Art History, Art Present

Dear New York Peeps:

Get excited, we’re going to see Bas Princen’s photo show, called “Refuge,” at the Storefront for Art and Architecture.

Princen has been running around 5 cities in the Middle East and Turkey — Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul, Amman, Beirut — capturing examples of these intensely-organic pockets of civilization.

Rather than some coalesced, planned community, these images are supposed to conjure a “city without a center, populated by extraordinary and at times implausible architectural artefacts; an urban laboratory whose physical traits are defined by migratory flows, spatial transformation and geopolitical flux on a continental scale.”

What’s neat about these, from an art history perspective, is that the images are so evocative of this region’s ancient architecture.  This is an almost primordial response to the elements, to nature.  These buildings look exactly like this region’s original attempt to secure “refuge.”

This looks like Mecca, right?  And the higher photo above — it’s an outcropping in a parking lot in Dubai, but could it look more like an ancient Mesopotamian Ziggurat?

BLDG BLOG cites at length from an interview w/ Princen:

Grima suggests that, as a tactic for assembling buildings, this construction technique is “strongly reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Maison Domino.” Princen’s response is brilliant, and worth quoting at length:

It is fascinating that Maison Domino, the quintessential modernist prototype conceived as a universal answer to the housing problem, has in the end inspired the method of choice for informal construction, with or without the help of architects. The many interpretations of the famous Maison Domino prototype I’ve seen are a clear indication that is has become the most universally successful type of construction, but nothing prepared me for Cairo, where this structural system is really pushed to the limits—not only because these buildings in red-brick-and-concrete grids rise to 16 or 17 floors, but also because three quarters of the city is constructed in this way. It is a mesmerizing fictional experience: driving on an elevated highway through this city of red brick towers, trying to imagine who is actually living there.

This latter remark—Princen’s difficulty in imagining these sorts of landscape humanly inhabited—sets the stage for a remark, later in the interview, when Princen mentions that he attempts to maintain a human presence in his photographs—in other words, they are not anthropologically empty landscapes.

He adds that “the so-called ‘middle distance'”—the scale inhabited by humans—”has not been used much in recent architectural photography,” an industry that tends now to focus on one of two extremes: “the architectural object on the one hand and the cityscape on the other.” But “it is exactly in this middle distance,” Princen counters, “that the human figure becomes an interesting element: it cannot be shown as the main subject, but will always be defined by the relationship with its surroundings, to put an extra meaning or layer on the landscape or object that is photographed.”

As a result, Princen’s photos show us diminutive humans, stranded amidst incomprehensible architectural forms and massive landscapes, neither urban nor rural, pursuing admirably self-directed goals through which to give themselves meaning or, depending on how you look at it, utterly vacuous tasks that they refuse to admit should be abandoned.

[Images: “Former sugarcane field, Cairo,” (2009) and “Ringroad, Cairo,” (2009) by Bas Princen].

BLDG goes on to the meta description, what happens in the aggregate when everything is organic and few rules preside, see, e.g., this photo of unregulated trash distro:

The ultimate green recycling plant, no?  Chaos to chaos, dust to dust.

Here’s the Storefront exhibition announcement, May 12 2010 – Jun 26 2010, describing the exhibition:

An architect by training, Princen has for many years used photography as a tool to observe, record and interpret the contemporary landscape. His photographs – themselves unmanipulated representations of reality – invite the viewer to construct an imaginary landscape that lies beyond the frame, outside the limits of the viewfinder.

Refuge is not, however, an exercise in abstraction. It is a documentation of the spatial products of refuge, ranging from migrant worker camps to gated satellite cities in the desert or the frequent proximity between abject poverty and extreme wealth, that at the same time sidesteps the cliches and the iconic emblems of segregation and seclusion. Starting from its peripheries, Princen’s photographs conduct the viewer through a cityscape that is both familiar and remote, ominous and beautiful.


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  1. Pingback: Realms Of Joy – Time Of Light. | American Gold Coins

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