We are shaped by the places that we live in. The majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. The constant destruction and renewal of cities forces us to adapt to our surroundings. As city-dwellers our experience of the urban environment is linked with the man-made structures that we share our physical space with.

Using industrial materials such as corrugated roofing, galvanised steel, cement blocks, and combining them with artificial light, British artist Nathaniel Rackowe’s new solo exhibition, The Shape of a City, at Letitia Gallery, takes the city of Beirut as a point of departure to poetically explore the ever-changing nature of cities.

“My work has always been about how we utilize urban space and how cities affect the way we move and think to some degree as well,” Rackowe tells Selections.

Installation view, Nathaniel Rackowe: The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June – 25 August 2018

At the entrance of the gallery, a large-scale corrugated plastic fence-like structure entitled LP48 obstructs the view of the space as it cuts across the width of the gallery. Manoeuvring through the space becomes an act of negotiation as the piece invites the viewer to engage in an interactive exchange in which they are forced to move through a narrow space at one side of the gallery. To construct the imposing structure, the artist sourced the materials locally, meeting fabricators across the city and visiting different factories and suppliers.

“It was really important for me to have a large scale work in the gallery. I’ve always worked on a sort of installation scale, and for me the interest there is to make people really consider how they move through space,” Rackowe explains.

As a city in constant flux, where burgeoning skyscrapers sit alongside bullet-riddled buildings, contrasts and contradictions permeate throughout the city. While exploring Beirut during a two month artist residency, which was facilitated and supported by the Delfina Foundation in 2009, Rackowe drew inspiration from this unique dichotomy for his latest show.

“Here in Beirut it’s just so visible, I enjoy the chaos, I think for me it’s often about finding those fleeting moments of beauty within the chaos,” he says.

Installation view, Nathaniel Rackowe: The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June – 25 August 2018

A set of six smaller sculptural works inject an otherworldly quality to the show, the cement blocks, which are each illuminated by a cube of white neon, seem impossibly suspended within their geometric halo of light.

Installation view, Nathaniel Rackowe: The Shape of a City, Letitia Gallery, 27 June – 25 August 2018

Alongside the sculptures, heavily layered oil paintings on paper adorn the gallery walls. Rackowe uses a palette of black, white and acid yellow to create minimalistic impressions of petrol station canopies. Despite the economy of visual language that the artist employs, he nonetheless manages to strike a balance between abstraction and maintaining a descriptive aesthetic that still recalls the basic structure of the petrol station canopies.

Reflecting on the contemplative and ethereal experience of observing the canopies, the artist admits,
“I think that I’m just a bit of an urban romantic, I see a certain romanticism in this, you know that experience of sitting in the car underneath the petrol station canopy at night and kind of gazing out into space, and almost feeling that you’re in the city but you’re sort of transported somewhere else at the same time. They’re sort of like urban beacons, because they’re these structures and they’re lit, and you can see them from down the other end of the street, and they kind of light the area, and for me they have this beautiful sculptural form, but of course at the same time they say so much about how the city is used.”

Nathaniel Rackowe: LP46, 2018, Steel, Light, Paint, Courtesy of the artist

Extending beyond the walls of the gallery, two site-specific works were installed in Downtown Beirut. Making the works accessible is a crucial consideration for Rackowe as he reveals,
“I always really liked the idea that the works can reach an audience that wouldn’t necessarily engage with the art in a gallery context. I think that’s really critical in Beirut, because there’s a lot of people who would walk past this gallery space, and simply wouldn’t feel like this was somewhere that they could come in, that they wouldn’t feel that comfortable doing that. But as soon as you put an artwork into a public space then you get all different kinds of people engaging and interacting with it.”

The Shape of a City is on view at Letitia Gallery through August 25.
The sculptures in Downtown Beirut will be on view through January.