Always in motion

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It would be nice if I could post a photo of the Berkshire Museum in connection with positive news, but… [sigh]

“How can we continue to live if we are changeless?”Thich Nhat Hanh

Change is scary. Change is necessary. Change is unavoidable. That’s the mantra for this week. The hard part is knowing which changes are beneficial and which are not.

The Berkshire Museum has so far cleared all hurdles toward selling the best of its art collection to help fund an ill-considered expansion program. The best-known of those works, Shuffleton’s Barber Shop by Norman Rockwell, has already been sold to the embryonic (or nascent?) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The idea that this sale will ensure the Berkshire Museum’s future would be laughable were it not so sad.

I passed by the museum over the weekend. I didn’t stop. There was no point in stopping.

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A few weeks ago I started seeing images of this shirt, designed by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry, and it stuck with me at once. You can read more about the shirt here on Murawski’s blog. One of the ongoing debates about museums is how to keep them relevant, and acknowledging the role of the museum in social debate is a big part of that. Many museums were, and continue to be, built with large donations from people and/or corporations whose ethics and business practices are worrisome, if not outright deplorable. Museums have long turned a blind eye to this – and, let’s be clear, some museums would not exist today without those donations. Should museums be more critical of their donors? Yes, and that conversation is one that should never stop.

But greater concerns arise once the museum itself is built. A donor might give money to an institution, but that should not affect how the museum’s programming is shaped. And museums should not shy away from examining contemporary social issues in their galleries and programs. Issues of the time – for example, a sociological study of peasant life in the Renaissance as depicted by painters of the period – are fine, and sadly uncommon in museums – but today’s issues must also be addressed. How people lived casts a light on how we live now. Concerns about ideology coloring exhibitions are all well and good, but this has always happened. “Don’t rock the boat” is a sociopolitical stance.

Museums have never been neutral, but they have maintained a false veneer of neutrality. It’s time to put that aside and be a part of the world. Relevance is important, and the boilerplate objection to arts funding is that art is not relevant. That’s nonsense, and shows the poor reasoning of those who make that argument. As our understanding of issues changes, so should how museums approach those issues. This is always happening, at times of a small scale, but it’s time for a more intentional approach throughout the field.

 

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King

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On this, the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought I would revisit my thoughts on the memorial statue erected in his honor in 2011. I wrote about the statue, created by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, for my old blog. As that blog is long gone, I’ll make a few observations here.

There were strange objections to the choice of artist and material at the time. Yes, Lei Yixin is Chinese, but shouldn’t the monument to a man who spoke so strongly on equality be without limitation? To those who argued that Dr. King looks Chinese, I can only laugh. The choice of white granite also annoyed some. I love the solidity, the permanence of stone. Its color makes no difference.

Dr. King’s stern expression continues to be timely. He argued for economic and social equality, for an end to war, with fervor and inspiration. The world has improved since his days, but only by baby steps, tottering and stumbling backward and forward with only a modicum of progress. His messages remain up-to-date. They have the permanence of granite – until we wise up and work to create a world more in keeping with his vision.

Being in my early 50s myself, I have only hazy memories of his murder. It was a surreal era to grow up in, with the litany of battles and casualties in the Vietnam War leading off the nightly newscasts. Even at that age, I knew something was wrong with war and injustice. It was nothing more than an impression, but time refreshed those feelings and added to them with each repeated prejudice and each new war. And now people are marching again, often for the same reasons as 50 years ago and more, and we can hope that great men and women will come along to make their mark, and perhaps one day be commemorated in their own statues.

Hamlet (1921)

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A poster for the film.

Following up on last week’s Shakespearean post, we move to the 1921 movie version of Hamlet, made in Germany and starring Danish actress Asta Nielsen. Of all the various movies made of that classic play, this is the most distinctive in its interpretation. It’s a new favorite of mine.

SPOILER ALERT: There are a hell of a lot of spoilers in this post. I assume you know the play, but there’s a lot of new material to spoil. Be warned.

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Hamlet by her father’s tomb, in a rare moment of hamminess from Asta Nielsen.

The early 1920s bring a new sophistication and depth to film, leading the way to the fully mature art form film-making was becoming. I had watched the 1913 Hamlet, with a British cast of actors headed by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, thought by some to be the greatest Hamlet of his generation. But the staginess of the playing, not to mention the 60-year old Forbes-Robertson trying to pass as a young Prince, worked against it. Everyone tried hard, and it remains a peek into the stylings of a long-dead Shakespearean star, but it does not really work as a movie.

In Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet, directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall, the visual language of film-making has come a long way. This is post-Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but pre-Metropolis, a Golden Age in German cinema. The film is well directed, though not groundbreaking in the manner of a Robert Weine or Fritz Lang. The film’s continuing appeal to movie buffs is in two areas: Asta Nielsen herself, and the changes the film-makers made to Shakespeare’s story.

Actresses, most notably Sarah Bernhardt, had played Hamlet on stage before this. The conceit here is drawn from an 1881 book by Dr, Edward Vining, entitled The Mystery of Hamlet, in which he postulates that Hamlet’s erratic behavior is because Hamlet is a woman, who has been forced to masquerade as a man since birth in order to secure the dynastic succession. Gender roles and sexual confusion are nothing new to Shakespeare, but he confined them to his comedies. Here, it is treated as tragedy. “I am not a man, and I am not allowed to be a woman,” Hamlet says. Her attraction to Horatio and Laertes must go unexpressed; she woos Ophelia only to keep Ophelia and Horatio apart.

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Left to right: Polonius, Hamlet, and a Doctor. While examining Hamlet, the Doctor puts his head on her chest, but fails to notice Hamlet’s secret.

Asta Nielsen is wrapped in black clothes, and wears a kind of pageboy bob hairdo which a later generation might call a “Prince Valiant.” Her figure is slender enough to be boyish, but the illusion is not strained for overmuch; for one thing, she wears more eye shadow than anyone else, male or female. For contrast, Ophelia (Lily Jacobson) is draped in looser-fitting white dress, with piles of pre-Raphaelite hair. It is not until Horatio clasps the dead Hamlet in his arms (actually, the moment he lays a hand on her chest) that the secret is discovered: that secret forms one focus of the film.

The film opens well before the play, establishing elements that are only referred to by Shakespeare. We see old Fortinbras of Norway being taken off the battlefield, dead, and old Hamlet, wounded from the same battle. Back at Elsinore, the Queen hears of the King’s injuries and decides to pretend her newborn daughter is a boy, to prevent unrest should the King die. The King returns and agrees to continue the falsehood.

Everyone, it seems, goes to school in Wittenberg. There young Hamlet meets Horatio, Laertes, young Fortinbras, but not Rosencranz and Guildenstern, whose roles have been trimmed quite a bit. Back home, King Hamlet is bitten (off-screen) by a poisonous snake. The culprit is the King’s brother, Claudius, who conveniently leaves his dagger by the pit of snakes (a cistern, I think) so that Hamlet can find it later. Hamlet rushes home, to find his uncle and mother now married, and Claudius crowned King. The scene is nicely shot: Hamlet walks down a long diagonal toward his mother and step-father, her cloak billowing, and she does a rare bit of full-body emoting when she confronts them. I was ready to groan at this hammy moment, but the camera cuts to a reaction shot of Gertrude and Claudius which absolves Asta Nielsen of any wrongdoing. Eduard von Winterstein gives the worst performance in the film as Claudius, being okay in most scenes, but with a smattering of overacting that strikes the wrong notes.

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Prince(ss) Hamlet, of a Star Wars villain? I think you know which she is.

It takes about half an hour to get to act 1, scene 1 of the play.

An important change is Queen Gertrude’s role. She is protector of Hamlet’s secret, the one who nags Hamlet not to be discovered. Gertrude’s angry glare after Hamlet has accidentally killed Polonius is a harbinger of things to come. Laertes rushes home after his father’s death and finds – a peasant’s revolt! A title card says the revolt is due to Claudius’s rule, but there is no sign of Claudius doing any governing in the entire film. Laertes leads the rabble into the castle, confronts the king, who tells him that Hamlet killed his father, and the rebellion dies right there. A needless plot device.

I’ll try to be brief from here: there is no Ghost to tell Hamlet what happened, but she figures it out with a few guesses and Claudius’s dagger. Hamlet vows to play mad, and get revenge. Hamlet is sent to Norway with two escorts, the escorts carrying a message asking young Fortinbras to execute Hamlet immediately. Hamlet discovers the ruse, alters the message, and the escorts are dispatched. The funniest moment – there are only two, really – is when Fortinbras reads Claudius’s message and looks with surprise at Hamlet. Hamlet’s shrug says it all. (BTW, the other comic moment is Hamlet coaching the actors, mocking both stage and early screen acting. Asta Nielsen puts a lot of subtlety into her performance.)

