Lara Thoms Turns Westfield Hurstville Into an Incredible Youth-Inspired Artwork

Lara Thoms Turns Westfield Hurstville Into an Incredible Youth-Inspired Artwork
Artist Lara Thoms
(Courtesy MCA / Photo by Zan Wimberley)

Sydney based artist Lara Thoms has achieved what many would have thought impossible: she has transformed Westfield Hurstville into the youth-driven, site-specific artwork “Ultimate Vision - Monuments to Us,” a multi-faceted trip-down-the-rabbit-hole that challenges prevailing youth stereotypes while at the same time initiates a revealing investigation into the influence of advertising and consumer culture on the way human beings perceive the world.

At the heart of the project is an exploration of youth trends and the defining characteristics of youth culture – and what better location for such an exploration than the natural habitat of the strange creatures we know as teens, the local shopping centre. By including the local youth in the creative process, Thoms has endowed the participants with an empowering sense of ownership and achievement. If only every Westfield could initiate such a project.

The project began back in January when Thoms installed a voting booth dubbed the “Hub of Democracy” in Westfield Hurstville, where teens could vote in a range of different categories including the best time, best word, best person, best smell, best drink, and best music genre. Thoms then developed a number of artistic responses to the ballot results including a monument, a film, and a series of shop display interventions. The end result is a whimsical multi-dimensional installation consisting of a series of ephemeral monuments dedicated to the “ultimate” in youth trends and culture.

The undoubted start of the show is the project mascot, a fifteen year old local boy by the name of Thomas Kim who was chosen as the best person, trumping rugby league stars Cooper Cronk and Ben Barba. As the recipient of the “best person” award, Kim was afforded the honour of having his signature look reproduced in the form of a series of doppelgangers played by local youth who appear in person as well as in a series of photographs plastered around the mall. But more on Kim later.

The best place to begin the “Ultimate Vision - Monuments to Us” experience is at the sculptural monument situated in the centre court which dispenses water to drink, rap music to listen to, and the aroma of strawberries  – the best drink, best music, and best smell as chosen by the youth. Incidentally, the choice of water as the best drink was unexpected considering the popularity of soft drinks and energy drinks. Read into it what you will. 

Having sampled the delights of the monument, the next step is to discover the subtle yet subversive shop display interventions initiated by Thoms. Using the best colour, blue; the best time, midnight; and the film produced for the project, Thoms embarked upon an ambitious mission to incorporate these three elements into a number of shop displays around the mall. And she succeeded. Look out for the display cases filled with wrist watches all pointing to midnight and the shop window displays featuring carefully curated collections of blue objects.

Is it a work of art that functions as a shopping mall or a shopping mall hosting a work of art? The answer might seem obvious but it’s not. Although her subtle interventions are limited to a small number of shops and spaces within the mall, the effect is all-encompassing to the extent that the entire mall becomes a work of art in the sense that every display could potentially be a work of art. A demonstration of blue cookware suddenly seems like a potential work of art. A clothing shop display looks like it might have been installed by Thoms, even though it wasn’t. What Thoms initiates is a complete reawakening of the senses that strips away the preconceived perceptions of how a shopping centre should be experienced and allows the space to be experienced anew.

One of the most effective interventions is the replacement of the advertising images in the top of the tables in the food court with images of Thomas Kim look-alikes. A group of teens loitering in a mall would usually be cause for concern yet in this context they go completely un-noticed to the point that people eat their meals on top of the teens blissfully unaware of the surrounding hoard. What does this say about our opinions of young people? Perhaps that they are preconceived and not as accurate as we are led to believe they are.

There is a certain level of absurdity to the “Ultimate Vision - Monuments to Us” concept but there is also the serious side to the project that reveals the extent to which human beings perceive the world in the way that they have been conditioned to perceive the world – perceptions crafted by the mass media and the proponents of consumerism. The project calls attention to the fact that we see what we are taught to see and tend to ignore that which goes against the stereotypes we have been conditioned to accept as fact. It is a work of art that is as remarkable for what it reveals about what we don’t see as what we do see. It is a work of art that everyone should experience.

“Ultimate Vision - Monuments to Us” was unveiled in a public ceremony at the beginning of Youth Week 2013, and will remain on display in Westfield Hurstville for the duration of the event, from 5 to 14 April 2013. For more information visit the “Ultimate Vision - Monuments to Us” Facebook site here.