Vyner Street Gallery

Am I a tower block or am I a person? Is my interiority like this too, like Paul Philipson’s photographs, the cold corridors and strip-lights of the mind? What if I jumped from here right now? Jan Deckner’s images seem to be asking us this. I could, it would be easy. I would have my moment of psychosis and it would all be over, I could return to the ‘Real’ of Lacan. Or I could come back as weeds, waiting outside in the wind and in the rain and in the sun. You would never see me again. Can I be seen here any way? Who is watching me? Surveillance cameras or the camera of an artist? What is the difference? These spaces are all the same. Paul Philipson photographs Beijing, but it might be a tenement in the former Yugoslavia, if it weren't for the air-con units decorating the exterior like so many metal lungs.

These are some of the voices and questions, echoes and hesitant utterances that seem to speak into and from all of the photographs in this exhibition. Post-colonial urban modalities are the subject; no one owns this place any more but all are possessed by it. The colonials have gone leaving freedom and weeds and broken air-con units. Who is our oppressor now? To whom shall we go when things break down, when we break down? The corridors are policed not by any nameable authority but by our own internalised 'big Other'. We are our own keepers and how do we keep from harm? We are free from oppression aren't we? Free to do what we like, to be what we like, to make others be what we don't like. Welcome to freedom. Congratulations. History is over. Let's fuck.

But it is not intimacy we crave (there is too much of it here already in these stacked up dwellings); what we want is to be alone: to annihilate the other. In sex, perhaps, a moment's release can be had, the fleeting glimpse of a world beyond beliefs, for it is only belief that keeps us 'here'. A fleeting moment lost to ourselves, like in Paul Knight's stark and beautiful photographs of couples. Because we are never so alone as during sex, when all otherness is obliterated; it is only through difference – I and not I – that we can see each other and hence ourselves.

And what about Lucille Nolan’s constructed city? Layered with nostalgia for a mode of production when we had everything to live for, these dark bridges and walk ways, these chimneys, this industry oppressed us, the enemy in plain view, we can cope with that can't we? We can point to that and we can romanticise our alienation. But subtly, unlike the photographers of sweet Modernism (it seems so long ago!) these pictures acknowledge their lack of objecthood. ‘We are simulacra…’, they utter, and we respond because we are just images too.

These photographs mean nothing. In a world without meaning how could it be otherwise? So we have building next to person. Each a portrait, each an internally divided and more or less inhabited space. Hostility within and hostility without. The world represented here, particularly in the work of Darren Sylvester, seems contrived to confound us, to entrap us in never ending tessellations of nothingness. And the photographs themselves repeat this game of illusory surface. ‘Come in…’, they invite, ‘I am nothing’. And Photographs have always been nothing. An envelope, Barthes said, delivering their message, but that was back in the primitive days of structuralism; now we have envelopes containing envelopes containing envelopes, Nietzsche’s ‘masks’. Nothing to be delivered from nowhere to nowhere; scratch the surface and what do you get? More surface.

The overarching sense here is one of longing. We pit ourselves against the postmodern world. There is nowhere to run to, and nowhere to run from. These pictures are as impenetrable as the city itself; more so. Romantic alienation has not gone away. We can still find meaning in the heroic. Even Paul Knight’s forensically photographed scenes of sex keep us locked out. Shine a light into the dark and all you see is darkness more clearly. Photograph a city and its people and its places, go in close like Nan Goldin, step back like Andreas Gursky, either way nothing. We do not get closer or further from anything because we take ourselves and them with us and in the end all we see is our own attempt not to make sense.