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The Scarlet & Black

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Harvey Wilhelm
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Faulconer Gallery shelters broken spaces

By Christopher Squier

Robert Polidori has been photographing architecture and interiors for the better part of three decades, turning structures into visible records of lived history and human narrative. As a staff photographer for The New Yorker, the French Canadian has done his fair share of country-hopping, traveling the globe in his search to document the undocumented and record the deteriorating remains of disaster.


This Friday, Grinnell’s Faulconer Gallery will open the first full-career survey of Polidori’s work to be shown in the United States, exhibiting pieces on Hurricane Katrina, Havana, Beirut, Chernobyl and the opulent French palace of Versailles.

Greeted at the entrance by an eerie cavalcade of destruction and abandonment, the show runs the gamut from natural to nuclear disaster. Uncannily empty photographs echo, one after another, the deserted places. Left in limbo by their abandonment, the sites of Katrina and Chernobyl encapsulate their respective times of disaster and panic. They are shown as if frozen in Polidori’s snapshots.

“Not much has been done to the [Chernobyl] facilities, other than the fact that they have been deteriorating over time,” said Daniel Strong, Faulconer Gallery Curator. “This is the way they were left when people evacuated.”
The exhibition places the two events in parallel; opposite one another in a face-off, the ten photographs per wall create an aisle of unexpected intensity. The large-scale photographs exude a holding power, fastening the eyes to their scenes of devastation and deterioration.

On one wall, a Ukrainian classroom from Kindergarten #7 in Pripyat—within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the zone of alienation—is shown in complete disarray. Desk drawers and school chairs are broken and thrown about the room. Green paint peels off the far wall, crumbling around the edges of a chalkboard bearing a final message and the date 28 April 1986.
Diagonally opposite this piece is 6328 North Miro Street of New Orleans. The four-post, wooden bed, still decorated with stylized pineapple ornamentation, is the same crumbling ash-gray as the curtains behind the headboard, while a torn poster clings to the far wall and a pair of still-lacey curtains screen the light streaming in through the window. Apart from the remnants, the room is trashed, mud and detritus making the space unnavigable.

Despite the often-catastrophic subject matter, Polidori’s pieces are beautifully photographed. Vibrant colors and complicated composition present the grittiness and texture of places so recently inhabited.

In another series of photos featuring the Lebanese Civil War and the resulting bombed structures, Beirut’s walls become gaping windows, serving as compositional portals to outside spaces. In one of these photographs, focusing on the Samir Geagea Headquarters, a concentric series of doors lead into the distance, while a vividly oxidizing yellow wall foregrounds the majority of the space in the photograph.

“The people of Beirut actually don’t want these buildings torn down, because for them, it’s part of their history,” Strong said. “There are buildings like this that are occasionally being lived in, but also being left as is, because this is part of the story of Beirut.”

Almost all of Polidori’s pieces have a stillness to them, both as a result of their subject matter and their expert artistic creation. These pieces provide a space for contemplation, portraying the ruins of derelict structures to an audience physically removed from them, either by distance or, more often, by the forces of nature and of politics.

“What [Polidori] is interested in is these places as habitats at one point, now left with all the traces of the people who used to live there,” Strong said.

Since 1983, Polidori has additionally been photographing the backrooms, storage areas, and moments of conservation of the palace of Versailles. As a major tourist attraction, the image of Versailles is presented as the palace was 200 years ago, stuck in a time capsule-like illusion.

“This ancient palace is being presented as timeless and untouched, but actually you can see [otherwise],” Strong said, “This, to me, is a curatorial insider’s view. This is the other side of how we deal with art…you see them devoid of all of the value and glamour that is attached to them in a gallery.”

From this series, the poster child photograph of the exhibition—and the piece that Grinnell College actually owns—shows Callet’s portrait of King Louis XVI sitting sideways on an easel, presumably for conservation purposes. The famous monarch is staring skyward. Another photograph shows Jacques-Louis David’s famous Death of Marat down off the wall, propped up with wooden wedges.

Here again, Polidori’s concept of space and composition is hard to ignore. Echoing Old Master paintings, from Vermeer’s The Music Lesson or The Art of Painting to Goya’s Las Meninas, emphasized by Versailles’ opulent curtains, floor tiling and wall paneling.

“It’s visually stunning, it’s moving, it’s beautiful,” said Tilly Woodward, Faulconer Outreach Curator. “The way that he uses the structure of architecture to think through the structure of memory or how that captures memory of human experience—I think he’s brilliant in how he uses ideas and his medium together.”

Overall, Polidori’s retrospective provides an excellent opportunity for a visual understanding of disaster, exposing often unlooked at locations in exquisite detail.

“What I like about them is the fact that they are portraits of spaces,” Strong said. “He considers them portraits that allude to the people that live in them or use them or reuse them. Going into these spaces…essentially, as he says, he’s posing a question and the answer that you get is a photograph.”

In addition to the show itself, Faulconer will be hosting a series of accompanying programs, including an improvisational and dynamic concert responding to the exhibition, a community day involving cake-eating and extravagant wig-making, and a talk by the 2012 Grinnell Prize-winners Jacob Wood and William McNulty of Team Rubicon.

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