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“Ville Fantôme: From Utopia To The Present” at the Congo Biennale

Video Installation by Henrik Langsdorf at Congo Biennale
Ville Fantôme and Vertical City, 2019. Two-channel video installation at the Congo Biennale. Photo ©Henrik Langsdorf


In this multi-channel video installation Henrik Langsdorf juxtaposes the utopian architectural vision of Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015) with his own visual reflections on urbanism in present-day Kinshasa in the form of animation and collage.

Ville Fantome - an utopian architectural model by Bodys Isek Kingelez.
Bodys Isek Kingelez: Ville Fantôme, 1996. Photo ©Henrik Langsdorf

Kingelez, who remains largely unknown in the Congo despite international acclaim, became known for his “extrême maquettes”, extremely colorful architectural models that promise a bright future not only for Kinshasa and other places in his native country, but the world at large.

In “Ville Fantôme/Kinshasa La Belle” Langsdorf asks the question: What if some of Kingelez’ structures had actually been built? How might this wildly beautiful wonderland where “delinquents, police and prisons do not exist” as Kingelez proposed in an artist statement about his “Projet pour le Kinshasa du Troisième Millénaire”, have fared two decades into this Third Millennium?”.

egg vendor walking through Ville Fantome by Bodys Isek Kingelez
Henrik Langsdorf: “Ville Fantôme/Kinshasa La Belle” I, 2019

Chika Okeke-Agulu, an art historian at Princeton University described Kingelez’ cityscapes as “spectacular architectural form as a counter-narrative to the dystopian realities of Kinshasa”. Langsdorf ventures to reconnect them with these realities.
By Stripping the buildings of their exuberant hues, and exposing them to imagined aging and decay, he adapts them to the monochromatic aesthetic of his own “metabolist collages”, which feature grimy brutalist buildings of the kind found in present-day Kinshasa.

“I have long been drawn to utopian ideas in architecture, and seeing Kingelez’ retrospective at the MoMA in New York last year was extremely exhilarating and touching.
But I’m also drawn to urban decay, failed architectural utopias and the bleakness they leave in their wake, and how inhabitants deal with them”, says Langsdorf, “which ultimately compelled me to make these videos.”

“Ville Fantôme/Kinshasa La Belle”, a 7 minute animated video, opens with a black and white view of Kingelez’ “Ville Fantôme”. The only person populating the vast boulevards is a street vendor who balances a stack of egg cartons on his head. As the camera zooms in, a vertical city grows on top of the egg cartons.

collage of Kinshasa buildings
Henrik Langsdorf: “Ville Fantôme/Kinshasa La Belle” II, 2019

In the second part of the video entitled “Kinshasa La Belle”, Langsdorf invokes aerial footage of cities destroyed during World War II, and thus confronts these unabashedly cheerful cityscapes with the grim history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has endured a war that claimed over 5 million lives. In the ensuing scene that shows a collage of rapidly growing abstract shapes combined with actual Kinshasa buildings, he comments on the uncontrolled growth that this city of over 10 million has been experiencing for the last few decades.

The videos are accompanied by a sound mesh of Kinshasa street noise.

“Vertical City”, a 2 minute animated loop, features parts of Kingelez’ buildings woven into a proliferation of plant-like shapes that instead of buds and blossoms bear morsels of existing Kinshasa architecture that play off the notion that dwellings are like living organisms and units are cells, as envisioned by the metabolist architecture movement in Japan in the 1950s and 60s.
In the resulting thicket Langsdorf pays tribute to the denizens of Kinshasa, who pulse through the ever-congested arteries of this city in overcrowded yellow cabs and taxi buses.

collage of Kinshasa buildings by Henrik Langsdorf
Henrik Langsdorf: “Vertical City”, animated collage. 2019

It is these two poles of Congolese creativity, the exalted yet controlled grandiosity of Kingelez’ vision and the humble improvisation of the daily struggle of the people of Kinshasa, that Langsdorf seeks to both celebrate and refract through the prism of his dystopian lens.

video projection by Henrik Langsdorf at Congo Biennale
Henrik Langsdorf: “Vertical City”, 2019 at Congo Biennale

Published in Gallery