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2006 05 24
Angle of Incident - 5 - Urban Debris
By Gary Michael Dault


The suite of photographs tacked to the outside wall of the Edward Day Gallery where the building gives onto the courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), as well as this photo-tarpaulin, tacked, at the other side of the courtyard, to the nearby Clint Roenisch Gallery, are the work of Dutch artist and urban theorist Bas Princen.

Princen graduated in 1998 from the Design Academy in Eindhoven and, a year later, joined the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. He has shown widely in Europe, including at the Venice Biennale in 2004 where, that same year, he published his book, Artificial Arcadia, with 010 publishers. This small outdoor exhibition, provocatively titled Utopian Debris and curated for Hollandfest 2006 by artist and independent curator Walter Willems and presented in partnership with the Edward Day Gallery, is the first Canadian exhibition for the Dutch photographer and “Designer of Public Spaces” (for so the Edward Day press release identifies him, capital letters and all).

Most of the rest of the exhibition’s press release is written in standard-issue press-release-language: Princen is focussing, we are assured, “on the transformation of the urban landscape” (as indeed who is not?), on “the relationship between object and landscape” (better) and, more interestingly, on “something which could be called pieces of Utopian Debris”.

The next sentence is even more absorbing: “His photographs show snippets of landscape”, the release intones, “not as illustration of reality but rather as images of the potential outcome of a landscape.”

That’s an interesting idea—“the potential outcome of landscape”. In one of Princen’s photographs, for example, an avalanche of what looks like salt (but is probably sand) silts down from a sort of badlands-like gathering of moraines into a fearsome dry sea. This landscape’s “potential outcome” is—what?—desert flatness? But how does this kind of slow transformation differ from the annals of erosion, the progress of entropic inevitability?

It doesn’t much, as far as this photograph is concerned. Here, the diminishing, slow-transforming landscape is actually less interesting than the phrase that presumably generated it—“the potential outcome if landscape”. The language is eloquent but the image is not.

But Princen is more into his game with photographs such as his dusty, golden study of a floor/field of brick rubble distributed at the foot of a flight of decaying brick stairs and a staggeringly lofty brick wall, or his stark study of a gigantic space-frame structure held aloft on four piers, abandoned in the middle of a nondescript landscape, or a brilliant green, severely modernist building nestling by piles of pink gravel and pointlessly extended by a grey wall shoring up nothing. Or by the muted grey building (illustrated here) on grey ground against a grey sky, which seems to want to mean something but cannot recall what it was.

But none of this seems especially Utopian in origin or post-Utopian in its resolution.

“Princen often photographs places that we do not know about” [which is one of the things photography does well], proclaims his press release, places “too abandoned to be nature”.

Hold the phone now. How can a place be too abandoned to be nature”? As far as nature goes, the more abandonment the better, surely? But, continues the statement, Princen photographs “places whose primary function is long forgotten, even if traces remain.”

Yes, okay. The derelict space-frame, for example. The muffled grey-on-grey building. At the same time, what Princen is really engaged by, apparently, is the limning of “traces of activity that reveal the character of a site”. Which begs more questions than the photographs answer.

No, in the end, the straining after neo-importance in the press release’s prose lends a wayward ambitiousness to a project which already possesses an innate lyricism that is searching enough without any attendant apologia.

It seems to me that when you get right down to it, Utopianism notwithstanding, these really quite compelling photographs are more moving, more mysterious, and more literary than their own press release wants them to be. Their eloquence lies in their ubi sunt qualities, their anti-hubris filled plaintiveness, their blunted aspiration that, were it not so fearfully old-fashioned an idea, might be said to incarnate both tenderness and the sense of fear offered, as poet T.S. Eliot so disturbingly put it, in “a handful of dust”.

Bas Princen’s Utopian Debris continues at the Edward Day Gallery, 952 Queen Street West Courtyard, until May 31—and probably for longer.

[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 05/24 at 11:18 AM

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