On 11th February 2012, I joined Gaia Persico to give a talk about the exhibition ‘the near and elsewhere’ which she curated at the PM Gallery, Ealing, London. We had a good crowd! There’s big names in this show of photography and other artistic media, which runs until 17th March.
This was my introduction:
In this show, contemporary artists address one of the biggest phenomena of the day: 21st century urbanism. For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. When we think of our planet, we think of oceans and mountains and so on, but actually the world most of us live in is now artificial- streets, buildings, transport etc- the ‘concrete jungle’.
There are familiar issues to do with city life that artists have long addressed- alienation and anonymity, for example, or the contrast between the intimacy of interior spaces and the built environment outside. Think about the paintings of say Edward Hopper, where you often become a voyeur glimpsing private moments in rooms or bars in the big city, which is out there, atmospheric but indifferent. Contrasts like that are explored here. But there are new issues. Two stand out, and they are linked- the collapse of the American suburban dream, and the rise of the Chinese megacity.
Planners and architects now understand that suburbs are unsustainable- they guzzle energy, they go hand in hand with the destructive culture of cars and motorways, they are socially exclusive rather than inclusive, and not least they eat up land. But the twentieth century ideal for living was suburban, particularly in the US. That dream crashed big-time with the US Housing Bubble. US property prices peaked in 2006, the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed in 2007, and in 2008 the US Government had to pump almost $900 billion into loans and rescues to save the banking sector. Many works here show us new American houses built in the time of easy credit that have simply been abandoned.
Of course, the biggest source of credit to the US is China. Ever since 1980, when Deng Xao-ping unleashed the dragon of capitalism, China has been industrialising and exporting goods to the West and building up mountains of money as a result. That rapid industrialisation has driven the biggest exodus in human history, from the Chinese countryside to the city. In 2010, there were 171 Chinese cities of over a million people, most of them we’ve never heard of. In December, I visited Shenzhen– in 1980, it was fishing villages, now it’s a bright metropolis bigger than London. Planners and architects now understand that density is what makes cities work and become sustainable. The Chinese take density to extreme, and we see that here in the photos of say Michael Wolf, who addresses that dichotomy of internal and external space in Hong Kong. We also see how rapid urbanisation is steam-rollering the built environment of the past, for example in Shanghai, brilliantly captured by Greg Girard. Pictures like this are snapshots from the start of a story that will run this whole century and increasingly define cities everywhere- the story of the Chinese urban experience.
There are other urban issues that artists address here, such as the gap between the real and representation- Thomas Demand has long played with that ambiguity, and so here do others. There is also the eternal issue of urban poverty, something Francis Alys touches here. So let’s go look….
We started by looking at a photo from Gregor Graf’s Hidden Town series, this one called Situation 2. Graf stripped away all signage, advertisements, words and any human presence from the streetscape, in this case at a petrol station in Linz, a major town in his native Austria (in China, it might qualify as a village!). The result is unreal, as if the city had been silenced and suspended in a sort of urban limbo. Elsewhere in the series he tackled London, which does look different to Linz, but is similarly de-localised. His Oxford Street (not in the show) looks banal and mundane, highlighting how architecture often plays less of a role in giving a sense of identity to the modern built environment than the superficial lights and branding we dress it up with. It also introduces us to another issue running through the show- the manipulation of images.
Michael Wolf‘s shot of cliffs of housing blocks in Hong Kong, filling the whole of the huge a57 from his Architecture of Density series, really brings home the mind-numbing scale of Chinese urbanisation. One of the things that German photographer Wolf is interested in is repetition, and this shot overwhelms you with the repetition of flats stretched right across it. I counted the storeys on the right-hand edge: 63. It looks like social housing, and Hong Kong has lots of that, but the world’s tallest social housing is actually in Singapore, at the 50-storey Pinnacle@Duxton estate. That had me wondering if Wolf hadn’t Photoshopped the repetition. Gaia’s opinion is that it must be private housing- and she may be right, there’s plenty of that sort of scale in places like West Kowloon or climbing up The Peak- but I’m not sure!
Canadian photographer Greg Girard shows another side to Chinese urbanisation in his series Phantom Shanghai, and several photos are included in the show. The Independent newspaper rated the book of this project as one of the top ten photographic books ever. Two photos here show old, decrepit houses against a backdrop of modern development. Look closely, and you see lights are burning in them. They could well be what the Chinese call ‘nail houses’- properties where the owners hold on even as every single other neighbouring property has been cleared by the developer. If the occupiers don’t accept buy-out offers, developers have been known to cut the utilities and send in thugs.
Just as the new Chinese urban landscape is erupting, the American suburban dream has been evaporating. Countless new ‘McMansions’ across the US sit abandoned, often uncompleted.
Palestinian photographer Noel Jabbour‘s One Million $ Houses show properties with neo-colonial style wooden porches and balconies, in a mist, as if in a dream that underlines the unattainability of owning them. Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins was commissioned to document it by the New York Times in a series originally called Ruins of a Second Gilded Age, which became This is not a House (and currently on show at the Wapping Project). The newspaper pulled the images from their website after accusations that they were digitally manipulated- raising the issue of authenticity. Gaia and I stood by his picture of an Atlanta, Georgia house and talked about the artist’s freedom to create a work as they see it. What’s wrong with an artist using the tools at his disposal? The brooding sky behind the house reminds me of the pitch-black skies in my favourite Edgar Martins series, A Metaphysical Survey of British Dwellings, works that created an even deeper other-worldliness as well as showing Martins’ mastery of manipulating the image.
