Bruno Zhu’s work, contained in self-published books but also posted on social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram, captures accidental sculptures and fleeting moments as he wanders cities. Instead of vast landscapes, urban environments are portrayed through intimate encounters with objects. Zhu also investigates the lives of his images as they become dispersed across various networks, excavating nonfictional narratives centered around the ghostly protagonist of the image itself in his book, Facsimile.
Zhu is a Portuguese-born artist currently living in Amsterdam, where he is attending the Sandberg Instituut. He is a photographer and a bookmaker. His current work focuses on the relationship between the two through a constant reexamination of the structures of visual reading. Zhu’s work has been exhibited at Carlos/Ishikawa in London as well as numerous group shows. His books/zines can be viewed online at his website bzbooks.org. Several editions of his books were exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery 89plus Marathon in 2013, where we were first introduced. Since then, we have collaborated on projects together, in particular the ongoing work Encyclopædia.
We recently touched based to talk about the architectures present in his work, particularly his “Builder” series, which documents the ongoing renovation of the Forum des Halles in Paris. This is a site that has a long and storied history, the most recent being the redesign of the 1971 complex, which has been largely reviled. The former mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, called it “soulless.” But before that, it had a been a market for centuries. Originally open air, the enclosed 1864 Victor Baltard building was a center of Parisian life and shows up in the writings of Emile Zola and Walter Benjamin, among others. Today, it is one of the busiest transportation hubs in the city and an active construction site. Zhu’s work captures this pivotal moment in the history of the site.
I’d like to talk a bit about your “Builder” series, which I think has particularly visible threads of architectural thinking and would be of interest to Archinect readers. First, how did you come to this project? What brought you to Paris and, specifically, to the Forum des Halles?
The project was a culmination of material and ideas while working on ‘Compact’ [another photo-book]. At the time I was very interested in the structure of zines: how their page count vs. content formed an object with immediate presence, a sort of literary ‘one-liner’, straightforward and snappy. ‘Compact’ was becoming too mechanical and overindulgent in its formula, so I needed another venue to continue my research.
A hinge detail should be as celebrated as the structure it supports.
I had moved to Paris that year for an internship and spent most of my time walking past Forum Les Halles. I didn’t know what to think of the place. I was blindsided by the myriad exits for the metro stop, the slummy character of its inner mall and the random crowds populating the area. But by the Pont Neuf exit there was a raised viewing platform and once you were on there, the noise was cancelled by the sight of a vast field of concrete with half built pillars, reinforcement bars, metallic junk and many other things. A whole other stage was set within the social picture I had from Forum Les Halles. I was drawn to this physical dichotomy and how this process of building could actually mean an extinction of other possibilities. I also felt a bit like Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’; mountains and fogs were traded for scaffolding and old Parisian rooftops. Part human touch, part left by chance, the site was self-generating new compositions by the minute. I wanted to expose these architectural elements before they gave birth to something larger than them. A hinge detail should be as celebrated as the structure it supports. The notion of a ‘report’ seemed to carry that empirical weight I was looking for, so I started to slowly refine the stories based on notions of typological perception, mundane fantastic and how realistically I could communicate alternative realities.
Did elements of the history of this place inform the project?
No, it didn’t. What attracted me to it was exactly the wipeout effect this process was causing to the area. The core argument of ‘Builder’ is to highlight the ‘construction site’ as a possible historical place itself. Forum Les Halles had the right profile to start deconstructing the meaning of an established place: it held a prominent role in central Paris’ daily life, yet was stripped from a visual identity. I understood this as a clean slate allowing the construction site itself to lay its own mythology. Hinges, steel, concrete and dancing bars, couldn’t these elements be fashioned into romanticized observations of modern life? Or written about in songs, poetry, aspiring dramas set in construction sites; couples breaking up by steel structures, a first kiss under scaffolding or a symphony played by a lover on a pickup truck next to hollow concrete cylinders? At first glance there is something undeniably futuristic when we see construction sites; they represent the ‘coming soon’ of urban Darwinism. But I wanted to take a step sideways and reflect whether we could consider these structures in a discourse of the ‘now’, and opening a possibility for them to leave seeds for another ‘past’.
