Sunday, 7 December 2008

Reality Hack:Hidden Manchester, Urbis

It’s common knowledge that there’s a secret world underneath the city, a network of tunnels and underground rivers. Not many of us actually get to see it, though, so it’s a continual subject of debate and suggestion. Now, digital photographer Andrew Paul Brooks has turned what goes on below the surface into works of art. His camera acts as our eyes behind closed doors and in forgotten chambers, exposing the mechanics behind familiar facades. The pictures really draw us in, give us a sense of what’s actually like to be there, in the bits of the city that we’re closed off from, sites rotting away whilst everyday life goes on unconcerned.

We get into a pattern of walking the same old streets, past the same buildings and sights, forgetting about the possibility of anything existing on the periphery, outside our immediate range of vision. Brooks captures those “snatched glances into an open grate, through a broken hoarding, behind a door ajar”, that are often no more than that - tantalising at the time, but soon forgotten - with the help of Urban Explorers, a secretive, anonymous community that explores the hidden side of our cities. They put themselves as risk of death, arrest and unseen hazards such as asbestos, but Brooks’ photographs make it easy to see how their clandestine exploration could be addictive.

The space is perfect for the exhibition – the top floor of Urbis, overlooking a skewed window that's built into the sloping white ceiling. You can see the clock tower, grubby brickwork and ornate red metalwork of Victoria Station, with new, high-rise construction going up behind it in glass and steel. Standing on the mezzanine level, we can see all the way down to the bottom, our line of vision bouncing off the angles of the building.

‘Great Abel’ invites us inside the town hall clock tower. Light streams into the tower and our gaze ascends to a dizzying height, past worn wooden beams and warm bricks. Brooks’ photos are more snatches of overlooked memory than complete pictures, black around the edges like an overexposed negative. ‘Great Abel’ is a mere keyhole portrait swimming in a darkened background; stand back and it looks like a scrunched up can someone's crunched in the middle in preparation for throwing out to be recycled.

We look out over the toy-town of Oxford Street from behind the illuminated letters and silhouetted brickwork of the Palace Hotel, hung with glowing red cobwebs, in ‘Quiet Refuge’. We’re elevated to the same level as the stars in an opulent, over-cast sky purple with light pollution. The sight of a Magic Bus, reduced to the size of a collectible car, is almost comical in its triviality. In 'Keeping Time', we’re in the internal decay of the Palace’s clock tower, peeling and mossy. Our view descends the spiral staircase, looking down as if into a well. In another print, the dome of the Palace occupies a round area in the centre. Red-orange, yellow and lime lights fly off the dome haphazardly onto the walls around it, like being inside a Christmas bauble.

'Central Foundations' goes beneath the Great Northern Warehouse into the disused Manchester and Salford Canal Tunnel. Although it’s deserted, the picture makes us feel claustrophobic and crammed in, as it must have been during the war when the tunnels were used to shelter from the Luftwaffe. Similarly, 'Cathedral Steps' shows a tiled public toilets, eerily signposted 'Convenience Closed for Repair' on a shattered pane of glass. We can imagine what it felt like to walk down the crumbling staircases. 'Culvert Report' too descends into the underworld. A ghost figure is barely perceptible against the slimy walls, dripping with moisture. The river looks tepid and unhealthy.

We’re reminded that what goes on beyond our vision is just as important as what goes on in front of us. Things often seen as dry and unimportant are given colour: ‘Hidden Arndale’ is an underground road of red, yellow, blue and white pipes.

Brooks’ camera imbues the everyday or utilitarian with a new patina of magic. An overflow tunnel of the Ashton Canal shines in an ethereal light. It’s luminous in wintry colours: blue, red, green and white like an idyllic fairytale grotto. The picture centres on a fuzzy halo of brilliant light, and we’re drawn in, to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Whereas Brooks’ other pictures focus in on tiny, undervalued snippets of our city, 'Angelic View' reminds us of its magnificence. Perched on a corner of the Town Hall, an angel looks our over the Manchester stretching into the distance like the heavenly creatures that safeguard Berlin’s citizens in Wim Wenders’ wistful film Wings of Desire. The detail of the green, yellow, and brown grandeur of the brickwork, and the patchworks of light that is the Beetham Tower contrasts with the vastness of a sweeping, blurry sky.

'Big Humpty', which is abstract like a painting, with bursts of fiery red and a spurting green river, shows a tiny person in a tunnel of the River Medlock, and reminds us just how small and insignificant we are in relation to the great city.

Perhaps the biggest appeal of these pictures is that they portray places that are undisturbed and underexplored. Looking at them acknowledges our childlike fantasies of escaping the crammed city for somewhere where we are free from scrutiny and can truly be ourselves, and explore unconstrained. Somewhere to get lost.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Thanks for the great review of the exhibition, interesting to see the detail you wrote about in the work, I have some of the pictures for the exhibition on a gallery here

http://www.andrewbrooksphotography.com/view-main-gallery.php?id=31

thanks again

Andrew