From a Cabin in the Woods: Dieter Roelstraete’s “HUTOPIA” and the Shelters of Thought

Installation view of one of John Preus's reconstructed huts for "Hutopia," 2019. Photo by Robert Heishman.
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I harbor fantasies of retreating for stretches of time to a simple cabin in the countryside. My place, spare but tasteful, would feature a brook nearby and a view of trees. You’d have to hike a bit to get there, but the walk would not be so laborious as to deter the occasional visitor. Town would be a short drive away for supplies, and I’d occupy myself with rambling, writing, sculpting, gardening, reading, and fixing things. Internet access would, obviously, be null.

HUTOPIA, an exhibition currently on view at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, has made me aware of just how storied this idea of the architectural haven has historically been. Curated by Dieter Roelstraete and based on a more expansive show he mounted at the Fondazione Prada during the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennale, HUTOPIA takes its inspiration from the refuges of three philosophers: Martin Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin in the German village of Todtnauberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dwelling on the outskirts of the remote Norwegian village of Skjolden, and – with a bit of stretch – Theodor Adorno’s 15-year exile to America around the time of the Second World War. Fortunately for me, since I understand concrete things far better than abstract ones, HUTOPIA cares more about the surroundings that affect us than the ideas that emerge from them. Regardless of one’s familiarity with Dasein or language-games or dialectics, the exhibition suggests that the sanctuaries in question were not just picturesque backgrounds but essential elements of the thinking done inside (the Venice show was titled Machines à Penser – “machines for thinking”). But the strength of this iteration – despite the fact that it takes place within the University of Chicago’s campus, a site disposed to continental philosophy – is that immersion doesn’t require devotion to a particular brand of critical production. In terms of outcomes, I personally lean more toward Roald Dahl’s garden writing hut, Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own, and the ubiquitous artist’s retreat coveted by everyone with an MFA (it doesn’t matter which). I even once had a writing hut, painted bright blue, but it was located on a city street in Kassel, so perhaps it doesn’t really count.

Guy Moreton, “LW118,” 2001-05. Image courtesy the artist.

Across seven artists and a philosophically-inclined show, at least one contribution made me laugh. A trio of seriously whimsical vases by Goshka Macuga, each featuring the face of one of the exhibition’s three philosophers in an appropriate sculptural style, delivers its fun by way of kitsch. Quite apart from providing HUTOPIA with symbolically rich portraits of its protagonists – though to appreciate why an earthenware Moche pot filled, the day I was there, with dried lavender sprigs best suits Adorno you’d really have to know something about Adorno – the arrangements cheekily illustrate a connection between natural surroundings and the substance of our thoughts. They’re also categorically decorative objects, good for ornamenting a house, though probably not the dwellings pictured here. Alec Finlay’s Manifesto for Hutopianism presents a strangely inelegant red trellis pinned with musings on the Scottish tradition of “bothies,” remote, free-of-charge hiking shelters. The comfortable Los Angeles residences frequented by Adorno and other exiled German intellectuals are crisply detailed in photographs by Patrick Lakey and Ewan Telford. In a charming mid-1960s series by the late photojournalist Digne Meller-Marcovicz, the ultramarine trim of the Schwarzwald mountain home of Heidegger and his wife Elfride shines through. And the crumbling stone foundation of Wittgenstein’s retreat, perched high above an ice-blue lake, surrounded by every shade of wild greenery, is captured in an immersive landscape by Guy Moreton.

What can we hope to know through these photographic representations? We might ask a similar question of the philosophy student who undertakes a pilgrimage to one of these legendary sites – as scores have done, including Roelstraete himself. To make a journey like that is to espouse a belief in material remains, in aura, and in the specificity of place. Without such faith, we’re looking at landscapes with buildings: two quite conventional, one very modest, one basically absent. On this point, furniture constructed by local artist John Preus proves immensely helpful: an unusual rocking chair and table lamp fashioned out of salvage from the 49 Chicago public schools controversially shuttered a few years ago by the mayor. Why build something out of stuff that came from somewhere else? There are economic and environmental concerns, of course, but Preus’s dedication to upcycling runs deeper than that, to a belief that desks and bricks and flooring retain something of their former usage. To reanimate those elements is to make present whatever they witnessed.

Installation view of vase by Goshka Macuga, 2019. Photo by Robert Heishman.

Preus also built the three enormous structures that, though they weren’t in Venice, clearly form the heart of the Neubauer show. Indoors is a nearly room-sized installation of walls and columns and roof struts — based on Adorno’s Hut, a speculative sculpture by the late Scottish poet-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay — which serves as a display space for most of the hung artworks. Outdoors sit scaled-down replicas of Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s huts, clad in reclaimed cedar planks that give the buildings the look of structures that have withstood the weather for many years. Visitors can enter and stay awhile. I did, despite the damp and chilly day, and can report that the many windows, high and low in the latter’s hut, pleased me, whereas the garage-like squareness and dimness (and alley fronting) of the former’s did not. I don’t know if that means I’m more of a Wittgensteinian than a Heideggerian, but I do believe it indicates environmental susceptibility.

Where I am deeply affects how and what I can ponder and generate. But since I currently don’t have a shack or a life that could even accommodate one (think one husband and two children and a career that involves seeing a lot of art in person), I’ve come up with an alternative solution: long bike rides in the forest preserve. I’ve found that if I keep moving at a decent speed, with my body occupied just enough by repetitive action, my mind can freely wander.

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