The Lure of the Artificial

May 24, 2021
The new Little Island on the Hudson River Waterfront, NYC

I took a look at the new addition to the Hudson River waterfront, the Little Island, and it set me off on an extended internal riff about illusions and the artificial. Coincidentally, I finished up my little foray into the Chelsea district of Manhattan by visiting the Museum of Illusions, a sort of “chain museum,” in that it has sites in many cities. It was very well done, and a lot of fun.

Shades of The Lady from Shanghai, et al…

As for the new park, it is certainly in the grand tradition of 18th garden follies, as the review in the NYTimes commented. The planting is lush, the views are spectacular, the engineering is amazing (although I have had a hard time finding out just exactly how those “tulip” buckets were constructed), but the whole thing is just a little bit…weird and kooky. There is a strong Disneyland feeling, and maybe that’s intentional, but the place feels like a an expensive bauble strung to the waterfront necklace of NYC. Good thing that Diller is footing the bill for maintenance for the next twenty years, because as the Times noted, it’s likely to cost a “king’s ransom.”

I suppose you could say Little Island is more E.A. Poe “Garden at Arnheim than Disneyland, but in any case, we’re firmly in the realm of the artificial. Not fake, mind you, but the product of artifice. And that’s art, with a capital, or maybe lower-case ‘A’. If it were a a little bit on the perverse side, it might have pleased Huysman’s Des Esseintes in A Rebours, but it’s definitely a family place. And after all, it’s no more ‘naturalistic’ than this favorite space for tourists the world over:

Bethesda Fountain in Central Park

Olmsted gave us a little bit of rus in urbe, nature in the city, but in this more European section of Central Park, he leaned Continental and gave us a little bit of the (Italianate) city in nature, in the nature in the city… Yeah, it’s all how you look at it.

Not too far from this spot is what may be the most visited location in the park, Strawberry Fields, a mosaic in the pathway memorializing John Lennon, near the street entrance across from The Dakota (home of Rosemary’s Baby) where he was murdered. And we know what John Lennon said about reality…and was he just echoing something he’d read?

As I rode public transit across the GWB and downtown on the A-train, I was reading this book from the 1970s that I picked up from the NYRB:

This book is one sustained illusion, a piece of artifice that is amazing to contemplate. It is the story of an empire that existed somewhere in the near east, somewhat contemporaneously with the Roman Empire, except that the Roman Empire is never mentioned, and it seems to be the Roman Empire, except not. Maybe it’s the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the geography seems to match that better, but it really doesn’t matter, because it’s all entirely invented.

The book is a novel, an elaborate historical invention that parallels historical reality, or what we think of as historical reality, or what writers tell us, or have told us, is historical reality, and so on, and on. It is deeply and delightfully ironic and satiric, includes a raft of footnotes that are either completely invented, with authors, sources, journals, and books cited, or sometimes partially invented, and often somewhere in between, requiring a bit of research to determine just where they stand on the line between reality and illusion.

The tone of the book is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of history of the Middle Ages or the Roman and Greek periods of Western Civ that is now slightly old fashioned, that is, stuff written before 1970, say. The cover of the NYRB paperback features an engraving by Piranesi, that consumate re-inventor of the imperial past: his painstaking historical accuracy sometimes gave way to incredible flights of fancy, as in this image, and sometimes it’s not easy to tell if he is giving us reality or fancy, but of course, the reality crumbled to dust long ago.

Reading this book, I had a vague sense that I had heard it all before, and not from the history that I had read, but I didn’t identify the source of this feeling until today. It’s Star Wars! That inexhaustible film franchise is another form taken by the lure of the artificial.

In Star Wars, we have a totalized artificial history that is the mirror of The Glory of the Empire. The novel looks back in time and creates an artificial empire, the movie series looks forward. The novel creates an artificial history that mimics and borrows from actual historical reality and seems as if it could have happened just as the author wrote it. (Of course, the conceit of the novel is that he is writing it as other authors, chronicleers, wrote it, so we have texts written on top of texts…all quite in the manner of J. L. Borges.) In Star Wars, we have a fantastical future realm that lifts all the historical cliches wholesale into an imagined sci-fi future that nobody could believe is real, and that the creators don’t intend anyone to take as real: it’s fantasy for fun.

