The stars have gone out in the city. There is a tragic irony in how, as the concrete and steel of human civilization ascends higher towards the heavens, the sky above becomes more and more obscured. The domestic glimmer of a million bedroom windows convene with the crimson and white beams of the perpetual stream of traffic to forge the surreal orange glow which comes to typify night-time in the city. They form an atmospheric shell emanating from the city far below. The moon hovers as a ghostly reminder of a natural cosmos no longer relevant to the forms and patterns of urban life. The rhythm of Nature evolves into the pulse of the metropolis.
island6’s next exhibition in Hong Kong explores the city as a living organism. Nurtured and built by the hand and mind of man, the city comes to instinctively shake itself free from the yoke of its maker. In eerie inevitability it reflects one man’s own proclamation that “God is Dead”1 but for the city it is Man who has become irrelevant, a dry husk of salvation. It is in its Weberian2 disenchantment with man’s petty ways that the city realizes itself, and comes alive. It sheds its skin for a more mature, more accommodating model and gradually, carefully grows beyond the sphere of humanity. Hulking and huge it raises its great granite head and gazes down upon the ant-like humans below who serve as its life-energy. Just as the city comes to define its own physical atmosphere, it also comes to determine its inner transformations. Buildings rise and fall, roads and pathways spread out like arteries through the concrete landscape; the colors, the smells, and the sounds of the metropolis constantly recreate themselves, seemingly irrespective of their human inhabitants. The city comes to run itself…
And so the stars have gone out in the city. But they have been replaced by streetlamps, by LEDs, by electric visions in neon and the reflected glare of mirror and glass. The laws and order of nature which have governed humanity through the ages are eclipsed by the artificial edicts of the metropolitan organism. The island6 arts collective aligns itself willingly with these new urban laws, of social interaction and technological innovation. Using its signature blend of LED animations, photography and traditional Chinese mediums, island6 peel back the layers of modern existence. Whilst human behavior becomes increasingly dominated by technology – the toolkit by which the metropolis exercises its laws – the human mind is fundamentally transformed. Transformed to what? In the face of this palpitating concrete mass, it is unclear what is left for humanity.
Sinister visions of popular culture inevitably arise; of the French cartoonist Moebius’ fantastical depictions of domineering urban skyscapes3, and the seedy underworld of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). Or perhaps the Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni’s “The Street Entering the House” (1912), comes to mind: A kaleidoscopic vision of urban might and instability, as the street surface ruptures and houses cave in – an unleashed rampant public sphere lays waste to the fragile refuges of a dismayed and helpless humanity. If the city has become a living beast, our visions of an imagined future often seem to fear the worst.
But it’s not all doom, gloom and dystopian terror. It is an undeniable thrill to course through the glittering vessels of these bastions of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’4, in which the substantial institutions and fixed structures of earlier ‘modern’ societies have eroded to leave behind an infinite and endlessly transformative cityscape. On the surface a nervous non-committal instability prevails. But regardless we proceed to lean back and bask within the rush of excitement and newfound anonymity. The streets are ultra-vivid, the pace is fluid and exhilarating and the sky at night illuminates in a lurid, yet enchanting Technicolor display. Our romanticizing tendency skulks, ashamed to confess that this new hyper-reality threatens to surpass the stable domestic existence that came before. Rousseau et. al. may well be turning in their graves as we lose our sense of self, and are swept along in the city’s metronomic tempo.
In their latest exhibition the electronic art collective island6 explores the human response to the living, breathing and pulsating city. The booming megalopolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong provide the perfect testing grounds to trace the human reality of this new existence. As the cities of China march ceaselessly forwards in realization of an unraveling economic, political and cultural future the nature of the metropolis transforms. Within this environment new potentialities are carved out for man. Baudelaire’s painters of modern life, expositors of urban ‘flanerie’ are reborn and revamped under a cosmopolitan, yet curiously Chinese, guise. The temptations remain, to resist as imagined encroaching tendrils of the metropolis, and of new-age technology, wind themselves around our souls. But perhaps it should be with relief that we let our eyes glaze over a little, let the nervous energy drain from our tired bodies, and give ourselves to the soporific to and fro of the pulse of the city.
Nietzsche – The Gay Science, 125
(2) see Weber’s ‘disenchantment of the world’ theory – Max Weber
(3) see for example Moebius’ (Jean Giraud) The Long Tomorrow, 1975
(4) Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 2000