Artist Breathes Mystery and Magic into City Maps

By Mike Fox, July 21, 2023

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Salvador Dali once said, "those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing." While the famed Spanish surrealist wasn't advocating plagiarism, he was perhaps alluding to the fact that art doesn't have to be steeped in originality, nor does it need to be formed from the basis of something prototypical. Artist Gareth Fuller seems to understand this concept and has made it his life's work to find deep meaning based on the world's oldest blueprints.

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'London' by Gareth Fuller

The 42-year-old has produced works depicting cities that go beneath the surface of landmarks and lanes. He focuses on the history and stories lying within any given place and all under the guise of a metropolitan layout. The Brit has tackled London, and since coming to China in 2017, Beijing and Shanghai.

"I walk thousands of kilometers around a place or a city. That walking and pedestrian research then translates into how I'll approach the work," he tells That's.

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'Great Wall' by Gareth Fuller

"For me, all my artworks are documentation, a snapshot in time. It all comes from the first part of my process, and I suppose that I could just be looking at existing portraits of a place or pictures. It could be digital maps right through to historical maps or even architectural drawings."

At first glance, Fuller's pieces resemble a beautifully crafted, but overzealous doodle. The drawings are packed with the finest of detail and it's tough to comprehend the portrayed themes. But like a well-directed movie, it's the revisits which uncover the (at first) unnoticed quirks.

"In the Shanghai piece (completed in 2022), I realized the Pudong River acts as a main artery to the city. I looked at the shape of the river and I realized that it created a dragon, which I felt was an interesting piece of iconography. So the river actually forms the shape of a dragon inside the artwork."

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'Beijing' by Gareth Fuller

"When I approached Beijing, I decided to walk around the outside of the city, and I circumnavigated it using the Sixth Ring Road as a kind of guide. I couldn't visit every small town or village so what I ended up doing was using a lot of that (unexplored) space to discuss other stories that were happening in the city. So, for example, I would approach the idea of feeling lost and confused in a city so I threw a fictitious temple which could be perceived as 'the temple of loneliness and confusion.' I would maybe draw mountains of disused higher bikes which was a big story happening at the time. A lot of the works can be sort of part imagined and so can some of the geography."

This mix of lived experience and artistic interpretation is what gives Fuller's works a striking impression. Tourist hot spots and timeless relics are only part of what make up the familiar territory on his canvas, with subtle ideas and hints toward the future also on display. China is the world's fastest-growing economy for a reason and this growth comes with as many challenges as it does achievements. While the London work was more of a homage to the artist's younger days, tackling the PRC is about intrigue and inquisition in equal measure.

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'Broken Ankle' by Gareth Fuller

"The scale of a mega city so huge," remarks the artist. "I first came out to study Beijing, study a mega city and the absolute scale of somewhere so large. I was completely bamboozled. I think that is the only word to use. Just the energy, the sense of productivity and the busyness. My experience of London was far different to that of Beijing."

"The Beijing artwork seemed like an educational canvas. Everything was about learning so much about Chinese culture, the immensity of a mega city and the plan of a place like Beijing with its ancient history. It's a city like no other and is absolutely unique with the fact it's planned on the central axis."

"I'm very interested in the interdependency between the wilderness from rural spaces and environments to urban places. This relationship is quite interesting, specifically with the entanglement of climate change and the effects that bigger cities are having."

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'Bund' by Gareth Fuller

Fuller's 2018 piece on China's capital was the culmination of 1,350 kilometers of walking, not to mention his lived experience. It features nods to the revamp of the hutongs and the city's waste management system. It looks at the difference in perspectives between natives and expats while holding a respectful and understanding view of all attitudes. Whether it's Beijing, Shanghai, London, Tokyo or New York, the relationship between productivity and preservation has presented the world with many questions it has yet to answer. Although art might not provide the solutions, Fuller believes it can be the catalyst for conversations.

"Any metropolis has huge responsibility because so much is produced there. There are better systems that can be developed to make things more sustainable. But ultimately, some of the best minds and problem solvers in the world will be working in metropolises in teams, and collaborating to come up with what I think are significant solutions to a lot of the problems we hold."

"I don't consider myself to be an activist as such. I'm just sort of deeply troubled by [climate change]. If there's one thing I can do in my art, it is discussing these themes, so they become talking points. I think the hardest part of my work is the absurdity or the contradictions that I hold as an individual and around my impact on the planet."

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'Shanghai' by Gareth Fuller

Most artists have an eccentric side and Fuller is no exception, not that he would see it that way. At present he's swapped that hustle and bustle environment of China for the cool, calm and collected atmosphere of Ireland, a country where he shares dual heritage. Currently navigating his way through life with his wife and newly-born child via camper van, our video conversation takes place with the painter shirtless, fresh from a morning surf, and propped up against the steering wheel of his stationary vehicle with a beautiful view overlooking the waves of County Mayo. For someone who gets so immersed in their surroundings for creative purposes, it's easy to see why such a dramatic change is needed. But despite the switch, that doesn't mean he's switched off.

"Fatherhood has made me feel a boundless love for everything," he says with a smile leaned up against the steering wheel.

"But also, fatherhood can be a tonic to dilute any cynicism (I have). I want to bring as much joy as I can to my child's life. I hope that I can take the kid out on some of my explorations and research trips. I think it's definitely a way to bring a whole new layer of storytelling to the work."

"I have a new lens to look at the world through. But it really puts a rocket up your backside to try and improve things and make (the world) a better, safe and secure place for their generation."

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'Underground Theatre' by Gareth Fuller

With a return to China and a possible exhibition on the horizon, Fuller's artistic journey is not slowing down. A closer look on his website (www.garethfuller.com) will reveal much more intimate details about the process when creating these large-scale works that can't be summed up in one article. One thing we can learn from our chat: no matter how big, busy or buzzing a place is, it's the smaller details that will always tell the most interesting stories. 



[All images provided to That's]

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