Star Wars begins from a hazily imagined pas and present, and projects into the phantastical future. What’s so disconcerting about The Glory of the Empire, is that it starts from a perfectly observed present, and imagines a past that we almost feel must have existed given what does exist now. One passage that uses this technique so well is a description of the reunion of the Emperor to-be Alexis with his mother, from whom he has been separated for twenty years. We are told of frescoes by Piero della Francesca that depict this scene – and we can almost believe they exist, especially when we read the footnotes! – and given the paintings by the master that do exist, shouldn’t these be among them? Not to mention the fact that the text goes on to tell us of the immense influence of this narrated/imagined scene on the subsequent history of western art. The passage concludes with a “quotation” from one of Proust’s novels in which a character dies on viewing the frescoe by Piero.

Personally, I have no taste for Star Wars. I prefer my fantasy, my illusions, my artifices with a heavy does of irony and satire. Why would I want to see all the cliches of politics and human folly simply reenacted with high-tech impossible gizmos? But that’s me.

Speaking of artificial islands sculpted into paradisaical gardens, is there ever anything new?

Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore, Italy.


NYC Subway Time

October 11, 2018

With all the talk in the City about the poor and overcrowded state of the subways, I thought it would be a nice time to revisit this video of mine – 40 years old! – made as an homage to the trains.  It is followed by a clip paying homage to 2001 which uses some of the same visual themes.

I made the piece during a summer class in video at NYU.  The camera was about the size of a very large dictionary, and the the recording mechanism was slung over your shoulder and weighed a ton!  I converted the video from 3/4″ tape to DVD several years ago at a video restoration lab in San Francisco.

The late sequence of the train moving through the tunnel as the Saint-Saëns music builds to a climax links the piece to the following bit inspired by 2001 and my night driving on the NJ turnpike.  I have always been a time-space traveler! 🙂

These videos, and others I have made, are available on my MUNDO VIDEO!! page at this blog.


“Link”

October 7, 2018

triple small

In the Flatiron Plaza, by Jorge Palacios.  Bigger image here.

The Noguchi Museum in Queens is featuring Palacios’ work right now.  The “Red Cube,” one of Noguchi’s most famous public sculptures is not, of course, a cube.


Jorge Palacios

September 8, 2018

jorge-palacios-sculpture-flatiron-new-york

We take a break now from our finger gazing to talk about Jorge Palacios, a sculptor in wood who is now being shown at the Noguchi Museum, a favorite spot of mine.  I read about his big piece, Link, in the Flatiron Plaza, and went to see it.

Jorge-Palacios-Link-photomontage-1-horizontal972x668

When I got there on a beautiful day like the one in the images above, there was a man scrubbing the piece clean.

I talked to him a bit in halting English and my halting Spanish.  He remarked that the piece gets lots of scuff marks from people’s shoes!  I asked him if it is hollow, it is, and if I could bang on it, I did.  When I got home, I did some reading about the artist and the exhibit at the Noguchi and it seemed to me that the guy looked a little like the  artist, didn’t he?  He was a lot more friendly than his picture makes him seem!

jorge-palacios.jpg

Yesterday, I went to the Noguchi to see the exhibit of his work, including this one:

download

Wandering about the exhibit, examining the installations and putting in more lights, was the same “workman” I’d seen cleaning the piece in Manhattan.  It dawned on me that this unassuming man was the artist, and I had a pleasant chat with him – I reminded him of our previous encounter.  An amusing bit of serendipity, and I had him sign a copy of a monograph that I bought in the museum shop.  🙂

When I was leaving the museum, I chatted with the admissions person about my encounters, and he chuckled:  “Yes, he’s a very hands-on type of guy.”


Lightning Strikes Twice!

July 15, 2018

4AA8D160-4F01-4EDF-BAAB-EC101F789A60

This painting is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the “Painted in Mexico” exhibition that originated in Los Angeles.  Jesus displays his “carnal” heart – a very popular object of veneration at this time – while a personification of the Church uses the Eucharist to send a beam of light to illuminate a bible.  I like how the beam is not reflected from the pages, but is instead transformed into jagged lightning bolts that strike dead the enemies of the church (and the Jesuits, who supported the cult of the sacred heart against its opposition.)

The image of Jesus is a direct adaptation of this earlier, less complex picture.

