The great exodus has begun. Lockdown 2020 ensures reverse migration will be the death knell of dense urbanism. City life has lost its luster. The crowds will head for the hills to recolonize rural byways and small towns everywhere. The great era of the city is over. Cultural theorist Paul Virilio said so in his prescient 2005 treatise City of Panic, a post-9/11 polemic on the “pathological regression of the city” and the retreat into virtual reality. Sound familiar?
The gist of Benjamin Hirte’s extremely spartan exhibition “First Houses” is essentially three pieces: a handsome sandstone sculpture shaped like a bulky hybrid drinking fountain/animal form; a small framed photo of a L.E.S. rooftop at night indicating a performance going on; and a projected photographic series of public spaces in which all is not what it seems. Hirte used a 3-D application to scan the locations. The images are compressed architectural fragments, like pieces of the Rosetta stone. Subtle virtual modifications add to the eerie dissonance of public spaces devoid of people. A pin drop can be heard. Thirty minutes of this montage communicates melancholy, romance, and the bleak defacement of a failed utopia.
Cycles of boom and bust are ingrained into the well-worn bricks and cracked surfaces of concrete, steel, asphalt, and stone. Urbanism is a palimpsest overwritten time and again. Back in the edgy 1970s, NYC was nearly bankrupt, and lots of prime real estate previously abandoned to squatters was reclaimed by the city and sold off to developers. Class war and gentrification are the twin poles of city life. Blocks of old tenements are contrasted against newly built luxury high-rises. Public spaces are the breadcrumbs left for the unruly masses. Give them a skate park and water fountains for those sweltering summer days. Smell the chlorine in the pool, the urine in a vestibule; read the graffiti proclamations (“Jessy is sexy”); witness the grandeur of decay and wander amid the brutalist architecture.
Art here was fated to imitate life. NYC, silenced under lockdown, brought to mind downtown poet Jim Carroll’s“Fragment: Little N.Y. Ode”:
I sleep on a tar roof
scream my songs
into lazy floods of stars…
a white powder paddles through blood and heart
the sounds return
pure and easy…
this city is on my side.