Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber.’
(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life)
‘He cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present.’
(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)
In his The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes about the modes of social behaviour and how both the visible (walking, talking, eating) and the hidden practices of the everyday life (sleeping, dreaming, thinking) are responsible for the production of the city/place.[i] Somewhere in-between the perceptible and the hidden dwell multiple urban narratives and they come up to the surface when the city’s residents (permanent and temporary) unravel their readings of memory, gaze, time and places.
Expressed through different mediums, such as photography, sculptural assemblages and found objects, the exhibition Where I am when I am not here in Galerie Speckstraße in Hamburg captures the idea of distance, expressed through accidental connections and fleeting time that meet in a shared space, which is formed of many places. Crossing the boundaries of temporality, the exhibition displays a conversation between three artists, Carsten Rabe and Jessica Leinen from Germany, joined by Ayaka Nishi from Japan. It is a dialogue in the making. Creating an opportunity for a societal exchange – of art, of views, of stories – seems to be a focal point of this show, in which nowness is never completed. Instead, now constantly evolves and is formed of everyday practices: fluid, open and attentive. As Leinen, who is with Koh Yoshida (Tsukiyo to Syonen) the co-curator of the show says, its main attempt is the act of ‘becoming’ – instinctively and often indiscriminately.
Thus, the pieces exhibited capture something of a momentary experience, with their contemporaneity and curiosity that carry a potential to develop into narratives engaging on many levels (visual and personal). Inevitably, they interpret the invisible networks spread across the cities, which do not exist on any material map, but rather, they draw on personal geographies formed of the past and the future journeys. This is shown for example on the photographs by Carsten Rabe, who captures the stillness of the commonplaces. Approaching his subject matter in a detached way, he depicts kindergartens, decorative insides of the churches and the seaside scenes equally banal and interesting at once. Quiet and self-reflective, they are portraits which reveal thoughts about relationships formed through the act of looking; like in Rabe’s photographs of people taking photos of what’s in front of them, yet oblivious to what’s happening around. They are humorous vignettes of the contemporary society. Formally tailored and employing deadpan aesthetics, Rabe’s photographs play with ideas of depth and openness by hinting to the space outside the photo frame and creating a subtle linkage between the viewer, the photographer, the scene and what’s behind it.
A more corporeal interpretation of the bonding are Jessica Leinen’s organically shaped sculptures reminding us of fragile nettings attached onto sheets of transparent foil and hanging from the ceiling. Some of the accumulated webs recollect embryos shaped by the movement of the air, suggesting perhaps the beginnings of relationships that form spontaneously with every encounter taking place in the space. On the other hand, they bring in mind the time and process involved in formatting delicate folds of the cobwebs. Stripped of colour and positioned in between the Rabe’s and Nishi’s rooms, Leinen’s display offers an interpretation of time and communication taking place almost beyond words and images. The centrepiece of the installation is a small sculpture with a short dialogue written inside its cavities:
– (Pause) – Do you have a lighter? – I’m a non-smoker – (Pause) – OK.
This understated exchange sounds like an urban haiku; the essence and the alchemy of making bonds – transformative and inexplicable at times.
Similarly, Ayaka Nishi’s installation of around 1000 small paper boats responds to the idea of invisible bonds that appear through time and between different objects, places and people. Interested in the Japanese literary tradition of monogatari, which translates as a narrative about events: fantastic, historic, poetic and anecdotal, Ayaka Nishi employs both real and dream-like elements in her art, which could be seen as a visual poetry. She also draws on the Japanese idea of anima which Shigeo Goto handsomely defined as ‘the wonder of things’[i]. Animism supposes that everything has a spirit and this potential is revealed through Ayaka Nishi’s boats, which recollect not only multiple journeys in life but harks back also to Hamburg’s waterside location. For a brief moment we are reminded that Hamburg is one of the most important port cities in Europe. It is telling that the careful folding of the origami boats took the artist a month and she used leaflets, old books’ pages, maps, wrapping paper and other ordinary scraps of paper – each recalling a meeting, an acquaintance, a moment of being that somehow entered her life. ‘A story is born from anything’ she tells me. Spread in the gallery as a shoal of fish and secretly peeking from the gallery walls, its ceiling and parapets, the boats echo the nature’s natural movements and cast a reflection on the window – suggestive of a journey that continues outside the gallery walls.
The ‘movement’ of the boats lends itself to the surrounding space and forces one’s gaze to consider the history of the building and the area in which it stands. It is apt that a show dealing with the layers of time and encounters is presented in a gallery with so much history, which is literally peeling off its walls. Reclaimed and saved in 2009 from developers by the artists and activists, The Gallery Speckstraße is now a vivid, covered with street art, 19th century listed building facing the new offices – the glass houses – of the Brahmsquarter. It is a stark reminder of the anti-community politics sweeping across the cities around the world and yet, it is also a symbol of humanism and activism. Up until now the gallery has hosted around 200 artists from all over the world and it shows through a visceral appearance of the gallery’s inside. Covered in a mosaic of leftover wallpapers, writings, holes after past installations, the Gallery Speckstraße is now a palimpsest of its past and present dwellers, fashions and ideas, of human presence and absence.
Hence, the title of the show is an invitation to look closer at the relationships between space (where), time (when) and liminality (when I am not). Despite a suggestion of absence, Where I am when I am not here is about presence formed of fragments and reminiscences. This brings in mind Edward Soja’s theory of the third space, which postulates openness to new spatial and geographical imaginations and can be described ‘as a creative recombination and extension, one that builds on a Firstspace perspective that is focused on the “real” material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through “imagined” representations of spatiality’.[iii] Humorous, touching and personal, the encounters depicted by the artists formulate a space that asks important questions about the nature of human bonds, spaces we would like to share and the narratives that dwell in the everyday.
[i] Certeau, M. D. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Goto, S. 2014. Anima on Photo: Hidden Sense of Japanese Photography. Tokyo: Artbeat Publishers.
[iii] Soja, E. 1995. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 6.