Urban Decay: The New Flâneurs suggests a modern world in ruins
The flâneur is the quintessential figure of urban modernity. Coined by Charles Baudelaire, romanticized by Walter Benjamin and reinvestigated by Rebecca Solnit, the flâneur, or flâneurie, is at its root the embodiment of physically moving through modernity.
Almost always understood as male, privileged enough to idle his days away walking and meandering aimlessly and restlessly down urban corridors, the flâneur feeds off the pulse of the city and its crowds of anonymous passers-by. Beginning as a figure in the post-Haussmannisation of Paris' urban centre, the flâneur moves through his city streets with little to no end purpose, but simply meandering to the nuisances and rhythms of modernity.
Doubling the notion of flâneurie with the Victorian aesthetic of the Picturesque, which is an aesthetic often experienced during walking that encapsulates a fragment of civilization in ruins (or inversely, of nature overpowering the urban), the The New Flâneurs exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta ambitiously attempts to bridge these 19th century notions with more recent practices such as Situationist psychogeography, parkour and contemporary art works culled from its own collection.
Though there are evident ties between flâneurie and parkour as they share similarities in being of Parisian origins, being a mostly male activity and sharing mutual inclinations to subvert urban landscapes with no economic agenda, the element of the Picturesque fits awkwardly with the rest of the show.
Photography is the prominent medium of choice, as Hubert Hohn's deserted black and white suburbia are shown facing Edward Burtynsky's consistently sublime devastations of human advancements. Equally, George Webber's portraits of deserted sweat lodges evocate the decay of the sublime. Together, they spell out the doom of the 20th century. Depressing as it sounds, the new flâneurs appear to be more excavators than field researchers of a desolate and static modern world.
Proposing a common thread tying all of these ideas together, that thread is in fact a movement-based approach to how one experiences the world. Only restricted to the gallery save for a few outdoor programming initiatives and film screenings, there is a major void of actual movement within the show.
Image credit: Don Gill and Sarah Williams' "Erratic Spaces" 2009
Movement is suggested amongst the handful of frozen pedestrians in Mark Arneson's dated Edmonton photographs, but it's really only media artist Don Gill's photography slideshow and video collaboration with dancer Sarah Williams that evokes movement as a keystone. As a formal exercise, "Erratic Spaces" documents a series of Williams' non-choreographed movements in relation to urban spaces and shapes, but beyond showing the athleticism of Williams as she responds to urban sites, the body-explorations she explores do not translate onto video—which differs in execution to the physical traces left by parkour and the revelation of shared and concealed histories discovered through psychogeography.
The biggest issue in viewing this show was, ironically, the inability to navigate the viewing space. Erecting a multi-panelled installation that doubles as extra wall space, the viewer is immediately forced around a lot of awkward corners—which although suggesting viewers can trace their own paths around and along these temporary blank structures, in reality, just creates physical barriers.
*First published in Vue Weekly