The City is a Paradox

Text by Christabel Stewart and Ajay RS Hothi

...an asylum for individuality that nevertheless functions most effectually through collective actions. Each of us is a subject of a variety of political, economic, legal and cultural authorities that demand of us stringent conformity. The city’s civil structures have been forensically constructed to maximise efficiency in nearly all areas of modern life, including movement, labour, communications and consumption.

The art of Wolfgang Breuer suggests that its viewers should remain alert to what, exactly, is being asked of them by these structures. In photographs and site-specific installations, he uses everyday items – shelves, park benches, shop-window shutters, checkout dividers – to create artificial environments that are at once entirely ordinary, yet unnatural. Anti-squatting barriers are hung like deadpan canvases in a sterile gallery adjacent to derelict buildings that are festooned with them, questioning their aesthetic, functional and civic values.

Klara Lidén’s work is far more confrontational. Writing in Frieze, Sam Thorne describes it as “offer[ing] basic propositions for ways of living, all of which run counter to the norm.” As an urban anarchist, she was fiercely aware of the dirty hypocrisies of modern city living long before the global financial collapse and Occupy movement brought them to the forefront of popular debate. From scavenged cardboard to her own body, she uses the most democratic, widely available tools to build radical new structures. In galleries, she may transform a room into a play area for viewers, or close it off to them altogether, or welcome in the city’s least loved residents, feral pigeons. Outside of traditional art spaces, her movements may be sped up, slowed down or comically exaggerated, refuting the deeply ingrained behavioural codes of the New York street or subway car and suggesting a more carefree alternative.

Adrian Williams, meanwhile, retreats from the city and interjects from afar. When inspecting her work, the viewer can be (mostly) sure that none of her fragmented “memories” – filmed, captured in photographs, annotated in scribbles – actually happened. In 2010, she produced a six-part radio series about a person whose luggage goes missing at an airport, and followed his attempts to retrieve it. For Watering Hole (2013) at the Städel Museum, in the middle of grey Frankfurt, she gathered a brass ensemble and other performers at dusk to stage a complex ritual. That the ritual remained opaque to viewers did not detract from its impact: like all her work, it infused urban life with warmth and romance.

Dena Yago is a photographer and poet who produces uncanny imagery of her terrain, New York City. Her photographs, often mounted on rusty metal and devoid of people, highlight the buildings that remain, those bold embodiments of society’s physical infrastructure that nevertheless bring into sharp relief the spaces between, rarely noticed when they are teeming with bodies. Empty space is equally important in her poetry, both as it is laid out on the page and in the way it evokes visions of New York as it is and as it was. Her vision of negative space as an ever-evolving entity reminds viewers that while humans may have erected the beams and poured the concrete, “their” city has grown in directions they can no longer perceive, much less possess. It holds secrets that will outlive all of us, and for Yago, that revelation offers new ways to navigate and new directions to explore. §

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