[25 Apr 2019] Reviewed by Loring Knoblauch - Collector Daily

When a person trained as an architect picks up a camera, it makes complete sense that he or she might be interested in photographing how built spaces function. More than the rest of us, who can be forgiven for missing some of the design and construction details that are found in the everyday structures in our world, architects notice and understand the choices and tradeoffs that were made in built environments, and are better equipped to evaluate whether buildings have done a good job of meeting the obvious needs (and constraints) of both the site and the inhabitants. But beyond these technicalities, it also seems intuitively true that architects should have a deep interest in the more nuanced personalities of built space – how moods change depending on the light and the time of day, how a building subtly controls (or enhances) the behavior of the people that live in it, and how structures age and evolve over time as people use them. In this way, buildings can become venues for imaginative storytelling, the atmospheric rhythms they create open to ongoing interpretation.

Shyue Woon is a working architect as well as a photographer, and his integrated trilogy of photobooks Dark Cities clearly leverages his professional perspective. Lingering in a series of forgettable spaces (a parking lot in Singapore, a residential building in Tokyo, a warren of narrow streets in Seoul), he pays close attention to both physical surfaces and invisible dispositions, creating aggregate photographic portraits that feel like small self-contained vignettes. In each case, he brings us inside and up close, showing us overlooked details, fleeting moments, and formal arrangements that hint at something more complicated (or even more quietly dangerous) than we might have ever imagined.

The first volume Carpark takes us inside an anonymous parking garage at night. Woon’s images are dark and shadowy, the only light coming from glowing fluorescent lights that tint the scenes with seething blues and reds. Most of the photographs encourage us to notice the details we would normally pass by in a transitional non-place like this one – leaky puddles (some with eerie reflections), dried stains (left over from who knows what kind of human encounters), dirty scrapes and footprints across concrete, decaying walls, intensely scratched windows, and unidentifiable dripping goo coming through a ceiling tile. These grimy textures set the stage for a selection of fleeting connections, where people (or ghosts) walk away down lonely tunnels, wait in elevator lobbies, or are glimpsed in stairwells. We voyeuristically peer into cars as they pass below us, and we are in turn watched ourselves by security cameras, telescoping the observations into multiple layers of looking and being seen. But none of these connections ever entirely coalesces, and so the garage echoes with moody emptiness, our minds turning the drag lines across the floor and the scrawled messages on the tile into fantasy murder mysteries and other psychological anxieties. Woon has likened this aggregate portrait to “purgatory” and that characterization seems apt – his photographs deliberately leave us in a zone that encourages a feeling of being untethered and exposed.

The second volume in the set takes place in and around the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. The futuristic pod-like residential building was built by Kisho Kurokawa in 1972 with the forward-thinking concept that it was entirely upgradeable. The catch in the clever architectural story is that while that may have been the case, at least theoretically, none of the units has ever actually been replaced, and so the structure has aged into a state of not-so-graceful decay. Once again, Woon’s photographs show us plenty of surfaces and corners, but this time there is a more overt visual dialogue between dream and reality. A shiny robot head, a transparent glass horse, fish in tanks, and a child wrapped in rain-averting plastic allude to the future that the building hoped for, and many of the design details (room numbers, sleek mail slots, stacked unit blocks with perfectly round windows) match this visionary optimism. But the building is clearly no longer what it once was. Woon photographically ticks off its many troubles: bubbled peeling paint, stained floors, worn handrails, buckets and plastic sheeting arranged to catch drips, tangled wires, creeping mold, and closed doors taped off to prevent discovery of whatever problems lay hidden behind. The cover image offers a look upward at the soot-stained building from outside, the structure drifting into gritty dissolving darkness; even though it is still inhabited, the Capsule feels like an alternate universe, where everyday life intermingles with a future just out of reach.

The third volume Euljiro is slightly less claustrophobic than the first two, if only because we find ourselves walking through the back alleys of Seoul as the city transitions from night to day. Woon’s nocturnal images pull us through the maze of narrow streets, the silence of the night reverberating against the shuttered storefronts obscured by steel security gates. Brightly lit signage and harsh street lamps provide a break from the gloomy glow, the grit and grime of the streets colored by the flares and tints of these light sources. But when morning comes, Woon turns his attention to closer in textures, and the mood changes from illicit to mundane. His surface studies in this volume are the most formal, his eye for the arrangement of a broom, a locked door, a cracked wall, or a gathering of tools creating order and harmony out of randomness. When the sun rises, the bustle of the streets invades further, and men with hand trucks get their work done carrying boxes.

The design and construction of Dark Cities exhibits the kind of rigor and meticulousness we would expect from an architect – it’s a tightly conceived and expertly executed photobook product. Each individual volume is intimately sized, with thick cardboard covers that give the book a sense of heft. Inside each cover, a soft ghost of the front image is printed on black paper, the reversed tonalities slowing us down and preparing us for the night that follows. The sequencing includes full bleed spreads, single side images, and multi-image sets that stretch across the gutter, and the way the images are presented against black, the colors simmer and ferment with satisfying eeriness. The three volumes are the housed in a very smartly folded cardboard box, with text printed on the various inside flaps. The whole object fits together neatly, encouraging us to see the three sets of imagery as one interlocked whole.

