‘Cinematic Distopias’, Ruby Davies review, Art Monthly, November, 1995
The empire of the city has risen and fallen in a little over two hundred years. The great cities of the world—Paris, New York, London— are on life support systems, relying on ‘urban renewal’, ‘inner city rejuvenation’ and ‘infilling’ to keep them alive. They were once the political capitals of empires, the psychological capitals of civilizations, and the imaginary capitals of entire centuries, now they are pathogenic trouble spots. Once towering metropolises, now they have collapsed into corroding sprawls.
But as ruins never have the great cities of the world been so romantic, even if their romanticism has changed from the days of their glory. The streets of the great cities are no longer filled with insouciant sophisticates parrying the many shocks and jolts of modernity, today’s urban flaneur must go off on a dedicated, lugubrious search for entropic events, imploded spaces and sunken monuments.
Ruby Davies’ photographs capture this feeling perfectly. They were shot on small format over the last eight years or so on various trips to St Petersberg, Tokyo, Berlin and New York (and there’s a couple shot back home in Sydney). For her recent exhibition at Stills Davies went back to her contact sheets and scanned them once more. The images she chose to enlarge and exhibit tended to be long exposures, and often taken at dusk or night with lighting coming from diverse artificial and natural light sources. The combination of Fuji negatives and Fuji paper has produced chromatically intense images, but the saturated colours produced by the bright lights of the big city appear thickened and coagulated, as though tainted and by some foreign chromogen.
Davies was interested in the massive geopolitical changes her photographs spanned, but also in the intimate association of space and personal memory they embodied. The status of Moscow and Berlin, exactly what they are capitals of, has changed dramatically during the short period of her photography. But she was also interested in the spatialisation of experience which every traveller remembers and sometimes relives through photgraphs. As Benjamin pointed out in his Moscow and Berlin diaries of the 1930s, and Francis Yates pointed out in her classic The Art of Memory, cities are a way of thinking. They are a way of ordering and storing experience, sorting and retrieving personal and political data. Cities are mnemonic machines, on everything from an individual to an epochal level.
Davies’s was a critical tourism, combining a tourist’s eagerness to see the sights, with a traveller’s willingness to drift across the city and discover her own personally meaningful precincts and monuments. Her exhibition maps what the Situationist Guy Debord would call a ‘psychogeography’ of the city. Her cities are not made up of broad clear thoroughfares providing commanding views of citizens bustling about their business. Her’s is a fragmented city, made up of oblique and occluded glimpses—stilted, vaguely threatening portraits; details of lights, shadows and advertising signs verging on the undecipherable; and fleeting views down strange alleys.
Her photographs have the curious effect of solidifying people and desubstantiating architecture. The people she photographs monumentalise themselves, they appear stilled or temporarily absent from their bodies. The Russian soldier stiffly standing guard in Berlin in 1992, the potentially aggro black American soldier on R & R in Tokyo in 1988, and even the posing rock’n’roll singer in New York in 1988, all seem as uncannilly otherworldly and distant as the spotlit and familiarly heroic Lenin statue, which nobody had bothered to topple, photographed by Davies in St Petersburg in 1993. The Japanese girl asleep on the train to Mt Fuji 1988 has left behind her body to dream, as she leans her head against the steel window frame the dark interior of the carriage seems to absorbed her into itself.
In contrast, most of the solid monuments and buildings Davies photographs appear as though they are melting into sodium-vapour lit air. For instance a statue of General Sherman on horseback with attendant angel was photographed in Central Park in 1990. Shot from below and upwards towards a crepuscular blue sky the statue seems to move above us in ghostly procession, the brassy golden burnish on angel’s wing, horse’s head and general’s cloak melding into a slow motion feathery blur. Curtains at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg hang in beautiful, but wet looking scallops of cyan blue and orange. We look through the flourescent green stone columns of St Petersberg’s Kazanskii Cathedral towards a tiny figure, standing alone in a square of tungsten yellow light.
The exhibition space of Stills, with its two-and-a-bit tiny terrace house rooms, actually works to Davies’ advantage in her hang. Where it has all but destroyed many an exhibition there, the hanging of work up and down stairs, over light wells, and so on, helps to create a sense of fragmentation and distopia in this case. The disjointed hang made it clear that the influence of cinema has also been important to Davies, looking through the installation the cinema of distopian filmmakers such as Wim Wenders or Martin Scorcese, with their extended point-of-view Steadicam sequences, came to mind.
One key image in the show confirms a cinematic connection. It is an enlarged frame from a Super 8 film taken in the New York Cafe, Newtown, Sydney, in 1987. The painting is of the archetypal Manhattan skyline. It is the oldest image in the show and inaugurates the artist’s drift across the great metropolises of the northern hemisphere and modernity. The lure of New York painted on a cafe wall in Newtown shattered into thousands of images on photographic contact-sheets from which memory, spatial experience and history were recombined into a personal psychogeography. An image taken two years later, and used for the invitation, was of another commercially painted image representing the desire to traverse. This time it was photographed off the rear roller door of a delivery truck in Central Tokyo’s Tskiji Markets. A samurai crouches over the mane of a wild-eyed white horse which appears to be rearing slightly as it advances. Both rider and horse stare intently into the distance, out of the Tskiji Markets, out of Tokyo altogether, and into an impossible place.