LOSING LONDON

Wolfgang Lehrner & Beat Streuli
22 MAR - 20 APR 2019

 

“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need to do is stroll about with our eyes open.” 

Charles Baudelaire, 1857 

Losing London is a timely prism for examining the changing position of London as a cultural and financial epicentre from the perspective of two European artists working in photography and video, Beat Streuli and Wolfgang Lehrner. 

Presenting two distinct bodies of work and covering over 30 years of practice, Streuli and Lehrner share an interest in exploring the human face of London - arguably Europe’s one and only great metropolis - where urban landscapes and quotidian scenes are defined by the unique and universal protagonists who unilaterally visit and inhabit it.

Like nature scientists observing a unique species in its natural habitat, Streuli and Lehrner approach their respective subjects with detached objectivity. Their images are constructed from a distance and even in solo portraits (Lehrner: London Hop On / Hop Off, 2017) and in full frontal shots (Streuli: Oxford Street, 1997), there is no eye contact between the camera and the subject. 

In the midst of an urban jungle, surrounded by the generic grey building blocks of the financial district (City of London) and a surge of bright enthusiastic consumers (Oxford Street), the protagonists appear self-consumed and oblivious to the artists’ gaze. The result is a voyeuristic yet non-judgemental portrayal of life in a modern metropolis: a busy and often isolating experience, where people drift through daily life with emotional isolation, despite the vibrant and varied surroundings. 

As the German sociologist and cultural philosopher, Georg Simmel, explained over a century ago in ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903) “The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation”. And while some of the artworks in Losing London reflect this sentiment, Streuli and Lehrner pay respect to the city with personalised visions. 

Streuli showcases three bodies of work produced over three decades. “East End 88” is a black and white publication of the artist’s first visit to London and bespeaks his signature style street photography. The cultural richness and hustle of East London presents a stark contrast to his subsequent works in their familiar, yet dated impressions of street life, public posters and the changing built environment of Shoreditch. The cover image of a business man in motion is a visual precursor of what the East End has since ’88 become: a vibrant extension of the City and a playground to the rich and famous.

"Oxford Street" (1997) is a triptych of larger than life portraits (180 x 240 cm), posed on the ground and leaning against the gallery wall. They present casually-dressed couples and individuals, talking and waiting. There is colour, there is sunshine, there is the promise of adventure, which a hopeful day in a big city always entails. Shopping and people-watching appear to be the main activities. No one appears to be in a rush, although the woman in a lime green singlet, surrounded by a young man eating an ice cream and a smaller boy clutching a bag from an expensive nearby toy store, gives rise to a sense of anxious anticipation. At once an ode and critique of consumer culture at its universally recognisable high street location, the subjects appear to be looking through, not at the viewer. There is no judgement, but certainly there is a sense of confrontation and anxiety that linger with the visitor.

Streuli’s most recent works, “London" (2017) reflect the city’s unprecedented economic reality: a large supermarket chain is draped in the tropes of corporate architecture and a pedestrian absent-mindedly persists with her daily routine, set amid a mute opera of street life. A smartly dressed business woman crosses the street with a mobile in hand and against a backdrop of bumper-to-bumper double decker red buses. Her constructed appearance and purposeful stance allude to the new market economy of the city, which has mutated from the casual shoppers and tourists of 1997. Daily life and economic production have travelled far from the messy setting and visceral aesthetics of 1988 and appear to have finally captured Simmel’s premonition, ”the me-tropolis has always been the seat of the money economy” (’The Philosophy of Money, 1900).

Lehrner’s contribution consists of four series, which were produced during an extended stay in 2017. “0, 0’, 0” follows the Prime Meridian path in London, which is an imaginary line of longitude drawn along the surface of the earth from the North to the South Pole. The walk begins in an abandoned car park overlooking one of the world’s largest shopping empires (“Westfield Statford City”) located on the defunct premises of the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Stratford, based in the East End and once the centre of England’s Asian communities, is now a featureless suburban sprawl and a hub for 21st century consumerism. Here, there is no sign of the excitement or cultural diversity captured in Streuli’s revellers on Oxford Street. By 2017 living and shopping in London have become a bland suburban reality: the debris of post-modern multi-culturalism and the site of post-industrial real estate speculation. 

Lehrner’s tour continues via an empty pedestrian footpath towards the Royal Greenwich Observatory in south London, which was nominated at the height of the British Empire in 1884 as the starting point of global orientation and continues to define time and location today with the nomination, “GMT” (Greenwich Mean Time). Our wondering artist, lonesome and possibly lonely, continues to drift along a path predetermined by an imaginary meridian line.

Rest and relief are finally found in “Greenwich Park”(40 x 60cm), which depicts an unidentifiable couple surrounded by plush greenery and a distant view to the Millennium Dome, considered as a  great cultural and political failure of the city: built in 2000 for a staggering budget to house a temporary exhibition about the launch of the third millennium, yet conceived without a predetermined future.

The artist’s urban wanderings continue horizontally with the series, “A Walk to Heathrow”, which follows in the quintessentially British spiritual footsteps of contemporary psycho-geographers and esteemed authors, Iain Sinclair and Will Self. In “Battersea Park” again, the human body is represented as a central but impersonal protagonist, positioned in an idyllic but anonymous urban/nature setting. We are now on the fly path to Heathrow airport, a critical node of this neo-liberal metropolis and a logical conclusion to the wistful longing of colonial adventures and global domination, that stargazing at the Royal Greenwich Observatory once offered to Londoners left behind. 

The artist-as-flâneur finally takes a break to become a temporary local on top of a bus in “London Hop On/Hop Off” and reflects Streuli’s own impressions of the city from 2017 as a homogenous urban setting. Free-standing protagonists are lost in the mundanity of contemporary urban life: young professionals are talking on the phone, texting on the go and finishing off a cigarette, always alone, before disappearing in to an anonymous corporate headquarter. 

“The Standard City” concludes the exhibition with its grey tone mood and matter. There are no redeeming features to the buildings or people. There are no more glimpses of succulent green nature strips, colourful attires or the hope of human interaction. There is no longer a promise of world domination, nor the presence of young wistfulness or old wisdom. We are in the end confronted exclusively with images of young, economically active members of society: there is cultural diversity but no socio-economic or aesthetic distinction. 

Indeed, London has lost itself. Its protagonists are detached bodies living the global urban experience and in the imminent led up to whatever Brexit entails, Europe and us Europeans - personified by an Austrian and Swiss artist of distinct generations - may also be Losing London. 

And yet, the works of Streuli and Lehrner celebrate the cultural melting pot and economic powerhouse that London has become. Their gentle and generous observations attest, that in willingly getting lost, something sublime can always be found.

Jade Niklai, 2019