The Near and Elsewhere

Although The Near and  The Elsewhere, showing at the PM Gallery in Ealing was in various ways a disappointment to me, I was still pleased that I had gone to see it (and it remains on show until 17 March, Tue-Fri 1-5pm, Sat 11-5pm) and would recommend a visit if you are in London – it’s a short walk from Ealing Broadway tube.  Firstly because of the setting, in a 20th century extension of Pitzhanger Manor-House, once the country home of Sir John Soane who rebuilt most of it between 1800 and 1810. It’s a splendid building and well restored, owned by the London Borough of Ealing, and looking quite dramatic when I arrived there in the dark for the opening. Just along the road from Ealing Studios, it has its own film history having starred as the Tate Gallery and Kensington Palace among other places, even appearing in Doctor Who.

Inside, the gallery is a fine large space and perhaps demands some at least of the large images that are on display, although for me most of them were rather lacking in interest. My first disappointment – a minor one – on hearing about the show was to find that it had no connection with the blog of the same name. The second, on reading that it “shows the physical growth and loss of urban architecture in cities across the world” was to find that photographers who would have been at the top of my list for addressing such issues were almost entirely absent. And thirdly, on looking around, I found that much of the space was taken up with frankly boring art works many on a very large scale. But fortunately there were still some things worth looking at, and others will have different interests to me. I’m a photographer after all.

My favourite picture was one of Ferit Kuyas‘s images from his ‘City of Ambition‘, a project taken in Chongqing, the largest city agglomeration in the world with a population in the city of around 32 million. It is a view looking down from a height on a construction site, taken in 2005 with the slight mist seen in many of his images of the city which he tells me is not pollution but the fog that the city is famed for. It’s a wide angle view and the site is packed with small details; as you look at it gradually you realise more and more men are working on the site. Although it is quite a large print, 100x125mm, I found myself walking right up to it so I could see details with my reading glasses, then moving back to take in the whole picture. This is an image you can look at for a long time and still find new things in.

His other work in the show, Jialing River Shore, a diptych of a vast concrete space, reminded me of some images taken underground in vast reservoirs and comes from a couple of years later, when he was deliberately avoiding including a horizon in his images. The two pictures are views made from the same place but looking in different directions, with a part of the subject repeated on both (they are mounted together as a diptych in the opposite way round to the view.)  There is a pleasing subtletly about the printing that was absent in some of the other works on display. Both of these works are in his book ‘City of Ambition‘ but neither seem to be on his web site, which does however have a fine selection of his work from the project.

One of Michael Wolf‘s distant views of Hong Kong’s blocks of housing was another impressive image, and I quite liked his 100×100, a set of 100 pictures of the residents of cramped 100 square feet single room homes in Hong Kong, a contrast to most of his images which are devoid of people. The relatively small images from this project are shown displayed as a tower block in a corner of the gallery, which works as an idea but does make actually viewing the upper images rather tricky.

Another interesting set of work was One million $ houses by Noel Jabour, showing buildings “turned into redundant monuments to greed” through the failed US mortage economy. These structures, like many of Kuyas’s images of Chongqing, emerge from the Galveston, Texas sea mist, giving them an air of unreality that mirrors the financial unreality which created them.

The invitation carried a dramatic image of a Shanghai house by Canadian photographer Greg Girard, whose book Phantom Shanghai captured the ruins of the pre-war international city, and were taken in 2005 just before (or as) they were being demolished, with highly theatrical night lighting and garish colour that somehow works. This was a pretty vast print,  210 x 180cm, and one of very few very large photographs that really merits its scale (and certainly the only one in this show.) The images are well reproduced well in his book, but ‘Rags, One Room Apartment, Liyang Lu, 2005′ in the print on the wall had one of the worst colour casts – a strong cyan – I’ve ever seen in an exhibition; it is unrecognisable as the same image in the book (and may perhaps be from another exposure made with different lighting.)

Girard’s book has an foreword by William Gibson, but it was another book, J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, that came to mind, and these pictures can truly be described as Ballardian, and I’ve just bought a copy on-line. Incidentally you can see a good set of Girard’s pictures on today’s New York Times Lens blog of US bases in Japan, Korean and on Guam, taken in 2008 – and this and more work on his web site.

I think Gregor Graf‘s work looks better on the web than on the wall; by digitally removing all signage and people from his pictures of cities he creates strangely alien places. Linz, in his Hidden Town – Situation 2, 2004 could be London or Warsaw, but the lack of textures makes it more than anything else resemble a cardboard model of a city than the real thing. Its a curious but perhaps just slightly more interesting reversal of those artists who build elaborate models to photograph.

Also in the show is work by Francis Alÿs, Sarah Beddington, James Casebere, Thomas Demand, Edgar Martins, Gaia Persico (who curated it), Peter Piller, Sara Ramo, Rachel Whiteread, and Cino Zucchi Architetti.

The gallery also has an interesting complement to this show in the small and almost monochrome paintings based on her recent photographs of small town America by Marguerite Horner, ‘The Seen and Unseen’ (closes 25 Feb) which I enjoyed seeing. It very much reminded me of the work made in similar places that formed a bedrock for much American photography of the last century, through  Wright Morris, Walker Evans, David Plowden and others to Robert Adams.

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