Bart Lunenburg – This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below

There is one question I must ask myself when looking at the work of Bart Lunenburg: is he, or isn’t he, a photographer? That question, that nagging concern, rings in my ears. Perhaps, instead of a photographer, I should say, he came from photography. That might be a safer, more accommodating approach. He moves through photography too, could be another. Or, I might say, Bart Lunenburg is not just a photographer. In any case, I feel conflicted, and I recognise a discursive introduction is not necessarily the best way to begin, but I have not yet encountered a more enigmatic book that challenges my perception of things; that is, the silvery, hardbound, first major monograph of Bart Lunenburg: This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below.

Let’s discuss the components first before moving on to potential meanings. Produced in collaboration with the designer and publisher, Hans Gremmen, and the writer, Taco Hidde Bakker, This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below weaves together five years of Lunenburg’s practice, to facilitate a cross-pollination between his ideas and working methods. From the get-go, I believe their collaboration is well suited: Hans Gremmen has a reputation for being at the forefront of visual design, but also for his astute handling of diverse and divergent archival materials. Hidde Bakker too, is a prominent thinker, a writer adept at handling photography’s often chimeric and slippery forms; his book, The Photograph That Took the Place of a Mountain (Fw:Books, 2018), is a rigorous investigation into photography, philosophy, politics and art. With this trio, we find a marriage of analytical thinking and storytelling.

This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below is a constellation of photographs, sculptures, installations, sketchbooks, models, film stills and research which coalesce to form a speculative take on the subject of pseudo-mythological architectures. Put simply, it’s a concept book. Rooted in a free flowing, multidirectional narrative, it’s divided into three loose chapters: The Construction, The Completed Building and The Ruin in Transition.

I say ‘mythological’, as some of Lunenburg’s buildings are imagined, dreamt, whereas others are drawn from histories, reinterpreted and recreated. Many of these works are the result of a year-long residency the artist spent researching The Utrecht Archive, facilitated by Utrecht-based arts organisation FOTODOK. This time proved fruitful for Lunenburg. As a practitioner, he is deeply concerned with architecture as a vehicle; an entity where socio-political connotations and aesthetics carry equal weight, informing existence and cohabitation. The book itself asks us to participate in the process of collective world-building, or “book-building” as the co-authors name it, focusing on the multiplicity of both literal (buildings, rooms, facades) and metaphysical (images, stories, words) architectures. Together, they conjure worlds, reshape dreams and redirect nightmares; rising and falling, in a rhythmic dance, recalling, if not visually but in spirit, the Penrose stairs of M.C Escher. Spoilt for choice, it might be prudent to address the first pressing world I’m met with: the space of the title.

Together, they conjure worlds, reshape dreams and redirect nightmares; rising and falling, in a rhythmic dance, recalling, if not visually but in spirit, the Penrose stairs of M.C Escher.

I imagine we enter Lunenburg’s domain, not on the ground floor, but on the second. It may, actually, be the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or even, a higher floor. Our orientation is unclear; we could be subsumed into a maze, or a labyrinth. I begin to hear the building speak—or is it a moan?—as the ailing old thing bears my weight across its worn floorboards. I get the sense Lunenburg is empathetically linked to buildings, in the same way that others are linked to animals and people. The experience of living with architecture (or anything that has been built out of materials, actually), is a doorway and an essential access point to Lunenburg’s practice. Armed with our own sensory knowledge, we step into the work spatially, run our hands along bannisters, and pace up and down narrow corridors. The subject matter is genuinely universal, as it is shared by the majority of the human population; the work reminds us that we inhabit skin and bone, and can often dwell, together, inside bricks and mortar.

