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The lights are much brighter there
You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
And go downtown, things’ll be great when you’re
Downtown…no finer place, for sure
Downtown…everything’s waiting for you
(From Petula Clark, Downtown)
I doubt that Simon Cuthbert is of the vintage to remember Petula Clark’s 1964 anthem to New York first time around. The song struck a chord with generations seeing their cities rise again from the destruction of wartime, and has echoed down the decades.
Cuthbert’s exhibition, ‘Downtown’, denies easy access to such a bright, exciting city. A screen wall installed inside the CAST gallery space delays progress, preventing the viewer from entering his Downtown with a glance. A vast poster-scale title sign bears an image of the lights of Manhattan, suggesting positive connotations like those expressed by Clark. But the works themselves (fifteen type C photographic prints, 94 x 120 cm) support no such associations. For Cuthbert, such bright images of the city as spectacle are no longer tenable.
City View General Store 2003 and City Lookout 2003 are hardly the celebratory city views proposed by their titles. The first of these is an iconic image: a portrait of the sort of general store seen in every Australian country town. However, the signage indicates it to be one that looks onto the city. This, and the emptiness (the shop space is populated only by Coke advertisements) raise questions: just what kind of city lies in view, and who is the viewer?
This work is paired with City Lookout, and together they frame an interesting dialogue: the perspective from the urban store is certainly not that of City Lookout, which is another familiar scene, but of a viewing platform overlooking an unnamed city. This could be anywhere, yet under our tourist gaze, we sense recognition. Global and local are conflated: this city (Brisbane) signifies site of global spectacle.
However, Cuthbert undercuts this spectacle: photographed at dawn and in haze, the city is far from bright. Furthermore, the work is composed so that the city is reduced to a mere strip wedged between sky and the platform, which curves out of the frame. Within the limits of its perimeter fence, the lookout becomes a self-contained world, larger than the city beyond, yet an utterly empty space.
Continuing to question the downtown as spectacle, in works such as Eastcoaster 2003, Venice Beach Cotel 2004, Sound Barrier 2005 and A Slice of Brisbane 2005, Cuthbert develops a dominant theme from his previous exhibition (Call of the Wild, Despard Gallery), that of the excessive representation of nature and landscape within urban/retail space. In these works, idealised images of urban space become disconcerting through their placement in actual urban sites.
In Eastcoaster the wall of a resort dining room is entirely covered by a faded tourist view of a fishing port with city and mountain behind (Cuthbert’s adopted Hobart). Although the illusion is pierced by a doorway to the restrooms and the tacky furnishings, the work suggests that when one has an ‘ideal’ copy of the city inside, one need not risk stepping outside. And in the age of the simulacrum, which is real?
In a related work (Sound barrier), Cuthbert photographs a roadside wall dominated by a mural of an idyllic city surrounded by forests and mountain ranges. The cropping discourages speculation on what exists outside the frame. All the viewer can know is that the lived city is different from the one represented, and that contemporary urban experience cannot be reclaimed by such means.
An adjacent work again encourages dialogue. In the foreground of Street scene, Los Angeles 2004, two road signs absurdly point in opposite directions, reminiscent of Jeffrey Smart’s work. Behind these, dense vegetation appears to be invading the space. It seems that in these works, Cuthbert also wishes to highlight the contrasts between an ordered urban space and encroaching wilderness, both real and illusory.
The poetic title of Blue Bridge 2003 suggests, like Clark’s tune, the possibility of transcending present urban reality, but although the bridge balustrades are an optimistic sky blue, Cuthbert foregrounds rust bleeding through the paintwork. And crossing the blue bridge, one only arrives at a chaotic and looming clash of Tokyo’s architectural styles.
Cuthbert’s exhibition takes an ironic distance on various incarnations of the downtown, touching on social issues and the emptiness of urban space. However, his main achievement is to make an intelligent critique of the contemporary downtown as site for globally aestheticised tourist spectacle.