ALL QUIET IN THE OFF SEASON

While viewing these unpeopled photographs of spaces and man-made structures, I imagine their stillness shattered by the unquiet drama of ‘real life’.  By this I mean the kind of intrusive, prime-time ‘reality’ that follows British holiday-makers to their time-share apartments in Tenerife, for example.  Here we can entertain that the camera witnesses first-hand, the shock of discovery – that the Spanish hacienda they have paid for, is in fact a couple of dilapidated chalets and a murky swimming pool visited over the years by various cyclonic forms of destruction.  From the beginning, we know that the program is a cynical exercise. For our viewing pleasure, it trots-out the old adage “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is” and we congratulate ourselves for never having been so stupid. 

While these tourist revenge fantasies play-out in my head, Izabela Pluta’s photographs – silent and almost bleached of colour to stony monochrome greens and greys – emphasise the absence of humans in environments designed solely for human use: an overgrown swimming pool; a basketball ring surrounded by concrete formwork; an escalator set-into a hillside; a new concrete pier with regularly-spaced moorings; the inside of a dry water tank; a sandy soccer pitch covered in tyre tracks; a weed-covered lawn; a field of cabbages and the side of a building once attached to another, revealing where stairs, bathroom and kitchen used to be. Collectively they form a poetic, bleak picture of urban and once-natural spaces subject to the fluctuations of market forces and the march of time.  Images of excess and entropy are installed side-by-side, while simultaneously, the photographs represent featureless, quotidian places rather than familiar landmarks.  They are like pictures from nowhen.

“As the global middle class expands exponentially and global infrastructure transports vast bourgeois tourist tribes to distant and exotic destinations, every local difference becomes fodder for touristic exploitation.  Then, as franchise operations continue to extend their local presence, they eradicate uniqueness in cuisine, culture, custom and product”.[1] 

In his book Life Style, designer Bruce Mau exempts from this homogenising process, some examples of architecture.  While traveling to a place that may be on Mau’s list, the Park Güell by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona, I recall using the otherwise nondescript escalator that Pluta has photographed.  Like so many antipodean adventures to the northern hemisphere, it was winter, the off-season, and I scaled what was a series of steeply inclined escalators to the hill-top, alone.  I remember that they were touch-sensitive and remained active only for as long as I rode them.  I sipped a diet coke on my mechanical ascendance and paused along the way to read some graffiti, reminding me that the seeming economy of my transportation was just an illusion.  That I, “Tourist” was a “terrorist”, like any other, holding a country hostage to its past.

There are no pictures of the Park Güell in Pluta’s photographic series, nor the Sagrada Familia or any of Gaudi’s other architectural projects.  Likewise there are no pictures of the Forbidden City or The Great Wall of China, though we can find-out that the artist has resided in this country and visited these places too.  It is Pluta’s conscious turning-away from the touristic photo-opportunity and the over-visited, over-marketed and over-represented that connects the work in this series.  The structures and places she photographs are foreign but familiar.  They are interstitial, disassociated from their intended function or otherwise rendered dysfunctional through abandonment.  In previous work shown at Artspace in 2006, Pluta made a large, billboard-sized image printed on wallpaper.  The photograph was that of a house designed through a pastiche of European and Asian styles, in the process of being overcome by a rangy Bougainvillea plant.  While viewing this image, it was difficult to determine whether the house was collapsing, or half-built. But the photograph’s scale, the anywhereness of the house it represented and the form of advertising its materiality implied, provided a concise and solemn critique of capitalist models and the acculturating forces of globalisation. 

So the human encounters I imagine with these quiet spaces of Pluta’s Sometime series are sometimes fraught, because in these images and their relationship to one another, deeper questions are raised about cycles of change, of the mercurial nature of human desire versus need and the temporary and expedient ways in which we make use of our precious environment.  

Bec Dean
writer, artist and curator at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.
2007

This essay was first published for the catalogue to accompany the exhibition Sometime at Esa Jaske Gallery in 2007.

[1] Bruce Mau Life Styles 2000 Phaidon Press p61