The artist’s interest in urbanisation and the photographic process runs through his first UK solo exhibition in over four years
It is the process of photography that compels Antony Cairns. His new solo exhibition CTY_TYO3 TYO4 at Webber Gallery, London, until 06 June 2021, brings together three bodies of work, which, in varied ways, exploit outmoded forms of technology to explore the concept of the ‘city’ and the photographic process itself. Throughout the work, the city becomes an amorphous entity: a ghostlike, sprawling maze of structures, bodies, lights, and shapes. Whether it be Tokyo, London, New York or elsewhere, Cairns hones in on the energy, ambience, and pace of these urban centres.
“It started with London, but over the years it has expanded into places around the world. I’m interested in big hubs and concentrations of people,” he explains. “I want this kind of endless archive of imagery that shows what a city is; it doesn’t matter which one is which.” Cities, to Cairns, are metaphorical: complex landscapes, which he employs to garner a deeper understanding of human nature. Mechanical reproduction, function, replication and urbanisation sit at the work’s heart and Cairns draws on the ideas of German philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin throughout.
Cairns’ facincation with with the philosophy behind art and its production began in the darkroom laboratory. “[Photo development] led me to research how photographs can be printed as artworks again and again with no true original. I started investigating the reproductive nature of photography. It’s always linked to technology, you just can’t escape it.” Cairns primarily photographs at night, attempting to capture the ambience of the city devoid of people. The work follows in the footsteps of nocturnal landscape art: a sense of urbanised space outweighs any individual understanding of streets or landmarks.
Cairns regards image-making as a form of time travel. By employing “outdated” materials, tools, and processes such as the collotype, punch cards, and Fisher-Price cameras, he can analyse and capture his landscapes through a non-linear perspective. Most of the works presented in CTY_TYO3 TYO4 are from the last few years, including a selection from two new portfolios TY03 (2019) and TY04 (2020). The images from these series, which depict the cityscapes of Tokyo, have been printed directly onto vintage Cobol coding forms and IBM decision tables, creating new work from the antiquated computer language.
Other exhibited works employ “e-ink”, a material mostly found in e-readers, which Cairns uses to create photographs made out of liquid pixels. And other images see Cairns digitally printing onto punch cards. “This old digital language is coming right at you. From afar, it just looks like a big picture, but when you get close, there are all these numbers– a digital language,” he explains.
The photographer recently completed a residency with Hyundai Gapado Air, South Korea, and was the artist in residence at the Benrido Collotype Atelier, Kyoto. He was awarded the Hariban Award in 2015, and has exhibited work at Les Rencontres d’Arles, the George Eastman Museum, and the Tate Modern.
“It’s often quite blurry, but the work is more about trying to catch the ambience of the space as opposed to actual, sharp imagery,” he explains. “I’m trying to attach the feeling of the city and how it can weigh you down. Sometimes I feel that cities can be quite heavy spaces, all around us. We don’t always sense the heaviness.”
CTY_TYO3 TYO4 is on show at Webber Gallery, London, until 22 July 2021.
Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.