Eyes Wide Shut

by Xandra de Jongh

Crazy metropolis, festering newly built edifices, non-descript building sites, endless fly-overs; the roller coaster of the world wide urban growth offers a tireless perspective for contemporary art photography. With the urban scenery in front of the camera lens, the sky is the limit, literally.

Documentary photography barely plays a role in this embrace. The fascination for the urban scenery begins and ends with the desire to create a personal reality. The photoworks -often large in scale- are staged or otherwise manipulated. Messing about with scale, light and focus depth is an alltime favourite for this purpose. To put it crudely: the result of all these photoworks is often the same: aesthetizing the urban scenery.

This manipulated aesthetization can also be found in the urban still lifes by Hans Wilschut. Photographs where human interventions in the scenery form the core, whilst man himself is absent. With a technical camera, Wilschut shoots urban and industrial sceneries all over the world often in the evening and at night. By using a longer than necessary exposure time for the photographs, he conjures up a hidden city from the urban matter of stone, glass and concrete, a city that merely consists of light and colour. Time is intensified in such a manner that it results in images of fictitious sceneries. The reality of a building site with active cranes and glaring building lights seems to become a futuristic space station in the hands of Wilschut. An oil rig in the ocean rises up like a shiny mirror palace. A city, photographed in harsh daylight, being erected from scratch in the desert state of Dubai, shimmers like a hazy fata morgana.

Sometimes, the urban scenery is transformed into an abstract painting. The reflecting facade skin of a skyscraper in the work rise, shimmers with orange and blue colour slabs, like a Mark Rothko. The hazy, lightblue echo caught in ‘South Ferry’ reminds of Monet’s painting experiments with the effect of light.

The urban scenery in the photoworks by Wilschut is alternately defined by stillness, abstraction, reflection and movement. Wilschut does not make series; each photograph is a work as such. In his working process, the right feeling and the right timing are of utmost importance. The use of a technical camera does not allow any quick snapshot situations. In that respect, it is the perfect companion for Wilschut who wants to fathom his locations to the smallest detail. He researches beforehand, and once he has begun travelling he sometimes returns to the same location various times. Wilschut definitely wants the shot image to run synchronically with the image that has settled in his mind during the artistic process.

He does not make things easy for himself. That nocturnal photography is partly exchanged by photographing in day light, is strongly related to the unsafety of the locations Wilschut has visited these past years. African cities such as Lagos and Johannesburg are not very welcoming to nocturnal walkabouts, especially when it concerns white outsiders. Sometimes, the locations chosen by Wilschut are literally inaccessible. In Lagos, he photographed the half collapsed building of a development bank. For three years, the building has been a sore on the street, but taking pictures of it in this state is a sensitive issue for the Nigerian authorities (the collapse, during which 37 people were killed, is said to have been caused by faulty planning permissions). The desolate state of the edifice in the capital, especially in view of its previous function, is too much of a metaphor for the state of the African country. And it is exactly that metaphor which Wilschut expresses subtly in ‘Landmark’, the work resulting from his visit to Lagos. Wilschut moves beyond the city as mere setting of an urban scenery, a collection of accidental artefacts. He shows us the signs of an invisible city, a city stretching beyond its materialised form.

This can also be found in a work created during a stay in South Africa in the summer of 2008. ‘Relocation’ is almost completely filled out by the frontal shot of an apartment building. In the evening light, a multicoloured quilt catches your eye behind the large, brightly lit windows. It is a colourful collection of curtains, with which the inhabitants have shielded their individual living space in a visibly provisory manner from the world outside.

Besides an aesthetic image, relocation also contains a highly symbolic image. In his work, Wilschut fathoms the shift from first to third world. In Johannesburg, the abandonment of corporate offices offers people from the townships an inhabitant career, people who have moved to downtown Johannesburg due to exodus of activities. ‘Relocation’, where the typical informality of the third world is wrapped in the defined lines of a modernistic grid, gives this migration a face in a subtle way.

In that respect, the urban landscape consists of more than merely stylistic imagery rhymes as far as Hans Wilschut is concerned. He is not interested in staged beauty as it is. Reality offers sufficient visual building blocks. Building blocks used eagerly, yet cautiously by him to result in a proper interaction between image, content and aesthetic.

With reality as pivotal point, Wilschut consciously targets the perception of the contemporary beholder. After all, this latter one thinks he has become so cunning in reading images that he barely allows his eyes to really look and see. Blindly, an image is scanned and stored, moving towards the next item on the list. In the meantime, our perception has become shamefully pre-programmed, as shown by Wilschut when he photographs the exterior of a supermarket in bright daylight. The facade skin of the building seems to reflect the surrounding, a setting of a rocklike beach. Then one notices that the reflection is a trifle too well defined. As if a cheap sweet’s wrapper has been slid around the building. Those using their eyes now see that the building is indeed covered with tacky foil. Familiar with photographs of mirroring skyscrapers, we initially register a sign of huge urbanism which, regardless of the hardly urban representation in reality is nothing but a cheap imitation.

All things considered, Hans Wilschut is a storyteller. In layered photo images about our urbanised planet, he entwines stories about the signs of the urban scenery. The power of Wilschut is that he does not use this scenery singularly. He analyses, probes and distils. He feeds upon specific details, and succeeds by capturing those very details, in focusing on the urban scenery. In his photographic images, Wilschut catches the city as the materialised desire of man. The city is portrayed as a memory. A similar portrait is also strongly present in the photographed reflections of skyscrapers. Delicately, these works clarify that the mirroring facades of the most recent buildings no matter how eager they display it can never reflect the present, but only the past of a city.

Like the indefinable character of a memory, a specific time and place are actually absent in the work by Wilschut.
The photographs shot all over the world look like the images of a single super-metropolis. That cultural identity, within the phenomenon of globalisation -no matter how ardently pursued in the relentless, worldwide production of archetonic landmarks is nothing but an idée fixe, is clearly underlined by Wilschut with these photographs. But such a rational (or moralistic) note does not touch upon the essence of his work. That core, the soul of the work, is rather poetic and dreamy, evoking associations with the invisible cities by Italo Calvino. In his book Le Citta Invisibili (The Invisible Cities, 1972) the Italian author has the medieval explorer Marco Polo report about his journeys to the powerful emperor Kublai Khan. In brief fragments, Polo tells the emperor about the fifty five cities he has visited in his vast empire. The cities bear names such as Eufemia, Tecla, Filide, Pirra, Eusapia and Isidora. Somewhere during his recite, the emperor begins to notice that Marco Polo’s cities all resemble one another. He then realises that he is listening to places that do not exist in reality, to stories about imaginary cities. When the emperor addresses Marco Polo about this matter, Calvino lets Polo answer: “Cities are like dreams: you can dream of anything you can imagine, but the most unexpected dream is a rebus hiding desire, or quite the opposite, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are built from desires and fears, although the thread of their story is secret, their rules absurd, the perspectives deceitful, and one matter always hides another. (…) In a city, you do not enjoy seven or seventy-seven wonders, but rather the answers it provides to your question.”

The same is valid for Hans Wilschut. Of all the cities he photographs, their individual appearance does not really matter in the end. It is all about their being, their existence. Together, the images, zooming in and out, form one lyrical city, an inner urban scenery cut loose from place and time. In the photographic works by Wilschut we see the city beyond its palisade of glass, steel and concrete. Here it shows its true essence: as the materialised memory of the desires and fears of men. Of the many answers, this is the most intriguing one we can obtain.

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