Beat Streuli: Sydney, Toyko, Birmingham, New York

March 24–April 20, 2003
Arcadia University Art Gallery


“Beat Streuli: Sydney, Tokyo, Birmingham, New York” features a selection of photographs and video works by this Swiss artist whose unique approach to recording heavily trafficked avenues and walkways extrapolates detailed cross sections of the cityscape. Distilling properties associated with the snapshot, the film still, surveillance images, and advertising, Streuli’s severe pictorial framing and compression of distance heightens the significance of everyday, urban activity and human gestures by playing on tensions between individuality and anonymity, motionlessness and momentum.

The Pallasades 05-01-01 I and II, 2001, two screen video projection, 45-minute loop, Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy Gallery, New York.

With the advent of the portable camera and fast film—first widely available just prior to the end of the 19th century—street photography emerged as one of the medium’s dominant forms, documenting the expansion of the modern metropolis and its changing populations. From 1955 to 1956, one of the genre’s masters, Robert Frank, drove cross-country to assemble a raw, black and white portrait of the United States. The resulting publication, The Americans, while expressing the country’s regional flavors, conveys a distinctly national ethos. A half-century later, Streuli’s travels to prominent metropolitan centers throughout various countries reflect consequences of rapid globalization where race, ethnicity, and branded apparel cease to provide reliable markers of a specific locale.

Exhibiting a recurring interest in directional and speed regulations imposed on humans as they attempt to navigate congested city streets, Streuli gravitates towards densely packed areas of one-way movement. Viewed from the side and up close, the ceaseless starting and stopping of motorists in his single-channel work Sixth Avenue Traffic 5-9-95 (1995) produces a shifting, horizontal band of solid, industrial paint and graphics displayed on the exteriors of commercial vehicles. Although Streuli does not digitally manipulate or edit his video footage, the apparent proximity of the traffic to the camera produces an illusion that some of the vehicles are moving in fast motion, creating frame-by-frame blurs analogous to the way in which individual pages are registered while thumbing a flipbook.

Broadway New York, 2001, black & white photographs, 20” x 27,” Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy Gallery, New York.

The only stable point of reference is a telephone booth, set against an intensely blue wall, located across the avenue from the camera. The booth functions as a terminus against the blue backdrop, which gives way to an expansiveness suggesting the ocean or a cloudless sky while remaining the last in a sequence of vertical planes. This fusion of pedestrian perspectives, however, is continuously interrupted and reduced to flat pictorial planes of minimal, interlocking shapes and bold colors as automobiles and trucks stream across the screen. 

Capitalizing on the preponderance of city buses emblazoned with advertising, which, when stopped in front of the lens, frequently occupy the entire monitor, Streuli’s filming strategy temporarily dislodges these graphics from their original contexts and relocates them to a monitor where they become readymade T.V. commercials marketing their wares in institutional, museum-like settings. This formal framing generates still shots reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Campbell soup can labels, Brillo boxes, and Hollywood icons.

Two life-size photographs also seem to cut out sections of the urban environment and transfer them directly into the gallery. These massive arrangements—the front grill of a looming electric-orange truck, portions of signs, and colorful, abstracted objects—recall the work of former billboard painter James Rosenquist, whose gigantic panels often included illustrations of magnified fragments of automobiles and urban accrual.

If it were not for the titles of Streuli’s pictures, which identify these particular cities as Tokyo and Sydney, the viewer would be hard pressed to ascertain where these photographs were taken. This ambiguity is also integral to the four black and white New York Broadway photographs (2001), in which a different young woman, each of whom is shown frontally and in sharp focus, becomes momentarily singled out from the surrounding commotion before her inevitable reentrance into the throng.

Sydney 98, 1999, color photograph, 59 1/2” x 79,” Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy Gallery, New York.

Amplifying the internal propulsion of the city, The Pallasades (2001) is a two-screen video work projected onto adjoining walls that shows a tightly cropped current of people walking steadily towards the camera almost as if their movements had been choreographed. The artist’s anonymity, gained by the use of a telephoto lens, allows him to penetrate the crowd and capture the gesticulations and personal styles of the passersby in generous and intimate detail. While bringing Streuli, as well as his audiences, closer to his subjects, this technique also enhances the appearance that the people are nearer to each other than they actually are. The artist’s characteristic use of a fixed camera position, coupled with the cinematic effect of slow motion, permits viewers to engage at length, and unabashedly, in the pleasurable activity of people watching. An uncanny absence of urban noise further sharpens the experience of the flow by removing a distracting, and oftentimes assaulting, element and directing the viewer’s full attention on the wavelike rhythm of the piece. Streuli’s photographs and video projects, despite their deceptively modest means, emerge from rigorous conditions that ensure their legibility and immediacy. Operating within a dynamics of displacement that always incorporates the viewer’s point of view, the works in this exhibition—whether depicting motorists, pedestrians, or urban signage—encourage a mode of innocuous voyeurism as well as a state of self-reflection in which we might recognize ourselves and the cities we live in.