The City and the City

Imagine that the city you live in actually intersects with another city… Every street, every building exists in your city, but also in another city, which occupies the same space as your own…

This is the premise of the wonderful novel by China Miéville, The City and the City, which I read during the summer vacation. It tells of a fictional city, Beszel, somewhere on the far edges of Eastern Europe, which intersects with another city, Ul Qoma, in the way I’ve described. People live in the same space, but they are citizens of one city and not the other. The inhabitants of Beszel speak a different language to that spoken in the other city; each citizen of Beszel has to learn to ‘un-see’ the presence of the citizens of the other place, and vice versa.

It’s a fascinating idea and makes for some amazing reading. But it has also made me think about street art and the city, and about some recent work by Miso, in her show in December (which I wrote about really briefly here just before the summer break). Although the show is no longer on, I think that there were some really interesting ideas going on in it, and wanted to write a little about it.

Miso’s show, Tchusse, was at Gorker Gallery in Fitzroy,.  I went there on an extremely hot night in December, to see the show and to hear Miso speak about the work. The gallery was crowded, indicating how much interest there is in Melbourne in her work.

In some ways it’s hard to think of the show as having individual works within it (although it does), because it also worked very well as a large installation. Have a look at these pictures, from Miso’s website.The gallery was transformed into a street space, by virtue of the layers of drawings and objects hung on the walls and criss-crossing the corners of the space on string. There were many of Miso’s beautiful drawings, often showing women in the midst of various activities, and many object that she had made: for example, small models of buildings lit from within.

But there were also objects that had been brought into the gallery as part of the setting for the works, some of which had themselves been transformed by the artist. There were wooden doors, upon which pages from books, or posters and notices had been affixed. Items of clothing were suspended from string like laundry from washing-lines; tea-bags also hung drying in corners. There were pages taken from books, pinned upon the wall, next to framed photographs of some of Miso’s street-based art works (which brought other, real, locations into the simulated location within the gallery, but did so through the means of mediation themselves).

The result, when one walked into the gallery, was a sense of entering city space rather than gallery space, albeit a city whose dimensions had been compressed and constrained into multiple layers around and across the gallery.

And it was not simply any city that was being created here: it was in fact Kharkhov in the Ukraine, the city that Miso is originally from; a city which inspires much of her art and which her art in turn remembers and recreates.

On that hot, hot night in December when we all crowded into the gallery to hear Miso speak about the work, I was struck by the way she spoke about her aims – to bring Kharkhov into Melbourne, through her drawings of its inhabitants, through the wooden doors covered with notices of items for sale or pages torn from books, through the tiny scale models of buildings with bullet holes in them, through the clothing hanging from the string. It is not a literal Kharkhov that is being created, but rather a representation of the city, a city that is sensed and experienced through standing in the gallery.

And so Kharkhov becomes a part of Melbourne, rather than a city on the other side of the world. It seems to me that such an achievement testifies to what art is capable of  – to make another city within the city that we all take for granted.  Miso’s show is an example of what street art and graffiti can do to and for the cities we live in.

China Miéville’s book The City and the City describes what it’s like to live in a city which is inhabited also by ‘others’ (people who speak differently from us, people who think differently about the same streets and spaces). Miso’s work allowed us to see the city of Kharkhov by temporarily bringing it into the physical space of Melbourne. And street artists and graffiti writers do this for us over and over again, pointing out that for every person who inhabits Melbourne as a space determined by private property and ‘clean’ walls, there is another citizen of the city, one who sees walls as surfaces to be painted. Miéville’s book may be classified as an ‘ urban fantasy’ on, but the split experience described in his novel is one which certainly applies both to the art created by Miso and to the day-to-day experiences of anyone living in Melbourne today.

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