The Unstable City
Urban Reflections – Kirsten Lloyd, Christine Nippe (Curators) – Stills Gallery 23th November – 22nd March 2008
Review by Edward Welch
If a top ten all time list of exhibition themes is one day drawn up, then the urban world will surely be in there vying for the top slot. Yet despite the attention it has been paid over the years, it remains as fascinating and enigmatic as ever. Stills Gallery’s show captures something of its elusiveness by focusing on the theme of reflection, both figurative and literal. Work by Sabine Hornig and Dan Graham, for example, explores the nature of urban space precisely by foregrounding the role of reflection within it, and the way in which the reflective surfaces of the city (such as plate glass shop windows, or the mirrored glass which became the symbol of corporate power in the late twentieth century) can distort and disrupt our perception. Hornig photographs empty shops in Berlin, exploiting the mirroring effect of their plate glass windows to overlay the stark and bare interiors with a glimpse of the street life going on around them. Dan Graham, on the other hand, considers the other end of the commercial spectrum in a video piece documenting his glass pavilion, Two Way Mirror Cylinder Inside a Cube. His presentation of the pavilion leads him into an examination of the post-war modernist architecture of corporate America. Graham’s pavilion, in which the viewer is at once seer and seen, both recreates and disrupts the paradigms of looking implied by corporate architecture. Graham draws out how the transparent glass favoured by the architects of the 1950s and 60s, the buildings’ literal transparency implying a more figurative corporate transparency, became eclipsed by the trend for mirrored glass in the 1970s and 80s. The corporate landscape was taken over by opaque buildings which asserted themselves by reflecting the world back at itself and so pushing it away.
In the context of the exhibition, Graham’s video essay stands out for its focus on the smooth and finished spaces of ‘downtown’, where economic and political power expresses itself in built form. The rest of the contributions, including the other work by Graham on display, New Jersey, instead explore the messy or uncertain areas of the urban world, its zones of transition and ragged edges. It is certainly true that exploring the urban fringe has become something of a favoured past-time among photographers, writers and film makers alike; but it is nevertheless the case, as the work on display here makes clear, that getting to grips with it is fundamental for a proper understanding of urban space and its role in peoples’ lives. New Jersey is a lo-fi portrait of middle-class American suburbia. In an enjoyably retro approach to interactivity, the visitor is invited to browse through a carousel of slides capturing the tidy and disconcertingly repetitive nature of suburban life. The hurried nature of these images, together with the glances of suspicion captured on the faces of some of the people in them, suggest an urban detective on the prowl, in search of the truth behind the façade of middle-class American life.
Santu Mofokeng takes us to a rather different suburban environment with his depiction of the townships around Johannesburg. Mofokeng draws our attention to the advertising hoardings which dominate the skyline of the townships. His black and white images throw into relief the dazzling whiteness and brightness of the hoardings, which shine out above the dusty ordinariness of low-rise housing. As such, his images are a commentary on the economic inequalities and structural distortions affecting South African society. At the same time, though, they re-inscribe the hoardings within the urban environment. The hoardings serve as both figurative reference points which signal the past and present relations of power within South African society, and as literal reference points for those who live in and navigate through these spaces.
It is notable that much of the work in the exhibition engages with cities in which space is particularly unstable (Berlin, Tokyo, Johannesburg and New York), and where transition, renewal and fragmentation appear to be the driving principles. Indeed, our overriding impression is that urban space is a matter of ragged edges and zones of transition above all, despite the concerted efforts of urban planners to give it coherence and meaning. This tension between anarchy and order is memorably captured in Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway. Their video piece juxtaposes a famous sequence from Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, in which the hero is taken on a car journey along an unidentified urban motorway (actually located in Tokyo), with a recreation of that journey by the artists in 2005. Using the same point-of-view shot through the windscreen, the artists capture the thrilling and complex landscapes where contingency and unpredictability appear to dominate, yet which are nevertheless part of networks and systems rationally planned. At the same time, their restaging of the journey some thirty years later allows us to grasp the disconcerting way in which space travels through time. For while the roads down which they travel have remained the same, we realise that the cityscape traversed has changed dramatically.
The inherent instability of urban space is reflected on a more abstract level by Rhona Warwick’s Fantoun, a striking collage of post-war modernist architecture set on a sharp red background, into which an urban fox prepares to venture. The uncanny nature of Warwick’s work, which re-combines recognisable places (London’s South Bank seems to feature, for example) into a new and dream-like place, perhaps serves as an effective metaphor for our relationship with the city, one which oscillates between recognition and misrecognition, as we adapt ourselves (or not) to its rhythms of change. Her work suggests too that collage, with its aesthetic of juxtaposition, layering and discontinuity, is one of the most effective and accurate modes for capturing and representing modern urban space. Such is one of the many insights to be gained from this intelligent and stimulating exhibition.