The "Builder" series is divided into nine individual booklets, each with a separate title. The first doesn’t depict Paris but London, specifically, “a window in Kings Boulevard London N1C.” Actually, it’s numbered 00. It seems to serve as a sort of preface, enframing the series as the windows are enframed and the photos, in turn, enframe various objects. In general, I’ve noticed that your work is often concerned with enframent, with windows, reflections, and structural elements of architecture or construction sites. Can you talk a bit about this?
Architecture is letting me exercise these cancelled narratives by lending me spaces where I can set them.
Watching Forum Les Halles grow reminded me of the developments in the Kings Cross area in London. ‘00’ serves as an introduction to the series with photographs I had taken before moving to Paris. The window being a constant motif in my work felt natural to be used as an introductory element in this project, although scaffolding plays a more central role throughout the series. The initial impulse is always visual. When I come across potential scenarios my instinct is to photograph them, to document these arbitrary happenings that feel uneasy, unlikely. It’s hard to pinpoint why windows or architectural surfaces because to me they trigger more than formalistic issues. They make me think a lot of wuxia films actually. I grew up watching these intricate choreographies and was fascinated by how the surrounding space was fundamental in their moves. The meaning of a space became attached to a dramatic expression, a means to activate a plot or provide a revealing blow. Windows, alleys, intersecting walls and fences are just ingredients of a larger unnamed city I am living in. They are associated with moments of tension, seduction, interconnected through materialistic references that let me and whoever see these images to disassociate themselves from where they actually are and escape. It’s very cheesy in a way, but I am interested in how architectural details, being so definite in their existence could actually lead to new questions. What if we consider a new office building as a proto-ruin? What have those walls of glass seen already? On an abstract level we could say that I am interested in exploring the null point of history of our lives, of our actions. Architecture is letting me exercise these cancelled narratives by lending me spaces where I can set them.
Les Halles is the busiest transit hub in Paris, I believe. And the construction site was undoubtedly active and busy. Yet no humans appear in the project until the sixth volume, “barricades in Forum Les Halles 75001 Paris,” and here only as some of several other objects. Why depict humans in a section on barricades? And so infrequently, in general, in your work?
The human appearance was accidental. I didn’t notice it until I was editing the layout. For ‘Barricades’ I had envisioned the construction site being a stronghold able to defend itself. The report shows compositions of barriers and steel bars as defense strategies, which in turn are sliced by their position on the page. The book becomes a puzzle: it barricades itself, and in order to get a full image we might need two copies next to each other. Within the context of the book, those people are pawns of a bigger battle, and a reference point for editing purposes. I like to talk to people a lot, making them laugh especially, figuring them out, each person belongs to a place that isn’t mine, it’s his/hers. When I’m photographing I am objectifying what I see, and people don’t deserve that. Sometimes they appear in my work, but they are regarded as objects devoid of their humanity, they are another piece of a bigger picture. The photograph is never of them, as people.
Also despite the business of Les Halles, there is a profound stillness to the images. They capture moments not in their action but almost as if they’re permanent. An ad-hoc assemblage of tools becomes a sculptural object. To me, this marks an attunement to non-human objects – which is why I think I’m so drawn to your work. Steel hinges are given more value than the construction workers. Tubular forms are “choreographed” but there is no choreographer (at least it in the normative sense). Can you describe your relation to this complex world of objects?
An object will let you be; liberating you to embrace the animal in you, your true self, and that is the truth.
