An artist whose work stems from the dire conditions that are rampant in slums around the world may seem like an unlikely contributor to the age-old discourse on the nature of beauty.
An artist whose work stems from the dire conditions that are rampant in slums around the world may seem like an unlikely contributor to the age-old discourse on the nature of beauty. But Marjetica Potrc defies this expectation when she states, “Above all, art is pleasure. There is no high art or low art. The sense of beauty changes constantly. Beauty is a living organism. It’s about what you feel rather than what you think, though.”40
Potrc applies the ‘beauty’ factor to slum architecture. She notes the irony that the cheap slum dwellings are lavished with decoration, while expensive modernist structures are stripped of decorative detailing. She states, “There is nothing wrong with decoration, or with what someone likes. I’m very attentive to such statements, as when people say “that’s beautiful”. It means that they are expressing an already interiorized notion of ethics and aesthetics. They have digested beauty, so to speak.”41
Potrc intentionally challenges the notions of beauty among sophisticated art-goers. “I enjoy sharing case studies of such communities with people who frequent galleries and museums, places where the apparently elusive categories of beauty, form, and concept are pondered and debated…. For me, the basic questions are: How is something constructed? And why did I desire it? I believe that the structures produced by these (slum) communities convey the aesthetic and political power of today’s society simply by the manner in which they were made.”42
By including the question, “How is something constructed” in her considerations of beauty, Potrc implies that beauty is not exclusively a matter of visual appeal. She shares this attention to ‘how’ with many eco artists who typically perceive beauty in those processes that produce vital, resilient, and productive ecosystems. Thus, within the context of environmental crises, considerations of beauty are not confined to sensual pleasure. From an eco-centric perspective, beauty is created by well-functioning components of the environment.
a. Andy Goldsworthy’s photographs of on-site constructions epitomize visual beauty. In contrast, Nicole Fournier’s gardens, Viet Ngo’s water purification plants, Gelitin’s decomposing sculpture, SUPERLEX’s bio digester are ecologically beautiful because they function beautifully. Marjetica Potrc applies the correlation between beauty and function to the built environment. She strives to combine both types of beauty by retaining the visual character inherent to slums, but improving the functionality of these dwellings. Hundertwasser and Bayer also combine visual beauty and functional beauty, but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Hundertwasser favored exuberant decorative flourishes. In contrast, Herbert Bayer preferred spare modernist geometries. Apply Potrc’s approach to beauty (“How is something constructed”) to her work, and to artworks by any two artists mentioned in this paragraph.
b. By the end of the nineteenth century, London had developed such severe air pollution that in 1873, over 1000 Londoners died in a smog incident. It was followed by similar episodes in 1880, 1882, 1891 and 1892. Around the same time, Claude Monet visited London, depicting views of parliament from his apartment window. His documentation of the light and sky is so detailed that recently aerologists have looked to the paintings as evidence of the historical chemical composition of the air. Monet, however, seemed to relish the visual splendor produced by smog, as have the countless people who admire his Houses of Parliament.
Compare Monet’s depictions of smog-infused sunsets and Potrc delight in the visual robustness of slum architecture.