Introduced by Colin Graham
by Colin Graham
When cities change they create and multiply nostalgias. What was once the shock of the materially new accretes layers of its own over the years. Buildings, corners, junctions and doorways become smeared with the ends and beginnings of moods and extraordinary stories, or just the comforting repetition of everyday life. By erasing these smuts of time, the new building or the fresh, open-planned space can look like the embarrassed expression on a sheepish unknown face, with a strangeness which is an abomination to the city's ease with its own complexity. By our stage in city life the sight of the new has a superficial confidence, but it is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the spectres of those nostalgic pasts, which call it to account, challenging it to belong to the city, to either create its own history quickly, or refute the city's pasts for the sake of the future.
Belfast is in this sense a typical post-industrial city. Realising too late that its material base was disappearing and disreputable, the city in the 1980s and early 90s comforted itself inadequately by being forlorn, and glanced with weariness, often truculence, towards the future. Like other 'British' cities then; though particular, and obviously different too. Jettisoning the past and reinventing itself for the future was always going to be more than an economic necessity for Belfast, and more than a political slogan too. It's too easy to sentimentalise a sense of community in the city, but it's even easier to dismiss it. Belfast wrote its sectarianism all over itself, and graffiti was only the most readable form. Its relative stasis for the best part of seventy years gave Belfast the dubious opportunity to make marks of itself everywhere, like the criminal wiping away his traces and leaving smeared fingerprints as evidence.
John Davies's photographs of Belfast, part of his Metropoli project, include what appears to be the ultimate in Belfast nostalgia; one of Harland & Wolff's cranes seen from the top of other, and the city in the background. Davies's images have the initial appearance of superficiality, yet their uncanniness and perception grows with a lingering gaze, and the photographs take on a hazy, shimmering appearance that questions our own ways of looking at the industrial landscape. Davies takes us to the edge, his elevated position as seeing eye brings on a kind of urban vertigo. ln the Harland & Wolff shot Belfast fades away into a silvery palette and becomes a cloud city. The yard's own once vastly peopled spaces are now the site of an impending grand dereliction, and the crane is a lonely skeletal structure, splay-legged and graceful. Above it the city is apparently supported on its beam, but the clouds move against the viewing eye and the city is actually being squeezed into the sky. Whatever kind of new day this suggests, it leaves behind the sense of a yesterday which has been hollowed out; this is, foremost, a photograph of the unused space beneath the crane, pointed to by the striking lines of the shed which in turn supports the beam. The yard's past is irretrievable, this shot implies, and its hold over the city is now only, and at best, an architectural anomaly. Even this dominance is undermined in another of Davies's images, looking across the river towards the new odyssey complex, in which the two H & w cranes stand at the edge of the image with the appearance of dutifully invited but unfashionable guests at an opening night.
The Metropoli project on which Davies has embarked registers, whether it wants to or not, a new form of urban alienation: but should we accept its diagnosis? What does Davies see in the often vast spaces which are like dizzying chasms between his lens and its point of focus? Is Birmingham to be equivalent to Belfast? If we know one city and not the other, how does that change our perception? Davies's eye is curiously foreign. It is certainly not intimate but equally has no sense of recoil. It is also deliberately devoid of human narrative (people are registered by their smallness and their shadows, like figures giving perspective to an architectural drawing). His usually down-turned look risks looking down at its subject matter. What does Davies see? Is he cataloguing the effects of the abstractable change that is the decline of manufacturing and shipbuilding, and the final death throes of Victorian prosperity? Or does he hear the ghostly voices and sounds that echo from the past? Or put another way, are we being asked to see the city anew, at an odd angle and an acute perspective? Is it up to us to work at the city? Take that space under the crane. If we know that 'Belfast Confetti' rained from these heights can we avoid hearing its clatter on the ground below? The space invites stories to fill the silence, and, seeing this image, I remember my father's stories about his own apprenticeship in the shipyard; like how his mother borrowed ten pounds to secure his apprenticeship, which was returned three years later when he'd finished. The money had never been mentioned since his sixteenth birthday - on the day of his nineteenth birthday he came home with the ten pound note, expecting to buy a new suit and a good night out. When he opened the door she was waiting for him: 'Where's my ten pounds?'. And so the city comes back to life and I resent that squeeze put on it by this perspective, and refuse to see it in a contemporary monochrome version of sepia. Belfast has neat stories, well told, rehearsed, self-ironic but above all tender and lasting. Sentimental, yes, but still there.
Davies' photographs can tell stories though. one of the oddest images is of a scaffolded, tarpaulined building in the process of being built (the actual building is now an apartment block off the Dublin Road). Again there is a blankness to this image, like a canvas waiting to be painted. The story here is at and about a point of revelation and unveiling. The new building protected by its drapery, feigning modesty, but maybe anticipating shame when its brash newness is revealed. The cranes which made it are almost animate because the building workers are rendered absent, and the cranes look to be turning away in uppity disdain. Actually they have the suspicious look of the minder, scouting for trouble when the celebrity appears in public. By turning the transitory moment of building into its own monument and aesthetic, this photograph pauses us between two times, a moment of real narrative tension and undecidability. What will emerge from under the covering? What can possibly pretend to adequately replace and fill this corner, in which the internationalism of a global hotel chain looks to make its mark and welcome visitors to a new city in the style of its welcome to any other city? Davies would have found the building behind the covering as intriguing, since at its centre is an oddly proportioned space, a kind of unfinished atrium which looks like it was traumatically wrenched out the faqade. ln this and his other photographs Davies does us the service of cataloguing and commenting on a series of moments of change in Belfast's fabric, which is shown to be a fragile confidence with a muslin-like transparency. Everywhere we can just see the outline of the past through the material.
Davies opens out the city, and the proportions of Victorian Belfast's buildings are startlingly ignored and denied their status as the maior architectural and psychical pattern of the city. Belfast is now composed of sleeker lines, low-lying, sky-tending or diagonal, and differently beautiful for it, while Victorian Belfast's familiar rectangles are traced out only in the shapes of car parks. Even the hills to the north and south, so unmissably dominating for a pedestrian, cower under Davies's elevation. We need to read hard at Davies's images to catch the melancholy and hints of terror which older versions of Belfast can still induce despite their razing and the process of reconstruction. The key here is in the image of the college and church at Millfield which in their carefully revealed, synchronised, slender white blocks act as a reminder that the city had many reconstructions - we just tended to ignore them, seeing every building as red brick by default. Yet in the image which looks over the parked cars down towards the back of the Ormeau Baths, another Belfast muscles in - the Donegall Pass, where the chaotic, esoteric and low level juxtaposition of history-ridden UVF murals and antique shops proclaims the life of the past in louder though more claustrophobic ways than Davies's vision can encompass. Davies catches the moments in which a city's nostalgia is made, when the tarpaulin is pulled back like the curtain on an unveiled plaque, and in the midst of the achievement of newness we feel that twinge of regret for its completion, because the future of a city space revealed is the beginning of a life-in-death for many pasts.