IN SEARCH OF LOST SPACES.
MEGHAN HO-TONG’S ART EXPLORES SPACES THAT DON’T EXIST IN OUR REALITY… AND SPACES THAT COULD HAVE.
The Mirage is a cantilevering residential space, balancing delicately in a desert landscape as it shifts and transforms to mimic the position of the sun above. If its physics seem unreal, that’s because they are: The Mirage exists only in the metaverse.
South African artist Meghan Ho-Tong (@meghanhotong) worked on the project with her friend and collaborator Alexis Christodoulou (@teaaalexis), alongside Joe Mortell (@joemortell) and the team at Color C Studio (@colorcstudio). She describes the experience as “mind-bending”, yet it’s entirely in keeping with her work and research, which explore our relationships with the spaces we occupy … or don’t.
“Making The Mirage was a beautiful exercise in how far the imagination can go,” she says. “The space might not be able to be built in the real world, but there’s value in stretching one’s imagination that far. Once an idea like that is out there, it has the capacity to transform your thinking here in the now.” The Mirage required Ho-Tong to think outside of her traditional training – and, in some respects, to unlearn a lot of that training.
“One’s decisions as an architect are based in the real world, where physical forces, social forces and cultural forces are read from context,” she says. “How do you read your context when it’s a blank digital space? You have no landscape. You’re working in a boundaryless space. So much of an architect’s aesthetic decisions involve structure. An arcade or a rhythm of columns will feel joyful or pleasurable to a human being who’s experiencing it, but there’s also a logic of how far something can span or how big a column should be if it’s supporting a weight. In the metaverse, that column can span infinitely … or it can just float. The funny thing is, having zero constraints makes the exercise harder. It’s more difficult when you have infinite possibilities.”
RECLAIMING LOST SPACES
Ho-Tong’s work is pushing her to explore the meanings of spaces: real, imagined, or lost. While The Mirage is set in the completely digital, completely imagined metaverse, her work on a research initiative through the University of Cape Town in partnership with the Palestinian Museum about land rights across Palestine and South Africa is taking her into the challenging realm of spaces that existed but were taken away. “One participant, Nisreen Zahda, is using virtual reality in her VRJPalestine project to reconstruct Palestinian villages that were destroyed during the Nakba,” says Ho-Tong. “She’s trying to reconstruct a lost world, layered with technical data and personal accounts. That’s a valuable way of using the technology and what it might become.”
Ho-Tong is acutely aware of the political implications of reconstructing a future that was denied. “Think of South Africa, of the spaces that were destroyed under the Group Areas Act, and of the futures that were lost,” she says. “Is there a project that could reconstruct these spaces and give agency and ownership to people to reconstruct something that was taken away from them? Do you inhabit the space? What is the value in that?” Take it a step further: how would people today react to walking through a Virtual Reality recreation of, say, what Cape Town’s District Six looked like before the Apartheid-era bulldozers flattened the area?
“People’s reactions to it once it is built are one thing,” Ho-Tong points out, “but the process of building it would also be important because there are so many stories that were silenced and so many histories that were erased. How do you give a voice to that?”
SOUND VS SPACE
Ho-Tong answers that question, in her own quiet way, in Chorus, a short film she co-produced with Lucienne Bestall (@luciennepallas) and Matty Roodt (@mattyroodty) for MAXXI Museum’s exhibition, Buone Nuove, 2021. “The film suggests a fictional haunting of a church, using architecture as a resonating instrument through which one could investigate and contest the gendered power relationships in our built world,” she says.
The building in question is – architecturally speaking, at least – an aggressively masculine structure, with a sweeping, modernist spire that dominates the surrounding landscape. Chorus imagines a narrative where a chorus of disembodied voices inhabit its interior.
“Sound asserts itself as central to the haunting of this church,” she says. “It’s a deliberate subversion of a visual dominance, which is quite prominent in our art and aesthetic history. It asks how we might listen to the softer, quieter frequencies of land and architecture and place. The voices go from being calm to becoming dissonant, filling the building with their song.”
Chorus is Ho-Tong’s second film. She says she’s drawn to film as a medium because of how it brings the viewer into an atmospheric, spatial construction – one, she says, that “has force and meaning, and asks you to linger there”.
And while you linger in these spaces – Chorus’s church, Zahda’s village, The Mirage’s digital levitation room – you can’t help but feel their textures… whether they exist in our reality or not. That’s why Ho-Tong is drawn to these imagined places: she believes that touch is more important than it’s ever been for the making of architecture. “We who are living in the Anthropocene are very aware of what human behaviour is doing to change our physical world, and of how its power structures and its architecture neglect marginalised people and cultures,” she says.
As we fumble our way through the early stages of the metaverse, Ho-Tong’s art pushes us to feel its intangible spaces, challenging our ideas about who has a voice in their creation.