As well as a practicing architect, Gaelen Pinnock is an artist who primarily uses photography as his tool to explore cities, structures and landscapes. “I am interested in the legacies of failed utopias and the shadows cast by laws, systems and urban development trends,” says Pinoock, whose work is largely preoccupied with abandoned spaces, alienated landscapes and dystopian environments. We spoke to him to learn more:
Growing up, was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
I grew up in a very creative family in which art and craft was ubiquitous. I was forever drawing, painting, modelling clay and making things. So it was inevitable that I would end up doing something creative for a living.
What led to your decision to study architecture?
A lot of what I built as a teenager was technical. It involved dreaming up an idea, designing it and then trying to make it work. I loved the process that took me from fantasy to representation to reality. In pursuit of this, I thought of going into industrial or graphic design but architecture seemed to offer a bit of everything.
When did you first begin taking photographs?
When I was seven years old someone gave me an instamatic camera. I used it to death and became hooked on photography. A few years later my dad gave me an old Nikon film SLR that he found abandoned on a bridge. I’ve been taking photos ever since.
Bringing these two together, your work is predominantly focused on what you call the “grey area between architecture and fine art”. What do you mean by this?
There are numerous representational processes that are used in the practice of architecture. Some are more literal, like elevations, plans or illustrations. Others are conceptual, notional, intuitive or metaphorical. They can show routes, narratives, time, shadow, feeling etc. These graphics are generally just a means to an end; the built form. These processes are treated like utility; used to instruct, describe or document an imagined reality.
But what about using these graphics as a means to themselves? What if we extract the intuitive seed of an architectural concept and use it to make art; to evoke feeling, distil meaning and provoke minds. This is the “grey area” I talk about. It’s about blending the representational rigour of architecture with the intuitive, non-linear, evocative nature of art.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
I can’t escape the Modernist bias of my architectural training. It influences my design processes and my minimalist aesthetic.
I’m drawn to scenes that have strong, simple composition, where some kind of distillation has been achieved. There is something about the cold, documentational approach to landscape that I like in the work of many photographers that came out of the Bauhaus, like Bernd and Hilla Becher’s methodical typologies of industrial structures, Andreas Gursky’s immersive human scenes and the empty public spaces of Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer. I find the urban scenes of artists like Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi, Edward Hopper, David Hockney and Edward Ruscha to be both alluring and disquieting. There is a presence in the absence.
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed since you first started out?
Over the years I’ve gone through various phases. For years it was just about technical mastery. I then became fixated with the golden ratio and all my images reflected this in an almost dumb way. At some point I became intrigued by light and dark. My shots were often black and white with strong chiaroscuro and often taken towards light to achieve this. I guess it was a way of removing information in order to be more direct with a message or emotion.
I spend a lot of time reducing and distilling. I want to tell a story using less, which I find quite challenging because the world is full of clutter. For the last few years I’ve sought out these scenes in the world and approached them with quite a static, straight-on composition, like they are elevational studies.
Recently I’ve been constructing scenes using photographic collage. It gives me more control over the end product.
When, and why, did you begin photographing the makeshift shelters constructed by people living on the streets of Cape Town for your growing Home series? Have you had any interactions with the owners of these structures?
I’m fascinated by societies’ blindspots… things that are around us but which we don’t properly see. South Africa is full of these, particularly when it comes to class and race.
Over the last few years I’ve noticed the effects of the gentrification and “sanitisation” of inner city Cape Town. This neoliberal trend amplifies class division and I’ve seen an increased marginalisation of, and intolerance towards homeless people. Despite their vulnerability, they are often treated terribly by other members of society.
I decided to engage with these communities through a subject I knew: architecture. I started to document their temporary homes, which are often intricate and resourceful. They are made of whatever can be found, erected as needed and then packed into trollies to be moved to a new location.
I’ve had extensive interactions with the homeless communities around the City Bowl. Simple non-judgemental acknowledgement of them as fellow people is often met with heart-breaking warmth. It has been such a great experience to get to know them individually and to hear their stories. It has helped me dismantle many of my prejudices.
Remnants is another project exploring the idea of a personal spatial legacy – this time documenting the personal artefacts gathered (or left behind) by homeless people. What distinctions do you see between legacy and heritage, and how does this series explore these?
Remnants was an offshoot of the Home Series. It has to do with personal artefacts; the things we gather; the physical marks and impressions we leave on our environment. This could be legacy when unfiltered, or heritage when treasured, inherited or documented.
Where heritage prioritises something by collective consensus, legacy is a less filtered, broader inheritance of things past. Heritage is about quality, selection, inheritance, documented memory and tradition. Legacy is about quantity, fate, circumstance and a past that is given to you and not selected.
Homeless people are excluded from almost all collective societal frameworks. They own very little, have no social capital and are increasingly marginalised. They have little opportunity to build any form of heritage.
Remnants is a growing series that looks at the artefacts of former use on the streets of Cape Town. These artefacts could be objects, surface impressions and markings or projected imaginings, things that hint at someone’s brief existence in an urban space. The series aims to capture and extract the constituent parts that make up this meagre legacy, in part to legitimise it and in part to make us aware of corresponding excess.
In your Citadel series of photographic collages, you look at the South African urban landscape as if it were a cluster of islands. Could you tell us more about this?
The Citadel series looks at various security enclaves in the South African urban landscape, almost as if they were an archipelago of islands. Each island is a discrete shape, separated from its neighbours by greenbelts, highways and railway lines. This analogy can be seen at various scales, from private homes; to larger suburbs; to industrial establishments; and to entire inner city precincts. Most of these islands are fortified with walls, booms, electric fences, private security and 24 hour surveillance. In this sense they are like medieval citadels; secured city-states to keep the fear out and the comfort in.
This model was inherited from apartheid planning and a modernist approach to making cities. It is now being furthered through a landscape of fear, crime and a neoliberal trend of gentrification, sanitisation and public space control.
The first typology of Citadel looks at the military–industrial complex. It draws links to the National Key Points Act of 1980 which was created to hide and protect installations of strategic importance to the apartheid government. We may not take photos of, have access to or gaze too long at a “Key Point,” yet the list of such locations is not publicly available. The current government stands accused of using the same act to hide controversial developments in a shroud of media restrictions and legislated secrecy.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?
I’m currently creating new typologies in the Citadel series.
Since three Citadels were selected for the Absa L’Atelier top 100, there has been a lot of interest in my work, which is very exciting. I’ll be part of four group shows in Cape Town over the next few months which I’m looking forward to. Besides that I’ll be exploring, producing and hustling like artists do.
Four of Pinnock’s Citadels and some of his work from Dystopias will be opening tonight at the New Heritage Gallery in Cape Town as part of the First Thursdays gallery walkabout.