Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Watching the Megalopolopolis

Pushing into the slanting drizzle that raked the bleak cultural plazas of central Birmingham today, I found my way to Metropolis: reflections on the modern city, on show at the Gas Hall till late June. Here Birmingham and Walsall Galleries show off the “nationally significant Metropolis collection” of “visions of the modern global city by some of the world’s most exciting artists” on which, nudged along by Ikon Gallery, they have splashed their share of the £1 million Art Fund loot.

“The world’s most exciting artists” may be over-egging it a bit, but the dosh has not been entirely wasted. Largely photos and videos, but at least those media have the sheer capacity required to reflect the complexities of an unending urbanism.

I was strangely soothed by Grazia Toderi’s double video projection Orbite Rosse (2009), in which the multi-layered lights of the distant megalopolopolis twinkle and shift benignly; initially pleased by Nicholas Provost’s Storyteller (2011), though on second thoughts merely flipping vertically the moving panoramas of Las Vegas to give a quick impression of intricacy is a bit cheap, to be honest; but fascinated by the slo-mo telephoto multitudes in Beat Streuli’s 2001 video Pallasades. Filming people unguarded at a distance seems to be Struli’s only trick, but at least it’s a good trick. (Though I read recently that the British poet Drummond Allison, killed in 1943, came up around 1941 with the idea of erecting a static camera in the street to film whatever passed, way before Warhol.)

In this show much is “reflected” and “explored” of course, and “issues” are “raised”, as they usually are. But no one’s saying much. And most of it seems so distant and passive: city as backdrop, its image a celebration of our beautiful alienation. Like Iggy Pop’s Passenger, the bus window is as close as we get. So where are the engagements, the détournements, the interventions? Without them, we seem to be stuck in a loop of the same old Ballardian narrative, drifting observers of a decaying urbanism so fixed as to resemble a state of nature …

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