Making Places Visible
Yung Ma
Associate Curator, Moving Image, M+

But I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between measurements of its space and the events of its past…


— Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (9)[1]

How do we see the cities and places we have lived and experienced? Through a fictitious account of Marco Polo’s retelling of his expeditions in the book Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino gives us one possible answer. We follow the explorer from one location to the next, from crumbling walls and towers to crystal globes, from silver domes to concentric canals, from one exotic description to another. Here, Marco Polo’s words contain the memories, the desires, the wonders, and the horrors of these cities.

Yet, the more Calvino describes, the more is told about these cities, about places and their inhabitants, the less tangible everything seems to become. Language and words, no matter how evocative and precise they are, no longer seem adequate. Gradually, one thing becomes clear: words fail to reveal the supposed truth and tangibility of place. Realities and facts, however abstract, are instead strung together by gestures, by cries, by fantastical stories, by fictions.

If words cannot communicate what we see, and if reality may only be reached through fiction, how can we convey our relationship with and experience of lived environments? Perhaps one of the best ways to gauge this idea, to see our world, and to reflect upon and explore the pasts, presents, and futures of different places is not through words, but images of invention and interpretation. M+ Screenings: Visible Places is thus an attempt to grasp, to make better sense of the possibilities of multiple truths of various places through film and video. Here, the selection of works is by no means a comprehensive overview of the complex relationship between places and moving image. Instead, I hope it reveals aspects of how artists and filmmakers work with the moving image to (re)invent and (re)imagine our lived environments on-screen, both big and small.

While traces of Hong Kong serve as a stage of science fiction fantasyland for both Mak Tai Kit’s Wicked City and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, it also becomes a place where one is constantly in search of an answer in May Fung‘s video She Said Why Me. The urban landscape becomes a source of psychological reflection in the artist films Miami and Untitled (Dancing Partner) by Sarah Morris and Liu Chuang respectively. For Manon de Boer, Paris is a series of fragmented recollections constructed from the memories of Sylvia Kristel, of Emmanuelle fame, in the film Sylvia Kristel – Paris. Composed of footage selected from over ten thousand crowd-sourced clips, the documentary Bitter, Sweet, Seoul by PARKing CHANce (Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong) is a poignant portrayal of collective memories and the city. In contrast, William Raban’s experimental documentary short MM examines the neoliberal agenda through London’s modern architectures. Munich’s steel-and-glass structures take on a ghostly presence in Christian Petzold’s fictional feature Yella, where personal freedom collides with capitalist reality.

The reconstruction of history is central to Jia Zhangke’s hybrid 24 City. Weaving together real-life and fictional elements, the film tells the stories of three generations of Chinese workers from a factory in Chengdu that, to a certain extent, echo the histories of contemporary China. Zhou Tao shifts his camera between Guangzhou, Bangkok, and rural China, linking together a series of uneventful scenarios in the short film Blue and Red to depict a sense of surreal-ness that permeates the present. Strangeness takes a rather humorous turn in Tsui Kuang-Yu’s video short The Shortcut to the Systematic Life: City Spirits, in which Tsui reimagines our cosmopolitan cities as his own personal playground. In the stop-motion animation La Town, Cao Fei envisions a post-apocalyptic world wherein a mystical town has vanished, but traces of its possible histories are left behind in the vitrines of a museum.

So, what do these works reveal about how we see the cities and places we have lived and experienced? Language and words, facts and figures, are perhaps too concrete to fully express the wonders and horrors of the lived environment. Maybe, just maybe, the better way to see our relationship with—and to reflect on its pasts, presents, and possible futures—is by making fictions, fantasies, alternatives, and the surreal visible: by inventing, constructing, and imagining images and sounds as well as narratives of place on-screen.

[1] Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. London: Vintage Classics, 1997.