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Think Piece

Voices Carry: Philip Glass’s Akhnaten, or Echoes across Time

By Enrique Ramirez

YOU ARE A VAPOUR TRAIL / IN A TV SKY
— RIDE, VAPOUR TRAIL (1990)

On a cool Spring night in 2014, driving on the Merritt Parkway through the heart of darkest Connecticut, I caught a strange noise through my speakers. It hung in the air inside my car for a couple of seconds before it broke apart into a field of high-pitched static. I detected within that jagged, dissonant burst some notes or chords from a pop song I knew from my youth. There was something else, however. As I focused on the red tail light contrails left behind by the cars and trucks speeding headlong into gloomily somber night, I thought I heard a voice caught in the hissing white noise. I could not understand what was being said, but the sound was unmistakably human, a symphony of glottal stops, fricatives, and sibilants. This voice crackled solemnly and distantly, broadcast from who knows when and where. I then took the nearest exit hoping to chase this human sound, to capture this fluttering pulse of life skipping along the aether.

The previous summer, on a rainy July evening in Chicago’s Union Park, I witnessed a charcoal-black raincloud descend from the sky as Björk took the stage at the Pitchfork Music Festival. I was far away, trying to cover my head as the ground below my feet became a swirl of mud and water. And through the haze, illuminated momentarily by the light emanating from the jumbotrons flanking each side of the stage, I caught a glimpse of the Icelandic singer. She entered in a field of magenta stars projected against three giant screens at the rear. Light glinted from her gold lamé dress. Quills emanated from her head—or at least that is what I thought I was seeing—turning her into a giant sea urchin save for a blank swath that revealed her mouth and face. She was not just from another world, but another world altogether, present, oceanic, suspended in the watery air enveloping the audience. There was a choir behind her, similarly dressed, all clad in platinum wigs, all dancing more or less together but not together, the movement of their arms and legs now appearing like strands of waterweeds carried along by sheets of rain. And then, that voice … so unmistakable. This was 2013.

*

It is 1897, and Albert Allis Hopkins, the future associate editor for Scientific American and a rabid Charles Dickens enthusiast, publishes Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (1897), which contains a description of the backstage interiors of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His point of view is that of the interloper, a person arriving upon the flotsam and jetsam of a previous evening’s reverie. His inventory of the items inside the “property-rooms” are matter-of-fact, but even the most casual reader may detect a hint of wanderlust in what at first seems to be mere description of objects from another time:

The property-rooms are the most interesting. Here you may see Siegfried’s Anvil, his forge, Wotan’s spear, the Lohengrin swan, or the “Rheingold;” while under the second fly gallery will be seen the parts of “fafner,” the dragon in “Siegfried,” […] the armory is a room containing a vast collection of helmets, casques, breastplates, swords, spears, lanterns, daggers, etc.; while in a case lighted by electricity are the splendid jewels, crowns, etc. which make such an effective appearance when seen on the stage. Here will also be found a model of the old dragon which was burned up in the fire. Hung up on one side of the wall is an elephant’s head with a trunk which is freely flexible, and in the next room will be found the head of a camel which winks his eyes. In here are also stored the shields and weapons which the great artists use when they impersonate northern gods and warriors. Under the property master’s charge are modeling rooms and carpenter shops. (265)

On November 26, 1922, Howard Carter descended by candlelight into an opening underneath the tomb complex of Rameses VI in the Theban Necropolis. He opened a door, which at least in his recollection, bore the “seal impressions of Tut.ankh.amen” when a current of hot air escaped and almost extinguished his candle. It was an exhalation, a release of pent-up memories of roiling sands, of waters diverting and scarring the Wadi bedrock, a remembrance of stars turning overhead in slowly changing patterns as armies ravaged the valleys and floodplains and made way for new patterns of living, for new forms of speech. It was this whoosh of air that whispered a lament for a burgeoning modernity and revealed to Carter a spectacle beyond his own imaginings. When he caught the first glimpses of “two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace” looming out “from the cloak of darkness” and of “gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal,” Carter thought of the same world that confronted Hopkins in 1897. “The first impression,” wrote Carter of the gilded chairs, thrones, and chariots deep inside KV62, now known as the Tomb of Tutankhamun, “suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanquished civilization.”

Costanzo, as Akhnaten, flanked by Nefertiti (J’Nai Bridges) and Queen Tye (Dísella Lárusdóttir). Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

Nearly a hundred years later, in November 2019, I learned about Howard Carter’s discovery during a call with Anthony Roth Costanzo, who was just finishing a stellar run in the title role in the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. To prepare for the role—a demanding one written specifically for a countertenor—Costanzo visited the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. It was there that he found Carter’s diary entry with its description of Tutankhamun’s tomb as a “property-room,” and his excitement at doing so was palpable, as if he were channeling the same thrill that Carter might have felt on that day in November 1922.

Costanzo’s photograph of Carter’s diary page, where Carter described entering the “Tomb of Tomb of Tutankhamun” on Nov. 26, 1922

Perhaps this was because like Carter, Costanzo experienced the electric charge felt when one catches a glimpse from another world and time. I was reminded of Arlette Farge’s own account of an “impassive archivist” at the Archives Nationales in Paris, encountering her own property-room of sorts, a portal to another temporality. She noted: Time is elsewhere, as the clock has been still for a long time, like the one in the porphyry room of the Escorial where the kings and queens of Spain are buried, sternly laid out in their marble tombs. At the bottom of that dark Spanish valley the long line of the monarchy lies at rest; at the bottom of the Marais in Paris the traces of the past lie at rest. An analogy between the two mausoleums may seem arbitrary, yet on each of her visits to the inventory room she is struck by this memory from across the Pyrenees. For Costanzo, time too is sequestered in archives and rooms, in seemingly distant elsewheres, yet seamed together through the alchemy of his vocal performance.

Allow me to clarify. We talked of two Akhnatens. There is the first, successor to Amenhotep III and known for introducing a monotheistic cult at el-Amarna that replaced the worshiping of the falcon-headed sun god Ra with adulation for the solar Aten, the disk of the sun that appears to hover like a flying object before the new pharaoh. This is the Aknhaten committed to dusty archives and countless texts (including a novel by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz). Then there is the Akhnaten of Glass’s work. This is Costanzo’s Aknhaten, with a libretto culled from a diverse array of texts and objects, from E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, to the Pyramid Texts from the Old Kingdom, and even transcriptions of boundary stelae found in James Henry Breasted’s A History of Egypt: From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (1906). This is more than singing, more than the mere enunciation of words written elsewhere. The artist momentarily inhabits a text and lives out its contours by summoning a “voice within a voice” (per novelist James McCourt), a voice that radiates and ensnares the audience in the feint of historical time.

Costanzo as Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

“Opera time is slower than actual time.” This is Costanzo. In our interview, he is gregarious and friendly, knowledgeable not just about his craft, but also about Glass’s work. His performance at the Metropolitan Opera was not his first encounter with Akhnaten, having played the title role in earlier productions in London and in Los Angeles. I keep this in mind as he describes Glass as an “additive composer” that works with “macro structures,” clusters of time and sound that change ever so slightly to achieve maximum emotional impact. I cannot help but hear the voice of a historian in Costanzo. “The performer’s job is to create the narrative,” he tells me in our interview, as if echoing historian Carolyn Steedman, who remarked how the “practice of historical work, the uncovering of new facts, the endless reordering of the immense detail that makes the historian’s map of this past, performs this act of narrative destabilization on a daily basis.” (48) And Costanzo’s own descriptions of the structures of operatic time are reminiscent of Geoff Eley’s observation that Marc Bloch’s writings “freed historical perspective from simple narrative time, reattaching it to longer frames of structural duration.” (36)

Costanzo with J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti. Metropolitan Opera, 2019.