Hamlet returns to Elsinore, and finds Claudius and friends in a room (with nice zigzag decorations on the door, as though some set dresser from Caligari had snuck in). Claudius is afraid, but also drunk, and Hamlet encourages him to drink more. When the revellers are passed out from their boozing, Hamlet sets fires around the room, and leaves. The King and his associates suffocate. With the King dead, and therefore absent from the final duel scene, that leaves Queen Gertrude as the main villain. She poisons Laertes’s sword, and poisons a goblet of wine for Hamlet in case Laertes is a bad swordsman. (Note to Gertrude: very wise of you to poison the blade in private, but why did you wait until the great hall was full of people before poisoning the wine?) A servant unwittingly moves the cups, and the Queen drinks the poison. Laertes wounds Hamlet. Horatio discovers Hamlet’s secret, and Fortinbras arrives on the scene with his army to carry Hamlet’s corpse away.

The film does a fine job of filling the viewer in on the story without seeming rushed, and where it follows the play scenes are easily recognized even without quotations in the title cards. I wonder how this deception could have been carried through; as old Hamlet and Gertrude never had any more children, what would become of our young Prince(ss)? Would Claudius try again to kill her in order to put a child of his own on the throne? How would the people react if their Prince and heir apparent turned out to be a woman in disguise? Fortinbras marches into Denmark to support Hamlet in this version, but not so in the play. It does make you think, which is one thing I like about my favorite movies.

The film has been restored with its original color tints. Copies of varying quality can be found on YouTube, with or without tinting and musical score. However you see it, I recommend you seek it out.

Note: If you’re a fan of silent film, I highly recommend Movies Silently, a blog chock-full of reviews and other fascinating tidbits.

How to make Shakespeare even longer

The Play Scene in 'Hamlet' exhibited 1842 by Daniel Maclise 1806-1870

Daniel Maclise, The Play Scene from Hamlet, 1842, Collection of The Tate Gallery, London

Readers of this blog will already be aware of my fondness for Shakespeare, and in particular my admiration for Orson Welles’s three feature film adaptations of Shakespeare. Aside from Welles, Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean films are essentials, but everything else is optional. There are many good performances, well-shot films (I’m currently watching a silent, German adaptation of Hamlet from 1921 which I think will end up in its own blog post) but only Welles and Kurosawa are must-see.

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William Blake, Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost, 1806. Collection of The British Museum, London

Welles’s Chimes at Midnight is a distillation of Sir John Falstaff’s story, drawn from Henry IV, parts 1&2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V, with a little bit of Richard II thrown in. The saga, sometimes known as The Henriad, has also been adapted for television, more than once. Though there are no other multi-part sagas in Shakespeare, writers have felt the need to add their own visions to Shakespeare’s own. Hamlet is a favorite. In Hamlet there are many things referred to in the play that happened before the curtain went up. What could be more natural, then, than to expand those references into their own stories?

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Henry Fuseli, Hamlet and Ophelia, 1789

And so we got Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, from 1966, which was, perhaps unwisely, made into a movie in 2009, which took two minor characters and made them into semi-absurdist heroes; John Updike’s novel, Gertrude and Claudius, from 2000, which draws from historical sources as well as Shakespeare to tell the backstory of the Queen and her brother-in-law (later husband and King), Claudius. Between these two and Shakespeare’s play (which can run up to four hours long, depending on the text used) there is enough for a multi-part miniseries of palace intrigue, loves and hates, war and much else. A truly daring (or foolhardy) producer would try to make the expanded storyline match Shakespeare’s in language and tone, though some TV executives might be turned off by that much verse.

These thoughts came about through watching Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet, which I mentioned above. I’m only halfway through the film. There might be more to come.

 

Good reasons

“My species has a great many good reasons for making war, though none of them is as good as the reason for not making war.” – Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Building,” from Changing Planes, 2003, pg. 192

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M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948

The above statement stuck in my head as soon as I read it, and I went back to copy it down later. It seemed doubly appropriate in the world we currently inhabit, one in which the President of the United States purposely seeks reasons to go to war, whether it be against Iran, North Korea, or (in slightly different ways) his own people. LeGuin also captured something about making art. Let’s see if I can unpack some of these meanings in the space of a spontaneously composed blog post.

