Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

It’s midday in northern New Mexico, and the guided tour starts with a request (nay command) to stay on the sandy path. We’ve come to visit a cave: in 1994, local cave digger Ra Paulette (he shirks the term artist) began burrowing into a sandstone cliff to create the intricate interiors of Windows on the Earth, a sanctuary-like hideaway. Dug by hand over the course of two years, it comprises a sequence of tall and narrow vaults converging on a central space, where a throne-like seat is set high up in the wall; as you move through the cave, eccentric ornamentation — organic whorls, fossil-like seashells, shrine alcoves — punctuates implausibly smooth surfaces. It’s a wonder of man shaping the landscape, but first, we’ve stopped for a New Age biology lesson.

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Art institutions often crow about their roles as bastions of progressive thought — places robust enough to tackle tough cultural questions in the gallery. Yet the 2018 firings of several prominent curators and directors exposed the precarity of women who speak out and through their exhibitions and programs, provoke conversations about race, gender, privilege, and power. As we move into 2019, it seems more important than ever to interrogate the dubious narrative of the museum as a safe space, but also to hold out hope that it can be a place of resistance. Read More …

Driving the 101 Freeway from Silver Lake to Calabasas, California, I kick around in my head the literary references I could use to describe this stretch of road bounded by the Sherman Oaks Galleria to the south and the turnoff for the Ronald Regan Presidential Library to the north. Charles Bukowski’s pulp and grit was left back in Hollywood, we’ve crossed out of Reyner Banham’s ecologies, and the hills that so famously burn in Joan Didion’s Letter from Los Angeles are farther east. There’s probably a German term for this landscape of rolling hills, Starbucks, and Lexus dealerships. Certainly Adorno coined some phrase in his critique of the culture industry, written while living in exile in the Pacific Palisades.

It’s tempting to say that we are on the edge — the edge of culture, the edge of suburbia, the edge of rural California and all the narratives that go with it. (The Western High Noon was shot at Warner Bros. Ranch, which is now the Calabasas Golf Club.) But if we leave behind old-fashioned geography and look at our pin on the media map, we find that this is the territory of E!: a pop-cultural space populated by people whose names often start with K.

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As busy, busy people who move through the world and occasionally need to sit still, we have a tacit understanding that furniture should be, if not comfortable, at least neutral — ready to accept the buttocks of any size, gender, race, or orientation. Beautiful designs tempt us into repose. However the conceit of universal design is upset when we are forced to recognize that not all bodies fit in or are supported by the most elemental of objects. So when, earlier this year, Hunger and Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay was fat-shamed for requesting a chair sturdy enough to support her frame and outcry ensued against this affront on body acceptance, I was also shocked by how a simple function — sitting — could be weaponized against bodies. It’s with Gay’s incident in mind that I approached maneuvering my wide hips into the dimensions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Barrel chair. Low ceilings are generally cited for the architect’s famous disregard for bodies other than his own, his sense of scale being modeled on his (alleged) 5-foot-8-and-1/4-inch height. Designed in 1907 as part of the custom furniture of his Gesamtkunstwerk, Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, the Barrel chair is one of his most popular designs, often replicated in its nearly circular geometries. Settled into a reproduction of its oak corseting and obliged thereby to adopt a morally good posture, I imagine other people, other soft bits, shifting uncomfortably against the constraints of universality, yet comforted by the allure of an icon.

Taking cues from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, architect Tatiana Bilbao frames her practice around the ethics of the “other,” a deep-seated philosophy and an almost moral compulsion to make architecture that puts the human subject first. It’s an idealist position, perhaps even old-fashioned, at a time when architecture’s social agenda is all too often shortchanged for formal hijinks. Indeed, Bilbao, who is in her early forties, began her career alongside other Mexican architects vying for the global stage, such as Fernando Romero, her friend and former business partner, who, with the swoopy shiny Soumaya Museum (2011), landed complex, computational architecture in Mexico City. Formally much quieter, Bilbao’s work carries its own powerful aesthetic — from early conceptual ideas to more recent projects such as the sensitive, light-flooded Tangassi funeral home in San Luis Potosi (2005–11) or the gleaming Bioinnova research building at the Monterrey Institute of Technology (2009–12) — and proves that architecture’s social responsibility doesn’t have to sacrifice beauty, materiality, or form. With 31 employees and projects in Belgium, China, France, Spain, and Switzerland, as well as her native Mexico, her namesake firm, which she runs with partners David Vaner and her sister Catia, is in high demand. But though she may have the schedule of a jet-setting “starchitect,” in person the mother of two small daughters is warm, down-to earth, and generous with the little time she has, sometimes to the point of exhaustion (just prior to the photo shoot for this issue, she was diagnosed with pneumonia). PIN–UP met Bilbao over a Peruvian lunch in downtown Los Angeles to talk about her interest in urban planning, her family history, and how working with Gabriel Orozco led to an architectural epiphany of sorts.

To read the full interview, download PDF here.