Paris, Saturday, April 1...
Paris, Saturday, April 1. I am turn to notes from a lecture I gave in Thessaloniki this time last year, when Mikael was exhibiting his work at the French Institute. There for the first time I saw gathered together in a single place the four sets of photographs from his project entitled Common Places. I must say that I have never found the title convincing. The idea of a commonplace, with the double meaning of the "common" as a variant of "collective": the common place as the space of a community of experience through or in spite of a banal representation (cliché, bromide, etc.) -- we come across that idea just about everywhere today and is, indeed, a "commonplace". A verbal reflex, a magic formula, a rhetorical slogan, a counterpart for non lieu [literally "no place" in French,] which, since the publication of the Marc Auge's overrated little book, has spread like a rumor through contemporary literature on the urban. The revaluing of the commonplace is, in France, an old story, since the 1941 Flowers of Tarbes by Jean Paulhan. In 1947, Sartre noted in his preface to Nathalie Sarraute's Portrait of an Unknown Man: "This beautiful word has several meanings: it designates, to be sure, the most overused thoughts but the thing is that these thoughts have become a meeting place of the community. Everyone recognizes himself in them, and finds the others in them. The commonplace is everyone's and it belongs to me; it belongs in me to everyone; it is the presence of everyone in me. It is, in its essence, generality; in order for me to appropriate it, an act is needed: an act through which I divest myself of my particularity in order to join the general, to become generality. Not similar to everyone, but, precisely, the incarnation of everyone. Through this eminently social joining, I identify myself with all the others in the non-distinctness of the universal."
Is that really what Mikael is seeking? Joining the general, the feeling of universal community, the divesting of specificity? All that is, in our times, a bit suspect. One is rightly wary of the universal. At the same time, since pop art, the absence of "characteristics" of daily banality has become a constitutive dimension of the esthetic, which has stepped down from the heights of learned culture. Mikael is interested in the common, in what is common in different spaces, distant ones, etc.. He is interested in the common more than in the banal. And that commonness is linked to certain predilections which I attempted to enumerate as simply as possible. Not knowing at the time any of the four cities he photographed, I studied above all the establishment of relationships between the four sets of images; in other words, ultimately, the space --or the common place (one can't avoid the term!) --that emerges from these groups of photographs.
Let me turn again to my enumeration:
1. The first predilection concerns the dimension of the cities. Katrineholm is the smallest one: 21,000 inhabitants. Thessaloniki, the largest, with nearly one million inhabitants, is the only one that might claim the status of a metropolis. (But of a medium sized, or secondary one, in a Europe of today that appears, relative to other regions of the world, less and less populated, and in which the demography is even sometimes in decline.) This has nothing to do with the larger specter evoked by Rem Koolhaas in S, M, L, XL. Nor has it anything to do with the fascination of Asian megalopolises exerted over photographers on a quest for the spectacular.
2. Levin's point of view is never one taken from overhead, he is not looking from a zenith. He does not favor a gaze that would envelop the panorama, and he seems to avoid large expanses, without, however, betraying any fear of the void. As a function of their size, none of the four photographed cities possesses very high buildings. Levin's work conforms itself to this given. He does, however, convey the density of Thessaloniki, the tiered balconies in the buildings in the center of town. He also shows the plans for collective housing carried out in Erfurt during the time of the GDR (East Germany.)
3. Every photograph, like every movement in a city, is a question of speed. Levin's time is rather slow. He does not rush himself. He allows the images to come to him. He proceeds like a flaneur. But a flaneur who has absorbed the experience of automobiles. No close-ups, then, no detail shots, except for, in Cambrai, a small commercial city famous for its sweets: the "Betises de Cambrai" --- a few views of shop windows. The gaze never comes up against faces. Everything is seen while passing by , without over-insistence, with the modesty of a distanced curiosity.
