For every “form” (an idea, concept, method, or object) we introduce, inevitably, its complement, the “counterform” appears. “To produce one is to produce the other.”¹
Consider the capital letter “A.” In simple terms, its visual appearance could be described as two slanting lines, the disconnected sides of a triangle, with a horizontal bar in the middle, acting as a bridge. A light version would consist of three thin strokes, a heavier version three thick strokes. Consider what these lines demarcate: A triangle, a trapezoid, and the space that surrounds the letter. These three components are larger in a light version compared to a heavier version.
Form and counterform are perceived as two zones. The counterform has less perceptual saliency and appears as a “mere” background. Both parts do not appear juxtaposed, but rather stratified: there is a tendency to see the form as positioned in front, and the counterform behind, as if occluded by the former. The border separating the two is perceived as belonging to the form rather than the counterform, which delineate the contour.²
Even though the counterformal supervenes on the formal, and the two together determine the complete picture, the focus is on the form. An “A” is an “A” is an “A;” reading this letter, we do not perceive triangles and trapezoids. In short, we examine what we have been trained to consider and disregard what appears trivial.
What makes the counterform relevant?
How might the counterform inform deform warp alter modify question break from expand superimpose transform morph conflate swap with deconstruct reconstruct react to reveal become the form?
“We do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things,” suggests philosopher Michel Foucault.³ In the same way should the work that emerges in my present and future practice not live on its own, isolated from its surrounding. Work that lives in spaces with the quality of being in relation to all the other spaces, but in a way to question the relations they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.⁴ Counter-Formation places emphasis on the region where counterform reasserts itself and allows it to encounter form through counterform with a set of responsive structures.
To structure is to establish an ensemble of relations between elements that makes them appear as juxtaposed, set off from one another, or implicated by each other, operating in a sort of configuration. Elements inside a structure may be randomly distributed or arranged according to single or to multiple classifications.⁵
Structures commonly evoke the idea of fixed arrangements, awaiting to be adopted by more or less flexible components (one instance might be buildings—the structures, and furniture—their components). Le Corbusier referred to these components as “equipment” and described them as “flexible elements with a capacity for adaptation and change.”⁶ This “equipment,” however, remains separated from the structure. It does not interfere with or influence it.
Combining the adjustable qualities of the equipment with the anatomy of a structure that contains them, leads us to responsive structures: structures that change from within specific parameters.
An example of such responsive structures is a building by the architecture firm Orambra (“Prairie House” in Northfield, Illinois). Also referred to as an example of “parametric architecture,” the building is driven by an interest in using alternative forms of architectural media to transpose new modes of operation onto standardized building assemblies. Through the use of photo-chromatic inks, the color of the interior membrane becomes lighter on warmer days and darker on colder days.⁷ It reacts to, and lives with, the environment.
The unconsidered structure—in other words, the structure whose form appears too obvious to be actively reconsidered on every encounter—transforms from being supportive to a central component. It creates a relationship between more or less unpredictable influences, design, and the very moment of one’s encounter. It illustrates how an established solution transforms to a responsive suggestion. The conceptual orientation shifts and categorizational contours blur. It is no longer a question of defining the contours, but what escapes them—“the secret movement, the breaking, the torment, the unexpected.”⁸
As contours blur, elements exceed their boundaries, rearrange, and establish new contexts. They initiate a moment of counterbalance that allows one to grasp the unexposed zone between existent and eventual structure—an unconstructed, liminal area, liberated from a delimiting formula.
Miles Davis and John Coltrane, for instance, are situated within this zone. A Jazz band finds its basis in a tune or chord sequence of some kind of basic structure.⁹ The execution, however, is subject to each artists’ individual interpretation and improvisation. They follow, but blur the original structure. One band member takes a solo and makes a musical statement, another responds to it. It becomes a conversation. “The given is only the beginning” and the eventual “arrangement [is] subject to change—rearrangement.”¹⁰
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Reacting to, instead of simply executing, puts emphasis on the liminal space—the zone between resources, influences, skills, and the “soon-to-be.” In other words: the process. It is no longer a tunnel that one moves through to reach its end, but becomes a free-climbing wall that requires repeated acknowledgment, depending on how previous moves were made. The process becomes a prototype, only defined by an approximate goal, that allows one to speak a yet unknown language. It becomes adaptable to contexts and a representation of a specialized set of values to interpret something new—facultative from hierarchy and, in some cases, immune to formality.¹¹
Counterform as Resource
A fitting instance of putting emphasis on the process—or rather on the artifacts of the process—is the practice of Los Angeles-based artist Sterling Ruby, whose work spans across a large variety of media, including ceramics, painting, drawing, sculpture, video, collage, and fashion. A material used to cover the floor to create a sculpture may end up in one of his paintings. The forms of a painting may be transferred into a sculpture. Not only does he establish an experimental and innovative approach to recycling by mixing existent or leftover materials, forms, and ideas, but he also breaks hierarchies between intention and reaction.
