From Public Works, jrp Ringier, Zurich, 2012
By Jonathan Watkins
The hillside is bathed in Middle Eastern sunlight, its rocky earth color set off by a clear azure sky. Low scrubby trees, few and far between, indicate a desert dryness not easily endured. This is a natural habitat for not much, tough especially for those used to the shelter, resources, and the regulation of modern urban life. This is the way to the ancient city of Petra. Or rather, these are photographs of the way to Petra. Taken by Beat Streuli, reproduced in this book, they capture the spirit of this place in all its starkness, its unforgiving atmosphere and dwarfing scale. At the same time, they document an installation of his work there, outdoors, alongside an unsealed road. A huge, long strip of photographs, approximately 6-meters high, two-tiered, and stepped in order to follow the lie of the land.
The road, since the 6th century BC, would have once been taken by caravan traders making their way to and from the city, situated as it was at the intersection of routes through to Gaza in the west, Bosra and Damascus in the north, Aqaba and Leuca Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf. Subsequently it was a means of communication whereby Greek, Egyptian, and Syrian influences were assimilated, and then, during the 2nd century AD, it became yet another line joining the dots of the Roman Empire. A medieval decline-exacerbated by a devastating earthquake-meant that this road gradually lost its strategic significance, evolving into a less loaded thoroughfare for the traffic of archaeologists and following tourists all intrigued by what Petra had been a long, long time ago.
Petra is dead now, its rock-cut architectural remnants being the bare bones of a complex organism which, like any city, was enlivened by the ambitions and preoccupations of its inhabitants. They once walked up and down those streets, around those open spaces, through those doorways, in and out of those rooms, motivated for the most part by the same everyday concerns that characterize our modern lives. We are left to imagine their vitality, the vanished equivalent of the color and movement we see in Beat Streuli’s pictures, or, here, in his pictures of them.
Entitled Visitors and Passers-by, the installation on the road to Petra was part of the Jordan Festival during the summer of 2008. It brought together a vast array of images from the artist’s travels of the preceding years, a multitude of people photographed by him in cities all over the world, an informal street-wise version of the United Nations. Against the blurred but distinct backdrops of variously built environments we see smart-casual Euro types juxtaposed with Arabic women in hijabs, an Indian woman wrapped in a sari, cool Hispanic guys in T-shirts and caps, an Afro-American girl with braids one up, two across from a man with a Lech Walesa moustache … Everyone is purposeful, talking into mobile phones, waiting at traffic lights or crossing the street, taking photos, carrying stuff, chatting with friends. These are different people in different places, certainly, but it is not unusual in our globalized culture to see such a cosmopolitan mix, for example in world cities such as London, New York, and Tokyo. Against the backdrop of an arid landscape, these images are the pictorial equivalent of an urban oasis, complete with the articulating crisscross geometry- the gridded rectangles that do not occur in nature-ubiquitous in the modern metropolis.
Thriving cities are places of arrivals and departures, of visitors and passersby, and with this in mind the location of Streuli’s work on the outskirts of Petra strikes us as inspired. Petra in its day was a world city, given the extent of the then known world, but it is testament also to the fact that cities themselves come and go. The fate of Visitors and Passers-by, destroyed as it was by a sandstorm two weeks after its erection, is nothing if not poignant.
The new immigration that was effected here, whereby the images of people from all corners of the world converged on Petra, bears a telling comparison with one of Streuli’s earliest projects in public space, Visitors, made in Vienna for the museum in progress in 1996. Nine portraits of tourists in the city center were reproduced to fill 3,000 billboards, located mainly in peripheral suburbs. Besides the translation of geographical location-and, incidentally, a seasonal shift as summer photographs were displayed the following winter – Streuli was also enjoying a reversal of convention whereby images of marginalized reality were shown in metropolitan exhibition spaces, incidentally tending to exoticize the unremarkable. He was taking pictures of tourists to places they would not normally visit, making them a spectacle for a predominantly non-art audience.
