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Book Review: The Invisible City


Book Review The Invisible City By Irene Kung Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich The Great Pyramid of Giza is floating in sand. The teeming city of Cairo is reduced to a few twinkling lights in the background. Pinpoints of stars punctuate the ebony sky. Milan's Torre Velasca skyscraper rises like a periscope from an ocean bed of partially illuminated buildings. Its background is the same black sky that graces each of the photographs in The Invisible City. London's Millennium Bridge stretches like an ivory backbone across a glistening still water whose depth and distance are unknown and perhaps infinite.

The Invisible City. Photographs by Irene Kung. 
Contrasto, 2013.
 
The Invisible City
Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich

The Invisible City
Photographs by Irene Kung. Text by Ludovico Pratesi and Francine Prose.

Contrasto, 2013. Hardbound. 120 pp., 55 black & white illustrations, 9-3/4x11-1/2".

The Great Pyramid of Giza is floating in sand. The teeming city of Cairo is reduced to a few twinkling lights in the background. Pinpoints of stars punctuate the ebony sky. Milan's Torre Velasca skyscraper rises like a periscope from an ocean bed of partially illuminated buildings. Its background is the same black sky that graces each of the photographs in The Invisible City. London's Millennium Bridge stretches like an ivory backbone across a glistening still water whose depth and distance are unknown and perhaps infinite.


With these photographs and the others in The Invisible City, Irene Kung has welcomed us into her dreams and her feelings. Trained as a painter, Kung seeks to reveal the imaginative in structures whose iconicity has been consistently exploited so as to sometimes render their beauty banal. Each of the structures she chose to photograph for The Invisible City are architectural and cultural icons: as La Repubblica art critic Ludovico Pratesi writes in his thoughtful and provocative essay included in the book, Kung "is not interested in rare glimpses or secret corners, but rather in the most well-known buildings, the trademarks of tourist brochures, the international icons of famous cities that are reproduced everywhere."

The Invisible City, by Irene Kung. Published by Contrasto, 2013.
The Invisible City, by Irene Kung. Published by Contrasto, 2013.

"The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known," Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote in a 1917 essay. "The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar.'" Kung's technique does something very similar and she engages in the defamiliarization (ostranenie in Russian) process that Shklovsky described. Kung's almost sculptural process in creating these large format photographs focuses on removing the cacophony and crowds that surround the buildings, transforming them into quiet, nocturnal and mirage-like objects: Hagia Sophia, the Whitney Museum, the Pantheon. "I try to take photos from a perfectly ordinary perspective," Kung told Deutsche Welle in a 2012 interview. "It's the processing that makes my photos different. I like to remove what's superfluous. It almost seems like noise that I get rid of, retaining what's essential. Then I illuminate it better as well… What I want to show with my photos is not reality, but what I feel. I think it's important in life generally to see the good side of things and be able to dream."

The Invisible City, by Irene Kung. Published by Contrasto, 2013.
The Invisible City, by Irene Kung. Published by Contrasto, 2013.

Kung makes the familiar strange and new and in so doing reawakens the viewer to the same powers of perception and surprise that Shklovsky described as a central purpose of art. "The technique of art," he wrote, "is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged."

This rare, transformative book includes an illuminating essay by Francine Prose, who prefaces it with an apposite quote from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities: "Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places." Kung's photographs change the viewer into a fortunate fellow traveler into new cities built by imagination, dreams and feeling, guided by Kung's inventive vision.—JOSCELYN JURICH

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JOSCELYN JURICH is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice.

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