In conversation with… Boris Wilensky, urban photographer

Boris Wilensky’s award-winning photography exhibition ‘Hurban Vortex’ explores the paradoxical relationship between cities and their citizens. He tells Vision how, through double exposure he hopes to show the city as a place of both freedom – and constraint

From Greek philosophers to contemporary painters, cities have fascinated artists for centuries with their eclectic embodiment of contradictions.  Connectivity and isolation, artistry and engineering, humanity and machinery merge together in urban landscapes, making them an enduring platform for exploring the nature of the human condition.

Acclaimed photographer Boris Wilensky is one such artist reflecting on the nature of cities and their citizens in his exhibition ‘Hurban Vortex’ – a play on human and urban – currently on show at the prestigious French cultural centre Alliance Française in Dubai until 15 September.

Inspired by six months of travelling in Asia, Wilensky’s images are a unique take on the urban space, using a double exposure technique to superimpose images of individual people over traditional East Asian cityscapes.

The three-part exhibition – ‘Origins’, ‘Collapse’, ‘Post’ – covers the range of urban experiences, exploring the beauty of cultural connectivity and modernisation, while also imagining a bleak future of collapse, climate change and digital dystopia. Despite the darker elements of his work, the final part of the exhibition, ‘Post’, presents a touching human perspective, suggesting that, despite occasional isolation, political and technological feats, humanity will always find a way to make the urban landscape work for them.

Vision speaks to Wilensky about the message behind his wide-ranging work.

Talk us through the inspiration behind Hurban Vortex and how the project came to be.

Hurban Vortex is first and foremost the desire to work on universal themes while having a very personal approach. I went to Japan in 2008 to make portraits and urban shots. Purely by chance, I discovered overprinting. To take a photograph is to give one's personal representation of reality. Combining two pictures allows you to tell a story and get a message across and that's what I liked about it. Most of the pictures of the first part ‘Origins’ were made during this first trip to Tokyo. From morning till night, I shot a maximum and at night, back to the hotel room, I did the overprints directly on the camera unit.

In terms of art, it seems to me that the most interesting is to work on contrasts and paradoxes. This is what nourishes reflection. 

This series was presented to Alliance Française (an international organisation that aims to promote French language and culture around the world) of Bangkok in 2010 where it received an excellent public acclaim. I then returned to Tokyo in 2011, just after the Fukushima disaster, to continue this work. I saw the city had been deeply impacted by this event. Because of the shutdown of all nuclear power plants in Japan (54 power stations were shut down), high-energy savings were required and the face of the city changed. It had become darker.  I could observe that Japanese people expressed fears about their future and planet’s future. The Promethean dream seemed not to keep all its promises. This is what inspired me to build the new sequels of my trip in superimposition; to talk about this uncertain future by mixing images and words.

Why did you choose to split the show into three sections (‘Origins’ - ‘Collapse’ - ‘Post’)?

Because I am a great movie enjoyer, I love cinema, and I really wanted to tell this story as a trilogy but also as a visual and colorimetric journey. The first part ‘Origins’ immerses us in the current urban universe. It is the city in the present. ‘Collapse’ is a projection in the future, with its flashy colors, its unrestrained rhythm, its own themes (circulation, speed, movement, youth, music...). It is also the explosive encounter between two themes that are essential to me: economy and ecology, hence the appearance of dark glasses and gas masks.

boris wilensky

The colours also begin to disappear in this part, as an echo to the latent dehumanisation that awaits us. Finally, in the third part ‘Post’, I imagined a post-modern (or post-urban) period where the city has disappeared and where there is only one aged and damaged human being, but alive and well. The colours are now just black and white even though there are still slivers of colours, like a distant echo to the past history. It was important for me to couple the narrative evolution with a colorimetric evolution to mark the differences between the three parts. This work on color is also a metaphor on life and is an integral part of this story.

Like the images, the title of the show, ‘Hurban Vortex’, merges the human and the urban. Talk us through the aesthetic choice to superimpose images of people and places.

The idea was really to produce something original. I had already seen overprints mixing architectural forms. Frequently, the result was extremely graphic. I wanted to, in addition to this graphic side, add emotion and reflection; putting people back at the very heart of urban issues. I am passionate about portraits and it seems to me that a portrait alone is the most beautiful landscape. I also find it very interesting to mix the living and the material and play on the opposition of the textures.

How do you decide which photographs work well together before superimposing them?

There must be something a little indescribable and a little magical in this association. I also believe that it is necessary to think a photograph before realising it. When I left for six months in Asia to capture shots, I clearly split my work and anticipated the future realisation of double-exposures. For four months, I visited biggest Asian cities (Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok ...) to create an extensive library of urban shots. Then I spent more than three months in Cambodia working on the Human side and realising portraits. In terms of art, it seems to me that the most interesting is to work on contrasts and paradoxes. This is what nourishes reflection.

Projecting my images in giant formats thanks to video projections directly on the city buildings is a dream that I cherish. And, if there is a place where dreams can become reality, it seems to me that it is the city of Dubai

A lot of the cities you study are architecturally diverse, but much of your focus is on people. Why are people a good reflection of a city?

The basic postulate of this work is that it’s human beings who think and build cities. But moving on from that, it seems to me that ‘the City’ becomes a distinct entity on its own and shapes the inhabitants. It imposes its pace and, slowly but surely, impoverishes us by standardising us. I wanted to convey this message in people’s eyes because they are the concerned ones. I am first and foremost a portraitist, attached to the living, so it seemed right to emphasise the human side.

Your pictures present something of a paradox - the cities can be read as intensely beautiful and creative, but also as cruel and lonely. What was your intention when setting up the project?

I think that the cities bear this paradox in it. These are spaces of freedoms but also of strong constraints. They are beautiful and ugly, attractive and repulsive, rich and poor. Cities can be seen as a condensed format of human being with all its contradictions. This is what makes this work exciting. To show that what seems beautiful at first can also hide ugliness and vice versa.

boris wilensky

What makes Dubai an interesting place to exhibit this particular work?

Because Dubai is precisely a land of paradox. An oasis of urbanity in the heart of the desert. A place of cultural mixing thanks to many nationalities living in this city. To present a series focusing on the paradox in a paradoxical city is therefore terribly exciting. Finally, Dubai is also a place where I would very much like to work in the future. To showcase artworks naturally, but also to realize new ones. I also keep in mind the desire to show my work no longer in galleries but in a much more original form.

Projecting my images in giant formats thanks to video projections directly on the city buildings is a dream that I cherish. And, if there is a place where dreams and excesses can combine and become reality, it seems to me that it is the city of Dubai.

Hurban Vortex, organised by Alliance Française Dubai at their new gallery ‘La Galerie’ and curated by OKARYS Art Leads, is on in Dubai until 15 September