“I would not wish to be too grand for streets.
To be removed from them is to lose the blessing of the multitude.”1
Beat Streuli´s photographs and installations are among the clearest expressions today of how it is that we inhabit our cities: New York, London, Barcelona, Vienna, Johannesburg and now Sydney. Architectural scale slide projections whose images slowly dissolve into one another or large photographic prints whose scale and apparently casual beauty seduce and slow us down to linger on the simplest facial expressions or personal gestures. Streuli plays on our recognition of these gestures, attitudes and expressions the way that fashion or advertising images might. Yet, where fashion and advertising deploy idealised versions of contemporary urban lifestyles in order to sell products, Streuli reflects on urban situations in order to crystalise their pleasures and discontents, their myriad psychological states and social tensions.
He is driven by a concern that contemporary art has not delivered the images within which many people can recognise themselves; that the long view of history will probably discern more about our time through pop music, advertising and film than contemporary art. Despite the differences between Jeff Wall’s constructed tableaux and Streuli’s street photography, both artists operate in close and critical proximity to the vastly more popular forms of advertising and cinema. If Wall’s comment that he always tries to make his pictures beautiful underlines the importance of seduction to the affect of his work, Streuli is more direct: “I want to have installations that are big and beautiful just as the movies are, or great billboards, and without selling stupid products.”2
If Wall’s use of actors and sets for many of his tableaux are a negation of photographys claims to transparency, Streuli’s works manipulate our desire for it, a desire to have images which appear to reflect lived experience. As photography plays an intimate role in daily life and the signposting of memories it retains a powerful critical force. It is precisely within a tension between the continued need for photography and an awareness of its constant manipulation that Streuli’s work appears so powerfully crystalline. We see people looking as they do when they are not aware of being directly observed, yet presented in formats which, by their proximity to advertising and cinema, call upon an expectation of seduction and manipulation.
The history of photography is, of course, littered with people caught unawares. Riding the New York City subway between 1938 and 1940 Walker Evans surrepetitiously photographed his fellow passengers lost in thought or avoiding each others gazes: no degradation, no titilation, no action, no death, no fame. They are simply pictures of ordinary people negotating public space; or as Evans would put it more than a generation later when these photographs were finally published in 1966, “As it happens, you don’t see among them the face of a judge or a senator or a bank president. What you do see is at once sobering, startling and obvious: these are the ladies and gentlemen of the jury.”3
Evans’ sober judgement seems all the more powerful for being after the fact. The ladies and gentlemen of the jury do not only sit in judgement over their peers but over we who gaze at their purloined photographs, we who have inherited their world. How have we dealt with our inheritance? Streuli’s work presents us with the evidence by which we might begin to consider that question, the evidence of how we inhabit urban situations at the end of the 20th century. The questions raised by Evans’sober black and white photographs of urban disengagement are answered in some measure by Streuli’s spectacular projections of social and psychological connections.
When Streuli’s Bondi Beach/Parammatta Road is on exhibition in Hannover it will not be distanced by time as were the Subway portraits but by geography. Yet, the hundreds of images which make up this installation go beyond the specificity of Sydney to resonnate with broader patterns of urbanism marked by shifting degrees of individuals attention and connection. Jean-Francois Chevrier has argued recently that it is critical to study transcultural permanences in contemporary cultures of which he sees only two: language and the urban. He defines the urban as “that which is not reducible to the city, its morphology, its historical particularities, but which might rather be defined, somewhat approximately, as a constructed relational space” that one can only have access to through specific cases.4
Streuli’s Bondi Beach/Parammatta Road explores urbanism precisely through the examination of specific locales and the people who inhabit them. Momentarily frozen in time and viewed in monumental scale, people inhabit the beaches and streets of Sydney during the long hot summer while on the other side of the globe Europe is frozen in winter’s icy grip. Microgestures and motion, body language and sartorial selection, the small touches and expressions with which we measure our connections to one another and our environment are given extraordinary weight.
