Deconstructing the City

"Citta Aperta/Open City" Luciano Rigolini at Farish Gallery, School of Arehitecture, Rice University, September 15- October 28, 1995, by Ed Osowski

Editor's Note: Rigolini's show will be on view it Rice University's Brown Art and Arehitecture Library and the Fondren Library during FotoFest.
"I would like to see more clearly, but it seems to me that no one sees more clearly." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Luciano Rigolini's ten black-and-white photographs of various urban settings, exhibited under the title "Citta Aperta/Open City," are large, challenging, nearly monumental works. Made over a six-year span, from 1990 to 1995, they depict according to their titles, locations ranging from Paris and New York (1990), to two images of Houston (1993), to the most recent work in the exhibition, a photograph made in Phoenix in 1995. The loca­tions also serve as the titles of the works.
Rigolini records the banalities of the post-industrial urban landscape. Concrete freeway ramps and supports, parts of motorized vehicles, steel braces and columns, electric wires crossing the horizon in grid-like patterns repeat from one photograph to another and echo visually across the gallery.
What holds little interest for Rigo­lini in these photographs is recording what is unique about Kyoto or Houston or Berlin. One would be hard pressed to imagine a Chamber of Commerce using any of his works to "sell" that particular city to a potential client. Rigolini seems concerted wits a much more important issue—providing evidence that the act of seeing has reached a crisis point, that what was once believed to be "evidence" is now pan of a more profound realization that the visual landscape is a fictiona creation.1 That these are photographs of cities on three different continents is their least interesting feature.2 What actually engages the viewer is the difficulty of reading these works, of deciphering the details, of piecing together their fractured sections. The monumentality of the photographs becomes part of Rigolini's ironic methodology.
Consider the photograph New York. Here the individual pieces threaten to crumble before one’s eyes. A steel brace, a street lamp, the upper floors of a loft-like building—these are the few items that one can identify with some certainty. The sharp, crisp edge of the roof-line of the building is the single point of sta­bility in the photograph. The photograph itself consists of a number of parts, of quasi-geometric shapes, that dissolve and reconfigure as one attempts to analyze them. Its various parts do less to hold the photograph together than to bring the viewer up against the unflinch­ing self-referential and self-reflective qualities of the image. New Yorkholds one's attention, initially, by its visual representation of the clichés one can short­hand as "urban chaos," But this is its most obvi­ous quality. Threatening to collapse before the viewer's eyes, "New York" is much more than a visual metaphor or equivalent. The difficulty one experiences in piecing together its individual parts speaks directly to the naive and sentimental belief that what the Camera records is "objective truth."
There is no way of knowing from Rigolini’s ten photographs what distin­guishes one city from another. On one level, Rigolini is attempting to show how the nine cities he has photographed are interchangeable, how nothing sep­arates Baltimore from Osaka, how Paris could easily be Houston, how the post-industrial West is everywhere.
If one associates Paris with broad boulevards, classical facades, and handsome vistas, then Rigolini's photo­graph can only lie called perverse. In Paris Baron Haussmann’s grand city is reduced to a street crowded with parked automobiles and a pedestrian mall. Bur the principal element in the photograph is a large horizontal band dividing the image into two sections. Above this band all is perfectly clear— the sky, a few roof tops, some trees. Below, perhaps photographed through a double pane of glass, the scene is blurred—shapes dissolve and factual clarity is lost.
Rigolini's photographs are balanced, carefully composed, and precise in their imprecision. One notices how in one of the two Houston images a collection of round shapes—the curve of a windshield, a group of oil storage tanks, a large black circle on the window an automobile's rearview mirror—echo one another. This visual rhythm, almost painterly, holds together an image that would disinte­grate without it.
In Rigolini's photographs nothing rests firmly or securely The man-made world—there is little that is "green" or living in his photographs—is as flimsy as a house of cards. Freeway rumps angle oddly or threaten to lose their balance (Los Angeles) or they slash across the photograph's surface like Franz Kline's sweeps of black paint (Houston).Peculiar shapes angle from the ground (Phoenix) or block off most of the surface (Berlin). When he pays visual homage to another photographer, as he does in Osaka, it is to take the precision and clarity of Charles Sheeler's photographs of industrial settings and turn them upside down.
Farish Gallery was an especially appropriate place in which to consider Rigolini's compelling photographs. His works challenge a number of precon­ceptions about the very nature of arehitectural photography. If the chief purpose of arehitectural photography is to provide a sharp, well-defined image of a structure, an image that shows with clarity the "factual com­ponent of the design," Rigolini sub­verts in a grand manner these expecta­tions.' His images do not explicate; they do not clarify: Rather, with all their evasive qualities, with their
Precisely placed objects that cannot be precisely identified, his photographs are about concealing, are about the limits of describing and showing.
Accompanying the exhibition was a handsome portfolio of the ten images and an essay by Lars Lerup, Dean of the School of Arehitecture at Rice University. In his essay "Beyond Arehitecture" Lerup focused on how arehitecture has lost what he calls its "symbolic values™ and its "capacity to inspire." Tangentially Lerup's musings addressed Rigolini's photographs when he described contemporary arehitec­ture as plagued by "invisibility and a will to formlessness."4
Rigolini's photographs are urn mere­ly illustrations of a crisis in arehitec­ture. The crisis he exploits extends far beyond the practice of designing buildings. Rigolini's photographs are at the center of a cultural and aesthetic shift in the practice of photography, one tied to the effort to loosen finally photography’s ties to the belief that it somehow possesses some kind of visual "truth." Rigolini's photographs come from a viewpoint in which metaphor and symbol have collapsed. What his photographs show convincingly is that there are no reasons to trust the conventions of seeing, describing, and depicting. These are photographs meant to illustrate one point: photographic illustration has reached a dead end.5
Ed Osowski is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
1. The most profound analysis of “modern oculareentrism” is found in Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Centur French Thought (Berkley: University of California Press, 1993.) Jay’s text bears directly on Rigolini’s photographic method as well as that of numerous others. What Jay defines and what Rigoilini’s photographs represent is a post-modern way of seeing, one in which certitudes elude the viewer’s reach. “Whether or not one gives greater weight to technical advances or social changes, it is thus evident that the dawn of the modern era was accompanied by the vigorous privileging of vision. From the curious, observant scientist to the exhibitionist, self-displaying courtier, from the private reader of printed books to the painter of perspectival landscapes, from the map-making colonizer of foreign lands to the quantifying businessman guided by instrumental rationality, modern men and women opened their eyes and beheld a world unveiled to their eager gaze” (p. 69). The lifting of that veil, Rigolini would have us conclude, was a trick.

2. There is no evidence that Rigolini actually photographed in the locations he names. He includes no elements or visual clues to ground each photograph in the city of its title: There are no palm trees in Los Angeles, no deserts in Phoenix, nothing Japanese about the two works made in Japan. That one of the two Houston images contains oil-storage tanks is no 'proof' that this work "documents''' Houston, the photograph resolves (or dissolves] itself into a consideration of echoing spherical shapes. So powerful is the tendency of the modern industrial setting to fracture into random, disconnected parts that even pre-industrial cities—Berlin, Paris, Baltimore—are defined by Rigolini by how they break into seemingly arbitrary fragments.

3.Cervin Robinson and Joel Herschman. ArchitectureTransformed: A History of the Photography of Buildings from 1839 to the Present. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987, p. 10

4.No. 35 in a series of publications.

5. The author thanks Paul Hester for numerous conversations that opened his eyes to the difficulties of photographing and looking at buildings.