Art

Using Zombies to Look at the Architecture of Modern Decay

Galerie Metropolis
Still from “Il ne fera jamais nuit” (2013) by Thomas Léon (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Our last century of urban sprawl seems too recent to already be in ruins, but we do tend to move on quickly from our best laid plans. Now looking at the stranded shopping malls in unfinished subdivisions or the half-built vision of some cheaply made utopian dream, you could see them as odd beacons of a future that never arrived. Or, you know, a great place for zombies.

A couple of up-and-coming artists currently exhibiting at the Galerie Metropolis in Paris are responding to these architectural relics. Grenoble painter Johann Rivat has luminous paintings that give an odd mysticism to the manmade constructed over the natural, like highways cutting through deserts and empty playgrounds on green fields. Beneath his exhibition of paintings on the top floor of the gallery, Paris-based video artist Thomas Léon has installed a film in the basement. It’s something of an opera of decay, with music using Philip Glass-like repetitions set to visions of a modernist architecture in ruins. Then, the zombies show up, staggering and, as this is an art project, dancing in some inhuman motions through the Brutalist building that rots in a tropical forest.

Galerie Metropolis
Still from “Il ne fera jamais nuit” (2013) by Thomas Léon

Called “Il ne fera jamais nuit” (“It will never be night”), the video was partly filmed at the Centre National de la Danse in Pantin in northeastern Paris. While the building is very much not abandoned, serving as the home of the National Dance Center, it is a great work of 1970s Brutalism, that heavy, block-like architecture that appeared like sudden alien relics of an industrial future we had yet to experience. Léon’s video is a sort of fictional portrait of the building in its decline, where a lush jungle has grown around it, giving the concrete a warmth it never had before. It’s fair to ask, why zombies? Why inhabit the building at all when its transformation into an old hulk of Modernist ruins is compelling enough? When the undead arrive, it does feel like the film has suddenly become something else, but what it changes into is still interesting with its post-apocalyptic vibe that seems to remind us that the building wasn’t just built to be some contemporary version of an old temple left to waste after the departure of its civilization. The people are gone, but in this horror landscape they’re still creeping around like a human reflection of the building’s decline into an empty shell.

Galerie Metropolis
Painting by Johann Rivat
Galerie Metropolis
Paintings by Johann Rivat

Compared to the zombies and the Modernist architecture wreck of Léon’s film, the paintings by Johann Rivat seem quiet cheery in comparison. However, don’t go looking for comfort in their colorful skies and bright hues, there’s something unsettling happening here as well. Like Léon’s film, the places seem familiar, and then something eerie happens. With Rivat, it’s these towers of light that emerge from the landscapes, which project light warmly, but seem otherworldly. And while most of the paintings depict traces of people with the roads and stores, all of it is empty. There are no tiny zombies painted in ambling hordes among the trees and concrete, still, the effect is similar. This is the architecture of abandonment, and the people have moved on to leave these marks on the landscape, as if we were just visitors from another planet to the natural world.

Galerie Metropolis
Johann Rivat’s paintings in Galerie Metropolis

For two artists who are still pretty young, the tone of their dual presence is rather bleak. Then again, we’ve all grown up with seeing things built just years ago crumble into neglect. As the pack of consuming people moves zombie-like onto its next home without ever quite taking hold over a landscape, we’re left with these relics of forgotten architecture that have, as Rivat titles his exhibition, “no hope, no fear.”

Thomas Léon: Il ne fera jamais nuit and Johann Rivat: no hope, no fear are at Galerie Metropolis (16 Rue de Montmorency, Paris, France) through May 11.

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