BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Julian Rosefeldt and Piero Steinle

BY Laurie Attias in Reviews | 01 JAN 98

Fumbling my way down a dark, winding tunnel, I wander into a large room and descend onto a low stool, to stare at a huge, semi-cylindrical screen. A gigantic warehouse looms before me - an enormous skylight, thick steel rafters, brick walls, a concrete floor scattered with crumpled newspaper, discarded magazines, supermarket coupons, TV listings, out-of-date train schedules, ads for a phone-sex hotline. In the background, I hear the muffled sound of distant traffic.

Far from your typical, postcard-perfect snapshot of Paris, this projected panoramic image of a paper-recycling factory is just one of some 80 photographs forming the installation 'Paris: The Unknown Cathedrals'. Taken by a pair of architect-trained German artists, Julian Rosefeldt and Piero Steinle, the photographs explore the hidden, unknown spaces in the underbelly of France's glamorous capital. The show flips on its head the city's identity as the elegant, baroque capital of art and fashion, replacing its landmarks - Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre - with vacant attics, unused warehouses, old factories, neglected reservoirs, parking lots and incinerators.

This project to expose the City of Light's dark side is both mesmerising and off-putting. These places have the grandeur and unreality of Piranesi drawings. Behind Paris' elegant facades, Rosefeldt and Steinle have found gigantic, empty, silent spaces that, while in the heart of the crowded city, remain inaccessible and escape our perception. Like proud final witnesses of the industrial revolution's new steel constructions, many of these spaces have become obsolete, ignored, forgotten. Abandoned like dinosaurs, awaiting demolition, they become hollow phantoms in a deserted, unknown city. 'Paris: The Unknown Cathedrals' reveals the presence of absence.

Rather than presenting a traditional documentation of these sites in a photographic exhibit neatly lined up on the wall, the artists project them life-size, precisely at eye level, in an almost cinematic format that creates the optical illusion of three dimensions while also suggesting 19th-century cylindrical panoramas. In order to bring these places to life, Rosefeldt and Steinle thrust the spectator into the actual space. But the black and white format - at the same time as emphasising their drama and spectacular nature - reminds us they are off limits, Surreal. Even the soundtrack, which recreates the specific ambience of each location - pigeons cooing, paper rustling, the hum of an engine - remains, paradoxically, the sound of silence. Such noises, resonating within these huge volumes, merely accentuate the echo of empty space.

Solidly built for practical, functional purposes, these colossal stone arches, broad domes, thick girders and stocky beams, represent the highly physical. Ultimately, despite their heft, the unpeopled spaces are virtual, allowing only a brief glimpse into a world that does not exist since it cannot be seen. Nevertheless, this exhibition does not preach, although it does present the gallery space as a place of meditation - the spectator leaves the hustle-bustle of the street to sit in the dark for 40 minutes of reflection, to be immersed in silence and to leave behind the all-too-familiar urbanity. Perhaps this kind of revelation, this reconfiguration of a city's identity, could only be realised by a pair of foreigners searching for the unknown part of a city already unknown to them, to whom the familiar and unfamiliar landmarks hold equal surprise.

In their first joint project, Rosefeldt and Steinle photographed Munich's system of underground tunnels used by the Nazis. If that project presents the buried paths as a symbol for deception and obsessive hiding, and for the unmasking of history and memory, their recent parade of images of nameless spaces becomes a metaphor for the collective unconscious. They present a strange, unexpected and disconcerting world, forcing us to confront emptiness, solitude and death.