As these things go, I want to arrive at art exhibitions having done at least some homework. At the very minimum, knowing the name of the artist on view is considered a journalistic courtesy. But I would have loved to have come to Iwan Baan: The Way We Live at Hollywood's Perry Rubenstein Gallery a blank slate, completely unaware of Baan and his rock-star status in the architecture world, and naïve to the context in which the photographs on display originally appeared.
If I weren't familiar with Baan — better still, if I weren't familiar with Herzog or de Meuron — what would I think seeing Bird's Nest #2 (a portrait of Beijing's iconic stadium in progress, dwarfing the workers in the foreground) breathing the same air as Los Angeles #1 (an aerial view of the title city)? I might think them the works of an artist who draws parallels between a knot of steel beams and a knot of intersecting freeways, and exposes both the splendour and absurdity of these subjects in a single blink.
The challenge, then, of viewing Baan's solo show — not his first altogether, but his first outside a strict framework of architecture, and his most comprehensive — is one of curbing assumption: it's not fair to the photographs to presuppose that they "make sense" as an ensemble just because we (the royal we, but it's a fair assessment for most readers of Domus) see the Rems, Zahas, and Heatherwicks in them and are already primed for those names to read well together. The greater success of the show hinges on whether or not Baan's images, reduced to their visual immediacy and the conceptual point of view they offer, work as "anonymous" artworks, more show than tell. What is the new cohesion that develops between these images, a collage eight years in the making, when we consider them together?
Personally, I found it quite satisfying to see the already-legendary City and the Storm photo that Baan took of Manhattan after Sandy as an unnerving and symbolic work, open to interpretation without a New York magazine logo running across it; likewise, the photograph of a young woman taken through a window of the Mikimoto Ginza 2 building in Tokyo looks, on the white walls of this gallery, not like the corner of an iconic structure, but rather like an abstract painting folded in half. No longer a Toyo Ito, in other words, just an Iwan Baan. That young woman in Tokyo #1, looking out at the viewer, is not so different from the sea of faces in Guangzhou #1 (taken inside Dame Hadid's opera house, but that's beside the point) — these are nameless, figurative anchors in surreal and fluid compositions.
As an ensemble, Baan's works benefit from a certain degree of simplification, from facts to feelings. "Demoting" his images from the information they relay to the poetics allows The Way We Live to "live up" to its loaded, tricky title: we don't live in Caracas, Shanghai, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York or the numerous other cities Baan's visited with his camera. Of course not. They live there, other people. But rather than falling into the National Geographic school of documentary or educational style photography, Baan's collection, in title and effect, suggests a kind of introspection or blatant subjectivity. Not just his own, but also "ours." At once, we are so close to our immediate environments that they become abstract to us (for example, Baan's photograph CCTV #1 is a detail that shows how distorted a close look can be), and we are so far from the environments of others that we feel detached from the great majority of the world, even in the age of global connectivity — especially in that world. I don't care how good the Skype connection, you're never on your laptop in Tokyo and in Caracas, 15,000 km away, at the same time. You're just on your laptop in Tokyo, with an abstract but distinct understanding that the world is big and most of it is always beyond reach.
Baan's photographs suggest we actually live: 1) Confined to the myopia of what we can immediately see and touch and 2) Perpetually confronted with the vastness of the rest of the world from which we are geographically, practically, if not emotionally, estranged. In a conversation I had with Perry Rubenstein after the opening, he told me that some Angelenos, inquiring about photographs specific to their city, admitted they had no idea where those images were taken. Case in point: sometimes we feel estranged even from our own environments.
"Iwan can be 900 metres in the air and still teach you about the place you live in the least pedantic and most visually powerful way," Rubenstein told me. "He has the ability to make you see your world differently, and what more can you ask for in an artist?"
Significantly, this show marks a transition for Baan, from one A-word to another. Architecture Photographer was never a very fitting title for him, anyhow, but was nevertheless used as shorthand. A solo show of this nature, immediately following a very different exhibition of Mike Kelley's work at the gallery, puts Baan in the Artist bin more declaratively. At the opening, Baan told me that while editing eight years of work, he was hoping to achieve a collection of photos that say as much about "who I am," as they do about China in the last decade, Manhattan in October 2012, or the Torre David (an unfinished office skyscraper in Caracas that functions as a self-governed community; several photos on display were part of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale Golden Lion-winning project). Baan's photos take the viewer behind many closed doors and into some closed societies, but more importantly, they open conversations about those obstructed views already in plain sight. Katya Tylevich
Through 13 April 2013
Iwan Baan: The Way We Live
Perry Rubinstein Gallery
1215 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles