Antony Cairns: ‘I’m trying to build an archive of what the city is and what it can be’

As artworks by the London-based photographer are offered for sale at Christie’s, Antony Cairns talks to Jessica Lack about why there is ‘a certain element of dystopia’ in his work

Antony Cairns and his work IBM TYO5_010, 2023, offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven's Door at Christie's in London

Artist Antony Cairns, left, and his work IBM TYO5_010, 2023. Inkjet on 52 blue computer punch cards and pins on softboard and wood in Perspex. 43 x 30 x 2⅝ in (109.1 x 76.1 x 6.8 cm). Price on request. Offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven’s Door, until 14 February at Christie’s in London. Portrait: Clare Hewitt

Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when London was undergoing a period of aggressive corporate development, Antony Cairns began photographing the city’s transformation. ‘These huge complexes were going up, changing the atmosphere and the aesthetic of the place,’ he says. Suddenly spaces that were once available to everyone were being fenced off and policed by private security firms.

As a young photography student with an interest in urban architecture, he discovered that this new landscape was forbidden to him. When he set up his tripod, he was told to move on or threatened with arrest. ‘I had to radically rethink the way I documented the city,’ he says. ‘It pushed me into shooting with a small 35mm camera — something quick and easy that I could use surreptitiously at night.’

Antony Cairns, IBM PVG(shanghai)026, 2024, offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven's Door at Christie's in London

Antony Cairns (b. 1980), IBM PVG(shanghai)026, 2024. Inkjet on 117 white computer punch cards and pins on softboard and wood in Perspex. 43⅛ x 66¾ x 3¾ in (109.5 x 169.5 x 9.5 cm). Price on request. Offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven’s Door, until 14 February at Christie’s in London

Until 14 February 2024, Cairns is showing work at Christie’s in London as part of We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Curated by the gallery director Marisa Bellani, the private selling exhibition showcases 10 contemporary artists whose work offers different visions of the future.

Like a latter-day Eugène Atget, who photographed the changing world of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cairns became a nocturnal wanderer, capturing the uncanny emptiness of the metropolis at night. Cairns is interested in the texture of a city, and he reveals it in unusual ways, reversing his black-and-white negatives into positives and printing the results using outdated digital technologies.

As a process, it is as far from high definition as you can get. His photographs seem to glow diffusely in a digital fog, calling to mind what the Russian cinematographer Andrei Moskvin once called ‘the darkness of the misty night’.

Antony Cairns, E.I. TY05_100, 2024, offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven's Door at Christie's in London

Antony Cairns (b. 1980), E.I. TY05_100, 2024. E-ink screen encapsulated in Perspex box. 13⅛ x 12⅝ x 1¾ in (33.4 x 32 x 4.3 cm). Price on request. Offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven’s Door, until 14 February at Christie’s in London

In 1869, Charles Baudelaire wrote an attack on photography, in which he predicted that this ‘industrial madness’ would encourage artists to paint what they see rather than what they dream. Cairns’s artworks refute this. He seems to be deliberately exploring a liminal border between photography as record and as pure image-making. ‘I’m looking for that layer of abstraction,’ he says.

Born in London in 1980, Cairns fell in love with photography as a teenager: ‘It was the freedom of being able to take an image, develop and print it. It gives you a lot of autonomy.’ He trained at the London College of Printing and later worked at the Archive of Modern Conflict. The collection had a huge influence on his practice: ‘I saw that photographs could be made and shown in a hundred different ways.’ He began experimenting with electronic equipment from the 1960s and 1970s, such as computer punch cards, enjoying the unexpected results that this dated technology could bring.

Antony Cairns, IBM PVG(shanghai)023, 2024, offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven's Door at Christie's in London

Antony Cairns (b. 1980), IBM PVG(shanghai)023, 2024. Inkjet on 117 orange computer punch cards and pins on softboard and wood in Perspex. 43⅛ x 66¾ x 3¾ in (109.5 x 169.5 x 9.5 cm). Price on request. Offered in We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven’s Door, until 14 February at Christie’s in London

When he was invited to exhibit his artworks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2023, he uploaded scanned images of his photographs onto old Kindles and removed the screens, fixing the digital ink permanently. The pictures recall the degraded quality of pirated VHS tapes. The barely visible lines of the buildings suggest a timeless quality that has something in common with early 1980s science fiction. If the images didn’t have titles, they could easily be mistaken for corrupted screenshots of the 1982 film Blade Runner.

‘I read a lot of cyberpunk fiction,’ he says. ‘It is all about the failure of the future, so yes, there is a certain element of dystopia in my work.’

Over the years, Cairns has photographed many cities across the globe: ‘I’m trying to build an archive of what the city is and what it can be.’ The results reveal a copycat world. ‘Whether you are in Shanghai or New York, all these cities look the same. The same architects and that same transient quality. All they want you to do is consume and leave,’ he observes.

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‘I want to capture the ambience of those spaces, and I try to match the technology to the atmosphere. I want you to look at my images and think, “Is this the future?’’’

The selling exhibition We are the Future: Knocking on Heaven’s Door runs until 14 February at Christie’s in London. From 29 March 2024, Antony Cairns’s work can also be seen in the Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989-2024

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