The City. Becoming and Decaying @ Galeri Petronas

The Goethe-Institut Malaysia continues with its great 2014 program by exhibiting city-themed pictures taken by photographers from the German agency OSTKREUZ. In a time where more people live in cities than in the countryside, this topic is a very relevant one to explore, especially since a burgeoning population is the critical factor that drives human endeavours worldwide. Wall texts describe individual experiences, while faraway places project exotic scenes that immediately attract the public visitor. Despite the different approaches employed, each photographer manages to capture a certain characteristic of cities, which yields deep reflections when the entire exhibition is viewed as a whole. Shown in the gallery at the same time are overestimated artworks for a charity auction, the luxury products jarringly incongruous with these pictures of reality.

Jörg Brüggemann - [Mas Austral] Young couple on Calle San Martin, Ushuaia, Argentina (2009)

Isolated towers populate the skyline in extravagant Dubai, where blue-water marinas and palm-shaped landfills are made in the desert. Thomas Meyer observes that “…it always seemed as if all kinds of artificial reasons were created why people should settle there because there were no natural ones.” His crisp pictures portray a strong sense of scale, where the Burj Dubai in the background is often cut off, to capture the sandy ground of construction sites. Two other photographers take on a similar theme – Maurice Weiss’ uncertain portraits of the landscape in still-developing Ordos, contrast with the artificial façades in Las Vegas taken by Linn Schröder. From an isolated mansion to Italian verandas to the distant skyscraper, these constructs displace one from the immediate natural habitat, transforming an inhospitable terrain. The city is a product of human ambition.

Thomas Meyer - [The Resort] Marina, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2009)

The life of a city is inextricably linked with the industries that power it, Dawin Meckel presenting an empty Detroit and its idle residents. Dawin’s photographs, including the interior shots, are taken in broad daylight; Natural luminescence is a privilege in Pripyat, site of the Chernobyl disaster, as Andrej Krementschouk ‘s pictures of banal objects in abandoned places, denote a ground that was not ideally habitable in the first place. Exhibited in an enclave are Heinrich Völkel’s photographs of Gaza, where homes, mosques, and jails, are equal targets to be levelled by the Israeli military. The presence of people at the foreground of rubble, projects a striking image of human perseverance, which Heinrich notes, “(w)hat makes a city a city has nothing to do with how many buildings are actually standing but with the vitality that of the society that keeps the urban structures alive.”

Heinrich Völkel - [Gaza-the destroyed city] Destroyed city prison on Main street of Gaza City, Palestinian territories (2009)

The inherent moral judgement in Espen Eichhöfer’s captures of Manila’s slums dampen its impact, while pictures of a utopian Auroville (Anne Schönharting) and youthful Ushuaia (Jörg Brüggemann), depict faraway lifestyles that are equal parts intriguing and alienating. These places are worthy case studies about the concept of cities, especially the failure in planning for the first example. Hope drives rural folk into the city, in which the phenomena known as a population explosion is beautifully captured by Julian Röder. Stating that “(c)haos is not evil; it is simply the way things are”, Julian’s photographs of overpopulated Lagos are typically monochromatic. His attractive compositions are marked by repeating objects of the same primary colour, signifying the application of a standard structure that binds the chaos. The city is a product of human ambition.

Julian Röder - [Lagos-Transformation] Generators on roofs of Oshodi market, Lagos, Nigeria (2009)

Inconsequential but artfully done, Ute & Werner Mahler’s “Monalisen der Vorstädte” project portrays women from five cities, its suburban background as ambiguous as the landscape in the Mona Lisa. Unintentionally vague also are Harald Hauswald’s snapshots of Shanghai, the black & white prints failing to describe the hustle & bustle in a progressive city. However, such situations are brilliantly captured by Frank Schinski, whose photographs in commuter hubs capture the time people inevitably spent waiting, in the mad rush towards a personal destination. His observations are insightful – “(w)ithout thinking about it, people integrate themselves into the architecture of railroad stations and airports (…) Life is a constant search for your role and place (…) You only move forward if you are willing to give in to the daily grind, the rhythm of the city.”

Frank Schinski - [Transit Stills] Bosporus ferry, Istanbul, Turkey (2009)

The best pictures in this superb exhibition frame the city in another dimension – human desire is a product of the city. Perverse behaviours are born out of cultured societies, as Pepa Hristova’s off-centred snapshots in Tokyo maid cafes demonstrate. Sibylle Bergemann’s dreamy pictures present a longing nostalgia after the Berlin Wall fell. Playing on the myth of the lost city, Annette Hauschild searches for less glamorous places named Atlantis. People lounge about in a New York gay bar, one man heaves a bag of sponges in an Ottenbach factory, a lady guest waits for her boiling water in a Krakow hostel. Annette’s thoughts about her series also sum up this exhibition – “(t)he overall picture they present is not one of an ideal city. Not a paradise, not a state of absolute bliss.” Cities and humans have become one, and the faster we accept that, the better chance we have to stop its decay.

Annette Hauschild - [Atlantis] Guest at the Atlantis Hostel, Krakow, Poland (2009)

“Yet the city has long been more than just a speck in the landscape. The future of the world lies in the city. It is where the fate of humanity will be decided. What happens to the city also happens to us. In the city people who could avoid each other in the country or never even meet confront one another. The city attracts a great concentration of poverty, while at the same time it is often the only way to escape impoverishment. The city shows the power of planning and also how planning can become utterly meaningless. It gives everyone the feeling that they belong to something, but then shows them that the parts have nothing to do with one another. It provides closeness and creates anonymity. The city is everything and its’ opposite, all at once, in the same place.”
– Wall texts for the exhibition "The City. Becoming and Decaying"

Dawin Meckel - [DownTown] Empty lots in the Centre of Detroit, USA (2009)