Shane Hulbert Artist & Academic | info@shanehulbert.com

Perfect Synthetic: Splendid China, Folk Village & Window of the World

Perfect Synthetic: Splendid China, Folk Village & Window of the World

Catalogue Essay, Bronek Kozka, Perth Centre for Photography, 2015.

For close to 150 years a photograph’s image began as a latent view of the world, a referent of the moment, concealed until such time that the material was ‘processed’.  For a period of time, this latency was the image recorded and the image remembered, a view of a moment in time that only the photographer knew existed,  and that, all things being correct, a somewhat faithful reproduction of the location, event, person and/or object would be retained.  This image, latent to the world, when eventually revealed, is not quite the same as the memory of that moment in time; its different, it’s a framed version, depicted through the eyes, the experience, the thinking, feeling and interpretation of the photographer who ‘captured’ it.  It is, ultimately, a fake.

This is not to suggest that a photograph does not contain some element of truth, it most certainly does, and I’m thinking of academic William Mitchell’s (1944 – 2010) no horse in particular analogy here

The existence of a horse means that you can take a photograph of some particular horse, but it does not prevent a horse painting from showing no horse in particular. You cannot, however, take a photograph of no horse in particular.
Mitchell, WJ 1992, p. 29

but the idea of a fake in and as photography provides a wonderful point of departure to more fully explore the work of Australian photographer Bronek Kozka.  In Perfect:Synthetic, Kozka explores the complex synergy between the real and the fake through an indexical series of images from three theme parks located in the manufacturing city of Shenzhen, on the border of China and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.   Splendid China, Folk Village and Window of the World provide a social and architectural expose of how icons of the world can be condensed and miniaturised into a family-friendly site for leisure.

The Theme Park: Utopia or family-friendly Heterotopia?

The theme park as a site is a profound reflection on culture, history and reality.  Something of a utopia, the theme park is a triumph of the contemporary mash-up; everything in one place, a metanarrative for modern life.  Each park offering an interpretation of one part of civilisation, either through history, adventure, leisure or fantasy.  When I think of theme parks I think of big rides, junk food and slices of a life unknown or made up, played out through characters, architecture and artifice.  But are they really ‘utopian’?  The word ‘utopia’ comes from the Greek ού (not) and τόπος (place), meaning a place that is not, one that is fictional, not existing, or simply just made up – in others words – a fake.  At the same time the homophone ‘eutopia’ from the Greek εύ (good) and τόπος (place) presents an etymological quandary – so combined, as they are in general terms, a utopia is a good not-place.  Right.  Not quite a museum, the essential theme of the park defines both it’s intentions and it’s cultural, historical and practical positioning.

In the case of Kozka’s images, the theme is the world, or rather a curated version of the world.  An entire park dedicated to landmarks and continents, an open air museum where the Eiffel Tower casts a shadow over the Pyramids of Giza, which are seen from a walkway over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, just down the road from the canals of Holland.  Time is meaningless – a dinosaur looks out over Mount Rushmore, in much the same way that a young couple having their wedding photographs taken sit in the gardens of 18th century France – you get the idea.  Traversed in 20 minutes via a driverless monorail, the park situates the visitor in a miniaturised version of a world full of prosperity and joy, in a place that is both real and fake.  The other two parks, Splendid China and Folk Village (combined as one attraction) offer fully miniaturised, 1:15 scale models of China, with a central theme reflecting the nation’s history, culture, art, architecture and customs.  In any one day it is therefore possible to visit the Great Wall of China, the Three Gorges Dam, Forbidden City and Terracotta Army.  The sites all provide a rich context through which to explore a global experience, condensed into one or two days – but are they really utopian, do they create a sense of good fictional-place.  Kozka’s photographs allude to something much more symbolic, yet also more complex than a simple ideal – the cracks appearing in the Mattahorn mountain, or the weathering of the White House, suggest something other than a mini-utopia.