This is not to say that performing historically is a kind of abstraction, a form of intellectual suspension that allows the musician to become lost in the structures and rituals of musicking. As it turns out, the craft of working within macro structures and of creating “longer frames of structural duration” is demanding—musically and physically. For instance, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) is known as an exacting work. To borrow Costanzo’s own words about performing Akhnaten, it is “repetitive” and “relentless.” Music for 18 Musicians lasts about an hour when played live and is composed of 11 “pulses,” each a small piece of music based around a single chord. Different instruments phase in and out of the piece. In one moment, high-pitched female voices accentuate the downbeat. In another, bass clarinets enter with a low swell—a reedy doppler shift of sorts. The sonic complexity of Reich’s piece has a temporal effect as well. In Parallel Play (2009), music critic Tim Page cites his review of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as an important event that foreshadowed his eventual diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome. Here, he remarks on the perception of time while listening to Music for 18 Musicians:

Minerva-like, the music springs to life fully formed—from dead silence to fever pitch. There is a strong feeling of ritual, a sense that on some subliminal plane the music has always been playing and that it will continue playing forever… imagine concentrating on a challenging modern painting that becomes just a little different every time you shift your attention from one detail to another. Or trying to impose a frame on a running river—making a finite, enclosed work of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing freely on all sides. It has been done. Steve Reich has framed the river. (Tim Page 2009, 168)

This brings to light some similarities between Costanzo performing Akhnaten and musicians playing Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Both capitalize on extended temporal horizons, and both rely on a double commitment of sorts: there is the time depicted in the libretto and the score, and then there is the time required to perform it. One may even sense that the slight variations in key and fluctuating time signatures have been occurring in perpetuity. You have to wait patiently to experience the tonal changes, to feel the emotional shifts. You have to listen carefully for a similar sense of perpetuity in Music for 18 Musicians. Peel away the layers of voices, metallophones, and clarinets, and you will hear the constant and relentless pounding of marimbas and xylophones. Imagine how tired these performers must be. They have been playing for the past 56 minutes, but as Page noted, they could have been playing for an eternity. They could be playing the first sounds ever made. 

*

“Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” (2) It is 1962. This is George Kubler, writing in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. His eye is cinematic and roving, envisioning—literally—the history of art in terms of “form-classes,” each a sequence of objects whose differences are manifested slowly and deliberately in long, clustering durations of time. Beginning with a “prime object,” they vary and develop across different materialities, becoming the aforementioned replicas, and in some instances, developing mutations. The routes of Kubler’s “form-classes” are registered as if in a chronophotograph or stroboscopic flash photo: a gauzy presence that makes itself known persistently. I hesitate to call these developing forms phantoms, if only because Kubler reserves this ghostly description for a category of objects that exists outside the contours of his temporal purview. These are fashions, objects marked by “duration without substantial change: an apparition, a flicker, forgotten with the sounds of the seasons.” 

Kevin Pollard, the costume designer for Akhnaten, used these doll’s heads to create Aknaten’s Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt.

The twin serpents once wound into a diadem encircling Akhnaten’s head are gone. In its place, a toy doll’s face peers from the front of a Deshret, the Crown of Lower Egypt. Above, a Hedjet, the White Crown of Upper Egypt, receives an egg-shaped stone of veined carnelian, polished and shining. Combined, the two crowns rest on top of a headpiece resembling a Nemes, a simple headdress, and here made of EVA foam and shellacked to look like an ormolu casque. Around the pharaoh’s face, blue, red, and green plastic jewels echo the bands of amazonita, turquoise, feldspar, and obsidian found on the funerary mask of Tutankhamun. And the effect is similar. They splinter light in all directions and for a moment, the audience may be lost in what looks like a radiant crown hovering around Akhnaten’s head. On the neck, aligned with the chin, a giant gold brooch appears suspended between lines of pearls fastened to an oversized pauldron on each shoulder. They are covered with more clusters of doll faces. Some of them are ashen, with lips and eye sockets dabbed in lampblack. Others are simply burnt, covered in dark alligator-skin blotches or bubbling blisters from which dead eyes peer at the audience. A v-shaped bodice shrouds the pharaoh’s torso in cascades of gilded crinoline and tulle. It flares out to create a large split skirt with a lower hem made of turquoise ruffs and more doll faces. Seen from the front, the pharaoh cuts a wide figure, part-Kamakura era Samurai, part-Elizabeth I posing for her Spanish Armada portrait. Flanked by Horenhab and the High Priest Aye, Akhnaten holds a crook and flail, confident in his newfound authority. When he is on the stage performing and in this costume, Costanzo is in Akhnaten’s body. This is what he tells me.

Akhnaten, Metropolitan Opera, 2019



A historical figure, like a fictional character, defies death by living across various texts, in different media. It is “a stand against oblivion and despair,” as Ian McEwan tells us in the final moments of his 2001 novel, Atonement. Whether in the guise of a novelist or under the mantle of the seasoned historian, a writer conjures an immortal subject, and does so in multiplicities. The historical Akhnaten and the operatic Akhnaten can exist in the same place and at the same time. So does Helen of Sparta, whose sequestration becomes the flashpoint of a conflagration, a tale of killing fields and captive voices woven into an everlasting refrain born of war and anguish: “Sing, Goddess …” I think of the image of Helen, her eidolon appearing not just in different texts, but in different places. In addition to the Helen in Homer, there is also the Helen in Herodotus and the Helen in Euripides (as well as the Helen in recent novels like Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Booker’s The Silence of the Girls.) Helen narrates her own fate, of the Judgment of Paris, and speaks through Euripides: “But Hera, indignant at not defeating the goddesses, made an airy nothing of my marriage with Paris; she gave to the son of king Priam not me, but an image, alive and breathing, that she fashioned out of the sky and made to look like me.” The image of Helen is substantiated not because it looks like her, but because she breathes, and by implication sounds like Helen. She speaks. She laments. She sings. Helen is telepresent. Helen is theatrical. She is more than a trompe l’oeil. She is a trompe l’oreille.

Two Helens

I heard Helen in 2013, listening to the Buggles’ 1979 hit “Video Killed The Radio Star” on a pair of studio monitors. I closed my eyes and heard her in the background. At first the voice was slow, languorous (not the one that goes “Oh-a Oh”). It was almost lost among the sequenced drums and ARP String Ensemble swells, and monophonic Minimoog and Prophet 5 voicings. During the second verse, when bassist Trevor Horn sings, “And now we meet in an abandoned studio/We hear the playback and it seems so long ago/And you remember the jingles used to go,” Helen’s voice stays in the background until the end of the verse when it transforms into a high-pitched scramble as her recorded voice rewinds at high speed. And finally, as the song reaches its coda, I hear Helen singing “You are a radio star,” only getting louder, panning subtly from back to front, changing from mono to stereo.

Laurie Anderson Radar

t is 1987. I hear Helen in Laurie Anderson’s “Blue Lagoon,” a track from the 1984 album Mister Heartbreak. She is marooned on an island, reciting a letter to a distant love as if she were Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She addresses her rambles to a digitized male voice skipping above a wobbling synth. The effect is disorienting, and as we listen to Anderson’s voice, hers is one of resignation turned to sarcasm: “Days, I dive by the wreck. Nights, I swim in the blue lagoon / Always used to wonder who I’d bring to a desert island.” Her letter quickly becomes an interior monologue, oneiric musings to the disembodied, electronic voice that sounds almost like the Ariel-like Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1958). She recites Ariel’s song from Act I, Scene II of The Tempest (“Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made”) before riffing on the Epilogue from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, just as the accompanying, irregular rhythms and guitar feedback samples become a swelling chorus of gamelan instruments and steel drums, increasing in volume, as if the song were levitating, invoking a moment when Ferdinand hears Ariel’s singing and asks, “Where should this music be? I’ the air or the earth?”

*

I have heard voices. They are the sounds of ethereal presences eulogized into printed words, relayed station to station. They are compressed vibrations, airborne, wired and ducted into our cochlear nerves. They mimic speech. They are unmoored in time and space. They scatter across electromagnetic spectra, twisted into technicolor coils of visible wavelengths. They fray and recombine once again as dense fabrics of pixels emanating a ghostly haze of narrow-spectrum blue light. These are the voices I have heard.

MALDEN BRIDGE, NY  /  BROOKLYN, NY 
NOVEMBER 2019-MARCH 2020

Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently a critic in graphic design at Yale School of Art. You can follow him on instagram at @riqueramirez

Featured Image: Costanzo. Ascent.

Categories
Intellectual history

French Symbolism and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

On the face of it, art historian Andrei Pop, in his latest book, A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century (Zone Books, 2019), sets out to achieve something rather concrete—a reevaluation of the French symbolist movement in art—and yet the reader soon becomes aware that much more is at stake, as Pop weaves together art history with an account of early analytic philosophy to raise questions about the very nature of truth and human ways of meaning-making in artistic and scientific practice, which are further explored in this interview with David Kretz.

A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century begins by characterizing a type of mid-19th-century reductionism about the self and the mental that finds expression, for example, in Ernst Mach’s psychologistic philosophy and impressionist painting, which, roughly speaking, presents the viewer with sensations of color pigments rather than with objects. You then establish a surprising parallel between two counter-reactions to this Zeitgeist: symbolist art and early analytic philosophy, especially Frege and the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. Can you sketch the parallel in their responses for us?

