You are in a multistorey car park. You don’t know where your car is. It must be in one of the four corners, on one of the seven levels, by one of those numberless pillars. But they all look the same. You can’t leave without the car and you cannot find it in the concrete labyrinth. This is the modern city.
The familiar scenario is brilliantly embodied in a series of photocollages by the coruscating conceptual artist Tim Head, now in his 70s. Some show foyers, vacant except for the ubiquitous potted plant; others show spaces so anonymous it is impossible to guess where or what they are, except that each inspires an uneasy deja vu. And what doubles the disquiet is that you have no idea whether you are looking up or down, inside or out, whether the lights are on the floor or the roof.
The disorientation is total, even though the methods are simple. A single image has been flipped and multiplied like a Rorschach; yet the sense of bewilderment is complete. Where are these riddling stage sets, so futuristic and empty – how has Head managed to photograph these non-places?
In fact, they are skimmed directly from reality. Back in the 80s, Head took flaneuristic walks through London by night, photographing corporate lobbies, hotel entrances, underground car parks. The collages of mirrored images, black and white but occasionally tinted an eerie orange or blue, were part of an ongoing series on the character of city life. Their titles are all taken from Baudelaire’s famous essay, The Painter of Modern Life, in which he exhorts contemporary artists to catch the modernity of their times – “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent”. And by modernity, he meant the city.
This fascinating show at Parafin, the young West End gallery founded by two former Tate staff, takes Baudelaire as its starting point with a terrific variety of artworks that brush against and through the British city. Mike Ballard ’s abstract sculptures, made from recycled hoardings, bring grimy London straight in off the streets. His paintings mark a sharp division between the ordinary and the alien, depicting sections of city walls where stone carries traces of old images and words. They look as ancient as brass rubbings of medieval tombs yet as modern as the abraded stickers just about discernible in their ghostly surfaces.
The old city lives in new clothes; it wears the signs of the times on its ageing body. Or does it? What if the passage of time is not so obvious after all? Abigail Reynolds has pursued this counterintuitive idea in a captivating series called The Universal Now. She makes cut-and-fold collages out of vintage book plates and photographs, splicing together images of the same spot separated by several decades. A lattice of openings and flaps, impossibly complex, creates a unique honeycomb of image and sculpture.
Look into one of these strange hybrids and you see three grinning urchins sitting on a window ledge looking down on St Paul’s Cathedral. But is this 1926, or is it 1993? The caption implies both, and the eye can’t immediately distinguish between the visual fragments of these two different eras. Time seems to stop: in Trafalgar Square, on the Mall, in the City. London is suspended for ever in the moment that we see it. The past is always here in the present.
For contemporary artists obsessed with the relatively recent past – with early modernism, say, or postwar utopianism – the city has often been the impetus for some quite sardonic work. The Scottish artist Nathan Coley is showing several of his Parade Sculptures, which look like shattered 60s tower blocks, rendered as aluminium models. Mounted on sticks like protest signs, they now lie useless on the gallery floor, as if the protest against this inhuman architecture had failed. And Keith Coventry’s Ontological Painting sends up the you-are-here signage found on tourist signs in city centres. His all-white canvas, rough and aged as a suprematist abstraction, is booby-trapped with black arrows pointing in different directions. Clearly you can’t be here, there and everywhere, so where are you? Nowhere but the middle of a conceptual joke, a picture that sends up modern life and modernist paintings.
Of all the artists in this show, Baudelaire would surely have preferred the German-born photographer and film-maker Melanie Manchot. Manchot goes straight for the transient and contingent with a three-screen installation that moves through the modern city like a high-speed flaneur. Set in different parts of Newcastle, this epic film follows a group of free runners practising parkour, running through streets, along ledges, across bridges and roofs – tracing the lineaments of the city with their feet.
One man performs handstands across the roof of the Sage Gateshead. Another leaps from the balcony down to the stage, and then the stalls, as if fulfilling the audience’s wild dreams. A runner darts across the swing bridge as it turns, so that he always appears to be in the same place in the cityscape, while others jump railings and bollards, streaming through back gardens like the swimmer in John Cheever’s eponymous story, swimming his way home through the neighbourhood pools.
Manchot has been shortlisted for this year’s Derek Jarman award for art films ( a touring show opens in October ) and it’s no surprise. This study of mankind’s movement through the modern city – as the crow flies, and with absolute freedom – mesmerises.
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