Thursday, March 07, 2013

Concrete Geographies [Nomads] by Xavier Ribas

My review of Concrete Geographies by Xavier Ribas (Bside Books, 2012) is now available on photo-eye. You can get a copy of the book here.


Spread throughout Europe, the Roma constitute one of the largest ethnic minorities in the region. More commonly known as gypsies, the Roma are also among the most routinely persecuted and reviled. Dismissed as thieves and vagrants, the Roma's traditional nomadic lifestyle often places them at odds with the cultures they inhabit. Constantly seen as outsiders, they are regularly driven from their homes, or simply pushed to the fringes and displaced. On February 24th of 2004, over 60 Roma families were forcibly evicted from an industrial plot on the outskirts of Barcelona. Workers drilled and upturned the landscape, turning what was once a concrete lot into ravaged and brutal landscape of cement slabs and coarse rocks. Xavier Riba's Concrete Geographies [Nomads] offers an intimate and affecting picture of this willfully torn landscape. While Ribas never shows the people or lives of the displaced, his restrained images show us a landscape of discrimination, displacement and social injustice. 

All images © Xavier Ribas and Bside Books, 2012

Beautifully composed and rendered in black and white, the book documents the rubble-strewn landscape of the devastated lot. Turning his lens downward, Ribas' images of concrete shards form geometric abstractions whose formal beauty masks the horror of their creation. Twisted rebar sprouts out of the ground and fractured painted lines suggest a broken order. Heavy stones and sharp slabs of cement jut upwards rendering the landscape inhospitable and treacherous. Like most acts of urban renewal, where the displaced quickly make way for the affluent, the destruction of this space was a violent effort to control the space and to push aside the unwanted. However, in the years since the displacement, there is no evidence anything has been done to reclaim the land. The numerous cracks and fissures have allowed weeds to take root and thrive, and litter and graffiti have piled up. More fitting of a angry child than a modern municipality, the brutal eviction of the families was an act of a petulance and exasperation.  

All images © Xavier Ribas and Bside Books, 2012

While the work offers no further contextual information about the actual day, the city's decision or the families involved, it is nevertheless a powerful document about a landscape wrought with history and absurdity. The formally elegant images are infused with a feeling of anger and bafflement. When installed in its exhibition form, images that otherwise appear to be disparate fragments cohere into an informally knit panorama. Ribas never shows this installation in the book, instead we catch glimpses of the connections and continuities between the images. Painted lines and concrete slabs continue into subsequent frames. Moving through the book there is the sense that we're standing amidst the rubble as our gaze panning out over the destruction that surrounds us. 

All images © Xavier Ribas and Bside Books, 2012
All images © Xavier Ribas and Bside Books, 2012

The book contains almost no text save a brief statement about what happened on a February morning in 2004 and a poignant quote from Walter Benjamin at the end. A single color image of a stormy cloud-filled sky occupies double page spread in the back of the book. The location's GPS coordinates hover in the middle of the page and ground us in what is an otherwise ethereal space. Following this image, a grid of images taken from Google Earth reveals the lot and its surrounding area. From the sky, there is only an empty lot and little hint of the devastation or the lives shattered.  

More properly titled Nomads, the work is actually part of the much larger project entitled Concrete Geographies. Spanning several years and including several subseries, the larger project explores a variety of different landscapes marked by violence, history or politics. For example, Invisible Structures [2] looks at the Mayan village of Panabaj that was tragically buried under a mudslide that killed an estimated eight hundred people. In another two series, Ceuta Border Fence and Melilla Border Fence, Ribas examines two highly militarized border towns along the southern coast of Spain. The book owes a clear debt to the equally politically charged and conceptually minded landscapes of artists like Lewis Baltz and John Gossage, or perhaps Anthony Hernandez, Roy Arden and Donovan Wylie. 

All images © Xavier Ribas and Bside Books, 2012

Limited to 687 copies, each copy is signed by Ribas and is beautifully produced with luscious tri-tone reproductions. Like Ignacio Lopez's Agroperifèrics, another excellent book by Bside Books, Xavier Ribas' Concrete Geographies is a smart book about a politically charged landscape, the vagaries of land-use in the urban setting and their often-tragic consequences.

Please note: This review originally appears on photo-eye on March 4th, 2013. You can get the book here.

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