This exhibition considers sites of architectural development in three very different social and political landscapes across the globe.
Selected from a new body of work documenting overlooked or unchallenged instances of casual surrealism in urban areas, Martin Boyle’s three photographic images focus on certain declining tourist resorts in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh. These developments, purportedly constructed to promote ‘the new Egypt’, have been created through denial of any indigenous architectural or cultural history; instead, Western equivalents have been voraciously consumed and hastily reproduced, resulting in structural pastiches that stand completely at odds with their physical surroundings. The spectacular rejection of the local in these areas prevents them from becoming places of societal potential, and utterly disenfranchises them from the very real political battles being fought elsewhere in the country. Boyle’s documentation of these sites seems at first to be relatively objective, but by utilising specific modes of presentation and highlighting particularly bizarre examples of visual deception, the artist strikes at the foundations of the utopian vision promoted by the developers of these ‘premium’ constructions.
Jun Yang’s video work transports the viewer into yet another world of skewed ambition and artifice, looking at sprawling residential complexes in Guangzhou, China. Paris Syndrome derives its title from a temporary psychological disorder which afflicts some Asian tourists when they visit Paris and encounter a reality that does not correspond with their preconceived notion of a romantic, fairy-tale city. In this work, both the buildings and the two protagonists seem lost and trapped: lost in context and trapped in time, unable to make sense of their surroundings, which almost resemble stage sets but which are, in fact, real housing developments built as part of China’s relentless drive towards urbanisation in these areas. Much like the edifices captured in Boyle’s photographs, the architecture of these dwellings mimics, or interprets, the style of other places, expressing a desire or longing for an alternative reality. This dream-like environment enacts what Marxist geographer David Harvey has described as an ‘aestheticised economy of consumption’, where culture is characterised as saturated with reproduced images and information, unflinchingly embracing commodity fetishism and mass consumerism. Within the context of contemporary China, this work wonderfully expresses the stark contradictions of socialist neoliberalism.
Both Boyle and Yang are, in different ways, examining the architectural, historical and political structures that underpin both public and private spaces, particularly looking at inappropriate ‘dream’ housing/resorts that are so far removed from what the prospective occupants of these buildings actually want or, more importantly, need. Adrian Duncan’s text Self-building and Upkeep, commissioned specifically for this exhibition, acts as a thoughtful counterpoint to the work on the walls of the gallery. This piece draws our attention to a movement much closer to home, namely, the ‘Bungalow Bliss’ period of construction in rural Ireland, which transformed the topography of the west of the island during the 1970s and 1980s, and continues to spark debate for a variety of environmental, social and political reasons. Duncan’s study of this recent history of a particular type of domestic space has resulted in a piece that is both factually enlightening and philosophically driven, drawing attention to the differences between the self-build nature of bespoke homes in Ireland and pre-built housing developments elsewhere.
Individually and combined, the artistic approaches presented here reveal a sense of precariousness and vulnerability in all of these places and seek to excavate the sometimes misguided aspirations and ideologies constantly shaping the world around us.
* A direct quote from the marketing slogan of Santa Elena City, a gated residential development in the Philippines, where each constructed neighbourhood attempts to replicate the architecture, landscape, and culture of various Western countries. The marketing refrain in its entirety is as follows: “What is real, what is honest, what is true…this is authenticity.”