It would not be stating something new to say that for a while now photography has ceased to be considered a mirror of reality, a ‘true’ reflection of the world or even a simple tool for documenting social reality. The advent of new technologies and the increasingly flawless ways of editing and changing images have thrown into question the traditional belief that “the camera never lies” and completely re-defined our relationship with the image. However, the fact that photography can be manipulated, staged or constructed is as old as the genre itself, “The camera simply projects light in a continuous stream, reflected from the objects in front of it – it never lies, only the print does. So from its very beginning photography has depicted spectres and scenes that have never existed.”1 Much recent contemporary photography, Dimitris Tsoublekas’ included, thus upholds Umberto Eco’s assertion that the theory of the photograph as an ”analogue of reality” has been abandoned, even by those who once advocated it.
Tsoublekas uses photography to create his own independent reality, a reality that draws both on the tangible world and the world of the imagination. His work deploys the tactic of falsification as a deliberate strategy through which to articulate wider truths. The artist employs the camera as a critical tool to dissect and examine the urban landscape and urban living in the public as well as the domestic arena. His work is a study on the built environment in the city of Athens, urban expansion, and suburban transformation. It is a comment on botched urban development, the insatiable maw of real estate development, and misunderstood notions of ‘internationalism’ in architecture. By extension, his work is also a comment on bourgeois aspirations, and how material possessions as well as the edifices that surround us come to define our identity.
Tsoublekas’ work can be divided into two distinct categories: one is a series of pictures which juxtapose home interiors and the awkward, contradictory landscape of Athens’ Northern suburbs and the other is a series which focuses on the urban landscape in the city, in general. In both bodies of work the real and the digitally constructed intersect to create startling juxtapositions that completely re-define the ways we look at the environment and the city around us. Tsoublekas focuses on a set of social and geographical stress points to articulate his ideas about urban dysfunction and malaise. By digitally intervening in his photographs to alter familiar or archetypal locations in the city or to ‘expose’ areas of the private home, Tsoublekas has created a series of quasi-surreal, quasi-pragmatic images that provide a caustic look at contemporary living in the city, and whose aim is to counter the ideological establishment of urban and architectural space. Like many artists of his generation, Tsoublekas uses the help of a computer not in order to create landscapes of fiction but rather to articulate certain realities by setting up a set of hyper-real situations. What he is interested in, therefore, is the re-activation an overly familiar image. The result, however bizarre, always is rooted in the tangible world. His carefully constructed or staged pictures literally dissect the urban physiognomy of the city in order to articulate urban fears, anxieties, fantasies or aspirations.
The first body of work began out of the careful observation of the changing environment around his former home in a Northern suburb of Athens. What was a relatively rural residential area has during the last couple of years been transformed into a business district that plays home to a variety of corporate headquarters as well as upscale residential dwellings. Building in this area has been rapid, expansive but largely badly planned as regards the provision of adequate spaces of public access and use. Huge corporate edifices (lacking unquestionably in architectural vision) have been erected, but there are often no sidewalks or parking spaces, let alone areas of public recreation. In close proximity to these polished, pristine buildings are areas of wasteland or randomly strewn buildings that appear as though they belong to an entirely different world. It is therefore not uncommon to find designer homes surrounded by urban wasteland, or million dollar corporate developments surrounded by garbage dumps. It is this dichotomy that Tsoublekas pinpoints in his series of photographs aptly entitled Open Kitchen – Broken Homes. Here, attractive domestic dwellings are offset against unregulated corporate expansion and urban neglect. Fear, for example, depicts the perfect minimalist dining area only the painting which adorns the wall is somewhat unsettling: two dumpsters upon which the word “fear” has been spray-painted; Contribution in Land depicts the pristine area of a sanitized living room “invaded” by a rather grubby looking strip of asphalt; in Open Kitchen – Broken Homes (the photograph from which the whole series derives its title) a derelict building and its rubble creep through the door of a brand new designer kitchen. In all these images, there seems to be a serious discrepancy, a deliberate disruption of continuity or harmony between interior and exterior. The message is succinct: even the most perfect corporate edifice or domestic refuge cannot block out the exterior world and its problematic aspects. Hyper perhaps best encapsulates this messy, disorderly environment where cars, apartment buildings and a supermarket appear randomly strewn in a landscape with no sense of order. Tsoublekas’ images draw their strength precisely from this tension of opposite elements which seem to encapsulate his hybrid idea of urban experience: comfort versus aggravation, function versus dysfunction, order versus mayhem as well as the dichotomy between interior versus exterior, public versus private, beauty versus ugliness.
