Monday, April 30, 2007

Magical Thinking

Warning: philosophizing ahead

One of the things I find most exciting about the 1600s and early 1700s was the lack of understanding about what science is supposed to be, at least in the modern sense. So many things hadn't been worked out yet; the world was taxonomically flexible, cosmologically open-ended; there were whole societies of people trying all kinds of strange experiments to find out how it worked. The "scientific process" was tipped on its end: you tried a lot of stuff and then made a theory based on the results. This made for some really interesting theories, such as the idea that when something died, maggots were (magically) born of the stuff that had once been living tissue. Or that frogs were created out of damp conditions. Or that being bitten by a tarantula meant a lifelong need to dance once a month.

The era was one of discovery: people were traveling the world as they had never done before, and tales and odd artifacts were coming back from so many strange and exotic places. Wunderkammern were an expression of this fascination with the exotic and the unexplored. People collected things, out of interest and to be fashionable, and arranged them in personal taxonomies based on perceived or desired groupings. It was out of these collections that modern museums were born, with their scientific taxonomy: a parallel evolution - alchemy to science and wunderkammer to museum.

I'm reading Quicksilver right now, part of Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and it captures perfectly the sort of observation and experimentation that people like Isaac Newton were doing (and the thrashing around that lesser minds were doing in the name of discovery). Best of all it describes the complete open-mindedness of these people as they struggle to organize the Universe: Newton speaks of trying to see the order that God put into things, and the emphasis is on the beauty of Creation. I think we've lost a lot of that open-mindedness, that joy in the beauty of Creation (whatever version of it you like, it is as beautiful and complex as ever), as science has begun to believe itself more and more. Everything is worked out (except higher physics, which the average person simply can't follow), there is nothing left to discover. We are, in the postmodern sense, pushed back onto endlessly repeating ourselves.

Wouldn't it be nice to discover something new, something that changed the world as we know it, and discover we were completely wrong about everything? I think the present love of alternate realities is a human wish for the unknown to be, once again, unknown; for the Universe to stop being so infernally well-thought-out. Perhaps infernal is the perfect word; perhaps, after all, we are living in a species of Hell. From science to advertisers, they are every where, these people who want to tell us what is so. The more we know about things, the smaller our Universe gets. The only people allowed by present-day science to make new discoveries are experts in very narrow fields.

When I was a kid, I used to read the Oz books - over and over. My favorite one was Ozma of Oz, not so much because the story was so great (let's face it, the Oz books all have rather odd, meandering plots), but because there were all these amazing little details that led off in other directions - things that hinted at the other stuff happening offstage, either in history or in other parts of the strange world you were occupying momentarily. L. Frank Baum was brilliant at coming up with whole strings of wonderful ideas that captured children's imaginations, and it really didn't matter whether his books were exciting or the characters compelling: they were stimulating to the imagination. They gave kids these great, juicy hooks to hang their fantasies on. Because they were outside the box of the story, they helped you to get outside the box with your pretend-time.

To someone who writes fiction, it is interesting to look at the continuing popularity of the Oz books. What is it about these pretty weird stories which, as adults, we find less appealing? I would be willing to say it is their very hairiness, the way all those exciting loose ends stick out, all those details which don't need to be there but have been stuck in anyway and which capture us (if we're children). Children love to revisit things, worry at them, figure them out (much like the Natural Philosophers in the 1600s). I spent a lot of time thinking about that stovepipe coming out of the moon in the picture above. The story of Mr. Tinker, while extraneous to the plot, was terribly compelling to me:

"Mis-ter Tin-ker," continued Tiktok, "made a lad-der so tall that he could rest the end of it a-gainst the moon, while he stood on the high-est rung and picked the lit-tle stars to set in the points of the king's crown. But when he got to the moon Mis-ter Tin-ker found it such a love-ly place that he de-cid-ed to live there, so he pulled up the lad-der after him and we have nev-er seen him since."

Speaking of which, what about Tiktok, one of the first robots? In 1907, L. Frank Baum is imagining a clockwork man, with clockwork speech, a clockwork brain, and clockwork body - all wound separately, mind you - who is unswervingly faithful and honest, and because he is a machine he has no emotions. Hmm.

And who on earth could get excited about genetic engineering after being weaned to the concept of a lunchbox tree? Check this out:

The little girl stood on tip-toe and picked one of the nicest and biggest lunch-boxes, and then she sat down upon the ground and eagerly opened it. Inside she found, nicely wrapped in white papers, a ham sandwich, a piece of sponge-cake, a pickle, a slice of new cheese and an apple. Each thing had a separate stem, and so had to be picked off the side of the box; but Dorothy found them all to be delicious...