Ruby’s “Soft Sculptures”—large-scale, three-dimensional, stuffed fabric sculptures in unsettling biomorphic forms, laying on gallery floors or hanging from ceilings—highlight this break of hierarchies. Made from patterns that often involve the US flag, the works are abstract, reminiscent of deformed, super-sized pillows. The flag, a symbol of unity, is deconstructed and sewn back together to create new, unique compositions. The flag is no longer what it was intended to be, but the result of his way of reacting to the medium. By doing so, he not only interrupts the repetition of a pattern, but also reverses the definition of a sculpture as something that is carved or casted, and traditionally is thought of as a solid artwork.
The scraps of fabric that remain from those artworks, as well, are treated as another resource. They become the source material. “Each time a piece of artwork is finished, a new set of unique one-off garments are made, as a conclusion to the project. As a result, the garments are imbued with the precise treatments as the artworks—from the fabrics that are hand-dyed and hand-treated in Ruby’s studio yard, to the exotic enzyme washes researched and sourced from Los Angeles’ rich garment production industry.”¹²
Ruby approaches those garments as workwear—pieces that he and his studio team wear to work on new artworks. The description of a recent exhibition put it this way: “A sense of recycling and breaking down utilitarian versus aesthetic hierarchies has evolved in the artist’s studio. Collages become quilts, quilts become soft sculptures, and sculptures become clothes.”¹³ After creating numerous variations of workwear pieces over the years, he launched his own fashion line in 2019. One of his signature textures—bleached fabric—that previously appeared in sculptures, paintings, quilts, mixed media, and as textures in collections of fashion designer Raf Simons as well as backdrops in one of his stores—is now a key element of his first collection, blurring the distinctions between fine arts, fashion, workwear, up- and recycling. Similarly, many of his ceramic works contain pieces of previous sculptures. Pieces that were damaged during the process and stored somewhere in his studio are being reclaimed as an ingredient for new work. Sooner or later, counterform reintegrates itself as form.
Counterform as Framework
Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry—two architects known for their radical deconstructionist and suspenseful designs—actively utilize counterform. Gehry’s design process is led by intuition and contradiction. Gehry frequently approaches buildings not as conventional buildings, but as different mediums—often as sculptures. He eliminates the expectations of what shape a building should assume. A scene in “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” a documentary film directed by Sydney Pollack, shows Gehry and his partner working on a new building which suggests a casual experimental art class in high school, rather than the studio environment of one of the most successful architects of this century. The duo cuts and folds silver paper and tape scraps onto their model. After a quick analysis, Gehry decides that odd shapes work well, and adds more of them. By the end of the scene, the model might be described as a “coincidence” or “accident,” rather than a “plan.” There are elements of inappropriation, unease, and confusion that make Gehry’s work so intriguing—not only during the process, but also the final buildings, that challenge the conventions of architecture.
Hadid’s work, once described as “soft matter,” a term referring to a state between liquid and solid,¹⁴ challenges the logic of physics and occupies the space between those two states. The traditional definition of a building gets distorted. Something associated with strong and substantial structures adopts new meanings. Hadid utilizes generally invisible elements—gravity and physic—warps them and visually translates them into a building. The facade of the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, for example, appears to be melting. Other buildings juxtapose geometric structures with organic counterspaces—such as the Opus Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Gehry, too, reverses, juxtaposes, and flips things on its head. Think of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain with its facade consisting of edgy, but organically intertwined, shiny metal panels; or the Lou Ruvo Center in Las Vegas, Nevada that appears to be slowly collapsing.
Counterform as Extension
The work of Mark Rothko, who rarely explained the meaning behind his paintings, especially the paintings created in his late period, plays with the dissolution of boundaries. “Multiforms” became his signature style and are described as “narrowly separated blocks of color [that] hover against a colored ground.”¹⁵ Edges are soft and irregular, so that when Rothko uses closely related tones they sometimes seem to barely emerge from the ground. Other colors appear to vibrate, creating an optical flicker.¹⁶
The colored grounds act as a zone that blurs with, or intensifies “the floating zones of color.”¹⁷ Shapes merge into the ground, and the ground merges with the environment—partly due to his rejection to frame his paintings so as not to give them limits.¹⁸ The sense of boundlessness in Rothko’s paintings¹⁹ allows the ground to build a bridge between form and viewer—between the interior and the exterior; between the abstracted expression of the artist’s notion of reality and the viewer’s reality. The counterform eliminates the obstacles between Rothko and the idea and the observer²⁰ and allows the form to expand, hover out of the plane, pulsate, and create energy. It bleeds from one field into another, making it difficult as a viewer to truly say which field has been superimposed on the other.²¹ William S. Rubin, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, described them as forms that seem to “dematerialize into pure light.”²²
Counterform as Element
Light plays an important role in the work of Japanese architect Tadao Ando, which springs from the subconscious. Intersecting light and silence create awareness of the “nothingness”—a void that is a central element in many of his buildings. Simple geometry, carefully casted concrete walls, solids and voids, light and darkness are key features of his interior and exterior.²³
One of his signature architectural works that embraces his philosophical framework between nature and architecture through the way in which light can define and create new spatial perceptions, is the Church of the Light outside of Osaka, Japan. The building is an architecture of duality—of solid and void, of light and dark, of stark and serene, of form and counterform.²⁴ Unlike traditional motifs and aesthetics of churches, it is absent from ornament. Instead, pure space, light, and perception serve as “ornament.”
