In The Situationist Effect, Katia Kameli’s first solo show in New York at Taymour Grahne Gallery, nine photographs and a short film, Futur, capture the alternately serene and crumbling landscape of Marseille, France. Images of velvety black skies and rich blue oceans contrast with scratchy fields of dead grass and stone. Many include a looming nuclear reactor in the background. Futur plays in the center of the gallery, unfurling footage taken along the banks of the Martigue River that captures a group of ambling teenagers, a lone child riding a small bike, and a pair of skateboarders. Through images and cinematography, Kamelia captures her own understanding of the city and its complicated gray zones.
Each image plunges the viewer into a liminal landscape where geographical and social boundaries get redrawn and even eliminated. The exhibition’s main theme and title, The Situationist Effect, emerges as key in this regard. In the accompanying press release, curator and art historian Fabienne Bideaud characterizes the effect as such: “This specific approach to understanding a city recalls the Situationist International, the avant-garde movement … for whom the ‘situation’ was the existential framework in which individuals have an active role to play in the understanding of a territory.” Through this title, one comes to see the works’ subjects as navigating a landscape that, in turn, consciously or unconsciously affects their behavior.
In Marseille, the area’s landscape and its social realities overlap in a complex and often incongruous manner. An article in The Economist describes Marseille as a town attempting to reinvent itself as a glossy, cosmopolitan seaside city, while in its further inland regions, influxes of immigrants and rising unemployment undercut this idealized image. The city’s inhabitants must figure out how to exist within this interstitial context.
The photographs in The Situationist Effect attempt to portray this heterogeneous identity. One image, for example, divides into a bright, expansive sky above and destroyed train tracks threading through dead, knotted grass at the edge of a sand-colored nuclear reactor below. The viewer feels as if he’s stumbling upon an unfinished landscape, caught between stagnation and acceleration. In another photograph, rubble tumbles down a hill near stacks of unused housing materials that are being overtaken by wild grass and foliage. Visually, the photographs recall the classical composition of traditional European landscape paintings, but the hybridity on display is distinctly of the present.
Meanwhile, the softly colored and hushed Futur brings the Situationist International’s concept of dérive (drifting) to life. An unmoored camera floats through the city, gathering footage. Here, people who may appear in the periphery of the accompanying photographs are cast as main actors. The film starkly departs from the idealized tour-book images of Marseille that the outside world might see. In fact, it declines to establish a recognizable setting at all. Instead, the video shows the quiet wanderings of Marseille’s citizens through locations that could be anywhere in the world. Thus situated (or unsituated), their small journeys seem to stand in for the act of immigration. In the tradition of the Situationist International, the viewer gets a glimpse into the nuanced political situation of the city and the intimate interplay between a place and its people.
These themes have appeared in much of Kameli’s work, which draws on her own protean identity. Her films Storyteller and Dissolution, for example, focus on immigration, boundaries, and movement between cultural spaces. In an interview with Nafas, she explains that “being in-between and every kind of hybridization are central motifs in my work. This is because of my own history; I have always traveled back and forth between many countries and was never tied to a single region.” While The Situationist Effect may seem boldly ambitious because of the broad-reaching nature of its theme and title, it is this very boldness that allows the exhibition to succeed in portraying the difficulty of understanding a place such as Marseille. The nuances of this particular show mimic the heterogeneous nature of the region that Kameli depicts; the viewer, struggling to understand Marseille’s urban landscape, becomes akin to one of its inhabitants.
The Situationist Effect runs through May 24 at Taymour Grahne Gallery.