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the romance of the industrial park

by Pat Padua

I love it when a photographer - or a writer, or any artist - takes banal subject matter and makes it interesting. Ansel Adams may be a great technician, but he leaves me cold because I figure, everybody knows nature is beautiful - what I get off on is something like William Eggleston's flash photo of old shoes underneath his bed, or of an open refrigerator freezer door, fresh views of things you normally would not think twice or maybe even once about.

So went the Andreas Gursky show at the Moma. His most famous image is "99 cents," reproduced across two full pages in a New Yorker write-up in March. The view was simply of row after row after aisle after aisle of product- candy, cereal, lawn chairs - 99 cent store crap. It was gorgeous - the colors and patterns repeating and reflected off the mirrored ceiling and the mirrors in the back of the store, the random customers sprinkled here and there. I can imagine an alien art connoissseur coming across the image and, not recognizing any of the products, maybe not even the life forms, getting off on the color and wondering what reason there was for the shifting patterns.

One picture I didn't really get at first was of two corporate warehouses: Toys-R-Us and Toyota, behind a wide stretch of highway. A guide talked about the banality and universality of the image. New Yorkers who see it think they know exactly where it is in New Jersey. But the picture was taken in Germany. Subject matter aside, the composition can be divided up into the horizontal bands Gursky likes to use: asphalt, white lines, green shoulder; broken by two warehouses with vertical corrugated white walls; topped by a grid of telephone wire criss-crossing in the air - lines broken by red buoys that served to warn low-flying aircraft.

Shinji Aoyama's film EUREKA is a perfect companion piece to the Gursky exhibit. There isn't much of a plot. The first half hour sets up the remaining three hours: a bus is highjacked by a normal-looking businessman; a young boy and girl and an unrelated man (Shall We Dance's Koji Yakusho) are the only surviors. Two years later the man seeks out the kids. None of them has adjusted very well to life after trauma; the children's father died in a car accident soon after the hijacking; one day their mother took off for another man, leaving them in charge of the whole house and letting it go to shambles.

Eureka was filmed on color stock that was faded down to near-sepia, although in evening shots and when the camera fades-to-black you can see dark greens of foliage barely emerge. Much of the movie is shot in what looks like a faceless Japanese suburbia that could as easily be New Jersey or Germany. The pace is so slow - you have to really be in the mood for it - maybe that's why I started to see the compositions in light of Gursky - horizontal road dividing the black and white frame into abstract bands of texture. The somber, quiet pace of the movie lets you hear things you ordinarily would take for granted: water trickles and metal scrapes as a man scrubs a shovel after a hard day's work, stocking footsteps fall lightly on a wooden floor.

The musical score, by Aoyama and Isao Yamada, is gorgeous too, with a simple piano and guitar theme that, like many of the film's grace notes, takes its time to appear. At the end of a long night, the stock returns to color for a final shot of the countryside, and the theme is played with full orchestra. I can't say it wasn't a chore to sit through, but by the end I was totally under its spell.

©2001 Pat Padua