My dreams, during the time I was reading the Oz books, were unparalleled in my life before or since. I had a dream about skating through the telephone wires into Oz. I dreamt of a whole world I found inside a golpher hole across the street from my house. I met exotic creatures who ate glass but dreamed of water because it looked like glass but was so soft. And on and on.

The truth is, in today's prepackaged world, children's fiction must be slicked down so as to cater to the perceived need for clarity and functionality in story delivery. Extraneous details, like Mr. Tinker, are seen as unnecessary and distracting from the product being sold, ie, plot and characters. The oral history, once a messy, meandering and complicated style of delivery, has been replaced by television and movies, and people can't see or don't understand the benefit of hairy plotlines. Similarly, science eshews hairiness. Theories and proofs must be complete, self-contained packages which stand alone on their facts, adding onto the known construct of the world.

I would advocate a reality that is more flexible than that. Without descending into the arenas of either New Age Mysticism, Theosophy, Spiritualism, or the like, I'd like to propose a reality that expands further. How do we do that? I'm not certain.

Perhaps we need a different paradigm of reality. Perhaps we need to move into Magical Realism, Magical Scientism, Magical Logic. Perhaps we should allow our imaginations to run away with us, and look again into the beauty of that most complex mechanism, the invisible clockwork of the Universe.

Here are two definitions of Magical Realism, the roots of which stand in Latin American literature but which could stand for a more overarching truth:

"Magical realism turns out to be part of a twentieth-century preoccupation with how our ways of being in the world resist capture by the traditional logic of the waking mind's reason."
- Derek Walcott and Alejo Carpentier: Nature, History, and the Caribbean Writer

"realism is a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality. However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page. Disproportion is part of our reality too. Our reality is in itself all out of proportion. In other words, Garcia Marquez suggests that the magic text is, paradoxically, more realistic than the realist text."
- Scott Simpkins paraphrasing Gabiel Garcia Marquez, Sources of Magic Realism/Supplements to Realism in Contemporary Latin American Literature

Perhaps, after all, imagination is the only thing lacking. Perhaps, if we can only find that door, that glimpse into how to do it, we can make the transformation, switch realities, open the world back up.

What do you think? Is the paradigm too big to shift? How do we get out of this big, reasonable, slick-sided hole? I welcome comments on this rant.

Thanks to Jon R. Neill for his inspiring illustrations and to Georges Melies, for his excellent vision of a trip to the moon, and all its wonderful details.
PS. check out the little toad in the picture above, waving the flag with the "O" on it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Black Heart Gang's Tale of How

A friend of mine, the fabulous Ethan Summers, just showed me this animation, called The Story of How. He tells me it's one of his favorites, and I can see why. This thing is wonderful, a sort of opera, with animation that looks as though it was printed on damask silk. I detect the influences of Chinese paintings, Indian miniatures, frescos, and some of the beautiful and funky creatures and machines I've been seeing in the past few years in some of the more obscure 3-D games.

The Black Heart Gang is a young-ish South African trio comprised of Ree Treweek (illustration), Markus Smit (music), and Jannes Hendrikz (graphics compositor). Looking at the results, the old adage of the whole being more than the sum of its parts is, I would say, true.

Try, as I did, going through it with the movie paused, and click along the loading bar to look at individual cameo shots of the movie. Each one is a perfect, compelling mystery, suitable for hanging in one's household shrine or blazoning across the back of a fine kimono. And yet the moving image, and accompanying unearthly, Kabuki-esque song make it so much more riveting.

Take a look - I dare you.

My Excellent New Watch

Okay, I don't usually indulge in patting-self-on-the-back, but I'm so excited about my new watch I just had to show it off. I found this on eBay, and it appeals enormously to the clockwork fiend in me (as well as the steampunk/clockpunk/wonder-ous parts of me). I paid 99¢ for it (plus $40 shipping), which I consider a deal, as it was sent to me from China.

It keeps excellent time, as long as I wind it; it is durable, and best of all, I can see it working - tiny gears and springs ticking around. The crystal, front and back, is actually a deep lense, giving it a magnifying effect which is curiously intimate and magical. You feel, on looking into it, that you are peering into a secret world, where delicate parts move and glow, and perhaps an alchemist hovers in the background, waiting for you to look away...

And besides, strangers stop me on the street to look at it - which I would do if I saw someone else wearing it. It is indeed magic.

More on Monday...

Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors - and their obsessions

One of my biggest obsessions for the last fifteen years, and perhaps something I collect, is people who collect obscura. My first introduction to this amazing world of collection came from a friend who had a book in which elegant pictures of preserved babies and human arms were dressed in lace (see below), and collections of teeth, labeled with silver inlay, were laid out individually in beautiful compartmented boxes. At the time I didn't know what I was seeing, but the images haunted me; and when, several years later, I went to graduate school to study sculpture (I was a maker of - you guessed it - Cornell-like boxes) I found out. I became obsessed with vitrines, display cabinets, and arrangements of macabre beauty.

...But that's another story.

Courtesy of 'In Visible Light' Exhibit, 1998, at the Moderna Museet in South Africa: Rosamond Wolff Purcell's photo of Frederik Ruysch's Arm Holding Eye Socket, 1992

In any case, I never did find that book again, but I believe I may have found something nearly as good, if not better. The photographs in Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors , are exquisite, and from what I have seen, the text is fascinating. And lo! They even explore the fantastic collection of Peter the Great, the owner of most of those extraordinary works which so affected me all those years ago.

Here is an excerpt from The Sciences, which was the agent of my discovery: "Rosamond Wolff Purcell’s detailed color photographs of real items from real collections are no less bizarre than the inventions of Julian Barnes.
In Leiden and Saint Petersburg she beholds the lifework of Frederik Ruysch, a seventeenth-century Dutch anatomist who collected limbs, organs and the bodies of fetuses and newborn babies. Ruysch transformed tissue preservation into an eccentric kind of art, injecting a fluid that highlighted the circulatory system as graphically as the red lines in a medical illustration. Three centuries later his anatomical specimens retain a ruddy glow that almost conceals their lifelessness. An infant’s head, hemmed by a collar of fine lace, squints out from a glass cylinder; a disembodied arm arches upward in a jar, an eye socket suspended on a thread held in its fingertips.
Peter the Great, who visited Holland in 1697, was said to be so touched by one such preparation by Ruysch that he knelt and kissed the child’s face. He later purchased the entire collection and took it home to Russia, adding it to an enormous “cabinet of curiosities” that already contained a two-headed sheep, a four-legged rooster, a stuffed and mounted elephant, the seven-foot giant who had served as Peter’s footman, and a collection of human teeth extracted from various subjects by Peter himself, not necessarily for medicinal purposes. Were these scientific specimens, objects of art or merely the excesses of one of the idle rich? In Peter’s time such collections were high fashion, and such distinctions were unclear."

Having discovered Peter the Great was my man, I got into a lengthy and complex voyage of discovery, and came across many fascinating and gruesome descriptions of life in the Russian Court during his time. He was a remarkable man, driven to modernize his country, and yet a ruler who used his absolute power to the utmost, despite his "modern" asperations, and was apparently somewhat vain: the "Great" after his name was actually added at his own instruction. His political life is common knowledge, but to me it was his personal obsessions, and the stories of his travels in Europe (such as the one above), that are particularly riveting.

For example, did you know that the man was an amateur dentist? Apparently he was really keen on his own skills, and often pulled people's teeth simply because he was interested in the techniques and wanted to try it out, though often it was because he "detected" a problem - not too surprising in that day and age. He was known to pull the teeth of courtiers and even passers-by. One can only imagine how difficult it would be to turn down one's tsar if he was desirous of pulling your tooth, for whatever reason!

Many stories say he had a bag of teeth he would carry with him to display his skill, though rumor has it he didn't know his own strength and would often pull out gum tissue as well as teeth. One tale even speaks of a member of his court telling him that his wife had a bad tooth which she wouldn't admit to. The man asked Peter to pull it out, and this was done, with much screaming and struggling on her part; then afterwards it became clear that she actually had no dental problems whatsoever - her husband was simply being vengeful for some marital issue. Peter, however, was undisturbed, and apparently quite pleased with the outcome.

This explains, of course, the intricate and lovely box which I remember so well...

His Kunstkammer, now housed in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, was famous for many things, but particularly its collection of human and animal deformities. He was interested in them because he felt they could give some clue to human and animal generation (which was of course correct), and issued many proclamations to the effect that any "monsters" that were found, living or dead, must be delivered there - on pain of death. In a quite forward-thinking way, he wanted to assure that the people under his rule came to see that these monsters were not inspired, as had been thought before, by the devil, or by evil curses or the evil eye, but by other causes. His "other causes" were, by modern scientific standards, still too superstitious, but to my mind, they suit the magical thinking of the time. If you're interested, you can read more in this interesting article on the culture of the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera in the Eighteenth Century.