As I continue to move around this house that Lunenburg has built, I pick up various characteristics and traits, commonly linked to our old friend, photography. The window in particular has caught my attention. For Lunenburg, the window is an ongoing motif, one that forms the core of his theory. The window, classically, is a way in and a way out: “an opening in the wall or roof of a building or vehicle, fitted with glass in a frame to admit light or air.” Poetically, the word derives from the Old Norse vindauga, meaning vindr “wind”, and auga “eye”, to create “wind-eye”. The window, by natural association with the eye (the building’s eye), has, over time, via models, analogies, allegories and symbolism, formed an intimate relationship with photography. Since its birth, as Lunenburg suggests, the window was there to accompany the camera in its endeavour to become the apparatus of seeing, as evidenced by Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827), and Talbot’s The Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey (ca. 1835). These relationships might lead us to envisage photography’s maternity ward, not as a room, per se, but as a glass vessel; one rooted in separation, exposure and voyeurism as its founding principles.

Following this path further, Lunenburg looks at buildings more broadly as image generators. His inclusion of an illustration of the portable camera obscura found in Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Lucis et Umbra (1646) supports this hypothesis. Translated and interpreted to mean “The Magnetic Art of Light and Shadow”, this illustration was just one in an expansive ten-book volume of engravings, exploring the magic of illumination and projection of images. The  camera obscura is a device whereby an enclosed room or box, with a small hole or aperture, permits the entry of light and the subsequent projection of an image onto a flat surface—a precursor to the modern day camera. Lunenburg emphasises how the act of ‘bringing’ images requires a sanctuary-like space, a room made of four walls, filled with a delectable darkness: a container. A place where images may enter or be born is, by definition, an architectural space.

Again pseudo-photographic, I’m drawn to the construction of the Model as a recurring motif within This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below. The Model is a type of replica, imitation or duplicate; but it can also be a prototype, archetype, or an ideal—models come in many shapes and sizes, and can be human too. Models are rarely, if ever, one-to-one, but scaled and miniaturised. A model, then, is something like an image. Artists have always observed models, enchanted by their aura. Lunenburg’s models, however, are curious; through the space of the book—mediated by the world of the image—there occurs an optical peculiarity. Shifting between micro and macro, our grasp of the genuine geometrical proportions of objects (models) is veiled or concealed by the photograph. This inevitably asks us to re-evaluate our faith in the photograph as an index or model of its referent. Mathematical disorder is yet another device used to build meaning; it opens up a space where models and images play off each other, acting as harbingers of alternative realities.

After that ontological transgression, let’s get back to making. I’ve lived with architecture students for the past few years. They’re habitual, methodical and precise creatures, and they often leave certain objects lying around: cutting mats, scalpels, clamps, wood, glue, scissors, cardboard—you name it, it’s there; you find bits and pieces scattered all over the place, on the edges of tables and benches. I’d assume Lunenburg’s studio resembles a similar setup. A place whose ethos is making; measuring and reworking, energised through the pursuit of both accuracy and spontaneity: the architect-artist would be a good term to use. Lunenburg dedicates an astounding amount of time to the making of models. He must remake, well into the night, the same, singular, unassuming object, over and over again. Maybe it’s this persistence and patience that allows a deeper access to the fabric of buildings? A mundane act contemplating the quotidian eventually becomes a performance, and a kind of ritual; and a performance becomes a space of learning. Lunenburg’s models are learning objects.

Lunenburg’s work is a stark reminder of the eventual collapse of all bodies; whether architectures, buildings, models or images, existing within the three-dimensional, two-dimensional, or other, imagined worlds. The universe embraces the flux, and proclaims an inevitable disorder.

In the final chapter, Lunenburg directs us to the very antithesis of building: destruction. He demonstrates the numerous ways to tear down a building: a careful process of dismantling, or the slightly unpredictable tactic of explosion. Lunenburg, however, seems most fascinated by fire, whether purposely employed in combat during World War II, or the accidental house fire. Lunenburg looks at buildings lost to this world and seeks to reincarnate them. It’s a practice that aligns itself to the Japanese tradition of rebuilding shrines and temples, which, over centuries, have been gripped and consumed by the ravages of time. The artist grapples with the experience of mourning—what’s lost when buildings burn? It’s not just homes, places of work or community, but objects, things, emotions, feelings, dreams and lives. Often, the reconstruction falls short, and fails to reproduce that elusive essence of a building.