The predominance of positivism and various forms of mechanistic philosophy and science, including physiological psychology, was no ideological conspiracy but a result of real progress: the invention of analytic chemistry, the refinement of celestial mechanics, and the rapid strides in comparative anatomy, microbiology, and the rest, crowned as we still think by Darwinian evolutionary theory. To say nothing of practical gains from pasteurization to electricity. This materialist front faltered a little when confronting the mind and subjectivity, but here too advances were legion: from the study of the eye and physiologic color to the psychology of counting and their manifold applications, from calculators to color printing, early motion pictures, and, yes, realist and impressionist painting. These art practices, of course, were not always understood as reductive, but insofar as they were—as they answered to the decree of “paint only what you see”—they fit the positivist lockstep.

Only they also produced weirdness: what an impressionist ‘saw’, made up as it was of blocky saturated brushstrokes, differed markedly from what anyone else saw, live or through a camera. So the act of translating vision to canvas produced an effect different in kind. At the same time, positivism was of little help in the foundations of arithmetic, or physics, where explaining natural law mechanistically and psychologically (a tendency called “psychologism” on the model of scientism—taking psychology beyond its field of application) led to theories of numbers as consensual hallucinations, or meaningless counters in a game. This self-undermining nature of positivism—its search for verification leading always to unstable mental states that could deceive the verifier—naturally led to revolt among ambitious scientists from Boltzmann to Cantor. The revolts tended to assert the reality of things unseen and strictly unseeable: whether infinite sets (Bolzano) or irrational numbers (Weierstrass) or both of these (Dedekind, Cantor, Frege). This is a reformed Platonism, because it doesn’t point us to the perfect Bed in the sky, but to what is necessary for there to be anything at all—the laws of arithmetic describe any possible universe. They certainly underlie the mathematical natural science on which positivism relied while undermining it.

It is perhaps surprising then that the scientific revolt against equating truth with the perceptible or verifiable, which issued in mathematical logic and philosophy of language that you call “early analytic philosophy”, also made room for domains inaccessible to it, what it called the subjective realm, which stretched from color perception and proprioception to poetic nuance to aesthetic judgment. If we identify the later tradition with the elimination of subjectivity and a nearly algorithmic commitment to the application of logic to philosophical problems, we may, ironically, regard Frege and the young Russell and Wittgenstein as backward Romantics, because they sought to delimit objective sense and laws from realms of radical subjectivity that separate each mind from each other: the very notion of private language, which the older Wittgenstein violently rejected. The philosophical point of this book is to show that the objective requires the subjective as a foil if it is to play the scientific role late nineteenth-century philosophers assigned to it, not to mention to become accessible through our perceptual apparatus in new kinds of mathematical and logical symbolism. As for the symbolist artists, they frankly acknowledged that the mind contributes as much as the hand in reproducing reality, so that continuous color and contour, which impressionism and the opticians had rejected as found nowhere in nature, reappear as signs of our subjective activity as perceivers as much as our logical activity organizing percepts into objects. The category of the image serves as a useful beacon, joining theoretical speculation to plastic art: it is structured sense itself, distinct from and mediating between the concrete things embodying it and whatever else, concrete or abstract, they stand for or refer to. But once one has noticed the affinity between the artistic and philosophical project, there is no reason to leave out photographers, realist painters, or romantic poets like Poe, when one finds them engaged in a project of exploring the interface between the logically objective, or public world, and the private, subjective worlds which Heraclitus already said we each possess.

Édouard Manet, Illustration for Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, 1875

You agree with historians of science like Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison that there is an artistic aspect to scientific practices of observation and documentation, for example, but want to also claim the inverse: that artworks are, in a sense, truth-apt and logical. Truth in art, moreover, on your view lies not so much in its power to disclose a world (Heidegger, Gadamer). Rather your concept of truth in art seems to follow along representationalist lines: Frege and the early Wittgenstein. Could you tell us more about your understanding of truth—in art, in science? Are they the same? Is truth in art the same as meaningfulness?

The opposition between disclosive and representationalist accounts of truth requires some scrutiny. I take it by the latter you have in mind the view that sentences or images build up models of reality, which we compare with their referent and judge to be true in case the representation corresponds to reality. Frege in fact denied that such a view is generally applicable to pictures—as he pointed out, we would only call a picture of Cologne Cathedral “true” in this sense if we appended the sentence “the cathedral looks like this”, so that what we are really judging true is the sentence. But then he went further and pointed out that the correspondence theory doesn’t explain truth in language either! For if you ask just what makes this sentence correspond to reality, and I provide an answer, you can still ask whether the answer is true, which on the correspondence theory would lead to asking for another object of correspondence (not of the sentence, but of the sentence asserting the truth of the sentence), and thus a vicious regress. So correspondence will not explain truth in general: but it certainly plays a role in much everyday language and imagery, from ID cards to IOUs.

So it won’t do to dismiss representation altogether and insist on elevated uses of “world-disclosing” language and images: it matters whether I owe you or you owe me a sum of money, just as it should matter to the disclosing of a peasant world whether, say, a pair of boots painted by Van Gogh belonged (are painted as belonging) to a peasant woman or not. What matters still has to do with the language or the image: these are logically articulated, which needn’t mean reducible to language. What it does mean is: properly interpreted, it is responsive to true or false propositions about it. This is how a picture differs from the object which is its bearer, as it differs from a stone or a leaf, which are neither meaningful nor potentially true or false, though we can say meaningful, true or false things about them. As for the worry that pictures allow for multiple plausible interpretations, that doesn’t differentiate them from language qualitatively, only quantitatively. A picture might seem awfully ambiguous about, say, the intentions of the person it portrays, but it is merely compatible with several different ones. In turn, a sentence describing a face, as Lessing noticed, is endlessly more ambiguous than even a crude visual image of that face. Logically articulated, then, in every domain, means something like this: the object would mean different things if it were structured otherwise.

Likewise, context matters: language abounds in indexical expressions whose full significance (as opposed to linguistic meaning) depends on who is speaking and listening, and the sense of images may depend on assumptions about who is looking, what goes on beyond the frame of the picture, and so on. This is why I like to say that a historian may not be a Platonist, but a Platonist must be a historian: you never reach mind-independent meaning from a historical artifact unless you account for specific human conventions and acts. As for truth, that is once again a further step: it is not objects as such, but the thoughts they provoke, which are true or false. The only guaranteed truths are the tautologies held in such suspicion by Wittgenstein—which are perfectly respectable logical truths, true solely due to their structure (the same goes for contradictions, which are necessarily false). As for other thoughts, their truth and falsity depends not so much on correspondence to fact (which, inconveniently, tends to ape the representational content of the thought), but on what they really mean. Again artifact and world, structure and context interlock, while remaining very much distinct.

And that is why images, and not just texts or scientific sentences, may be logically articulate: it’s because they are interesting, eventful. The Nelson Goodman line, according to which pictures are just analog color gradients with no structure, is as implausible as Heidegger’s speculations on peasant shoes, which he claims are accessible only in looking at a Van Gogh painting, but which in fact can only be had by reading Heidegger. In order for this kind of art theory to reestablish contact with ordinary acts of looking, and with communication between lookers, and their other intellectual activities (including science), logical structure has to be recognized wherever it is found. It is naturally rather unevenly distributed among meaningful artifacts (perspectival pictures may be dreadful at tense, but they are far better than sentences at describing spaces, and both are terrible at clarifying inferences). We also have to recognize and respect the incommunicable aspect of each subject’s experience, which we can sense rather than verify and which I suspect is what drives the world-disclosing philosophers to their premature attempts at disclosure.

Is there anything that would make an artwork logically inarticulate? Would you rule out the possibility of interesting, eventful nonsense?

I rule out “nonsense” understood as “no sense”, a degree zero of sense: the nonsense poems of Lear, Carroll, dada, medieval monks, etc. are in fact full of tidbits of sense, arranged less than sentence-wise (or even word-wise at times). So the “may be” above applies to the degree of coherence a particular artwork aspires to. A monochrome may well occupy a monistic logical space akin to David Chalmers’ fantastic “consciousness of a thermostat”. If so it is quite dull, perhaps inarticulate by our usual standards, but never unintelligible or senseless in a pure way. Poésie concrète, doodles, automatic writing are telic activities too, with a minimal sense that is requisite to being an interesting representation. Of course, a fossil or a blank wall may be interesting, but not as representation: only as a natural object about which questions may be asked.

How does your understanding of these larger metaphysical and epistemological issues inflect your own methodology as a historian? What do you think art historians should learn from philosophy—and philosophers from (art) historians?

