Ostensibly inspired by the aftermath of a financial collapse precipitated by dodgy mortgages, The Near and the Elsewhere purports to document artists’ takes on the constructed landscape after a crash. There’s nothing new in this idea of the city as barometer for a fragile system: from architect Sir John Soane’s depictions of his yet-to-be-built Bank of England in ruins, like a Roman palace, to memorable images from the movie Planet of the Apes, culture is saturated with images of urban destruction. So perhaps it’s appropriate that this little exhibition is set in the lovely, light gallery of Pitzhanger Manor, Soane’s country house, which now finds itself in suburban Ealing, west London.
Among the most arresting works here is Edgar Martins’s series of photos of US construction projects abandoned in the wake of the crash. It is striking as much for its backstory as for its imagery, although the abandoned McMansions do exude an existential bleakness. Martins, a Portuguese photographer born in Macau and based in the UK, was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine to produce the series. Entitled “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age” it ran in the magazine in 2009 and then someone pointed out that Martins had digitally manipulated some of the images, which caused a furore. But that, of course, is what artists do – they interpret.
At this show there are greater and lesser degrees of interpretation. There are Francis Alys’s photos of the homeless of Mexico, jarringly juxtaposed with shots of dogs sleeping in the street and there are Greg Girard’s beautiful photographs of fragments of old colonial Shanghai, still (just) standing in the midst of encroaching modernity. But there are also the eerie constructions of Thomas Demand and James Casebere, who meticulously model their structures in cardboard and light them as if they were the real thing – a strange confusion of scale and physicality. Gregor Graf, meanwhile, takes generic urban landscapes, places of familiar mundanity, and strips them of detail, carefully manipulating out signs, painted lines and evidence of location to create cities devoid of language and letters – nowherevilles. Bland modernity is also the subject of one of the works here by Gaia Persico, the show’s curator; it contrasts strongly with her collaged sketches of cities around the world, a series that builds up into an almost Piranesian scribbled urbanity.
There is more familiar fare here as well, such as Rachel Whiteread’s haunting city of second-hand dolls’ houses sinisterly lit from within and Michael Wolf’s overwhelming views of Hong Kong as a wall of habitation; the seemingly endless surface of windows and balconies is relieved only by tiny clues to individual lives – some washing hung out to dry 30 floors up, a barely visible poster stuck in a window.
Few of the works actually touch directly on the economic downturn; rather, they examine an odd mix of local decay and anonymous globalisation. And the stories often outweigh the images. Peter Piller’s photos from a project that involved taking aerial photos of German houses and attempting to sell them to their occupants, for example, show a repetitive, grim suburbanity. The company set up to market the images failed because the householders were upset that their gardens or their neighbours’ gardens looked too unattractive; they didn’t match their cherished mental image of a green, bucolic landscape.
Whether the exhibition succeeds in its intention of documenting the physical effects of the economic crisis is almost irrelevant. The Near and the Elsewhere is a compelling collection of works that depict our environment as something less benign than we might imagine.
Until March 17