It cannot be emphasized enough how refreshing it was when Beat Streuli emerged as an artist, internationally, during the 1990s, and the Viennese project epitomizes this. The easy-going nature of his work, its avoidance of self-conscious gesture, its guilelessness, its unashamed compatibility with the formats and vocabulary of advertising, set it apart from the mass of contemporary artistic output. The attitude that informs it matches well the actions and stances of Streuli’s subjects, for the most part unaware of his presence and the fact that they are to be subsequently drawn into works of art. The overall effect is one of coolness, and a strange desirability, engendered by the self-contained nature of who we see, individuals absolutely not concerned with the possibility of having our attention.
Streuli knows this. In fact his work overall is steeped in an understated knowingness, like the best kind of impressionism, not overburdened with symbolic motifs, but reflections of real life with all the complexity that can then be brought to bear on them. Concerning Vienna, he stresses that he was not trying to make a point about the way the art world works, pitting high art practice against suburban culture, but simply that it “turned out like that.” He had been a tourist too, after all, but instead of focusing his camera on famous buildings and landmarks, he captured images of other tourists, used them intuitively in response to a public art commission, and then countless possibilities of meaning ensued. Visitors in Vienna was not intended as a critique of anything, but then who could deny it meant something. Context is key, as much to the business of identifying a work of art as it is to meaning, and this makes Streuli’s pictures of his pictures especially interesting.
The arid environment on the edge of Petra transforms our ways of seeing Streuli’s portraits, and likewise the streetscape in Vienna. More or less empty except for cars, parked or blurred by their movement, it is a wonderfully humdrum foil for his sun-kissed visitors. Airports, on the other hand, are designed to be especially inviting contexts, marketed as sophisticated and multicultural microcosms – filmic scenarios for the jet-set – and it was Schiphol, Amsterdam’s hub airport, where in late 1997 many other photographs taken by Streuli in Vienna first saw the light of day. Here there was a two-tiered strip format like that used in Petra, on a hoarding above a car park, with 30 head and shoulders shots of young people; sometimes the same ones appeared consecutively, with split seconds elapsed between exposures, and thus allusion was made to a Warhol-style popism. And young people? They have the simple beauty of youth, a certain energy in their apprehension of the present while embodying the future. The Schiphol project had the resemblance of an airport advertising campaign, but there were no “we are the world” straplines, no promotion of anything except an artistic vision. It was like a Trojan horse, an insinuated artwork, deliberately confused with its surroundings – unlike the Petra and Vienna projects that are remarkable through incongruity – without a jarring note. It avoided naïveté on the one hand and irony on the other, in order to convey a heartfelt optimism. In a recent unpublished conversation, Streuli explained, “I really thought then that the Western world was being under-appreciated. I wanted to emphasize the positive side of our very civilized society … A lot of people were critical of the Western world and Westerners, and instead I was saying that I always found it not so bad.”
Then there was 9/11 and, as the artist acknowledges, airports became loaded with very different meanings, especially with respect to globalization. People move (and are moved) around airports differently now, less optimistically, but much stays the same, as indicated in Streuli’s pictures of his pictures at Schiphol. We see people moving baggage from cars to trolleys, waiting for pick-ups, boarding buses, moving briskly with anticipation and not wanting to be late, all under the gaze of youthful faces.
These faces had been encountered by the artist in Vienna and were brought by him to an airport in Amsterdam, where they could be read as reminders of the possibility of being elsewhere through direct flight routes. Chances are that some of those in the car park were departing for or arriving from Vienna. To complement this translating tendency, as seen also in the Viennese suburbs and Petra, Streuli sometimes decides to show his outdoor work in the vicinity of his subject matter. That is to say, the people and places in his photographs are sometimes shown in situ, and so his pictures in pictures become more like mirrors. Shortly after Schiphol, for example, for the 1998 Biennale of Sydney, he showed photographs of activity around the old Town Hall on the vast hoardings above a building site just across the road.
More varied in composition, not so tightly cropped, again the imagery played out horizontally in a single row like a filmstrip. There is no narrative, but the images were scanned left to right, right to left, to accumulate a sequence of shots that summarized the place. Pictures were rolled out according to the movement of the people below, walking and in cars, quickly, slowly, erratically, and so they were not only viewers and subjects of the same work, but they were also the mechanism that animated it. They were not so much portraits as examples of human restlessness, in rectangles superimposed on a scene of frantic architectural construction, a scene that was being played out all over Sydney in its sprint toward the opening of the millennial Olympic Games. This city then, a young, vigorous, muscular state capital with glory in its sights, could not have been more unlike the city of Petra-“half as old as time”-encountered by the artist ten years later.
