Construct within construct within construct within construct.

Annika Harding Oct 2017

This is how the photographic series A Construct, by Newcastle-based based emerging artist/photographer Dylan Smyth, can be understood when it is installed within the gallery space. At face value, these are images of mundane facades and archetypal architecture, photographed under brilliant Australian sunlight. However, these works reveal fascinating layers, different ways of thinking about and engaging with the built environment.

Philosopher, theorist and photographer Jean Baudrillard’s theories regarding simulation and simulacra can help us to appreciate these layers.1 ‘Simulation’ involves the construction of a model, and operation within the model over time. ‘Simulacra’ are copies that don’t, or no longer, have an original point of reference. There are several stages and orders of simulacra, and many of these are pertinent to A Construct

The first stage is a faithful image or copy. Smyth begins with photographs documenting  different angles of buildings and facades. 3D space is flattened to 2D image, and despite the perspective evident in the architecture, heightened by strong light and crisp shadow, these faithful images give only limited perspective.

Next in Smyth’s process, the 2D is recreated into 3D. He makes models from the photographs, using computer software to flatten planes and simulate the original built environment. Smyth then constructs the model from prints in his studio. In this recreation, a new version of reality is created. This is in line with the second stage of simulacra, in which reality is perverted, and the sign is no longer a faithful copy.

The third stage is where things really get interesting, and this is where we consider the photographs presented in the exhibition: each photograph pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a simulacrum; a copy with no original. Like the artist Thomas Demand, Smyth questions the truth of the photographic image by depicting an (almost) convincing model; but unlike Demand, Smyth utilizes photography in every stage of his process.

The limits of photography and its manipulation in digital and paper forms subtly break the illusion: the skies and grounds in the photographs are flattened just enough to contrast with the 3D model; the smooth surface of the photograph mediates the commonplace textures of brick, wood, concrete and steel. In Maryville I (2013-2017), you can see the edge of the paper building plane where it meets the flat ground, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is real (if the model can be considered real) or illusory perspective (from the printed image), particularly in the awning, drains, windows and meter box.

The buildings represented in these photographs are also themselves simulacra. According to Baudrillard, and ubiquitous to our era, in the Third Order of simulacra there is no original; these buildings  are produced from simulations. Are they even real to us, or merely temporary projections of human needs and desires, destined to be deleted from the matrix and replaced by newer simulations of private and public space? For Smyth, there is also a tension between place and placeless – these buildings exist, and in the photographs’ titles he locates them, but there are no place markers; they could be anywhere in urban/suburban Australia.  

Smyth’s interest in the built environment is a very human one, regarding “how the built environment impacts us and vice versa”.2 He undertook his first university degree in Industrial Design, which has had an impact on how he thinks about these spaces in all their complexity. This background has also equipped him with some serious model-making skills; simulation and simulacra are perhaps built into this type of process and thinking. While Smyth began working in this way in the final year (2013) of his visual art degree, it is in the couple of yearsthat he has been refining the intricate process of making these works and his choice of subject matter.

These photographs are installed within another built environment, a construct in itself. The repurposed gallery space, in all its complementary generic-ness, and with all its particularities, encapsulates layer upon layer of human interaction and experience- what better place to display A Construct.

Annika Harding is a Canberra-based artist, curator, writer and a PhD Candidate in the ANU School of Art and Design, Centre for Art History and Art Theory. Essay comminisioned with the support of PhotoAccess, Canberra

1   Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
2   Dylan Smyth, interview with Annika Harding, 21 September 2017