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Shooting the Global City

By Evan O'Neil, Mathew Pokoik | June 1, 2011

Photographer and arts educator Mathew Pokoik has traveled the world crafting a unique vision of "The Global City," from jumbled bazaars stacked with goods to simulated landscapes and advertising saturation. He corresponded with Policy Innovations about his style.

Your "Landscapes" series seems to redefine nature. A mural of an ocean acts as a stand in. Plants are in conflict with the constructed. What does this say about our urban biology?

I think we are drawn to creating simulacra or likenesses of nature. A garden is a type of likeness, and I'm a great lover of gardens. A garden is a created structure that reflects a larger and more complex biodiversity and landscape. Images, paintings, and photographs are also likenesses. We are drawn toward this creation of representations which then become stand-ins.

So let's say we have a photograph or painting of a landscape. Traditionally it might have hung in a living room for a generation. Now, in our modern urban environment, this landscape photograph has been blown-up and hangs on the side of a building in a public space. It's a contemporary update to a familiar use of creating representations of nature, and an adjustment to a traditional functional usage.

Of course when I make a photograph of it we now have an extra meta-level: It is a photo of a photo of a landscape. In many ways I'm having fun with the illusion that we create through photography, finding ways to both celebrate this illusion while also making it transparent.

Your "Stacks" series captures the clutter and chaos of the world's bazaars and street markets. Has this led you to reflect on trade and globalization?

The creation of Stacks was certainly a reaction to the unbelievable changes occurring in the world, along with my own twist on visual problem solving: How do you represent something massively complex on a two-dimensional surface? Global economies, production, consumption, and trade happen today on scales that are potentially too large to be comprehended. Stacks approaches this dilemma of visual representation through pattern and color, with multiple repeating images that are all infinitely different within a never-ending diversity of consumable goods.

What we call "globalism" is in many ways a linguistic idea—the ways we conceptualize it and discuss it generally occur within language. I'm curious about how we might bring these conceptual and linguistic ideas into photography, on a two-dimensional surface. A common strategy for dealing with this "translation" is to use photography as an illustration, such as in photojournalism, where the photograph shows us things, such as workers in a factory. Stacks, however, attempts a different strategy, utilizing visual abstraction to take on the subject of global trade and its many complexities and relationships. It attempts to create a conceptual similitude that overwhelms, in the same way that the human and industrial scales of globalism overwhelm.

It's worth mentioning here that only a small collection of these images are displayed on my website, and that for the final presentation the photographs will be installed in a small custom-built structure situated in the woods at Mount Tremper Arts (an arts center I run with my wife, choreographer Aynsley Vandenbroucke, in the Catskill Mountains of New York). Visiting the "StacksHouse" installation will require a 30-minute hike to a scenic mountain overlook.

Placement of the installation in the wilderness accentuates many of the themes of the project, and draws attention to a new question of the futility of art (or one could say, the individual) in a world so massively large and overwhelming: What does it mean to place a work of art in a context where it will be seen only rarely? How does that relate to the individual in a world of billions? StacksHouse celebrates this obscurity through a playful commitment to physical and temporal experience.

Advertisements and mass-produced goods almost act as characters in your work. What role do they play?

The way advertising images play a heightened role in the urban environment is what first attracted me to these themes I've been exploring since 2002. That and their potential within a "documentary" approach to enact a double life as both document and the thing that renders transparent the documentary illusion. It is loosely related to Baudrillard and his ideas of the simulacrum as a creation of consumer culture, a mirror world which reflects our wants and desires, a likeness of projections. So I suppose one could say advertising was the first "character" I explored in relation to this idea of how photography and the image industry creates mirror worlds—fabricated twenty-first century ideas of culture.

You render Vietnam as a riot of colorful fabrics. What drew you to this connection?

As it happens, my trip to Vietnam in April 2010 was part of a research group that chef Lon Symensma, formally the executive chef of Buddakan in New York City, made in preparation for opening his first independent venture, ChoLon Bistro in Denver. Four of the photographs I made in Vietnam became large mural prints that now reside at ChoLon Bistro, in the dining room and bar area. While I'd been slowly moving toward making photographs that delved deeper into repeating colors, color fields, and abstraction, the experience of traveling and eating in Vietnam, one of the food capitals of the world, with a group of remarkable and knowledgeable chefs, resulted in this very sensual semi-abstract riot of colors.

What has been the most inspiring city to photograph?

My favorite place to create images often seems to be Tokyo. Asian cities in general have so fully and enthusiastically embraced consumerism and capitalism, meshed with a certain fascination with technology, that it creates this wonderful potential for the type of images I've been making.

All photos © 2011 Mathew Pokoik. To view more of his work, please visit his website.

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Read More: Cities, Communication, Culture, Environment, Globalization, Trade, Japan, United States, Vietnam, Americas, Asia, Global

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