A View of Oxford That Evades Its “Ethos of ‘Intellectualism’”

Oxford, England’s Gothic architecture and ancient university have drawn students and tourists for centuries, and the city recently gained fame as the setting of the Harry Potter film series. But what’s it like to actually live in such a scenic and storied place? 

Arturo Soto’s A Certain Logic of Expectations (the Eriskay Connection) is a sharply observed, decidedly less picturesque view of Oxford. In the book, Soto’s photos record the city’s less distinguished public spaces, while his short texts reflect on his encounters with Oxford’s unique traditions and social norms. Created over the course of four years while the Mexican photographer and writer studied at the graduate program of the Ruskin School of Art, A Certain Logic of Expectations evades, in Soto’s words, “the obvious charms of Oxford.” Instead, the book offers a critical but personal study of the city’s organization, and Soto’s place in it.

Arturo Soto, “Untitled, Oxford” (2016-2020)

People are expressly absent from Soto’s pictures, which focus on what the artist calls the city’s “non-places” — makeshift street shelters, graffitied walls, and cramped apartment blocks — that “fall outside the ethos of ‘intellectualism’ most people associate with the city,” the artist wrote in a recent email to Hyperallergic. The photos appear to have been shot spontaneously, perhaps on daily walks, and capture lonely streets and cluttered shop windows in bleak, close detail. “Oxford has a complex social divide that tends to be ignored,” he said. His decaying, vernacular subjects contest Oxford’s mythic proportions, but they also convey a sense of sameness and even isolation connected to the artist’s own experience.

“I am interested in cities because they’re the environment where most of us live, the stage where our everyday lives play out,” Soto wrote. “As such, we are bound to develop feelings towards them, and I’m interested in capturing those feelings.” 

Arturo Soto, “Untitled, Oxford” (2016-2020)

The author’s sentiments show most clearly in his writing. Soto’s short texts collect his impressions of city folk, academics, and acquaintances as the tensions of Brexit and Oxford’s long-standing divisions between ‘town and gown’ simmer in the background. Soto’s measured writing is also tinged with humor and frankness that echoes influences like Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Georges Perec, and Augusto Monterroso. About a packed late night at the McDonald’s in town, he observes, “this is the only genuinely democratic place in Oxford, where young and old, rich and poor, town and gown, share a space in relative harmony.”

Soto’s writings move through many topics — urban experience, forgotten histories, social behaviors, and, in more tender moments, longing for a person or place that’s unattainable. His voice is diaristic, analytical, and exploratory. “The question of whether I could say anything meaningful about a city with such a rich history was on my mind,” Soto said by email. “This is, after all, the place where many great writers got their education and then went on to write about the city or include it in their books.” Now, Soto’s work gives a glimpse of Oxford through an alternative lens.

Arturo Soto, “Untitled, Oxford” (2016-2020)Arturo Soto, “Untitled, Oxford” (2016-2020)Arturo Soto, “Untitled, Oxford” (2016-2020)Arturo Soto, “Untitled, Oxford” (2016-2020)

A Certain Logic of Expectations by Arturo Soto is published by the Eriskay Connection and is available online.

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