Sometimes, only pictures can help us to understand. Especially in the city, the kingdom of things happening at once, you need to either compress or stretch time to get to the bottom of things. Just like the best film-makers and photographers that use the urban jungle as their motifs. Here are six artists that change the way you see your city:
1. Craig Stecyk and the Dogtown skaters
On Santa Monica pier, a ferris wheel turns at a leisurely pace while the rollercoaster propels a full carriage into the Southern Californian sky. Meanwhile, cyclists and skateboarders coast along the promenade; further out at sea, yachting sails catch the northeasterly; and the sky teems with planes heading for Los Angeles International Airport. Down below, on the freeways, unending streams of cars weave back and forth between the Pacific coast and the Hollywood Hills. Los Angeles – the city that never stops.
Craig Stecyk, clad in baseball hat and dark sunnies, watches this bustle with a trained eye. Back in the early 1970s, as a young photo journalist, he documented the Z-Boys: a seminal gang of skateboarders who pretty much reinvented their sport with spectacular tricks. His contributions to Skateboarder Magazine captured the lives of these boys from Dogtown – then a term for rundown Venice, a West L.A. district close to the beach. To this day, Stecyk is considered the go-to chronicler and historian of Californian surf and skate culture.
“People misinterpret those photos and films as art,” explains Stecyk, “while the real art is the moment itself, the one that I captured with my camera.” What he is trying to say is that the real art lies in those split seconds when a skater conquers gravity with dizzying speed and stunning maneuvers. It is the art of anarchic movement that enchants creatives like Stecyk whose concept art has even made it into renowned museums.
2. Hiroshi Kondo and his Eye Know Tokyo time-lapse
Creatives, with their attraction to unfettered movement in metropolises, have captured such greatness across the globe. On the other side of the Pacific, in Tokyo, up-and-coming Japanese video artist Hiroshi Kondo recently spent a few sleepless nights on a vertigo-inducing experiment – he attached a camera to the bracket of his Kawasaki and then powered down the city’s Metropolitan Expressway at top speed.
The resulting video, Eye Know, transforms the highway into a surreal supernova of sights, like a trip through the lights of faraway galaxies. Accompanied by otherworldly piano sounds, Kondo seems to want to extend the beat of the city all the way into eternity. “My film tries to capture time,” he explains. “While I cannot describe the phenomenon of acceleration and transience, I can visualize it through my work.”
3. C’était un rendez-vous: across Paris in eight minutes
Those grappling with the idea of cities and rapid change will invariably come across a true genre classic: C’était un rendez-vous by Claude Lelouch. In 1976, the French film-maker raced across Paris in a Mercedes 450SEL 6.9, a 35mm camera affixed to the grille.
This is the story of a man who risks everything to make his rendezvous in time. After eight breathless minutes screeching through early-morning Paris, he stops in front of the Sacré-Coeur cathedral. A young woman rushes towards him. This might be the fastest way to tell the story of life’s ephemeral nature and the eternal search for love.
4. Cy Kuckenbaker: San Diego’s high-flyer
American film-maker Cy Kuckenbaker loves to watch planes land and take off. During his observations he noticed that the flying machine’s trajectories drew certain patterns into the sky. In order to visualize this process, he decided to spend half a day filming every plane alighting at San Diego Airport. Editing out each plane on the computer and saving the clips for his choreographed work, he then compressed all take-offs into a 30-second mass launch. Similar cinematic experiments mirror the movements on the San Diego Freeway.
“I like to identify and highlight traffic patterns and volumes,” he adds. This includes the arrangement of vehicles by color. “I am intrigued by the city’s automotive color palette and San Diego’s favorite shades.” His works yield intriguing insights: When speed compresses time to a max – or recontextualizes it by restructuring – previously hidden and fascinating traces suddenly become visible. And the street or sky above the city turns into a veritable stage for expansive, extremely dynamic art.
5. Chris Burden’s Metropolis II
In reference to Fritz Lang’s 1920s classic cinema masterpiece Metropolis, Chris Burden called his own installation Metropolis II. Now, the artist’s scale model intrigues visitors at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where high-speed model cars and trains traverse an artificial urban organism.
“Within the viewer, the noise and incessant flow of trains and cars recreates the stress life in a lively and busy 21st century metropolis has in store for its residents.”
6. Ed Ruscha and his Twentysix Gasoline Stations
Nowadays, Ed Ruscha is a surefire draw at international art galleries and museums. Almost every week, his work seems to pop up at an exhibition. Yet early on in his career, he was frequently derided for his works. With his camera, Ruscha documents everyday buildings like gas stations, stores, or condo complexes. At the time of release, his self-published book, “Twentysix Gasoline Stations,” met with perplexed disapproval.
No one could discern the artistic achievement. Fast-forward a few decades and Ruscha counts among the pioneers of concept art. For one of his projects, he affixed a plate camera to a truck to capture all buildings on Sunset Strip and then turned the sequence into a continuous ten-meter panorama. Thus, Ruscha not only documents the city in changing times, but also one of the key aspects of American culture: the car. As a pace-maker of change.
Header image: Hiroshi Kondo