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TOKYO — Some of the most interesting places in the world cannot be seen — even though, in many cities, they lie right beneath our feet.
Technically, these peculiar places are at once architectural and public, although usually they are not easily accessible and often may be closed to everyone except authorized personnel. Admirers of the 1949 film The Third Man, with its classic chase scene through the sewers of Vienna, and subway-history aficionados familiar with photos of the Romanesque, vaulted ceilings of New York’s grand City Hall Loop subway station, which was closed in 1945, know that there are complex designs and sophisticated feats of engineering that most city-dwellers will never see.
Now, through Endogenous Error Terms, a relatively straightforward but compelling photography-based project, the German artist Mischa Leinkauf has literally brought to light a vivid record of such subterranean places in several cities around the world. An exhibition bearing the same title is on view through tomorrow at The Container, an alternative space in Tokyo that was founded in 2011 by Shai Ohayon, an Israeli-born curator and teacher. Ohayon’s imaginative programming has made The Container’s exhibitions must-see presentations on the Japanese capital’s contemporary art scene.
Leinkauf’s latest is a gem of a small — very small, for the gallery is only half the size of a standard freight container — and concentrated show. The sole, roughly 22-minute-long video that constitutes the exhibition is presented on a small screen at one end of the gallery’s darkened, single room, drawing visitors into the jet-black chamber and subtly but effectively evoking the mystery of an unfamiliar underground passageway.
Speaking from his studio in Berlin, where he is based, Leinkauf told me during a recent telephone interview that the video images he shot “of sewer tunnels and other underground spaces look simple — but they were not easy to shoot.” The artist is perhaps better known as one half of the duo Wermke/Leinkauf, but in recent years, as with the work now being featured in Tokyo, he has pursued numerous projects on his own.
With his partner, Matthias Wermke, he gained notoriety for site-specific works of an interventionist nature that called attention to social-political or historical issues, or which, as Leinkauf says, explored “personal instances of freedom.” Most famously, one night in 2014, the duo climbed the Brooklyn Bridge and managed to place an all-white American flag atop each of its two arched towers, stunning the police and the public with their confounding action — and ending up facing serious criminal charges.
“I started shooting the footage that became my current series when I spent time in Japan starting half a year after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power-plant disasters of March 2011,” Leinkauf explained. He added, “At that time, many people were still fearful of radiation in food, the soil, and playgrounds. It seemed to me that many were looking for some kind of shelter, and this made me wonder: Exactly what and where is a ‘safe’ place?”
In a written note, Leinkauf described his approach as one of “creating temporary irritations that allow new perspectives on everyday situations” and of “crossing the boundaries” of prescribed individual freedom in order to “question common standards and constraints,” as he and Wermke did in their Brooklyn Bridge art-action piece.
As he explained, he usually works where there are “limits on spaces — architectural limits, something blocking me from freely moving, or systemic limits, like not being allowed to pass a security barrier.” Thinking about the mood in post-disasters Japan and also about his work’s thematic interests, it struck him that “shelter” might be found underground, which led him to Tokyo’s network of subterranean structures.
He went on to research them and then, boldly, without any permission from city officials, to venture into various parts of the city’s extensive system of underground tunnels and chambers, many of which, besides serving the metropolis’s vast sewage flow, were built decades ago over the terrain carved out by natural streams or rivers — creating unencumbered terra firma that was all the better for the construction of roads and urban infrastructure. Tokyo lost its historic character as a “water city.”
“In the past, Tokyo routinely faced springtime flooding,” Leinkauf noted, “so city planners decided that it would be practical to control overflowing waterways by covering them over — in effect, by sending them underground. Tokyo created a huge drainage system.”
Leinkauf discovered that he could enter and make his way out of many of Tokyo’s underground tunnels at access points that were not security-controlled or gated — after all, he pointed out, the water or sewage that passes through them has to empty out somewhere. He wore special waterproof clothing and hauled his video gear down into them, setting up his tripod and camera near light-revealing openings to shoot long, steady takes of currents endlessly flowing. In the years since his Japan sojourn, he made similar forays into the subterranean zones of such cities as Moscow, Munich, and Vienna, among others.
With each shoot, Leinkauf perfected his site-specific working methods. He recalled, for example, “I became aware that, in sewage tunnels, a low water level could suddenly change when a current of water was unexpectedly released.”
The word “endogenous” in the title of Leinkauf’s series of videos, several of which he has edited down into the compendium that is the subject of the current show, refers to something that grows from inside an organism or system. His phrase “error terms” is more ambiguous, but he explained it by saying, “Being in the underground canals felt like being in a hatchery or in the womb of a city. When I imagined myself living in such spaces and only looking outside to daily life, situations, and people [from such a vantage point], I thought: I might become a complete failure in life, or the life outside could become a complete failure — an error.”
Watching his collection of images of unfamiliar, mysterious urban spaces, it becomes hard to pull away from the rhythmic hum of the water currents or from the mellow glow of the light that slips into the openings of the tunnels. As documents of unusual and rarely seen architectural spaces, some of which are quite large, Leinkauf’s videos are visually informative in a quizzical way, provoking more questions than they answer. It’s one thing to discover that such places exist, but who takes care of them? Who designed them, and when were they built? How far do some of them extend, and who else knows about them — and might use them for who knows what purposes?
The serene, unpeopled places in Leinkauf’s footage ooze a tranquil, meditative vibe; neatly geometric, their architectural forms and the play of light upon their surfaces create uncluttered, abstract images. Sewage systems like these appear to harness the communicative power of modernist pure form — the makers of Leinkauf’s underground monuments to technologically processed poo probably never imagined how sculpturally captivating some of their creations would turn out to be.
“It may sound a bit cheesy,” he told me, “but I find that many of these places are really beautiful.”
One of his images from Tokyo depicts a large, round tunnel opening up to face a stone wall. A leafy vine creeping inside seems to link this hermetic subterranean world with nature’s external forces. Another Tokyo picture shows a rectangularly shaped passageway containing a narrow river as it opens to the outside, connecting with the city, in which a single pedestrian crosses a bridge in the near distance. A dot of bright red from the passerby’s open umbrella infuses a relatively monochromatic, geometric composition with a diminutive shot of vibrant color.
“These strange places attract me and prompt me to try to figure out how we might use them for other purposes,” Leinkauf noted, alluding to his penchant for seeking access to off-limits spaces in the name of personal freedom. “They’re places where one cannot normally be.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, the freedom the artist exercised — and seized — in exploring the darkness of such places becomes a rewarding metaphor for the examination and expansion of the meaning of freedom, in a broader sense, against the backdrop of these dark and menacing times.
Mischa Leinkauf: Endogenous Error Terms continues at The Container (1F Hills Daikanyama, 1-8-30 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, Japan) through July 7. The exhibition’s catalog is available from Amazon.com.