“The Buddhists likened their mandalas to maps of the universe – the idea is that everything is connected. That’s how I feel when I walk through cities; they are each a unique microcosm of life.”
It’s fair to say American artist Neal Peterson has a philosophical way of looking at the world. His Urban Mandalas project takes this appreciation for the way our cities work and turns it into something rich and thought-provoking. In 2014 we reached a tipping point when, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population were living in cities. Urban living became the new norm.
And yet our relationship with these spaces has never been more complex. The social and cultural benefits of city living are pitted against alienation, pollution and a widening gap between rich and poor. In many places, the term “metropolitan” has become a sneer, to denote a mindset that is out-of-touch and self-serving.
Neal’s images can serve as a corrective to this, reminding us of the beauty and the civilisation (in the most literal sense) of our cities. In this series he painstakingly combines photographs he takes of different places into mandalas, which are symbolic representations of the universe found in various eastern religions.
As he layers the visuals into a complete whole, Neal channels the meditative spirit of traditional mandala makers.
“I like to think of the Buddhists creating their mandalas with sand, grains at a time. For me, the pixels are like grains of sand. If I try to do too much too quickly, I’ll ruin it, so it really challenges my patience. I’ve stopped keeping track of the time. I just try and let the work happen organically.”
For the artist, there is no incongruity between the spiritual and the city.
“I think that the growth of cities mimics the growth of nature,” he says. “Everything sprouts from a single point. At a distance, the mandalas are abstract and could be mistaken for some sort of natural element, like a flower or a whirlpool. But when you look closer, you can see that the details are primarily man-made.”
So far, Neal has completed five mandalas (there is a tantalising “Coming Soon” Chicago creation on his website). There can be different reasons he chooses a particular place. For Mexico City, he was initially attracted by its sheer scale and the challenge of capturing a so-called megacity in this way. But while on the ground there, the project took on a life of its own.
“A few days into shooting, I realized it was going to be less about the physical infrastructure and more about the tone or feeling of a city. Mexico City turned into a story about its historic culture. If you look closely into the mandala you can find images of Aztec idols, Christian iconography, and folky, occult-like creatures.”
Another one came about purely by chance. “In Reykjavik, the fog delayed my flight home. I was stranded at the airport, so I just started walking around outside and ended up laying in a field of grass.
“If you’ve ever flown into Iceland, you know it’s like landing on the moon – it looks very lunar, but with fog. When I finally got home and started putting the photos together, I added a layer of fog to the mandala. In hindsight, I’m glad my flight was delayed.”
Perhaps the strangest entry in the series is the super-secretive capital of North Korea, Pyongyang. Given the almost impossibility of outsiders gaining access to the city – particularly Americans, particularly ones wanting to roam the streets wielding a camera – he put together this mandala using satellite images from the internet.
“It was really strange – I suppose it’s a bit voyeuristic as you’re looking into this forbidden city with an outside perspective. No matter how close you get, there’s always that distance, safe or maddening. It distorts the reality of what you’re seeing.”
In a way though, that distorting distance is always going to be there, even presumably in his hometown of Minneapolis. What he sees when he walks his familiar streets will differ from what someone else who lives there will see, will feel and will remember. But that’s part of the attraction of Neal’s work. In one way he is introducing us to these far-flung cities, but in another he is presenting them through his own artistic prism.