"The generic city is the city liberated from the captivity of centre, from the straitjacket of identity. The generic city breaks with the destructive cycle of dependence: it is nothing but a reflection of present need and present ability. It is the city without history."
Rem Koolhaas, 'The Generic City', 1994
In the year 2000, Claire Chevrier went to Hong Kong, megalopolis of South-East Asia, typical of the urban expansion now escalating so rapidly at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This journey was an opportunity for the photographer to renew her way of operating by abandoning the relationship with memory she had worked on till then to focus on the contemporary space of those cities that have experienced chaotic exponential development. According to the architect Rem Koolhaas, this kind of growth actually swallows up all forms of the past and leads to the creation of amnesiac cities, without any identity or specific quality (See the article by Rem Koolhaas, 'The Generic City' in S, M, L, XL, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1994.). These generic cities – as he calls them – establish multiracial and multicultural areas that are extremely densely populated, which proliferate by assembling heterogeneous elements. Rio, Bombay, Istanbul, Cairo and also Los Angeles and Lagos are instances of this. They make up the list of sprawling conglomerates that Claire Chevrier has surveyed, exploring those oversized unstable places, in which more and more people live, especially in developing countries. Claire Chevrier's photographs of these anonymous sites that are the embodiment of globalization are organized according to a particular typology. The defined categories – landscapes-cities, limits, spaces + constructions, intersections-cities, avenues and buildings – are virtually zoomed in on from the periphery of the megalopolises towards their interior, which is devoid of a centre. They bring closer the urban network by favouring tight framing that is regularly combined with a reduced format. In fact, her images are as much representations as objects. The proportional relations and plays on scale are organized with precision so that the territories observed are sharply interpreted and this is underpinned by the material quality of the images. The strong perspective of Avenue 03 in Lagos or the horizontality of Avenue frontale 01, this time in Rio, underline a concern with organizing the real without systematizing it, as does the variation in the size of prints according to subject matter.
In effect, Claire Chevrier's classification does not obey an extremely strict set of rules when taking a shot, as in the case of the Bechers and the Düsseldorf School. While certain features recur (such as the high angle shot or the horizontal registers that give a rhythm to the composition), they are not fixed parameters aimed at defining a rigid series in which technical objectivity is combined with abstract views. Adaptation, chosen as opposed to the insistent recurrence of specific features, reflects an urban reality that is itself flexible and constantly changing. Far from creating an instantly recognizable corpus, Claire Chevrier adopts an approach that translates the loss of geographical landmarks typical of these cities, where the ways of survival create a universal vocabulary of living conditions such as the blue tarpaulin to be found in countless shanty towns, in all latitudes.
This flexibility indicates the desire to react to the environments visited without imposing a restrictive perspective that would condition interpretation. Despite their haphazard homogeneity, for Claire Chevrier it is not a question of establishing a valid classification for all cities with a population of over ten million, with a view to finding a transparent arrangement that would give reassurance of the potential mastery of the human environment. On the contrary, the categories – from landscape to isolated buildings – evidence an attempt to grasp these territories on a human scale, when this concept seems doomed to disappear. Adaptation is thus the keyword in this photographer's approach, since she has shown an equal interest in conurbations that are not so enormous. This is the case of Paysage-ville 05, which shows the buildings of Damas in the distance, beyond a row of olive trees, countless makeshift constructions stretching over the hillside. This precarious urban growth can be mistaken for a rock, a sign that the dividing line between culture and nature, city and surroundings, is not clear cut.
The deterritorialization at issue here obliges us to refer back to that very famous concept of the aura defined by Walter Benjamin (Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' in Illuminations, trans. by H. Zohn, Schocken, New York, 1969.). Returning to this idea today in a text on photography may seem somewhat hackneyed, since it has been endlessly associated with this medium. However, the loss of uniqueness diagnosed in the 1930s by this German philosopher may offer the possibility of understanding that these generic cities are merely an inevitable extension of the decline of the hic et nunc, the here and now. For Benjamin authenticity was associated with the artwork insofar as the latter is the depository of a tradition (visible through its material presence), which mechanical reproduction annihilated in two ways by decontextualizing and updating it. In our day, all the new urban areas are to be interpreted as the product of this transformation. But it also underlines that Benjamin's dialectic is no longer totally effective: "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be" is not resolved in a simple close relationship with things. There is no doubt that the hold of banality has increased. But this does not always mean an elimination of distance.
In this respect, Claire Chevrier's photographs very often maintain a distance that takes the visual form of an empty area in the foreground. They combine the familiarity of an architectural vocabulary borrowed from a kind of international modernism with picturesque details, like the saris worn by the Hindu women in Bombay in Paysage-ville 03. Without focusing on exotic elements, her images show the topographical intermingling of the strange and the ordinary, variety and uniformity. Ambivalence replaces these precise opposites to give a picture of contemporary life where the diverse and the same become interchangeable. It is this lack of distinction that perhaps saves the aura from being totally eclipsed. At the moment of mixing, "a singular web of space and time" subsists, a sign that the gaze continues to be the synonym of an experience, far removed from all purity.