Regarding art, inverting the statement is required. There are many reasons for not making art, though none of them is as good as the reason for making art. People who go into making art with the intent of becoming rich are fooling themselves. For every big name artist there are millions who scraped by with reasonable careers, paid the bills (sometimes barely), and satisfied their creative need without grasping the hand of Fame. For all of those millions, there are millions more who abandoned art because of the pressures of paying the bills, the demands of the day job, or condemnation from family and/or peers. Swimming upstream is an apt metaphor.

There is a portion of society that regards art as superfluous. Life is about money, and the social status having money creates. As a result, anything art related – educational opportunities, support for arts-related non-profits, and so on – is deemed wasteful. This is subsistence level thinking, which says that anything that does not stave off want is unnecessary; a funny attitude, as great wealth invites indulgence. But you have to feel yourself wealthy in order to allow indulgence in the first place. So many rich people actually feel poor, and cling to their wealth as though it were a lifeline. This is just one reason why generations have pitied Ebenezer Scrooge.

There are a few instances, still under scientific scrutiny, of animals making what appears to be art, but these are very rare and still questionable. What separates us from the animal kingdom is our need to create art, and the advantages intelligence gives us to have the opportunity to do so. We don’t have to spend every second in a struggle to survive (some of us, anyway) and can reserve time to beautify our surroundings. We comment on the world around us through creative means. Bees dance to communicate; we dance to express. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

A government that does not recognize the creative instinct and support its realizations is one operating at a subsistence level. It refuses to acknowledge humanity, but instead sees people as resources to be used, assets to be spent (rarely ever saved). Fodder for the machines of Business. Although there are artists who have, wisely or crassly, made themselves into marketable brands, the majority are intent on creation, not exploitation. I am lucky to live in a place and time where the creation of art is not only possible, but occasionally encouraged. Not everyone in this world at this time has that special gift. But I want a government that recognizes those special conditions and seeks to sustain and nurture them. I want a world where the reasons to make art outnumber the reasons not to make art.

P.S. A few hours later. I want to add on this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Circles” (1841) included in his Essays:
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
Who has ever been enthusiastic about just getting by?

Visible Cities

Note: this is an old article which is no longer available online. I have expanded it slightly.

Everyone wants to live somewhere else, and, much of the time, we do just that. We edit our perceptions, wreathing a place in nostalgic associations or turning a blind eye to present social injustice. To one extent or another, we create the place we want to live in, and/or spend our life searching for it. Our quest is for that home called Utopia, a term derived from the Greek word meaning “nowhere,” likely a very dull place in which to live. An imperfect world gives us goals to reach and heights from which to fall. Even in fiction, perfect places seem less interesting, as anyone who has read The Divine Comedy can attest. Who would choose to walk through Paradise when all the interesting stories are in Hell? In the meantime we settle for lesser, yet better, choices, homes with feet of clay.

Italo Calvino’s 1972 book, Invisible Cities, has long proved a spark of inspiration for writers, artists, and curators. His imagined dialogues between Marco Polo and Genghis Khan, as Polo attempts to describe the cities he has seen on his travels (or cities he imagines he has visited), has proved a fertile ground in which to explore a myriad of experiences that might make up a city. There is no other book quite like it, though more picaresque books of travels, including Polo’s own and those of Friar Odoric, who toured Asia some 20 years after Polo (both nonfiction, in parts), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (fiction) are among its many ancestors. Its descendants run to books, films, TV shows, to many gallery and museum exhibitions. For artists and curators the appeal of Invisible Cities is obvious. Many exhibitions are composed of disparate variations on a theme, often with few explicit connections between artists save some facet of an idea they all once touched upon. We cannot go back in time and discuss space and light with Caspar David Friedrich, but through art we can create a one-sided conversation and let imagination do the rest. Artists have tried to capture some essential element of Invisible Cities in videos, paintings, installations, and even View-Master reels. It’s a mystery that to date no one has made a movie of it.

