It is easy to vanish in a big city. I do not mean disappear or go missing, but be lost and anonymous amongst the flowing tides of people.
Cities have now become the place where most of humanity lives. In the middle of 2009, the number of people living in urban centres surpassed those that live in rural areas. Across the world, people are drawn towards cities: sometimes by choice, and sometimes because of displacement. This is a trend that resulted in the emergence of 34 megacities across the world: that is, metropolitan areas with a population in excess of ten million people. They can emerge as a single city expands or when two or more metropolitan areas converge.
How should we understand these trends?
For some, it is a source of despair as cities are seen as alienating, promoting a sense of isolation and exclusion. Despite living in an environment where we are surrounded by millions – and sometimes tens of millions – social commentators such as Robert Putnum argue that we have never been more alone and unable to experience meaningful social contact.
But others disagree. Philosopher Iris Marion Young, for example, sees ‘city life’ as having the potential to offer us an alternative to idealised visions of community – especially to idealised visions of rural living. By ‘city life’, Young is referring to “a form a social relations” which involves the “being together of strangers”.
This occurs as we interact with strangers in places that we each feel that we belong to, but this is a belonging that occurs in very different ways. In this way, Young argues, this city life is shared by strangers while “composed of clusters of people with affinities” be they families, social group networks, voluntary associations and of course, artist communities.
David Harvey presents a different perspective. In his influential notion of a ‘right to the city’, Harvey builds on the earlier work of Henri Lefebvre that there is a ‘right to the city’ that revolves around the “demand...[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life”. Harvey’s position is that contemporary ideals of human rights, while moving centre stage and constructing visions for a “better world”, do not “fundamentally challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, or the dominant modes of legality and state action”
We have all walked through large cities – from New York to Hong Kong, Sydney to Mumbai, Paris and Jakarta – vanishing amongst the flow of people. We may be visitors or ‘belong’ to that city. We often feel an affinity, a connection and even confortable being there despite the millions of strangers surrounding us. As visitors, we revel in the unfamiliarity and enjoy the anonymity of walking around and seeing the city for the first time as if children.
It is this feeling of connection that Young is referring to. It is the city life that is “a vast, even infinite, economic network of production, distribution, transportation, exchange, communication, service provision, and amusement.” We do this and depend on the mediation of thousands of strangers to get through our day and achieve what we want to.
It is within this context that we need to approach the latest body of work by Luke Cornish: Vanishing Point.
Cornish delves into the city and reflects it back to us. He neither romanticises the city nor does he single out the risk of isolation and alienation. His portrayals of the city capture both: the magic of millions of strangers interacting together in metropolises that combine the old and the new, as well as a sense of despair.
Within these cities we can ‘vanish’.
The artist has always had a special place in societies: from the Ancient Greeks, to Goya’s Spain and Picasso’s Europe, the artist holds up a mirror to us and makes us stare at who we are and what we are creating. Luke Cornish’s work also achieves this: making us look at the world we have created and asks us to reflect on it in a non-judgemental but nevertheless, unflinching way.
And Cornish has always been able to achieve this with his own unique twist: he captures the contradictions that pervade our society: The crowds and anonymity; the familiar and the strange; the magical and the alienating.
In the end, Vanishing Point portrays a world in flux beset by common hopes and challenges. And it is this dimension that makes contemporary cities so remarkable. In the words of Iris Marian Young:
City dwellers are thus together, bound to one another, in what should be and sometimes is a single polity. Their being together entails some common problems and common interests, but they do not create a community of shared final ends, of mutual identification and reciprocity.
Cornish’s Vanishing Point reflect this – and in so doing, remind us that we must continue to live in a sense of wonder, hope and community, particularly when surrounded by millions of strangers.
Western Sydney University