Friday, March 19, 2010

Story of an Eye (and Another Eye, and Yet Another Eye)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman, from Four Books on Measurement (Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt) (2nd Edition, Nuremberg 1538) (Source)

In the past several weeks, excerpts from and commentaries about Bruce Sterling's well-received talk on atemporality have been a causing a wonderful stir.  For those who may not know, Sterling defines atemporality as a kind of informed, yet riff-like meditation on history that seeks to mash together past, present, and future to produce a "pragmatic, serene skepticism about ... historical narratives".  Without going into too much detail, I'll just posit that this brand of mash-up is a kind of thinking about history that complements network culture.  It is a way of using the very tools that network culture offers us (via social networking sites, music, film, et cetera) to develop a way of thinking about history that is wholly contemporary.  But it is a way of thinking as fraught with challenges as it is marked by contingency.  This is no mere cutting-and-pasting, no run-of-the-mill dislocating or fragmenting of previous forms of knowledge or artistic expression into cutesy collages or wan websites.  Work is involved!  Sterling offers us a dual challenge: to not only make atemporality fun, but to also make it do some intellectual heavy-lifting.  In short, atemporality is a practice in search of a theory.  This does not make atemporality a suspect practice.  I think it's quite the opposite: atemporality is as plausible as it is alluring.

What I want to assert in this post is something that may be bit removed from Sterling's own formulation of atemporality.  I'll pose this as two statements which will come off as something like a word game: first, there is a history of atemporality; and second, history is already atemporal.  I realize that these are headache-inducing statements, and before I offer examples to help explain what I mean here, I need to go out on a limb and place my own stamp on this issue.

To do so requires a slight elaboration on Sterling's descriptions of history.  He begins by telling us that "History is not a science", that it is a "an effort in the humanities."  It is hard to disagree with these formulations.  On the one hand, we would be hard pressed to look at a historian in the same way we would look at a scientist.  Sterling even normalizes this divide.  He tells us that history is "about meanings, values, language, historical identity, institutions, culture" and that the "philosophy of history is about very standard philosophical issues, like ontology, hermeneutics, and epistemology."  To prevent myself from spinning off into various tangential arguments, I only point out that these descriptions also apply to science and scientific culture.  Just read anything by the likes of Bruno Latour, Steve Shapin, Simon Shaffer, or Donald MacKenzie (to name a few), and you will see what I mean.  But the point that I really want to press here is that as a modern phenomenon (or symptom of modernity), history had to view itself as a science.  Put another way, the historian had to become a scientist.  

Consider, for a moment, the life and work of Leopold von Ranke, one of the founders of the modern field of history.  In his autobiography, the august scholar described how a passion for the works of Sir Walter Scott informed his first forays into the realm of history writing.  Historian Anthony Grafton describes the unsettling aftermath of Ranke's love of Scott's works—a falling out of sorts:

Scott proved as unreliable as he was charming.  Comparison with the historical tradition, as preserved by the Chronicler Philippe de Commines and contemporary reports, revealed that the Charles of Burgundy and Louis XI portrayed in Scott's Quentin Durward had never really lived.  Ranke found these errors—which he took as deliberate—unforgivable.  But he also found them inspiring: "In making the comparison I convinced myself that the historical tradition is more beautiful, and certainly more interesting, than the romantic fiction."  So he set out to write his Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker (Histories of the Latin and German People) from contemporary sources alone.  Unfortunately, these too disagreed; hence Ranke had to build his narrative by dismantling those of his predecessors, each of whom—even the German ones—proved  unreliable on some points.  Only close, comparative study could produce a critical history.[1] 

There are a couple of things to be learned from this passage.  Grafton here is describing Ranke's own self-narrative.  We must imagine that when writing and collecting for his Sämmtliche Werke (Collected Works) of 1890, Ranke was engaged in a self-conscious and highly-articulated cobbling of information from the past and present in order to construct a narrative version of himself.  The infatuation with Scott's novels thus takes on a double significance.  On the one hand, there is the sense that his disaffection with Scott as well as with other historians resulted in a kind of historical method.  On the other hand, however, the fact that Ranke looked to works of fiction, if only to verify inconsistencies in historical records, is important to note.  True, the media spectrum in the early 19th century was much more limited than today, but nevertheless there is something to be said that Ranke here is operating much like the person who sits in front of a laptop, following hyperlinks, bookmarks, YouTube clips, et cetera.  This is a post hoc argument, sure, but I would not be making too much of a stretch in suggesting that Grafton here is portraying the atemporal Ranke.  If we follow this logic a little further, we can even begin to think about how the very foundations of modern history took on an atemporal aspect.  Here, Ranke's method is depicted as a way of imposing control over his topic, of stabilizing historical knowledge.  The impulse to do so would make history a kind of science in the sense that in Ranke's scheme, history is transformed from knowledge into practice.  Historical methods, it seems, are necessarily atemporal.