So perhaps utopia is not the right word.  Dystopia, or anti-utopia, seems way too negative, and possibly too political (although perhaps appropriate when considering the poorly maintained White House), and characterising theme parks of such grand reflective scale as simply sites or places limits the kind of interpretations suitable to the complexity of the images and the locations themselves.

I am usually reluctant to draw on the wisdom of deceased French philosophers, but in this instance I can’t help but think that Michel Foucault’s use of the term heterotopia is somewhat appropriate here.  Foucault uses the term as a way of describing spaces with multiple layers of meaning, or spaces whose relationship to other places is not initially clear.  If utopia is a good non-space, and a dystopia an anti-utopia, then a heterotopia is a non-space where things are not as they first seem.  Kozka’s theme park images present to us spaces that exist, but are fake, scaled and disassociated from their actual particular space, the locations and representations constructing a juxtaposition of geographically and temporally discontinuous landmarks.

As heterotopian spaces they exist much like the seventeenth-century cabinet of curiosities (although seriously over-sized), the icons and landmarks presented in these images exist, but they are not the ‘real’ version in the sense that they are not where they belong, providing an experience that is only partly grounded.  As interpretations of the real, they become mediated through, what human geographer Denis E. Cosgrove calls a ‘… subjective human experience in a way that neither regions nor area immediately suggest’ (Cosgrove 1984, p.13).  In this way the sites act as a repository, a collective accumulation of the memories and experiences of the people who visit the park.

This way of seeing is also at the core of how art historian W.J.T Mitchell considers landscape – as a medium, a way of relating culture and place, and a way of understanding the relationship between landscape and the process of forming identity.  ‘Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture.  It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum (Mitchell 1994, p. 5).  Kozka takes this notion of the mediated space and applies a distinct observational juxtaposition between what we think we are seeing and what we know we are seeing.  Skyscraper apartments behind the Taj Mahal, palm trees next to the Mattahorn – a disconnection of site and space that creates its own version of curiosity.

Kozka’s photographs provide a clear and emotionally detached insight into the theme park as a heterotopian space. Through serial imagery and photographic convention, he presents a survey of the strange relationship between the real and the fake, the site as visited and the landmark remembered.  The use of the formalist traditions of landscape photography is evident in the attention to detail, clarity of focus, the tonal treatment of spatial relationships and the 5×4 aspect ratio.

Images such as The Mattahorn distort the expectation of this formal photography in the way the huge mountain only just manages to sit above the bushes and palm trees.  Not quite to scale, yet one of the tallest, and deadliest mountains in the European Alps, the fragility of the cracked and dirty mountain here represents what is so captivating about the work – that how we either remember landmarks, or think we remember them, is disrupted by the very idea that they are part of a theme park.  There are several ways Kozka might have shot this mountain, yet by choosing to position it timidly peering out from beneath a manufactured natural environment, suggests a desire to frame it as an other space, one not quite real, but subversively confusing in its presentation

His attention to size and scale help to reinforce this sense of the other space.  In each of the images we assume that our viewing position is the same as the photographers (it usually is), and in this case; front on, standing height and as seen by the tourist.  Yet the scale tricks us, some appear as aerial shots, others like we are half way up climbing the Great Wall of China, and others still as though we are impossibly floating mid-air in front of the Taj Mahal, just above the tree line.

Ultimately the success of this work lies in the abstraction of reality – some of the images look like they are photographs of the real thing, some clearly fake, and eventually we start to wonder what is real and what is fake – if this is a theme park, then is not the entire world one big family-friendly heterotopia?  If this is fake, then what is authentic?

References

Bruchansky, C (2010) ‘The Heterotopia of Disney World’ in Philosophy Now Issue 77, March 2010

Cosgrove, DE (1984) Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Lord, B (2006) ‘Foucault’s museum: Difference, representation, and genealogy’ in Museum and Society Issue 4(1)

Mitchell WJ (1992) The reconfigured eye: Visual truth in the post-photographic era The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mitchell WJT, ed (1994) Landscape and Power, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Salvesen, B  & Nordstrom, A (2010) New Topographics 1st edn, Steidl, New York.

 

 

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