Sculpting the History of a City

Artist’s paper sculptures recall the politics and events that shape cities

Image
Matthew Picton

A city is shape and form, but also politics and history—qualities hard to capture in a map. But with his paper sculptures of cities, artist Matthew Picton delves into not only the physical form of a city, but the historic, political and even cultural elements that give form and feeling to a city.

In his latest work, Picton creates accurate block-by-block sculptures of sections of cities out of paper. The roughly four-by-six foot sculptures are created with city-specific documents, such as the pages of novels or the headlines of a newspaper. He’s created sculptures of London, San Francisco, Jerusalem and many others. A show of his work opens this week at the Christopher Henry Gallery in New York City and runs through the end of January.

But these aren’t just 3D models of maps, nor or they of just any city. “That isn’t enough for me,” Picton says. “I’m more interested in finding a city where there’s been some significant event to focus on.”

Picton tries to bring elements of the city’s history into the sculpture, whether it’s constructed from a seminal text about the city or a snapshot of a pivotal moment in the city’s history.

"I’m interested in the way events may have affected the city's development or structure," Picton says.

His sculpture of Lower Manhattan, for example, was constructed out of newspaper headlines about the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. The 49" by 73" sculpture includes about 1,200 handmade blocks and parts, which were also built with covers of the film Towering Inferno and book covers from the novel The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.

Another set of sculptures depict the German city of Dresden, before and after the devastating fire bombings of World War II. The pre-bombing sculpture, constructed from the score of Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, is a tidy segment of the city’s blocks. The post-bombing sculpture has been burned and leveled.

Picton says a crucial part of his artwork is to explore the politics of places. He tries to dissect the political past of a place through cartography and mapping.

"I don’t seek to create a specific political point of view in my work, but I’m interested in using the cartography to present the evidence," he says.

A new sculpture he’s been working on depicts Dallas in 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Picton has an exhibition coming up next March in London, and is currently at work on two new pieces for that show. One will be a large-scale model of Venice, constructed from sheets of absorbent paper printed with the Thomas Mann novella Death in Venice and the score of Benjamin Britten’s opera based on the book. Picton plans to soak the model in muck and water collected in Venice. His other sculpture will depict World War II-era London, based on detailed maps of bombing devastation in various sections of the city. The sections will be built out of the pages of various wartime novels, and will be burnt according to the historic record of destruction in the city.

His work presents a way of looking at and experiencing a city, often at a given time or through the context of formative events. This historical and political perspective shows that cartography and mapping are about not just a city’s shape, but also the events that shape it.

Images courtesy Matthew Picton.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.