N° 62 Rubbernecking

Monica Nouwens

16 September - 21 October 2001


to look about or survey with unsophisticated wonderment or curiosity/going about to look at places of interest {syn: sightseeing}/ perhaps the most frustrating of behaviors.

Slowing down to look at accidents or virtually anything else out of the ordinary, is one of the worst congestion offenders.

(Source: US Department of Motor Vehicles).

Monica Nouwens's work, which often takes the form of photographic series, addresses the cultural and ethnographic history and evolution of Los Angeles. Sometimes within this subject she switches topic in response to earlier series of photographs, at other times she works on several ideas at once. Taken together, these works do not form a linear, progressive development, but a more complex exchange where key concerns and observations are applied, refined, set aside and revisited. The photo series depict the development of the urban and social geography of Los Angeles. The constant change brought about by migration into and within Los Angeles is Nouwens's main focus. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1993, she began a series of observational photographs about the 'masterplanned communities' that sprang up in response to the 'white flight', the mass exodus of white residents from the turmoil of the inner city and into predominantly white, guarded, artificial and isolated neighbourhoods in the new planned suburbs, up to and including 'Country Club Living' (1997) in the desert, where living and leisure are combined on a golf course. On first sight these photographs look like simulations, constructions, but in fact it is not the photographs that are staged but the environment they record. They are exactly what they seem. Nouwens concentrates on specific aspects: on security and apartheid, leisure and recreation, and identity. In the following series she focused on the inner city and the effects of the exodus of white residents. In South Central, south east of downtown Los Angeles, which had achieved international notoriety in 1992 with the black riots that followed the beating-up of Rodney King by white policemen, Nouwens made a series about the 'Storefront Churches' (1998-2000) - small, provisional places of worship established in former shops or garages by Afro-Americans but especially by first and second generation Latino immigrants. Like the wealthy 'Gated Communities' (1996), these ad hoc churches are a symbol, a presentation of multiple, in some cases overlapping signs of different functions, lifestyles and nationalities. And also like their richer cousins, these churches reveal their message and their identity not by means of the usual gigantic Los Angeles billboards, but through an almost invisible 'advertising' and marketing. As with the the artificial communities, Nouwens photographs the churches front-on, often focusing on their patterned surfaces and on the scraps of text or symbols which identify them and describe their purpose.

Yet, looking at her photos one does not feel like a voyeur, because she shows only the surface, the facade. It would never be possible to see these different aspects without stopping, without bringing things to a standstill and it is precisely this consciousness and her observation of the ongoing metamorphosis of the city that the Dutch artist Monica Nouwens shows us. She observes, studies and documents through her camera. And the details she records are neither manipulated nor cut. She simply presents (visual) information for what it is, leaving us to make of it what we will. The transformation of a supermarket with a painted Jesus, or a big crucifix attached to a garage door exemplify the rapid changes of identity taking place in Los Angeles. A recurring characteristic of these photographic series is the absence of life, the absence of bodies. Instead, there are these cultural icons that encapsulate communal beliefs, filling Nouwens's photographs with signs, obsolete or advertising a future purpose.

The self-awareness of the storefront churches isolated by Nouwens's lens is paralleled by a series of photographs of self- aware young girls from the same neighbourhood. Like the churches, and indeed the city as a whole, the girls are in the process of transformation, hovering on the brink of physical and mental maturity. The way they proudly pose in front of her camera, you are not sure whether they are staged or not: in fact they and their mannerisms are real, another element in Nouwens's objective visual chronicle of life in Los Angeles. Her lens functions as a panopticum, an all-seeing eye, constantly linking the macro- and micro-levels of social existence.

Nouwens registration of the cultural and ethnographical diversity of Los Angeles, is not confined to one social category; she also shows another side of Los Angeles, represented by the young people with quite different dreams photographed at the swimming pool of the immaculate Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard (2000- 2001). Young and beautiful, separate but connected by mobile phone, even in the pool, to the outside world; the pictures look staged, but once again Nouwens has simply recorded what is there, in this case the secure, exclusive and excluding 'we belong to each other' private-public world of gilded Los Angeles youth. Through her way of observing, Nouwens reveals a reality based on dreams, recollection, illusions and ultimate truth. Her panoramas are hardly exhausted by sociological excavation: what is fascinating is the image's spatial and temporal sweep, a short passage of cultural and geological time. In her first video registration from 1993, memory and its transformation in the interviewee's mind are already present: during a drive along the freeway, an LA 'immigrant' tells a fictional story about his 'memory' of different personal 'historical facts'. Fiction will be overtaken by the reality of the diversity of culture, histories and neighbourhoods. Nouwens shows us a glimpse of video shops owned by Iranians, ice cream carts belonging to Pakistanis, Russian bakeries, Jewish bankers and Korean supermarket owners. In her documentary videos she is no longer simply 'rubbernecking' but invites other immigrants to show her their places of interest and history and to stop in wonderment at a different experience of Los Angeles. One of these is Sebastian, the almost stereotypical shirtless LA boy in an old pick-up truck. Together they drive through Sunland, rubbernecking at white ranches, bars and horses, observing the things they come across: a mini indoor ski club; a nursery selling 30-foot-high palm trees, a cowgirl painted on a front door and a golf course where he claims to have seen OJ Simpson playing golf: reality in the narrative style of a film. Like her photographic series, however, Nouwens's videos are not the presentation of a manipulated environment, but an unvarnished registration of another person's visions.

Born of a deep understanding of how our experience of the present is continually informed by our memories, and how even the most painful memories necessarily carry with them a degree of nostalgia, Nouwens's work refuses easy judgements and political stances. Her photos, including the people she invited to show and talk about their own history and that of LA and the related iconography of the film industry, can be viewed as both a bittersweet homage to her adopted city and a Brechtian strategy of self-reflexivity. All the diversity, different points of view, various lines of approach and overlapping existences are also a part of the presentation of this show: no detachment, no disconnection and therefore no frames, no borders are shown here, there is no hierarchy, no judgement: everything exists side by side, intermingles and interacts. All those aspects previously unseen, unmentioned, unobserved, are given a logical presentation through Nouwens images and historical perspective. She creates a temporary map of Los Angeles - but aware as she is of the shifting and uncertain nature of this environment she keeps on moving, slowing, stopping, looking and recording the unceasing transformation of a city.

Frank-Alexander Hettig