This traveling exhibition from the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography/National Gallery of Canada presents colour photographs by Vancouver artist Arni Haraldsson and Cuban artist Manuel Piña. The work by these artists is presented as two separate but interrelated series of photographs that engage public space, utopias, history and memory. Arni Haraldsson’s focus is Paris, and Manuel Piña’s, Havana.
These photographs do not set out to directly document a sense of place but rather to uncover within the urban landscape material traces and historical dialogues. The urban environments portrayed in these large colour photographs serve as map and metaphor for revolutionary and Utopian ideals (the architecture of Le Corbusier and the 1958 Cuban Revolution), and these conditions are seen to take place as much within the shattering of identities as in the construction of them.
Arni Haraldsson photographed the coordinates of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin that required the clearing of a 600-acre, L-shaped site in the centre of the city. Le Corbusier’s architectural and urban planning project of 1925 proposed to transform, as the architect described it, “the flattened-out and jumbled centre of Paris” into a vertical city of cruciform towers “bathed in light and air.” In 1999, Haraldsson set up his camera on the coordinates of the Plan, as described by Le Corbusier, titling the images with the architect’s own description of the sites, such as: Commercial City, North-South Coordinates: from “Gare de l’Est …” and Residential City, East-West Coordinates: “to the circus on the Champs Elysees …” . In place of the labyrinthine passage-ways of old Paris, the Plan Voisin outlined an ordered, rationalized, commercial and residential city. Four accompanying photographs document architecture that parallels the monumentality of Le Corbusier’s vision: office towers in the corporate sector of La Defence, located on the outskirts of Paris, and residential, low-cost housing in Marne-la-Valle, in the eastern sector.The Voisin Plan similarly endorsed a grand, utopic vision of social change latent in the technological and revolutionary ideals of modernism.
The series of eleven photographs titled ‘On Monuments’ continues Manuel Piña’s earlier exploration of the hidden mechanisms behind utopian movements. Piña’s photographs document empty squares on Avenida de los Presidentes and other streets in Havana. At the end of Spanish colonization and during the American domination of Cuba’s economic and political relations, the construction of monuments established visual, ideological foundations for a new urban economy and society. The ‘monuments’ of the series title (or in some cases only proposed commemorative sites) were statues depicting pre-Revolutionary presidents and generals, known for their corruption and pro-American allegiances. The monuments were destroyed during the 1959 Cuban Revolution, leaving only obscure markings, ‘footprints’ in cement, and empty plinths. “Portraits of sites”, he calls these deserted spaces which present two histories that coexist in an uneasy tension.
The layering of space and time in the photographs suggest a process whereby a historical reality is produced, maintained, and altered. As Piña states, “the history of Cuba is the manipulation of evidence and documents.” Therefore these desolate portraits of sites can be defined as images which hold in balance both the raw materials of history and an urban landscape of displaced memory.
Talk with the artists and curator Petra Watson, Saturday November 2 at 2:00 pm.