Aside from being teeming, Mumbai and Tokyo don’t have much in common. Neither, it might seem, do the city-inspired works of Kermit Berg and Delna Dastur, which face each other on the walls of Gallery plan b. Berg’s photographic collages and Dastur’s mixed-media “drawings” on canvas both riff on patterns and grids, and both have a specific geographic identity. But Berg’s “Tokyo Night Office” is aggressively contemporary — there are no temples, kabuki or geisha in his neon-lit Tokyo — while Dastur’s “Encroachment” draws on centuries of Indian culture.
Berg, who lives in Berlin and San Francisco, is not the first outsider to see Tokyo as an empire of signs. Japan’s capital is crowded with text, and Berg makes Photoshop combinations of subway maps, ad posters and neon logos, all in mash-ups of Chinese characters, Roman letters and Japanese syllabaries. He layers images in ways that range from witty to nearly abstract. The playful “Lemon Tea” conflates a lineup of beverages in one of the city’s ubiquitous vending machines with the workers behind windows in an office building; both are products on display in a consumer wonderland.
The photographer, who’s had transit-themed shows in New York and Berlin, is drawn to Tokyo’s subway and commuter train system, whose basic design is comprehensible to any urbanite. But Berg doesn’t show the throngs for which the city’s trains and stations are famed. Instead, he focuses on motifs and colors, turning twists of green neon into abstract lines and glorying in the contrast between night skies and vivid artificial light. (The underlying photographs were probably made before the Fukushima nuclear power-plant meltdown led to Tokyo’s dimming.) The most striking of these pictures is the near-abstract “Red Square,” a swoosh of black and a burst of green on a hot red field. It could be anything, but it feels like Tokyo.
Dastur’s work is gentler. The artist, who divides her time between Mumbai and the District, draws on fabric design and Mughal illustrated manuscripts. Although one canvas is titled “Urban Dominance,” these works are not overbearing. Indeed, the most citified thing about them is their lack of green. The artist prefers blues, reds and blacks, which she often adorns with gold leaf (another reference to Persian-style books). She builds honeycombed grids with wooden Indian textile stamps, layers gels, gessoes and pastels over acrylic washes and finishes it off with charcoal. These cityscapes may not be bustling — there are no people, save for a few sequestered Mughal lovers in “Secret Affairs” — but their depths suggest the cultural archaeology of a place built from multiple civilizations.
There are plenty of patterns in “Destroyed,” an exhibition of photographs by techno musician Moby being shown by Irvine Contemporary at Montserrat House. Chicago’s street grid, the windows of a large Berlin office block and the arrangement of partially melted snow in New York’s Central Park are among the traveling musician’s subjects. But the essential theme of these crisp, dramatically lit images is aloneness. There are crowds of people in some shots, but they’re on the other side of the stage, unknowable. Other photos — including the one that gives the show its name — depict the sleek sterility of airports, highways and hotel rooms. The word “destroyed” is part of an electronic sign’s message warning what will happen to luggage that becomes separated from its owner. The crushing alienation is artfully expressed but maybe a little over-dramatized. Doesn’t Moby have backing musicians, a road manager, publicists? If he misplaces his bag, there’s probably someone on staff to retrieve it before it becomes an existential metaphor.
Helsinki is not generally considered one of the globe’s meaner cities, but some people desperately want to escape it. These include some of the girls who live at an institution for kids whose parents were neglectful or abusive. Photographer Miina Savolainen takes them into the countryside for romantic portraits, often shot during what Finns call “the blue moment” (the first and last hour of sunlight, termed “the magic hour” in English.)
The process is both collaborative and therapeutic. The 120 photos in “The Loveliest Girl in the World” (out of about 70,000 Savolainen has made) depict not just the grandeur of the Finnish wilderness and the subjects’ fairy-tale scenarios. They also show the process of gaining trust and confidence. In several suites of photos, shot over four or more years, the earlier pictures portray a girl who glares at the camera lens, if she’ll look its way at all. Later images reveal friendlier, more assured young women, partially mended by nature — and fantasy.
Shot in several regions of Finland — Savolainen drove about 125,000 miles to stage these scenes — the photos depict grand vistas and fancy dress. The girls chose their outfits, which tend toward the flowing and white. One wears a tiara. Another, an unwed mother at 16, elected to be photographed in front of a frozen lake, wearing her mother’s wedding gown.
The scenes aren’t always lovely. A few girls decided to pose at abandoned industrial sites, and some of the untrammeled locations are as harsh as they are beautiful. One shot, of a girl lying half-submerged in a fetal position in a partially flooded rowboat, is meant to symbolize rebirth. But it also suggests 19th-century British artist John Everett Millais’s famous painting of the drowned Ophelia, a romantic image of death, not transformation.
In Finland, “The Loveliest Girl in the World” is the best-selling photo book ever. That reflects, in part, the allure of its dramatic scenery. The photographs were shot in diverse formats and printed in various sizes, yet are nearly always horizontal, to emphasize the sweep of the land. But the photographs also represent the appeal of a modern fairy-tale moral: that people can take real strength from their invented selves. The Web site for Savolainen’s project is www.empoweringphotography.net.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Nov. 20 at
Gallery plan b, 1530 14th St. NW; 202-234-2711; www.galleryplanb.com .
on view through Nov. 13 at
the Embassy of Finland, 3301 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 202-298-5821; www.finland.org .