The Influence

For theatre designer Anna Cordingley, Gordon Matta-Clark’s radical deconstruction of two Paris houses, Conical Intersect, is a continuing inspiration. By Neha Kale.

Anna Cordingley on Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect

The view of a Parisian street from inside the ruins of a building.
The view from inside Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, 1975, and set and costume designer Anna Cordingley (below).
Credit: Marc Petitjean / The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark (above), Daniel Boyd (below)

Anna Cordingley is one of the country’s best-known set and costume designers. She traces her love of the stage to a performance of The Magic Flute she saw as an eight-year-old. Her body of work spans theatre, opera, cabaret and exhibitions. She won a Helpmann Award for her work on Jasper Jones, the acclaimed 2016 production directed by Sam Strong and written by Kate Mulvany for Melbourne Theatre Company. She’s also designed for MTC’s Storm Boy, Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Opera Australia’s Aida and Chunky Move’s Connected.

Cordingley is in rehearsals for Malthouse Theatre’s upcoming production of Hour of the Wolf, a piece of large-scale immersive theatre in which the audience follows 10 characters through the fictional town of Hope Hill from 3am to 4am. Cordingley chose to speak about Conical Intersect, a 1975 work by Gordon Matta-Clark, the late American artist who famously bisected buildings, reframing space in ways that are still radical decades on.

Tell me about the first time you were introduced to Matta-Clark’s work. Can you recall what it sparked in you?

It is often the way with theatre, that there are worlds that are revealed to you. It was about 10 years ago or so. A director had brought an image of Splitting to me – so, not Conical Intersect but a more famous work of his. Matta-Clark sought permission from the owners of the house, and he was allowed to remove the foundations … and make a cut in the centre so the half that was no longer supported had this shunt shuffled down, to reveal this big schism in the middle. It was fractional but significant enough to let this great light through.

This director was bringing this artist to me so I could look at opening up space in different ways or revealing new perspectives. What is a domestic space that is being punctured in this way, being cleaved in this way? And then I became familiar with this beautiful artist. It was almost like an artwork in the negative, an artwork that revolves around the taking away of detail. He even called his work “anarchitecture.” It was standing in opposition to architecture, so there was also this lovely thread of anarchy.

To realise Conical Intersect, Matta-Clark, who was invited to take part in the 1975 Paris Biennale, cut two 17th-century townhouses that were scheduled for demolition to make room for the new Centre Pompidou. He created a vast, circular opening that resembles a spyglass and seems to have been made by a giant drill. Why did the work resonate with you? It’s such a dramatic gesture…

[It’s about] the revealing of new perspectives. It’s an attack and sometimes a beautiful, reverent one. What is it? I teach at the Victorian College of the Arts as well and often use this image as a header if we are covering installations and public art. It is one that I love. I think it is because it is artwork that plays with an environment that is already familiar – but it is a deconstruction rather than a construction. That’s what makes it profound. His artwork is maybe so humble in that way – it is subtractive.

The idea of Conical Intersect as being a deconstruction rather than a construction is powerful, I think. Like good set design, it draws on a world we know in which something is askew. Did it change the way you think about space?

There are a lot of analogies about what theatre should be, and sometimes it is referred to as a mirror. But someone suggested to me that, in fact, it should be a broken mirror.

That director back in the day had presented work to me as kind of physical – this is something physically adjacent that you could do. That approach was more naturalistic and pragmatic. Here, look at this artist – you can peel [space] apart and create vistas. The experience of the space is so hard to describe. But you can imagine being a resident of that building in Paris and it is planned for demolition and it has seen absolutely better days. And when someone does that and you have a new relationship written over the top of something and you can’t ever undo the relationship either; there is something in that space that can cut so deeply to your soul.

Matta-Clark had a social mission as well as a conceptual one. He challenged the idea of architecture as a monument – and there was something in Conical Intersect about urban renewal displacing and gentrifying, and the arbitrary nature of property and ownership. He predicted the inequality of space. As someone who works in forms such as opera and theatre, do you think about how to create spaces that are equitable?

And it was so long ago! It is a huge problem for audiences. It is similar to my students – if you poll them, the likelihood that they come from middle-class families and have a private education is so high. To dream of yourself in a sustaining and nourishing, gainfully employed situation that is also in the arts, takes a degree of exposure at a young age and a certain set of advantages. The audiences… as much as you want to think that we are broadening them and making things open and accessible and dynamic, it is slow. It is a long game. You can finish a show and think, That came out really well, and then realise that only 8000 people saw it. It is hard.

Matta-Clark’s life was cut short by cancer and he was driven by ideas of impermanence. He also created art out of food debris, garbage. You work in performance, which is transient. How does ephemerality shape your process?

I am really thankful for that – so we don’t have to look at our own mistakes! I really do appreciate that my work is fleeting and that you can have this confluence of creative energies. Design is a big part of that and there is so much shared authorship and artistry – everyone should feel a sense of ownership of what the environment becomes. Among the known contributors, there is a host of other authors. And then it is done! I’m quite fine with that.

Do you think about the response you are trying to spark in a viewer for whom your work might only exist as a memory?

I do think about the series of moods that I am trying to evoke when the audience is first sitting down. Is this an environment that welcomes them or repels them or makes them feel ill? These are questions that are trying to manipulate experiences and feelings of the audience member. But I don’t think about what they will take away from it.

[For Hour of the Wolf], I have the good fortune of working with [director] Matthew Lutton and [writer] Keziah Warner. Matt is slightly neurotic in his attention to detail because the play requires it. It is like a choose-your-own-adventure. What you are experiencing is largely coming through audio. Without Matt’s analytical and structured mind, you could be overwhelmed.

We started a year ago, with broad brushstrokes. We have been pushing walls around for a good few months. The layout and the evolution of the script has been hand in hand. It has been wild.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Anna Cordingley".

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