I more than once heard a celebrated philosopher say that his only method is to never say anything that is obviously false. One could do worse! The use of external “theory” in art history once had a dogmatic cast—the writer “knows” that Marxism or Lacanian psychoanalysis or structural linguistics is right, and rearranges art, or rather the extant writings on it, in accordance with this certainty. The old (“classical”) Germanophone art historians by contrast had some philosophical training (generally neo-Kantian), which they did not flaunt, instead inventing terms like Kunstwollen (‘art-willing’), Pathosformel (‘pathos formula’) or symbolische Form (this one due to a philosopher, Ernst Cassirer) to do their philosophizing, still in a broad generalizing vein, but generally asserting a continuity or change over time in how concrete objects embodied these more abstract patterns or schemata. I hope I have learned some lessons from both traditions: to think on our feet when the form of artifacts is meaningful and to look outside them when artifacts reach into the world. Still, art historians must learn not just philosophical theories, but some habits of mind philosophers take for granted (notably analytic philosophers, whom too few of us read, but above all the great philosophical minds, wherever those occur): not to adopt any position because they think it’s right or will elicit admiration without understanding it, but to think for themselves, accepting only what on their best efforts they regard as the truth. This, of course, need not involve certainty, but includes possibilities and hypotheses and the most plausible conclusions.

Can philosophers in turn learn anything from art historians? Well, besides learning what not to do (in the bad case), most art history, and certainly art history at its best, abounds in careful and explicit observation of meaningful artifacts, from all known human cultures and epochs: I think it does so in a way that if properly taken up could challenge the philosophy of mind, of language (which really should be a branch of a larger philosophy of meaning), and of logic and science. Art history isn’t just interesting to aestheticians. Questions ranging from the compositionality of semantics to the nature of things can be elucidated, if not definitively answered, by closer attention to art and artifacts. Not that this will involve taking anything art historians say at face value, but most of what philosophers think about the limits of thought, discursive language and the expressible, would benefit from an acquaintance with a wider range of meaning-making tools. Knowing symbolic logic helps, but so do comics or sculpture or opera! I am just as bad, I have no clue what to make of key signatures and chord changes in music, which can be instruments of thought, as much as any syllogism or perspectival projection. The key to wisdom, I’d agree with Socrates, is knowing that we don’t know. That is something art historians and philosophers have in common with each other—and with everyone else.

Andrei Pop is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. Previously, he has taught eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art history and aesthetics at the Universities of Basel and Vienna

David Kretz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Studies and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His current project contrasts poets and translators as complementary paradigms of historical agency in times of crisis

Categories
Think Piece

Seeing the Gothic through the blaze of Notre Dame

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

Abbot suger

I first encountered Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures, edited, translated and annotated by Erwin Panofsky (1946, 2nd. revised and expanded edition 1979) when I was working on a paper on the stained glass program at Sainte-Chapelle. Abbot Suger is a remarkable set of texts. In this book, Panofsky gathered three important documents related to the construction of St.-Denis by Suger: De Administratione, De Consecratione, and the Ordinatio, all written between 1140 and 1149, the decade surrounding the cathedral’s construction and consecration, between c. 1140 and  c. 1144.

Two weeks ago, transfixed by the fire at Notre Dame, I went to my shelf and pulled down my copy of Abbot Suger.

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Abbot Suger, donating the Tree of Jesse window to St.-Denis

In his introduction to Suger’s text, Panofsky noted that, “Suger was acutely conscious of the stylistic difference that existed between his own, ‘modern’ structures (opus novum or even modernum) and the old Carolingian basilica (opus antiquum).” Suger tells us what it was like to experience the lightness and the airy qualities of the Gothic nave for the first time, to stand beneath those stained glass windows with their “wonderful and uninterrupted light.” It is all new, still. The Gothic has not yet become loaded with additional–and sometimes inconvenient, or even unsavory–ideological and emotional resonances.

In Suger’s moment, the Gothic does not have a history yet. It does not even have a name. We do not look back at St.-Denis, or Sainte-Chapelle, or Notre Dame through a haze of romanticism (as Viollet-le-Duc did), nor do we see, as Louis XIV, a tired relic of the past (Louis XIV modernized Notre Dame’s interior to suit his own Classical tastes). The association with the Gothic with the ancien régime has not yet happened, and we do not see it, as French revolutionaries did in the eighteenth century, and again in the nineteenth, as part of the order that must be destroyed. (Sainte-Chapelle’s glorious glass windows survive only because they were removed and packed away before revolutionaries could smash them.) No, to see St.-Denis through Suger’s eyes is to see both a new world rising, and the difficulty of making something so new that it was untested–and if it were to endure, it would do so only by the grace of God.

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A donor portrait of Abbot Suger, “The Annunciation,” from the axial chapel of the Virgin at St.-Denis

Writing on the survival of St.-Denis’s “arches” (the arches that formed part of the cathedral’s vaulting) through a heavy storm that hurled “a force of contrary gales” against them, so that “they threatened baleful ruin at any moment, miserably trembling, and as it were, swaying hither and thither,” Suger said: “Thus [the tempest], while it brought calamitous ruin in many places to buildings thought to be firm, was unable to damage these isolated and newly made arches, tottering in mid-air, because it was repulsed by the power of God.” (109) Suger’s text is full of such instances, at once marveling at the cathedral structure as a feat of construction and engineering, and giving thanks to God that we, mere mortals, could complete such feats in our temporal world. The miracle of St.-Denis, in many ways, is that it happened at all, that resources were found and hands and bodies were set to the task. When we say that these cathedrals were “well built,” we are commenting, in part, on this remarkable conjunction of human and natural resources.

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Choir, with vaulting and stained glass, Abbey of St.-Denis

Suger describes what went into the construction process–endless hours of physical labor, but also the less tangible work of funding it all. He tells us remarkable stories of men, “nobles and common folk alike,” harnessing themselves like “draft animals” to draw massive stone columns out of the quarries of Pontoise. He also tells us about combing through the abbey’s accounts, searching for ways to fund “an annual revenue for completing this work,” and finding it by cobbling together income from various offerings, income “from the possession called Villaine in the district of Beauce, previously uncultivated but with the help of God and by our labors brought under cultivation and developed to an annual revenue of eighty or a hundred pounds,” and then providing contingencies in case revenue from Villaine “should fall short of its full contribution.” This small aside on Villaine also tells us something about how the landscape around St.-Denis was changing, as more and more land was improved and brought under cultivation. Revenue from the Fair, too, would play a part in funding the construction. With a light touch, the world of eleventh-century France comes to life. It is not hard to imagine similar considerations in the construction of Notre Dame, though work there was drawn out over a much longer period of time — Stokstad writes that “Pope Alexander, exiled in France, is traditionally believed to have laid the first stone of the choir in 1163,” and yet the facade would not be completed until well into the thirteenth century.

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Of course, by now, we all know that the Notre Dame fire began in “la forêt,”  the forest of ancient timbers that carried the cathedral’s roof. Suger’s text reminds us that such massive roofs were, if not outright miracles, incredible feats of planning and ingenuity, down to the problem of procurement. As he recounts in De Consecratione, the process of finding timber beams for St.-Denis was fraught: “When we inquired of our own carpenters and those of Paris where we might find beams we were told, as was in their opinion true, that such could in no wise be found in these regions owing to the lack of woods; they would inevitably have to be brought hither from the district of Auxerre.” Not easily discouraged, Suger “began to think in bed that I myself should go through all the forests of these parts, look around everywhere.” The next morning, “we hastened with our carpenters, and with the measurements of the beams, to the forest called Iveline. When we traversed our possession in the Valley of Chevreuse we summoned through our servants the keepers of our own forests as well as men who knew about other woods, and questioned them under oath whether we could find there, no matter with how much trouble, any timbers of that measure. At this they smiled, or rather would have laughed at us if they had dared.” And here Suger gives a wonderful aside on the recent history of France, noting that his queries were met with smiles because the men “wondered whether we were quite ignorant of the fact that nothing of the kind could be found in the entire region, especially since Milon, the Castellan of Chevreuse (our vassal, who holds of us one half of the forest in addition to another fief) had left nothing unimpaired or untouched that could be used for building palisades and bulwarks while he was long subjected to wars both by our Lord the King and Amaury de Montfort.”

But such are the rewards of faith–or stubbornness. Suger plunges into the forest himself, “and toward the first hour we found one timber adequate to the measure.” At the end of the day, they had found twelve timbers, the exact number required for their task. Suger sums up the episode: “Thus in this matter Divine generosity, which has chosen to limit and to grant all things according to weight and measure, manifested itself as neither excessive nor defective; for not one more [timber] than was needed could be found.”

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Charles Nègre, The Vampire (Le Stryge), 1853. Salt print on paper.