Woon’s pictures follow pathways other photographers have traveled before, particularly those in search of a contemporary version of cinematic and atmospheric noir or the roughness of the typical urban underbelly. But what separates Woon from that pack is his entry point of architectural thinking, and the way that vantage point manifests itself in his works. He’s interpreting and reimagining space rather than the more straightforward scene setting many have done, and his results draw the personality of the space out from within rather than applying it from on high. This mode unexpectedly takes him back to the traditional genre of architectural photography – he’s searching for ways to capture the authentic personality of a building or space, he’s just done it with much more flair and improvisation than we usually encounter.

[17 Oct 2018] Reviewed by Angelo Zinna - GUP Magazine

A black paper box, a small printed index of its contents and a partially readable title, Dark Cities. This is the name of Shyue Woon (b. 1975, Singapore) latest project, a collection of three books that try to re-imagine fringe spaces in the metropoles of Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul. A biblical sentence introduces us to the trilogy: “I don’t know what to make of my investigation, maybe this is how I interpret the carpark to be, a purgatory, a space that is neither heaven nor hell.”

In Carpark, the first book of the series, Woon captures the details of a Singaporean multi-story carpark during his nocturnal wanderings. Following a counselling session where he was advised to keep a diary of his thoughts, the photographer set out on the streets of his city to create a catalogue of his reflections through visual imagery. Escaping the constraints of language, Woon explored the darker corners of his city as a form of self-investigation, creating an ambiguous first-person narrative where the subject hides outside of the frame.

To shoot the second chapter of Dark Cities, Capsule, Woon travelled to Tokyo to collect images from the thirteen story Nagakin Tower, designed in 1972 by Kisko Kurokawa. Trained as an architect himself, the photographer was attracted by the alienating brutalist structure which seems to have been built for a dystopic science fiction movie. By depicting the decay of the building Woon tells the story of a failed vision, of an artist trying to anticipate the future and then being overpowered by it.

Euljiro is the last of the three books, set in Seoul’s last remaining urban fabric dated from the Chosun Dynasty, once a symbol of modernity and industrial power. Today its inhabitants, portrayed by Woon mainly through the object representing their everyday life, appear like being stuck in an era finished a long time ago, locked in a forgotten corner of the fast moving megalopolis.

© Angelo Zinna (GUP Magazine)

Excerpts from http://www.gupmagazine.com/books/dark-cities

[31 Aug 2018] Reviewed by Tay Kay Chin - Eastpix

"I like books(film too) that screw me up and those that keep bugging me. These obviously do.

Unreliable narrators are certainly more interesting. No?
Is Shyue mad? Deranged? Troubled? Has he been besieged by evils?
I guess it will sound a little more interesting if the answers to these rhetorical questions are mostly ‘yes’.
I’m not sure I understand what he is getting at with these three books, but I am certainly not relying on the accompanying texts to enlighten me.
In many ways, I don’t want to know the ‘truths’.
And I am not the least bothered.
Darkness and deserted spaces fascinate me, they draw me in. That’s enough.
I have wondered though if they are better off loose so that we can construct our own narratives.

What I know is I that I will be returning to these lovely dark monsters again, and again, soon."

© Tay Kay Chin

Excerpts from http://eastpix.com/blog/2018/08/31/book-lives-dark-cities-by-shyue-woon/

[3 Aug 2018] Reviewed by Christer Ek 

The subtitle of the book could have been, « A tale of a forgotten future » as Shyue Woon takes us to a long journey exploring some emblematic areas in three huge cities : Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul.

Each of these cities is the object of an autonomous work, the three being collected in a superb box that gives its name to the trilogy. Shyue Woon is a trained architect and an architectural approach is evident in the way he looks at the places he passes through. He takes us with him in his wanderings, as if to make us visit the recesses of his unconscious. Of the three megacities chosen, he shows us almost nothing, or very little. In each city, he chose to isolate himself, at night in places that were, at other times, symbols of a prosperous future, utopias of the twentieth century.

The first book is entitled « Carpark » and Shyue Woon takes us for a night walk in a multi-storey carpark. I have always had a particular affection for the nooks and « non-places », well… all those places in front of which one passes without ever stopping or even taking a look at it. A succession of details slowly builds an abstract vision of this world of the night. Our imagination creates a parallel universe in which memories reappears. A silhouette draws itself in distance, or is it a ghost? We meet people whom we can’t reach, separated from a window or a blur that prevents us to get in touch.

Shyue Woon evokes the idea of a purgatory in which one evolves, trying to solve a crime story, reference to the black films or an insoluble enigma coming straigh from mythology, which proves impossible to solve. We meet our demons but we also get rid of our fears in a cathartic ordeal.

