Thursday, December 8, 2011

Death For Christmas

In one of the odder choices by our local photography museum, the Pavillon Populaire, the show which has followed the rather sad Brassaï in America show is entitled Apocalypses: The Disappearance of Cities, from Dresden to Detroit (1944-2010). It's quite the change, fighting your way through the Christmas market to the Pav Pop, the forced cheer giving way to huge, stark images of utter destruction. (For the most part, but we'll get to that). 

The short wall essay that greets you after pushing your way through hanging vinyl strips on which Richard Peter's rather ham-handed picture of the ruins of Dresden's City Hall through a skeleton in a nearby museum has been printed makes the point that an actual enactment of the Bible's prophecy of the end of the world was made possible by what it calls "industrial warfare." The first room, hung with huge prints of bombed-out Cologne, makes the point eloquently. The show is chronological, and takes the visitor first through the ruins of World War II Germany, as seen by German photographers, who tended to have a more artistic sensibility than the American GIs whose color photos of bombed-out Nuremberg I've seen. In fact, having seen them made it far clearer to me why the photos here are more than documentary shots, in that time has been taken to compose them, and some care has been taken with the black-and-white printing. Thus, Herbert List's photos of the Munich Residenz, an old royal palace turned art museum which was stomped by Allied bombs, are about the damage to the artworks, and are not without a sense of humor, as the large nude Greek statue lying on its back, frozen there making an odd gesture for someone lying down, shows. 

Mostly, though, there's nothing to laugh at here. Richard Peter was a Dresdener who somehow escaped Bomber Harris' firestorm, and set about as soon as he safely could documenting the city's rebirth. In fact, his picture of the Neues Rathaus provides the only other light moment in the show for those who know German: the façade remains, as does a statue, but there's rubble all over the place while a sign declares "Wiederaufbau des Neues Rathaus" -- Reconstruction of the New City Hall. Peter not only shot the utter destruction of the Frauenkirche, which was only finished through a superhuman rebuilding program a couple of years ago, but he also got into the air-raid shelters, where all you Slaughterhouse 5 fans will recall people baked to death or died of anoxia due to the firestorm using up all the available oxygen. Whether Peter's close-ups of screaming corpses is appropriate to a show that deals mostly with the disappearance of the city itself is another matter, but they are horrifying. There is also the inevitable attempt to make Art out of something that already is by the single-named Chargesheimer, who does a good job of turning ruins into abstracts, and then prints the same picture solarized, which makes no sense at all. 

From Germany we move to Poland, which is more of the same: Warsaw also got totally stomped, and Leonard Sempolinski's artfully composed pictures of the Church of the Visitation have a hopeful note to them, empasizing as they do the artworks in the church that look over the bricks and stones lying on the ground. The most puzzling pictures in the whole show are a wall of photos of Warsaw by Maria Chrzaszczowska, which are the size of large postage stamps, hardly larger than the 35mm film they were shot on. 

No show on the destruction of cities is complete without its Hiroshima, and, after a few familiar pictures of the devastation, including the canonical one of the dome of the surgical hospital, we are in for the best series in the show: huge unframed prints by a young photographer, Hiromi Tsuchida, of objects from the Hiroshima Peace Museum: clothing, a lunchbox, a clump of hair, all with captions in French and English telling their stories, not all of which are tragic. 

Unfortunately, the Pav Pop had a lot more square meters to fill, and whether the curators decided there had been enough death and destruction or through the kind of logic only those with doctorates in art history can follow, we move to a section called Phantoms of Cities. 

One wall has this ghastly vision of Haixinsha, China, by Mü Chen, and an equally huge shot of Pyongyang by Namsik Baik. Both drew me in, particularly Baik's, which takes in the entire city and the mountains beyond, with the multicolored buildings, most of which are quite futuristic, the new snow, and the endless housing projects emanating a kind of glittery evil while the mountains, which have been there forever, just look on. Two more walls are dedicated to four gargantuan square photos of London, Paris, and New York by the annoying duo of Lucie et Simon, who have painstakingly erased all the humans from the photos but one in each shot. Cute, but so what? Everyone has Photoshop these days. And finally, there are a number of photographs of deserted buildings taken in Detroit in 2006-8 by Yves Marchand and Romain Maffre, which don't hold a candle to the ones by Camilo Jose Vergara, a Chilean-American whose work preceded theirs by a decade. He may have had the hometown advantage, having a wife from Detroit, although it seems to me there are a couple of Italians who've done good work there as well.

After the Brassaï show, too, the curators are to be congratulated for only including one obvious howler. Or, rather, one piece of misdirection. The German photos are mostly on the upper floor, but there are a couple before you go up, and, lonely on one wall, a photo by Lee Miller, "Non-Conformist Chapel, 1941," showing the doorway to a London building with bricks from a Blitz bombing spilling out its front door. The small print acknowledges that it's London, and it is. But you climb the stairs and get hit immediately with a blow-up of it stretching to the ceiling and the word ALLEMAGNE, Germany. I found this both confusing and amateurish: it's easy enough to miss the original downstairs, and it's also the only picture of London's war damage in the whole show. It's a weird slip-up, but it wouldn't be the Pav Pop, I guess, without at least one. 

The show runs through Feb 12, 2012.

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