The history of urban public parks is bound up with the developing luxuries of the bourgeoisie, the first anointed subjects of European aristocracy to institutionalise leisure as a form of public practice, and in so doing to turn public space into a promontory on which to stage elegant displays of their erudition, privilege and sophistication. These public spaces were invariably bequeathed by aristocratic power or cleared for public use by the powers of the state, frequently at the cost of mass evictions of the poor. The moderated splendour of these parks reflects an equally immense effort at cultivating and taming wildness, in order to sculpt from the unruly eruptions of nature an environment as bountiful as it was ordered, and in order to create a space that would be redolent of the mastery of post-Enlightenment Industrial Man over inchoate Nature. In the early work of Atget we see these well-appointed parks, full of broad walkways lined by carved stone banisters, populated by the wandering middle class and by a carefully orchestrated procession of statuary erected in honour of tradition and the cultural achievement of ‘society’. These were some of the sites from which the beginnings of realism in painting emerged from the influence of fauvism, celebrating the eloquence of the everyday, and marvelling at the complex pageantry of urban life on display in a largely subdued natural environment.
Just as photography catalysed a radical shift in the painted depiction of gesture in the late nineteenth century, so its capacity to capture the thus and so of daily urban life shifted the parameters of painterly depiction, opening up a new register or vocabulary through which the incidental, fluid and quotidian normalcy of urban life could be delivered into imagery, expanding the range of subjects now fit for the transformative act of representation. Even in the impressionist work of a painter like Gustave Caillebotte, we can see the influence of the optics of photographic lenses in the organisation of space being wedded to an interest in the everyday public life of the bourgeoisie, who, newly possessed of specialised forms of work that emerged from the Industrial Revolution, and newly possessed of both surplus capital and leisure time (which were an attendant reward for their social mobility) spent their time and money delighting in the newly organised and ostensibly public spaces within the city, and began in ever-increasing numbers to seek means to have themselves depicted in their finery.
The evolution, and in many instances the steady degradation of public parks has followed an inverse correlation to the democratisation of these spaces by the residents of the city: wide and well regulated public parks that began as the preserve of the middle class and the wealthy began to be re-appropriated by those residents of the city left effectively outside of the political contract that organised its construction. The infamous example of this is, of course, Hooverville, where those homeless working poor who were nevertheless residents of major American cities moved, en masse, into shanty towns built on public lands in order to resist or forestall the devastating impacts of a failing economy. The same tensions that characterised the early struggles and conflicts that arose over the purpose and functioning of public parks have continued to the present day, and have done so on the same grounds of political and economic inequality. Over the same period, painters and photographers have continued to travel to public parks to find there the representative face of a changing urban community, and to continue in the tradition long established in the arts of encountering and depicting those miniature yet transcendental moments that speak to the inexhaustible complexity and strange wonder of human life. A history of common thinking extends back through painting and photography to connect Velasquez’s The Triumph of Bacchus (Los Borrachos) to this untitled group portrait by photographer Antonio Xoubanova.
Photography has in its own inimical ways absorbed the disparate histories and traditions of painting’s long relationship with wilderness and with public parks, and has found ways both to celebrate and to complicate the legacy that they have bequeathed to contemporary artists. In imagery that ranges in its diversity from Matthew Monteith’s in Czech Eden, to W. Eugene Smiths’s Walk to Paradise Garden, to Eugene Atget’s St Cloud, to Josef Koudelka’s Exiles, photography has been employed by artists to interrogate the daily public life of urban residents, but also (as in the work of Atget and Koudelka) to assess the rhetorical and vernacular functions of public parks: to navigate the space between the planned and the improvised uses of public space. Running parallel with this history of representational practice in public parks, there is the far more complex history of the contest for their use and misuse, and the evolving state of change in the material conditions of the urban population who have luxuriated, sought refuge, encountered risk, escaped monotony, delighted, fled to and lived in these spaces. Casa de Campo draws upon the depth and breadth of these parallel histories, and emerges at a moment marked by extraordinarily acute crises in Spain, the country of the work’s making.
In a depressingly familiar variation on the ubiquitous theme of massive recession caused by unregulated financial fraud, underpinned by a perilously inflated housing bubble and woeful government oversight, Spain has seen its economy devastated to a point of profound extremity in the years since the sub-prime crisis began in 2007. An official unemployment rate of more than 25%, within which lies a rate of unemployment of over 50% among 18-35yr olds, gives some sense of the scope of the devastation that the country has suffered. The nation’s largest bank has seen its profits fall by 60% this year as compared with a year prior, when the national economy was already in the depths of a severe, once in a generation recession. The extent of the overlapping crises in housing, industry, finance and politics are such that it can seem that even hyperbole might be insufficient to measure the extraordinary precariousness of the nation’s circumstances.
Against the backdrop of all of this, Antonio Xoubanova’s Casa de Campo offers itself up as an hour of strange magic spent wandering in the park – as a momentary retreat from the monotonous pressures of the city and the crumbling national economy, in favour of a little time spent ruminating on the occasionally harsh but more often graceful anachronisms of this loosely tamed and divergently used public park. The book takes unadulterated delight in the bounty of the park’s livid brightness, and marvels a little morbidly but with a deft and humorous lightness of touch at its secrets and its inscrutable shade. The organising rubric of the imagery resembles an alliterative arpeggio wherein the photographs are arranged to deliver a sense of movement, of freeness, of stillness, of shock, of revelry and of spontaneous improvisation. The repetitive changes in figure and line combine with the cinematic staging of the images on the page to deliver a bounding sense of discovery that occurs for us as readers through the pages and within the space of the park itself. In this form, the work refers back to its photographic history, and celebrates its debt to the major contributions of Tod Papageorge’s Passing Through Eden, Paul Graham’s New Europe, John Gossage’s The Pond, and further back still to Robert Frank’s The Americans and Walker Evans’s American Photographs.
