The globalized city: Rubble on top of rubble
A new photography exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv takes a depressing but captivating look at the construction and destruction of our expanding cities.
"One day, not that long ago, humanity crossed a certain threshold without even being aware of it," writes Marcus Yaour in the exhibition catalog for "The City Show," currently showing at The Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. "Nothing noticeable had changed the next day, but still, something had changed. From that day forward, more people lived in cities than in rural areas."
This exhibition, curated by Yanai Toister, is based on that moment: historic and insignificant, meaningful and trivial, an irreversible point during the history of humanity. But also, it’s a moment that was fleeting and transitory, the product of economics and politics. Participants in the exhibition, which depicts cities around the world that share similar characteristics, include Israeli photographers and German members of the Ostkreuz photographer's agency.
"Extreme globalization contributes to a homogenization of space," says Toister of the exhibition's theme. The result is a world that is "not necessarily smaller, but more uniform."
In Heinrich Völkel's photo we see a man across a street, his back to the camera, his hands folded behind his back. We look over his shoulder, trying to understand what he sees. There is pile of stones; a ruined building. The twisted metal poles that once held it upright still clutch the foundation, which now resembles an archeological site. Is he looking at the ruins of his confiscated house? Is he a builder surveying a new construction site?
The piece is called "The Destroyed Municipal Prison on Gaza's Main Street" (2009). This detailed description offers additional possible narratives: maybe the man is a former prisoner whose past is betrayed by his body language, the placement of his hands unwittingly revealing a familiarity with handcuffs. It could also be that he is a guard remembering his former workplace, which now no longer exists.
In "Cable car, Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China," a 2008 black-and-white photograph by Maurice Weiss, two suited men wearing cowboy hats sit on a cable car, a security bar in front of them with a huge dune in the background. Their faces are turned towards the photographer. Soon they will be carried away towards the dune, the cable lines cutting angles through otherwise empty scenery.
Another dune appears in a wonderful photograph by Thomas Meyer, part of his "The Resort" series shot in Dubai in 2009. A tractor traverses reddish sand against a perfect blue sky, leaving its marks on the ground behind it, indicating that the dune, now imprinted with track marks, may not be as natural as it first appears.
In Efrat Shalem’s "Untitled"(2003), bags are placed on a bench. Behind them we see the shadows of a net covering an archeological site. In “Shivta Ruins," a black-and-white photograph by Sharon Yaari from 2010, a mysterious man, who could be a priest or an Imam, looks out from an archaeological site. He is photographed from the side, so that we see him, rather than what he's looking at. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet."
In addition to the photographs mentioned here, the exhibition focuses on photographs of buildings and building sites, man-made structures and the aesthetics of forms of life. As Uriel Cohn writes in the catalog, through "established dichotomies between civilization and barbarism, riches and poverty, rational geometric forms possessing coincidental elements, the occupiers and occupied, monochrome and color” are organized.
There is a particular focus on man-made structures that contrast with nature, like those built in deserts or on plains. These concrete creations are represented in every city around the world, characterized by their proliferation, emptiness and artifice, their shattering of the natural skyline and the destruction of the horizon.
A dominant theme of the photographs from Israel is a close connection between the essence of architecture and militarism, demonstrating Eyal Weizman's concept of the “architect/general,” which suggests how the political vision of the occupation is shaping the urban landscape.
Some of the works, like Efrat Shvili's excellent photos, concentrate on the construction of settlements. Svili's perspective documents the crowded, slum-like houses for new residents, the walls that violently erupt from the rocky ground (Ma’aleh Adumim, 1998). Some photographs focus on demolished or neglected buildings, such as those by Dor Guez (Lydd Ruins, 2010); others focus on the nouveau-riche fantasy villas that appear like luxurious tombs or fortresses, as depicted by Gilad Ophir's "Cyclopean Walls" series from 1995.
The logic of a capitalist system
The photographs from members of the Ostkreuz photographer's agency, mainly of Dubai, China and Nigeria, reveal an element of the hyper-real, theatrical design, and the clear and cruel distinctions created by the logic of a capitalist system.
"Building in the city continues to expand,” Yanai Toister writes of the decision to focus the exhibition on construction and demolition. "A new texture is enveloping all that came before. The periphery is surviving at the expense of the center, and vice versa. Therefore the city has the perpetual appearance of a building site, an unfinished project.
There are other ways to explore construction and destruction, for example, by looking at illegal houses and their subsequent demolition, archeology and towers of Babel, underground economies and affordable housing, wastelands and summer houses.
But Toister chose to concentrate on specific types of photography. His focus is so narrow that, despite the fact that 19 artists are represented, for a moment the exhibition appears to be a solo show around the theme of the home as mausoleum.
There are hardly any photographs of transportation, motion or movement. Neither are there any documenting two main characteristics of the city – its intensity and simultaneity (there is also no night photography).
Instead, we're left with the monumental stillness of these compositions; the documentation of an absence that is almost identical in each photo. The photographer's view – and by extension, our own – become the last bulwark against deterioration, extinction and forgetfulness.
Viewing the exhibition is like wandering around a cemetery with a sense of commemoration surrounding the walls and opaque tombstones that silently stare back at us. In addition to the political readings of these works, there is a hidden romantic dimension as well.
This is a depressing exhibition, not only because of its grayness and not only because it documents dead suburbs. It is depressing because it succeeds in striking an alternative understanding that we are viewing the representation of human life: its needs, uses, illusions and fears in relation to its inept performance.
Aside from the pervading nervous romanticism, there is a lack of human dimension. It requires a lot of patience and is difficult to empathize with.
"The City Show" group exhibition. Curator: Yanai Toister.
Artists include: Boaz Aharonovitch, Gilad Ophir, Espen Eichhöfer, Daniel Bauer, Sibylle Bergemann, Dor Guez, Harald Hauswald, Maurice Weiss, Sharon Yaari, Joseph Cohen, Thomas Meyer, Dawin Meckel, Heinrich Völkel, Andrey Karmanzok, Miki Kratsman, Julian Roeder, Efrat Shvili, Efrat Shalem, Linn Schröder.
The Center for Contemporary Art, 5 Kalisher St., Tel Aviv
Opening hours: Monday-Thursday 14:00 to 19:00; Friday and Saturday 10:00 – 14:00.Exhibition runs until August 24th.