Bricks Decoded: From Humble Material to Sculptural Device

In February 1976, a New York Times editor by the name of Robert B. Semple Jr. wrote about Carl Andre’s infamous “pile of bricks”. Created by the American minimalist artist about a decade earlier, the 120 strategically placed ivory-coloured firebricks that made up a sculpture titled Equivalent VIII had come under fire—so to speak. Purchased by the Tate Gallery to become a part of their permanent collection, the piece was being scorned in the British popular press as a fairly absurd way to spend tax-payer dollars.

At the time, the Tate defended its responsibility to exhibit examples of “work which is being made now.” For the then New York Times’ London Bureau Chief Robert B. Semple Jr., there was entertainment in the controversy and the ensuing British national debate and, in the end, he observed some Tate visitors actually liked Carl Andre’s stack of uncemented bricks. “I like them. They relax me,” he quoted one such museum guest to have said. All in all, it’s just another brick… on the floor?

Fast forward a few decades, and it seems we’re all a lot more relaxed about bricks being controversial, becoming art in all their wonderful simplicity, and being more than only a conventional, sturdy building material. The Tate continues to behold Equivalent VIII as one of the most important pieces of its time, and creatives further afield have followed suit—whether minimalist, maximalist, symbolic, ironic, or otherwise.

From the high-brow, to the innovative, and some more tongue-in-cheek, here are just a few of our favourite artistic applications of bricks and brickwork.

From the Knees of my Nose to the Belly of my Toes by Alex Chinneck

Known for upending banal structures and everyday architecture like carparks, telegraph poles, and brick building facades—British designer and artist Alex Chinneck subverts the everyday material to surprise and delight. For From the Knees of my Nose to the Belly of my Toes, the artist has created a slumped brick façade across the face of a tired, derelict house in the English seaside town of Margate. 

Six Pins and half a dozen needles by Alex Chinneck

Alex revisited bricks in a recent permanent public sculptural intervention slash building façade titled Six pins and half a dozen needles. Twenty metres high and designed to resemble a torn page, the piece is made up of 4,000 red bricks and is intended to reference the building’s history—it was home to a publisher for over twenty years.

PAUSE by Ashari Architects

Designed as a pavilion for an architectural installation in Iran in 2017, PAUSE wielded the potential of bricks as an atmospheric device. A spiral of hanging bricks suspended within a large cube structure encouraged visitors to pause, and peer up into the sky above.

Hy-Fi by The Living

Dreamt up by New York City-based studio The Living, the 2014 MoMA PS1 gallery pavilion was created using green bricks—not bricks in the colour of jade or spearmint, rather brickwork made entirely from biodegradable materials.

Each bio-brick was grown rather than manufactured, using a combination of agricultural byproducts like corn and mushroom mycelium—a kind of natural digestive glue. Titled Hy-Fi, its twisted turrets played host to MoMA Ps1’s summer events as part of the gallery’s Young Architects Program.

Espacio Transmisor Del Túmulo by Toni Gironés

Somewhere in the Lleida province in Spain is Seró—a tiny town in which the remains of stone megalith dating back to the third millennium BC (about 4,800 years ago) was recently unearthed. In tribute to the discovery, Catalan architect Toni Gironés created a brick monument titled Espacio Transmisor Del Túmulo, which is a to-scale version of the ancient village discovered on the site. The structure won the FAD prize for architecture in 2013 and was one of the three works chosen to represent Catalonia at the Venice Architecture Bienniale in 2014.

The exhibition space as a pedestal for itself by Filip Dujardin

Belgian artist and photographer Filip Dujardin has a vast portfolio of images of fictional buildings—structures created in digital collage that switch the ordinary into something extraordinary. Exhibited at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in 2013, The exhibition space as a pedestal for itself was Filip’s first foray into 3D, sculptural work.

Rather than create models or life-size versions of his science fiction buildings, Filip created a series of red brick ‘interventions’ within the architecture of the gallery. “The brick walls nestle like parasites in, on, over and behind the folds of the building and suggest how things could be, what might be coming,” he wrote in a statement.