As in The Pond, Casa de Campo begins with photographs of a series of pathways cut through the shrub by the repetitive passage of people who have traipsed, trudged and meandered through this unnamed space. The pathway serves the rhetorical function of an invitation to the reader, and simultaneously declares the intentions of the photographer, whose travels through this space were the pretext for the story his images are to unfold. The book thus begins without attempting a descriptive gesture that encompasses the park as a whole, but rather in the midst of it, with little clarity as to how the space is circumscribed, or what its traditional functions might be. The precise details of the where are thus subordinated to the more expressive actions of the what that each subsequent image will describe. We are given to understand that this will likely be a form of photographic realism that revels in a certain kind of opacity and singularity, and eschews anything approaching an objective form of address.
We begin decidedly off piste, in the hinterlands, beyond the paved and regimented borders of the public park, far from the water fountains and ornate gardens, in the more secretive and unreconstructed borderlands that might well be – ironically – buried in the depths of the centre of the park. We see strange traces of unexplained rituals, people in unusual attire, here riveted by some invisible fascination, there carrying bizarre animals or objects, caught in the midst of relaxation, absorption, intimacy and rest, but also occasionally caught in inexplicably tense situations. It is unclear to us whether this tension is produced either by the photographer’s intrusion or the indigenous risks constantly at work in this unchartered and half-wild public space.
The lens alights on a ‘couple’ seated on a bench – an ostensibly everyday occurrence, except that something in the nature of their interaction with each other, and in the look of the young girl’s interaction with the photographer gives a moment of pause. The extent of their togetherness is unclear: whether long-standing or short-lived; whether opportune and commercial or emotional and voluntary. The very youth of the girl, and her guardedness; the aggressively possessive reaching arm of the young man who stares intently at her; the instinctual protective gesture of the young girl’s hands covering up a crotch that her short skirt might otherwise reveal, whether out of modesty, habit or decorum; the strangely unexplained left shoe that seems hurriedly to have been put on; the jabbing violence of the young man’s (client’s?) finger, equal parts domineering and affectionate… All of these things introduce confusion, anxiety and tension into the image, and enlist us as viewers in the delicate opacity of the moment being witnessed. We begin to look for clues in the scraps and detritus cast around on the floor – attempting fruitlessly to decipher the nature of what we are seeing.
The image recalls Paul Graham’s portraits of painfully young Spanish prostitutes in New Europe, carrying with it then a certain dread that we might feel toward the answer that the question in the photograph provokes, insisting to us that we sense the outer edge of our own complicity. All of these and other questions are left unanswered, and dealt with in an even-handed and almost diffident way. Where there is a certain edge of menace in the book, or where death rears its head in the work’s more metaphorical imagery, we are left to decipher the provenance of the threat – whether from the strange life of the park itself, or the heavier undercurrents of devastation felt more broadly in Spanish society. The repeating figure of the sink holes in the ground portend a certain darkness that seems to belong to both: the park, and the society for which it stands. Nevertheless, the larger interest of the photographer in this work seems to be the nature and breadth of experience that this park can contain, and his images suggest a more modest interest in making any judgement other than the delight and curiosity of photographic observation.
What the photographs eagerly depict on a number of occasions are the objects that people carry with them to the park, or order strangely within it, and these images depict the park in the light of its open invitation to any who enter, as a space that welcomes strangers into a world of private imaginings. People bring frogs and flowers, enjoy exercise or ornamentation, satiate lust or nurture intimacy… The park, like photography, is ambivalent to intention, and in that openness is, for some, wondrously freeing.
Xoubanova’s photographs frequently point us toward ritual, toward the capacity of this landscape to shelter and absorb mystical relationships and uses of its unreconstructed breadth. The magnetism of the real, and yet imaginary world of the work derives, I think, from the improbable range of uses to which this space can be suited – they acquire their highest poetic expression where they reveal the park’s tendency to overlay the mundane with the sublime, or the commonplace with the unforgettable. In the accompanying text for the book, Luís López Navarro writes (quite persuasively, in my view) that “every translucent individual inhabiting Casa de Campo is in reality the obscure, uncertain and free part of one of the citizens of Madrid“.
I have the sense, from looking at these images, that ritual in this park is a kind of repurposing of public space for private functions, undertaken in an area where temporary inhabitants congregate to erect nameless memorials that nevertheless assume public status. These inhabitants, young and old, louche and mysterious, tattooed and topless, take on the character of sprites and denizens, cherubs and diffident spirits. It is unclear whether the tissue of this modern fable in the woods is the product of the photographer’s use of the lens, or is in the nature of the space itself, but the dichotomy of that opposition is an inevitable byproduct of the act of interpretation, and as such will likely have little relevance to the ways in which the park continues to function.
In its determinedly elliptical structure, the work succeeds in intimating the epic by way of the minute, recalling some of the intimate intensity of Martin Hoogland Ivanow’s Far Too Close, and also the lyric meandering spirit of Koudelka’s Exiles. It is an open question as to whether this emerging aesthetic norm of opaque, rhythmic and iterative sequencing of broadly documentary photographic work has acquired a kind of primacy that naturalises aesthetic preoccupations over and against the question of subject matter, but that division is in may ways a problem held over from postmodern critique – one that has undoubtedly shifted the axis of photobook editing toward a more academic and less vernacular register. What seems clear to me is that the light-footedness of Casa de Campo is of a piece with the place of its making, and the bewildering breadth of the life its pictures describe is compelling enough to wish to return, again and again, to the magic strangeness of the pictures and the park itself.
With many thanks to Irina Rozovsky.