Bricks, Books and Paper: How to build a city

No way out

By Niamh Cullen

If there’s anywhere you shouldn’t be too surprised to see a biography of Marx peeping out of a Louis Vuitton handbag – in place of the usual Chihuahua – it’s at Overlapping, an exhibition of Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa, currently showing at the IMMA in Dublin. Garaicoa’s work is a series of sculptures and exhibitions; originally trained as an engineer, his work reflects this sense of geometric precision, and much of it is concerned with architecture and the urban environment. His inspiration is the crumbling, fascinating, sprawling landscape of his native Havana, where the architectural legacy of colonialism blends with the more recent rubble of half finished houses and shoddy new blocks built in a hurry. Might sound a little familiar to anyone living in Dublin right now…

Just in front of the exhibition entrance is ‘Bend City (Red)’; a city sculpted entirely out of red paper. Blending economy and precision with a certain dreamlike quality, it sets the tone perfectly for the rest of Garaicoa’s work. The exhibition proper then opens with a series of reworked photographs entitled ‘Overlapping’. All depicting details of London’s architecture and streetscape, the faint print of the photos is overlaid with thread and pins, to create other, overlapping scenes on top. These new scenes aren’t hugely different from the photos, though some are clearly drawn from the past – doors, gates, towers, details of Georgian architecture – but they give an overall impression of not one but many cities co-existing in the already crowded urban space. Along with what we see on a daily basis, the photos say, are the many cities of the past and the possible. Here, Garaicoa’s debt to Italian writer Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is pretty clear. The bible of every architecture student of the past thirty years or so, Invisible Cities is a meditation on the nature of cities, in the form of a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. As Polo describes ever more fantastic and dreamlike cities to the emperor, it gradually becomes clear that they are all different facets of Venice. Could this also be a comment on urban visionaries like Baron Haussmann in nineteenth century Paris, Le Corbusier, the architects of soviet style concrete modernity, or even Ireland’s own Celtic Tiger builders? A city is never a clean slate – it’s a messy, complex place, and every new building or street will always contain fragments of what was there before, or could have been.

From the ethereal and dreamlike tones of the ‘overlapping’ photographs, we are plunged straight into a much more brutal and overtly politicised world, with exhibits using a unique blend of bricks and books to critique the worst of socially alienating modernist architecture from ‘The most beautiful sculpture is the brick we threw at cops’; a comment on the May 1968, to a striking construction of brick-and-concrete tower blocks, ‘On how my Brazilian library feeds itself with fragments of a concrete reality’. The tone of the second one is not entirely clear; is it, as the catalogue informs us, a homage to 1920s Brazialian modernism, or an ironic comment on the monumental excesses of Brazilia’s modern architecture?

The centrepiece of the exhibition – and my favourite piece – is a little enigmatic too. A city made entirely out of dimly lit paper lanterns, and evocative of some mythical Chinese imperial city, ‘No way out’ is far more beautiful and haunting than its name suggests. Is it a comment on totalitarian society, another attempt to imagine one of Calvino’s invisible cities, or a bit of both?

Even if you are left a little unsure of what to make of some of the exhibits – or maybe even because of this – a visit to ‘Overlapping’ is definitely a thought provoking way to spend an afternoon.

Carlos Garaicoa: Overlapping’ is on at the Irish Museum of Modern Art until 5 September 2010 and entrance is free.

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