Metropolis to Global Underground: Matrix of Change

Steve Yates

Curator, Fulbright Scholar, Artist, Collaborator

 

During the early modern era, artists turned to urban subjects from traditional genre in time and space. Modern photography emerged in the mainstream of modern art movements as the quintessential medium of visual expression. Modern artists established an advanced vocabulary to articulate global change for the early twentieth century.

A variety of photographic mediums were unique in how they revealed the transformation of human values around the world. They provided a myriad of new art forms, from camera-made and camera-less photographs (photograms), to photomontage and cinema. The modern artist understood that two things determined reality and truth with a diversity of photographic mediums. What was created in front of, as well as behind, the camera.

Today another revolution of change is taking place after the modern epoch. Ideologies continue to vanish in an international exchange of ideas. New technologies of information and photography, including the Internet and travel, move beyond past culture. Photographic forms of expression are central to leading artists who want to articulate the new epoch. Art moves beyond the modern history of isms and historical classifications.

The photographic art of the Cherkashins speaks to a new milieu of possibilities. Their camera-based installations include a rich complexity and universal themes. Made from around the world, they create a network that links human sensibility. The Global Underground is timeless. The project moves away from the ideology of self-serving cultures or traditions of old internal politics. 

The Global Underground consists of digital and video works that are combined with other mediums. It appropriates the essence of people in a universal time and space. Metros become a postmodern metaphor of collective history. Within the photographic installation is an interrelated system with others. Everything takes place in the larger, emerging world order. 

In the 1920s, some of the first, modern photographic artists sensed related forms of global change. As people migrated to cities and factories to build new lives with the masses, a major shift took place in the content and meaning of art. Artists looked into the future boldly while inventing visual forms with new ideas and materials that better expressed their time. 

Paul Citroën, a friend of the Berlin Dadaists who invented modern photomontage, created hisMetropolis series in 1923 (Figure 1). He was a student at the Weimar Bauhaus where modern forms of photography and architecture flourished. Metropolis is filled with multiple points of view from high and low vantage points. Fragments of architectural photographs are assembled from international newspapers and magazines. They take the place of painted brush strokes and traditional perspective as photomontage replaced the conventional horizon line found in traditional landscape painting. At the core of Citroen's series is the density and multifaceted order of modern life, which was emerging around the world. Metropolis is a metaphor of new urban structures.

Filmmakers of the period expanded the idea of montage in related cinematic art. They envisioned the co-existence of the modern worker together with society. Director Fritz Lang collaborated with his wife, writer Gabriele von Harbou, to expose the emerging cultural hierarchies in the film Metropolis in 1926 (Figure 2). While modes of travel and skyscrapers embolden the sky, only the life of the wealthy appears above the ground. Cinematic movement of modern vehicles and airplanes add to the fluid dynamics of change.  

Painter, cellist and film director Walter Ruttmann anticipates a more ominous life for the worker inBerlin - Symphony of a Great City in 1927. Human figures are depicted as mechanical parts inside large clocks. They are fragments of the same machinery that is used in the life of factories on an unprecedented scale. Mechanistic rhythms and fragments of time, which are used throughout the film, suggest an array of consequences. The masses are part of the process of never-ending construction. Human figures interact inside the new bureaucratic order. 

The Cherkashins move beyond the city and its politics from the past and the present. Themetropolis of the modern era advances to the global underground. Rather than embracing temporary ideological models, the Cherkashins reconnect with the world at large, to express developing ideas about global change. Their art engenders many of the unique qualities of today's worldwide transformation. Historical collaboration shed light on the importance of insights found in such rare photographic work. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, Gustav Klutsis and painter Valentina Kulagina made their own photographs to use in their photomontage with future vision (Figures 3 and 4). They used photography in various technologies of the day such as lithography. Their extraordinary sense of color and design helped create incomparable icons of workers and industry. How they mastered mediums and technologies together remains to be more critically appraised. Their collaboration produced important contributions artistically beyond the political continuum of the modern era. 

Like their modern predecessors, the Global Underground anticipates new realities with a diversity of technologies and mediums. Artists from both periods establish breakthroughs after the hardships of World War I and the Cold War. While classical artists such as Goya and Picasso targeted the senseless acts of war in their art, these photographic artists look ahead with future anticipation. The Cherkashins share the new freedoms of post-war advances and embody innovative aspirations.

The visual genius of collaboration is again a critical part of today's milieu. The Cherkashins are not simply revealing the character of globalization from past cultures on an unprecedented scale. TheGlobal Underground, in all its manifestations and mediums, marks a new understanding of worldwide sensibility beyond politics. Commonality and universality outweighs past differences and ideologies.

Distinctions found in their installations and photographic art reveal more than what the camera portrays. Such visionaries provide judicious indications about the matrix of change for the new century.

 

 

© Essay, Steve Yates

2008