Credit: Giacomo Costa
The Italian artist imagining eerie futuristic cities
In Italian artist Giacomo Costa's imagined urban landscapes, shadowy concrete apartment buildings are stacked high, devoid of human presence. In other images he depicts sculptural feats of architecture, their damaged facades eclipsing towering skylines. More of his scenes reveal the husks of buildings overgrown with dense, green plants as woods overtake the remains of empty cities.
Costa's imagery strikes an unsettling tone, reminiscent of urban centers recently put under strict lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the artist has been envisaging empty, futuristic metropolises since 1996.
If Costa's images are allegories, they are works of folly -- ignoring our impact on the planet could one day lead to our extinction. He began digitally collaging photographs in 1996, but in 2002, technology had progressed enough that he could imagine entire cities from scratch.
This year, Costa released a book spanning several bodies of work, titled "A Helpful Guide to Nowhere." While it avoids referencing familiar world skylines, the crumbling architecture acts as a metaphor for the damage that humans inflict.
"My work is based on the continuous relationship between cities, our behaviors and nature," Costa said over a video call in March, from his apartment in Florence. "I'm not talking about specific places or specific cities, but something more global. It's a tale that describes our world."
'Where silence reigns'
During Italy's nationwide lockdown, the artist would survey the once-busy streets of the Tuscan capital, from his rooftop.
"What is strange is not the fact that people aren't in the streets, but the silence -- it's unbelievable," he said. "It's unreal because you can't hear any kind of human sounds -- no voices, just birds and the wind... It is something closer to nature, closer to when I was in the mountains."
At 18, Costa had traded life in Florence for an alpine lifestyle.
He eventually settled in Courmayeur, in the Italian Alps, where he fell in love with the mountains. His first photographic subjects were Monte Bianco's sculptural snow-covered peaks breaking through the clouds, with no signs of humanity.
"(The mountains) made me understand how fragile and small human beings are," Costa explained. "We feel omnipotent, (but) there is something absolutely superior to us. For those who are religious, it could be God. For me, it's the power of nature."
Costa's most recent series, "Atmosfera," shows monumental architecture hidden by thick mist. "I focused on the suspension of time (and) the perception of space filtered by fog," he explained. "(They are) places where sounds are muffled and where silence reigns -- exactly what is happening now."
The pandemic is not the first invisible threat that Costa has experienced. As a teenager, he recalled staying home following the Chernobyl disaster, and avoided eating fruits and vegetables to evade the radiation that billowed across Europe from the Soviet Union.
Growing up during the Cold War also left him with a great sense of unease.
"(There was this) idea that the world could end at any moment because of a war fought by enemies, far away from me and for incomprehensible reasons."
Visions of the future
Costa made sense of these looming apocalyptic threats through science fiction, including the stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. He considers "Blade Runner," the 1982 film adaptation of Dick's post-nuclear war novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" to be his personal Bible.
"Science fiction is a metaphorical representation of what could really happen one day," Costa explained. "It's a language that allows me to speak about reality in a different way."
It's easy to see the visual connections between Costa's images and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, in present-day Ukraine. The now-uninhabited 1,000-square-mile zone, which encompasses the abandoned city of Pripyat, has been reclaimed by nature since the nuclear disaster in 1986. In his series "Secret Garden," Costa lets richly colored foliage take root, turning former cities into lush wooded areas.
Similarly, the effects of reduced human activity could be seen during the first few weeks of worldwide coronavirus lockdowns. In China and Italy, air pollution rapidly dropped.
Waters cleared and turned a rare blue in Venice.
Yet Costa doesn't consider his images to be prophetic. Rather, he said, they are observational and based on science that has long predicted the potential woes facing an overpopulated, globalized Earth, including the climate crisis, dwindling natural resources and pandemics. "All of these issues were considered marginal 25 years ago," he said, referring to when he began his digital manipulations. "And instead those questions should have been fundamental."
Yet, despite his desolate visions of the future, Costa strikes an optimistic tone. "We have to take care of ourselves and our relatives and people around us," he said. "We are all connected."