A still from Gigi Scaria's exhibition <i>Prisms of Perception</i>.

A still from Gigi Scaria's exhibition Prisms of Perception.

PRISMS OF PERCEPTION
Gigi Scaria, closes today

CIRCA
Jitish Kallat, Ian Potter Museum, Swanston Street, Parkville, until April 7

CITY WITHIN THE CITY
Gertrude Contemporary, 200 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, until November 7

TOUCHING and charming, the Reverend Awdry's stories of Thomas the Tank Engine reflect the class basis of British society. The locomotives, variously haughty and subservient, belong to a moralised railway: the noble tender-engines represent aristocracy, while the trucks, at the bottom of the hierarchy, are the insolent proletariat, full of rebellious momentum.

Shades of this steam-powered pecking-order emerge in a video by the Indian artist Gigi Scaria at the Potter. In Prisms of perception from 2010, a wide screen is divided into five sections. A steam locomotive comes in from the left and is overtaken by a diesel in the next panel. Successively faster trains leapfrog one another and haul the coaches belonging to the older engines. Finally the steam engine takes the lead again.

There are awesome connotations of class in this procession of rolling stock, because the obsolete vehicles are used by the underprivileged, while the rich take the speedier, comfier service. The presumed superiority of train and passenger also has evolutionary overtones. The better people overtake the lesser, in the same way that diagrams of simians show us progressing from ape to Adonis, thereby flattering all the conceits that could ever gratify the Caucasian psyche.

In other videos, Scaria makes monuments topple, housing blocks totter and modern city landmarks spin like exhaust fans. Curated by Bala Starr and Natalie King, the exhibition is supported by Asialink, which has also organised an exhibition of Jitish Kallat. Throughout the Potter, there are makeshift scaffolds in bamboo, which reminds us that buildings, like trains and monkeys, have their own evolution narratives. As symbols as well as amenity, the various archetypes of building are also strongly associated with class and national identity.

These exhibitions are timely. Even before Julia Gillard's white paper, Melbourne was experiencing anxiety over the prospect of living in the Asian century. Melbourne demonstrably loves Asian food, technology, Asia itself and its people. The sticking point - which brings out all the yellow-perilism of the chauvinistic past - is spatiality. Articles and letters deplore the urban density that will suffocate the Australian love of low horizons and petrol. Investors, alarmingly, are told to go away.

Gratefully, artists and curators can help us overcome these fears. A valuable exhibition concerning the development of Asian cities at Gertrude Contemporary shows us that it's really not that bad. Organised by Alexie Glass-Kantor and Emily Cormack from Gertrude Contemporary and Sunjung Kim, Claudia Pestana and Hyejin Lim from Art Sonje/Samuso in Korea, the show has particular pertinence with a film by the Taiwanese artist Jun Yang called Seoul fiction.

The video shows a middle-aged couple taking a country coach into town. Things have changed a lot since they were there last. As the bus purrs down the freeway, the paddocks rapidly give way to towers. There are no suburbs as we think of them because the outskirts of Seoul, even under construction, already have a vertical emphasis, with little land going to waste.

The gentle travellers marvel: ''What a new world!'' How do people find their place? The woman is concerned by the height of the buildings. ''Who wants to live in the air?'' The man explains that the elevation is at a premium: ''Air is precious,'' he explains.

In Asia, accommodating people with efficiency and creating vibrant streets is something young and old work on together. As the couple say, if the city is constantly redefining itself, do we likewise need to reinvent ourselves? Find a middle-aged Australian who talks like that.

Another video by Korean artist Hyunsuk Seo reveals that the process of vertical growth was never simple. Documentary-style, its two screens go in and out of slides and interviews with authorities who handled the enormous responsibility of change in the mega metropolis. Planning was always agonised, full of mistakes and lost opportunities. Called An architect's voyage, the video details the passion felt by a community still connected with its streets.

robert.nelson@monash.edu