Shaping the City at V&A Dundee

Fred Zinnemann, 'Building the Rockefeller Center' ©The Estate of Fred Zinnemann. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery
Fred Zinnemann, 'Building the Rockefeller Center' ©The Estate of Fred Zinnemann. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Photo City: How Images Shape the Urban World

Wed - Mon 10:00 - 17:00

From: 29 Mar 2024

To: 29 Oct 2024

V&A Dundee (Michelin Design Gallery)
1 Riverside Esplanade
Dundee & Angus

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V&A Dundee has recently launched their latest exhibition Photo City: How Images Shape the Urban World. The exhibition is a collaborative effort of by both branches of the V&A museum – South Kensington (London) and Dundee.

The entire exhibition consists of V&A’s impressive photography collection, along with two commissioned works, Diorama Map, Dundee and Gimbal City, an interactive video installation. As Jenny Patterson, press and communications director of the V&A Dundee put it, ‘for the first time, all curators were meshed together on a single project’. No wonder that such collaboration yielded a tripartite display. Brendan Cormier, one of the curators, explained that the concept for a photo exhibit was in the works for two years. However, V&A Dundee were not interested in an arts or photography perspective alone; they needed something more integrated. Considering the focus of Dundee’s branch on design, the concept for Photo City emerged: a combination of architecture and photography. Two technologies, as Cormier puts it, that by way of ‘a historical accident’ came to define mid-nineteenth century urban expansion and advent of photography.

The exhibition consists of three parts that create a dizzying and often vertiginous journey for the viewer: visitors travel from steel heights, observing the New York skyline from Fred Zinnemann’s Building of Rockefeller Centre (1932) to ground level, witnessing characters in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s intimate portraits of life in the cobbled streets of European cities, and conclude the journey in the virtual world of a flat two-dimensional surface.

Fred Zinnemann, 'Building the Rockefeller Center' ©The Estate of Fred Zinnemann. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery
Fred Zinnemann, ‘Building the Rockefeller Center’ 1932. ©The Estate of Fred Zinnemann. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

The ‘encyclopaedic’ part of the exhibit focuses precisely on that – with the origins of photography beginning with Fox Talbot’s invention of the camera, early photographic techniques, such as daguerreotype and colour type (with examples of Scottish landmarks, notably, Walter Scott Monument), cityscapes shown from an aerial view pioneered by French photographer Nadar during 1860s (first images were taken from a hot air balloon) and stereoscopic cameras that were used for reconnaissance purposes during World War I. As Lisa Springer, one of the curators, puts it, the idea was to show technologies ‘stitched’ together.

Margaret Bourke White, 'Coney Island', 1952, silver gelatin print. Whitney Museum of Art
Margaret Bourke White, ‘Coney Island’, 1952, silver gelatin print. Whitney Museum of Art

One of the most fascinating parallels that curators draw is between documentation of the rapid proliferation of skyscrapers during the roaring twenties — a development that defined the modern period. It quite literally yanked architectural history with columns, friezes and dados and extruded it into the sky, thus popularising a new way of looking at the world – an aerial view.

Curators demonstrate another concept – an ‘endless city’ – that characterised urban horizontal expansion. This perspective is encapsulated by the work of Margaret Bourke-White such as Coney Island (1952). The photograph depicts an overly populated beach in the state of New York during the summer. It illustrates the beach strip running and the pier protruding into the sea acting as x and y axes, with the palm-shaped radio tower acting as the origin. To extend the metaphor, people in this scenario become coordinates, in other words, pieces of data – not unlike ones that will be later developed in satellite imagery or surveillance videos.

Will Wright and Fred Haslam Maxis Studios, 'SimCity 2000' videogame on a screen
Will Wright and Fred Haslam Maxis Studios, ‘SimCity 2000’, videogame on a screen

The entire exhibition offers various ‘interjections’ of technology from other spheres – a device that shows a simulation game in an axonometric projection that helps to envisage a world without horizons; stereoscopic cameras were used in aviation for reconnaissance purposes during First and Second World Wars that could be likened to modern-day drones. More contemporaneously, satellite imagery shows how the technology helps to monitor rising sea levels, notably in Jakarta, and the environmental ramifications of climate warming.