We can even detect atemporality in more recent (i.e. 20th century) writings.  Take, for instance, "The Great Gizmo", architecture historian Reyner Banham's contribution to a 1965 issue of Industrial Design.  I could try to define the term "Gizmo" for you, but perhaps its better to let Banham at it.  His opening sentences are worth block-quoting if only because they drop a technodeterminist bomb of sorts on the unsuspecting reader:

The man who changed the face of America had a gizmo ... in his hand, in his back pocket, across the saddle, on his hip, in the trailer, around his neck, on his head, deep in a hardened silo.  From the Franklin Stove, and the Stetson Hat, through the Evinrude outboard to the walkie-talkie, the spray can and the cordless shaver, the most typical American way of improving the human situation has been by means of crafty and unusually compact little packages, either papered or with patent numbers, or bearing the inventor's name to a grateful posterity.[2]  

Like many of Banham's writings, "The Great Gizmo" is a witty and dense rumination that is very much in its moment.  A first reading reveals a mash-up of sorts: 60s-era ecological thinking supported by a technocratic (yet critical) view of the world.  But that first sentence ... watch as Banham inserts a historical category (the "gizmo") and uses it to interpret and mold the American 20th century ("the most typical American way of improving the human situation").  For the purposes of this post, it's not the "why", but the "how" that is important, for this is how we begin to get a sense of Banham's atemporality. 

Much like Ranke reacted to medieval chroniclers and to Sir Walter Scott's romances, Banham's article is a measured, almost imaginative response that cobbles elements of high and low culture.  It is the kind of thoughtfully ruminative mash-up-as-historical-thinking that Sterling alludes to.  Note in that in "The Great Gizmo," there is only passing mention to the historical and interpretative materials that inspired Banham's "gizmology."  We have, for example, references to Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (1964) and Sigfried Giedion's Mechanization Takes Command (1948).  Much like the latter, Banham emphasizes the importance of the patent.  But whereas Giedion looked to patenting as support of the idea that technology could not be modern unless it was mechanized and mass produced, Banham looks to patenting as an aspect of authorship.  For instance, note how Banham goes out of his way to mention inventors like Ole Evinrude, Edwin Land, and E.F. Johnson.  Banham's "gizmology" is therfore far from Giedion's brand of "anonymous" history—it is as personality-driven as it is gadget-driven.

"The Great Gizmo" is also Banham's hyperfueled response to Nikolaus Pevsner's famous aphorism: “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.”  With the introduction of the gizmo to the architectural lexicon, Banham creates a category that not only undos Pevsner's distinction, but that also supersedes it altogether.  "Lowbrow" consumer objects such as electric shavers and transistor radios are given a counterbalancing historical weight.  It bears mentioning that even "highbrow" consumer technologies are also treated similarly by other historians.  In his survey of "twelve centuries of Anglo-Saxon preoccupations and aptitudes", for example, German art historian Erwin Panofsky looks to the radiator of a 1950 Rolls-Royce automobile as a metaphor for the history of architecture.  For Panosfky, the radiator conceals "an admirable piece of engineering behind a majestic Palladian temple front."[3]  Or in other words, the radiator conceals history.  Here, then, we have two premier twentieth century historians of art and architecture, each using technology to depict a increasingly ambiguous relationship between the past and present.

