The City – Becoming and Decaying

The City - Becoming and Decaying Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History Masterton reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History April 2014

By David Famularo

“Every day 200,000 people move from the countryside to cities around the world.”

Please note the word “people”. Cities are all about people, but people ironically are few and far between in The City – Becoming and Decaying. Where they do make an appearance they are in most cases more like still objects than animated beings. This exhibition seems to be more about cityscapes than the people who inhabit them. This is similar to what I’ve noticed about a lot of New Zealand art photography over the past 45 years – people tend to be used as props.

My admittedly limited experience of large third world cities – which is where most of the urban growth is occurring – is one of immense energy – some personal examples being Medan in North Sumatra and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I could add Naples in Italy as well, although it is nominally first world. I’ve been to Manhattan too but have to say that it came across as less lively and chaotic than its reputation but I imagine that back in the early 1900s a precinct like Little Italy would not have been dissimilar to downtown Naples today, almost exploding with energy.

It’s worth noting in the promotional text below that The OSTKREUZ Agency was founded in East Berlin in 1990 after the end of East Germany (GDR), following the example of Magnum. You can see Magnum’s influence in the spirit of the exhibition but I wonder if Magnum’s true inheritors are today’s photojournalists, for example, the photogallery of Al Arabiya News, or Pete Souza, official photographer for the White House. Photographers like these chiefly aim to capture humanity and its activities to tell a story, whereas The City’s chief characteristic is a cool detachment that at best translates into an air of alienation, a common trait of large cities.

Art fed into and drove the evolution of photojournalism for over 100 years from the 1860s to the 1970s when much of its developmental potential was exhausted. The artist as photo-journalist has been at an impasse ever since. An interesting present trend is the discovery or rediscovery of photographers like Vivian Maier or the discovery of art in photographs that were never originally meant to be viewed as such as those of crime scenes of the Los Angeles Police Department. But ultimately, this is simply a case of extracting the last of the water from the well and doesn’t offer new directions.

I think The City suffers because of this impasse. There’s a lot of style but not much information, which is fine, I guess, if the aesthetic appeals to you. Gaza the Terrible City is interesting in that it does presents an alternative view (ironically because there are almost no people in frame) to that of distressed inhabitants. The most memorable series of images for me are the Tranzit Stills by Frank Schinski, because they capture one of the great truths of the modern city – their blandness and monotony. His photographs of Turkish businessmen in their lacklustre attire crossing the bosphorous by ferry, commuters at a Moscow underground station, or more businessmen at Heathrow Airport is an antidote to the tourist images more commonly associated with these cities.

Maybe this is the essential truth of The City – that the greater amount of the world’s people are just inherently visually uninteresting these days, (unless suffering) hence art photographers inevitably chose to ignore them, and focus on cityscapes instead. The more people travel, the less there is to see, and perhaps we are running out of the sort of humanity that inspired the Magnum photographers in the first place.


A major exhibition survey of award-winning contemporary German photography. Aratoi – Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton is the only venue for the exhibition in New Zealand. The City – Becoming and Decaying features almost 200 works by photographers from renowned German photo agency OSTKREUZ, who have turned their lenses to 22 cities around the globe – from Dubai to Detroit, Las Vegas to Minsk, Liverpool to Gaza – to explore the realities of living in urban environments now.

Every day almost 200,000 people around the world leave the countryside, lured by the opportunity of life in the city, but these images question whether the city is a place of progress or of social and environmental dysfunction. Cities are shown as places of utopian futurism, but also as sites of urban decay and cultural loss, descending into waste and chaos.

According to Curator Marcus Jauer: “They have brought together images from around the world of the city’s growth and decay. They show how the city of Ordos, in China, is springing up in the middle of the steppes and how Pripyat, in Ukraine, is being taken over again by nature; how the city of Lagos, in Nigeria, is expanding uncontrollably in its tangled growth; how the city of Manila is clustering into slums, and how Detroit, in the United States, is decaying at its core; how Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, can barely keep up with its own growth, and how the city of Gaza, in Palestine, is being leveled to the ground; how the city of Las Vegas lives from appearance, Auroville from ideals, and Atlantis as myth.”

The OSTKREUZ Agency was founded in East Berlin in 1990 after the end of the GDR, following the example of Magnum, and The City was devised as a unique long term project to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The 18 members included Sibylle Bergemann, whose retrospective exhibition was displayed at Aratoi in October 2012. The photographers of the exhibition The City range in age from mid-twenties to sixties, with the majority from Germany. The exhibition has been touring internationally since 2010 and is presented in partnership with the Goethe-Institut.

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