un-titled magazine
UnReal Estate

Summer 2009

un-titled magazine #2

The ownership or occupation of land as well as of the architectural space designed on it has been a field of perennially complicated political and social issues. Characteristically, Georges Bataille noted that architecture expresses the inner self of societies, in the same way that the human face expresses the inner self of persons. Historical art has imaged this inner self of societies in a way that was concealing efficiently the gradual transformation of land into financial value and consumer commodity, in the context of an emerging capitalist society. Similarly concealed was the swift spreading of colonialism to conquer the land and loot its natural resources, a process that bequeathed hard to settle deformations to almost all corners of the globe. It was exactly this hidden dimension between the consolation of art and the cruelty of social reality that was suggested by W.J.T. Mitchell in his wordplay on the terms ideal estate and real estate.

Modern art, especially from the '60s onward, brought out critically these increasingly complex social and political matters associated with the ownership of architectural site and space. The works featuring in this issue under the title UnReal Estate attempt to indicate the often paradox condition emerging from the political and financial processes for the ownership and "development" of this architectural site and space. Contributing to this condition are the suffocating rationalism in controlling and exploiting the land, the runaway capitalist growth and the perverse attempt at globalization, deepening the inequalities impressed now vividly on the broader social and political landscape.

In this context, Ahlam Shibli in her series Goter (2002-2003) depicts fragments from the dislocated life of Bedouin origin Palestinians who were forced by the Israelis to abandon nomad life and live in controlled settlements. Those that refused to leave their homes live in villages not included in the official map anymore. Her photographs then document sometimes a policy of dislocating people and sometimes a policy of concealing places. Underlining the attempted change of people's identities, Shibli blots out the faces from most photographs. The everyday scenes from the makeshift settlements impart to the viewer a sense of alienation, an element frequently suggested by the empty space in the foreground: these spaces are dystopian, unfamiliar, and the photographic act restores them on the historical and social map, in a determined reaction to the enforced political framework.

In his series Avenida Caracas, Bogotá (2006), Alexander Apóstol focuses on the counterpoint between international architecture and the contemporary condition of public space. With the deserted streets coming often in contrast to the vivid colours, his photographs capture humble samples of an ecumenical modernism that, amid the chaotic urban landscape of Colombia's capital, resemble rather an artificial attachment, accentuated by the vaguely threatening military presence. In the photographs of the Skeleton Coast (2005) series, the bare skeletons of hotel investments stranded on a Venezuelan tourist island reveal the strict form of buildings that turned into ruins before they were inhabited. These cemeteries of tourism, skeletons without a shell, constitute an ironic counterpoint to the condition of many developing tourist destinations, where one often meets shells without a skeleton: a spineless facade policy structured on the logic of quick profit, a long way from any perspectives for balanced development. Common in both series is a sense of unfulfilled promise, behind which lurks the process of cultural infiltration.

In the diptychs of the Third Space series (2004-2005), Whitney Stolich explores the convergence -in the architectural and broader environment- of communities that, although geographically neighboring, are separated by the United States - Mexico border. Her work locates traces of an informal zone where the reciprocal economic necessity, albeit in different terms, is overcoming powerful political obstacles. Correspondingly in the series Land Above Sky Below (2007-2008), Stolich employs vertical triptychs to turn the void into an intermediate space through the profitable "territorialization" of the air. Her unsettling photographs, where space is chopped up violently causing the horizon to stutter, criticize capitalist logic. The common thread in these two series is the application of an urban planning logic to space and the work's articulation, posing crucial questions about the intricate development of structured environment. To the extent that the first series emphasizes the unexpected continuity in the horizontal dimension, the second series brings forth the spectacular discontinuity on the vertical axis.

The series Portraits from above (2008) by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham presents the social phenomenon of illegal structures on top of buildings in Hong Kong's central districts. Their composite approach combines photographs from inside the dwellings and views of their position in the urban horizon, with architectural drawings of the housetops' labyrinthine layout and their improvised structure. In contrast to the organized architectural design specified by the context of final use, their methodology offers an analytical glance at these makeshift housetops, the forms and materials of which are shaped by personal necessity. These small colonies constitute an invisible shantytown in the heart of Hong Kong, ephemeral in its permanence. Wu and Canham's work condenses effectively the social pressures exerted by the highly competitive environment of a modern metropolis. At the same time, it transcends the limits of a clinical or abstract description, displaying the phenomenon's stratification, unfolding elliptically the stories of real human beings.

These works weave a fine web around the utilization of land and architectural space. Shibli tells us about the process of political dislocation and land usurpation that makes the natural owners guests in their homeland. Apóstol views critically the architectural traces of post-war modernism in Colombia in a context of social instability and suggests the Western infiltration through art and tourism. Stolich tells us about an unusual inter-border conversation on the development of structured environment, and also about the commercialization of empty space. Wu and Canham propose a dive into Hong Kong's urban jungle to reveal the makeshift hovels and the social condition of the faceless workers of yet another economic miracle. The link connecting these works is the often arbitrary or paradox utilization of place and space.

The works presented in UnReal Estate do not attempt to disguise the fact that photography, in historical but also modern terms, has been the central tool for the process of "deterritorialization", the education in perceiving the land as spectacle and development perspective, disrupting man's deep historical and cultural ties with it while keeping up with the full speed of metropolitan engines. On the contrary, they seek to demonstrate that, in the digital age of immaterial sites, land and the architecturally shaped space constitute still a crucial hotbed for fierce contention, profiteering exploitation and political opportunism. Furthermore, in an age of increasing social mobility, they constitute still a common reference registered in the collective conscience and nourishing human imagination.