Hypothetical Spaces is an ongoing project incorporating painting, video, and other media to speed up and slow down the circulation of images. The artworks in the series are built out of pictures of pictures that appear within and upon the built environments of cities.

HypotheticalSpaces.zone is an interactive digital work commissioned and hosted by Nation 2.0 in 2021. It is never finished. Click the moving images to navigate.

by Melissa Gronlund

Long ago, some friends and I lay on our backs in the park that was opposite our school, overlooking the East River in New York. We were trying to think of what was beneath the grass. Rock? Uncultured soil? A sandy slope that might have reached down gently to the river, instead of the promenade’s precipitous drop? What is this city built on, we thought for the first time in our urban lives. What lies beneath?

Cities are heterotopic: the answer lies all around. In Dubai, sections of the city’s earlier desert existence remain in stretches that appear almost randomly undeveloped, as if the city were a map whose contours were measured askew. In cities that were built upon fields, the sound of gurgling drains points towards streams that have been submerged – and which sometimes make their presence felt, in rising damp in basements or whole streets whose houses slowly tilt to the side.

You could turn around, though, and point to the rocky little sandpits as the presence of the real, making these patches of the city more genuine than other parts of the urban infrastructure. As with most thinking about the “real”, you can do this endlessly, flipping over between real and simulacrum, signifier and signified, like a coin being tossed in the air, circling through the different layers in an infinite regression.

Because if little pre-urban patches of sand persist, so too do the opposite: ubiquitous representations of the city even as we live in it. Aspirational billboards, advertisements countering population movement, or simply updates for the neighbours of what new buildings under construction will eventually look like, printed on tough plastic sheeting. Conceived of in high-tower boardrooms, they show cities in a state of permanent render, even as the images themselves weather and fade.

The American-born artist Isaac Sullivan has been tracking these images since 2009, when an advertisement in Darjeeling caught his eye: a digital render of a white stucco house, printed onto the side of a white building. The tension between the trompe l’oeil texture of the digital building and the rough concrete wall of the building underneath it struck him as an intersection not just of material but of two separate time frames. In the years since, he has amassed hundreds of these shots – juxtapositions of aspirations and realities or simply puzzling redundancies: an image of Niagara Falls, encased behind Plexiglas at a viewing platform for the actual Niagara Falls; a grove of snow-laden trees, rising up out of the polished grey floor at JFK airport in New York; a pair of battered pink garbage skips adorned with idyllic, super-saturated garden scenes at the periphery of Kuwait City.

In 2020, while living in Dubai, Sullivan found a manufacturing firm of copyist painters in southern China and sent them 12 images to reproduce. The images returned with a kind of soft-focus verisimilitude that befit their status as the poor image, as Hito Steyerl has termed it, despite their now materializing in the reputationally opulent form of oil-on-canvas. The works were, by now, outsourced paintings of photographs of digitally mocked-up renderings of – keep up! – buildings that did not yet exist.

The uncertain status of the original, and the use of displacement mechanisms, gives the work a mise-en-abyme quality – a feature heightened by the imagistic frames that that Sullivan placed around the edges of many of the paintings. One work, for example, shows a rendering of a luxury hotel, with reproduction Louis XIV furniture, that was under delayed construction on the Palm Jumeirah; by the time Sullivan took the picture in 2017, the scene was already sun-bleached. He layered this weathered interior on top of an image of the Liwa desert, and then, as its base, a photograph of the carpet at the Mercure Hotel atop Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain, whose faux-gravel effect echoes the look of the loose stones upon the surrounding mountain.

The mise-en-abyme works materially as well, as the images build layers of different technological substrates as well as varying, oscillating spheres of fiction and reality. It’s a project ripe for critical theory. Steyerl rubs elbows with Derrida (hello, the parergon! hello, infinite chain of signification!), while Baudrillard bangs loudly on the door, demanding to be let in. But it’s the uncanniness I want to focus on: the feeling of the present differing physically from the past, and from the future as well – what my friends and I sensed so long ago, on the verge of adulthood’s creakily widening aspect-ratios of perception. Past, present, and future meet in these markers of construction, reproduced in a quite classical – palpable – manner in oil paintings. Though I suspect Sullivan wishes to untangle his project from the discourse around Dubai, where he has lived since 2017, it is not easy to let go of Dubai in this investigation. While other cities, like London or Rome, might easily open windows to fall into the past, the idea of the future belongs to new cities like Dubai.

This is the future not in the hazy sense of empty words, but in an architectural style of statement, branded buildings, glass transparency and computer-aided modelling. The future is technological and it will travel as an image. Sullivan, in this most recent, digital iteration of Hypothetical SpacesHypotheticalSpaces.zone – gestures towards this new affective reality. Here, thousands of copies of the series’ images appear, as small as eraser-heads or floating across the screen like errant clouds. The user can delve deeper into any of these thumbnails, viewing images of the renderings, or moving them across the page by scrolling through them. Mise-en-abyme here is maxed out. The collage might be beautiful, presenting an army of color choices, but it seems no longer to refer to the material origins of the images, nor of the conditions of their transformation into the series, where their visual flatness excludes other perceptual states: the thin air of Darjeeling, the glare of Dubai or the shivering cold of the air-conditioned JFK airport. Online space is and isn’t real space; and the tossed coin flips again.