It is impossible to know Notre Dame without mediation–of representations, of texts, of the intervening centuries themselves. Michael Camille wrote, in the introduction to his strange and wonderful book The Gargoyles of Notre Dame (2007): “What these insistent monsters have taught me is the impossibility of viewing the art of the Middle Ages without looking past and through the nineteenth century, without appreciating our own and the cathedral’s substantial Modernity.” In the case of Notre Dame, it was literally impossible to see the cathedral without the mediation of the nineteenth century, for the fabric of the cathedral was substantially altered under the direction of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus. The spire that fell and burned before our eyes was a Viollet-le-Duc intervention. So are the beloved gargoyles. Viollet-le-Duc’s hand can be felt both inside and out. And the cathedral has been changed since the nineteenth century. In the 1960s, new glass was installed in the nave in an effort to brighten and lighten the dark interior.

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Robert Doisneau, Gargoyle, Notre Dame, 1949.

Camille has something to say about this, too: “In writing the first-ever art-historical study of this group of well-known Parisian sculptures, my point is not that they are modern and therefore less important than the superb twelfth- and thirteenth-century sculptures still in situ on the west facade. Rather than view them as “not medieval” I hope to show their instrumentality in having helped construct the very idea of the medieval. Our most cherished cultural monuments are not the neatly packaged products of a distant and therefore irresponsible historical past. Cathedrals are above all spectacular sites in the here and now, sites that are continually being reinterpreted, reconstructed, and interrupted by new monsters of our own making.”

This, I think, is something that Suger could understand, at least in part, though he probably would not articulate it in quite the same way. The “new” St.-Denis was constructed using the stones of the “old” St.-Denis. As gorgeous as the new cathedral might have been when it was freshly constructed, it only came into the fullness of its beauty when animated by the life of the Church. The final passages of Suger’s De Consecratione are dedicated to the translation of the relics–to the joy and passion of the processions and rituals that brought life into the cathedral, life that could be wondrous and joyful but also edged with terror. The cathedral exists for the moment, for the here and now. But Suger doesn’t share Camille’s world-weary disenchantment. Setting aside whether this disenchantment is a function of personality or of modernity–it suffices to say that Camille’s sense of the “here and now” is quite different from that of Suger, as is his sense of how the present moment interacts with the cathedral site.

Here, I think, we have to be careful about drawing binaries between belief and unbelief, the secular and the sacred. When Notre Dame was on fire, men and women fell to their knees in prayer. Things that we believed to have been swept away by the tides of time may in fact endure in surprising ways. The past glows for us only because we have not experienced it ourselves. Suger told of the remarkable work that went into the construction of St.-Denis. He did not tell us of other important things–of the politics, of the force and violence, of what it might mean to do all of this under the sign of feudalism. As for what all of this means, now, in the here-and-now of 2019, for the rebuilding of Notre Dame–perhaps we can only fumble for words when we are mired in the thick of it.

Camille passed away before Notre Dame burned. For him, back in the first years of this century, the question was not “Will Notre Dame burn to the ground?” but rather “Can we delicately repair the damage of time? Is it acceptable to insert signs of our own time into the fabric of the cathedral? Should we make new gargoyles to replace the old, crumbling nineteenth-century ones that are maybe a little bit Disney and a little bit steampunk, that is, of ‘our moment’?” The terms of the equation have shifted a bit. What is our moment? Who are we? When donations poured in for the rebuilding of Notre Dame–after decades of difficulty raising adequate funds for preservation and maintenance–the size of individual donations pledged by ultra-wealthy donors such as François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault served, for some, as painful instantiations of the gross economic inequality that characterizes the twenty-first century.

The best that I can do, for now, is leave you with this quote from T.J. Clark’s Heaven on Earth (2017):

There are aspects of the human imagination — the attempts that individuals and societies go on making to give overall shape to earthly existence, and have time take on a trajectory and destination; the effort to have pain and powerlessness be bearable, and to answer the question of whether the coherence and fullness of a life in common ought to be seen as an entirely human possibility or as the foreshadowing (the gift, the vision) of a world to come–whose main established metaphors look to be indelible, however often they are subjected to the fires of disbelief. […] The idea of heaven on earth, in particular — of a future close to us in which ‘former things are passed away’– will persist as long as the hellishness of the present demands it.

Perhaps it is all just magical thinking. I know in the thick of it all, when the fire could have gone one way or another, I promised to myself that if Notre Dame were to stand, if “la forêt” should be all that was sacrificed, I would return to the site myself. To see it with my own eyes. Call it what you will — faith, magical thinking, a misguided attempt to project my own desires onto the external world. In the moment it was the only thing I had.

Categories
Intellectual history

Leonardo’s Leicester Codex at the Uffizi Galleries: a review of “Water as Microscope of Nature”

By contributing editor Luna Sarti

This year several events will take place across the world to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. In Florence, where Leonardo lived and worked for several years, the Uffizi Galleries hosted the exhibition entitled “Water as Microscope of Nature”, which  focused on Leonardo’s multidisciplinary engagement with water. Organized by the Uffizi Galleries in collaboration with the Museo Galileo, this project was made possible thanks to the generosity of Bill and Melinda Gates, who loaned the Leicester Codex to the Uffizi Galleries, as well as to the financial support of the Fondazione CR Firenze and the Comitato Nazionale per le celebrazioni dei 500 anni dalla morte di Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo 1

Almost 400,000 people visited the exhibition and stared in amazement at Leonardo’s writings. Individual folios were displayed in vertical glass cases which allowed visitors to read the recto and verso sides of each page while moving through the dark, arched room.

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The exhibition room and two of the codescopes.

The curatorial team, guided by the director of the Galileo Museum, decided in fact to group folios according to topics while several codescopes were installed in the space to allow visitors to virtually flip through the pages of the Leicester Codex, thus reproducing the order in which the folios were bound together. Thanks to the codescopes, it was also possible to browse the codex and eventually visualize transcriptions of the text while getting information on some of the most significant issues addressed by Leonardo, particularly the physics of water movements, the structure of the Moon, and the history of the Earth.

As the exhibition title suggests, water intrigued Leonardo perhaps more than anything else. In his writings, he discusses its nature, its movements, and the difference between springs, rivers, seas, and rain. Defining the mechanisms connecting all these different phenomena became almost an obsessive thought for him. In order to deal with this complex system of problems, Leonardo meticulously recorded observations from experience and compared them with existing sets of knowledge, drawing on a variety of sources and devising experiments to verify hypotheses.

 

 

Leonardo’s experiments on water. Video available on the exhibition website.

Although Leonardo’s myth in popular discourse undoubtedly plays a role in attracting visitors to events of this kind, it is remarkable that the curator managed to orient such a vast audience toward the manuscript pages and other forms of “row documents”. A variety of texts, such as other manuscripts, incunabola, and maps were, in fact, on display as Leonardo’s possible sources, thus fostering the interest of the public toward the historical processes that inform not only knowledge formation but also its circulation and legacy. The inclusion of such documents as Leonardo’s sources contributes to dismantle conceptions such as that of geniality or the irrelevance of history for scientific engagement, while stressing the role of education and tradition in any process leading to new knowledge.

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Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (1458). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 82,4. Folio available on the exhibition website .

Certainly, some of the items that were on display also have an incredible aesthetic quality that captivated the audience and thus amplified the call for the significance of history that informed the exhibition. For example, among the manuscripts that were likely consulted by Leonardo for their relevance on the questions of the nature and physics of water were a 13th-century manuscript edition of Ristoro d’Arezzo’s La compositione del Mondo (The composition of the world) now conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Pliny’s Natural History, which belonged to the Medici Family and is now part of the collection of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. Remarkably, almost to reiterate the importance of access to sources and of history in the making of knowledge, all the materials that were part of the exhibition, including the curatorial narrative, are now available for public consultation on the official website.

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Ristoro d’Arezzo, La composizione del mondo con le sue cascioni (XIII century). Manuscript conserved in Florence at the Biblioteca Riccardiana, Ricc. 2164. Folio available on the Exhibition website.

Although some of the celebratory language and the Promethean tones informing the curatorial narrative might sound overwhelming for many science historians, this exhibition was particularly interesting for assessing the way in which the dualism art/science can still characterize public discourse around figures who would actually be functional to question such a divide. Leonardo is, in fact, a pivotal figure for any discussion on the relationship between artistic practice and scientific thought and can spark interesting considerations on the benefits of interdisciplinarity.

While walking through the exhibition and learning about Leonardo’s reflections, it becomes clear that much of the audience’s amazement stems from the variety of tools and languages on which Leonardo could draw to investigate problems of physics, mechanic engineering, and geology. Together with geometrical representations illustrating physical problems, the Codex also includes an “image bank” and several attempts to develop a lexicon for describing water.