Treasures of a nation by Filip Dujardin

Filip recreated the same red brick interventions for CC De Steiger Menen in Belgium the following year, this time in a single white room with a grid ceiling. For Treasures of a nation, Filip arranged a deconstructed room within the gallery room in fragmented rows of bricks.

“By walking through the space new spatial perceptions emerged between the architectural fragments and recomposes the original space in the head,” he wrote. “A solid room became unstable, a mental space collapsed.”

The Minimal City by Matteo Mezzadri

Created by Parma-based multidisciplinary artist Matteo Mezzadri, Le città minime or The Minimal City is a still life photography series—and a meticulous assembly of dozens of individual bricks.

Promise of a Better World by Jose Dávila

A little like Alex Chinneck, Jose Dávila first caused a sensation through his photography—blank cutouts of the world’s most architecturally significant buildings. In 2014, he hosted an exhibition of sculpture titled State of Rest, which was exhibited at Mexico City’s Galería OMR.

Each piece focused on the fundamental building blocks of architecture—hefty slabs of marble, granite, timber, and brick, suspended by coloured commercial tie down straps in order to appear to defy gravity. For Promise of a Better World, Jose arranged a set of uncemented bricks not unlike Carl Andre before him, this time resting white neon frames against the structure, neutralizing its boundaries and softening its weight.

Brick Train Darlington by David Mach

Commissioned in 1994 by Darlington Borough Council in Northern England, Scottish sculptor David Mach’s brick locomotive was the largest public sculpture in Britain for a time (it was eclipsed by Anish Kapoor in 2010).  Replete with billowing smoke plume and designed to resemble Sir Herbert Nigel Gresley’s A4 class train, the life sized steam engine is made out of specially fired-again "Accrington Nori" brick—a material often used in the area.

By Hand by Dan Stockholm

Meant as a sort of memorial to his later father, Danish artist Dan Stockholm imprinted his hands into a set of red clay bricks as part of an exhibition of his work titled HOUSE. Much of his work is concerned with gesture, drawing attention to the process in making, or something Dan calls “creative archeology”.

The Castle by Jorge Méndez Blake

Based in Guadalajara in Mexico, architect slash artist Jorge Méndez Blake is an avid reader—and his artwork speculates the power of both architecture and literature. Created in 2007, The Castle is laid with a little more symbolism than Carl Andre’s 1966 brick wall in the gallery. Rupturing the neat rows of bricks is a paperback edition of Kafka’s ‘The Castle’—suggesting the potential of small ideas to have an undeniable, powerful impact. 

Brickolage by Kuehn Malvezzi

Similarly centred on the clout of bricks and literature is a three-part furniture series by Italian-German studio, Kuehen Malvezzzi. Exhibited in the lobby of the Galleria Gio Marconi at Salone in 2013, the series of bookshelves were made using bricks produced by Danish firm Peterson Tegl and then lined with books supplied by Milanese publisher Mausse.

Bricks by Anna Dominiguez and Omar Sosa

Spanish art director, publisher and graphic designer, Omar Sosa creates totems from everyday items – from teacups, loaves of bread, rolls of tape, birthday candles, colanders, and sieves. In collaboration with Anna Dominiquez, and with photography by Nacho Alegre, he also made a series of brick and cinderblock totems – arranging the ordinary in such a way that it became something curious, playful, and extraordinary.

The Multipurpose Brick by Max Siedentopf

If you haven’t got it by now, bricks are versatile! Photographer and artist Max Siedentopf is probably best known for adding cardboard supercar features like spoilers, splitters, and wings to parked cars in Amsterdam in a series titled Slapdash Supercars. He also shot a series called The Mutlipurpose Brick, in which the humble red brick becomes all manner of (very useful) things. A door stop, gym weight, back scratch, wallet, picnic basket, ping-pong bat, mouse pad, nail file, set of dominos, a plate, portable steps, even a pillow. The possibilities are truly endless.

This piece was published for Yellowtrace, in partnership with Brickworks on 28 May, 2018.