Neonopolis – On The Edge Of Dystopia?

Work by Richard Mark Dobson Introduction by Brian Quillinan 1st November 2018

We are living in a new world. We adapt or we detach, or perhaps choose to sit around and complain. In some sense we are the chosen ones. We’ve been handed more gifts than any life form preceding us, it’s quite astonishing. We know more about the world and ourselves in it, exponentially. Some of us get richer daily, some of us fatter and others left behind drink from the gutter. But what is happening collectively? Have our egos led us to scamper like rats down a sewer pipe with no common goals left as a people? Post religion, post national, are we losing our collective vision of ourselves?

We accelerate, interconnecting globally and digitally. While we can easily choose to take all the accompanying noise for granted, the idea of comprehending where this change is leading us makes us feel perhaps, deep unease. It could be said the technological shift generates a pulsating wave, a visceral connection that we have come to engage with collectively and somewhat intuitively. You could say that technological advancement acts like a kind of trading game, we gain the new at the loss of the old.

When I first came across Richard Mark Dobson’s Neonopolis a number of weeks ago, I didn’t feel I needed much introduction. There appeared a familiar dystopian undercurrent and something that it seems is steadily and uncontrollably creeping into the presence of the current public mindset, cautiously assisted by the occasional eyebrow raising ‘Welcome to 1984’ headline in the media. We find ourselves surrounded by much of the technology we could for generations at best only dream of, yet the profoundness of its influence is only beginning to take hold.

Something that interests me about this kind of photographic work is how a fictionalised vision of the dark future starts to intersect the reality of now. Our shared future we realise is no longer only a work of someone else’s fiction.

The backdrop is Hong Kong, the hanging smog reaches out to flirt magically with the light, it’s a beautiful thing that not many will see. The power of observation and the absorption of beauty only ever resides within the presence of the moment. Those preoccupied with their next step cannot be here, or at least completely non-expressive and isolated by this notion of their future selves being more important than now. Are they still alive? Are they automata? Do they still feel their heart beat?

Richard shot Neonopolis over three one month visits to Hong Kong, a place which resided solely in his memories since he lived there for most of the 90s. This reacquaintance you could say acted like a kind of spontaneous realization of what is happening now.

In Richard’s words:

“The initial impetus for this project I think began indirectly with observing HK through the window of the airport express train. A journey from Chek Lap Kok to Central. Throughout this rapid transit experience I felt as if I was immersed in a sci-fi movie. Inside the speeding tube I looked out to lanes of traffic, illuminated highways and byways, the frenetic movement of people, cars, trains, ships, planes… it was sensory overload induced partly by the kinetic momentum of my train. All of this stimulus prompted me to ponder the phrase, ‘dynamic energy flow’….”
“Then questions arose in my mind. What kind of energy did I see and feel? Was it a good or bad energy? A happy energy? Was this busy-ness possibly just an energetic lusting for money? Or was it an energy based on a collective desire to be highly ‘efficient’? Arrive on time. Get things done?”
“I pondered another question. Namely, this energy, that which powered the automated, almost robotic way in which the citizens of Hong Kong performed their task, lived their lives, did it enslave them to a gargantuan system of demand and supply, commerce and logistics. Was this a good thing? Was this a positive power supply? Or could this buzz be construed as something far more dystopian!”

Philip K Dick’s words after he as was first shown the Bladerunner intro:

‘How is this possible? How can this be? Those are not the exact images, but the texture and tone of the images I saw in my head when I was writing the original book! The environment is exactly as how I’d imagined it! How’d you guys do that? How did you know what I was feeling and thinking?!’

Visions of a dystopian future have penetrated the collective consciousness through arguably some of the most prophetic literature and film of the 20th century. These visions have etched themselves upon our minds with an unsettling ease. There is something about the dystopian future we already know and feel, or maybe its just an idea that’s easier to dismiss? Within the fabric of the story of the dark future resides a perhaps eternal struggle. The struggle to feel human, experience warmth, emotional connection, meaning in the rise of the nihilistic landscape which threatens to consume all that it is to be human, to remain individual.

Richard speaks of his upbringing and life spanning across the cultures of Western Europe, Africa and Asia. Often intrinsic to this way of life are questions of belonging and identity. Perhaps the artist requires these kind of questions. Perhaps the photographer is best suited as the traveller, outsider looking in, with a hunger for an objective notion of what may be true, not for the sake of others but for themselves.

There is something many street photographers may miss in all this. Anyone smart can appropriate the aesthetic of a theme but they cant make it meaningful without the life they are living aligning in some way with the underlying substance relating to such a theme. It seems to have gone over many photographers heads when Cartier-Bresson spoke of the perfect alignment of the head, heart and eye. This is precisely what he meant. Many photographers can temporarily fool much of the on-line audience with a keen head and eye, but without the heart, the depth, without the connection, there are no layers of nuance. Without nuance a photograph is momentary candy for the masses. Such imagery may even be breathtaking, without containing any substance to reflect upon.

It could be said that the notion of the apocalypse is the deepest of archetypal stories. The literal translation of apocalypse means ‘the uncovering of truth’. Friedrich Nietzsche once said “If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” Perhaps we can extrapolate to say that if what lies before can be taken to be true, how capable can we ever be of baring it for what it is?

You can check out more about Richard Mark Dobson here..