Clark-Cortez Camper (1964)

At his most atemporal, Banham has much to say about the future.  He ends "The Great Gizmo" with that most unlikely of objects, a Clark-Cortez R.V. camper, and notes how even the most contemporary thinkers will be unable to grasp its significance in relation to the American landscape.  Banham notes that "in the absence of a general theory of the gizmo", the subject of gizmology "still lacks a radical theorist who will range freely over departmental barriers and disciplinary interfaces and come back with a comprehensive historical account of the rise of portable gadgetry, and deduce from it some informed projections of the good or evil future it affords."[4]  This statement is as conclusive as it is revelatory.  It not only closes a chapter on a half-century's worth of historical thinking, but also demands a new way of thinking, a way of thinking that not only responds to the past, but takes into account the "eternal present" (cueing Herr Giedion to arise from his deathly slumber) and looks into a future that is not very far off.  Sound familiar?  Hold on to that thought.

Here, I want to shift our focus towards the visual culture of atemporality.  As with the field of history, I want to state right off here that the history of art is also atemporal.  It too culls and combines elements of past, present, and future as a way to reflect on the historical condition.  This may seem like a truism, and I suspect that art historians out there will be clamoring for a different point of view.  And I also suspect that when continuing with the rest of the post, the reader will say something like, "But this was what Bruce was saying all along."  Because my purpose here is to elaborate upon notions of atemporality, allow me to hypothesize once again, if only for a moment: images are capable of performing the kind of theoretical heavy-lifting that atemporality requires.  Or rather, it is the interpretation of images that can help further a theoretical agenda for atemporality.  For the purposes of this post, however, I want to introduce three works of art and discuss briefly how each imbricates issues of atemporality vis-à-vis the artist.  All three operate as a sites of contestation, and yet all invite speculation as to the nature of the historical point-of-view.  They concern how the historian sees or how to see history.  As I am talking about vision in its most literal and figurative sense, I want to also suggest that the atemporal eye is first and foremost an eye trained towards the historical.  But above all, the atemporal eye is just that—an eye.

I introduced this post not with a mention of Bruce Sterling, but with a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (see image at top of post).  This well-known woodcut, from Dürer's treatise on projective geometry, Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt (1525), shows an artist using a "draughtsman's net" or painter's veil to draw a picture of a woman covering herself with an actual veil.  The image is as provocative as it is informative.  Not only does the image show the artist sighting between the legs of a female subject, but we see the woman covering herself as if trying to prevent the artist from "seeing."  Much more has already been said about the imbalanced gender relationships that can be read into the this picture, and I'll trust that some readers out there will know how to seek such information.  But here, I want to focus on the act of seeing.

When confronted with the picture, we are likely read the image as if we were reading a text—from left to right.  Starting, then, from the left of the woodcut, we see our female subject, prone, demure, static.  As we move towards the right of the image, our vision intersects with the painter's veil.  Moving further to the right, we finally see the artist sighting the subject through the veil.  He seems oblivious to what his hands are doing—perhaps there is a disconnect here between seeing and doing.  But is this so?  Could we look at this artist and say, with some degree of certainty, that his hands are performing the same kind of work as his eyes?  Or is it that his eyes are doing the same kind of work as his hands?  Is he drawing with his eyes or seeing with his hands?

Albrecht Dürer, Detail of Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman (Source)

By focusing on the right half of the woodcut—the artists's half—we can detect some productive ambiguities.  Here, then, the painter confronts the veil.  At first, we could think that the artist here is just beginning to draw his subject.  Perhaps the woodcut captures that initial moment when the painter first sights the subject through the veil and subsequently places pen to paper.  But upon closer inspection, we notice how the veil is anything but diaphanous–the 6X6 grid is devoid of any marks.  Nothing can be seen through it.  The artist is, quite literally, seeing nothing.

Dürer only shows one eye.  This one eye, however, carries a lot of didactic weight.  Notice how the artist's own line of sight is almost parallel with the horizon line that we see through the window.  The artist's own privileged point of view therefore intersects with our own  Our eye level (or Dürer's eye level) is perpendicular to the artist's.  And yet they are part of the same system—the artist depicted in the woodcut employs the same mathematical method of linear perspectival construction that Dürer used to make the woodcut.  And this is the same system that we use to construct the image even today.  Dürer thus conflates our (present) point of view with the artists's (past) point of view.

