The Parisian Photographs
The series I am focusing on here comprises works created by Elisabeth Czihak in Paris in the spring of 2007. “Parisian photographs“ is both a fitting and unfitting title. Fitting because these works were created during this period at various locations in Paris but unfitting because there is virtually nothing in these shots of architectural settings that refers directly or indirectly to Paris.
Paris is not just absent in these photographs as a recognizable urban site. There are also no people in these urban scenes. However, architectural details in doors, windows, staircases, urban constructions, signposts, traffic signs, sections of lawns indicate a specific function in relation to human life. On viewing these seemingly anonymous works depicting external spaces but also sporadic inner spaces, I have always wondered to what extent they refer to something specific or whether they simply elude anything specific. They are precise, apparently documentary shots of existing architectural situations but at the same time they eschew any clear reference to place, time and conditions of the shot. Like the artist’s “creatures” drawings there is something diffuse about them. A simple blade of grass or fragments of nature may indicate a specific season. With a magnifying glass you could decipher the French words on traffic signs. The construction of the outdoor staircase seems to point to local traditions, but in sum these photographs remain strangely undetached from place, time, context – anonymous and coincidental, simply drifting.
What we see are heterogeneous architectural details, usually of places where one part of a building meets another one, that is two buildings merge, a balustrade with a window front, a path with a stairway, the corner of a building with a square, a platform with a wall. These are intricate situations in in-between spaces. Such spaces are what constitute an urban agglomerate by linking, adding individual architectural elements. Some steps seem to lead nowhere, paths with no end, a dead-end, while others disappear in empty squares.
The artist’s photographic gaze is directed either horizontally or slightly downward so that usually a piece of the ground fills the lower part of the photograph. It is also striking that the image sections have not been “reworked”. In the act of photographing the artist is not interested in the central perspective of an object, no pictorial motif is elaborated, focused on. The viewer only sees parts of architectural elements that appear to be arbitrarily cut or cut up.
The architectural elements photographed by Elisabeth Czihak stem from the 1950s to 1990s, reflecting the inherently anonymous character of concrete. The ubiquitous concrete, which found widespread use in the post-war period filling the cracks and holes in war-ravaged in European cities, was a cheap material. With concrete it was easy to repair architectural damage, restore old building pieces and to create connections between relics. This material without any qualities has in the meantime aged, now 30, 40, 50 years old, and has assumed a certain patina. Concrete elements – if not been used by architects as a prominent architectural element – still resemble stop-gap solutions and still appear amorphous, inorganic, reinforcing the impression of absence, void, silence. One could almost say the photographs have a detached quality.
The emptier a picture appears, the more the viewer feels compelled to fill it, to animate it, to discover traces, to complement what remains fragmentary. Contradictions emerge when the functionality – a central criterion of this type of architecture – becomes dysfunctional. Devoid of all human life it becomes disparate, a lifeless territory. Yet similar to the drawings the photographs elicit a mood that I would describe as “flottant”, a unique poetry of emptiness that sends the viewer’s consciousness on a search for traces.
Barbara Wally, 2007