There are a number of museums which have developed from the same roots, though none with this particular combination of ghoulish fascination, scientific enthusiasm, and remarkable asthetic. For a few of the more notable ones, you can try these:

Musée Dupuytren, or the Dupuytren Museum, for which I cannot find an official website but which is full of extraordinary wax models of all kinds of anatomy: Les Cordeliers, 15 rue de l'Ecole de Médecine, F-75006 Paris is the best I can do. If you want to find out more about Baron Dupuytren, you can find a bio here.

Another place to look is the Mutter Museum, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which is famous for its collection of unique specimens, such as the 5 foot long human colon and the woman who was turned into soap.

Good luck, and sleep tight!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Missed post

Hi all,

I've been sick this whole last week, so missed my usual Monday deadline. I'm working on a post that will come out on Friday...sorry!

Whilst on my deathbed, I received a most wonderful watch, though. I'll show you in the next post!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Beautiful Flotsam

I found Nader Hasan's art by complete accident, during one of my crazy search-threads on Google. Mr. Hasan, originally from Jordan and now living in Montreal, makes art out of found bits and pieces from anywhere he happens to find them.
“I am obsessed with small work,” he told the McGill Daily, a newspaper for McGill University. It is true: Mr. Hasan's work has the same kind of obsessive arrangement as some of the best Kunstkammern, or the Sedlec Ossuary (see below). Things that most people would walk right past are actually treasures which, when put in one of Mr. Hasan's arrangements, make you suddenly aware of their beauty.

What I love about this work is its attention to detail, the fearlessness of the presentation, and the eye Mr. Hasan has for how things will look together. Small things can so often be, simply, junk; yet even plastic daisies and old (but not antique) radio knobs are reborn in this new context; somehow the age of the materials (old enough to look old without being precious antiques) give these arrangements a mystique; we feel we are holding history in our hands, collected - though whose history is not clear.

I have, since childhood, been obsessed with things that carry mana, which in the Oceanic sense is "an impersonal force or quality that resides in people, animals, and inanimate objects and that instills in the appreciative observer a sense of respect or wonder." [wiki] In other words, for some objects a kind of life-magic clings to them or is infused into them. In some descriptions, mana can rub off of powerful people onto their objects, like pollen rubbing off on to a bee's legs - and if you are the possessor of an object with mana, your own mana increases as a result. In Hawaii, for example, contact with an object owned by the King was often powerful enough to kill a normal person. In my own childhood cosmology, which was built on hearsay, all objects had mana, and the amount varied depending on the object's history and usage. I was left with the feeling that if something had enough magic in it, it could become independent, moving around when I wasn't looking...

But that's another story.

In any case this is why I like Nader Hasan's work: he takes the small, tiny mana of everyday objects, and assembles them, gluing them together with his own artist's mana until they glow with their own kind of power. These small conglomerations of life-magic hold more than the sum of their parts, in every sense of the idea: they exert a sort of power over the senses, making us bend closer to see, making us want to keep one in our house in a shrine, making us wonder about the histories we are looking at - and, finally, making us wish, as always, that we could do that too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Astrolabes, old and new

Detail of the earliest known Persian astrolabe, from the MHS in Oxford (see below)

I'm posting this early because I'll be traveling next week and don't know if I'll be able to access the Internet. Suffice to say, I'm thinking of indulging a lifelong fascination with astrolabes, buying one and (gasp) learning how to use it. I've always found them to be deeply mysterious and quite beautiful.

Astrolabes were first used in the Islamic world, starting around 700 AD. The Europeans didn't pick them up until about 1000 AD, and went on using them until the mid-17th century (they were used in Islamic areas until the mid-19th century, being available, traditional and quite accurate for voyages in smaller seas). They are generally made of brass or copper, sometimes with gilding. Curiously, manufacturers of brass astrolabes in 17th-century India were two centuries more advanced than their European peers (see this study).

Thanks to Brill publishers for the lovely photo

There is something marvelous about the idea that you can take a large medallion, hang it, sight the altitude of various heavenly bodies, and then know where on earth you are. It anchors one in the universe, and in such a beautiful, accurate, mathematical, and low-tech way.

While looking at all the wonderful pictures of astrolabes I found (and by the way, the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University, which looks like an amazing resource for Cabinet materials, has a whole bundle of astrolabes for your perusal) I came across Max Chen, whose oilycog site is full of flash things he's made out of bicycle parts and other bits. Among other steampunk-related items (including a very bike-messenger version of an orrery) I found this astrolabe, which I think is really wonderful.

