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Harlan Levey - A Glimpse of Disconnection, 2022

Hovering above the city at dusk. A moment of transition, of movement and stillness. The light is razor sharp and emphasizes the city’s seeming abstraction. Like arriving by plane at night, the metropolis is illuminated by wonderful beams of light. Daily horrors disappear in the grand harmony of it all; an almost nostalgic postcard of cast away dreams and invisible complexities. Flying above, looking down, twisting one’s perspective, but still, no sight of the miners in the belly of the beast, of the decoys and destructions, the endless highways and political rot that greases the bowels of the city. The city can be a lonely place, full of obstacles and struggle, screams and far away songs. Parties one isn’t invited to. Connected by everything and everyone, many feel no connection to it at all. This disconnection may come from floating above, but is perhaps more likely to arise from falling through the cracks below.

In Dani Ghercă’s new series of photographs, “A Glimpse of Disconnection,” (2020 - ) the artist hovers between the clouds and the cracks. People are not visibly present as he circles the city’s skeleton by helicopter. It is a terrain of investigation he could continue for decades to come, soaring above as if in search for the space so absent in many earlier works. Everything looks calmer from the sky. Even military operations and images of day to day desperation. You can’t see the forest from the trees, but you can’t see it from the tunnels either. Can’t see it even from the window of an apartment block that penetrates the clouds. How to live in the city, to feel connected, when everything is just within your grasp and at the same time, totally out of reach? The search for belonging is at times a quest for space, and Ghercă explores the macro and the micro. The calm and the chaos. A question of perspective, of switching lenses. Marcel Proust, wrote about this play of perception so splendidly: “the blade of grass quivering a few inches in front
of our eyes as we lie on the hillside may conceal from us the vertiginous summit of a mountain if the latter is several miles away.” Charles and Ray Eames illustrate the same notion in their 1977 work “Powers of Ten,” which starts with a picnic in a park on a sunny day. What if the blade of grass isn’t a blade of grass, but something harder to pluck? Something that prickles?

In understanding the work of an artist, it’s more useful to look at a trajectory, at works in time, than at any single object or image. Ghercă’s earlier works lead us around the city, into the monuments, tunnels and parks. Looking at these, it’s somehow evident how the sewers push him closer to the stars. The perspective changes, but the more emotional issues do not. During our first studio visit, he shared four different series of works that all dealt with the socialization of space from different angles. Upon introducing himself, he spoke of growing up in a small apartment before presenting images of cold, monumental, perhaps Stalinist architecture. This series, “4 Houses” (2015-16) features the four largest administration buildings in Bucharest. All built before 1989, almost all today unused and abandoned. These were juxtaposed by his work “A Diagram for Utopia” (2014-2017) where the focus turned to the dense urban landscapes of East
Bucharest and living conditions in crowded working-class neighborhoods. “Tunnels and Pipes” (2011 – 2015) explores what happens when the established infrastructure can’t sustain the body count and those living
conditions spill over into improvised makeshift situations. Ghercă spent four years entering the sewers on a daily basis, developing relationships to the people dwelling in the tunnels and documenting their temporary home. This effort to connect to people tells me as much about the new works as they themselves offer. His project “Park Portraits” (2014) somehow ties these other three bodies together. Shot in the Izvor Park these images of middle-aged men speak towards a process of dehumanization. The park, not far from the Romanian Parliament, had become a spot for day labourers to seek work. Each of the 6 portraits in this series is a diptych. On one side we see the men. On the other, still life portraiture of what the earnings from one’s last day’s work would afford him. Each portrait is accompanied by a set of information which represents the name of the person, his longest job, his last job, and the amount of money received for the last daily job in the shape of bread, yogurt, eggs, oranges and water.

While learning about his photo-based practice in that first encounter, it was generally not other photographers these projects made me think of. Instead, his work returned me to the voice of Vito Acconci, to Jack London's “People of the Abyss”, the illustrations of Gustave Dore, the gloomy images of working class and war-torn figures of Kathe Kollwitz. I thought of the claustrophobic spaces of Gregor Schneider’s UR House, and Mike Nelson's troubling tableaus and installations. I was also reminded of Zoe Strauss’s epic “Ten Year Project,” and its honest, uncensored and extremely intimate portrayal of economic and social ills in her hometown of Philadelphia. It’s in those conversations that Ghercă’s drive to explore space seems to begin.

The buildings, the tunnels, the men in the park, all take us through turbulent transitions in the city. They testify to crumbling Communist dreams and the inconceivable inflation, unemployment and cultural shifts that followed the revolution and end of the regime. All of them glimpses of disconnection. The new work by that title, however, visibly distances from the artist’s immediate surroundings to consider broader questions of ongoing changes to the universal human condition. Changes taking place in a time when digital life and radical, rather competitive individualism tend to result in alienation, confusion and despair. In these latest images, the city is no longer represented by architecture or people, but by its chilling glow and endless
flow of data. The landscape appears as an illusion of connectivity, a glittering graphic representation of a ubiquitous motherboard abstracting emotion while projecting deepfake dreams.
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