I’m old enough that I grew up with View-Master reels, the descendant of the stereopticon that mount pairs of photos in a cardboard frame to be viewed sequentially through a viewer, which somewhat resembles opera glasses. It never occurred to me that they could be a vehicle for fine art. “Vladmasters,” by the Portland, Oregon-based artist who calls herself Vladimir, take Calvino’s stories and, in a way, crawls inside them. She has assembled household objects and other items to peek into what some of Calvino’s cities might look like, creating tableaux reminiscent of the Quay Brothers and Giorgio DeChirico, rendered doubly intimate by their size and the concentration invoked by looking at them through the viewer. She created a set of disks illustrating four of the cities, Zirma, Valdrada, Baucis, and Argia, one city per disk, as one of her earliest experiments in making View-Masters. After first considering them only as visual art, she built a performance work around them, handing out disks and viewers to the audience and inviting them to watch as audio accompaniment – narration, sound effects, and music, with a chime to signal when to change picture or disk – completed the experience. Without the accompaniment, or at least reading the stories to yourself as you look, Vladmasters must be a hermetic experience, akin to Polo’s attempts in Invisible Cities to describe what he has seen.

Composer Christopher Cerrone’s opera Invisible Cities was staged in L.A.’s Union Station by the contemporary opera group The Industry and LA Dance Project during October and November, 2013. A railroad station, however beautiful, is rarely considered as a destination, but a point along the way; Calvino’s cities, while they are stages leading to and from the Khan’s palace, are themselves stages in a procession toward some form of understanding, one that is never reached. Cerrone’s opera was disassembled, in that the performers were at various places throughout the station, and the orchestra in an adjacent building. The audience listened to the whole through headphones, at one remove from direct experience, yet not so distant as watching a screen or reading a book. They became travelers in retrospect, hearing together elements that in firsthand experience would have to be experienced piecemeal. The view to casual travelers, unaware of the work going on around them, was one of being allowed a peek into fantasy; a historic building removed one step from contemporary life.

We have always arranged our vistas to suit our memories and imagination. Fra Carnevale’s painting The Ideal City (circa 1480s, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore) presents a pastiche of Italian architecture to define a well-structured society, and the government that must underlie that society. When Thomas Cole painted Kaaterskill Falls (1826, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford) he omitted the hotel that had been built there two years before and added a Native American, whose presence in the area was a thing of the past. Landscape painting and photography have often fallen prey to the desire to produce some degree of perfection, altering the natural to be closer to the pictorial, invisible forests and deserts that lose something in the quest for an Ideal. Eliot Porter’s mixed reputation today stems from that quest for the perfect picture, and the avalanche of picture-perfect yet artificial landscapes that fill calendars sold by environmental groups intent on preserving the real, thing. Calvino had the sense to make his cities flawed. The flaws are what make them interesting, just as forests and cities sometimes benefit from their imperfections. Contemporary photographers such as Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky have worked in the opposite direction, finding their inspiration in damage and desolation, though that runs the risk of the “perfect” ruin. Unlike Fra Carnavale’s cityscape, people are present in their dystopias, but, especially in Burtynsky’s work, are likely to be victims of the world they have made.

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Lebbeus Woods, from City of Earth, 2008. Copyright by the Estate of Lebbeus Woods

Fantastic works of architecture, such as those by Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806) and Lebbeus Woods (1940-2012), now bring Calvino’s catalog (as Invisible Cities is sometimes called) to mind, even when, as in Ledoux’s case, they predate the book. Woods wrote and drew his own Calvino-esque cities, in his Centricity series (late 1980s), and City of Earth (2008) though he rightly cited precedents in Jorge Luis Borges and Edgar Allan Poe as well. But Woods was a forward-thinking visionary, his radical designs suggesting the future rather than some alternate present. Calvino straddled time, presenting cities that were both of Marco Polo’s day and our own, as fantasies are wont to do.

The episodic quest is a form that pervades storytelling, from comic strips and manga, TV shows, to serial fiction. The Oz books by L. Frank Baum and his successors are classic examples, stories in which every few chapters brings a new land with its own distinctive people and behaviors, yet all contained within Oz (or mostly) as all of Marco Polo’s cities hearken back to Venice, his home. Whether it’s Dorothy and her companions meeting the folk of Dunkiton—donkeys, of course—and, shortly after, meeting the Scoodlers, who fight by removing their heads and throwing them (from The Road to Oz, by Baum, 1909), Oz is a succession of odd peoples and places, which are as like as not to divert from the overarching plot than contribute to it. The Oz books written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who succeeded Baum on his death in 1919, are even more episodic. Communication becomes a challenge as characters reveal their own peculiarities and intentions. Calvino’s fantasyland subsumes motive; the explorer’s search for knowledge and the Khan’s quest for power are subsidiary at best.

