Clemens Wilhelm’s SIMULACRA shows us a world in which everything is a copy. Every object sheds a visual image; incomplete layers of history evaporate before our eyes. At the core of his work is the tourist, a figure he makes synonymous with the artist: an individual self-affirmed through their documentation of the world. He asks us how far our vision can extend; whether we can see across borders, cultures, political systems.
Mediated by social technologies, Wilhelm’s works unearth vast political histories in the global movement of cultures. As both an artist and a tourist, he fixes his lens upon the representation generated from this movement. In 2009, Wilhelm started out on foot to walk from Munich to the Venice Biennial, tracing an ancient tourist route for artists and other travellers. He photographed his route every 15 minutes. Such works have an hypnotic gaze. The camera spanning unending landscapes, and the replication of the images themselves, weave you into a continuum of representation.
SIMULACRA tells the story of the imperialism of imagery. Shot in the “Window of the World“ Entertainment Park in Shenzhen (China), we are presented with 140 copies of the world’s most famous tourist attractions. When the park was opened in 1992, citizens of China had less access to the outside world than in modern day. We can read the park as a historical document of a political system’s worldview. Wilhelm presents us with a portal into this way of seeing; in the process uncovering cultural myths, assimilated across cultures in the form of imagery.
Like looking down at a model village, the park functions to contain. Viewers are offered a compartmentalised version of something which couldn’t otherwise be fully understood. As watchers of the watchers, we are left grasping more and more for an original meaning. On one hand, we are given a view of the world through the eyes of China. On the other hand this still tells us nothing about China itself. In the process of this looking, we become aware of our Eurocentric gaze. When we impart this looking hoping to find something out about China we are instead met with the history of western visual imperialism.
The scene emerges with an angelic ambience, morphing choral tones and floods of natural light. We see Rodin’s “Thinker”, The Eiffel tower, the White House. We see couples perched on the edge of a Parisian fountain, kissing in slow motion.
At some level we all know this familiar scene is a simulation. However in this case we can’t as easily accept it. There’s a visual nagging; an architectural disproportion, uncanny smiles, poses held for just a bit too long. Scenes fading from one into the next are too smooth, as if an advert for the new iPhone camera. A family poses on an angry camel by the pyramids of Giza and a social-housing tower block. As the camera zooms out from micro to macro the music quietens and becomes more tinny. What sounded like violins reveals itself as the artificial hum of a MIDI keyboard. This is simulacrum clashing on an epic scale and in the process forming new undiscovered meanings.
Next we see a bride’s unhappy face arranged by a photo assistant into an eternal billboard grin. We see couples taking selfies in familiar poses, replicating post-card images, even the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker”. Here the deep human impulse to replicate develops a maddening momentum. Seeing this we submit; poetically slipping into a blissful un-reality. This is the catharsis of life mimicking representation.
These representations of by-gone civilisations, moulded into a Western quantifiable list, function to assert a cultural dominance. Here they are translated by an alternate dominating ideological system; that of Communist China. On one hand we are distanced from understanding this simulated world through our historical and geographic perspective; on the other, we too are living this simulacra. The hyper re-generation of Manchester’s Castlefield and Liverpool’s docks work by reifying the history of the industrial revolution into a fabricated representation. The neat reconstruction of industrial buildings and artefacts, removed from function for aesthetic display, are a common feature of the North West. This is essentially a fabrication of a physical history, which attempts to re-create a frozen still of an imagined history.
The whole thing climaxes in a realisation of the construction of every historical representation. Almost instantly, this realisation is itself lost by a saturation of enduring a-historical simulacra. In the spectatorship of a historical construction, a vast canyon of historical specificity is both suggested and pulled away from us. In this mystifying experience we attempt to grasp outside ourselves, always questioning if real life or the simulation of real life, comes first.
In SIMULACRA Wilhelm paints us a beautiful picture, rich with a human history. He shows us our innate desire to copy and to replicate; to learn through this and to be lost by this. The beauty is found in this familiar slippage, between retaining meaning and through losing it.
Rachel Margetts is an artist based in Manchester.
SIMULACRA video still © courtesy of the artist.
SIMULACRA, CFCCA, Manchester.
9 April – 7 June 2015