But more about that eye.  What is this about looking at the past?  The artist trains his eye towards the left.  Yet the opaque veil interrupts his vision.  What is he really looking at?   Recall that Dürer based his own method of perspectival construction on Leon Battista Alberti's.  Alberti was one of the most outspoken theorists of the painter's veil.  For him, the use of a veil allowed for accurate translation three dimensions into two, and in doing so, would "enable the painter to keep a clear sense of the ever-elusive spatial relationships among his subjects."[5]    And yet this is much more than just an accurate depiction of nature.  As Alberti would put it, the painter's "most capacious" and "highest" task was "to paint history."[6]  If we are to read Alberti's veil as necessary to the constructing of history, then we can say with some certainty that Dürer's artist is trying to do the same.  In Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman, then, drawing and painting are equated with writing.  They even require the same kinds of implements (the artist is, after all, guiding a pen across a horizontal surface).  For Dürer, the artist is therefore not just drawing a historical subject, but he is also writing history. 

In considering images, vision, history, and of course, eyes, something must be said about Alberti's use of a winged eye as his personal symbol.  A coin by Matteo de' Pasti provides us with the clearest image of this unusual symbol.  Amidst two concentric rings—an outer one identifying de' Pasti as the minter, and an inner one consisting of a garland of leaves—is Alberti's "eye".  It is a disembodied, anatomical organ: tendrils shoot out of the sides, giving the impression that this eye is either emitting lightning bolts or that is has been ripped out from an eye socket.  A series of eyelash-like flutterings emanate downward like the sun's rays.  Is this Alberti's eye, or is it Apollo's?  And, of course, there are the wings, poised, arrested in midflight.  Where is the eye going?  Why is does it have wings?  What does it mean? 

Although the medallion has been the subject of countless interpretations, we can turn to Alberti for an initial explanation:
The wreath is the symbol of joy and glory: and the eye is more powerful than anything, swifter, more worthy; what more can I say?  It is such as to be the first, chief, king, like a god of human parts.  Why else did the ancients consider God to something akin to an eye, seeing all things and distinguishing each separate one.  By this we are reminded that we must render praise for all things to God, rejoyce with the whole spirit in him, fulfill a flourishing and manly ideal of excellence, knowing that he sees everything we do and everything we think.  Then, on the other hand, we are reminded to be wide-awake, all-embracing as far as the power of our intelligence allows, in order to find out all things that lead to the glory of excellence, delighting to pursue with labor and persistence what is good and divine.[7]

It's not hard to buy into Alberti's own interpretation of the winged eye.  Whether it is a declaration of omniscience or an emblem that truly summarizes the ideals of humanist  scholarship, Alberti's eye continues to puzzle (Grafton even describes the eye as being carried aloft by a "raptor"[8]).

Matteo de' Pasti (c. 1420-after 1467), Medal of Leon Battista Alberti, reverse: All-Seeing Eye (c. 1450-1455) (Source)

Just below the eye are the words "QVID TVM."  Translations of the term vary.  Whereas some claim that it means "What then?", Mark Jarzombek and others suggest that we read the term as "What next?"  And as it turns out, Jarzombek provides the most plausible explanation for the winged eye's significance.  This, too, is worth block-quoting:
The question quid tum?, asked by Lepidus in Somnium upon hearing Libripeta's tale, represents the moment of shock that marks the transition from innocence to skepticism—from naiveté to an understanding that the "Good Arts," the major ordering principle in society, have been irredeemably lost in the sewer.  Philoponius, with his winged eye, transcends Libripreta's sewer wisdom.  As a perfectus defying all religious, political, and academic establishments he is free from temporal concerns, and flies like Pegasus—whose image appears on one of Philoponius's rings—with "wings of talent" over the "turbulent waters," much as the winged eye seems to fly over the quid tum ..."[9]

A more reductive reading of this eye, however, can lead to some provocative observations.  Notice, for example, the orientation of the eye in relation to the wings.  The eye travels (ostensibly) from right to left, and yet it faces the viewer, oblivious to the very direction in which it is traveling.   No foresight.  No hindsight.  Alberti's winged eye in indeed unmoored from "temporal concerns".  It is viewing the interminable, untrammeled now. 