Henri Cartier Bresson, 'Behind Gare St Lazare Paris', gelatin silver print
Henri Cartier Bresson, ‘Behind Gare St Lazare Paris’, gelatin silver print
Sirkka Liisa Konttinen ,'Girl on Space Hopper Byker, 1971', © Sirkka Liisa Konttinen. Courtesy Michael Hoppen London. Reproduction of original silver screen print
Sirkka Liisa Konttinen, ‘Girl on Space Hopper Byker, 1971’. © Sirkka Liisa Konttinen. Courtesy Michael Hoppen London. Reproduction of original silver screen print

Later, the visitor travels to Lived City where we see a boom in street photography and the emergence of trailblazers in the medium, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winnogrand and and Sirrka-Liisa Kontinnen. ‘Lived City’ weaves a story of how housing, social reform and surveillance became closely intertwined during the mid-twentieth century: artists ‘armed’ with cameras became social activists for better housing conditions, showcasing how technology, once again, became co-opted for political agendas – surveillance, a feature that only became more prominent in today’s time. The section concludes with Liam Young’s video installation Choreographic Camouflage (2021) showcasing a choreography sequence with the backdrop of an urban setting that aims to thwart any attempts of surveillant devices at recording people’s body language in order to develop patterns.

Liam Young, designer and director, Jacob Jonas choreographer, Shuruq Tramontini technical lead, 'Forest Swords', original score choreographic camouflage, 2021
Liam Young, designer and director, Jacob Jonas choreographer, Shuruq Tramontini technical lead, ‘Forest Swords’, original score choreographic camouflage, 2021

Image City introduces the viewer to the ‘tourist gaze’ – a concept that developed in the latter-half of nineteenth century, the effects of which we see today. Artwork in this room illustrates the tendency of landmarks, beginning with mid-nineteenth century (Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower) were projected with photography in mind; part of their function was to be captured on film. As Blair, one of the visitor assistants comments, she always imagines which landmark would look more favourable in different lighting.

The final piece in the exhibition coincides with the Gimbal City installation outside the exhibition premises (the brainchild of University of Dundee alumni Sasha Belitskaja and Shaun McCallum), as it utilises gaming interfaces – an aspect that Francesca Bibby stated was used to represent Dundee’s fast-growing gaming industry, as well as becoming a point of entry for many exhibition-goers. Alan Butler took a 1970s Los Angeles urban setting in order to recreate a virtual city for the Grand Theft Auto game (designed in Dundee, by the way), thus transporting the city onto the screens or on a flat two-dimensional plane – the journey is complete.

Gimbal City designers
Sohei Nishino pictured in front of 'Sohei Nishino Diorama Map Dundee 2024', inkjet print of original contact print collage
Sohei Nishino pictured in front of ‘Diorama Map Dundee 2024’, inkjet print of original contact print collage

Outside, two seemingly disparate objects greet you in the open area of the second floor, as if they belong to separate exhibits altogether.

Diorama Map, Dundee (2024) by Sohei Nishino is an impressive five-metre-wide collage that greets visitors upon entering the exhibit, while acting as a coda, too. Nishino’s series includes cosmopolitan behemoths like Paris, Tokyo and New Delhi. Dundee, on the other hand, was the smallest town, yet incidentally became the largest collage of all (spanning five metres in width), with each collage taking four to five months to complete. Apart from being an incredibly intricate project and impressive feat, it also possesses a warmth that is hard to achieve in a monochromatic medium. From the outset, the collage reads as a carefully constructed topographical map of the city; however, upon a closer look, it reads as something more intimate and profound – a printed photo album.

This is not a coincidence: the artist himself describes the work as ‘a personal map’. Apart from capturing quintessential Dundee monuments, such as the McManus Gallery, eccentric statues strewn across town (Desperate Dan) and riverside topographical elements, Nishino spent time with locals observing and partaking in social activities (hockey game on a skating rink, a bowling venue, a pub crawl). According to the artist, this part of the process allowed him to connect with citizens on a more intimate level that lent depth to his piece. He creates an intimate portrait of a city thataptly combines people, architecture and green spaces, suggesting that sum is bigger than its parts; or in artist’s own words – that city is a ‘living organism’.

Photo City proves what an exhibition can do at its best: simultaneously educating and entertaining the viewer. It employs every tool in the box to engage its visitor, from early photographic devices to an interactive game that encourages building a perfect imagined city. This variety of aspects renders this exhibition a truly multifaceted, immersive and enjoyable experience, covering so much ground, one might need to retreat (like I did) mid-way for a coffee and pastry break. It is not only an aesthetic pleasure, but an educational one as well. As I sat on the bench while taking a breather, I looked upon the two seemingly disparate exhibits, Diorama Map and Gimbal City, and noticed a construction site in the background that was an apt reminder of the leitmotif of the exhibition itself.

With thanks to Mew, a translator based in Edinburgh, for translating the answers in an interview with Sohei Nishino, artist of the Diorama Map, Dundee. Images courtesy of V&A Dundee and the author, except Whitney Museum of Modern Art (public access).

With thanks to Anna Shevetovska for this review.

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