London-based artist Mark Lewis (Canadian, born 1958 in Hamilton, Ontario) makes short, non-narrative films that closely consider the modern urban environment. Originally trained as a photographer, Lewis has worked with moving images since the mid-1990s, first using 35 mm film and, more recently, digital video as the medium for his visual meditations on time, movement, and space. His films are soundless, evoking a bygone era of silent filmmaking and heightening the work’s optical impact, while his closely choreographed, slowly gliding camerawork gives the effortless and improvisatory appearance of a single, continuous take. Such hybrid of film techniques and digital technologies renders Lewis’s work decidedly contemporary in that, as the artist explains, working in the digital realm is “a central part of the cinematic experience. The difference between the moving image and still image has dissolved. The uncanniness saves it from being a simulacrum of the real.”
Like a flaneur or global wanderer, Lewis’s inquisitive camera often explores urban architecture and infrastructure from impossible views and overlooked perspectives. Past films have taken as their subject matter everyday life in cities as far-flung as Beirut, Cheorwon in the demilitarized zone of South Korea, London, Paris, São Paulo, and Toronto, and the promises and failures of modernity therein. Aspects of the artist’s signature style include an inverted perspective, as seen in City Road 04 May 2012, 2012, and Rush Hour, Morning and Evening, Cheapside, 2005; a camera that improbably encircles and enters buildings in Isosceles, 2007, and Smithfield, 2000; and an interest in the explicit processes of filmmaking, such as in Downtown: Tile, Zoom and Pan, 2005.
Lewis’s latest film, Galveston, 2017, newly commissioned by The Contemporary Austin and on view at the Jones Center, takes the city of Galveston, Texas, as both its setting and title. This island off the Gulf Coast has had many lives—as historic immigration port, center for shipping and the petrochemical industry, site of natural disasters, and tourist destination—and this complex, layered history becomes the backdrop and undercurrent for the film. In Galveston, Lewis’s ever-present subject is the iconic white skyscraper of One Moody Tower, visible throughout the southeast Texas city since it was completed in 1972. Of the structure, Lewis notes, “I like the way the building stands like a ‘promise,’ of a future that might still happen but as of yet has not arrived,” as it offers vistas “suggestive in some way of how the building might be thought of as a beacon of modernity.” The film focuses on modernist architecture’s pure formal qualities—and by association its attendant utopian ideals—contradicted by the struggling economic conditions visible in the streets. A combination of live action video footage and subtle 3-D animation produces an uncanny perspective as the camera seems to slowly descend the twenty-three floors of the building, flip upside down, and then move through vacant streets in this low-lying coastal city.
Evoking the eerie effect that Alfred Hitchcock achieved with his 1958 film Vertigo, One Moody Tower oddly appears to grow in size despite the perspective of distance. No matter how far the camera travels, in Galveston, strangely, the solid, modern corporate structure of One Moody Tower is never far from the line of sight. Like a powerful panopticon in the midst of public space, the building’s presence evokes an all-seeing eye looking back at the camera. Indeed, as Lewis explains his interest in urban surveillance: “the sheer number of cameras—two billion smart phone cameras and, importantly, 265 million anonymized surveillance cameras worldwide, all producing films according to complex and alienated aesthetic and political conditions—means that filming and being filmed are special conditions of contemporaneity that we can scarcely understand or imagine.” This critique of today’s Orwellian landscape contrasts with the poetic abstraction of the film itself, whereby a seemingly simple tour of the city is turned upside down, destabilized, and, through Lewis’s torqued lens, rendered timely and new.