Adrian Falkner

The city writes


In 1957, for the newspaper France-Observateur, author Marguerite Duras met and interviewed Germaine Roussel, a worker in a metal factory in the Paris suburbs who could not read or write.

"Are there any written words that you know when you see them, even if you can't read them?" she asked.

"There are three words like that. Two are the names of the stations where I get on and off the metro every day: Lilas and Châtelet, and the other is my maiden name, Roussel. […]

- How do you see them? As drawings?

- You could say that, like drawings. The word Lilas is almost as tall as it is wide, it is pretty. The word Châtelet is too long, I find it less pretty. It certainly looks nothing like the word Lilas1."


In 1961, the photographer Brassaï published his book Graffiti2, a compilation of images he had gathered over the course of thirty years roaming the streets of Paris in search of drawings, engravings, and voluntary or accidental inscriptions daubed on walls. Insults, political statements, declarations of love, as well as cracks, traces of cement, manholes, crumbling plaster, etc. The photographic series comprises hundreds of images: all of them are close-up shots in black and white, rather contrasted, and the overall effect is striking. It is like the infinite alphabet of an unknown and indecipherable language. "It is the language of the wall," wrote Brassaï.


The city speaks, or rather, the city writes. Often, when someone is urged to hush and keep their voice down, they are told it is because the walls have ears. In fact, one should know how to keep quiet and listen, because while the walls may have ears, they also have a language and things to say, for those willing to listen.



Adrian Falkner became an artist by writing on walls, mixing his voice with that of the city. Today, his artistic gesture is transposed; no longer immediately in contact with the surface of the wall or the floor, but removed in time and to another surface-that of the canvas, in the studio. Like Germaine Roussel or Brassaï, Falkner takes, isolates, and detaches fragments of this language of the city, the drawings and signs that it creates. He would later go on to draw inspiration from them in his work as a painter. This is demonstrated by his own photographs, presented here alongside his paintings. They are visual notes, fleeting, quick, taken during a stroll, a walk from one appointment to the next, or over the course of a longer trip, punctuated by train stations and airports. Huge buildings with a thousand and one windows, scaffolding, fences, tiles, brick walls, floor markings, the remains of a demolished dwelling, billboards... Through Adrian Falkner's photographs, the city can be read like a great palimpsest made up of the old and the new, the ephemeral and the perennial, the accidental and the intentional. All these images form a kind of lexicon, a visual vocabulary whose forms borrow from the written word: lines, grids, tracings, letters, meshes.


These photographs should be taken as an invitation to gaze upon the city as Falkner seems to do; which is to say, by making this effort to unlearn the known reality and see it as if

for the first time, rather than passing through it to grasp its meaning. First look at the signs, the shapes, the drawings. Reading the city means deciphering without ever seeking to recognise or understand. It is to look with the eyes of a child, or a foreigner with a different language, or someone who never learned to read. It is both an artistic gesture and a political one, for to look with those eyes is to consider those rejected by the city, those on the margins. Today's cities are growing in height. And those in control of such metamorphoses tower over us. Today's cities belong to those who finance such new constructions, not to those who walk on its tarmac every day, close to the ground.


Falkner separates urban forms from their function and works in the tension between the two. The city then becomes a captivating and labyrinthine storyteller, sometimes warm-when one has chosen to let oneself be carried away by its tales, sometimes hostile-when one has no choice.


In addition to the artist's interest in urban architecture, he also examines the patterns on the benches in the metro, the large woven plastic bags often used by street dwellers to carry their personal belongings, the monograms of luxury luggage stores, and the tarpaulins of building sites. For "textile" and "text" share the same root, and in these meshes too, the city writes, the city is written.


Doubtless it is right there in the textile that the city and the workshop-the outside and the inside-meet. Adrian Falkner turns his canvases over and paints on the raw, uncoated side. Literally, the studio becomes the reverse side of the city, and his paintings the reverse side of his photographs. In his paintings, clues can be discerned in his visual notes, which have become motifs, grids, imprints. His use of building site tools: painter's tape, sander, tarpaulin, gives his oeuvre the aspect of an unfolding process; like a work perpetually in progress, reminiscent of modern cities in a state of continuous transformation. The materials of his paintings are the materials of the city: paint, paper, fabric, earth, woven plastic... For the artist, painting sometimes means sewing, tearing, taping, peeling, or sanding.


As if he wanted to fight against the verticality of the urban world, which separates the spires from the streets, those on top and those at the bottom, Adrian Falkner works in his studio without distinguishing between the walls and the floor, even going so far as to hang protective tarpaulins on the wall, littered with paint stains and footprints. He occupies both surfaces indifferently, and sometimes paces around his paintings as he paces around the streets of Basel.


The city writes, Adrian Falkner translates.



Nina Ferrer-Gleize

Artist photographer, author, researcher




 1 Marguerite Duras, “The word Lilas is almost as tall as it is wide...” [1957], in Outside, Paris, Gallimard, Folio, 2014, p. 26-27. 

2 Brassaï, Graffiti, Paris, published by Les éditions du temps, 1961.