Alex Schweder is a clean person. He comes across as clean right away. His clothes, even his jeans, fit his body like they're tailored. His shoes are tidy, his mouth closed tight. His demeanor is calm; it is impossible to imagine him spilling into awkward emotion. Trained as an architect, he bears that awareness of form that makes the people in the profession look as though they've built themselves rather than simply gotten dressed in the morning.
"I've really tried to fit in," he says, squirming slightly in his seat.
As you get closer, things begin to break down. He wears a jacket riddled with zippers. A pair of bright yellow pants bring to mind rubber rain gear. White feathers embroidered thickly on the shoulders of a black shirt add an unsightly hairiness.
Things get strange where his body meets the world. It is not a clean seam at all.
Schweder's art is about this seam—not the one particular to his body, but the one we all share if we can bear to think about it. Bodies leak, Schweder reminds us, they decay. And our desires let them get away from us. Architecture, by contrast, provides the body with a second, ideal skin. A stable skin.
For the last seven years, Schweder has been exploiting this contrast to its fullest, making art by designing anti-ideal architecture—architecture that heightens, rather than disappears, the uncomfortable experience of real, messy bodies by instigating desire between bodies and buildings. This is art that, before it makes its way to the parts of the body most associated with art—the eyes, the brain—hits you in an involuntary organ (the stomach? the liver?) first.
In one installation, titled Still-Life of Beefsteak and Cheese and owned by the Tacoma Art Museum, a video screen is set into a wall covered in red-and-yellow striped wallpaper scented like donuts. The wall is like food; it draws you close and makes you salivate. It also is an organism with a window into its digesting intestines: The glistening video footage is made from a colonoscopy wand poking around in Jell-O.
Another installation, Lovelorn Walls, is inside two bathroom stalls at the Tacoma Convention & Trade Center. It's as though the white porcelain walls have gone mad. They buckle, protrude, and pucker. Extra crevices are filled by white caulk applied thickly, like frosting. Lovelorn Walls is private, unsettling, taboo—easily the most transgressive work of public art in the Northwest. It is a miracle, and a testament to Schweder's offsettingly professional demeanor, that it was built at all.
Schweder, 37, studied architecture at Pratt Institute in New York, and then in graduate school at Princeton. At Pratt, his designs were wild-looking but, at heart, tamely formal. A turning point came between his two degrees, when he designed a house based on avoidance, a place where the central room is for doing whatever it is you most don't want to do. Psychology had begun to enter the picture, and psychoanalytic theory would become an influence. In another early project under the tutelage of radical architect Elizabeth Diller at Princeton, Schweder proposed a "scenic" road through the ruins under the ground in Seattle's Pioneer Square, a road with a "view"—of structural decomposition.
His longing to explode the idealizing impulse in architecture made him discontent at a mainstream architectural firm in New York (once he proposed that a road be sent through the base of a client's priapic tower, and a grim silence spread across the room), and so in 2000, he picked up and moved to rainy, cheaper Seattle to become an artist. At the same time that he began making art about all the bodily functions that buildings help us deny, he began working a freelance day job—one he still has—waterproofing buildings.
This job might be unappealing to some people, but for Schweder it reinforces his desire to see a building as a process rather than an object, something like Erwin Wurm's deliberately imperfect one-minute sculptures, which are performed by people rather than sculpted in a studio—and which reveal some of our deepest desires about sculpture, especially that it should be immortal and monumental.
Schweder's next building will perform itself over time and out in the elements. It is a commission from Seattle collectors Bill and Ruth True, who recently built a new house. Schweder will create a miniature version of the old house that stood on the site before the Trues demolished it. He'll make the house out of biodegradable plastic that will be loaded with seeds and set in the backyard of the new house. As the house rots in the rain, a garden will spring up from it. Schweder will keep rebuilding the house, which will keep moving, rotting, and leaving a garden in its wake. It will be called This Apple Tastes Like Our Living Room Used to Smell.
After a huge year, Schweder is at a break. His International District studio is bare. Heavy machinery is set up for the kinds of objects he used to make, from materials like resin, vitreous china, urethane rubber, and sugar. In one early series, back when he was still hiding the potent anxiety of his work behind humor, he made customized urinals that directed pee to form a momentary landscape before it got flushed down. Another work from the same period, a little more dejected, is a white porcelain carwash building. It sits in a pool of dark oil, having shat itself.
But he doesn't make objects like he used to. Since last fall, when he returned from a year in Italy on the Rome Prize, he has shown five new installations: Folded Murmur and Sick Building Sequence at Howard House, his former gallery in Seattle; A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day at Seattle's Suyama Space (it will be seen again this winter at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); Spit Skin, in the Northwest Biennial at TAM; and Flatland at SculptureCenter in New York.
Eventually, he wants to make actual buildings. A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day was a bungalow inside an envelope of stitched vinyl that was slowly inflated at mealtimes, the interior rooms squishing together and warping each other like distended organs. He's teaching a class this fall at the Southern California Institute of Architecture on how to perform your own building, how to foreground action as opposed to object—and these are questions he'll be asking himself as well as his students.
"If rotting buildings can be turned into something productive," he says, "then rotting bodies might not be so terrifying."
The image on the homepage of his website is a photograph of a room taken from a waterproofing site. A swarm of mold spots as beautiful as a Yayoi Kusama abstraction has risen from above what looks like a doorway and spread across the ceiling, reaching out toward the viewer. Rot is home. Welcome.