Catherine Hyland


Written by Suzie McCracken
01 Sunday 01st April 2012

Did you go to China specifically to see Wonderland?

I went to China for the first time in April last year. I was completely unaware of Wonderland’s existence prior to the trip.

What attracted you to photographing the Wonderland?

A mixture of aspects really, I have spent years documenting abandoned and unrealised projects. Not necessarily amusement parks, but objects and buildings that exist as leftover remnants of industrial landscape. I am interested in the history of these objects and how we learn to experience them now. How the meaning of these spaces changes by people's active occupation - the way in which that space is practiced either individually or in places such as Wonderland, communally. It often completely transforms the original intentions and context of the space.

Wonderland XI (China, 2011)

Did you have a chance to talk to any of the locals that live near the park? What were their opinions on it?

The language barrier unfortunately stopped me from being able to talk to the locals. A number of newsgathering agencies picked up the story afterwards though, several of which said they had attempted to talk to the locals. Reuters said the locals had returned to harvest crops because they believed it was safe to assume the developers would not be returning. There is a sense that any ownership or responsibility over the site has been shed. The locals have evidently reclaimed their land but with one very big obstacle in the way.

Wonderland VII (China, 2011)

We've seen a lot of photography over the past few years looking at abandoned structures in places like Detroit and Ireland due to the recession and longer term economic hardship. This is different because it was abandoned due to a land dispute - do you think the reason behind Wonderland's demise makes the juxtaposition between fantasy and reality even more apparent? 

It definitely makes the signifiers, which we intuitively attach to fantasy objects, more apparent. The life that the farmers and local school children bring to the structure is strangely alluring, it gives the space an ongoing narrative. Whilst I was there I saw firsthand the locals watering the plants in what was to be the Wonderland car park. They are maintaining the left over abandoned spaces, nurturing the environment they have been left with. These ‘fantasy’ objects are being appropriated for extremely practical purposes within reality.

The park looks very Western - much more Disney-inspired than expected. Were you surprised by that?

No, we see these facsimiles all over the world, especially in China. Places like Window of the World in Shenzhen are the same, live camels will walk in front if 1:5 replicas of the Egyptian pyramids, people can take a trip up the Eiffel Tower or walk through the Grand Canyon. These kind of vivid replicas can be seen throughout Japan and China and further afield.

You call the structures 'unconventional playgrounds'. Did you see them being used as such? No matter how sober I'm pretending to be here, my only thought is really "I'd love to run around that like a child".

Yes, I had made a short video piece (above) to keep a record of the way in which the local children climbed the ‘castle’ after school. It was one of the most spectacular views although slightly unsettling in terms of their safety. 

The Finishing Room (Sri Lanka, 2010)

How did you find the experience compared to when you took photos in the factories in Shri Lanka or in Iceland? Does your approach differ when taking photos of man-made structures to natural ones?

I wouldn’t say my approach differed, formally the images are very much the same - deadpan photographs not intended to manipulate or encourage opinion one way or another. I simply want to chronicle the changing faces of such places. My work in Iceland aims to show the outcome of industrial processes and the landscapes of the surrounding areas.

In Sri Lanka I was attempting to chronicle the new types of Eco-Factories that are emerging in Southern Asia with increasing frequency. What I was inherently interested in was documenting our attempts to rectify a manufacturing system that has already spun out of control.  But there are always specific sensitivities you need to be aware of from one project to another. I visited Sri Lanka again this year and their history is a very sensitive issue at the moment, even in the global political arena. You need to be aware of this when you are there and most importantly when thinking about the way your images are being used or exhibited.

Wonderland II (China, 2011)

Your other photos from China are similarly of rather destitute places, but your photos definitely have a unexpected warmth to them. Is this something you hoped for?

It was not something I hoped for especially but I constantly find myself in a state of accidental reverie on these trips so it’s probably natural that this will be absorbed into the work.

Find out more about Catherine at her website or blog.

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