A MONUMENT TO CONTEMPORARY HUMANITY

From 'Public Works', jrp Ringier, Zurich 2012
By Roberta Valtorta



 

For many years Beat Streuli has been erecting a unique monument in-progress to contemporary humanity. The constant motif of this immense, systematic work is the metropolis with its faces in the crowd, the repetition and variation of human figures in the streets: figures of ourselves. Glass fronts of museums, art galleries, and banks, the inside and outside walls of universities, hospitals, stations, airports, and a whole variety of public buildings, long walls, and urban billboards, as well as stretches of landscape all bear his images of people taken as they quite simply walk through the streets. What we see is a set of poses and figures in urban spaces, embodying the existential status of metropolitan man in his twofold guise as a particular individual and a generic, anonymous being immersed in the masses. A being that always moves, constantly migrating and changing. Without the slightest emphasis and with a methodical strategy dictated by his benevolent obsession, Beat Streuli observes these figures and composes them together in majestic, ethereal works. Without seeking pointless aesthetic variations and without flaunting some deliberately expressive artistic language but, on the contrary, by setting the codes of his tools-photography and video-back to zero, he confers beauty and power upon images of the urban routine that never ceases to move forward in every corner of this globalized world. Over the years he has built a window on humanity, creating a dynamic monument to contemporary life. He neither rebukes nor teaches, nor does he judge or recall but right now, in this age of the death of history, of memory, and of epic narratives, he constructs a highly complicated and intricate global tale from one city to the next. It is actually a tale of tales, an enormous mosaic of human types arranged in groups and captured in the evidence and truth of their passing through the streets, those fascinating places that belong to everyone and no one. How many figures has Beat Streuli photographed so far in the cities of the world? And most of all, how many more will he photograph in the future? This is a working method and a process that are destined to expand further and further with slight, periodical variations; potentially, they have no end. The stream of figures who take part in the construction of this monument create a sort of code that binds them together through the seriality that dominates them, the flow of the sequence, the alternation of solids and voids, and the rhythm and cadence of the projection. Each figure is alone in its solitude and sometimes in its alienation, a fragment of space and time carved from a multitude; yet it is closely linked to others in its similarity, and again in its extraneousness to others (possibly the most distinctive form of metropolitan social interaction), in a sort of script that sustains them all and gives them meaning. Streuli's work is thus a long chant, a ritual musical score, the trace of an electrocardiogram sending forth the magic and impromptu poetry of the human face with all its expressions, the surprise of the manwoman animal's body observed as it lives and moves in the light of days spent in the city. A face-body that appears to us as visible and as clear as ever, unique and extraordinary, despite the fact that the artist's strategy shows it as one of the many, countless face-bodies in the world; it becomes even all the more significant as it is a small element that forms part of an immeasurable whole.  

 

The people that Beat Streuli isolates from the urban flow and shows us in his composition-montages are never photographed while doing something particular, nor during some special moment of their lives. In these images there are none of those "events" that would make a reporter's day, for Beat Streuli does not go out in search of special scenes, nor does he describe them, but simply follows his plan of recording images of people in the crowd. He thus dismantles the decisive moment that constitutes the utopia of classic photography: the capacity of the photographer to capture fleeting moments that will never return in terms of the uniqueness of the event and the perfect rendering of the scene, in an instantaneous convergence of the photographer's expert eye and the click of the camera. Beat Streuli never shows off his skill but, with his egalitarian, democratic vision, he cuts out a whole series of "ordinary" moments, revealing faces, gestures, poses, looks, and clothes dictated by the laws of fashion and consumerism. The same is true of hairstyles, accessories, electronic gadgets and, in the flow of images, also fragments, excerpts, of the urban setting. In most cases, these people do not know they are being photographed and the figures, who are often young, are seen from very close-up, in every detail, thanks to his use of a telephoto lens. The figures are not placed in wide-open settings, rather each is positioned in the exclusive rectangle that frames them, precisely cut to size. These are social figures manifestly captured in public places and yet, at the same time, caught in a fleeting moment of private life, in the intimacy of their thoughts. It is through this convergence of public and private that their truth and disconcerting contemporaneity emerges. Beat Streuli extracts his figures from the moving flesh of the city: they are not just passersby but cells pulsating in the body of the city. They are its structure and the material from which it is made, because a city without crowds simply does not exist. The sense of extraction that predominates makes these figures unstable, however strong and however precisely posed, like sculptures, they may be. This is why fixed images (photographs) and moving images (video or a sequence of images timed by the rhythm of the projector) are very closely allied in Streuli's work. Indeed, they appear to overlap: thus we find that the set of figures in a photographic installation is in all respects similar to a film while, conversely, the variations of the figures in a video appear more like a succession of photographic stills.  

 

 But this narrative complexity would not achieve full meaning if Streuli's images did not have a precise destiny, which is that of being subjected to huge enlargement and being exhibited most conspicuously in public places. They appear in the form of billboards in the streets, large posters stuck on walls, gigantic transparent figures on the windows of buildings, and as immaterial projections on vast screens. Theirs is the destiny of images used by the mass media, from advertising to fashion, to the cinema, television, and the Internet as well. With their essentiality, clarity, and visual presence, they speak directly to the locals, passersby, tourists, and anyone who for any reason goes into the urban spaces and public places where they are installed: people who are simultaneously the subjects of these images. Like a sort of gigantic television reality show, but with serious, elegant, civilized overtones. The circle is closed by a mechanism of mirroring which makes the actors and the spectators one and the same: in the circular nature of Beat Streuli's project, the people who are photographed are the flesh of the city, but the flesh of the city is also those who view these large images installed in collective spaces. The images themselves have their effect on the architecture and on the image of the city itself. Designed and built by the artist in his silent, solitary project, in the end the monument becomes a public work in the most sensational manner. Beat Streuli gently but resolutely compels us into the labyrinth of an art that takes over the techniques and places of the great, omnipresent communication that embraces everyone and everything. It is an art that wishes to be explicitly public and shared, today. An art that talks to us of beauty, of the possible beauty of us all. And of the identity of contemporary mankind, which is so hard to define.