Metropolis international group show took as its theme the complex structure of the big city. It explored the “macro” perspective, showcasing the city and its dynamics as it operates within the larger framework of human existence.

Metropolis is a civilization topos which serves as a crooked looking glass reflecting blurred images of both architectural-cum-urban modernist utopias and postmodernism marked with its dynamism, agility and its icon of a city ridden with various meanings.

City and city life are setting today the modus vivendi for the majority of the world’s population and they have also become the ultimate object of desire and dreams of the rest of the people. Because ‘the city’ way of perceiving and experiencing the world is becoming more and more widespread, Metropolis has become a figure of contemporary existence. While creating a complex, multi-tier organizational and semantic structure, Metropolis absorbs and imitates the most essential processes, i.e. globalisation, the ever growing importance of the media, and the unrestrained urbanization. The city space has become a screen showing sequences of flickering messages and pictures while at the same time distributing social and aesthetic values. 

City, a space where one is bombarded with a wide range of visual and ideological stimuli, is the basic subject matter of the artworks presented at Metropolis. It inspires works which comment on some fundamental social issues as well as those that engage in a dialogue with some visual qualities of the city landscape. 

The contemporary city, established in the 18th century on a metropolitan foundation which had been set up during the period of swift industrialisation, evolved during the 19th and 20th centuries towards a metropolis – a vast and complex system promoting anonymity and dehumanization of social relationships. Fritz Lang managed to capture this negative aspect of Metropolis and he made it a long-lasting icon of a city in the collective imagination. 

Georg Simmel also wrote about this negative dimension of the city and the new mentality based on it. He stressed the fact that this mentality was founded on money based economy, on the domination of intellect and unrestrained individualism. The modernistic, utopian visions f saving the “corrupted world” by means of modernization and standardization of the city space had their glamorous and short-lived moment of fame, but finally they only strengthened this fatalistic stereotype.

Nowadays, we observe large cities quickly transform into global cosmopolis – multi-cultural and open organisms intersected by busy junctions of international capital and transnational markets, which easily assimilate even anti-system, revolutionary ideas and put them on offer alongside affirmative strategies of consumerism and various kinds of ideological syncretism.

Inside this jungle of contradictory ideas the global man is being shaped. His imagination is created by the inquisitive and ubiquitous media and marketing strategies. He is a perfect consumer who cannot resist the compulsive mobility of a giant supermarket full of gadgets and concepts. The works of Ryszard Górecki, Per Hüttner and Towarzystwo Kapitana Europy (Captain Europe Society – CES) presented in Metropolis refer to this kind of reality and mechanisms which model it.

Górecki points out to the fact that human activity is gradually becoming more and more objectified. It always seems to be under control of a calculating intellect. Every sphere of existence, even the most private one, can be expressed as mathematical formulas and thus yet another arithmetical problem which can easily and precisely be presented as a plot, a diagram or a statistical model.

Hüttner confronts the product of the ideology of self-complacency, i.e. the egotistic personality of the Western man, with regions culturally and mentally different from it. He exposes the utterly indifferent let alone patronizing attitude of the well-fed towards the rest of the world. Although Hüttner and Górecki’s forms are moderate and they are far from any kind of emotional or aggressive propaganda, they still manage to articulate their critical message very seriously. 

Captain Europe Society uses entirely different strategy when it presents its cartoon series of the captain’s adventures. The CES perversely and cleverly manages to disclose paradoxes and all kinds of abuse of the system practiced in the name of affirmation. The Captain of Europe, an agreeable, computer generated character, creates visions of an earthly paradise and promotes an enthusiastic attitude towards the reality, pleasure and temporality. The Captain often speaks to “his crew” out of the television window as he is fully aware how powerful the medium is.

