Antony Cairns: PXL CTY | Sous Les Etoiles Gallery, New York City

BY Eric Miles, July 1, 2024

The subject of British artist Antony Cairns’s work – the transformation of urban spaces and the sense of uncanniness and alienation that comes with it – is as old as modernism itself. Like so many before him – Atget, Berenice Abbott, Weegee, William Klein – Cairns is interested in how photography can represent the city. Walking the nighttime streets of London, Tokyo, and Los Angeles, he makes pictures using the unnatural light cast by buildings. Yet the works on view in this concise survey at Sous Les Etoiles Gallery were about as close to traditional documentary photography as Impressionism was to the realist painting that preceded it. They exist in that liminal space between document and pure abstraction. An implicit subject of Cairns’s photo-based explorations is the legibility of the city and of architecture – the disorientation of the individual subject as the metropolis hurtles into the future. An analogue of sorts to this disorientation is his preoccupation with outmoded technologies. For example, the painterly abstract pieces from the PXL CTY series were made using a 1980s-era PXL2000 video camera, which records black-and-white video footage at a very low resolution. Stills were then colorized using a Tamron Fotovix, another once state-of-the-art but now obsolete device. Summoning the earliest years of computing, the large-scale piece LDN4_019 (2024, from a 2017 negative), measuring 95 inches across, is printed on 247 peach-colored IBM computer punch cards once used for COBOL code, a primitive computer language, that are pinned to the wall in a grid.  

Antony Cairns, LDN4_020, 2024. Courtesy the artist and Sous Les Etoiles Gallery

The quality of Cairns’s nocturnal visions recalls the are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus) style pioneered in the 1960s by the Japanese photographers of the Provoke movement, primarily Takuma Nakahira and Daido Moriyama. The flaws, stains, scratches, and compositional accidents in his work are reminiscent of Moriyama’s highly influential 1972 book, Farewell Photography. In Cairns’s images, it is not so much the topography that stays with us, but the disembodied geometry of the architecture. A fan of science-fiction writers like J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson, Cairns depicts zombie cities from some dark, imagined future. Intrinsic to this approach is a series of negations: of the image of the city, of architecture, of the medium, and of coherent vision itself. There is an inherent tension that animates this work: While the technologies he employs speak of obsolescence, the aesthetic of the resulting images are innately dystopian, depicting retro-futuristic cityscapes where representation itself is stretched to its breaking point.