Or is it?  In Herbert Bayer's collage, Albrecht Dürer Adjusting the Vanishing Point to Future History (1963), we see a different relationship between eye and wings.  Here, Grafton's "raptor" wings are replaced by a giant fly, which is as photorealistic as Alberti's eye is anatomically correct.  Bayer's wings, however, are detached from the eye, which is itself broken apart into two separate panels: each containing a bluish half-circle that corresponds roughly to an iris.  Directional arrows, similar to the Apollonian rays emanating from Alberti's eye, radiate in all directions.  Bayer depicts this disfigured eye as a rough equivalent to painter's veil—this is confirmed by the fact that here, Bayer's artist kneels on one side of the veil and gazes into a future that is on the same picture plane.  And yet here, the opaque veils contain suggestions of abstract expressionism.  It is as if contemporary art becomes the very surface that mediates between past, present, and future. 

Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), Albrecht Dürer Adjusting the Vanishing Point to Future History (1963)

Unlike the artist in Dürer's woodcut, Bayer's artist, also called "Albrecht Dürer", sits on the opposite side of the veil.  This could be an atemporal Albrecht Dürer, severed from his own historical context and violently irrupting into the present.  Or is it an atemporal Herbert Bayer, casting himself as a contemporary version of Dürer?  On the other side of the veil, we even see Dürer's own signature, here drawn backwards, a reflection of the artist's own ego.

A gridded space connects the broken eye.  This grid corresponds roughly to the grid comprising the painter's veil in Dürer's woodcut.  But here, the series of latitudinal curves bisect the grid, rendering the two-dimensional Euclidian grid into an ambiguous form.  These curves suggest that space does not stretch, but rather that it emanates, creating lines of force that expands in the same directions as the rays shooting outward from the Bayer's broken eye.  The whole scene—fly, artist, veil, eye, future—floats in a cerulean cosmos.  The horizon line here is a line of stars, a celestial equator that could very well be the Milky Way galaxy in section.

Behind the giant fly, and just as dominant, is a giant, white square.  A painter's veil without its tell-tale grid, this white space is a looming omnipresence.  A dashed blue-and-white line bisects this square (and the rest of the collage).  It is a remnant of cartographic space, a kind of line one sees in a map's legend.  The line is broken in the middle, at the very place where a blue dash would have connected and continued the line.  It is a broken, interrupted meridian.  We can think of the giant, white square as Bayer's veil in plan.  This means that the broken meridian is the veil in section.  As Dürer's woodcut collapses the artist's and viewers points of view, here, Bayer collapses plan and section.  X and Y coordinates are conflated and defamiliarized on the space of the picture plane.  The title of the painting suggests that the third, temporal dimension is also being defamiliarized.  Albrecht Dürer (Herbert Bayer) is adjusting the vanishing point to a future history.  What does this mean?  Is Bayer capturing a space that is expanding into infinity?

The collage tells us nothing of the artist's own eye.  We only see him painting, his back turned to us, his face (and eye) trained towards some far-flung space and time.  An atemporal Bayer would perhaps look backwards and recall his 1935 illustration, "Extended Field of Vision".  Here, Bayer renders a prototypical visitor to an exhibition as an eyeball mounted atop of a slouched, casual body.  The figure stands in a sectional perspective of a white cube.  Dashed arrows extend in all directions, above, below, in front, behind, arriving (and activating) corresponding planar surfaces, thus creating a new set of spatial relations within the cube.

Bayer, Extended Field of Vision (1935) (Source)

This illustration stands for the basic proposition that exhibition design should take advantage of a viewer's full range of vision.  Bayer uses the image to demonstrate how to extend "the viewer's experience by activating areas of space other than the conventional wall planes."[10]

The positioning of the figure suggests that the eye is travelling from left to right.  But whereas Alberti's winged eye moves right to left and only sees what is perpendicular to its trajectory, here, Bayer's eye sees in all directions and yet manages to move in only one.  In one sense, then, this illustration confirms Panofsky's point that a picture plane constitutes a "spatial continuum ... which is understood to contain all the various individual objects."[11]

Let me begin to conclude by dwelling on this notion of a "spatial continuum" for a little longer.  Though this post introduced a bit of an excursus on the nature of history, it was really about three eyes: Dürer's, Alberti's, and Bayer's.  I claimed that Dürer's Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman used the artist's point of view to show how drawing and painting were to be equated with the construction of history—or in other words, the writing of history.  If Dürer's eye looks to the past, Alberti's winged eye, as shown in Matteo de' Pasti's medallion, "free from temporal concerns," is constantly trained on the present while moving forward.  And as the title of Bayer's Albrecht Dürer Adjusting the Vanishing Point to Future History suggests, the eye is always affixed on a constantly changing future while rooted in the past.  The very last image, Bayer's Extended Field of Vision, confirms the idea that images contain a kind of spatial continuum.  When combined together, all these images go beyond Panofsky's idea of a spatial continuum to suggest the existence of a temporal continuum.  In other words, all three eyes show a healthy coexisting of past, present, of future.  If you like, you can call it a mash up.  The historian in me wants to give it another title: atemporal continuum.  

