Google search "Newtown, Kolkatta" and your desktop will be flooded with images of super-slick high rises, shopping malls, IT centers and colleges, springing up in this planned community on the northeast fringes of what was formerly known as Calcutta, India. But, visit Stuart Hawkins’ “Broken Welcome,” her witty and imaginative exhibition at Zach Feuer in Chelsea, and you get another side of the story.
Taking photographs and filming in the ruins of the half-completed housing projects in Rajarhat, officially renamed Newtown in 2010, Hawkins examines the dashed hopes and empty pockets left after a real estate boom goes bust.
Using derelict construction sites as backdrops, Hawkins stages photographs, adding low-tech props made out of colored construction paper and cardboard. This approach turns what could have easily become a documentary photography project into something akin to a kindergartner’s look at globalization.
In Rooftop Garden (2010), a topiary of green circles and triangles sprout up amid the rods and cement bricks of an unfinished house. Don’t forget to notice the arm of a gardener, hidden behind one bush, pouring water from a plastic bottle onto the faux greenery.
In Convenient Location (2010), Hawkins positions by an empty highway a string of people holding pictures of houses, so cute they could have been painted by a group of school kids but so large that they block our view of all but their hands and feet.
Similarly anonymous, a would-be resident in Wall Decorations (2010) stands in a deserted field behind an empty picture frame, his face blocked from view by a pink, stuffed butterfly he appears to be hanging on the absent wall.
Hawkins creates comic characters in all of the photographs, but keeps them from being identifiable, hiding their faces from viewers with various theatrical devices. The result is that these pictures could be taken anywhere that gated communities exist -- in Kolkatta or Miami or Beijing or Orange County -- rather than relegated as a third world phenomenon.
By now, as an “issue,” globalization is rather tired. But Hawkins, who splits her time between New York and Nepal, is familiar enough with Asian locales to be able to develop a fresh approach. This is more than apparent in her very funny video, titled Broken Welcome, in which her cast of characters, masked by big white circles in front of their faces, pretend to be new homeowners living in the shells of not-nearly-finished apartment buildings.
Accompanied by a rhyming, sing-song voiceover -- "Down payments, residents moved in, barely remembering that the foundations were not dug in" -- the video tells the story of the rise of this planned city, the glossy brochures offering promised hopes, the accumulation of debt and the final demise. It is a tale as familiar as accounts of Fannie Mae, told in a way that is both disarming and charming.
Stuart Hawkins, “Broken Welcome,” Jan. 14-Feb. 19, 2011, at Zach Feuer Gallery, 548 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011. The photographs and the video are priced at $7,500 each.
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, WIld East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).