IMAGINARY VIEW: A PORTFOLIO BY RACHEL THOMAS AND DAN TOBIN SMITH
Crumbling piers and toppled columns have provided the poetic backdrop for countless dramas and bodice-rending cinematic and literary fantasies, invariably serving as heady symbols for the fleeting nature of beauty or the inevitable decline of power. This rich legacy of ruinous associations animates the carefully staged photographic tableaux by Rachel Thomas and Dan Tobin Smith. The two London-based artists were inspired by the architectural fantasias of Antonio Basoli, by Piranesi’s dramatic etchings, by de Chirico, as well as by more contemporary sources such as the 1970s suburban dystopias of SITE or the Platonic geometries of 1980s Memphis. Immaculately clean and streamlined — so unlike their real-world counterparts — Thomas and Tobin Smith’s “ruins” also recall the liberal appropriation of Classical tropes in Postmodernism, as well as the silvery suavity of 1930s Hollywood. “We wanted a silken, Busby Berkeley kind of quality, but with a little bit more mystery,” explains Thomas.
Though they could be confused for digital imagery generated with the latest in photorealistic rendering software, the images are in fact made entirely with an analog camera, their supple immateriality and confounding scale the result of good old-fashioned pre-digital elbow grease. “We have a lot of respect for the age of special effects before computers took over completely,” notes Tobin Smith, explaining that their compositions take many hours to arrange and light before the shutter clicks. The objects that populate their compositions — columns, pediments, porticos, pyramids, and even a colossal Roman nose — are carefully, but never overly, detailed, adding to their chimerical quality. “We wanted to reduce these Classical motifs to an archetype, almost a stereotype,” says Thomas. “We were looking to create forms that are instantly recognizable, but also uncanny and able to convey the seductiveness that only comes from something that’s not quite real.” This ambiguousness extends to the objects’ scale: while they may seem like model miniatures, they are in fact life-size or larger, requiring enormous studios and a bevy of assistants to execute.
But though their dimensions are considerable, these dreamy landscapes are actually featherweight, since they were fabricated in polystyrene (an ironic choice of material for a project about ruins given its non-biodegradability and consequent potential to last for centuries). As Thomas explains, “Ruins may carry heavy meaning, but we wanted these images to be somehow light and less weighty.” Recalling forgotten cenotaphs or gates to ancient cities, these ab initio fallen monuments are a dream of architecture half-remembered, full of the poignancy of a long-lost era that never was or never could be.