Theopolis invades the Metropolis, or The (New) Enlightenment
Imran bin Tajudeen

Theopolis invades the Metropolis, or The (New) Enlightenment

Conceptual explanation:

The Photoshop image I created juxtaposes evocative, iconic images of built landscapes from the past and the present. In the foreground is the ancient Central Javanese stupa-mountain of Candi Borobudur built in 775AD, while visible in the background against the evening sky rise the three tall slender spires of the main temples from the Candi Prambanan complex dating from 835, also from Central Java. At the right middle ground stands Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok built in 1782. These structures are contrasted with the skyscraper landscape of Hong Kong. I chose Hong Kong because I feel that it is a particularly vibrant and exciting example of a peculiarly 20th century phenomenon common to many parts of the world.

The verticality that can be observed in both the stupa-spires of the temples and the projections atop the most prominent buildings in the Hong Kong skyline creates an uncanny dialogue between these monuments of humanity's desire - the former symbolic expressions of connection with the heavens, the latter the ostentation of corporate bodies vying for attention. In "The (New) Enlightenment" I wanted to reveal the irony created by this juxtaposition to highlight the stark shift from societies based on the privileged position of religion and the priesthood, to one where we see the physical and material prominence of the capitalist entrepreneur.

The observer's gaze might be drawn more towards the interesting kaleidoscope of Hong Kong's skyline, but I attempted to draw greater attention to the temples instead by aligning the 'gap' in the terraces of Borobudur stupas with the reflection of the sun in the water, to the image of the sun framed by the tallest prang (tower) of Wat Phra Keo and the vertical Prambanan forms. The image of Hong Kong then becomes a secondary feature, despite the vibrant colours it exhibits. I also wanted to create the illusion that one could walk down the terraces of Borobudur directly to the city streets below. Lastly, I intended for the temples to appear as though they were invading the city to reclaim their place in the conscious reality of the human landscape.

The idea behind the image:

Symbolising the attainment of Nirvana or enlightenment for the Buddhist pilgrim are the series of stupas atop the round terraces seen in the foreground, from the summit of Borobudur. Similarly the other temples were concerned with the search for truth through the attainment of religious knowledge gained from visiting the temples. However the temples come from an age of religious conformity, expressed through the ordered layout and uniformity within the structures, and the carefully prescribed circumambulation and other rituals associated with the attainment of religious merit.

On the other hand the European Enlightenment, arguably a pivotal moment in world history when humanity puts its own reason to use free of any authority whether religious or political, is what I feel to be the basis for all subsequent developments that led to the rise of the capitalist system which gave birth to such cities as Hong Kong. The 'spires' of Hong Kong, in contrast to those of the temples, are the product of individual aspirations - those of the entrepreneur, whose ethos is that of freedom of will and rational risk-taking, subject only to the rules of the marketplace.

The Age of Enlightenment in the European context refers to the empowerment of individuals through reason and the intellect. I felt that perhaps the temples can be read as manifestations of humanity in what Immanuel Kant would term its 'immature' state in his critique of what Enlightenment means in the European historical context, where the 'immature' status emanates from a 'certain state of will that makes us accept someone else's authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is called for'. For Kant the Age of the Enlightenment is the "way out" that releases humanity from this "immaturity", where a (holy) book no longer takes the place of our understanding, nor a priestly class our conscience.

As Michel Foucault puts it in Was ist Aufklärung?, the Enlightenment 'must be considered both as a process in which men participate collectively and as an act of courage to be accomplished personally'. The skyline of the modern metropolis is the epitome of this idea of individual endeavour of humanity in its 'adult' state coming together in collectivity. 'Men are at once elements and agents of a single process. They may be actors in the process to the extent that they participate in it; and the process occurs to the extent that men decide to be its voluntary actors'.

As an ironic twist to the whole story, it is recognized in postmodern discourse that humanity is not entirely rational, and to be humane is to acknowledge aspects of our existence that go beyond the limits of reason. Hence I wanted the image to suggest that the irrational side to human reasoning, having been pushed to the fringes of modernist discourse, is 'making a comeback'. Yet there is a difference, for these 'monuments to immutable truth' are no longer revered uncritically - along with the doctrines they embody, they are themselves now subject to critical reasoning.

In a sense this is a return to the ideals of the Enlightenment, where Kant observes that there is a clear distinction between the realm of obedience and the realm of the use of reason. Elaborating further, Kant states that humanity in its 'adult' stage is no longer required to obey, but can be told: "Obey, and you will be able to reason as much as you like". He gives as an example how a pastor, while taking responsibility for parish service, can reason freely about religious dogmas.

Technical explanation:

The image is built up from two scanned images from postcards depicting Wat Phra Keo and Hong Kong city, as well as two images taken from the internet of the two ancient Central Javanese monuments. The scanned postcard images formed the basis for the composition and set the tone of the picture, as both the Hong Kong image and that of Wat Phra Keo were set against an evening background and were lit up as well. Photoshop was used to adjust the colour balance, hue/saturation, and brightness and contrast of the two ancient Javanese temples to make them fit into the overall picture, so that they too appear to be lit up rather than being under broad daylight. The orientation of Wat Phra Keo and its boundary walls was adjusted using the transform perspective tool to fit into the city grid. Three copies were made of the layer with the Prambanan temple image and their colour balance was adjusted individually to give gradations that conformed more closely to the conditions of light suggested by the presence of the western sun and the fluorescent lights of the city. The images of Borobudur, Prambanan and Phra Keo temples were cropped from their original background using the magnetic lasso option.

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