will become a person of self-awareness, a deeper thinker, and you won’t succumb to a fascist leader,” Burin says. “That’s the weird, crazy thinking. Collective living was supposed to free you, but communism did the opposite.”

It’s not lost on Burin that, as an artist, she fetishizes objects. “I want to look into [communism] on my own terms. And who knows,” she says slyly, “maybe after reading too many communist manifestos, I’ll stop making objects at all.”

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