Kino’s Journey, a series of light (young adult) novels (originally Kino no Tabi, or “The Beautiful World” 2000-present) by Keiichi Sigsawa, and an anime series, shares a basic structure with Invisible Cities. The enigmatic traveler Kino, whose backstory and even gender are obscure at first, visits different lands on her talking motorcycle (?), Hermes. Each country they stop at—never more than three days in each—has a story to tell, an idea that guides its existence. Kino learns that particular quirk or theme, survives it with as little harm to her scruples as possible, and moves on. She is Polo in motion, an Oz traveler in a more stable, naturalistic environment, yet still removed from reality. The show is intended for a young adult audience, and sometimes talks down to its target demographic at that, but it does provide food for thought.

Elizabeth Hardwick, in her book Sleepless Nights (1979), wrote, “. . . when you travel the first discovery is that you do not exist,” which highlights the difference between Invisible Cities and many of the examples I’ve cited here. Books and TV shows are character-driven, and drive the plot through the protagonists. Calvino keeps his distance from that; although the dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are central to the book, they are told in the third person, at times guessing as to their thoughts. Further, the chapters that recount the cities are sometimes told in the first person, sometimes the second or third. The identity of people, places, and even the author becomes in doubt, just some of the unanswered questions that Calvino implies without explicitly answering.

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Jerry Gretzinger, Map panels. Copyright by the artist.

Imaginary cities can extend to nations and landscapes purely of the imagination; a world to put the cities in. Artist Jerry Gretzinger has been mapping the cities of his imagination, building and rebuilding a world in map form. The work as it stands constitutes over 2600 sheets of paper, executed from 1963-83, and 2003-present, but that does not encompass the development and growth of his creation. “The Map tends to reflect the way cities actually grow—at least Western ones,” Gretzinger wrote. “I don’t really know much about the people . . . other than to say that they speak different languages according to the parish in which they live—English, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, French, and a language unique to the Map.” (Quotes from emails to me, November 2013) An interactive version of the map can be found here.

Choice and chance have shaped Gretzinger’s cities, with names such as Ukrainia, Wybourne, and Fields West. Using a customized deck of cards, Gretzinger selects a task for the day’s work: perhaps adding to a city here, or removing sections of an already completed sheet by creating a white space, called a Void, to be rebuilt bit by bit with new material. “It can obliterate areas of the Map and transport the inhabitants of that area to another dimension.” Paint is his dominant medium, though sometimes he collages bits cut from magazines, or invites another artist to contribute. Each panel, upon completion, is photocopied in color, the color copy being the ground on which the next iteration of that particular territory will be built. So he maps not only space, but also the growth and development of successive generations. His is a map of time as well as place, a link between Calvino and “God games” such as Civilization or SimCity.

A place is never one thing, but stratum upon stratum, geographical, sociological, and more, and no place is the same to two people. Rebecca Solnit, in her books Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (2010), Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (with Rebecca Snedeker, 2013), and Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, 2016, all three from the University of California Press), peels apart layers to reveal the changing face of two of the USA’s most fascinating places. Like flipping backward through Gretzinger’s map pages, past and present can be placed side-by-side, revealing their interconnectedness, their “. . . moods, states of grace, elegies . . .” in Kublai Khan’s words. Every map is doomed to obsolescence, save to the historian, when it becomes most valuable after the world it once depicted has changed. Perhaps that is something art does: saving the present until it is past. Art becomes a map of a lost world, a treasure map that we cannot follow, but only observe.

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Karina Puente, Despina City. Copyright by the artist.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s 2003 book, Changing Planes, applies an anthropological viewpoint, common in LeGuin’s work, to a similar theme. The book presents a selection of alternate worlds, called “planes” here as the only access points are in airports, and studies the habits and histories thereof. It’s a fascinating work, and delicately seasoned with LeGuin’s acid humor. (“She had long ago read the editorials in the local newspaper which advocated using the education budget to build more prisons and applauded the recent tax break for citizens whose income surpassed that of Rumania.” P. 4) Though not one of LeGuin’s better-known books, it is rewarding, thorough but not overlong.
Peruvian architect and urbanist Karina Puente (not to be confused with Mexican-American artist Karina Puente), is creating the [In]Visible Cities Project, which to date encompasses 18 drawings and mixed-media collages of cities from the book. Artists Matt Kish, Leighton Connor, Joe Kuth began illustrating Invisible Cities in April of 2014. They have continued into other Calvino works. I could fill an entire post with artists who have tackled this book. This Lithub post will give you a selection. As I have said before, I believe that all books should be illustrated, and Invisible Cities deserves an illustrated edition, if not several.

