The Nigerian writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2012) is a flowing palimpsest of connections between history and culture, past and present which pass through the protagonist’s mind as he walks across Lower Manhattan. Set in New York, but could equally be applied to any city, the book is a juxtaposition of urban and personal experience which leave their marks through observation and quiet reflection. It documents the encounters of a cameraless photographer, passing others playing out their pain in acutely observed scenes which flare briefly, dissolve and are then lost through a process of disclosure and erasure.
In Cole’s novel, the potential for trauma, loss, marginalization, conflict and suffering are as boundless as the city in which these experiences take place against a backdrop of subjectivity and identity. The unraveling scenes which pass through the writer’s mind constitute a narrative stream of events – the world as seen by the narrator and made sense of by a web of cultural connections spanning place, music, history and his personal past as migrant and immigrant. The novel evokes the struggle to come to terms with the city – the macrocosmic urban through microcosmic singular experience: not the universal from the particular as such but as an accumulation of texts.
The painter Christopher Wool’s series of night photographs East Broadway Breakdown 1994-2002 ‘reveal’ the inner-city edge lands within – those intermittent spaces that one’s path has to cross, where the unruly have taken over and the civilized long fled. A hundred and sixty images were selected from the thousands of black and white photographs that Wool took in New York City between East Village and China Town, processed cheaply, photocopied, printed and assembled into bookworks. The photographs reveal the proximity of the dispossessed and the barely repressed whose presence is palpable in the stained pavements and the overloaded bins, in the boarded- up, the blocked-up, the pasted-over and the redundant. The pavement spillages and seepages, unnoticed during the day and made radiant at night, hold a menacing suspended violence. In those images, the underside – the underclass of the imagination where the wild is, for now, suppressed but imminently possible and possibly close by and where the camera’s flashlight reveals the unnoticed and the ugly: what we don’t know and what we don’t want to know, and now that we know, what can we do? Reparation is futile in the unrelenting desolation showing now in the missing letters of store-fronts, chained dogs, chain-link fences, padlocked shops and stained metal grills.
The slashed seats of the dumped, broken furniture, the barred windows, the overflowing rubbish bags, the dirty snow, the plastic bags caught in leafless trees, paint-smeared skips, graffitied metal shutters, car wrecks, strip-lit concrete corridors, the bright dirt smeared walls and scratched windows describe a limitless urban world with its multiple words for grime. Wool’s photographs are an articulation of the emphatic interpellation of the dispossessed, continually cancelling itself out.
Wool’s photographs act on the paradox of the night, itself covering, but also revealing and in doing so, unnerving. The night becomes the void – that which is essential in the designation of reality which Roland Barthes collapsed with the concept of ‘tathata’ – the gesture of encounter. That! There it is! wholly contingent upon that ‘weightless transparent envelop’ of Look! Good and evil, desire and its object constitute, according to some, the photograph’s two leaves which cannot be separated without destroying them both.
In others, cats wander amongst broken glass, rubbish accumulates against the graffiti. In a series of formal juxtapositions, white paint is spilt against a grey ground; white rubbish bags glow in the dark against the hard edges of a white car. A dark liquid stain is juxtaposed with the blur of the white lines of a bus station in a luminous glare of lights; an upended three-legged desk on a street corner with grey and black drips and splodges on wall and pavement; ‘NYC POLICE’ in eroded letters on an apparently ransacked car with boot open.
Looking at Wool’s photographs for any length of time drags you under, despair seeps in – this is what it’s like and what it will always be like, no matter what – visceral and ever-present and continually renewed: the disarray, defacement and disruption. The underside is played out in the theatre of urban surface where a prosaic relentlessness hammers home the dissolution, desolation and desperation of the banal. Wool’s photographs evoke the place where night and the city culturally converge in the safely cinematic which conjure the lines: ‘to when we opened cold, on a starlit gutter, running gold, with the neon of the drugstore sign, and I’ll read into its blazing line: forget the ink, the milk, the blood – all was washed clean with the flood, we rose up from the falling waters, the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters…’ (Don Paterson).
All images in all posts copyright Judith Rugg