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A World Tour of Fake Places That Fool the Eye

A World Tour of Fake Places That Fool the Eye


Gregor Sailer traveled the globe photographing Potemkin villages, architectural landscapes that are clones, impostors or frauds.

Gregor Sailer’s “Carson City VI/Vargarda, Sweden, 2016.” Mr. Sailer, an Austrian photographer, photographed 25 modern-day Potemkin villages, erected by government, military or city authorities.CreditCourtesy of the artist

ARLES, France — The neighborhood looks unremarkable, if a little unkempt: a dollar store, a laundromat, a fashion business with a few other sidelines (“All cellphone bills paid here”). The sky is heavy, the color of pewter; snow blankets the sidewalk. The adverts for the New York Lottery in the grocery store windows are a giveaway. But something is off. What district of New York City is one story high? And can those be pine trees in the background?

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“AstaZero, Sandhult, Sweden, 2016.” Why was it built to look like Harlem? “I don’t know,” said Mr. Sailer.CreditCourtesy of the artist

The caption to the photograph reveals that this isn’t New York at all, of course, but Sweden: a life-size replica of Harlem in a forest in the west of the country, near Gothenburg. The asphalt and snow are real enough, but nearly everything else is fake. The streets are void of people and cars; the store fronts are life-size photographs, printed on canvas and hung on steel frames. Welcome to the Potemkin village: a place of clones, impostors, facsimiles, frauds. Maybe don’t plan to stay.

“Junction City IV, Fort Irwin, U.S. Army, Mojave Desert, California, U.S.A., 2016.”CreditCourtesy of the artist
Left: “Schnöggersburg X, German Army Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany, 2017”; right: “Complexe de Tir en Zone UrBaine II, French Army, France, 2015.”CreditCourtesy of the artist

The Rencontres d’Arles photography festival offers plenty to tease and fool the eye, but “The Potemkin Village,” a project by the Austrian photographer Gregor Sailer installed in a former cathedral in the center of town, is arguably the most fraudulent of the lot. Notionally a set of architectural landscapes, shot in seven countries and three continents, it in fact exhibits places that are non-places, real estate that is also unreal (and surreal). The Swedish Harlem turns out to be a test track for self-driving cars. Why is it decorated as New York — rather than, say, Stockholm?

“I don’t know why they did that,” Mr. Sailer said with a shrug. “A little crazy.”

“Holland Town VI, Gaoqiao New Town, China, 2016.” Ersatz Chinese towns have attracted many photographers over the years, but Mr. Sailer treats them with deadpan seriousness, not as a series of one-liners.CreditCourtesy of the artist
“Thames Town V, Songjiang, China, 2016.”CreditCourtesy of the artist

Legendarily, Potemkin villages were the structures erected in honor of the Russian ruler Catherine the Great when she toured her domains in the late 18th century. Anxious to spare the empress from the grim realities of the Crimean countryside, the nobleman Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin reputedly ordered that whole towns be constructed out of prettily painted wood — just like the real thing, if his boss didn’t peer too hard. Mr. Sailer gave the concept a 21st-century spin, lugging his large-format film camera to 25 sites erected by governmental, military or city agencies.

Some of these locations have been seen before. The ersatz Chinese towns built to resemble Weimar, Germany or Henley-on-Thames, England have attracted many photographers over recent years, amused by the idea of whole cities that are counterfeits. But Mr. Sailer treats them with deadpan seriousness, not a series of one-liners: with their diluted colors and flattened light, these photographs are serenely beautiful.

“Carson City VII/Vargarda, Sweden, 2016.”CreditCourtesy of the artist

He explained that he tried to take only one image in each location, a conceptual rigor that forced him to scrutinize every element in front of him. “It sharpens my process,” he said.

Some might think of the industrial buildings obsessively cataloged by Bernd and Hilla Becher, or the vacant cityscapes of Thomas Struth and Masataka Nakano. They could also be seen as a wry response to the traditions of street photography — except that whereas the city streets captured by Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander crackle with people and energy, here there are barely any humans to be glimpsed at all.

“Ufa IV, Bashkortostan, Russia, 2016.”CreditCourtesy of the artist

“It’s always very important for me to include the aesthetic aspect,” Mr. Sailer said. “Even if it’s the beauty of the apocalypse or oppression, it is beautiful.”

Perhaps the most arresting of these images are of the classified military sites, constructed to enable soldiers to train in places that look like conflict zones. In some cases, Mr. Sailer waited 10 months to gain access; his visits had to be choreographed around tank movements and live fire, and the photographs vetted by military authorities.

“Eastmere, Stanford Training Area, British Army, Norfolk, England, 2015.”CreditCourtesy of the artist
“Jeoffrécourt, French Army, France, 2015.”CreditCourtesy of the artist

None of that action makes their way into these photographs: Instead, what comes across is the stillness of these spaces, and their sinister plausibility. In one picture, chunks of fake meat hang from a mocked-up butcher’s shop, and the signs are written in Arabic; Baghdad, perhaps. Another, an antiterrorism training site in France, there are apartment complexes that look ready to move into. In these stage sets for the theater of war, the designers have worked hard to get every detail just so.

“Suzdal IV, Vladimir Oblast, Russia, 2016.”CreditCourtesy of the artist

Among historians, there is dispute about whether Catherine the Great’s Potemkin villages ever existed. Mr. Sailer admitted he had doubts, but pointed out that in 2016 he traveled to the Russian village of Suzdal, north of Moscow. Upon arriving, he discovered half-collapsed shacks that had been sheathed in attractive hoardings. Three years earlier, hearing that President Vladimir V. Putin was to pay a visit, local officials had scrambled to smarten Suzdal up, and had created a half-imaginary town in the process, one calculated not to offend a ruler’s eye.

Mr. Sailer smiled. “Some things never change, I think.”



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