"It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin…"
— Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1972)
In the novella Invisible Cities, we find about fifty short impressions of mythical cities relayed to the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan by the Italian explorer Marco Polo. Polo describes the different sensory, physical and psychological affects these cities have on their inhabitants, which have been interpreted as different aspects of one city – Venice. But, ultimately, the book is about more than a single city; rather, it raises ideas about what it means for a city to be ‘home’, and how we can feel either ‘in possession’ or ‘possessed’ by a place through our memories and experiences of it. Polo is the book’s main narrator, but we sympathize with Khan, a man who can’t rule his homeland effectively because he doesn’t truly understand it.
If we’re Kublai then Jessica Thalmann, in her art, is Marco. She closely observes our built environments, photographing and reconfiguring them into sculptural forms that return our attention to surfaces and textures, as well as the social and political histories, to which we’ve become inured. “I sometimes describe myself as a photographer masquerading as a sculptor or an architect, but maybe that suggests too much forethought,” she says. “I rarely have the end results in mind when I’m shooting. The photographs are raw material; the real work begins when the hand manipulation starts.”
Thalmann’s eyes roam freely when making pictures, and she’s expanded her imagery beyond the Brutalist concrete surfaces that shaped her earlier work by letting the natural world – and some colour – slip in. However, she imposes limitations on herself once she returns to the studio. For example, with the steel sculptures in the show, she set herself the challenge of creating freestanding forms using one cut and a single fold. “I often think of the documentary The Five Obstructions, in which Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth create the same short film five times, but with five different obstacles to work around each time,” she explains. “I think approaching my work this way makes me more receptive to possible outcomes.”
Thalmann’s exhibition takes its title from two other ideas in Calvino’s book: first, that cities must fall to ruin before new ones arise, and second, any structure commemorating a specific historical figure or event will eventually lose its original meaning. But, another phrase in Invisible Cities – “The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things” – speaks more directly to the artist’s practice. “Well, the camera is an extension of the eye, and photographs can be manipulated to distort the truth,” she says, considering this quote. “I can capture an image with my camera, and a photograph can become more seductive than the real thing. A photograph contains both a promise and a trap.” And, perhaps, the same can be said of a city. – Bill Clarke