In other works Tsoublekas isolates typical Athenian landmarks or urban locations such as the Acropolis or Parliament, and Singrou Avenue and then proceeds to sully or beautify them by incorporating other buildings, elements or structures drawn from the city. In 7-0 a swimming pool replete with polo players replaces the rather bland Singrou Avenue, one of Athens’ main thoroughfares; this uncanny twist turns a rather unattractive view of the city into a site of escapism and recreation. Another swimming pool runs across the front of the Houses of Parliament in Summer Session. The joke on political efficiency and parliamentary attendance does not go unnoticed. In Comfort and Safety a modern escalator is juxtaposed with a view of the Acropolis. How much easier it would be if people did not have to climb up to the ancient rock! West Entrance provides us with another view of the Acropolis, this time surrounded by a smooth expanse of lawn, a pleasant ‘addition’ that makes the obligatory cultural tour an altogether ‘smoother’ experience. Polis is an uneasy juxtaposition of the ancient rock with a selection of rather colourless, non-descript but very typical corporate buildings taken from the northern suburb of Maroussi, now an area increasingly occupied by office buildings. Brand New is a photograph of the Acropolis clad in the opulent black marble – a symbol of luxury and elegance – normally used in the aforementioned newly designed office buildings. All these works also function as potent metaphors about the uneasy co-existence of old and new, tradition and modernity but also comment on our fixation with novelty and question accepted notions of taste in architecture and design. Tsoublekas engages in critical terms with the notion of urban landscape commenting on the legacy of corporate expansion, gentrification, and the commodification of heritage. His ironic dissection and critique of Greek urban reality reflects its hybrid and chaotic nature but at the same time proposes humorous, absurd and startling solutions as a cure for its dysfunctionality. In a way, Tsoublekas can be said to act as a provocative and sarcastic ‘virtual’ urban planer proposing radical solutions to make everyone’s life in the city easier and more pleasant.
The artist’s curious blend of veracity and falseness and his often outlandish juxtapositions offer, on the one hand, an improved version of urban reality, on the other, they seem to pinpoint what the artist considers as the problematic aspects of city life. Indeed, his seemingly absurd interventions are meant to accentuate defects in the landscape. Though many of his images posess a surrealist streak, Tsoublekas is not really interested in the heavy symbolism of surrealist imagery but in creating a disturbance of our visual order, a momentary dissonance which challenges our ideas about the landscape as we know it. Thus, his concern is not with a questioning of photography’s hold on the real but with its capacity to generate improved or at least critical forms of reality. In this ways he can be said to employ digital manipulation to further enhance the ‘reality effect’ or to accentuate perceived shortcomings in the landscape. Hence, his photographs have more to do with the surreal than the fictional. This phenomenon of substituting a fabricated hyper-reality for the real is a characteristic of much contemporary photography, and, one could maintain, of culture in general.2 Moreover, it would appear that not only are we accepting of a fake reality, but that sometimes we even covet it. “I do not know when we lost our sense of reality or our interest in it, but at some point it was decided that reality was not the only option. It was possible and even desirable to improve on it. Distinctions are no longer made or deemed necessary between the real and the false; the edge usually goes to the latter, and an improved version with defects corrected – accessible and user-friendly.”3 In much the same way then, Tsoublekas treats reality as something malleable available for constant re-shaping, improvement and analysis.
On the other hand, his images belong to a veritable form of post-modern photography where purity, truthfulness or documentary integrity are no longer issues. In fact, “central to the post-modern is an emphasis on construction, the forging, staging or fabrication of images. Pictures are preconceived by the artist.”4 By extension, constructed photography can be defined as “any photographic imagery wherein the conceptual engineering of the artist is clearly evident.”5 Indeed a characteristic of much contemporary photography, including Tsoublekas’s is the fact that photographers are synthesizing visual information whether real or fabricated, “Right now we have this very interesting phenomenon where photographers are combining observation with intervention…it has to do with wanting to control the image, not relying on chance, and this approach produces a heightened sense of drama.”6 This kind of photography refuses to take the world at face value rather takes as its point of departure what Grundberg has described as “the literal surfaces of things and subject matter that speaks for itself.”7 It is precisely the use of archetypal images and (urban) points of reference that Tsoublekas takes as his point of departure. So while his photographs are rooted in the real, they also supersede it. Grundberg summarizes this kind of approach: ”The images use the indexical qualities of the photographic – that is, the way in which the photograph draws upon actuality – as part of its vocabulary of expression, but only a part of it.”8
Tsoublekas’ work incites a much-needed critical dialogue about urban development in artistic discourse in this country and at the same time questions what we mean by the idea of “progress” or “development”. He is one of the few artists working in this country who consciously place themselves in the tradition of urbanist criticism. His photographs are a piercing comment on the rapidly changing urban environment and the ad hoc development that often characterises it. At the same time, the artist targets what he considers as the worst form of post-modern architecture as well as the lack of proper town planning. Tsoublekas’ interventions in the architectural and mental framework of Athens enable one to take the experiences inspired by the artist out of the limited context of an exhibition and place them into an external relationship to life. Though it is probably not his intention, his photographs also speak of bourgeois aspirations, about the desire for material consumption but, above all, of social indifference and civil irresponsibility. Tsoublekas’ photographs are tangible but uncanny, familiar enough to be recognisable but at the same time images of places we know could not possibly exist. The viewer is encouraged to temporarily suspend their disbelief, accept the illusion and enter this world of magic realism.
