Cities of the Imagination; VISUAL ARTS Literature Meets Architecture in the Extraordinary Photographs of Birmingham Artist Michelle Lord, Writes Terry Grimley

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Byline: Terry Grimley

Buildings are a central subject of Michelle Lord's work, so it seems appropriate that she currently has two exhibitions on view as part of Architecture Week.

Both are inspired by literary fantasies about abandoned cities, but they are of very different kinds. At the MADE offices in Digbeth she is showing City of the Immortals, a series of photographs of an ancient mythical city imagined by Jorges Luis Borges in his short story The Immortal, while in Future Ruins at the Birmingham and Midland Institute some of Birmingham's most prominent brutalist buildings star in representations of J G Ballard's 1970s vision of a future redundant city.

Originally a painter, Lord now uses the medium of staged photography, laboriously creating her dreamlike visions as three-dimensional models before photographing them. Contrary to the likely expectations of most people coming to these remarkable images for the first time, they make no use at all of digital trickery.

"The work I do is very much in the genre of constructed photography," she explains. "Everything is entirely hand-built and then photographed.

"They're very large models but I never exhibit them. I use the images in a narrative way, and I don't think you can make a narrative with models.

"I often work in a series of images, and select texts to work with those that have a strong architectural theme. In a sense the story is in the background, and you allow stories to be told through the architectural settings themselves."

In the series inspired by Borges, which was previously shown at the Solihull Arts Complex, she built a classical architectural fantasy - or rather two, the inside and the outside - out of cardboard, paper and foam board, worked over with plaster.

"The story describes the architecture of this city as very much a hybrid of various styles," she says. "So when I was designing these sets I decided to import various elements from different places. The towers are based on the leaning tower of Pisa, and the windows were things I found in Florence. The etchings and engravings of Piranesi are another important influence.

"When you go into the interior space, in the Borges story it is described as a 'nonsense' architecture. Things really don't make sense. Labyrinthine staircases don't go anywhere, they cease to have a function, and columns seem to go on and on."

In the story, the abandoned city is stumbled upon by a Roman tribune searching for the rivers of immortality. Because she wanted this character to appear in each photograph, Lord first had the costume made and photographed a model wearing it in every pose that was required. …