Entitled Nova Utopia, the artwork is inspired by Thomas More’s philosophical novel Utopia, and a map of the world he imagined drawn by Abraham Ortelius. More’s book, which was published 500 years ago in 1516, depicts a complex, self-contained world set on an island in which communities share a common culture and way of life. Walter’s map updates this to the 21st century, showing a world of mass tourism, package holidays, retirement homes, luxury resorts, banking districts and cultural hotspots.
I had the chance to speak with Stephen about his new creation, as well as his artistic practise.
How did you become involved in creating art?
I remember when I was about 8 or 9 – drawing a picture of a deserted and ruined city, in cross section. It was the first work that I remember that adopted a concept or deeper meaning and sub-text. This subject matter of topography and the constructions and detritus of human life upon the landscape has continued ever since.
When did you first become interested in Maps?
I have always loved travel and exploration all through my life. A map is a constant companion. I am an artist of Landscapes.
I spent much of my formative years as a student searching out small corners of utopias in the areas that I frequented – mainly the centres and suburbias of British Industrial cities. Through drawing, painting and photography – Essentially, the process of scrutinising certain viewpoints, repeating the compositions with mark making and pairing down these down; this created a set of my own abstract signs and symbols created from reactions to these composition. This was heavily influenced by Mondrian’s journeys into abstraction.
In photography, the intermediary for me was the window. It created a synthesis between the internal spaces, the window as a filter, and the landscape beyond.Marking making was intertwined with the reproductions and more signs and symbols emerged.
Real places were the prerequisite to my expressions, and the world created by humans was having more and more influence over my thoughts and work as a whole. I started to use known signs & symbols from the public arena to produce new images like pixel in a digital image. Maps are depictions of landscapes full of such signs and symbols.
To what extent does this 21st century version (inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia, 1516) display both utopian and dystopian manifestations?
When Robert Hughes said ‘it seems like plants, we do need the shit of others for nutriments in order to thrive’[i] he was reacting to the clean-slate policy of the city plan of Brasilia and other such Corbusian models for life.
The last hundred years in Europe have left behind monoliths such as those found on the parade grounds at Nuremberg which now lie as testament to mass hubris and alienation. The main problem with large scale Utopias is they inevitably result in the eradication of people that do not fit into the plan – something today that we would like to think is simply unacceptable. On the bright side we can see how Germany has transformed itself, how social security has developed in the west, and how institutions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be examples of vast bureaucracies being forces for the good.
So, we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary – Is a search for a Utopia seen now as futile, perhaps like it always has been? If the broad sweep eraser is now ‘out’ – is it on a smaller scale, in local hubs where we should now be looking? Or, should we recede even further back into ourselves in order to find Utopia? Surely, if they are to work in reality, we must find ours in a place that sits close to other people’s Utopia and somewhere within the balance between what is ‘imagined’ and what is ‘practical’. Large Utopias must surely be ones of compromise between the will of the ‘people’ and that of the ‘individual’ – perhaps a re-mixing, re-appropriating and a re-purposing of what has come before; a plural toleration of utopian and dystopian manifestations.
Nova Utopia is presented inside a ‘Hagioscope Frame’; to what extent is the work a collective or personal vision?
With respect to the concept of the Hagioscope Frame – your question hits the nail on the head, and is as much the answer as it is ‘the question’.
The original drawing sits inside the Hagioscope (or squint) frame. A set of wooden shutters fully encapsulates the work inside that can be viewed through the portal of a magnifying lens. The artwork inside is lit from behind the lens that can be moved across and over the entire picture frame with a handle. The entire work cannot be viewed as a whole; only what lies behind the lens at any one time can be seen.
In his 1932 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ Walter Benjamin put forward the idea of Art’s traditional ‘aura’. He argued that hand-made, original artworks are inextricably linked to the rituals and traditions of their makers, and possess a sense of enchantment, which the viewer can internalise. By contrast, the reproduced image lacks this particular ‘aura’ but gains a new power, one that is dilated away from a singular vision. Its value is altered by its new accessibility – its ‘display-ability’, communicating to a wider public in ways the original cannot. Here, the artwork inside is re-possessed with its ‘traditional aura’. It sits apart from its reproduction – a framed print viewed in its entirety.
This contraption flies in the face of the idea that Utopia is for everybody; only one person can use the thing at a time. One cannot see the whole picture, so they concentrate on a series of local details, connections and memories in order to gage the wider picture. It points to the notion that Utopia can only ever be realised on a local or personal level rather than in the grander picture. The fabrication acts as a metaphor for how Utopias might be seen today – stronger as a personal vision, yet impossible without others….
Hagioscope: also called squint, in architecture, any opening, usually oblique, cut through a wall or a pier in the chancel of a church to enable the congregation—in transepts or chapels, from which the altar would not otherwise be visible… – Britannica Encyclopaedia, 2013
Have you got any future projects / plans lined up?
I am currently working on a map of Mayfair, St James’s, to be shown at Shapero Modern in May of this year. Running alongside my maps, I also have a set of landscape works from over the past eight years that I would like to exhibit soon.
– Harry Dougall
Stephen Walter’s Nova Utopia is on view at Shapero Modern, 32 St. George Street, London W1S 2EA, from 13-30 April 2016, Admission: FREE