Adam Magyar’s first solo show in New York, Kontinuum, contemplates the calm and the fury of time. For this exhibition, the Hungarian artist and technological whiz built cameras and software to watch time pass, inviting the viewer to share in this typically solitary pursuit. Yet Magyar’s photographs and video work manage to escape the maudlin, taking the viewer on a sort of high-resolution path toward enlightenment.
On ViewJulie Saul Gallery
February 12 – April 4, 2015
In his twenties, around the turn of the millennium, Magyar wandered the globe, traveling through India and East Asia and Morocco and Europe, and began photographing his novel and changing surroundings. He soon began experimenting with new techniques and technologies, allowing him to visualize the city scenes captivating him in uncanny ways. For the Urban Flow series (2007 – 2015), Magyar set up a stationary slit-scan camera and trained it on crosswalks, then took a series of very narrow vertical shots and reassembled them across wide black-and-white canvases. The resulting images form a tableau of crowds, set against striated and streaked backgrounds, suggesting the dramatic whoosh of a passing train. Those pictured walk toward the right, their feet often distorted into blades and clown-shoe-ish smears, with fragmented or squashed vehicles zooming behind.
The viewer cannot help but ponder mortality. The characters in the foreground are removed from any recognizable place, instead walking atop a path of moments solidified. The huge emptiness of the scenery contrasts with the intimate view of some of the pedestrians—in Urban Flow 333, Hong Kong (2007), the crowds carry umbrellas against a darkened and pockmarked background, while a few unfortunate souls hold a hand above their heads miserably. A man walking alone lights a cigarette. Funky angles of entry into the camera’s purview mean that some of the figures in, say, Urban Flow 1807, New York (2015) appear deliciously cartoonish, with thick blocky torsos atop tapering pointy-toed legs. But the general picture is of time passing, as in a diagram of apes evolving to humans—only here the final stage of our evolution is as final as can be. That Magyar’s scenes are quite literally comprised of elapsed time makes the one-way nature of our journey more deeply resonant. We enter stage left and exit stage right, with hardly a second to take a bow in between.
Unable to staunch the steady hemorrhage of time, Magyar delves into it. His Stainless series (2010 – 2011) photographs subway trains pulling into stations using similar slit-scan cameras, making concrete the suggested locomotives from Urban Flow. The resulting images—again composed of successive moments in one narrow space rather than one moment of a wider space, as in standard photography—suspend train cars in a blank black void. Through the windows, we see the passengers frozen between transit and arrival. The Parisians in Stainless 14536, Paris (2011) look philosophical, heads and eyes tilted upward as if in contemplation. New Yorkers of Stainless 7492, New York (2010) look alternatively bored and spooked, or simply stare at their phones, a less magical if still revealing image. The forward, inexorable pace of Urban Flow is replaced by one made up of slivers that each exist independently. Where before Magyar’s characters were carried forward by the temporal tides, now they are able to stand still as Ozymandias amid the roiling current around them.
Accompanying the slit-scan train stills in the Stainless series are four videos (2011 – current ) filmed from the opposite side of the lens, watching the station from the train. One second is here expanded to one minute, a speed so slow that most of those depicted seem to be stuck in still photography and panned across. Yet the ever-so-slight movements distill life’s chaos into balletic details: the light dance of a woman’s hair in the breeze of Beijing, the eternal arc of a ball of paper in Mumbai. Yawns gape endlessly. Watching the films feels like surveying the history of whole worlds, tricksters flitting into view and smirking cheekily, villains clenching their brows, young women sensuously brushing their hair aside. The experience is poignant, but perhaps familiar to anyone who has strolled stoned and wide-eyed down a New York City subway platform by night. While Urban Flow is the most visually striking series in the exhibition, these photographic films are the most arresting. The human experience reveals itself to be fractal, the whole visible in each of its parts. To see this world in all its intricate beauty, we need only to look with soft eyes. Or, perhaps, with high-powered gadgetry.