Arts·Artstagram

The chronicles of HyperNurnia

Mathew Borrett's Instagram is a portal to an ancient, M.C. Escher-esque dimension. Welcome to HyperNurnia!

This Toronto artist's Instagram is a portal to an ancient, M.C. Escher-esque dimension

Detail of a Fever Dream City, 2015. Part of Matthew Borrett's HyperNurnia exhibition, on display at Toronto's Red Head Gallery to October 31. (Matthew Borrett)

Name: Mathew Borrett

Handle: @yonderbean

"I want to go there."

If you've never scrolled through Instagram and had that thought, your friends are either far kinder, or far more boring, than most.

Every feed has its share of beautiful landscapes — holiday photos and filtered-til-pretty hometown snapshots — that make you wish you were there. We don't all generate FOMO on purpose. But Mathew Borrett does. And the views he's sharing won't be found anywhere in this dimension.

Welcome to HyperNurnia! It's a dense and labyrinthine place, one you can peer into through Borrett's Instagram (@yonderbean). Nobody lives in HyperNurnia, not that we can see. Webs of silver branches tangle with industrial pipes, while medieval turrets rise (or maybe crumble) on shifting ground. It's a place that seems at once old and new, alive and decaying, so intricate it can be difficult to tell whether it's drafted with ink or pixels. And, as Borrettt tells CBC Arts, "I'm happy with that ambiguity."

"Some people have described them as post-apocalyptic, but I see them more as places that are really old, maybe rundown, and have a mixture of new and old stuff together," Borrett says of his HyperNurnia illustrations.

The only absolute? These images are extraordinarily detailed, leaving you desperate for a "zoom" function on Instagram. 

Nearly two years ago, Borrett began tagging his sketches #HyperNurnia. The pictures he was posting were, at the time, just doodles, albeit hypnotically detailed ones.

The Toronto artist creates his illustrations on a computer. First, he builds hundreds of architectural elements using modelling software, and after assembling them in sprawling virtual dioramas, he "hand paints" fine embellishments in PhotoShop. Those details? That's where HyperNurnia gets its name — in case you, like me, thought it had something to do with the lions and witches and wardrobes of Narnia.

Borrett, who's probably best known for the Future Toronto? illustrations he created for Spacing magazine, also does special effects for film and TV. A nurny, he explains, is industry slang. "It's just a little detail to break up a larger surface," he says. "I just added hyper. It basically means 'very detailed,'" he laughs. But the name stuck. His Instagram followers adopted the title, and began asking for more. "So I just ran with it."

A Future Toronto, 2013. (Matthew Borrett)

What you see on Instagram are really just peepholes into much more expansive works. Three HyperNurnia panoramas — each 8 feet x 4 feet — hang at Toronto's Red Head Gallery to October 31, and Borrett says a fourth will be displayed at Art Toronto later this month. In many cases, a post — as you view it on your phone — is the same scale as what appears in the larger fabric of a piece.

But there's something fitting about seeing these landscapes on Instagram, a photo-sharing app. Borrett describes his process as being more like photography, than drawing.

"It's very much like I'm building an elaborate virtual diorama," he explains. "I have a virtual table top and I can change the lighting and paint the object different colours, and once I'm happy with it — after weeks and weeks of tinkering and fussing with the computer I reach a point where I'm like, 'okay, this is it'" he says. "That process, it's like taking a picture — but it takes a week to take it."

Because his larger works are constantly evolving, some of what you see on Instagram is truly just a "snapshot" of a moment in time — a HyperNurnia scene that will never exist in a finished landscape.

But no matter how you find yourself in HyperNurnia, Borrett says he wants the place to feel inviting. 

"I think my work is all about pulling people in," he says. "People often say, 'I want to go there, I want to explore that.' And I find that leaving a place empty of characters helps make the viewer more readily drawn into it, I think. They're not confronted, they're free to explore on their own.

"I'm really interested in imbuing places with character and atmosphere and even to some degree emotion," he says.

Follow Borrett on Instagram to see which places he goes next.

Social media can be so much more than selfies and viral videos — it's increasingly becoming a scratch pad for emerging artists and other creative minds to show off their latest work. Artstagram curates the best visual talent on Instagram, helping bring a little more art into your daily feed.​

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