A Beautiful View: Seeing the Bigger Picture

Communities from all over the world explore the scale models of world-famous sites such as Tobu World Square, a miniature model theme park in Japan.

This article first appears in Volume 33: Collective.

In his 1990 book, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, sociologist John Urry wrote: "All tourists [...] embody a quest for authenticity, and this quest is a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred. The tourist is a kind of contemporary pilgrim, seeking authenticity in other 'times' and other 'places'."

His words remain poignant 30 years on. Before we travel to a destination, be it the Giza Necropolis or the Devon coast, we've already visited it through images and tales that tell us such places are important for one reason or another. How much of what we see is based on preconception? If we travel in order to connect, how do we know that connection is real?

It's a question probed by photographer Catherine Hyland in her project Belvedere. Borrowing the Italian for "beautiful view", it explores the idea that the landscapes we see are cultural constructs. To do so, her mind-bending images spirit us to Tobu World Square, a Japanese theme park that draws visitors with more than 100 scale models of world-famous sites, peppered with 140,000 miniature people.

"These are models of different communities, visited by communities on the other side of the world," Catherine says. "I think there's something quite romantic about it as an endeavour, despite it being the experience of a reproduction." Visitors needn't crane their heads to see the Sagrada Família; they don't seem quite so dwarfed by the Eiffel Tower.

"Many of the vantage points provide views that might not be classically considered resplendent," she says of photos that play with scale so much that the true size of what we see is near incomprehensible.

"Constructed environments have become some of the modern world's most elaborate tools for capturing and capitalising upon the tourist gaze," Catherine continues. And it rings true whether we're looking at a reproduction of the White House or a much-hyped, real-life landmark.

The replicas in Belvedere might be miniature - a twenty-fifth of their size - but they make us reflect on the bigger picture. They appear out of this world and yet make us reconsider the way we interact with it.