Thus, much could be said on the curator’s decision to keep the two parts of Leonardo’s work separate, even if motivated by practical reasons, such as the absence of alarm systems in the space that was used for the temporary exhibition. Leonardo’s paintings, although referenced, were not in fact part of the exhibition which instead focused on documents, particularly manuscripts and maps, to position the viewer within that part of Leonardo’s work which is considered “scientific”. Unfortunately, the choice of material presented as well as the title seems to suggest the persistence of the dualism science/humanities when considering historical processes of knowledge making. On the contrary, Leonardo’s engagement with tradition, his open mindedness when combining historical research, field-work, and different languages for the investigation of problems, could have been easily presented as a model-story advocating for thinking across disciplines.

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Leonardo da Vinci, Leicester Codex (1501-1508). Folio 7v and 30r. Available on the exhibition website.

Hopefully, this beautiful show will be of inspiration for more exhibitions that are able to work across the division between art and science when presenting historical process of knowledge formation to the public. With this in mind, we look forward to the upcoming exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion” in London at the British Library this summer.

Water as Microscope of Nature” was on view at the Gallerie degli Uffizi  in Florence, Italy from October 30, 2018 to January 20, 2019. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful catalogue (available in Italian or English).

Categories
Think Piece

MoMA from Modernity into the Post Modern

By guest contributor Edward Maza

In a 1953 letter, Alfred H. Barr Jr.—the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—wrote: “in our civilization with what seems to be a general decline in religious, ethical, and moral convictions, art may well have increasing importance quite outside of aesthetic enjoyment” (204). Per Barr’s logic, MoMA’s founding marked more than an effort to build a new home for western art in Manhattan; it was an explicit attempt to reframe art as the moral and ethical source of knowledge in a secularizing world. It was, in other words, a stand-in for biblical religion.

In fact, nearly half a century before the founding of the museum, God had died in the minds of many thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, proclaimed: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (trans. Walter Kaufmann, 181). Nietzsche lamented the loss of God as the loss of societal and individual values. Life, the philosopher observed, had no significance, no “comfort,” in a world without a priori meaning. Furthermore, the Bible had long informed a shared human experience with “roots in a continuum of tradition”—and yet, in a godless world, there ceased to be a unifying cosmic entity (Nochlin 41).

The void that God’s death created had unique resonance in the United States. As Linda Nochlin notes, there was “a sense of alienation from history as a shared past—an alienation central to the Americans’ experiencing their own condition as a purely contemporary one, without roots in a continuum of tradition” (136). In 1929, when MoMA was founded, the United States had only a century and half of shared history. In the interwar years, the US was not yet the global superpower it would become after the Second World War. The modern era was marked by a need to create a shared narrative of history and values to inform the future of the nation (Nochlin 136). The Museum of Modern Art, I contend, was an institution born of modern necessity—designed to provide a structure of shared value and meaning to undo the newfound alienation in the godless future.

The question posed by Nietzsche’s observed deicide remained contested throughout the early twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre centered the human subject as the source of meaning. In the modern era, Sartre argues, the individual subject is thrown into a godless world and is forced to forge a meaningful relationship with the world for himself. Sartre explains that “before the projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be” (quoted in Kaufmann349). There is no divine mandate that inherently imbues life with meaning and structure. Man exists innately without purpose and must actively create meaning in the world for himself through relation with the world around him. At MoMA the individual is forced to forge a meaningful existence for themselves in relation to the works of art on display. Objects are spaced apart from one another highlighting their individual importance while allowing the viewer sufficient space to view a single work of art. The works are then hung on unadorned white walls so nothing distracts the viewer from the object on display. The artworks provide a guide for the individual to develop themselves as a locus of moral thought. In an attempt to fill the void left by God’s absence in the world MoMA centered the artist as the subject of worship, assembling a pantheon of artists arranged by the curator-priests of the museum in the hallowed halls of the building on 53rdStreet.

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Figure 2. Photograph by Beaumont Newhall, Installation view of the exhibition, “Cubism and Abstract Art,”(including an African sculpture and works by Picasso, Rousseau, and Seurat), March 2, 1936–April 19, 1936. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN46.21.
One of the museum’s early exhibitions Cubism and Abstract Art serves as a clear example of the curatorial style established at MoMA. Paintings are hung on clean white walls, spaced apart from one another, and in a linear fashion drawing a clear teleology from Rousseau, and Seurat to Picasso. This image also demonstrates how Barr cast African art a “primitive” artform whose relevance is tied to its influence on Western painters.

When Barr asserted that MoMA would be the definitive arbiter of artistic quality in the modern age, he constructed an art historical future in which he hoped the museum would remain focal. As the museum’s director, Barr strove to be the omnipotent force determining that history.  In Barr’s 1933 “Report on the Permanent Collection,” he reveals his teleological understanding of art history in a description of the guiding principles of the museum’s acquisitions. “The permanent collection may be thought of graphically as a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of fifty to a hundred years ago” (MoMA archives, Barr Papers II.C.17). Barr even included an image of his torpedo metaphor, anchoring the collection in the works of Ingres, Goya, Constable, Delacroix, and Turner, with supplemental influence from the general categories of “non-European prototypes and sources” and “European prototypes and sources” (Fig 1).

This diagram refers to one of the early instantiations of the theological ramifications of MoMA’s organization and collecting practices. In 1889, Henri Bergson penned his paradigm-shifting essay, “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness,” which serves as an intellectual antecedent to the torpedo model developed by Barr. In his essay, Bergson outlined the implications of teleological readings of history for the present and for free will. In Barr’s sketch of the arc of art history, the “ever advancing present” is a direct result of the “ever receding past.” The present art scene is an inevitable fruition of the formalist innovations of the past vanguard. In his diagrammed comparison, Barr converts the passage of time into a material, spatial form: the torpedo. Bergson warned that “time, conceived under the form of a homogenous medium [space], is some spurious concept, due to the trespassing of the idea of space upon the field of pure consciousness” (98).

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Barr’s Torpedo

The transformation of time into measurable space, as Barr suggests doing to organize modern art, limits the individual’s ability to make free choices, as it makes the past the basis for the future. In Barr’s organization, artistic innovation must flow linearly from the past into the present. Once an idea has been around long enough to be absorbed into the present, it is done away with as it passes through the tail of the torpedo. Bergson insists that “we could not introduce order among terms without first distinguishing them and then comparing the places they occupy; hence we must perceive them as multiple, simultaneous, and distinct; in a word, we must set order in what is successive, the reason is that order is converted into simultaneity and is projected onto space” (102). By claiming that converting time into space allows one to “project time onto space,” Bergson is arguing that this space-time can be projected onto the future, nullifying the possibility for free choice. Time, when measured in space, is predetermined.

By converting the temporal history of modern art into a spatial organization, Barr limits the possibilities of future production through the canonization of present artists. The only artists acceptable in the torpedo model are those that can find their roots in the tails of the torpedo. As time (and art history) progress, the artists who are presently the nose of the torpedo will eventually become the tail, and new artists must root their practice in the works of those sanctioned by Barr and MoMA more broadly. All future relevant “modern art” must find its roots in the works that Barr and MoMA have validated as foundational to future production. The Museum of Modern Art, led by Barr, then controls the future of modern art, predetermining what forms of art will be accepted into the canon and which will be rejected because they cannot find grounding in MoMA’s torpedo. This model is designed to outlive Barr. By rooting the development in a canon, the torpedo model insures that all future “quality” art must forever be rooted in the canon as conceived by MoMA institutionally.

In the post-modern world, the seemingly solid framework of the Museum of Modern Art begins to melt into air. Alfred Barr attempted to use the torpedo as a closed system to describe the entirety of modern artistic production. The torpedo held modern art together as a unified system to overcome the modern preoccupation with alienation in the face of the death of God. But as Derrida notes:

If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ”out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself. The notion of the engineer who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down (trans. Alan Bass, 258).

Barr positions himself as the engineer of modern art; claiming to establish the truths of the discourse. Barr uses the teleology from the torpedo to construct a narrative of modern art that claims to be a closed, all encompassing, system. As the museum leaves the modern era of systemic discourse into the open systems of post-modernity, its authority imbued by Barr begins to waver. No longer can the museum claim to be the authority on the closed system of modern art, as said system begins to fall apart. As the world of contemporary art expands beyond the articulated confines of the western tradition and breaks free from (and expands beyond) its western roots, it can no longer be contained by Barr’s modernist model of artistic development: “Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible” (Derrida 289).

In the global age, art is the ultimate form of play. It takes signs of the past and alters them to have new and expanded meaning in the present with disregard for their historical meanings. Signs and their signified meanings are loosely related to one another, constantly and unpredictably changing with the progression of dissociated time.

Edward Maza is a master’s student at Oxford in the department of Theology and Religion. His academic work focuses on the intersection of religion and art history with a particular focus on the Hebrew Bible in modern art.

