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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Oliver Wainwright

‘I just can’t throw anything away’: Madelon Vriesendorp on turning plastic junk into art

Madelon Vriesendorp at The Cosmic House.
Madelon Vriesendorp at The Cosmic House. Photograph: Giulio Sheaves, courtesy Jencks Foundation.

“I just can’t throw anything away,” says Madelon Vriesendorp. “I would feel so guilty chucking out all this beautiful milky plastic.” The Dutch artist is standing near a row of plastic milk bottles that, during the pandemic lockdowns, she sliced, spliced and manipulated to create a mysterious cast of characters, now lit from below like precious objects in a museum. One resembles an African tribal mask, with a furrowed brow and shock of wiry hair. Another has the air of a bossy teacher, a pair of handles forming the shape of hands on hips. A third looks like a Japanese warlord (although Vriesendorp insists it is a French nun carrying a handbag). “If they are eventually thrown away,” she quips, “at least the fish will have something nice to look at.”

Plastic Surgery, part of Cosmic Housework at The Cosmic House.
Plastic Surgery, part of Cosmic Housework at The Cosmic House. Photograph: Thierry Bal

Few might ever have paused to consider the sculptural curves and delicate pallor of a plastic milk bottle as they chucked it in the recycling bin, but then not many people see the world as Vriesendorp does. In her eyes, the plastic balls in roll-on deodorants are supersized pearls, fit to be threaded together and worn as a necklace. A green plastic mushroom container, with a few artful slices of her scalpel, becomes an exotic mutant beetle. Bunch together a few plastic plug protectors, and you’ve got yourself a miniature skyline of skyscrapers, ready to be encased beneath a faceted crystal dome (which turns out to be a disposable trifle bowl). It makes you wonder what could happen if she was let loose on the great Pacific garbage patch.

Vriesendorp’s work is not so much upcycling as transmogrification, bestowing new meanings and personalities on domestic odds and ends in a process of surrealist alchemy. “This was an incredible find!” she cries, grabbing a bottle of toilet cleaner that she turned into a person hunched over their phone, by simply adding a tiny pair of hands. “It already had arms! Can you believe it? It’s like Waitrose made it especially for me.”

Her curious creations can now be found dotted around the nooks and crannies of the Cosmic House, the former home of the late architectural theorist and garden designer Charles Jencks in Holland Park, London, in a new exhibition, Cosmic Housework. Vriesendorp was a close friend and collaborator of Jencks, whom she met in the 1970s through her then husband, the architect Rem Koolhaas, with whom she co-founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Jencks’s house makes a fitting venue, standing as a riotous manifesto of postmodernism and ad-hocism, stuffed full of architectural in-jokes and cosmic symbolism, every surface heaving with collected trinkets. Like Vriesendorp, Jencks revelled in elevating everyday, off-the-peg items, using MDF painted to look like marble, creating a Hindu-esque frieze out of wooden cooking spoons in the kitchen, and dressing up the filing cabinets in his study as miniature skyscrapers – or “slide-scrapers” – to house his bounteous slide collection.

Swan Lake, part of the installation view of Cosmic Housework.
Swan Lake. Photograph: Thierry Bal

The two began collaborating by chance in the 1990s. “We were having dinner at Charlie’s house,” Vriesendorp recalls, “and I saw his model of the Parco Portello landscape project he was working on in Milan. I told him it was no good – so he asked if I could start work the next day.”

The exterior of The Cosmic House.
Fitting venue … The Cosmic House. Photograph: ©Sue Barr

Jencks was a consummate writer and cosmologist, but he was a clumsy model maker, and had little interest in how his designs were actually built. Vriesendorp created the Plasticine models for his undulating cosmic land formations, on display in the house – including the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, co-designed with his wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks, on their family land in Portrack, Scotland, and the mammarian mounds of Northumberlandia, AKA “Lady of the North”, which bulges next to an open-cast mine near Newcastle. Vriesendorp plays down her role, but it was clearly a two-way collaboration. More than mere model maker, she helped give form to Jencks’s abstract ideas.

“My role was to get him to stop,” she chuckles. “He always wanted to add stuff, with multiple focal points all over the place. In his garden, he was master of the universe, adding and subtracting whatever he wanted, translating the cosmos into all these little bushes and stones. It was so crazy.”

She has little time for theorising her own work. When I ask what drives her to make these things, she grins and shrugs. “No reason. Just pure enjoyment. I made a lot of these things to entertain my neighbours’ kids.”

Body Pillows, Clock, and Dice from the Mind Game series.
Body Pillows, Clock, and Dice from the Mind Game series. Photograph: Thierry Bal

The enjoyment is infectious. Around the house, we find giant cardboard dice, a foot, a dog and a spotted golden bean, among other props, which turn out to be scaled-up versions of pieces from her Mind Game, a cod-psychoanalysis table game that she plays with visitors to her home. She asks guests to choose some of these miniature items and arrange them in a tableau, from which she divines a tarot-like reading. “I once had a famous museum director do it,” she says. He chose a black egg and placed it front of a disembodied woman’s torso. “It was so revealing of his attitude. He was terrible with women, always leaving them with the kids.”

Eszter Steierhoffer, director of the Jencks Foundation, has been keen to foreground the often overlooked role of women in the Cosmic House programme. The first artist in residence at the house, Marysia Lewandowska, focused on highlighting the crucial input of Maggie Keswick Jencks into Charles’s work, bringing her presence to life with voice recordings around the house. The title of Vriesendorp’s show is telling. “Housework is the work we do so that we can do our proper work,” she says. “It is often done by women, and it’s often overlooked,” although she insists that Jencks never played down her contribution.

Enlightened Gamers at The Cosmic House.
Enlightened Gamers, at The Cosmic House. Photograph: Thierry Bal

One of her paintings graces the cover of his 2011 book, The Story of Post-Modernism, which also features her cartoonish drawings that brought his esoteric ideas of “enigmatic signifiers” to life. On display upstairs, they include a series that shows how the form of various “iconic” buildings – like Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” – hint at other things, like a woman lying down, or a bulbous sex toy. “We were laughing the whole time,” she says. “He was talking and I was drawing my cartoons. We had such fun.”

The giggles echo throughout the house, whether in the bevy of milk bottle swans that she has installed in Jencks’s baroque whirlpool bath, or the dismembered limb cushions scattered around the living room, or the “handelier” hanging at the top of the staircase – the bad puns abound. A giant cardboard foot props open a door downstairs. “It’s a foot in the door!” Vriesendorp laughs. “Charles would have loved that.” This is, after all, a man who designed lamps with coiled springs in his seasonal “spring” themed living room, and who used to tell visitors: “If you can’t stand the kitsch, get out of the kitchen.”

Like a surrealist Easter egg hunt, there are more things to spot everywhere you look. A blown egg with a screaming face emerges from a little box on a window sill (“that’s Ted Cruz drowning”), a devil’s face looms from a window, while a loo roll pig stares out from a honey bottle, like some haunted, pickled specimen. But for Vriesendorp, it’s still not enough.

“I brought so much shit here from my house, and it still looks empty,” she sighs. “And my house looks just as full as ever.”

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