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Sobriety, 2016

Feinberg Projects gallery
Text by Arnon Ben-Dror

Eli Singalovski’s works exhibited in this show constitute a limited selection from an ongoing series which the artist photographed across Europe, thus far in Germany, England, France, Holland, and Italy. This series documents the outcomes of the repetitive, massive architecture that spread through Europe after World War II – a period during which the continent’s countries coped with the need to build extensively, quickly and with limited resources. It continues with the artist’s in-depth study of Brutalist architecture in previous series that focused on Israeli implementations of this controversial architectural approach.

Singalovski approaches structures almost like a studio photographer approaches a subject in his workroom. He arrives at the site, prepares the frame with extreme care, and uses proprietary techniques to isolate the monumental concrete monstrosities: black and white photography, usually in the dark of night, using long exposures from a frontally centered viewpoint that grasps the building in its entirety, the frame devoid of people. Finally, he presents the results in large, meticulous prints. This focuses attention on the rigid geometric grid and the small details of each structure. Brutalism, which sought to reveal the structure’s components without any cosmetics, receives what it demanded, as the buildings shine forth in their skeleton like appearance, like an x-ray or alternatively, a charcoal drawing.

These direct architectural “mug-shots” echo the photographed buildings, aesthetically and thematically. The form serves the function, ornamentation is superfluous. However, on further inspection certain nuances may be discerned. Thus, for example, the photographs play with the scale of the structures and with the illusions of depth and superficial form: the facades sometimes appear like artificial cardboard scenery about to collapse, and sometimes looming before us are voluminous spaceships that shrink the cars, trees, bicycles, and all other components of urban scenery.

Foregoing every expressive gesture in favor of systematic repetitiveness and an “objective” viewpoint as far as possible diverts attention from the photographic mediation of the photographed object. This practice echoes the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who from the 1950’s on created scores of schematic series of industrial structures, like gas tanks and water towers. Over the years these turned into an archive of a disappearing industrial era.
Singalovski’s photographic practice may also be viewed as a kind of archaeology of modernity, like an archive of outdated architectural forms. However, whereas the Bechers espoused a typological approach that sought to classify through form different “varieties” of structures, Singalovski investigates broader historical questions that touch on the degree of success of ambitious social-architectural approaches with the perspective of time’s influence – what happens over the years to the exposed material, to the function of the structures and also to the great ideals in whose name they were built.

Thus, for example, we see how on top of the residence on Spittelmarkt square, that was erected in East Berlin before the wall fell, a Coca-Cola sign is now proudly displayed – a symbol of the victory of the West and capitalism. Another example arises when comparing Le Corbusier's "Unité d'habitation" in Marseilles with the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens on the outskirts of London, both of which are important case studies of Brutalism that were built upon a similar, optimistic philosophy, but currently enjoy a totally different status: the former was canonized as one of the symbols of modern architecture and is intensively preserved, while the latter is earmarked for demolition.

Finally, although Singalovski’s motivation is not critical but rather research oriented, it’s difficult to ignore the sense of alienation that arises from the photographs, which perhaps allude to some of the reasons for Brutalism’s failure. The commercial buildings appear like hermetically sealed capsules that do not invite passers-by to enter, whereas the buildings that serve or served in the past as residences, certainly do not communicate domesticity. All the values we associate with the home – warmth, intimacy, closeness, life, activity, familiarity, comfort – give way to cold, anonymous functionality. The flow of life freezes under the lens. We see lights on in rooms, an apparent indication of human activity, but the people themselves are absent. The only faces we see in this universe are those of the buildings and of time.

September 2016.

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