Streuli was reflecting Sydney directly, playing his recording of it back to itself. The smartness of this strategy is the same as that which leads to this book of pictures in pictures, and, given the nature of his work, Streuli’s decision from the outset to present it in the public realm. By doing so, he is raising fundamental questions about the proper place of art, undoing expectation, and, in the nicest possible way, counteracting an aspiration to preciousness that is too preva- lent in our art world. With deftness Streuli steers clear of any hint of exclusive self-referentiality that might result from his mirroring of situations; on the contrary, his artistic practice could not be more accessible while being completely unpatronizing.
In this vein, Streuli’s window installations featuring people within their immediate contexts are demystifying two-way mirrors. That is to say they are at once reflective and transparent, metaphorically speaking, caught between interior space and the artist’s outdoor area of interest. And their literal transparency means that viewers see through the photographic imagery to some aspect of its setting. As with Duchamp’s Large Glass, context is inescapable. As with stained glass there is a wonderful difference between effects during the day and at night as relative light levels change on either side. Laminated photographic film, bled over entire window surfaces, suffuses interior space with color during daytime; at night illuminated buildings become light boxes so that the imagery is jewel-like and clearly visible to those outside. Unlike the billboards, the window installations are incorporated into architecture, with an outlook onto two worlds; one, inside, usually more institutional; the other, outside, less regulated, less contrived.
Streuli has made window installations for banks and other corporate buildings, for an airport-in Dallas, post-9/11, it is almost defiant with smiles-but it is those in museums, galleries, and art centers that are especially pertinent in light of other observations here. For the Museu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona (MACBA), the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, and Spiral in Tokyo, the artist photographed people in the vicinity who were either on their own or with others, walking or loitering, all at ease or at least seemingly untroubled by their circumstances. The architecture significantly determines the artist’s approach to each project as there is not, as there is with billboards, a pervasive geometry made to suit standard formats. In Tokyo, Japanese faces were tightly cropped as if they were pressed up to the glass, while Chicago, with the museum’s gridded facade, suggested a solution not unlike that for Schiphol, each subject head scaled more or less to the size of the window quarters.
The window installation in MACBA, Plaça dels Angels, in the curving glass wall adjacent to the museum entrance, is especially interesting. Made in the same year, it bore some resemblance to the Sydney billboards in its formal variety; its abstract qualities were evident due to the verticality of the windowpanes. The strips of imagery that they framed cropped the different colors, delineations, and textures of clothing worn by those recently photographed just outside in the Plaça dels Angels. Heads and hands were emotionally expressive, as might be expected from this Latin culture, and elicited an empathetic response. So too the larger-than-life scale of this work overall and its embracing arc. Plaça dels Angels was the backdrop here, twice. It was in the images, and through them in actuality, while the museum environment – which provided the point of view for these pictures, of the pictures – was very familiar in its white walled minimalism.
Streuli’s location of window installations in museums, between dedicated art space and a relatively chaotic (non-art) world, neatly exemplifies an aesthetic proposition that assumes and asserts continuity between them. He plays off the conventional notion whereby a work of art is thought of as a metaphorical window onto another world, transcendent somehow, and instead uses real windows that reveal the same real world he represents. By doing so, he is not repudiating the museum, but rather encouraging a proper grasp, an understanding of it as an all-too-human institution that defines this thing called art. Streuli’s work can easily be assimilated into museum strategies for the development of new audiences-and why not?-but clearly he would want to avoid bad faith in the process.
Like the window installations, Beat Streuli’s pictures in pictures in this book counteract illusion. His works are his subjects here, as much as they are art objects, as much as the people, the streets, the cars, and the architecture that feature in them. He differentiates between the contexts within which he operates, between the city center and the suburbs, between the museum interior and the desert, but is not applying a hierarchical system that descends from fine, or “high,” art. Indeed, his work anticipates a time when such a system will break down, as it must, and museums will become as empty and as redundant as Petra. Meanwhile, we are where we are, and Streuli is among those most interested, and ready to document that fact.