Ambivalent Structures

David Manley

David Manley’s exhibition Ambivalent Structures is a photographic exploration of Cold War architectural remnants, captured in a post-brutalist terrain. It deals with the built environment, urbanism and the psychological effects of architecture on the individual.

Art Exhibition previously on in New South Wales, Australia.
From Tuesday 16 September 2014 to Sunday 28 September 2014

Substructure image Art Bunker image Zoomorphic Cement Structure image

Published by David Manley on Tuesday 23 September 2014.
Contact the publisher.

Ambivalent structures defy not just categorization but also comprehension. These architectural forms, after which David Manley’s latest exhibition is named, are unique in that they challenge established frameworks of meaning, and with that our everyday modes of understanding. Solid in nature and geometric in form, the colour-muted structures and spaces that Manley captures are not fixed to a specific cultural or temporal context, but instead manage to transcend both society and history. They represent dense psychological sites that evoke feelings of emotional estrangement and isolation that jolt us from our everyday lives. Equally, Manley’s structures and spaces possess something of an ‘aftermath’ quality, as if to suggest that we have before us relics of a series of ambiguous events whose precise nature and significance is hard to determine.

Underlying Manley’s practice and overall aesthetic is the metaphor of the bunker. Bunkers are rich with historico-cultural symbolism: historically, they served an important role in both the Second World War and the Cold War; and culturally, they have been the subject of a variety of literary works and films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, which have managed to infiltrate our society’s collective unconscious. The bunker’s fundamental ambivalence lies in the fact that they are at once places of security and danger, of refuge and warfare, and indeed of life and death. ‘Art Bunker’ and ‘Sub Structure’ crystalise these ideas. The first image is of a reconstructed model based on an original photograph taken in an unknown, highly minimalist space reminiscent of an underground shelter, while the second image is of military-style citadel set in the distance between an alien landscape and a foreboding sky. Both images evoke a sense of isolationism: in the first this is represented by an enclosed, highly claustrophobic space, whereas the second does so through the physical and symbolic detachment of its monolithic structure. In each case, these images possess something of a haunting, almost prison-like quality.

Manley himself draws heavily on Ballard’s writings in particular for creative inspiration. Works such as ‘The Terminal Beach’ and Concrete Island are concerned with the dynamic interaction of the psyche and the surrounding natural and built environments. Often these environments serve as backdrops to psychologically rooted experiences of modern-day alienation and dislocation. Ballard’s account of architectural spaces and their attendant experiences could just as easily serve as apt descriptions of many of Manley’s images. ‘Ballardian 1’ and ‘Ballardian 2’, along with ‘Spiral Cement Structure’, call to mind the evocative image of ‘a functional, megalithic architecture as grey and minatory (and apparently as ancient, in its projection into, and from, time future) as Assyria or Babylon.’ Manley’s structures possess this same timeless, almost infinite quality. For his concrete structures appear to be both relics from the past and windows onto a future reality. It is as if by encountering these images we are entering, in Ballard’s words, ‘a zone devoid of time.’

At a more general level, Manley’s structures also represent a diagnosis of the fundamental ambivalence of modernity. As a number of social theorists have noted, the civilizing mission of the twentieth century to construct a new reality around the rational principles of science and technology became as much a symbol as much of progress as indeed of destruction, with those principles being the cause of many significant advancements as well as a great deal of death and devastation. The association of Manley’s work to this historical narrative imbues his images with a similar negative capability. The corrosion and blackened edges of the geometrically ordered form in ‘Zoomorphic Cement Structure’, coupled with the latent historical allusion of ‘Exhaust Stack’, remind us of humanity’s equal capacity to create and destroy.

Grounded in Ballard’s psycho-geographical musings, while also pointing to broader socio-historical issues, Manley is able to identify from within the urban landscape certain structures and spaces whose ambivalent character poses a psychological challenge to us as viewers.

Loughlin Gleeson


Black Eye Photography Exhibition Space, 3/138 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst, Sydney