Science, Civics and the Arts reunited
Biked around town and caught a few exhibitions. The Alternative View of the Universe show was still on at the Hayward Gallery, so as a lover of work by “outsiders” I felt obligated to go. A group of us biked along the canal (crowded, as it was a bank holiday) and made a brief detour to have a look at Shoreditch Town Hall for a future project. Gorgeous.
This building houses the community town hall, and when it was built in 1866 and expanded in 1902, the local burghers felt that using the building solely for civic and administrative purposes wasn’t very welcoming, so they turned the assembly hall into a music hall. They felt that this would make the town hall a center not just for local administrative duties but a place where the community could gather to have a good time. Can you imagine if music venues were incorporated into our municipal government offices? Add a music hall to the Capitol building in DC or a little club onto Gracie Mansion in NY!
In keeping with the progressive attitude of this borough, the government provided electricity to the area and adopted a motto, “More Light, More Power.” They burned the local garbage, which then provided steam for the generators that were used to provide electricity throughout the borough. The excess heat was then used to heat the local public baths. The Electric Light Station had a motto too—it was, “Out of Dust, Light and Power.”
It’s one of the last surviving halls of its kind in London—a number of them were either bombed in the Second World War or destroyed by developers afterwards.
The Hayward show, Alternative Guide to the Universe, though a rather grand title, is a fairly accurate description of the contents of this show. Most of the work is by what are commonly called “outsider” artists (as well as some fringe physicists it says) who lean towards depictions of alternate universes, imaginative geographies and somewhat fantastic architecture. The Museum of Everything, a relatively new and mobile institution based in London, helped out.
The show took over the entire museum and was a little overwhelming, as one often had to read explanatory cards to understand a little more about what the drawings and paintings were attempting to portray. As a result, one had to allow oneself to absorb a myriad of worldviews—quite a mental workout.
A lot of the works are concerned with finding patterns in the world around us—often finding them where none were thought to exist previously. Here are a couple of pieces by George Widener, who is fascinated by number and date congruencies— not a strange attraction for someone with autism (Widener is considered an autistic savant himself), one might think. Widener’s work brings both the fantastical and mathematical aspects of this exhibition together. There are imaginary cities, as well as chart-like drawings highlighting connections between specific dates and numbers.
An artistic collective in Brooklyn that goes by the name Romanov Grave curated an exhibition of material similar to this recently—they mixed work by accepted fine artists and “outsiders,” all of whom make obsessive diagrams, charts and patterns with the aim of analyzing some aspect of the universe.
Most of the works in the show have a practical purpose—they are tools of a sort, aiming to explicate, propose a hidden order or, in the case of Guo Fengyi’s drawings (one is pictured below), they aim to heal. Like Buddhist mandalas and tantric art, these pieces are meant to restore both a mental and physical balance in the viewer, and in Fengyi’s case, these paintings and drawings are meant for specific viewers or clients— they are like doctors prescriptions, each one made for a specific patient.
One of my favorites was a whole room devoted to the mega cities drawings of Marcel Storr, a Paris street-sweeper who died in 1976. He too regarded his drawings as practical, not fantastical. They were intended to serve as inspiration for how Paris should be rebuilt after the inevitable nuclear war.
They’re not that different from architectural renderer Hugh Ferris’ imaginings of future cities that he proposed and drew in the 1920s.
These were created around the same time as the drawings for Le Corbusier’s imaginary metropolis, Radiant City—a forerunner of the large housing project schemes that took place during the 1960s. General Motors, then the largest corporation in the world, proposed similar renderings in their extravagant and spectacular Futurama World’s Fair exhibits in both 1939 and 1964.
These dioramas served a practical purpose too—they allowed the public to visualize a future completely dominated by tall buildings and the automobile. General Motors was giving us a taste of an exciting (and somewhat inhuman) future—and they were of course the ones with the resources and influence to serve it up.
BTW—I’ve ranted about all this before in my bicycle book, but these imaginings by beautiful “lunatics” made me think of it again.
What makes (or made) General Motors, Le Corbusier and Ferris’ “visions” acceptable—something we take or took seriously—while Storr and many others’ drawings are viewed as mere daydreaming or pure fantasy? Both were meant to achieve concrete ends—ends that were, as it turns out, not so different from one another. Could one say—as I would propose—that General Motors and Hugh Ferris were instigators of a kind of mass insanity, a populist fantasy, a meme that the whole country, if not much of the world, is still in thrall too?