Rooms Within Rooms is a subchapter of The Ruin in Transition, and contains for me, some of the strongest artworks in the entire book. They are a selection of burnt and unburnt sculptures made of intricately handcrafted wooden support structures—frames for roofs, walls and interiors—that question present, past and future temporalities. In the case of A House with Two Shadows (2020), an unburnt frame is hung on a white wall and paired with, but placed in front of, its blackened burnt duplicate; the almost ghostlike sibling hangs, as if by a thread, and at any moment may fall and disintegrate into a pile of ash. The burnt sculptures’ appearance, behind that of the ‘living’ sculpture, reminds me of a photogram: a cindered and smoked image struggling to breathe in half-life. It’s a romantic and melancholic moment: the work recites a poem or a story of its own eventual demise.

Collectively, these works remind me of Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970); an artwork that participates in and embraces entropy to erode itself through elemental friction and force. Lunenburg’s work is a stark reminder of the eventual collapse of all bodies; whether architectures, buildings, models or images, existing within the three-dimensional, two-dimensional, or other, imagined worlds. The universe embraces the flux, and proclaims an inevitable disorder.

This book requires multiple readings; it is persistent. It contains a multitude of spaces that cannot be fully formed in your mind with a brief visit. The texts, or “windows” offered by Hidde Bakker, are sublime in the way they activate the work; I feel as though my body is subject to change in temperature, expanding and contracting through his stories. You get the sense Lunenburg and Hidde Bakker are in the midst of an ongoing, diaristic conversation, one that begins before and continues long after we’ve left the room. It’s a kind of verbal architecture. The book does not shout, it moves in whispers. 

There is, however, an overwhelming feeling of rooms within rooms that sometimes eats away at me; the book closes in upon itself like a Russian doll. In Jorge Luis Borges’ 1975 short story The Book of Sand, a visitor arrives at the protagonist’s door: a travelling Bible salesman, who tempts him into purchasing a sacred book that has neither a beginning nor an end. Initially enamoured by the infinite, the protagonist is left frantically turning through the pages, desperately searching for that which first captivated him. While, thankfully, I can return to any page within This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below, the contents of the book are in a similarly perpetual state of transformation.

A rich synthesis of photography and installation, Bart Lunenburg’s This Creaking Floor and All the Ceilings Below requires you to recalibrate your understanding of where, exactly, a medium begins and ends. Is it here, here, or there? Working against a singularity of form—a photographer who makes traditionally flat, pixel-based ‘straight’ images—his work defies categorisation. It might be easier to convey my sense of his work by blending examples of both contemporary and historic artists: from the past, Beverly Buchanan’s Shacks (1990-2010), Mary Miss’ Portable Window (1968), Alice Aycock’s The Beginnings of a Complex (1977) and Hubert Kiecol’s Stairs (1984-2003); from the now, Tom Lovelace’s Home Staging (2018) and Jan McCullough’s Tricks of the Trade (2020-2021). Bridging decades and generations, these artists are fascinated by the multi-dimensional aspects of architecture, and through disassembling or reassembling its parts, they question our shared reality.

It’s all in there, somewhere, a blended amalgamation that resonates profoundly within; the intersection of architectural folly, sculpture and photography. Bart Lunenburg then, is not like most photographers. Rather than merely framing the world, and stencilling the real, he works more like a carpenter, crafting and assembling objects, places and things. He’s an image-maker in the truest sense, and a world builder too.

Bart Lunenburg
Fw:Books, 2021

All Rights Reserved: Text © Alexander Mourant;
Images © Bart Lunenburg/Fw:Books unless otherwise noted