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Constructing positions: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

Although featuring many incredible artists, the Barbican’s Constructing Worlds fails to be thought-provoking because of its lack of curational direction, says Jack Self

It is not at all clear why the Constructing Worlds exhibition currently showing at the Barbican has received so many good reviews from so many fine publications (FT, Guardian, Art Daily, etc). The quality of the architectural photography on display is excellent − and includes some of the best works by some of the most famous photographers of the last century. The design of the exhibition itself is equally impressive − minimal and elegant, with a precision and beauty typical of KGDVS (the office of Kersten Geers and David Van Severen, whom I admire a good deal). These aspects at least are beyond reproach.

However, the work on display is sadly predictable − each photographer is represented only by their most iconic and reproduced images − and each artist is segregated into their own little box gallery. There is no suggested relationship between the photographers, no overlap of images, no clear thematic to explain why these artists have been selected, and most of all no proposition about the role of photography in architecture or the world. The pieces unfold broadly chronologically, without obvious insight or criticality, without historical context or, apparently, anything interesting to say about the work itself (beyond some rather trite wall text resembling press releases from Wikipedia). A friend described Constructing Worlds as a ‘hit parade’ of Google search results, an exercise in how many famous names could fit on an A4 sheet. I had the impression of being inside a brute force attack, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of star photographers, but not understanding at all how these masterpieces came to be in one place.

Kander

Nadav Kander’s photographs depict China on the brink of modernisation, in the process of mobilising agricultural communities

The question all of this raised was, what is a curator actually for? I have always thought of them as cultural mediators, standing at the boundary between a specialist subject (often fusty, academic and loaded with competing interests) and the general public (a body of curious people who exit their own frames of reference to be entertained or informed). The curator’s first role is to distil the complexities of their subject into popular terms, which frequently involves dividing history into recognisable periods, movements or narratives. Experts often fume at this sort of simplification, which they consider ‘dumbing down’, but we should not begrudge the curator the weapon of constructing epochs for the purposes of mass education. By contrast, this responsibility means a curator must be precise. Neither title nor subtitle (‘Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’) convey much sense of what the exhibition might be about, and I wrestled to understand what world these beautiful images were attempting to construct.

In the grand tradition of the art critic Wölfflin, who famously invented the term ‘compare and contrast’, the rich material in the exhibition cried out to be rearranged and juxtaposed. For example, this is the first time I have seen Walker Evans and Julius Shulman in the same space, although unfortunately on opposite sides of the upper gallery. Evans, better known as a photographer of portraits than buildings, captured the faces of the Depression in stark monochrome: the creased hands of farm labourers; the pinched, worried brows of their wives. His powerful images of poverty and debt would contrast beautifully with the oversaturated, saccharine prints of Julius Shulman, which capture the very height of mid-century consumerist optimism. Using chromogenic photographic techniques more typical of 1950s postcards, his pastel pinks and greens, vibrant reds and electric blues depict the architecture of Neutra, the Eameses and Saarinen as if on acid. Shulman’s series famously captures the Case Study Houses, just as Modernist architecture abandoned its political ambitions and transformed itself into a consumer object, as much part of an aspirational postwar lifestyle as the refrigerator or finned Cadillac.

Just as powerful would have been a comparison of Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott, in many ways Evans’ urban counterpart − like him, she photographed bleak landscapes and piercing portraits, but of metropolitans, not agricultural labourers. Equally, more could have been made of the links between Stephen Shore and Ed Ruscha, who both struggled with what Jean Baudrillard described as a microcosm of America − the strange way a square mile of anywhere in the States resembles and represents the whole; the oil stains of gas station tarmac aprons blending seamlessly with white picket fences and all-night diners in a fractal bloom of Mandelbrot-esque Americana.

Struth Sugimoto

Struth SugimotoAwaiting comparison: Thomas Struth (top) and Hiroshi Sugimoto (above) captured the same places in very different times, with very different meanings

Yet another fascinating contrast might be the ghostly silhouette of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Twin Towers against the deserted streets of downtown Manhattan by Thomas Struth. Both depict places that no longer exist, and both are haunted by nostalgia of different kinds: the cultural boom of ’70s New York, which inhabited the urban shell of a declining city; the bold confidence of ’80s New York, in turn destroyed.

‘Constructing Worlds is a hit parade of Google search results, an exercise in how many famous names could fit on an A4 sheet’

Constructing Worlds does not lack a fascinating subject − the photography is second to none. Further, the implications of combining, in one single show, so many incredible artists is thought provoking. The absence of firm curatorial direction is to its great detriment.

Constructing Worlds

Where: The Barbican, London
When: until 15 January 2015

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