4. The general tonality of the images is rather gray. The contrasts in light are rendered but without emphasis. They intensify or diminish, of course, according to the lighting. Levin is an excellent technician using black and white. Indeed, he never works in color. He knows that everything gets played out in grays, in the modulations of hues more than in contrasts in extremes. When the images are presented in natural light or a slightly weak lighting --- as they were in Thessaloniki -- an atmosphere of melancholy emanates from them. The melancholy of often deserted streets, of empty intersections, of cities partially sacrificed to automobiles.
5. In contrast to the idea of the city as a place of gathering, of concentration, Levin photographs fluctuation: a fragile, diffuse centrality. Henry Lefebvre defined the urban (the urban phenomenon) as centrality. He noted in the Urban Revolution (1970): "Any point may become central: that is the meaning of urban space-time." He also remarked: "In urban space, something is always happening." Levin selects points or fragments of centrality that have gone adrift, that correspond to a loosening of social ties, but also, perhaps, to the effect of a long process of pacification dating from the end of the Second World War.... "Relationships change," explains Lefebvre, "differences and contrasts reach a point of conflict. Either they soften, or they erode or corrode." The violence is latent, hidden behind the facades.
6. One always assumes that European cities are laden with history. That they are monumental, archaeological. Rome is the model of this, the archetype, with a "country side" that it itself dotted with ancient ruins. There is nothing of the sort in Levin's work. He photographs sediment cities rather than places of memory, sites of archaeological digs, fields of historical investigation. Katrineholm is a recent city seeking a past. Erfurt transforms its medieval center into a tourist attraction but forgets its recent past (during the Third Reich and the GDR). Nothing in Mikael's images recalls the antiquity of Thessaloniki. Doubtless, the city has buried a dramatic past, marked by violent conflicts and a very long Ottoman presence (that lasted until the beginning of this century). But none of that returns in the photos. Levin records above all the covering over and disguising of the past. When it is not covered over the past seems deposited, just the houses of Cambrai are deposited in the street. No depth, no stratification.... But let me stress that such a deposit is not a dump. The sediment-city is not a disorderly accumulation, a public dump, an waste ground. It can come apart, become diluted, but without falling to pieces. That would be too much like the remains of the archeological town.
7. Mikael Levin is attached to the modern, present form of urban space. In his eyes, what guarantees that currentness is a form, which is at once spatial and photographic. In this way he places himself within the "documentary style" defined by Walker Evans. For him the urban is first of all a space of automobile traffic and places of pedestrian circulation. What is functional and undefined in the idea of space is corrected by the specifics of a place. Conversely, no place closes in on itself. Empty (Katrineholm) or full (Thessaloniki), streets are very rarely presented as pure architectural segments. The street corners are not the intimate "nature corners" of the country. People don't hang out there, one can't make oneself at home there; they are merely places for passing through. The modern city street is, indeed, subordinated to the roadway, even if pedestrians still manage to slip in . Lastly, this urban form, "common" and haunting, seems stripped of interiority (as it is stripped of depth). Moreover, Levin photographs houses, many houses, without ever going inside them. He keeps to the facade, that is, to the street form.
8. A strange idealness ensues from this predilection for outside urban forms, in which discrete (discontinuous) places depend on a space of traffic. It's an idea of the urban in which traits of the city subsist, without being overemphasized. Like a population which would be constituted of people passing by more than of inhabitants. The photographer has grasped in passing certain features of each city, in the sense of "character traits" or features of a face, a physiognomy. What can the inhabitants think of that? What do they think of these images, of the image that is given of their city? Is Mikael a good physiognomist? In any case, the concrete experience one may have of a city one lives in can not be summed up in images. What the sensitive and distanced documentary style reveals is the urban, the strange idealness of the urban as grasped by the photographer, as though by enchantment. An idealization, then, but not a mystification. For figures of disenchantment appear as well. The laconic grasp of the documentary style is as cruel as it is melancholy.
Professor, Ecole nationale superieure des beaux-arts, Paris
(translation by Susan Cohen)