No Place Like Babylon is about cities and the photographic process. It’s a simulation of a darkroom in the gallery and the culmination of two visits to New York.
In 1994, I worked on a project called Sweat with Sydney artist Anne Graham. She took to the New York streets with a sewing machine and I followed her with a camera. I wanted to continue this exploration, but not just from street level. When I went back in to NY in 1996, I photographed the city from the vantage point of a bird that could position itself anywhere, from ground level to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building and the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. As a subject, New York has facial features, textures, dimensions, and personality. I wanted to show the edifices of human lives, the city as fortress and mobile jigsaw whose inhabitants who are both prisoners and tenants. Back in Melbourne, my reflections of New York made me look at Australian cities with fresh eyes – as cities shaped and battered by demolition, reconstruction, building booms. Organic jungles formed by constant change. I photographed Sydney from Centre Point and Melbourne from The Rialto.
In the gallery, entry was through a black curtain into a room with a large sink in the centre. Twelve highly detailed photos of cityscapes were washing in photo-processing trays in the sink. An amber glow filled the room. The sound of water could be heard, gushing, gurgling, flowing across the images, spilling over the trays, draining away. Maceys Department store, an island; the Chrysler Building bubbling to the surface; the FlatIron Building sinking – the city drowning under the weight of its architecture; angles and cantilevers, crevices, concrete and glass awash. Long strips of city images dropped from ceiling to floor, skyscraper-esque at one end of the room. The sink and trays were completely transparent; lit from above, the movement of the water reflected onto the floor, like a living, breathing frame, or a dazzling grid, suggesting the movement of traffic around the city. Curiously the effect of the amber lighting reflected in the water gave the appearance of the buildings being on fire, as well as being submerged.
Many people have never been in a darkroom so I wanted to demystify it. I get immense pleasure from watching photos washing – how they tilt, move in and out of focus, bubble and flip. Parallel this with the constant movement of cities. I wanted the viewer to recapture the sense of revisiting a city – where new buildings seem to magically materialise from an empty space like an image emerging on a pristine sheet of photographic paper…
Mixed media: 3m x 1m clear acrylic sink, 16” x 20 “clear acrylic photographic trays, laminated B/W photographs, garden fountain pump, acrylic hosing, reticulation taps, plastic tub, powder-coated square steel tubing, plastic joiners, strips of Type C photographs
Picturing Vinyl and Babylon, Realtime Issue 19 Scroll to page 13
1998 – Stills Gallery, Sydney Australia
1997 – Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Melbourne Australia
“Congratulations for an interesting and intimate presentation.” (Perry – Melbourne)
“I hope to see more artwork like this. It tells me a lot of stories about life.” (Kojo Owusu – Ghana/Australia)
“What a surprise walking into the room, seeing the trays, the light flickering in the water, hearing the trickle; immediately being reminded of times in the darkroom! I love it.” (Leo Sadlek – Cleveland, Ohio)
“I grew up in New York. Thanks for reminding me why I left. Great concept – sinking.” (Kathleen Whelan)
“Cold, clinical, damp, the human race is a vile energy. You have captured their evils superbly. Great work.” (Anon)
“Fantastic to see a different approach to presentation, it looks great.” (Saskia Folk – Melbourne)
“Really wild, an amazing watershed.” (Anon)
“Presentation is unbelievable, the blibb sound does it all.” (Bjorlin Asmindrior – Iceland)
“Alas! The flow of water feeds not the Gardens of Babylon but the excesses of the urban jungle seen before our eyes here today” (Mark – East Brunswick)
“Thank you for giving me a different view of three cities. The leggo likeness is particularly strong, or maybe it’s the horizontal view. Keep on building!” (Moira Drew – Melbourne)