K8108

The sacred heart, representations of which originated in the middle ages, was at first shown iconographically, i.e. as a stylized heart shape, but eventually become anatomically correct.  Not quite clear on whether this is a bleeding heart…

B1328337-FA08-478F-9A14-EE7B7DE625BB

Up on the roof, there is a different, more ironic sort of veneration going on.A70A693E-A4E8-446D-9FA5-564D485B6FAC

 


Future Present

June 14, 2018

Wet Planet or Disk Outside PA 42nd St
Both of these images are from NYNJ Port Authority bus stations: the first one outside the main terminal at 42nd Street; and the other at 178th Street. The latter building has a roof platform by the innovative master of reinforced concrete, Pier Luigi Nervi. I think the towers and the terminal look like something from the notebooks of the futurist Antonio Saint’Elia. For some pinhole images of Port Authority “monuments,” including the Calatrava extravaganza, visit this post.
felling futuristic IIa 1050


Roosevelt Island Jaunt

June 9, 2018

IMG_5558

I took the aerial tram to Roosevelt Island today, the first time I’ve ridden on that thing, and a bad day to do it.  Saturday, good weather, crowds, one car out of service, subway not running…  Once you get there, the views from the island are pretty unusual for New York  City.

QBB1 The romantic one below is looking east to the new apartments in the Long Island City area of Queens.

IMG_5591

Strolling around the island is pleasant once you leave behind the apartments and the new Cornell University hi-tech campus.  The old Renwick shell of a small pox hospital is carefully preserved.

SPH

Something went wrong with my HDR shot here – it would help to use a tripod – so I call it “Good Vibrations.”

Good Vibrations

The southern end of the island is now the finally completed Louis Kahn park dedicated to FDR’s Four Freedoms.  It is shockingly abstract in form – a real jolt to the senses.  That’s saying a lot since it is just a baseball hit away from the dense Manhattan skyline, which isn’t exactly an English garden landscape.  It’s the austerity of the design, I suppose…

IMG_5583

IMG_5584

SM2

 

Not sure what he was doing there, but he had a retinue of photo-tech people, so I guess he wasn’t fighting super criminals.


Concrete and Reliquaries

January 16, 2018

9781780236551

I have been reading this book because I am fascinated by medieval art, and I see a lot of reliquaries.  The book is sort of rambling, and it jumps around thematically, but it has focused my attention on these objects lately, so I took another trip to The Cloisters to see a few.  I drove in, and decided to park and walk around Washington Heights with my camera a bit before going to the museum.

First off, again, the Port Authority Bus Terminal with that fantastic reinforced concrete roof by Pier Luigi Nervi.  I was struck by this view from my car, and walked back to capture it.  It conveys, for me, the creepily attractive monumental and oppressive nature of some modernist architecture.  The tower in the background, one of four known to traffic alert listeners simply as “The Towers,” gives the view a Futurist look.

felling futuristic.png

Once in the museum, I went to see the three little ladies, reliquaries purportedly containing the skulls of martyred women, three of the 11,000 killed with Saint Ursula.

IMG_4193.JPG

Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it made me think of this final scene from Mystery of the Organism.vlcsnap-694373


Lower Manhattan Jaunt

January 8, 2018

pa-178th-st-a-e1515466731195.jpg

On my Lower Manhattan jaunt I took two pinhole cameras:  a coffee can model; and a rectangular box type.  My photo journey began uptown, of course, at the 178th Street Port Authority Bus Terminal.  The building’s roof was designed by Nervi was designed in the early 1960s, and I just love the trapezoidal-shaped columns resting on a massive steel rocker.  This was shot with a rectangular box pinhole.

As usual  with my interior pinhole shots, I had trouble getting the exposure right.  Actually, getting the exposure right is always a problem, but it’s harder indoors.  Considering the overcast skies, this one came out pretty well, but I have been finding that my low-light outdoor shots are often over exposed because I have been relying on an iPad light meter app.  According to the reciprocity law rigmarole, long exposures calculated “by hand” are too low and need to be increased.  I don’t know what the “rule” is for light meters that include very large f-stops, or maybe there isn’t one.   I should probably rely on rule of thumb and experience and dump the meter!

calatrava 1a

This coffee can shot of the plaza outside of the $4 billion luxury shopping mall otherwise known at The Oculus or Transit Hub by Calatrava shows the exposure problems.  It is also a roughed up image, showing the effects of my clumsy field handling of the cameras in my darkroom bag.  Haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.

calatrava 2a

This interior shot of the structure was also taken with a coffee can pinhole, and it turned out pretty well.  The building is more impressive in this image that it is in fact, but I could go on about this for a long time…

I found relief from the contemplation of the Port Authority’s pharaonic waste at The Rubin Museum on 17th Street which contains fantastic collections of Tibetan art.6961121A-0102-4239-8DC0-1C428BC2955B

After my visit, on my way to the subway to get back to Nervi’s place, I captured this little scene, so typical of Manhattan, with my coffee can pinhole.

Manhattan Snow a