Categories
Intellectual history

An Afternoon with Bodys Isek Kingelez at MoMA

All photographs by Enrique Ramirez, click to enlarge + read captions

By guest contributor Enrique Ramirez

There was a moment upon entering Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, currently at MoMA until January 1, 2019, when I felt as if I had left something behind. It was momentary, as if a pulse of light blinded me and I needed a second to reorient, to re-adapt. The first thing I abandoned was any assumption about what an exhibition does or how it should be organized. There, by the entrance, was the wall text, predictably serviceable, telling me of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the Congolese artist, arriving on the art world scene in 1989 with his models, impeccably-designed constructions that oscillated between architecture and sculpture and bore the not-humble name “extrêmes maquettes” or “extreme models.” And below this text, something else: a link to a Spotify playlist. It was nothing like I had encountered before, for when I see people wandering through a museum with headphones, I assume that they are listening to the audio commentary to an exhibition, not music. My memory of the wall text description of the playlist may be fuzzy, but a quick glance at my phone reveals that it features West African pop music from the 60s onwards—a roster of musicians such as Les Bantous de la Capitale, Pepe Ndombe, Youlou Mabiala, and Papa Wembe—all comprising a sonic environment for Kingelez’s creativity. It is an apposite connection. One the one hand, the playlist strove for a kind of a kind of range matched only by the exhibition, the first ever comprehensive showing of Kingelez’s work. One the other hand, its breadth matched the works on display, also bursting with something like the upbeat polyrhythms, guitar acrobatics, and shimmering harmonies that characterize Afropop music. The models on display are not just an assortment of buildings and cities made of materials like cardboard food wrappers and bottle caps. If, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once quipped, “architecture is frozen music,” then these “extreme models” are not just physical embodiments of Afropop sounds and rhythms. Kingelez, who died of cancer in 2015, has instead left us with something that is uniquely his: a magpie geography born of a life marked by a singular, fertile, and generous imagination, one whose contours, conurbations, terrains, and buildings created a world that was at the same time universal and yet unmistakably personal.

I too would like to think that this is an essay about the universal and the personal. It is, ostensibly, an essay about Kingelez, about his show at MoMA, which you should see. Yet this essay is cloaked, maybe nestled momentarily, in the folds of another essay, one about things that you may give up or lose when entering a museum. It may veer between the two, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and as reader, you may experience a bit of disorientation. Did he just say that? Why is he talking about that now? As an incentive for you to keep on reading, I offer you this: it has a bittersweet ending. Now, about those things you may lose or give up. If it is winter, you may check in your coat, scarf, and gloves. If your bag is too big, you may have to check that in too, although you can probably get away by holding it close to your torso. A blockbuster show means that you will wait in line, and if you go to MoMA on a Friday afternoon, admission is free, so be prepared to wait in line then as well, which means that you will give up time. The crowds may be large, and this requires you to give up (or at least alter) your own idea of personal space. You may be looking at, say, a large Barnett Newman triptych and want to capture it with your phone. You back up so as to accommodate it within your phone’s limited picture frame and bump into someone behind you. Or, as is almost always the case, you wait for that moment when the space between you and the painting is empty. And as you tap on your phone’s screen to make sure that you are actually focusing on that Newman or that Bell-47D1 helicopter dangling precariously over the escalators, someone walks in front of you and becomes an unwilling study in what was supposed to be a quick but at least thoughtful document of your trip to this museum, on this day, at this very time. And sometimes you give up and surrender and let these people wander into your frame. You may even fancy yourself as some kind of cut-rate Thomas Struth documenting the life of a museum on that very day, that very time.

I did this last year. In one, I captured a young man and a woman shortly after an embrace in front of that very Barnett Newman. As soon as their embrace ended, the man took on a studied pose, arms crossed, one foot in front of the other, examining the painting. As for the woman, she retreated to her cell phone. And in my photograph, I just happened to frame her in the center panel of Newman’s triptych. In another, a man and woman hold each other as they peer through the large floor-height window into the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture garden. There is a thin strip of alloy that separates them from the window, so at least from my vantage point, they appear as if they are preventing each other from leaping into that void, into that garden. Later, when I was down in the sculpture garden, I spied two women and man sitting and laughing. They appeared to be comparing photographs taken on their phones. They were also speaking in French. In retrospect, I think these images did more than just capture people during unguarded moments. Perhaps they were a document of my own longing. It was an unseasonably hot September afternoon. I was far from home and wanting to unburden myself of the various bags I took with me from the airport. I gave up my carry-on at the coat check at the entrance on West 53rd street, but I think I gave up my heart as well. I may have been in love. It is hard to be objective about museums, after all.

It is also hard to be objective about Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams. I had to give up my own pretensions as an architectural historian and engage Kingelez on his own terms. This is not to say, however, that I was not finding some kind of lifeline in my academic training. Architectural history is teeming with examples of cities summoned as if from mid air, of audacious plans and bold schemes, surprising glimpses at futures never realized. “Somewhere I have never travelled,” wrote e.e. cummings, words that come close to that sense of slackjawed incredulity when encountering, say, the glinting peaks and faceted surfaces of Bruno Taut’s crystalline Alpine Architecture, the relentless field of cruciform towers obliterating Paris in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Radieuse, the pastoral functionalism of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even the machine-like infrastructures and ziggurat terminals of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. These schemes point to something that momentarily sets the realm of architectural history apart from other disciplines, for ours is a field that does enliven the power of the counterfactual as a tool for writing history; which is to say that we look to the unbuilt and fantastical as a way to gauge a particular designer’s engagement with the world.

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Placing City Dreams in such company seems apposite, for Kingelez’s models of buildings and cities can be thought of a larger scheme, one where the artist envisioned a world coming to terms with itself after independence from European colonial powers. As whimsical as these buildings may seem, they are, to repeat that old saw from architectural modernism, functional. They “work.” In City Dreams we see schools, hospitals, stadiums, restaurants, airports, train stations—evidence of a world organized for the sake of a real, growing, and vibrant population. Yet these expressive forms will resonate with contemporary architectural audiences as well for the exact opposite reason, for they seem to refer to themselves and themselves only. Take a glance at projects coming out of well-heeled architectural programs and you too will see something similar. Building facades and site plans in high-saturated pastels; an emphasis on surface effects; a general aesthetic that privileges the hard edge of a cartoon or the communicative imprimatur of a supergraphic: this is architecture that appears to suspend everything in favor of a kind of ecstatic imageability. Now this seems appropriate for our current time, one where Instagram becomes the primary conduit for ideas about architecture. And in those instances where I try to be the dutiful architectural historian and critic, a set of instincts fall into a kind of reflexive lockstep and I find myself accessing Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Charles Jencks, and especially Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, names we associate with polemical statements about the image-ability of architecture, a symptom of a condition that we diagnose using the woefully inappropriate yet established term Postmodernism. Call it a surrender, one where architecture culture has finally admitted a complete yielding to an ecology of images. But has not this always been the case? Is it better to say that architecture culture has reached what the late philosopher Vilém Flusser observed as the “dominance of technical images” over text in our world?

Odd how the first things that came to mind when encountering Kingelez were not buildings, but novels. Words. I thought of Jean d’Ormesson, whose 1971 novel, The Glory of the Empire, is not just an imaginary account of a lost world, but one that comes with its own fabrications, everything from imaginary sources to fake footnotes and make-believe indices. “It is not history that makes the historian,” wrote d’Ormesson, “but the reverse, and no historian does anything but give birth to his own universe.” How appropriate. Consider Jan Morris’s Last Letters from Hav, a travel narrative inside a fictional land. In both instances, the novel becomes a kind of mirror reflecting each author’s inner worlds, here cast not just as literary references but also as landscapes, cities, and buildings. The history of D’Ormesson’s Empire features very real references to very real Arnold Toynbee, Michel Foucault, Claude-Lévi Strauss, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And the two monumental buildings in his Empire (painted in fake architectural splendor by Monsu Desiderio, an actual pseudonym given to a group of 17th century Neapolitan artists) were “considered the masterpieces of architecture by Bramante, the three Sangalli, Vasari, Palladio, Ledoux, Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier.” As for Morris, her vision of New Hav features a “less inspired” work by Le Corbusier and an electrical grid by Peter Behrens.