Through the use of light as an element and pattern, many of Ando’s works have surreal effects that change one’s encounter and perception of materiality and space. “In all my works, light is an important controlling factor,” says Ando. “I create enclosed spaces mainly by means of thick concrete walls. The primary reason is to create a place for the individual, a zone for oneself within society. When the external factors of a city’s environment require the wall to be without openings, the interior must be especially full and satisfying.”²⁵
In other works, such as the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas or the Langen Foundation in Neuss, Germany, Ando utilizes areas of water that surround them as an element to reflect light and contribute animation. At night, this effect allows the buildings to glow from within.²⁶ The counterform allows the form to stand out.
Counterform as Expression
Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo creates pieces that are more than merely a “second skin.” Her clothing embodies individuality, closely allied to ambiguous and evocative meaning.²⁷ The color black, the theme of deconstruction, and human versus not-quite-human quickly became synonyms to Kawakubo after presenting her first collections.
Her “objects for the body”²⁸ move away from the silhouette of the human body. Instead they act as a device to transform and distort it, pushing them into abstract realms. They are visual hybrids between clothing and sculpture, assumptions of the body and abstraction, the familiar and a radical exploration of the unknown.
In her earlier collections the absence of color was omnipresent. Shades of black as the color palette expressed individuality through uniformity. Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo’s former partner, described the concept of the uniform as a democratic device, that becomes by the way it is worn, the wearer’s own statement. Yamamoto’s work, too, relies on the repetitive use of black and untailored garments that obliterate any notion of glamour, status, or sexuality.²⁹
A Met Fifth Avenue exhibition, entitled “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” reflected on Kawakubo’s approach of blurring the boundaries between body and fashion through juxtaposition and hybridity. The display itself was presented as an artistic intervention, organized in eight overarching themes: present/absence, design/not design, fashion/anti-fashion, model/multiple, high/low, then/now, self/other, object/subject, and clothes/not clothes. It illustrated her revolutionary experiments of the in-betweenness and the way she gave form to the counterform by creating paradoxical anti-fashion, through which she reinvented herself and fashion every season.³⁰
To illustrate and contextualize the counterform in my practice, I illuminate the conceptual ideas of several case studies as they share similar ideals. In each instance, the focus does not lie on particular forms but on their counter-formative processes. One might respond to and fuse with a personal “archive” that includes previous work as a resource—such as in the practice of Sterling Ruby, or Rei Kawakubo who designs garments from an alternative point of view. Similarly in the work of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, they adopt a provisional method of working that challenges formal closure. A variable platform is influenced by the environment—like the paintings of Mark Rothko and the buildings of Tadao Ando. In response to current culture, new thought paths arise. The dynamic is innately malleable. By incorporating approximate relations into the archive and allowing for connections and alterations between form and counterform, contemporary work emerges. Sometimes a relation may be obvious, but occasionally it may seem arcane, random, and as if defying control. Eventually, however, it will become part of a living archive. I think of these relations as “interrelated elements [placed] together in a field,” to recall the words of Michel Foucault.³¹ Drawing connections, juxtaposing things, and bringing themes together is important, even if they are only related on a secondary or tertiary level.
My artistic understanding used to be informed by a point of view based on how things were right in front of me, followed by my reactions. I rarely escaped the boundaries of my perception because I did not perceive any as such. Now I realize those situations offered “possible scenarios of alternative kinds of […] relations,” as Hal Foster states.³² My practice begins to shift away from an “excavation site” model of the archive—a site that I used to source from—to a “construction site”—a site that allows me to openly build upon.³³ From the perspective of design, it assumes that the fragments within the archive act “as a condition, not only to represent but to work through. [It allows me to propose] new orders of […] association” and the possibility for “narrative ‘asides’.”³⁴
By approaching the unseen space of the counterform as a field of possibility, I open to the potential relations between the form and counterform and also of counterform as a unique lens on unbounded contexts for design. My ambition is not to answer the question of what lies in-between, but to create awareness that supports an unveiling of unforeseen contexts and craft new narratives that break from a simple binary play between them. Because “there does not exist a linear, static middle separating these two conditions.”³⁵
Counter-Formation intends is to establish a foundation that allows me to envision a more accurate shape and field of interrelations that are not only receptive (not passive reflectors), but appropriative and elaborative,³⁶ informed by a point of view that exists by evaluating form, reflecting interpretatively, and absorbing it through the lens of counterform. In other words: absorbing a formation through the lens of a counter-formation. It allows me to perceive from the outside in and put the spotlight on forms from different angles or not yet considered perspectives and organize or break them in a different fashion. By doing so and by incorporating the within, between, and around, my practice transforms into a responsive structure—a blank canvas with a variable format that enables to deconstruct essential components, reconstruct, question, and iterate, without simply imbuing them with formal values.