If Bondi Beach initially seems an unusually arcadian setting for an artist who is an urbanist par excellence then it needs to be understood that Bondi Beach, along with Parramatta Road, the second geographical pole in this installation, underscores the particularity of Sydney as a city as much as Oxford Street might represent London. The photographs in Bondi Beach/Parramatta Road are similar in intent but contrast markedly to those in his earlier installation, Oxford Street. In that work waves of people descend into the city’s Underground system. We see them front on, often from below, some expressions not dissimilar to the Walker Evans Subway portraits5. On Bondi Beach many of the people are seen from behind, frolicking in the waves that crash upon the beach. The cool tang of the water refreshing in the heat of the day.
In Europe’s densely populated cities it is the street where democracy is most clearly seen. In Oxford Street people from all walks of life negotiate one another’s presence without the strict hierarchies of the workplace or traditional society. Class structures do not exactly break down but they are momentarily stymied by the crush of too many people and too much information. Australia’s major cities lack European density but all of them lie on the coast and Sydney, most of all, defines itself in relation to its spectacular harbour and many beaches. Its urban environment is connected to its natural setting in a way that has all but disappeared in most European centres. On the beaches of Sydney holiday makers rub shoulders with school kids playing hookey, Families play next to singles checking out the action. The beach, like the street is a neutral zone where all classes must rub shoulders in the most democratic of circumstances. But where the street is tinged with mixed emotions, a site to be passed through, the beach is a destination where each crash of the waves acts to focus the mind and leave the working world behind.
While Bondi Beach is inhabited by people from all walks of life, it is set in the wealthy eastern suburbs of Sydney. Not ten kilometers away Parramatta Road begins. Lined with used car lots, discount stores and small immigrant businesses, it is Sydney’s light industrial backbone. Traffic crawls through the inner city suburbs of Leichardt and Annandale, where many artists hole up in their studios and avoid the beach at all costs through the relatively poor Western suburbs of Parramatta and onward into the Blue Mountains that lie at the edge of the city. Parramatta Road is also the start of the Great Western Highway which if followed will take you through some of the most sparsely populated country you are ever likely to see and on to Perth, over 4000 km away, which lies beachside on the Indian Ocean where I am writing this essay.
By articulating the tension and the proximity between Paramatta Road and Bondi Beach Beat Streuli comes closer than most Australian artists in articulating the particularity of Sydney’s contemporary urban situation. In its connection to its natural surroundings and in its patterns of migration it is an urbanism that has much more in common with Cape Town and Vancouver than London or Dusseldorf. It would however be a mistake to read Bondi Beach/Paramatta Road too closely in terms of the specifics of Sydney’s urban geography. Instead it makes palpable the psychological dimension of all urban situations. It explores the patterns of attention and inattention that people deploy to live in the city, to be in the crowd.
The people in Streuli’s images visibly negotiate their connection to their environment, the boundaries of their awareness are constantly shifting, expanding and contracting to dodge the city’s shadows. A simple touch. A kiss. Water splashing. The smell of diesel. Watching the horizon. People watching. A blank stare. Laughing with a friend. Simple things. Small things. Everyday arcadias.
Trevor Smith is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
1 Jim Crace, Arcadia, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992) p. 345.
2 Jeff Wall Typology, Luminescence, Freedom: an interview with Els Barrent, in Jeff Wall: Transparencies (New York: Rizzoli, 1986). p. 104; Beat Streuli, Art and Everyday: Transcript of forum on the theme of this year, Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 19 September 1998, Like, issue 7, summer 1998-99.
3 Walker Evans quoted in Sandra Alvarez de Toledo Street, Wall, Delirium, Documenta X: the book, (Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz Verlag, 1998), p. 114.
4 “The Political Potential of Art Part 2: Interview: Benjamin Buchloh, Catherine David, Jean-Francois Chevrier”, Documenta X, the book, (Cantz: Osfildern-Ruit, 1998), p. 636.
5 A comparison could also be drawn with Alan Sekula Untitled Slide Sequence (1972) where he pictured employees of the Lochheed plant where his father worked, mounting the stairs to leave the factory at the end of the day.