Thoughts of Afrofuturisms were inescapable as well. Mark Dery coined the term in 1993 to describe a body of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and address African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and prosthetically enhanced future.” As with any field, scholars and authors have been mapping Afrofutrisms’s origins and effects from the past and into the future, creating a divergent body of literature that covers everything from slave narratives, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Sun-Ra’s Space Is The Place, as well as the N.K. Jemison’s environmentally-themed science fiction novels. More recently, novelist Deji Bryce Olukuton imagined a solar catastrophe decimating infrastructures in the developed world and leaving the Nigerian space program the only organization capable of rescuing a stranded cosmonaut. The spacecraft to be launched from Abuja first appears as a bronze sculpture, which Olukton describes as “festooned with black-painted ziggurats and Gelede masks peering into new realms of time, the cultural heritage of Nigeria forged into a colossal sculptural vision of the future.”

This all speaks of this inchoate idea called “utopia”, one that seems to be on the lips and fingers of many a critic who distill Kingelez’s work into a kind of coherent project. Even the exhibition’s title conjures it, this notion of a dream city, this alternative to the present. Is it possible, then, that we do this work a disservice by labeling it as a “utopia”? For what are we thinking of when we conjure alternative schemes in distant futures, of realms and environments that are supposed to provide a balm of sorts for what ails us? I think of the late Denis Johnson, who wrote in Jesus’ Son, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Utopia is for people like us, a vessel for our thoughts and aspirations, and perhaps just that. It is a dead letter sent forward in time, never addressed, and never to be returned.

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I wonder about other things left and given up at museums, never to be returned. I can come with lists of things I have forgotten at galleries and exhibitions: tote bags, headphones, my wallet, lunch. But there is something else, something fleeting that may gnaw at you the way it does at me. You realize that you left it when you recognize it as forgotten—which is a roundabout way of saying that you have actually remembered it. There are names and terms for this, yet these words fail to give it adequate contours and volumes. Something neither perceptible nor detectable persists and lingers about. Perhaps it is a feeling. Perhaps it is closer to synesthesia, the “colored hearing” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about in Speak, Memory, when “the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.” Is this feeling one where your sense of space is mapped out in time? I can make it from one corner to the room in twelve heartbeats … Eight have passed, you may think to yourself. I do sometimes. I also think of Svetlana Boym, who described nostalgia as an operation that “charts space in time and time and space,” which sounds as if she was reading the craggy peaks and irregular valleys of an electroencephalogram chart with the eye of a person reading tea leaves—which is to say with an affinity for patterns and coincidences. And perhaps that is what happens when you enter a museum, for instead of patterns and coincidences, that itch you feel is not so much a longing as it is a recognition that you have found something you did not know was lost and is now being returned to you.

These are the things returned to me as I write, fragments of a visit to Kingelez’s work at MoMA: a wall text; a brief explanation of the artist and his work; episodes of a life spent in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and then Kinshasa; Kingelez the school teacher turning his life to scissors, blades, and glue; models of buildings and cities constructed of cardboard, soda and beer cans; turquoise, magenta, palettes for a technicolor fantasy; imaginary places with French names, Réveillon Fédéral, Étoile Rouge, Aeromode; Magiciens de la Terre, a 1989 show at the Centre Pompidou, the first ever to feature his work; of worlds as cities, worlds as infrastructure; papier maché oceans; a box of “Special”, a toothpaste brand from elsewhere; buildings shaped like gossamer-winged butterflies, an accordion’s bellows, a shoe polisher, a shark’s fin (or an upturned fang); the Ville fântome, a city where citizens move between different zones along a “bridge of death”; Stade Kingelez, a soccer stadium; fields of greenery with scalloped edges; a container of Smint and a box of Bic ballpoints; a silhouette of a country priest, shushing, an image I remember as a squadron insignia from one of the World Wars, now pasted on the facade of one of Kingelez’s models; a woman standing on her toes in the corner holding her phone in the air, trying to capture the contents of the exhibit in one take; an elderly man squatting at eye level with one of the models, as if trying to have a conversation with it; security guards checking their email; buildings named after countries; the United Nations building reimagined as a giant conch shell; chatter hanging in the air above; an agricultural village transformed into skyscrapers; a city in the 31st century comprised of real and imaginary buildings from the 20th and 21st; a line for a pair of VR goggles at the end of the exhibit; that Kingelez was born in 1948; that he studied economics; that he died of cancer in 2015. It continues …

… and it all begs an important question, perhaps the one central to this essay: what do we recognize as lost when we enter a museum, when we encounter an exhibition like City Dreams, when we find ourselves in the midst of something so different, so thrilling? One thing we lose is a sense of space and time. Not “our” sense, but “a” sense of space and time, and by this I mean the space and time of Kingelez and his work. Any attempt to express what was going on in Kingelez’s inner and outer worlds is just that—an attempt. My ability to locate his work in space and time is born of the habits and practices I learned while studying and writing about architectural history, and one of these is telepresence. I can write, for example, that while Kingelez viewed his works as evidence of his stature as a “small god”, that his vibrant designs showed an initial affection for Mobuto Sese Seko Kutu’s doctrine of authenticité. I can write that he named one of his earliest sculptures after the day that Mobutu became President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (soon to be renamed Zaire). I know these things as facts culled from what others before me have written. Texts are my modes of transport, my conveyances to a space and time that will be forever unknown to me. An exhibition, then, only amplifies a similar sense of spatial and temporal dislocation—an eternal removal, so to speak. The only difference is that the “extreme models” on display, dutiful arranged by teams of curators, conservators, and exhibition designers, are “messages from a lost past,” as T.J. Clark once put it. They are emissaries from a world we will never be able to access.

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Ville de Sète 3009 is one of the very last objects you will encounter. Completed while in residence at the Musée International des Arts Modestes in Southern France in 2000, it was one of Kingelez’s last large-scale works. It shares many of the characteristics of his earlier “extreme models.” There is, for instance, the same color palette, the same vivid ultramarines and oversaturated carmines. The buildings here are versions of the ones he likely saw while in residence there. Yet something else is happening here, for these buildings, on another glance, begin to look familiar. One, for instance, repeats butterfly- and sail-like shapes from earlier works. Another is comprised of two cylinders, and when viewed in plan, looks like a figure eight. Like his other cities, Ville de Sète 3009 is also surrounded by a moat. Rooftops appear to be connected by aerial walkways. There is also a more decided emphasis on pure geometries. And if you take a closer look, some of the buildings begin to look familiar. One is an echo of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. Another appears like a version of the Empire State Building, taller, narrower, conjured from transparent yellow plexiglas. There are even smaller, ziggurat-like structures that appear to reference Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin’s unbuilt Maison à gradins from 1914. These are signs that Kingelez is folding utopias into his own immediate world.

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Ville de Sète 3009 (2000): One of Kingelez’s most ambitious sculptures representing an inventory of all the forms used in his prior works.

There are three ways to view this model. There nothing unusual about the first, for it is really the way everyone views larger-scale works or sculptures in a gallery. You approach one of Kingelez’s model and then you bend down to take a photograph, keeping yourself at eye-level. And when you stand up, you now see Ville de Sète 3009 from above, which means that yours is the bird’s-eye view, le regard surplombant, a vantage point affording you a glimpse at the world, a planner or an architect’s totalizing eye, the purview of modernity. The second is unusual because it requires you to look at the ceiling, something you almost would never do in one of MoMA’s galleries. Mounted directly above Ville de Sète 3009 is a large mirror that reflects the image of the city back at you. I imagine that this may be the point of view of an astronaut falling head first, coming down to Earth and peering up into Sète moments before splashing into the water, and like Bruegel’s Icarus, feet barely peering above the whitecaps. Or, is this peering at something on the ceiling a substitute for the artist’s point of view? And then there is the third, which requires you to wait in line for a pair of VR goggles and fly through a three-dimensional rendering of Ville de Sète 3009. In that virtual space, Sète becomes an image of an image of a city. Kingelez’s city has transformed from a cardboard city to a digitized realm rendered from protocols, software, grids, ones, zeroes, machine languages, and mouse clicks.

To fly in this version of Kingelez’s Sète is thrilling. I even felt a bit of momentary dislocation and an acute, yet fleeting, motion sickness that made me giddy. These were symptoms of my own recursion, flying in a digitized version of a city that existed in Kingelez’s world. And I thought of another recursion. Specifically, it was a passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, a description of a balloon flight over Cartagena de Indias. And though I have read that novel several times, I remember the passage because it was blockquoted in a review written by Thomas Pynchon in 1988. In that piece, which I still think is one of the most astounding pieces of writing one can read, Pynchon declares that Garcia Márquez did nothing short of creating art, and that art like Love in the Time of Cholera gives us something we only realize we wanted when faced with it. Pynchon uses a beautiful term for this: “works that can even return our worn souls to us.” And perhaps that is what happened on that October afternoon. I gave myself to Kingelez’s world, and my own worn soul was given back to me.


“Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY) through January 1, 2019.

Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. You can follow him on Instagram at @riqueramirez