Gaia and I talked about the twin installations from Rome’s new Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI Museum. Cino Zucchi Architetti’s Nel Corpo della Citta (In the Body of the City), with its beating heart at the position of the Pantheon in the dense, ancient streetplan of Rome, and Francis Alÿs‘ Sleepers– homeless and dogs in Mexico City- are streetlife. The scale of ancient town plans provides a stage for human activity that is now, again, seen as an ideal, but that activity simultaneously includes and excludes the homeless. Unfortunately, getting our crowd inside the installations’ small space was impractical. (Some may know Alÿs’ Railings, a London video work, is currently on show at Tate Britain’s Migrations).
So, onto another work exploring the broken American suburban dream- James Casebere‘s Landscape with houses (Dutchess County, NY) #7 (2010). It’s another huge photograph, this time of remarkably bland houses in a rural setting. They may look a bit like Port Stanley, but they feel unreal- in fact, they’re models and the entire landscape was constructed by Casebere on a tabletop (including the fire). As Gaia says, ‘the disquieting truth emerges: the utopian model and the American dream are as fictitious as the photographs themselves’. Everything he shoots is a model, even interiors which he sometimes floods. Interesting to know that Casabere actually worked (and still works?) in a Brooklyn studio designed by one of the UK’s most thoughtful contemporary architects, David Adjaye- what a contrast to the extreme banality of his fake rural houses.
Both Michael Wolf and Greg Girard take us inside the buildings they show us in Homg Kong and Shanghai respectively. Setting up the exhibition, Gaia and gallery director Carol Swords mounted Wolf’s array of rooms in 100×100 in a vertical column reaching right up to the ceiling, stacked just like living spaces revealed in the Shek Kip Mei project, Hong Kong’s first public housing estate built in 1954. The numbers refer to the 100 rooms, each 100 square feet- nine square metres- that everyone gets. We gain intimate glimpses into just 56 rooms. In each, occupants sit in their super-crammed spaces that are nevertheless somehow neat and tidy, perhaps for the benefit of the photographer. Girard’s Apartment Interior, #33, Lane 42, Liling Lu (2005) contrasts the grotty flat with it’s newspaper-lined wall below a window looking out onto Shanghai’s floodlit Oriental Pearl Tower, a 468m-high icon finished in 1994 as a symbol of the city’s renaissance. It’s the perfect crystalisation of the contrast between the old and new Chinese urbanism. It’s also an example of an Edward Hopper-like aspect often found in Girard’s work- the link between interior and the big city outside, the exploitation of colour and contrast.
Artist Thomas Demand, one of Germany’s big names, calls himself a photographer, ever since 1993 when he started photographing his sculptures and destroying them. Like Casebere, he makes models, but Demand’s are painstakingly accurate cardboard copies of buildings or furniture, which explore the gap between reality and representation. At the near and elsewhere, we see Black Label, made during a 2008 residency at the CCA gallery in Kitakyushu, Japan. It shows different angles on an odd local building containing the Black label bar, which is tiny, with just a handful of seats. The original building was demolished and rebuilt 100 metres away, so what we see here is a like a replica of a replica of a replica. Gaia also sees a personal aspect in it, commenting that ‘the work brings to the fore the very personal aspect of being displaced…’
That disconnect between reality and representation of buildings has long fascinated me. Architect’s CGIs (computer-generate images) have become more and more realistic as computer processing power has escalated (just as, in parallel, video games have), to the extent that it is often difficult to tell whether an image of a new building is real or not. Nevertheless, in Demand’s work shows, a structure is usually cleaner and more idealised in representation. Gaia’s drawing-based work A Tuesday morning in Long Beach also explores that issue. It’s mounted on a lightbox, as if to invoke the light of computer screens.
Look at the surfaces of her building, however, and they are not the super-clean planes of Demand. As she says, ‘there is an atmosphere of solitude and isolation, of emptiness and abandonment’. The lonely building with its columns made me ask her if there was a connection with another Italian artist, the great surrealist de Chirico, whose dreamscapes often contained buildings with elements like classical columns. Not particularly, she said, but she was flattered with the comparison!
Well, we were out of time, and there was a lot of other things in the show I would like to have talked about, such as Ferit Kuyas’ photographs of Chongqing from his City of Ambition series, showing a brighter Chinese vision than Girard’s. Or Rachel Whiteread’s untitled photo of the cosy village of doll’s houses, from Place, exhibited in the Hayward Gallery’s Psycho Buildings show in 2008- almost like Casebere houses but huddled together in a fairytale urban density!
My take on the near and the elsewhere, apart from recommending the excellent urban photography in particular, is that the show underlines issues of association and disassociation- between China’s rise and America’s malaise, the new and the old, the built environment and human experience, and between reality and image. It is also a visual journey that should leave you thinking, and give something to talk about..