Paradise Lost

Kit Wise, Arcadia, 2011, video still, assisted by Darin Bendall

For an Englishman living in Australia, artist Kit Wise has a lot to say about ecology and sprawl in America. In his new piece “Arcadia,” which is on display at the Hyde Park Art Center through April 8, he uses dynamic high-definition digital collages of aerial photos to explore the relationship between ecology and urban forms.

Translucent photos of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Mississippi River floods are overlaid to form a surreal landscape. Dozens of photos are projected across the screens simultaneously. They drift and merge. The superimposition is disorienting and unsettling, as discrete sets of images overlap along the length of the projection screens. Displaced houses float along wind-slapped highways. Down a few screens, cows and cars peer through images of damaged forests. Vast bodies of water suddenly become ravaged subdivisions. The transitory and transitional nature of the projections produces an otherwordly effect that highlights the limits of human control.

The exhibition’s title, “Arcadia,” is an intentional misnomer. The term, which conjures visions of idyllic pastoral life, makes an ironic statement when used as a descriptor for a piece that foremost showcases images of destruction. Wise’s collage harkens back to a work by French classical painter Nicolas Poussin. Poussin’s piece “Et in Arcadia” depicts four shepherds amid tranquil wildlife peering into a tomb. The title, which means “even in Arcadia,” is meant as a reminder that even in paradise, death and destruction are imminent. Wise’s “Arcadia” reflects and reiterates this theme. As skyscrapers and subdivisions merge with inundated streets and ravaged forests, Wise reminds us that at any time nature can break through the veil of civilized order. For Wise, like Poussin, destruction is a constituent part of utopia.

Continuing his tradition of producing site-specific pieces, Wise’s digital collage was created especially for HPAC’s Jackman Goldwasser Catwalk Gallery.  Located on HPAC’s second floor, the Goldwasser stretches, like a bridge, above the larger gallery below. On one side, viewers have an aerial view of the artwork and museumgoers on the first floor; floor-to-window ceilings flank the other side. “Arcadia” is an evening-only exhibition. At 3pm, as the sun begins to set, these massive windows of the Goldwasser Gallery are covered, and the shades become projection screens for Wise’s piece.

Viewing “Arcadia” in this setting is a curious experience. For one, it is difficult to avoid drawing parallels between the aerial nature of Kit Wise’s piece and the aerial view the catwalk provides of the gallery below.While looking down over the gallery conjures feelings of omniscience and control, looking at “Arcadia” spurs a sense of smallness, confusion, and distance. The piece’s translucent, overlapping bird’s-eye-views offer no real perspective of the places it depicts, and instead of the viewer feels a palpable loss of control, as if being consumed by nature. This effect is undoubtedly enhanced by the viewer’s proximity to the piece. Since the Goldwasser is at most three paces wide, visitors are forced to stand close to the vast screens. From this perspective, it is impossible to view the entire piece at once. Instead, the viewer must turn her head and crane her neck to keep up with the shifting landscapes. Occasionally, visitors to the gallery even come into contact with their own shadow outlined against the light of the projector, a subtle reminder that their own action or inaction, too, is implicated by the destruction of Arcadia.

Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through April 8. Reception February 12, 3pm-5pm. Monday-Thursday, 10am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. (773)324-5520. hydeparkart.org