Edifice and Artifice – Urban Planning and Verisimilitude

Art can provide a compelling antidote to all the moral, philosophical, economic, scientific, religious and political hyperbole that bombards and confronts us every day. By referencing the technical processes of artistic practice, the study of art history and the language of critical art theory, we can learn to interpret and navigate these conflicting forces, and even challenge them. In our increasing over-reliance on all things digital, we need an artistic sensibility to help us re-connect with tangible reality. There are also some suggestions that enlightened companies have started hiring art graduates to bring an alternative perspective to their organizations – to tap into hitherto under-utilised skills and to employ this external expertise for internal problem solving, decision-making and strategic analysis.

Two recent cultural experiences have provided me an opportunity to reflect on how more than ever we need art to help make sense of the world, especially when interpreting data and making strategic planning decisions based on informed assumptions, market research and business analysis – because the standardized digital representation of everything means we often fail to venture beyond the surface of things.

The first event was a screening of “Urbanized”, an intriguing documentary by Gary Hustwit, showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The film is the final part of Hustwit’s design trilogy (following “Helvetica” and “Objectified”) and looks at several examples of good (and bad) urban planning around the world.  It provides cause for both optimism and pessimism on the future of the city – but it is mostly a positive survey.

One critical section of the documentary is an exploration of Brasilia, a flawed example of a “planned” city, with marvellous civic edifices and expansive freeways – except that for the people who live there, especially poorer and car-less citizens, it just doesn’t work as a built environment where they are supposed to live, work and play. Scratch beneath the surface, and we see a dysfunctional city. The moral of this particular story is that planners need to engage with the community, and work from the perspective of the end user, not simply from a visionary blueprint. Meanwhile, Stuttgart provides a salutary lesson in how poor public communication around policy, decision-making and execution can lead to a government being voted out of office, yet the majority of voters remain in favour of the politicians’ original planning decision.

There are so many things to like about this simple but effective film: the absence of a voice-over, allowing the stories to largely speak for themselves (within the usual confines of editorial decisions); the choice selection of urban locations and planning case studies; a range of informed and mostly objective participants and commentators; plus simple cinematography and a great soundtrack. Now I want my own city to adopt the public bus system from Bogota and the bike lanes from Copenhagen (and maybe the High-Line Park from New York).

The second cultural event comprised two solo (but related) exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring the photography of Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall respectively. Both artists produce large scale works, both employ sculptured components (light boxes used as fames, images printed on Perspex to imply depth) and both of them use constructed or staged settings to create their images.

Thomas Demand’s work looks deceptively simple and straightforward – mostly large still-life pictures of urban, industrial and technology-based interiors. However, if we dig below the surface verisimilitude, we can see that the images are really photographs of models made from paper and cardboard – sculptures that meticulously and painstakingly recreate these scenes rather like stage-sets, which simultaneously seem totally familiar yet frankly disturbing. This latter response can be explained by the absence of people and an eerie lack of any human presence in the images, plus the knowledge that all this visual data is merely a form of hyper-reality; but at the same time it is actually false, or at best an impression or recreated memory.

In comparison to his counterpart, Jeff Wall’s photography has the appearance of being more naturalistic (especially as most of Wall’s images feature people in everyday settings), even though in some cases it is just as surreal and hyper-real. The latter is achieved by the use of scale and backlighting, while the former is implied by the contradiction and juxtaposition between subject (content), and setting (context). This body of work also incorporates more narrative elements, and manages to make external references to literature, film and art history.

Both artists are quietly academic in their practice, and to some viewers this might present a barrier to understanding if they are not familiar with the accompanying art theory or critical analysis. But this need not be an obstacle to our engagement with the work, allowing us to appreciate it for what it is, and to reach our personal interpretations and conclusions.

Art enables us to relate individual stories and collective experiences, and recognizes that there are many truths, not just a single truth. Without art, we would lose a vital tool to interpret and narrate much of the world around us that cannot be explained by other media. And in the digital age of “virtual” and “hyper” realities, increasingly art is the only tangible means we have to give context and substance to our imagination without it being compressed and dis-intermediated by reductionist and homogenised technologies.

Finally, art in the 21st century is probably the only continuous link we have to our past – because as language and technology have evolved over time, art remains a constant aesthetic touchstone.




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