by Rahul KumarFeb 25, 2023
The experience of a city when the lights unravel its hidden corners in the night has been a popular phenomenon. To translate the singularity of this occurrence into a large-scale architectural light installation is the hallmark of the London-based sculptor, Nathaniel Rackowe. The works touted as “abstracted impressions of today’s metropolitan experience”, built with the conceptual imagination, traverse through the labyrinth of a city. Having displayed the works in the cities including Aarhus, Beirut, Dubai, Copenhagen, Lima and Paris, Rackowe has successfully realised a relationship between places, objects and history.
The concrete block, tampered plastic, iron scaffolding of Rackowe’s sculptures – the mass-manufactured products of the Modernism - illuminated with the strips of lights prompt a collective experience of urban life for the viewers. Talking about the conspicuous presence of lights in his works, in an interview with STIR, Rackowe says, “I am drawn to how artificial light transforms and softens hard urban landscapes, and I feel that these transcendental moments of beauty are what often allows us to see through the grit and hard edges of the spaces we move through. The materials I use are individually recognisable and are often the kind of matter you would ignore or overlook in day-to-day life. I transform how they are perceived using light and structure, forcing a re-looking, and untimely rediscovering of our own spaces.”
The varying colour of the lights from bright red to soothing white inevitably alters the visual appearance of the sculptures. Rackowe mentions, “My palette of colour is drawn from the built environments I move through. The black of bitumen, the yellow and bright colours of street signage, and the greys of concrete and steel, and colour spectrums reflected in the glass. Any light colour is picked up as white light reflects from the colour of the materials it activates.” Despite the engagement with a variety of materials in the sculpture, the influence of the American minimalism is apparent that swiftly invites the visitors to be a participant in the meaning-making exercise of the artworks instead of being coerced into a visual burden of elemental units.
Known for the largest harbour urban development projects in the European continent, Aarhus stands at the intersection of the triad: sea, sky and land. This natural topography of the city inspired the installation Origin - if the hexahedron frames nature, then the bold strands of the line are the manifestation of the urban space. When these two frames overlap it gives rise to the third space. Carefully installed above the surface of the water, the viewers occupy a dynamic position to find themselves as a part of the immersive work.
Rackowe explains, “With this piece, I like the idea that the viewer could somehow inhabit this third, impossible space. A liminal margin is defined by light, structure, and nature. Origin is also time-based, an animation of light slowly activates the work, taking the viewer on a journey as it reveals itself. I hope that the viewer leaves the work willing to ask questions about the spaces they move through and question their own emotional and physical relationships with them.”
The exhibition The Shape of a City is inspired by the capital of Lebanon, Beirut. The hard architectural materials including crenelated roofing, galvanised steel and cement blocks are balanced with the softness of the artificial lights to consequently open the world of permeable binaries with the large-scale installation LP48. Like most of his works, with this work too viewers are made attentive to the porous qualities of the built landscape.
Cognizant of the inspiration that a city can have on a solo show, Rackowe says, “The abstracted paintings were based on petrol stations I had obsessively documented and photographed during research trips to the city. The neon and concrete of Beirut Blocks took the actual building blocks of the city, and elevated them to something new and beautiful with a halo of neon, and dripping yellow paint.”
With the installation Sign of a City, Rackowe recontextualises the structures and signal - gasoline station - synonymous with the urban environment. The abstract form of Sign of a City devoid of its functional feature is, to borrow Raphaëlle Romain’s description of the installation, “part of a game of construction, deconstruction and rearrangement.”
Many of the contemporary artists living in the hustle-bustle of the city either retreat to the tranquility of nature or find themselves bearing the onus of the noisy urbanity. The abstract and minimalistic installation works of Rackowe rightly reconfigure the symbols frequently found in the urban landscape to open a world of equanimity for the viewers.