Space and time…

January 4, 2009


…or is it time and space?

I was struck by a phrase in this book of comics by Art Spiegelman, of Maus fame, that comics are time turned into space. Each panel in a strip represents a different moment in time, and they are spread out in space, on the page.  A really interesting idea.

What of film?  Time shown in the illusory space of a screen?

eat_the_bookThis brings me back to this image from an earlier post of mine about the tapistries in the Chateau d’Angers.  Here we see Saint John eating the book given him by the angel Gabriel.  But what is going on?  There are two books!  In fact, it is one book, one and the same.

In medieval art, it is common to see separate moments in time shown in the same space.  They didn’t have comics!  This, despite the beauty and sophistication of  their visual popular culture – think of all those Bible stories in stained glass!  The angel is shown handing him the book which he exhorts him to eat, and with the other hand, at a later moment, John is nibbling away at it.  Almost as if it were a modern multiple exposure photograph.  Or a flip-book that has been somehow frozen in time.

Red = Menace

February 28, 2008

So much for the “yellow peril.” It was red all over. During the Cold War, we were used to seeing lots of red ink spilled across maps, portending the onslaught of the communist hordes from the east. You can check out this post at strangemaps that adds some “perspective” to the Red Menace.

Here, I’m talking about a different sort of red, the type that signals danger, alert, alarm, something bad happening! Color is used in maps for all sorts of reasons, including just making them easier to read, but often, in “thematic maps,” i.e., maps that convey information and data about a particular topic, the colors are related to a scale of values that is described in a key, or legend. The image below is from a recent article in the New York Times Science section about the mapping of the impact of humans on the oceans of the world. This map shows the distribution of shipping lanes over the seas.

nytimes_shipping_map.jpg Link to original article.

Notice that red is the highest value, i.e., “most impact.” Clearly, that’s bad, isn’t it? But…how are we to know? Compared to what? Maybe it’s all horrible. Maybe none of it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that’s true, but the map doesn’t illuminate this point, while it does give the clear impression, with all that red splotched around, that humans are just mucking up the oceans everywhere!

Well, not quite everywhere – the southern hemisphere looks okay. What if we had chosen a projection of the earth like this one? The effect would be quite different, less alarming, less informative?


Maps tell stories, and the mapmaker decides what to emphasize and what to downplay…suppress. Color and cartographic projection are part of that storytelling. No problem here, except that for some reason, people tend, I think, to regard maps as purely scientific documents that are totally precise and objective.

One could see the map in the NYTimes, and the others to be found at that link, as part of a sustained effort to propagandize for the view that the earth is fragile, in need of support and tender care, and that the cause of the problem is the brutish, unthinking behavior of stupid, destructive humans. Is this a true story or a myth?

Two Favorites in the Reality Game

November 11, 2007


I paid a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday to see the exhibition of the three restored panels from Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, on loan from the Baptistry of Florence. While I was there, I visited some old favorites, Ingres’ portrait of Madame de Broglie being preeminent on that list. Two tricksters playing with our heads, these artists.

Standing in front of the noblewoman, listening to the comments of the people passing buy, I hear over and over again, “It looks so real…amazing!” Truly, Ingres was a master of paint. The rendering of the textures of the silk dress and chair are absolutely dazzling, but are they realistic? Does silk ever look quite that voluptuous? We live in an age when photographic imagery saturates our time and space – we know what “realistic” looks like. In his day, Ingres was faced with cameras as competition – some people said that painting could never measure up! He wasn’t phased. He painted as if cameras were both irrelevant and paltry. “You want realism – I’ll give you realism you can’t get from a camera!” So, he draws us in with his technical mastery, his delight in surfaces and color, and he paints a woman whose arms seem to be made of rubber – do they have bones? What’s with that right arm, hand tucked away, the wrist looking like it’s twisted all out of shape? That neck, a bit elongated wouldn’t you say? Is that natural? He gives us the image he wants to create – realism is the least of it.


As for Ghiberti, he lived in a time when the “realistic” representation of space with formal perspective was a thrilling device. Look at the architecture in this image of Issac from the same set of panels.

(click to enlarge)

Notice the grid lines in the floor, receding to infinity like parallel railroad lines – this was exciting stuff six centuries before we became accustomed to virtual reality! In the panel at the top, showing the creation of Adam (left), the creation of Eve (center) , and the expulsion (right) the figures are in various stages of relief to indicate their distance, the architecture is radically distorted – the arch on the right where they are being kicked out of Eden looks like something from an Expressionist nightmare, and the beautiful, classical maiden, like Botticelli’s Venus, rises weightlessly from Adam’s side, drawn out by God the Father.

Duchamp: What is Given…

April 20, 2005

I went to Philadelphia to see the Dali exhibit the other day, and while there, stopped in to see one of my favorite works. Calvin Tomkins, author of a wonderful biography of Duchamp, considers it to be the weirdest piece of art on exhibit in any museum in the world. I agree.

If you are in the area, stop in, go to the big room with the Duchamp pieces, and venture into the room way at the back…and prepare for something very strange and unsettling.What you will see is the door shown above, set into a wall. And on the door, two holes drilled, just right for peeping through with both eyes. And once you have situated yourself into this Peeping Tom position, feeling that you are somehow degraded by your transformation to a voyeur, you will get a shock. You will see in front of you the something like what the image below shows:

Just what is that…! Is that what I think it is?!! You never see her face, you can’t. Are you really seeing something? Is it pornographic? (Yes.) Is it some weird spoof or comment on porn? (Yes.) Is it repulsive? (Yes.) Is it fascinating? (Yes.) Is it real? Looks real…That waterfall in the back, is that from some tacky advertisement? Well…maybe. The lamp, the arm, whaaa?

This work walks that razor line that Flaubert knew so well, the one between art and kitsch, the one that shows what is and what the artist thinks about what is, the one that doesn’t show anything but the obsessions of the artist and the world that is not by the artist…

Duchamp, the one who denounced the ancient western tradition of “retinal art,” subverted it with his ready-made urinals and bicycle wheels. The one with his bizarre-Dada construction, “The Bride Stripped Bare,” the one who retreated from the art world to play chess, who scorned movements and art history – he gives us something that looks…sort of…like a soft-core porn postcard from the late 19th century, or a perverse image for an early 20th century advertising campaign. Was he thinking like the Buddhist who says:

When I began to meditate, I thought there were clouds and mountains; when I learned something of Zen, I saw that there were not really any clouds and mountains; and when I was enlightened, I saw that there were only clouds and mountains.

As Duchamp said, “There is no solution because there is no problem.” There is only what is, the things given (L’Etants Donne in French, the name of the piece).