Here is the work of a wonderful artist and designer, Bodys Isek Kingelez—a maker of imaginary model cities and structures who hails from Kinshasa.
Again, it’s not really all that different from GM and Corbusier’s vision, though Kingelez’s work is a hell of a lot more fun and colorful than GM’s. And he didn’t require the American people to bail him out. In his case, as distant as he might have been from the modernists, I suspect the long reach of the GM meme was active, as well as that of science fiction illustrators since all of that had reached Africa decades previously. No place was immune. The solitary visionaries and crazies and the corporate marketing folks and powerful architects arrived at the exact same place.
I love Kinglelz’s wacky buildings. I suspect that there’s a male attraction towards drawing and building artificial cities and structures. I was a secret megalomaniac as an adolescent—I too imagined floating cities and a world of towers, flying cars and all the rest. My favorite comic as a child was Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future (a serial comic that was part of the British Eagle comic weekly).
Nowadays I resent that GM got their way and wrecked our cities by partially realizing these fantasies that we all shared. I feel that too many of our cities have been sacrificed to the car, with wide multilane boulevards for streets and every part of the city slashed by giant highways running between soaring towers. Why don’t I resent that these lone visionary artists espouse the same kinds of designs? Is it solely because they don’t have the power to enforce their imaginings?
This show taps into the desire to both find order in the universe and to try to fit ones own order and aesthetics into the world around us. It’s partly charming because sometimes the attempts seem so preposterous and miles off base—or so it might seem to us at first. But the urge to find order in the universe isn’t limited to outsiders—what we call science has the same end in view. Tell me that string theory, economic modeling or mathematical topographical theory aren’t just as far fetched. Below is an example of accepted science. (Though every particle physicist might not buy into string theory, they don’t label the proponents as artists or lunatics.)
You honestly can’t tell them apart. So, does science imitate art, or is science in fact an art—masquerading as legitimate theory and research? Or, as I might prefer, is there really no difference? (Obviously by “art” here, we’re not talking about the international art industry—a global business that makes baubles for the super rich—but rather folks who are driven to express themselves visually.) Aren’t all attempts to order the universe a bit preposterous and fantastic? Is there really no difference between the arts, the humanities, and the certain branches of science?
As an adolescent I thought that both were tools to open your mind and heart up via the routes and techniques available to each medium and practice (ugh did I just use that word?). Maybe, I’m thinking, they shouldn’t be as segregated as they have come to be—it wasn’t always that way. It was only a few hundred years ago that a wall was erected between the two. Maybe it’s time to tear it back down? To allow beauty and wonder into science and to admit that world into the arts.
A fiend of a friend recommended a show called Saints Alive at the National Gallery. It’s by an artist named Michael Landy whose most famous piece was when he catalogued all his possessions and then destroyed them. Talk about remaking the universe!
This time he made some mechanical contraptions that emulate the self-abusive behavior of many Catholic saints. Saint Apollonia, for example, was famous for having pulled her own teeth out with a pair of pliers. That this kind of behavior should be celebrated is a possible cause for concern, but it gets worse. Apollonia is usually depicted holding said pliers.
In Landy’s version, the statues are animated: you step on a floor pedal and her arm, connected by primitive wheels and gears (and holding the pliers), suddenly lurches up to her mouth. Normal statues and paintings of saints often hold their instruments of abuse like identifying badges, but in these versions, we get to see the abuse in action.
I jumped back and laughed out loud at the same time.
Here is Saint Lucy—she’s not depicted in this show but her stories are nice and gory.
She was imprisoned and under orders to move, but her jailers couldn’t manage to lift her. They then tried to burn her, but she wouldn’t burn either.
In another version of the Lucy story she is a virgin, promised to God and Jesus, but she had a suitor who admired her beautiful eyes. Offended by the idea that her beauty could be a kind of distraction from the divine, she gouged out her eyes and presented them to him. How, as depicted in this statue, she can have eyes in both her head and on the plate is truly a miracle. Never mind.
The moral of the tale seems to be, make yourself ugly if you have to, and abhor all physical beauty in the world. All is samsara and maya, all is illusion, after all—and through this denial you will be one step closer to God. When sainted they instantly become a conduit to God, an intermediary, a cosmic spiritual Internet on-ramp.
Should Lucy’s literal interpretation of this questionable philosophy of self-abuse be celebrated and worthy of sainthood—is that really an example one wants to set for children?
As Landy points out, the saints and their stories of abnegation and persecution have gone out of favor in much of the Catholic Universe—so how does one get on the spiritual Internet now?