Published in the catalogue 'Welt-Bilder 6'/ World Images 6, at the exhibition Welt-Bilder 6, Helmhaus Zürich;         from 10-12-15 untill 21-02-16

Marike Schuurman
The face of the metropolis changed radically in record time: in São Paulo over 15,000
hoardings and billboards had to be painted over or dismantled within three months,
the time allotted the advertisers in the city to comply with the measures decreed by
the new mayor. “Lei Cidade Limpa”, his legislation for a clean city, went into effect in
2007 and ever since, all outdoor advertising has been banned in South America’s
largest city. Instead of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen and her colleagues
touting skin cream, handbags or lingerie on billboards and neon signs, there
suddenly appeared dilapidated walls and the iron skeletons of former billboards – a
naked city without make-up.
Curious about how a total advertising ban changes the looks of a city, Marike
Schuurman spent a few months working in São Paulo in 2009. She has always been
artistically interested in urban space, as shown in her series of Plots (2005–2009).
There she investigates the omnipresent scaffolding and building wraps used to mask
municipal construction sites. The gigantic images applied to fences and scaffolding
impact our perception of the urban environment in various ways. In Berlin, they are
often architectural in nature, for instance, simulating an intact row of buildings, while
in Beijing, construction sites and their reality are disguised by idyllic pastoral scenes.
The boundary between built reality and simulation is blurred in these pictures and
generates a sense of spatial disorientation. At the same time, Marike Schuurman
inquires into the medium of photography as such, and its ability to penetrate layers of
reality to reveal something of which we could not be aware without the camera.
In São Paulo the crucial question was obvious: how can photographs capture
something that isn’t even there anymore? Since the advertising ban, buildings with
whitewashed walls have proliferated but in contrast to the mouse click perfection of
Photoshop, traces of age often shimmer through. Schuurman calls her São Paulo
series Deleted. Nonetheless, our attention is not instantly drawn to the
absence of advertising; we are struck, in the series, by something else that
profoundly contradicts conventional expectations of urban space: no cars are seen
on the streets, no agonizingly slow bumper-to-bumper traffic; only a few people
wearing leisure clothes.
The Minhocão – the gigantic earthworm as locals have dubbed the four-lane
motorway that cuts through the city with utterly indifferent brutality – was originally
initiated by city planners to relieve the chronically congested city streets; it now
accommodates over 100,000 cars every day. The rich upper crust has long since
switched to helicopters for short stretches. Built on piles and ruthlessly cutting
through residential neighbourhoods, the Minhocão produces unprecedented noise
and pollution. Buckling under public pressure, the authorities closed the road to traffic
at night and on Sundays many years ago. In Deleted, we see how people take
possession of the road for a few hours every day – walking, skating, jogging, lying in
the sun or sitting by the roadside reading a book (page 137).
Schuurman’s photographs heighten the emptiness and are bathed in a curious
stillness. Traffic is at rest – no screeching, no incessant vying for attention on
façades and street corners. The city actually acquires a face because the gaze does
simply not bounce off smooth, high-gloss surfaces. Ugly, crumbling façades are as
much a part of the picture as a few singular, architectural pearls and interesting
combinations of buildings. A peeling, grey wall becomes a surface of projection; freestanding
iron scaffolding now appears to advertise nothing but blue skies.
Unsurprisingly, the advertising industry resorted to forging new tricks in order to
communicate their messages outdoors in São Paulo’s public spaces. Thus, brief
performances by people costumed as characters from fairy tales become mobile
advertising. Schuurman presents another mobile device in the series Gold (pages
135 ff.), created at the same time as Deleted. Men wearing sandwich boards
advertise pawnshops where gold and jewellery can be exchanged for cash. The artist
photographed these men with respect and without showing their faces. In the midst
of São Paulo’s busy downtown area, they are curiously absent and isolated, never
interacting. A silent emptiness emanates from this series as well, but in this case it is
impossible to overhear a long, single scream.
Andreas Fiedler
Translated by Catherine Schelbert
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