It’s interesting you brought up ‘attunement’. When I am photographing it becomes a collision of some sorts. The first impression is of a pure resolution, clarity from finding another source to feed my aesthetic hunger. I think of capturing, owning, devouring it. But a composition quickly sets off a connection with previous ones and speculation for future ones. In my head these images hibernate a multilayered network of signifiers, of external influences, of potential for exposure. The best scenario to describe this is to go through videos for perfume ads. I think a lot about the Calvin Klein ones in the 90’s. That level of seduction, serenity, mystique, very evocative to promote a product so stout – glacial even – that is a perfume bottle, but then there is the scent in it. This is a conceptual framework I often return to whenever I think about my relationship with objects. Sounds shallow but the things you own, specially the things you want to own, are probably better manifestations of your personality than when you are asked to describe yourself. In the apparent terminal state of still lives I see an opportunity to reestablish fantasies the way each of us want, to be given freedom of association through a universal language. Everybody recognizes a tubular form or a piece of fruit. It might sound desperate and ridiculous to say this, but an object will not run away or judge you for who you are. An object will let you be; liberating you to embrace the animal in you, your true self, and that is the truth. Could this be lazy? A cliché maybe, but goes back to what I said about each person belonging to each place. ‘Let me belong here, so I can invite you in’.
The ninth and final volume of the “Builder” series is titled, “hunting in Forum Les Halles 75001.” Who is hunting and what is being hunted?
The last volume functions as an epilogue and is considering the notion of a centerfold being used for a target practice. It is mainly a formal experiment with the image position on a page, so it highlights a more panoramic view of the construction site. I was drawn to the idea of a ‘central figure’ that could connect isolated elements. The motif in the book is a cartoon character cutout I used to see giving directions within the site, so I kept imagining this figure constantly saying ‘There! There!’. With the title I wanted to make explicit that the construction site is the hunting ground and the hunted. As for the hunter, it’s not me, but all of us looking at these pages and those who pass by Forum Les Halles every time.
The series has a description on your website: “While in search for new typologies, new narratives surfaced instead. The series is a visual surgery dissecting, exposing and reassembling the veins of a metropolis.” Can you talk about the narratives present? And the role of Paris – the metropolis – that at once has veins and at the same time is referenced continuously with the bureaucratic numbering of postal codes?
I see these books as attempts of paradox objects, exploring the idea of a report instead of answering and establishing a timeline, to be a tool to initiate enigmas.
It’s funny you brought up that point, but isn’t bureaucracy part of a metropolis’ DNA, a controlling method that has organically defined our ways of living and our social value? The numerical reference, for both the photographs and the books is a throwback to the report structure. I wanted to maintain the objective symbolism of the format and imply that ‘Builder’ is a typological study subverted. There are two main arcs in the series involving tubes and hinges, where elements are considered to follow a hybrid ‘choreography’ planned by chance encounters and chosen angles. Those books are recreating a theater. The other narratives serve as supporting roles to define the setting, and building the series’ body through comparison with smaller constructions sites seen in ‘03’ or ‘07’. I saw in postal codes a scientific feature that could be toyed with. Without them all the books could merge into one, but I was interested in how they tease the reader into a possibility, a different playground. Almost like when we read about historical battles and their names. Most of the times they refer to a place, but never exactly where, which hill, which street. And it goes for the postal codes too, no matter how specific they are I feel there is a leeway to question whether we are in 75001 or 75003 because I don’t feel anything when crossing the street, nothing hits my face, the air doesn’t change. In a sense, the premise in ‘Builder’ is quite naïve and stubborn. It’s mostly about one place and photographed in similar compositions, while intended to read as a range of different things. But the project’s critical ambition was to question the validity of a report, and how its authority could be its biggest weakness. I see these books as attempts of paradox objects, exploring the idea of a report instead of answering and establishing a timeline, to be a tool to initiate enigmas.
Writer and visual artist living in Los Angeles. I am interested in the margins of architecture, in particular its intersections with art, politics, and ecology. Contact me! firstname.lastname@example.org