When Jean Baudrillard wrote ‘Simulacra’ in 1981, he couldn’t have known that soon after, his text would be transformed from written to visual or even uncannily tangible representation. ‘Simulacra’ became one of the canonical essays of the 20th century and it remains critically relevant today due to its commentary on a world dominated by media and imitation, which have replaced real interactions and communication. Simulacra is an imitation; a superficial likeness not only of spaces and objects but also of feelings and emotions which are manipulated by a promise of a perfect, improved reality. Caught in the game of fakes, copies and mechanical reproductions, we are becoming a society that, deprived of genuine participation, is constructed and synthetic.
This phenomenon has been captured by Wilhelm Clemens in his mesmerizing 32 minute video ‘Simulacra’ (2015), on display in the Centre of Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester. The film takes place in the famous Chinese amusement park in Shenzhen, Window of the World, in which visitors can admire 140 models of famous architectural marvels and natural landmarks from around the world. The Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, Niagara Falls and other well-known sights are there to literally create an imitation of the world. And while the views are stunning and visitors take shot after shot of everything around them, one element is clearly missing from their experience: a sheer engagement. The film seems to be completely stripped of human feeling, even when depicting a young couple sitting side by side, newlyweds or children strolling around. Heavily equipped with cameras, hi-tech phones and tablets, the visitors produce copy after copy of this counterfeit. After a while, it becomes obvious that their attention is directed not towards the stunning views, but to the idea of being on a photograph with a Big Ben that is not Big Ben at all.
Yet, despite its clear artificiality, the film plays with our senses and mesmerises us with the shots of something so unreal that it is almost beautiful. Accompanied by the slow, ambient music of Chris Zabriskie, we become the participants of this magical spectacle. It doesn’t take long until the simulacra’s mechanism of intense fascination infects us with its promise of an enchanting fairy land. The Eiffel Tower’s reflection sparkles in the water and colourful flowers cover the trees. But the accompanying music, as well as the theme of the video has a melancholic underscore, and points at darker aspects of this mesmerising spectacle. Shot digitally in a poetic style, this dreamlike documentary is also a commentary on China’s politics and the idea of freedom. With closer inspection of the park’s visitors, we notice only Chinese people and the fact that there is an overwhelming lack of joy and excitement among them. Instead of amusement we observe rather cold, silent or even bored facial expressions. The detached shots, nevertheless, evoke an alluring, languid charm and the music conveys an experience of something unreal and unique.