Nick Relph, Eclipse Body & Soul Syntax

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Pre-Echo Press (here). Softcover, 10.5 x 12.25 inches, 176 pages, with 115 images, and a brief text by the artist. Design by Joe Gilmore. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Three hundred years ago, the New York skyline was mostly treetops. Today it hosts one of the densest concentrations of concrete and glass on the planet. The progress of construction in the intervening centuries has been inexorable. Every inch of real estate has long since been claimed, and much of it extended skyward. But lack of vacant land has not slowed the pace. Old buildings are razed to make way for new ones, as the city habitually consumes and reinvents itself.  

This is an organic process endemic to all megacities, and its effects are widely studied by urban historians. Artists too have explored the subject; in New York, singular sites like Ground Zero have been well documented by Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath, while John Wilson poked fun at Manhattan building codes with the short film How To Put Up Scaffolding. Graffiti artists have tagged up the plywood fencing fronting New York’s demo pits, and many a street photographer has peered through their diamond-plexiglass windows. If one looks closely at these fences, they will see building plans pasted to all of them, as mandated by the city’s Construction Code, §3301.9: “the required signs to be posted at a construction or demolition site. Such signs include the fence project information panels…”  These permits and drawings are often accompanied by pictures projecting buildings in their final imagined form. They pepper construction sites like weeds, but to date they have not attracted much notice from artists (Ilkin Huseynov made a photobook project documenting Baku construction graphics in 2017, We Apologize for the Temporary Inconvenience (reviewed here)), historians, or anyone really.

Enter Nick Relph, a British artist based in New York City. Over the past seven years, he has regularly photographed public postings found at construction sites throughout the city. Relph is something of a prankster, and he did not shoot them straight. Instead, in a nod to bot-driven compositry, he used a library scanning wand. This instrument—rarely used by photographers, at least to my knowledge—creates an image by sandwiching side-by-side bands, each one scanned in a vertical sweep across whatever it is aimed at. When used by librarians to digitize written content, the wand is a proficient tool. Applied to the real world, its translations slip from proficiency into strangeness.

Ralph’s images are collected in the recent monograph Eclipse Body & Soul Syntax, a book that captures a version of the Big Apple at once familiar and novel. This handsome softcover can be approached in a variety of ways, all entertaining. At a functional level, it is a selective record of the city’s growth over roughly a decade. New York natives will recognize this or that landmark as it once appeared in plans, before sprouting into reality. Much of the action is in Manhattan. A drawing of 432 Park is here, for example, as are the sprawling buildings of Hudson Yards. Most sites are less prominent, and some are not yet fleshed out, existing only as linear prospects. Mixed together in this book, they trace a rough sketch of New York’s physical history.

That is the book’s raw material. But Relph’s absurdist treatment pushes Eclipse Body into surreal territory. Tweaked by his wand, these everyday broadsides transform into disjointed creations. Each is typically composed of 4 to 6 vertical strips, sometimes more. The separating seams are not smoothed over. Instead they are preserved and emphasized as an integral component, marked by heightened contrast or color shifts which interact with the underlying material in unpredictable ways. Sometimes they separate entirely, parting to form blocks of white space which feel vaguely architectural. The buildings are vertical, as are the strips. As all the varied components reach for the sky, elements jostling for position, the reader is left wondering where exactly a building stops and a seam begins.  

Adding yet another layer of confusion, a scanning wand is an inexact recorder. Its hand held readings often wobble and sway during exposure (Relph may have taken artistic license, adding extra wobbles. If so, he doesn’t say). Buildings shimmer with curved walls and oblique corners. They look like Doctor Seuss constructions about to topple. They can’t possibly be real. Or can they? Architecture in New York has become quite adventurous in recent years. Structures which may have been inconceivable twenty years ago can now be planned and erected, and some of them appear in this book. The façade of an Aloft Hotel, for example, seems to buckle and bend, but the scan marks appear straight. Perhaps it is actually based in real plans? Another building boasts an inventive jumble of blocky diagonals and cantilevers. To this unlikely edifice, the scanning wand has imposed its own twists and seams. They blend without a hitch into the hypermodern design. They might be image artifacts, or a crazy architecture scheme. 

Some of the building plans include faux-people. These are composited into surrounding plazas and sidewalks, always well dressed and nonthreatening. These scenes are typically shown at golden hour, idealized into postcard settings. It’s not clear if the plans are projecting a future building or a lifestyle. Perhaps both. They exude an aspirational mood quite removed from their humble roots on plywood fencing. For anyone walking by them in real life, they might provide a momentary escape, a chance to fantasize the future. Hey, one thinks, I could live there

Eclipse Body is quite thick, and hammers home the theme of futurism through repetition. Browsing the pages feels like walking a sidewalk in New York past one construction site after another. In addition to postcard scenes, there are preliminary blueprints and drawings. Some material is weather beaten and hard to decipher, and many postings (the cover image, for example) have been tagged with graffiti, spray paint, or handwritten notes. “No Thanks,” someone comments atop a skyscraper pictures. “Ira Lives here,” writes another with an arrow, followed by a tragic rejoinder written on a nearby window: “Ira jumped from here.” Atop one poster someone has placed a sticker: “Decolonize This Place.” Feedback may not always be welcome, but it is an inherent street fact, lending these works an improvisational mood. 

The scrawls of hoi polloi infer popular unease, and bring the subtext of these photos into sharper focus. They offer a subtle critique of aspirational culture. The idea that one might escape the grimy streets into a private box above the city is antithetical to anyone stuck below. Samuel Stein and others have critiqued the urban flight to skyscrapers as an inherently suburban impulse. Relph skewers these escape pods with delight, driven by the same impulse the New Topographers directed at suburban sprawl. He waves his magic library wand over their grand plans. If it can’t eliminate class stratification, it can illuminate it. 

Relph never states this critique overtly, but his lyrical introduction strongly hints. “A picture of the future! (Which looks the same),” he deadpans. “Emotional cardboard to denigrate the luxury avenue,” he labels the postings, before revealing his personal connection: “Your author—42 years old at writing— started scanning the documents herein some 7 years earlier. Reader, it had the taste of theft. A theft so tiny as to be absurd…” The average lifespan of the world’s 100 tallest buildings, he explains, is also 42 years old. Thus laid bare, enormous amounts of time, money, and human resources planning things which will last just a few decades, before making way for some other reconstruction. By including himself in the mix, Relph hints at his own mortality, and the brief life span and uncertain legacy of any artwork. Cities feast on their own works. Perhaps they are not so different than artists?

Eclipse Body & Soul Syntax has something to say about legacy, and about the mutable nature of recording them. Even with its tics and wobbles, or maybe because of them, it’s a fascinating document. This is a seven year slice of New York—the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men—their very pictures sliced and diced into images, then compiled into an entertaining read. It will only gain interest over time, as the city continues its cycle of destruction, rebirth, and continual planning.

Collector’s POV: Nick Relph is represented by Herald St in London (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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