Noritaka Minami’s aerial photographs of the failed urban project of California City in the Mojave Desert are quietly devastating. Purposefully using high-ISO film that shows grain even at low enlargement, his images of a planned city — mostly a network of uninhabited roads — are pale planes of dots and lines. The images conjure up the Peruvian Nazca lines, military surveillance networks, the geometric abstraction of Dutch de stijl art and the empty West of Ed Ruscha’s 1963 “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” series.
The grain of the film merges with desert shrubs that dot the land with a similar frequency to the clusters of silver formed by the film development process. In other words, it’s easy to confuse the medium of visualization with the territory itself.
Minami, born in Japan and now living in the U.S., has investigated Utopian spaces and architecture in several photographic projects, including “1972,” which featured the renowned, and now decrepit, modernist Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. While exploring these visions, Minami, who works as an assistant professor of photography at Loyola University Chicago, considers how a photographic methodology can be adapted in order to be reflective of the subject. In the case of the California City project, the grainy film is used to make the images difficult to place temporally; they look like photographs taken in the 1960s or ’70s, when California City was being developed.
The development, California’s third-largest city by land area, which is largely empty of inhabitants, was devised by Nathan K. Mendelsohn, a Czech-born sociologist who envisioned a suburban environment with a central park and lake that would offer cheaper housing and bigger skies than Los Angeles. It’s not quite hubris on the scale of the Titanic, but the resulting network of roads to nowhere, the occasional solitary run-down house owned by someone who may have once hoped to be surrounded by neighbors, and the absurd fortress of the California City Correctional Facility are witnessed with gentle melancholy. Minami seems to recognize modernism as a complex of grandiose failure, while acknowledging that we still live in its shadow and cannot completely disown its dreams.
The exhibition, which inaugurates the Kana Kawanishi Gallery’s new space in Nishiazabu, includes aerial photographs taken from a helicopter as well as images of trial bike riders and recreational vehicles barely discernible through clouds of sand and dust. In giving a context for these images, via an email conversation, Minami mentioned the impressive spectacle of the already barely existing city disappearing in a whiteout produced by vehicles tearing around. Minami also frames these images with the idea that he is presenting “sights normally not visible to human eyes (freezing the vehicle traveling at high speed as well as the dust cloud suspended in the air).”
Compared to the semiabstraction of the aerial landscape views, these glimpses of dune buggies and motorbikes in themselves are less impressive and look like editorial photography gone wrong. The background information that the motorized shindig is a regular occurrence on Thanksgiving, and that its participants are mainly people of the Trump persuasion is interesting though.
If Minami’s view of California City is that of a cautionary tale on the problems of trying to create civilized society, these would be the Yahoos — the coarse louts from “Gulliver’s Travels,” or maybe Humungus’ minions from “Mad Max: The Road Warrior.” They could, more positively speaking, also represent Dionysian revelry as a contrast to the civil, regulated, ideal space of Utopia.
Minami may not have had these analogies in mind when he photographed the fun and the failure of California City, but the work is certainly strong enough to sustain multiple readings.
“California City, California” at Kana Kawanishi Photography runs until June 2; free entry. For more information, visit www.kanakawanishi.com.