The second book entitled « Capsule » takes us, as its title indicates in the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza – Tokyo, futuristic project of the early 1970s which today, is on the brink of abandonment since the maintenance there is no more assured. Shyue Woon guides us through this labyrinth of doors and corridors. The light is more present, as if, out of purgatory we found our way to the surface, to the inhabited world. We get lost in this maze of colors to always end up in front of a wall, but with the hope of a light that will deliver the outcome.

Here again the author stops on small things, trivial details that say long about the state of the premises. We find ourselves locked in the past, as in the brain of a brilliant architect who would find himself trapped in his project too futuristic, and here the term capsule takes all its meaning, recalling the films of anticipation in which the deplacements were supposed to be done in some so-called capsules.

« Euljiro », third opus of this trilogy leads us finally in a district of Seoul. It is always dark and our wanderings continue in this dehumanized world. Lights seem to illuminate a vanished world, or at least of which the inhabitants would have leaved places in a sort of hurry. Cables guide us through the streets, like a ball from which we pull the wire to guide us to the exit, ponctuating our way of many traces of life, proof that we are on the right path. The light returns slowly, passing from the structuring spheres of the city to its surface state. If the first book was purgatory, we wonder now in what universe we will emerge.

The three books highlight Shyue Woon’s vision of the city, which is reminiscent of Marc Augé’s definition of « non-place » (one of the texts accompanying « Carpark » refers to it) and the architect he is can only wonder about the spatial organization of the city and the spaces that compose it. How do we go from one place to another, spatially first, but also temporally and here is appearing in the background of the three books, the influence of time on the « project ». Would the futurism of an era become now only old fashionned and, finally, what is this articulation of the present that tilts one towards the other? It is thus as an architect that Shyu Woon uses the night to deconstruct what was built, in order to understand the inner structure of buildings and cities, and to reorganize the spaces around a fiction stemming from our imagination, a little bit as Alice’s world by Lewis Caroll.

Three hardcover books 14,5 x 21 cm, open spine with silkscreen cover, in a box set.

© Christer Ek 

Excerpts from https://whoneedsanotherphotoblog.wordpress.com/2018/08/03/dark-cities-by-shyue-woon/

[20 Aug 2018] Reviewed by Fabien Ribery

Dark Cities, du photographe et architecte singapourien Shyue Woon, est un objet de haute beauté, sophistiqué, noir et lumineux telle une nuit interminable trouée d’apparitions.

Cet objet astral se présente sous la forme de trois volumes, ou modules, ou capsules, réunis sous boitier cartonné.

Il s’agit donc d’une trilogie, initiée en 2014, prenant pour sujets les villes de Singapour, Tokyo et Seoul, soient l’espace d’un parking automobile vécu comme un lieu de transition entre l’enfer et le paradis, une sorte de Purgatoire (Singapour), une tour futuriste et angoissante édifiée dans les années 1970 (Tokyo), un quartier peu à peu oublié, pourtant symbole de la modernisation entière d’un pays (Seoul).

Shyue Woon utilise la photographie pour explorer ce qui se joue dans le secret des bâtiments, cette réalité construite devenue autonome, comme un monstre merveilleux et froid.

La fiction s’invite, qui donne des poumons aux ombres, des yeux aux mondes souterrains, des ailes aux murs délabrés.

Dark Cities est en quelque sorte le journal d’une introspection au contact de quelques lieux très inspirants, ordinaires ou remarquables, de trois mégapoles asiatiques, si intimidantes et tentaculaires qu’elles pourraient devenir invisibles.

Chez Shyue Woon tout procède du noir et d’une forme d’indistinction originelle.

Des microfictions s’inventent dans une vision de la ville très cinématographique.

Construction de plans qui sont des scènes pour la pluie, des silhouettes, des matières éclairées par des néons.

Une vitre cassée, des talons aiguilles, des inscriptions sibyllines.

En sous-sol, le parking truffé de caméras de surveillance est une chambre d’échos, un monde propice à la naissance de puissances chtoniennes.

En surface, se dresse une tour, passablement délabrée. Nous sommes à Ginza, quartier chic de Tokyo.

Il y a ici de la rouille, des fils électriques apparents, une bassine, une structure effrayante peuplée d’androïdes étranges, produits de haute technologie et de taches de moisissure.

Que reste-t-il du rêve de l’architecte ?

Voici un bâtiment qui coule, qui fuit de toutes parts, et dont les organes sont malades.

Que reste-t-il des premiers empires ?

A Seoul, un quartier qui fut à la pointe du progrès s’écroule, vieillit mal, se teinte de pauvreté.

Ce lieu de peintures écaillées et de ferrailles est un aquarium sale, un théâtre où la petite race humaine gesticule sous l’œil impavide des poissons qui les contemplent.

Dark Cities explore, en des images construites comme des indices, des espaces intermédiaires, où les humains semblent contraints de se métamorphoser en carpes ou mulets s’ils veulent avoir une chance de survivre à l’instant dernier du déluge.

© Fabien Ribery


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