Los Angeles

Iwan Baan, CCTV #3, 2011, digital C-print, 36 x 54".

Iwan Baan, CCTV #3, 2011, digital C-print, 36 x 54".

Iwan Baan

Perry Rubenstein Gallery

Iwan Baan, CCTV #3, 2011, digital C-print, 36 x 54".

Just who is the “we” in the title of Iwan Baan’s recent exhibition “The Way We Live”? I ask because, while the Dutch photographer’s stated intent is to frame our built environment as a thoroughly shared condition, his images of buildings (and, by extension, the people who interact with them), which document extreme ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, do not lend themselves to notions of collectivity. If there is, in fact, a shared experience indicated by Baan’s title, it’s only that the people in his photographs, and we as viewers, all live in a world of architecture under capitalism.

In this show at Perry Rubenstein Gallery this spring, Baan presented work that highlighted some of the past decade’s most vigorous architectural statements, thus foregrounding—intentionally or not—modern architecture’s role as a symbol of global economic power. China’s recent boom figured prominently in photographs of three aggressively sculptural buildings: Beijing’s China Central Television Headquarters (designed by Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and National Stadium (Herzog & de Meuron) as well as the Guangzhou Opera House (Zaha Hadid). In CCTV #3, 2011, for example, Baan uses the massive loop of OMA’s CCTV skyscraper to frame a horizonless expanse of concrete buildings that fill the rest of the frame. The fact that in Baan’s composition the glimmering tower dwarfs the surrounding cityscape speaks not only to China’s recent ascendance but also to the continuing power of the state and its sanctioned media outlets.

Inasmuch as Baan collaborates (typically on commission) with the designing architects of the buildings he shoots, his images might best be read as “portraits,” his glamorous subjects all but vamping for his lens. For instance, his composition Bird’s Nest #2, 2007, shows off the iconic asymmetrical form (designed in collaboration with Ai Weiwei) of Beijing’s Olympic stadium, with the structure’s crisscrossing steel beams luminous against the deep blue of the night sky. Yet Baan prides himself on capturing not just the purity of new forms but also their messy reality in traces of construction, use, and habitation. In Bird’s Nest #2, Baan makes us privy to both the piles of raw materials and the hard-hat-wearing construction workers through and by which/whom these spaces are brought into being.

The most notable of Baan’s collaborations skew toward research. Such is the case with his photographs of the Enrique Gómez–designed Torre David, an ambitious forty-five-story high-rise complex in centra Caracas whose construction was abandoned following the death of the development’s sponsor and namesake, David Brillembourg, in 1993, and the demise of Venezuela’s banking sector the following year. Working with the architectural group Urban-Think Tank, Baan has methodically documented how the tower appears today—that is, still unfinished but nevertheless occupied by some three thousand extralegal residents who have physically adapted the structure to accommodate their basic needs.

In Baan’s images, we perceive not only the failed promise of this site to deliver prosperity and growth but also the failure of architecture in general, as evidenced by Caracas’s acute housing crisis. Though this portrayal of Torre David may illustrate the chillingly precarious extremes of the domestic, Baan does not suppress the subtle beauty of the building’s unfinished facade with its minimalist grid of varying balconies, window openings, curtains, and other modifications made by individual families.

Perry Rubenstein Gallery’s presentation of this segment of Baan’s work couldn’t have been more timely, given the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on March 5 (two weeks into the show’s run). While some may take these images as evidence of the nation’s decline under the late ruler, still others might read in these six-by-four-foot prints the will, even the vibrancy, of a population thriving despite nearimpossible conditions. As Baan’s photographs leave initial judgment to the viewer, only time will tell which of these gazes sees farthest into the future.

Jennifer King