Beat Streuli: New Street at Ikon Gallery Birmingham

By Sophie Furse | 10 December 2012
A photo of a young woman in profile on a city street
Beat Streuli, image from the series Birmingham (2012). Digital projection© Courtesy Beat Streuli

Exhibition Review: Beat Streuli: New Street, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until February 3 2012

Strangers crowd you on mal-adjusted ‘wallpaper’ and slow-motion films of people-watching leave you mesmerised, even gormless.

There’s both a stagnancy and sporadic beauty to the mundane photographs and films by Beat Streuli. They point to something profound: our everyday visual culture presents a false world.

His images contrast the daily bombardment of advertisements, beautiful people and highly adjusted images, showing instead “unfiltered daily lives” from around the world.

New Street, at Ikon, is generally concerned with “ordinariness” – specifically, “the language of advertising”, which it attempts to subvert.

While insisting on the mundane, his images, which he likens to the automatic writing of surrealists, accidentally capture moments of beauty.

He concentrates on cities that are often neither big nor beautiful, but which make things “more beautiful on the surface than they really are”, thus offering true but rarely captured picture of the world.

Monumental images of people, photographed unawares on city streets, fill the walls in the first room. Unlike normal artworks, the images are pasted together and almost fill the wall, making them imposing like a billboard.

Anonymous, unremarkable individuals are caught in moments of thought and unremarkable action, raising interesting questions for the art gallery visitor.

As the viewer, you are both staring at a meaningless crowd and examining individuals, each as self-involved and mysterious as the next.

Unengaged by the people in the picture and not appeased by pretty art, you are present in the real world, which is sometimes ugly.

Streuli’s images appear minimally set-up and adjusted. They remind you that even our personal photograph taking involves posing and flattery.

He admits, however, to an interest in people of diverse backgrounds. It’s true that he shoots many ethnicities, which is not a difficult task in cosmopolitan Birmingham.

Streuli shows the commercial focus of our everyday visual experience by hinting at brands but never fully featuring them; their taglines and suggestions become an irritating presence in his images.

While stimulating many questions, his pictures also accidentally record the beauty that the street can hold: a woman with a film-star body and beautiful, natural face passes the camera with a pensive expression and adolescent boys staring after her.

Her beauty is on display yet contextualised – she is not an object, but an individual in thought, equal to each individual on show here.

The cities Streuli chooses are meant to be unremarkable; the small town of Castellon in Spain, concrete-filled Mannheim in Germany, Birmingham and a suburb of Milan.

As uncontrived as possible, his automatic picture taking is meant to be a pure way of recording the street. As a result, Streuli’s comments on advertising come as a cursory addition rather than a derisory campaign.

This exhibition offers a new way of seeing the street, its billboards and its people.

Streuli’s work will undoubtedly prove an unusual record for our future examination of the past and how it truly was. In the meantime its ordinariness makes for an extraordinary exhibition.

  • Open 11am-6pm (closed December 24-21). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @ikongallery.

More pictures:

A photo of a young man driving a dark blue car viewed through the front window
From the series Porte de Ninove (2007-8)© Courtesy Beat Streuli
A photo of a young woman walking along a street
From the series Brussels (2005-6)© Courtesy Beat Streuli
A photo of a young man and woman on an urban street during the day
From the series Queens, NY (2010)© Courtesy Beat Streuli
A photo of three young men on a city street in daylight
From the series Birmingham (2012)© Courtesy Beat Streuli
A photo of a woman in a hoodie at an urban bus stop
From the series Birmingham (2012)© Courtesy Beat Streuli
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