This small exhibition of Lise Sarfati’s large scale photographic prints in one of my favourite boutique galleries in the Marais was like stepping into another world. And at the same time, the worlds represented in the image are comfortably familiar.
|Lise Sarfati, Oh Man.phg14_08, 2013|
The photographs are composed of large swathes of the empty streets of downtown Los Angeles: filled with the colours of what look like previous occupants of the buildings, they represent a world that is both identifiable and anonymous. As I looked at the images before reading about them, I wondered if they were taken in Astoria, so generically urban American were the streets and the buildings that lined them. Given that they actually represented places and spaces on the other side of the country, it set me wondering about the uniqueness of the cities we live in. It’s this ambiguity and ambivalence between the familiar and the strange that makes the photographs about the locations as much as they are about the single figure that breaks the silence and emptiness of the same spaces.
|Lise Sarfati, Oh Man.phg7_07 2013|
The figure in the image is typically a young urban man. He is always alone, diminished in size as he walks through the deserted urban space that Sarfati represents as a city without a heart. Although they are alone and closed off to the world around them, each man clearly has a history and a story to tell. One has his head bowed, another looks around the corner of the post office, another is deep in thought as he stands waiting for someone or maybe no one. In turn, the solitary figure creates a tension for the viewer: his presence creates an encounter between me as I dive into the empty space, imagining it might be somewhere I know intimately, and a man whose story is still in the process of being written on the same streets.
The men are a facet of the architecture of the city, perfectly aligned with the geometrical lines of a wall edge, parallel to the infrastructure of the buildings they pass, and simultaneously, they interrupt the isolation of the same space as they bring their histories into its streets. They both belong to the abandoned spaces and disturb its solitude. The press release talks about the images in very dramatic terms, however, I found them to be much more realistic, simply asking for a series of encounters between all of the said elements of tension. The text also mentioned the high key lighting that bathes each image, but again, the conclusions it draws about this compositional element did not match my experience. The lighting is not dramatic or infusing the image with some kind of extraordinary illumination: rather, the lighting gives the photographs an openness that invites me to immerse myself in the spaces, even as they are already occupied by their presences and absences.