What is it that draws us to Invisible Cities more than any other Calvino book? It doesn’t have a plot; indeed, the conversations are as imaginary as the cities, as Polo and the Great Khan do not share a language and must guess or assume each other’s input. None of that matters. The suspension of reality is complete. Polo sees Venice in and through each new city, as every traveler sees new places in relation to their starting point, then vice versa. Calvino does not deconstruct the rules of fantasy – namely that this is a world with a its own, but still concrete, set of rules – so much as acknowledge that the rules are relative and subjective. Where true fantasy exists the rules are erased, and imagined conversations bear equal weight with non-existent cities. Too many fantasy stories are adventure tales with fantasy spread on top like frosting; true fantasy can exist between two men sitting in a garden, perhaps saying nothing at all. They need not make sense, or be exactly explainable. Calvino takes that unreliability and presents dialogues that come from somewhere uncertain, on subjective topics, and leaves the rules of the universe – if any – unclear. Multiple realities become simultaneous, as it seems not to matter what is real or not. Look no further for the multiverse; it’s all around us, and it is us.

Calvino reveals that, because Marco Polo and Kublai Khan do not share a language, communication between them is difficult, and the dialogues they share are imaginary, though who imagines what is left up to us, the reader. The artist does the same. We’re all travelers in someone’s imagination, our own or another’s. “They walk as purposefully as if they did not live in an imaginary city,” wrote Angela Carter in her story “The Kiss.” Isn’t that how we all walk? Every city is invisible to everyone but us, and we walk through their cities unknowing.

The Sense of Wonder

Confession time.

I grew up with reruns of Star Trek and Lost in Space; at a critical time in my life I was exposed to space opera from the 1940s courtesy of the SF magazines my dad had read as a teen. I have a soft spot for slightly juvenile, action-packed science fiction. And that brings me to The Black Hole, Disney’s 1979 attempt at an SF blockbuster.

It’s a bad movie. Oh, such a bad movie. Slowly paced, indifferently acted, with holes you could drive a huge spaceship through. And therein lies my weakness – the Cygnus, the long-lost mystery ship found sitting placidly near a black hole.

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The Cygnus is beautifully designed (by Peter Ellenshaw, John B. Mansbridge, Robert McCall, and Al Roelofs), a shape more reminiscent of an ocean-going vessel rather than the cigar-shape or saucer of the traditional spaceship. But, as good as their design is, someone had an even better idea: space would be deep blue, suggesting the center of the galaxy where stars are closely packed, which allowed the Cygnus and the smaller ship, the Palomino, to be shown in near silhouette – see below:

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I’m old enough that I remember men walking on the moon, and the sense of wonder that came over me watching humankind change its relationship with the rest of the universe has had a profound effect on me. There are times when art does this, and not always great art, either. There is a indefinable something that creates that wonder, a something that raises the artist above the rank of a mere craftsman. For better or worse, The Black Hole created that sense of wonder when I saw the Cygnus against that blue starscape.

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The problem with a sense of wonder is that it can be dulled as people become jaded. There are wonderful works of realist art being made today – painted portraits, landscapes, still lives – which are as finely rendered as anything before. But they don’t create that sense of wonder, in part because we have seen centuries of the same kind of thing before. The challenge for realist artists, and photography has been around long enough to face these same challenges, is to carry on without assuming the sense of wonder will arrive. Granted, every artist faces this – lots of avant-garde art falls flat despite being up-to-the-moment.

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Elon Musk’s Space X stunt – testing a rocket booster by shooting a sports car with a space-suited mannequin inside – fails the sense of wonder test. Though it is a prime location for genuine awe – many photos from the International Space Station verify this – it has the shallowness of a throwaway gag. In the 1950s, when SF magazines started using more humorous covers (see above) you could easily imagine a Jetsons-esque space station surrounded by sports car spaceships gracing some issue. (Yes, I know the Jetsons began in 1962, but its humor is 1950s in style.)

I have long been an advocate for increased spending on the space program. I’m cautiously optimistic about commercial ventures into space such as SpaceX. But to get there NASA and other agencies should reach for that sense of wonder. Panoramas of the surface of Mars are a nice start. It’s not something you can crank out – tons of bad propaganda strive for wonder and fail pathetically – but when it’s there, it’s worth its weight in good will.