This post was a riff on Bruce Sterling's notion of atemporality.  My purpose here was to elaborate his claim by demonstrating possible ways in which to articulate a history and a theory of atemporality.  The point was not to claim that Sterling's view about history not being a science or that his desire to locate atemporality in contemporary network culture are evidence of ahistoricity.  I would like to think that this post, though rooted in ideas about history and art history, to a certain extent aspires to be atemporal.  Can we go ahead and claim that our current existence is one predicated on atemporality?  Are we currently engaged in daily practices that amount to "serene skepticism about ... historical narratives?"  Whether or not you buy into the idea of atemporality, let me suggest that it is something that we do all the time.

Let me temper my thinking here and address a fictional critic out there who may question the way I have interpreted history or the way I have read visual works by Dürer, Alberti, and Bayer.  They may say something like, "You are wrong" or "You are a bad historian."  My only answer would be to say, "You are doing the same thing as me, so 'fess up."   The challenge for atemporality lies not in its institutionalization, but in its embrace.  And then let's exhaust ourselves with it.  Let's allow atemporality to run its course and meet its expiration date.  But for right now, let's use a really atemporal (and oxymoronic) term to describe our practice.  I'm thinking of the term "new traditionalist" here not because it invites a certain kind of revisionism, but rather because it allows me to remember something I heard once.  How fun!  Yes, it was the clarion call of the true New Traditionalists.  It goes something like this: Go forward.  Move ahead.  Try to detect it.  It's not too late ....

Now, everybody.  



[1] Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 37-38.
[2] Reyner Banham, "The Great Gizmo" in Penny Sparkle, ed., Design By Choice (New York: Rizzoli, 1981), p. 108.
[3] Erwin Panofsky, "The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 107, No. 4 (Aug. 15, 1963), p. 288.
[4] Banham, "The Great Gizmo", p. 114.
[5] Grafton, Leon Battista Alberti: Master Bulder of the Italian Renaissance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 126.
[6] Ibid., p. 127. 
[7] This passage comes from "Anuli", a dialogue written by Alberti sometime before 1436.  Renée Watkins, "L.B. Alberti's Emblem, the Winged Eye, and His Name, Leo", Mitteilungen der Kunsthistorichen Institutes in Florenz, 9 Bd., H. 3/4 (Nov., 1960), p. 257.
[8] Grafton, Leon Battista Alberti, p. 220.
[9] Mark Jarzombek, On Leon Baptista Alberti: His Literary and Aesthetic Theories (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 63-64.
[10] Joan Ockman, "The Road Not Taken: Alexander Dorner's Way Beyond Art" in R.E. Somol, ed. Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-Garde in America (New York, New York: Monacelli Press, 1997), p. 102. 
[11] Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, Christopher S. Wood, trans. (New York, New York: Zone Books, 1997), p. 27 (translation of "Die Perspektive als 'symbolische Form'", in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1924-1925 [1927]).

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Munich, Maggots, and Architecture

[Following Mimi's and Greg's respective leads, I am posting my contribution to Junk Jet No. 3, the Flux-us! Flux-you! issue.  It's called "Maggotecture: or, München is Scary."  You can find out more information about ordering Junk Jet No. 3 here.]

Maggots, from Suspiria (dir. Dario Argento, 1977)

Before architecture, there is the maggot.  Let us begin with a dictionary, which will tell us as much.  The Oxford English Dictionary (online edition) defines “maggot” as “a soft-bodied apodous larva, esp. of a housefly, blowfly, or other dipteran fly, typically found in organic matter and formerly supposed to be generated by decay.” A worm is a worm by any other name, and so the OED continues with alternative definitions for the term.  A maggot can be a parasitic personality, a worm-like person.  As Walter Bagehot would put it in 1865, “Reviewers are … a species of maggots, inferior to bookworms, living on the delicious brains of real genius.”  The word, usually reserved to describe a small, slimy whitish annelid feasting on rotting flesh, can also mean a bad or harebrained idea.  As one character declares to another in Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester (1957): “you’ve got a maggot in your Idea-pot.”  Maggots, whether real or imagined, are just plain gross.

