There’s a perverse thing about humans that make two behavioral quirks a certainty: when we see a closed door, we immediately want to know what’s happening on the other side of it; and when we lock ourselves away from the world, we can’t help but look out the window to see what we’re missing. It’s the constant push-pull of being human; we require both intimacy and isolation in order to function. Well…that, and the fact that we’re all of us excited by a little voyeurism.
City people are especially prone to extremes of human interaction. The urgency and immediacy of city living makes for intense personal connections, and though they might be serious, they’re often fleeting, which leaves everyone feeling that a lifetime of loneliness is just one missed social engagement away. Cities are transient places with the majority of people living away from home, and despite doing our best to forge relationships that fill the void, nothing replaces family (which is weird considering they’re often the people we’re escaping when we head to the city in the first place). It’s a ridiculous way to live really, destined to make stuttering neurotics out of the best of us. One minute we’re thriving on the energy of the metropolis, the next we can feel it sucking our soul dry. And though we’re all in it together, we seldom talk about it. No one wants to be seen as the wallflower at the orgy, to steal a line from the queen of metropolitan observations, Nora Ephron.
The uneasy relationship city dwellers have with their surroundings is at the heart of contemporary photographer Robyn Stacey’s new exhibition Cloud Land, currently on view at the Museum of Brisbane. Inspired by the millennia-old technique of camera obscura, Stacey has covered the walls of some of Brisbane’s most private spaces in projections of our most public, creating a body of work that is visually very beautiful, but also confronting in its honest exploration of isolation in the city. Though I’ve included a few images here for reference, Stacey’s work really needs to be seen large to best be appreciated. The detail in the rooms and the irony of the external location are vital to understanding her artistic intent.
A master of light play and early photographic techniques, Stacey used the fundamentals of pinhole photography on a much larger scale to make darkrooms out of hotel suites, gaol cells and offices throughout Brisbane (including, by chance, my old office at Mercy Heritage Centre), creating topsy-turvy vistas where the city floats like thought bubbles above the subject’s head. It’s hard to fathom that there isn’t more to Cloud Land than a photographer and her equipment – the projections are too clear, the images too glossy. Robyn Stacey’s work reminds us that artistry and expertise existed long before digital technology became the only road to perfection.
The relevance of Cloud Land to the Museum of Brisbane lies in the juxtaposition of modern interiors with heritage exteriors and vice versa; a chance for audiences to get a different view of Brisbane and contemplate the changes the city has undergone. Providing fresh perspectives on our environment is precisely what an institution that calls itself the museum of Brisbane should do, and part of the thrill of Cloud Land is in recognising both the cityscape and the interior. It’s like Where’s Wally for architects.
But there is also something to be gained by considering the other message that Cloud Land offers audiences, the one of loneliness in the crowd, and the opportunity it affords us to discuss the impact a city has on its inhabitants. City living breaks a lot of people. Constantly on guard, we develop tough exteriors, refuse eye contact on public transport and ignore the stranger next to us. Smiling pegs you as an interloper, a tourist about to be swallowed up by an army of black-clad office workers rushing to get home in peak hour. It’s exhausting, maintaining such distance between humans. It is a message might be missed by people outside the city, those who’ve moved to the ‘burbs and forgotten that the struggle is real, but for those of us still here pushing through the crowds, it’s nice to know someone is casting a watchful eye over us.
This story of Brisbane is important too, and it’s a courageous move on the part of the Museum of Brisbane to support an exhibition that highlights both the beauty of its location and its vulnerabilities. Cloud Land gives us a look at where we’ve been and where we’re headed, and the social implications of sustaining such rapid growth.
Museum of Brisbane until 3 April 2016