The issue of media and their influence upon the mentality of a contemporary man, a topic that had been elaborated on by Guy Debord who had said that media have created the most perverse and perfect system of repression that has ever existed in human history, drew the attention of Brunon Tode. He focuses on blurred images of the reality that have been copied by the media. The television broadcast which can be seen in The Optical Mill triggers a play of illusions, reflections and transformations the image is subject to. Still, the image does not seem to explain anything, it does not seem to reflect anything. On the contrary, it seems to break away with the reality.

Robert Rumas tackles the problem of how an image-sign functions in the interpersonal communication space in his series of actions he has presented since 1998 in several European and American cities. Rumas puts forward an alternative code of communication that very closely resembles road signs. His signs, however, used in Urban Manoeuvres convey fundamentally different concepts. He borrows the ideas for his pictograms from internet chat room debates. He suggests that city dwellers should assume the roles of active participants of the public space rather than merely be its users. Rumas also asks some simple but fundamental questions: “Who actually own the public space?” and “How can this space be given back to the people who live in it?”

City landscape reveals its special aesthetic qualities in the works by Ari Saarto, Eglė Rakauskaitė, Miklos Gaál, Hein Spellmann and Danuta Dąbrowska. The strength of Saarto’s In Situ and Rakauskaitė’s video film Gariūnai lies in the skilful translation of the observations of how the social organism really functions into the language of art and into visual qualities of images. Saarto photographs deserted places of refuge of some social outcasts somewhere at the outskirts of a big city. Having skilfully escaped the trap of cheap sentimentalism, he manages to show their alternative beauty.

Rakauskaitė presents in a sequence of pictures the day-to-day life of a suburban market where the commonplace and kitschy objects imperceptibly aspire to the rank of artistic expression and where banal every day chores gain a ritual dimension.

The day-to-day rituals also constitute the narrative part of Miklos Gaál’s photographs. His compositions present the basic parameters of a metropolis – a great number of dwellers, municipal architecture, extensive communication and transportation networks. Gaál portrays them in a special way, grouping within one frame photographs taken with lenses of various focal length. In this way, he manages to capture his fresh and intriguing pictures of the reality which stand in a opposition to the cliché images of the world.  

As Miklos Gaál portrays the city from a distant perspective, he manages to transform the photographed scenes into compositions resembling jigsaw puzzle games for children. Hein Spellmann and Danuta Dąbrowska prefer a contrary perspective of viewing the municipal space – they use close-up images of skilfully selected details extracted from their environment.

Spellmann starts from photographic records of architecture. Then, he puts these photographic images on 3D, silicon capsules, which, in turn, are later built up in various sequences into the space of the gallery. The semantic values of the architecture seem to be the main sources of inspiration. They constitute the autonomous layer of information talking about the history, ideology and condition of every day life. Spellmann focused in his photographs of Szczecin on the architecture of the so-called Gründerzeit, the time of prosperity and boom in the building industry of the end of 19th c. which radically changed the face of many German cities, also leaving its imprint on the character of the centre of Szczecin.

Danuta Dąbrowska is interested in other kinds of city details. Her photographs present images that make no pretence to dominating or marking the space, although they seem to have a part, without being importunate, in creating it. Parts of walls, catch basin grates, flickering puddles of water covering run-down pavement – the background which owing to Dąbrowska gains an unusual, poetic aura and which, at the same time, counterpoints the noise, chaos and the frenetic character of the human element.

Metropolis is the result of a cooperation of different works of art which present the city as multidimensional and dynamic matrix of contemporary life. The artists present its various sociological, ideological and aesthetic features, while offering inspiring ways of reading and processing the cultural phenomenon of a city.

Magdalena Lewoc

Translated from Polish into English by Marek Stelmaszczyk.

Proof read by Rick Butler.

Text originally published in Metropolis, Szczecin, 2005, ed. by Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin.

Curator: Magdalena Lewoc
Collaboration: Marlena Chybowska

Organisation: Museum of Contemporary Art, dept. of the National Museum in Szczecin
The Municipality of Szczecin

Venue & dates: The National Museum in Szczecin, 10.06-15.07.2005