Gyula Kosice's Urban Idealism

Gyula Kosice in Conversation with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro edited by Andrea Giunta. Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Hardcover, 180 pages. $25.
The cover of Gyula Kosice in Conversation with Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro

At first, the "Hydrospatial City," Argentine artist Gyula Kosice’s expansive conceptual work begun in 1972 and continuing to this day, seems firmly planted in the long tradition of floating cities. Around the time Kosice began working on his project, plans for utopian cities were gaining prominence, especially within architecture—see Kenzo Tange's 1960 plan for Tokyo Bay, Mayor John Lindsay's 1967 “Linear City for New York,” and Amancio Williams's 1974 project “The City Which Humanity Needs” for Buenos Aires. The primary maquettes for Kosice’s project are hovering discs, each dotted with transparent bubbles, rings, and platters for various habitats—the regular stuff of mid-twentieth-century utopian architecture. But on closer look, "Hydrospatial City" reveals itself to be something altogether different; it is distinctly an artist’s project rather than an architect’s. Full of enigmatic designations—one site in the city is “for sorting out unreal reveries and dreams,” while others are for “tenderness and other similar sentiments” and “access to confidence and a flattering future”—the collection of manifestos, installations, sketches, diagrams, and musings that make up the project are at once completely fantastical and deeply serious.

Kosice certainly seems like a kook. This impression isn’t contradicted in Gyula Kosice in Conversation with Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, recently published as part of the Fundación Cisneros’s “Conversaciones/Conversations” series. The book includes some twenty years of conversations between Kosice and art historian Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, and it covers the artist’s wide-ranging career. Born Ferdinand Falk in Hungary in 1920, Kosice immigrated to Buenos Aires at the age of four, adopting the name of his birthplace (the city of Kosice in what is now Slovakia) when he was twenty. Kosice spent the 1940s in the thick of the burgeoning Argentine avant-garde, which was infused with the international sensibilities of European immigrants who fled the war. Along with many of his compatriots, Kosice started in literature and then moved to art, publishing two small artists’ magazines—Arturo, of which there was only one issue, and Arte Madí Universal—and organizing exhibitions in private houses in Buenos Aires. Over the next decades, he flitted from magazines to movable, articulated sculptures and large conceptual installations, producing works utilizing water and light, and carved out a unique position in Latin American modernism.

The conversation between Pérez-Barreiro and Kosice moves briskly through the years, hitting the many peaks of Kosice’s vast and varied body of work. Kosice is playful, enigmatic, inconsistent, and fastidiously proud of his own ingenuity; he repeatedly refuses to take artistic movements seriously, dismisses almost all possible influences on his work (including surrealism, Tomás Maldonado, and Joaquín Torres Garcia), and takes credit for influencing others (“Someone who copied me quite a bit in Brazil was Lygia Clark”). Despite how off-putting this is at times, Kosice’s deep self-regard and clear desire to shape his own life story are in keeping with his artistic philosophy of perpetual change and invention. From the methods and materials to the ideas they embody, everything about his work is subject to this doctrine of persistent and ever-varying creation. When discussing two of Kosice’s water-based works, Pérez-Barreiro proposes that they “replace the notion of absolute truth with the concept of created, invented truth.” Kosice agrees: “Exactly. Those are the words: the created truth." It is in our ability to creatively imagine and shape the future, and the open-ended act of creation itself, that Kosice identifies utopia.

With this approach, Kosice moves beyond twentieth-century art into a larger dialogue about the role of creation in Latin American urban history. On the vast continent lying before the Spanish empire, imperial cities weren’t going to just materialize; they had to be invented. From the imperial renovations of Tenochtitlan into Mexico City and Qusqu into Cuzco to the largely failed prewar transformations of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paolo and the twentieth-century planning of Brasília and Caracas, the cities of Latin America have always been laboratories of modern urban invention and reinvention. Only instead of aiming for an ordered, stable, and fixed sense of architecture and planning, Kosice places uncertainty, transcience, and reinvention at the certain of his urban invention: “The imagination could revert the traditional form of an urbanism that is manifested through the valorization of land.” Sure, the "Hydrospatial City" has only a tenuous relationship to reality, but that’s the point. The relentless march of progress doesn’t have to evolve from practical needs and abilities. As Kosice asks, “Why create a sculpture if the habitat itself already is a sculpture?”

Joshua Bauchner is an editor and writer living in New Jersey.