Patrick Goddard’s haunting vision of urban decay, climate change and gentrification

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Low-fi, out of focus and garish, the resulting photobook is a dystopian portrait of our urban landscape

A tightly cropped focus on the word horror, graffitied onto the side of an old building; the shadowy reflections of people inside an office viewed from the street below; a blurry image of a bat; a toppled car with two tower blocks looming ominously in the background. These are scenes from Patrick Goddard’s photobook Die Biester – German for The Beasts – a dystopic visual essay exploring urban spaces, climate change and gentrification. 

To describe the literal objects and details of these images is to describe mundane aspects of contemporary urban living, where trash and decay exist alongside the routines of work and commerce. But, Goddard’s distinct aesthetic – often low-fi, out of focus and garish – renders the strange beautiful and the beautiful strange.

The series is situated in London, and the story is as much about our relationship with nature as it is about urban space. The grainy and stark quality to Goddard’s photography suggests a sense of the forbidden, and no wonder. Many of the original images were taken in London Zoo, when Goddard broke in after hours. The promise of a zoo is to experience nature, yet in an artificial setting everything that we might hope to find – an animalistic freedom – is lost. What Goddard reveals is a link between cities ravaged by exploitation and how our ideas of nature might destroy the world.

Goddard has made other kinds of books before, including graphic novels and flash fiction. His satirical art and writing focuses on urban change, gentrification and ecology, often featuring animals, strange situations and a sense of chaos. 

Die Biester explores similar themes. In sequencing images of people, plants and animals, Goddard blurs the distinctions between nature and the built environment. On one spread, a silhouette of an animal’s cage leads into the scaffolding of a construction site. In another, the thick gnarly trunk of a tree matches the rhythmic swirling smack of jellyfish. Across from an image of a man wearing a werewolf mask, snarling dogs leap with eerie white eyes.

Art about the Anthropocene often features dramatic landscapes and high-tech machines in juxtaposition, yet Goddard, whose PhD explored the gentrification of East London, pays attention to the structures which shape everyday life. Black humour abounds in his portrayal of pets and litter, and in their juxtaposition, he weaves a story around profit, prey and power. The result is a startling, curious and sensitive portrait of the wild around us and within, one which unsettles the idea that nature could ever be controlled.

Die Biester by Patrick Goddard is published by Spheres Projects. 

Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes is a writer based between Ireland and the UK. His writing on contemporary art and politics has been published by Art Monthly, frieze, Tribune and The White Review.