If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Catherine Hyland’s ‘Wonderland’ series spells out a – very long – post-apocalyptic fairy tale. The scene is a Chinese construction site of what was meant to become the largest amusement park in Asia – a construction that started in 1998, only to be stopped soon after because of a disagreement over the rights of the land. The artist, Catherine Hyland, describes it as a “monument to post-boom consumerism”. The reaction we get from it, however, is a raw, primitive gut feeling.
We are transported back to the imagined landscapes of our childhood, only to find that they have been transfigured by some cataclysmic event out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The buildings look silent, unmoved. They are the ghosts of our fairy tales – a spell has been cast on the palace, putting everyone to sleep, but no Prince Charming has saved their fates.
Some of you might have visited Gregory Crewdson’s ‘Sanctuary’ exhibition at White Cube last winter – black-and-white pictures of the deserted Cinecittà studios in Italy. The same feelings of emptiness and abandonment have penetrated the walls of Hyland and Crewdson’s buildings and ooze out of their photographs. Fairy tales and old movies – the stuff dreams are made of. But we have taken a great leap in time, the dreams have decayed and we are now witnessing the future of our civilization. Buildings are not finished, they are devoid of human presence and permeated by an unshakable eerie feeling. Our absence from the world we have built, the transience of our civilizations, is something that we cannot fathom completely, but that art forces us to face, again and again. And perhaps, the best complement to those two contemporary series of photographs is Shelley’s 1817 poem ‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
A monument to the ephemeral nature of our existence.