1.Roberts, James, Remain in Light, Frieze, #40, May 1998, p. 59
2.The question of ‘photographic realism’ has become an increasingly subjective issue in the work of many contemporary photographers. A number of these such as Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Tracey Moffatt, Inez Van Lamsweerde, Mariko Mori, Sam Taylor Wood, Anna Gaskell and others who work in the arena of staged or manipulated photography, are taking post-modern theory into the realm of constructed narratives and fabricated realities.
3.Huxtable, Ada Louise, “Living with the Fake and Liking It”, The New York Times, Sunday March 30,1997 pp.1, 40.
4.Wells, Liz “On and Beyond the White Walls: Photography as Art” in Photography: A Critical Introduction (Ed. Liz Wells), London, 1997, p. 229.
6.Interview with Darsie Alexander, Assistant Curator of Photography at MOMA, New York in “Lights, Action, Camera!” by Barbara Pollack, ArtNews, Vol. 99, No. 2, February, 2000, p. 126.h
7.Grundberg, Andy, “Photography in the Age of Electronic Simulation” in Crisis of the Real, New York: Aperture, 1990, p. 82
8.Wells, Liz “On and Beyond the White Walls: Photography as Art” in Photography: A Critical Introduction (Ed. Liz Wells), London, 1997, p. 229.
THE FUNCTION OF IMAGES
Let me start with a question: why this sudden revival among a younger generation of artists of this insatiable obsession with the city? The first answer that comes to mind is that contemporary people, having repudiated the city for a long time, are alarmed to find out that it is only in big cities that they can breathe; outside the city they feel like being outside reality, outside History and hence outside themselves. Yet, I hear you say, this was what all avant-garde movements attempted in the 20th century through an unprecedented metropolitan orgy. Yes, but the references are becoming more personal, less boisterous, and the metaphors more subtle. New art may be building on a switch which emerged in the 1920s and was followed by that of the 1960s, but it differs in spirit and attitude: nihilism and self-referential formalism have been replaced by a new sensibility towards values, humour and subtle concepts.
In this country, when one thinks of painters like Papaloukas or of Pikionis’s “Attican Works”, the impression is that our painting is strongly based on an obsession with nature and the landscapes of a heavenly Mediterranean countryside. This charming and often melancholic attitude is increasingly replaced by the anthropography of the city. This is why what I found interesting in Dimitris Tsoublekas’ photographs of a few years back was his attempt to loosely combine the two viewpoints (urban and natural); ‘loosely’, in the way one might decide to get off the bus and walk the rest of the way. I am talking about the suburbia mirabilis he exhibited at Gallery 3 in 1996 under the title What Will I Do When I Die (“Will I Laugh?”; “Will I be Alone?”; “Will we be Together?”; “Will I Dance?”).
Today we know that the urban conscience in contemporary Greek art was gradually bred through a series of doubts and hesitations to end up following historical circumstances. The idle resistance to the charm of the city drew from the old phobias of a community-bred population and a Mediterranean life style that was far removed from the severity of Northern European cities. The younger generation of artists has cultivated an attraction to Athens as an element that mediates between interpersonal relations, perhaps with some fetishism towards the frantic everyday life and the paradox. Evgenios Aranitsis once wrote of literature that, “the identification with the city may be a Freudian identification with the attacker whose face you have to reflect on the mask”. I think this remark also remains accurate in art as well as in architecture.
Tsoublekas seems to have attempted something similar, in his own way, with this latest body of work. PhotoShop assumes the place of collage in order to place a building or an object in a different context. All avant-garde theories focused on the heterogeneity and the non-organic kind of representation the collage provides. Rosalind Krauss had claimed that the point was to emphasize “the gap between one fragment of reality and another” (Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism, New York, 1985, p. 27). If the realistic, organic work of art aimed to reconcile the natural world with civilization, the non-organic collage simply plays upon the fascinating heterogeneity of reality. I am not sure whether we should be troubled by the fact that the avant-garde techniques lost their former ‘heroic’ character and were appropriated by mass culture. After all, the city itself is no longer a harmonious unit that can be fully governed and controlled.
The new imaging technologies have promoted one more interchange: architecture increases its artistic features as art gains an increasing number of architectural elements. Central to all this is always the adventure of perception, the vertigo of the gaze. “Quality” in contemporary cities depends not only on the necessary facilities but on the force of their images as well. This was already well understood by the German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1834, when he designed a monumental palace for King Otto on the Athens Acropolis without even having set foot in Greece: an early apotheosis of the non lieu which is all the rage today. I can go further back, if you want, and remind you of that wonderful alteration of Toledo El Greco executed around 1595-1600 when he arbitrarily moved the river and the campanile and relocated the buildings.
Many years later the theorist of architecture Colin Rowe became famous for his book Collage City, where he makes reference to Picasso and his favourite “bull’s head” to describe the notion of a city which would be an assemblage of various fragments. What he missed, however, was the ability of art to transform to most humble and mundane thing into something special. Today, any ‘reading’ of the city is by definition a misreading; the only possible interpretation is misinterpretation. Therefore this “new alliance” between art and architecture has to do above all with the function of the city’s images. And this is exactly what Tsoublekas experiments with.