Consider another worm or sorts.  Absinthe is a neon-green spirit distilled from the Grande Wormwood herb  (Artemisia absinthium).  Its effects are, for lack of a better word, legendary.  In his Confessions of Aleister Crowley, the English occultist recalled a “deliciously colonial incident”, an example of nefarious architectural effects caused by drinking too much absinthe.  Crowley wrote:
A large corner building on the main street had been condemned and had to be blown up. The boss of the gang in charge went for instructions to the city engineer. He ran him to earth after prolonged search in a combination of drinking-hole and house of ill-fame. He was up to his neck in absinthe, which is not really a wholesome drink in that climate; but he was able to talk and readily agreed to calculate the charge of dynamite required for the house breaking. He took a stub of pencil and worked it out on the marble slab of his table. Strange as it may seem, he shifted a decimal point two place to the right without adequate excuse --- unless we accept the absinthe as an apology. The boss went off with his figures and put in a charge just a hundred times too big. The whole block was completely wrecked; and they were still clearing the street when we arrived.
Lest the reader think that this piece carries some kind of moral imprimatur, something in the vein of “don’t create architecture while drinking absinthe”, think again.  If the drinking of heavy amounts of wormwood liquor is indeed a “maggot”, then consider it a worm of strange import.  A worm can be as catchy as a pop diddy, as evidenced by fact that the German word for an infectious catchy tune is Ohrwurm, or “earworm.”

Here’s an earworm for you.  It’s a catchy story you may even recognize.  There’s even architecture!  A young girl wanders in a darkening wood.  She is eventually lost and finds a house in the murk.  An older woman lives there and provides the young girl with warm food and soft bedding.  Everything seems alright.  Then the young girl notices strange things.  She can hear furtive whisperings through the walls.  She becomes prone to acts of irrationality, and in one instance, even feels overwhelmed by the house.  One night, she faints.  But everything there is not what it seems.  It is the stuff of fairly tales—abductions in the dark, thick tangles of menacing forest, houses full of secrets.  Hold on to that thought, it’ll come up when you least expect it.

Let’s get back to it.  Those places we think safe from harm are anything but.  Look!  A nursery!  There’s a crib, some smallish furniture, heaps of disused toys.  But the word “nursery” has varying architectural connotations. A nursery could be set of rooms within a house, complete with kitchen and apartments for nannies, devoted to the care of children.  And this type of nursery is the setting for many a phantom.  Consider, for example, the moment from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) when Mr. and Mrs. Darling see strange goings-on inside the nursery.  Barrie describes how the Darlings “ran into the middle of the street to look up at the nursery window; and, yes, it was still shut, but the room was ablaze with light, and the most heart-gripping sight of all, they could see in shadow on the curtain three little figures in night attire circling round and round, not on the floor but in the air.”  Scary, right?  Look here: the entry for “termite” in the 1797 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica describes the “most striking parts” of a termite colony’s interior as “the royal apartments, the nurseries.”  Short of equating the spatiotemporal effects of childhood with a bad opium trip, Thomas De Quincey looked to the nursery as a particularly malevolent site.  He tells us how the 19th century nursery in England was the abode of the goddess Levana, who not only educates children, but who also “often communes with the powers that shake man’s heart.”  Of these powers, three are of special significance.  De Quincey calls them “Our Ladies of Sorrow”, and this is what he said about them:
[T]hey utter their pleasure not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers, heraldries painted on darkness, and hieroglyphics written on the tablets of the brain.  They wheeled in mazes; I spelled the steps.  They telegraphed from afar; I read the signals.  They conspired together; and on the mirrors of darkness my eye traced the plots.  Theirs were the symbols; mine are the words.
Of the three sisters, there is one whom De Quincey identifies as the “mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides.”  She is Mater Suspirorium, or Our Lady of Sighs, an apparition known by her audible, exasperated, and maddening sighs.

Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) at Flughafen München-Riem

Mater Suspirorium was also the inspiration for Dario Argento’s cult horror film Suspiria (1977).  Argento’s film tells the tale of a young American dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who arrives in Germany to attend a mysterious dance academy in the middle of the Black Forest.  Young girl.  Dark wood.  Strange buildings.  Nurseries.  Familiar?  Well, sort of.  Except that there is a lot more going on, architecture-wise.  Let us mull over the opening shot of the film.  The camera trains on the arrivals/departure board.  It pans downward to reveal Suzy, wearing a white dress, walking past the baggage claim on her way to a taxi stand.  It is a scene of interminable activity.  Harried businessmen hurry in-between Plexiglas partitions bearing ads for cigarettes and tourist destinations in Germany.  Suzy seems a bit confused, as if drawn against her will through this throng of people and oppressive spaces.  Lest one think that this is generic airport architecture, think again.  Argento filmed this sequence inside Ernst Sagebiel’s Flughafen München-Riem (1939).  Formerly an employee of Erich Mendelsohn’s, Sagebiel is known for his aviation-related works such as the Reichsluftfahrtministerium and the terminal and layout for Flughafen Berlin-Templehof.  Although not as well known as these, Sagebiel’s terminal at Riem was Munich’s main international airline gateway until 1990.  The terminal space that Suzy is walking through remained unchanged by the time Argento filmed Suspiria, the main difference being that the sets of glazed doors at the front have been replaced by sliding glass panels.  They slice through the space like pressurized guillotines.

Top: A Blood-Red Whale House and Dance Academy? Bottom: BMW Vierzylinder as Psychiatric Institute, from Suspiria (1977)

Strange architectural delights abound in Suspiria.  For the Tanzakademie—the creepy dance school that Suzy enrolls in upon arriving in Germany—Argento uses the blood-red façades of Jakob Villinger’s Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale), built between 1514 and 1516.  The dance academy is, of course, the De Quinceian nursery, a place for education and terror.  A scene where Suzy goes swimming takes place inside the Müllersche Volksbad (Müller Public Baths) in Munich, an example of Jugendstil architecture designed by Karl Hocheder in 1901.  Some well-known buildings and grounds are even used to eerie effect in Suspiria.  A German shepherd mutilates his blind owner on the grounds of Munich’s Königsplatz, once a site of massive Nazi rallies.  Even more strange is a brief cameo by Karl Schwanzer’s BMW-Vierzylinder (1972), the familiar cylinder-shaped skyscraper (reminiscent of John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles) here staged by Argento as a psychiatric institute.  These buildings, as visually compelling as they are, are literal stage settings.  Argento frames these buildings very carefully to manipulate Suspiria’s atmospherics.  Through surprising smash cuts and the use of blue and red lighting, he transforms familiar buildings into oppressive structures.

Top: Glazed Murder from Suspiria (1977); Bottom: Auguste Perret’s Garage Ponthieu

Much needs to be said about the interior architecture in Suspiria.  The production and art design by Giuseppe Bassan, Davide Bassan, and Maurizio Garrone takes an obvious cue from early twentieth-century decorative arts.  Reflective floral patterns, gaudy geometric wallpapers, gilded, swirling balustrades—call it Art Deco on Acid.  And don’t forget the famous double murder that happens as soon as Suzy arrives at the Tanzakademie.  It begins with a demon stabbing a student’s exposed heart repeatedly.  But the first murder involves architecture, or more specifically, glazing.  The same demons not only runs another student’s head through a glass pane, but also garrotes her with a telephone cord and pushes her body through a glass ceiling detail that is not unlike a Technicolor version of the ocular glazed façade to Auguste Perret’s Garage Ponthieu (1905).  Yet the strangest architectural event from Suspiria brings us back full circle to the idea that introduced this piece.  In one scene, we see Suzy in front of a bedroom mirror, staring at her own image while slowly running her hands through her hair.  She stops and picks something from her comb—a tiny, white maggot.  Cut to one of the Tanzakademie hallways, where pajama-clad girls are running underneath falling worms.  As one student looks up to the wooden ceiling, the camera pans and follows her gaze, thus confirming our worst fear: architecture dissolving under the whitish maw of a maggot rain.

Maggots in the floor, from Suspiria (1977)