Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK
It’s rare that an artist’s brief association with a city will tell you anything of note about the city itself, but Nicolas Moulin’s three-month residency at the University of Sheffield appears to be an exception. Moulin’s images of paranoid cities and impossible industrial structures demonstrate a hard surrealism entirely appropriate to Sheffield, a city that – though it seems rather ashamed of the fact – has the finest Modernist architecture of any English city outside of London.
For Site Gallery, Moulin has produced new work based on his impressions of the city’s buildings, particularly the several designed in the raw, dominating New Brutalist idiom of the 1960s. There are three facets to the exhibition, titled ‘Blanklümdermilq’, set in two rooms in Site’s small space. Two of these – an eponymous sculpture (2009) and a series of photomontages entitled ‘Wenluderwind’ (2009) – were completed during the residency; the third, a video entitled Nachdach (2007), has been shown previously at Galerie Chez Valentin in Paris. Although the three works all spark off each other, the most impressive pieces here are in the ‘Wenluderwind’ series, three thuggishly powerful visions of depopulated, militarized cities.
The Brutalist architecture of Sheffield, the main inspiration for this new work, was essentially optimistic, an attempt to create an open, socialist city. Yet the only other buildings in Britain to have ever employed so much reinforced concrete were the pillboxes and bunkers of the Second World War. In Moulin’s images, the difference between the two kinds of concrete disappear, and the end result is a horrifying but thrilling unarchitecture made up of non-functional, barely even structural planes and fragments, thrown together to create aggressive agglomerations more reminiscent of the Third Reich’s Atlantic Wall and the unreadable landscape of J.G Ballard’s The Terminal Beach (1964) than the aims of Brutalist buildings such as Sheffield’s Park Hill housing estate. The latter structures tried to engender community and solidarity – Moulin’s is a city without people. The architectural site-spotter might recognise individual components of these compacted forms – the ‘free and anonymous’ planes of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion, the ‘acoustic mirrors’ of the First World War, the walkways of Park Hill, the cast concrete patterns of Sheffield’s underpasses – but they become irrelevant in these ferocious landscapes. Here, walkways go nowhere, blocks of flats transform into sheer walls, formerly functional components become hieratic monuments, girders are topped with spikes, objects are buried in the concrete while weeds crack the surface.
The lesser of the other two works is Blanklümderlicht (pictured above), a sculpture of neon bars that creates a brightness as oppressive as the relentlessly dark photomontages but without the latter’s fascinating specificity and complexity. More successfully, Nachdach creates dramatic, fictional industrial spaces merely through shifting planes of light and the merest suggestion of architectural presence.
For those of us who admire the optimistic spirit of places such as Park Hill, there’s something unnerving in the conflation of its pedestrian spaces with the bunkers of the Organisation Todt. The liberatory concrete of the New Brutalists is here part of the same horrifying rubble as Nazi bunkers, or the ubiquitous concrete security walls of contemporary Baghdad or Palestine. Yet another of the works, used as the promotional photo for the exhibition, is an unaltered image of Park Hill, currently subject to an extremely dubious gentrification project, stripped bare to its concrete frame. Denuded of life, function and people, this very real structure suddenly looks like one of Moulin’s paranoid fictions.
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