By Beth U.

I recently went to see Vele (Sails), the photographic work of German artist Tobias Zielony at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Through stop motion video and a series of photographs, Zielony documents a desolate housing project in the outskirts of Naples known as “The Sails of Scampia.” In the 1960s, architect Francesco Di Salvo designed the complex to house working-class families and furnish them the fixings of ideal city living, such as parks and playing fields. Now, warring mafia factions overrun the labyrinthian structure even as families continue to live there.  Unemployment and organized crime threaten its demolition.

Zielony’s film takes viewers on a tour of Scampia. Despite its impotence as a failed vision of modern utopian architecture, the structure retains its imposing phallic weight.  Innumerable box-like layers stack upon each other to form two symmetrical towers.  Age and rain stain its concrete like black guano. The city reflects a near-turquoise night sky behind.  Zielony stalks the exterior and enters the structure at ground level.  It is cavernous: the metaphor of penetration unavoidable. With no sound, his images take on a sinister, horror-film quality.  This sense of the carnivalesque sharpens when a masked figure suddenly appears in the frame. His (her?) grey rubber face is both comical and terrifying, a tension Zielony maintains between vulnerability—to the edifice itself and the danger it poses—and resilience—the matter-of-fact and everyday ways people occupy this space.   We are left uncertain: is this play or is this transgression?

As the video proceeds, Zielony’s images suggest signs of human occupation: laundry drying against rusted girders, magazine pornography and images of sports teams taped to the wall, a bed.  His eye switches from interior to exterior and back again, giving us panoptic views of buildings beyond and the moat of urban decay below.  He focuses on electric-lit grass, reminding me of a highway median in New Jersey or anywhere. Then, we are outside again, gazing at Scampia from afar. Zielony’s visual sweep of the 1960s façade raises questions about containment, about segregation, about boundaries between its inhabitants and the rest of the city (boundaries also bringing to my mind the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall) and about the public and the private.

Paul Virilio asked years ago: “In a period of economic crisis, will mass destruction of the large cities replace the traditional politics of large public works? If that happens, there will be no essential difference between economic-industrial recession and war.”* While Zielony lends visibility to urban decline, he also counters the perception of places like Scampia as social dumping grounds alone, imbued only with the failure of development in the face of stringent economic restructuring.

Zielony’s response to Virilio might lie in his photographic emphasis on youth. His stop video technique renders humans as apparitions sketched over Scampia’s dominating edifice. People appear suddenly and just as quickly are gone.  A girl cavorts around her father, a row of bereft washing machines in the background.  Two boys lock in wresting embraces.  Young adolescents pose in the stairwell, decked out in Gucci caps and jackets. A teenage girl with a bare midriff checks her cell phone. Zielony takes time to zoom in on one young man, his gaze expectant and somehow sweet.

As a Philadelphia resident, the scarred architecture of an abandoned industrial core and the structural racism evident in tracks of razed housing are no surprise.  Nor is the reverse exodus bringing young professionals into previously “post-industrial” spaces, reanimating and radically reconfiguring yet again the debate of who does and does not (who can and can not) belong.  As Zielony continues his video journey through Scampia, I am reminded of a gypsum factory that once stood on the banks of the Schuylkill River.  In my younger days, we would climb inside and up the metal staircases to gaze on the heaps of abandoned gypsum.  Youth tagged the corrugated metal with overlapping and warring graffiti while old men cast their fishing rods off the dock beyond.  A few years ago, the city demolished the structure.

At the end of his video, Zielony gathers on a rooftop with Scampia occupants to watch the night. Apocalyptic fireworks shudder in the sky and paint the concrete edifice in pastel hues of blue and pink.  A woman smokes a cigarette.  Zielony’s camera captures her as she glances at him, pitches her spent butt over the side, and moves away.

*Paul Virilio “The Overexposed City” from The Lost Dimension, trans. Daniel Moshenberg, New York: Semiotext(e), 1991.


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