Tate Britain Exhibition

Art Now: Beat Streuli Oxford Street

Beat Streuli Oxford Street 1997

Beat Streuli, Oxford Street 1997

Oxford Street is a place where different people mix; tourists, shoppers, day trippers, workers and locals. There are grand department stores, chains and down-market retail outlets. While unexpectedly narrow and congested the street is straight and long. It runs on an east-west axis, dropping then rising gently towards the west. Many people trade there, in shops, bus king, selling from stalls, conducting auctions, or hawking fake goods from plastic crates. The photographer joins them. His .presence is immediately understood, as another operator not needing to explain why he is there. Early in the year the sun shines dazzlingly low, plumb down the street between the facades. Seen from where the photographer waits, the slanting fall of sunlight gives dramatic effects and creates dark shadows like the unmodulated contrasts of a woodcut.

People pause momentarily before crossing the road. Or the topography of the street, such as the descent into an underground station, causes them to pause, change the pattern of their movement and incline their heads. For the crowd the photographer is anonymous, even invisible. Using a telephoto lens enables him to keep a distance, to observe from afar without making contact. If, as sometimes happens, he sets up his tripod right in the middle of the street, people pass either side, registering an obstacle, not a confrontation. Occasionally someone sees him and looks back, challenging or questioning. Since it is so common in such places to see people taking photographs it scarcely seems an act of voyeurism. But it still is not quite accepted to transgress the privacy of others -to select an individual face from the crowd and photograph the minute changes of mood it shows over a few brief seconds.

Streuli’s Oxford Street is soundless, slow and reduced in detail. Hectic activity is eliminated. It is not about a tourist magnet or a culture of consumption. More generalised, it could have been photographed in another city. But the racial mix of young and old. male and female. formally and casually dressed people is typical of that particular street. The figures have the calm poise of onlookers in Renaissance frescos. The urban surroundings are blurred in the shallow depth of field that comes with using a telephoto lens.

Covering one long wall from floor to ceiling, the scale of the slide projections is overwhelming. Using masked slides the artist can project onto the wall in sections, or create a cinematic panorama across its entire length. The photographs concentrate on faces, where emotions are most easily read. Groups of people, their attention directed to the underground stairs, follow a collective movement downwards. In other sections, single figures, often attractive and female, are picked out from the crowd or are juxtaposed with young men. In the shape of their faces and the manner of their dress and hair, a few of them seem androgynous. All are photographed when they are at their least self-conscious. While uncommissioned, these pictures appear to have the insight of portraits.

Programmed to control the tempo and dissolves, the projectors work interdependently. A sequence of photographs shot in a few seconds unfolds more gradually, as a choreography of minute changes. The passage from one moment to another gives rhythm to a series of closely related stills, but stops short of cinematic slow motion. Streuli has described this as working on ‘the outer limit between the static and cinematographic image’. Neither recording an instant nor describing a narrative, the unfolding of individual looks and movements is absorbed into an articulated orchestration. Duration, overlap and interval are the relations that govern the structure of the work. Oxford Street is constructed like the rondo form in music: ‘ABACA’. Three sequences of panoramic images are separated by two related but distinct sections with individual and juxtaposed figures. The first of these middle sections establishes the setting. The second captures individual expressions with greater intimacy and emotional range. In Streuli’s transformation of the most ordinary reality in a city, the imagination fills the pauses between discontinuous stills as banal moments acquire a concentrated beauty.

Text written by Sean Rainbird


Born 1957, Altdorf, Switzerland. Lives and works in Dusseldorf, Germany

The 1997-8 exhibition programme is supported by the Patrons of New Art and Hereford Salon

Tate Britain

London SW1P 4RG
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27 August – 9 November 1997