In the age-old nature/culture dualism, wheredoes the park fall? Probably deeper in the trenches of culture than the metropolis itself. It goes without saying that parks are no more “natural” than golf courses or the vast cornfields of the American Midwest: they are, ultimately, avatars of the countryside kept on a short leash, the enduring symbol of humankind’s quest for supremacy over nature and the definitive celebration in its reduction to a recreational commodity.
It is often forgotten that most parks are born from traumatic acts of urban subtraction. Take Central Park in New York: roughly 1,600 workingclass residents occupying the area prior to its existence were evicted under the rule of eminent domain in 1857, when the neighborhood known as Seneca Village was completely razed. There have been times when the same park was relinquished into an abyss of dereliction: following the dissolution of the Central Park Commission in 1870 and the progressive decline of the maintenance effort, the site existed as an urban wasteland for several decades. As historian Robert Caro wrote in his 1974 book The Power Broker:
Lawns, unseeded, were expanses of bare earth, decorated with scraggly patches of grass and weeds that became dust holes in dry weather and mud holes in wet . . . The once beautiful Mall looked like a scene of a wild party the morning after. Benches lay on their backs, their legs jabbing at the sky ...
Today, with the yearly number of Central Park’s visitors approaching twenty-five million (making it the most visited park in the United States), such a situation is unimaginable. As Marina Ballo Charmet’s photographs serve to remind us, parks are one of the few essential and irreducible ingredients of contemporary urbanism. As the degree to which humanity entrusts its survival to vast urban expanses increases year by year, our very understanding of what a park is, and why it’s there, changes and evolves: over time it takes on less and less the form of an optional commodity and more the form of a climacteric necessity.
Largely devoid of artifacts, parks are at first glance poor sites in which to conduct an investigation into a city’s identity. Ballo Charmet’s photographs are, however, more than a poetic socio documentary observation of how citizens inhabit their cities. Her photographs take on the park as a macroscopic mirror in which the nuances and subtle traits of a city’s identity can be investigated piecemeal, primarily through the observation of its inhabitants and their modes of congregation.
Her photos are like stills taken from a movie at seemingly random moments, as opposed to at the height of the moment of action: the absence of emphasis on conventional notions of framing and composition draws the attention to details. “Normality” is revealed and celebrated in all its beauty.
This is not the first project in which Marina Ballo Charmet sets the point of view close to the ground, but it is the first in which this technique actually increases the familiarity of the scene for the viewer rather than causing it to become more abstract, more distant from experience.
In her parks, the low viewpoint evokes without rhetoric the experience of actually being there, occupying a public space close to the ground, lying down in an urban environment punctuated by figures—some active, some passive, some moving, some immobile; temporary compositions that exist but for a fraction of a second. Some are unsettling, others are more idyllic, vaguely reminiscent of paradisiacal representations of the Garden of Eden before the Fall, minus the animals.
Ultimately, for the quiet and patient observer, her photographs reveal parks as the sharpest of mirrors held up to the cities that host them: it is precisely when environmental differences are attenuated that detail becomes important, and a deeper understanding of identity transpires.
J. Grima, “Subliminali Portraits of Urbanity”, in Il parco/The park, Charta, Milan, 2008 Catalogue of the exhibition curated by G. Scardi and R. Valtorta, Triennale , Milan, 2008.