The front side has a map of San Francisco, but only the bicycle lanes are shown (no Bay Bridge crossing). The rete rotates freely, and on the perimeter is a little prayer, which reads: "Oh great god of all bicycles,/Grant me safe passage,/Through the cars that kill, potholes that maim,/And glass that deflates my tires and my spirits."

Even though it doesn't exactly orient one toward the stars, it is a sort of microcosmic astrolabe, orienting the user to his or her small world of the City as seen from the Heavens. It carries the same sort of mystique that many of the ancient astrolabes probably had for their owners.

If you're feeling in a DIY mood, I highly recommend the book Latitude Hooks and Azimuth Rings: How to Build and Use 18 Traditional Navigational Tools, by Dennis Fisher. This book has excellent explanations and diagrams, and from it you can learn to make astrolabes, quadrants, seagoing sundials, latitude hooks (which are Pacific Islanders' way of finding latitude), and nocturnals (star clocks), among other things. It really is a treasure trove of wonderful instruments that people have used for hundreds of years - and sometimes millenia.

Lastly, here are some other purveyors of more traditional newly-minted astrolabes, in case you are interested in owning one:

- Jim Fanjoy makes a nice copper medieval-style astrolabe, based on the descriptions by Chaucer and others.
- The Brass Compass makes four models of brass astrolabe, including a desk model, for a reasonable price.
- Brian Greig, in Australia, makes hand-made replica astrolabes.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Zymoglypic Museum (and other things)

If you haven't looked at the Zymoglyphic Museum yet, you should have a look. Among other things, there is an online exhibit of "Photographers of the Marvelous", where I found this lovely photo created by Alessandro Bavari.

The Zymoglyphic Museum also has an exhibit of Frederick Ruysch's 18th century anatomical dioramas, which were "assembled from body parts and starring melodramatic fetal skeletons," according to the ZM. They were then turned into meticulous engravings by Cornelius Huybert. I will be doing a post about Frederick Ruysch and his relationship with Peter the Great later, so check in for that.

They also have an enigmatic little exhibit called "Age of Wonder", which includes a number of quite fun Wonders, including the Self-Destroying Automaton:
"This particular mechanical wonder was a clockwork automaton that not only told time but continuously removed pieces of itself an offered them to passers by. How the internal parts were regenerated has yet to be determined despite intensive investigation by the museum staff."
Besides this whimsical creation, there are a number of quite nice little cabinets and displays, such as the Small Cabinet below.

On another note, if you are interested in anatomy drawings, I would recommend looking at the the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Dream Anatomy exhibit, which is full of interesting images.

Awe-Inspiring Ossuaries

One of my greatest loves in life is when people take what is at hand and make art out of it, particularly a collecting kind of art, like the Wunderkammern. One of the most lovely examples of this is in certain ossuaries, where the gruesome symbols of mortality - human bones - have been elevated to a state of grace through artful arrangement.

Two of the best examples of these are the ossuary at Sedlec, in the Czech Republic, and the Capuchin Crypt, under Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a church in Rome.

The Capuchin Crypt holds the bones of over 4,000 Capuchin monks, and holds six rooms' worth of intricately stacked and hung bones:

But my favorite is the ossuary at Sedlec, which has an interesting story you can read here [wiki], and which is all the work of one man, a master woodworker, who was told to "put the bones in order". Sedlec holds the remains of many thousands of people over more than seven centuries' worth of burial. It is mind-boggling, and very beautiful:

(Thanks to Jairo Frisco Arenas Ramirez for the Sedlec pics)

Notice the bones stacked behind the coat of arms. It's quite incredible. I can only imagine that, after working with his new materials for awhile, the master woodworker ceased to see the bones as macabre and began to see their sculptural potential instead.

Not all ossuaries are rooms full of beautifully-crafted bone sculptures. Sometimes they are simply a chest full of bones, or a place where bones are deposited. I suppose the Catacombs in Paris could be classified as an ossuary, technically. Wikipedia describes an ossuary as "a chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains."

One of the most awe-inspiring -through sheer numbers - is the ossuary at Douaumont, in France, where the bones of those killed at the horrific 1916 Battle of Verdun are kept. The bones of more than 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers are on display in small, windowed alcoves all around the outside of a, well, very large memorial building. Douaumont is not nearly as artistic, but it is a grim and remarkable testament to the horrors of war, especially one where the technology has outstripped the strategy of its leaders:

Beside this, Sedlec and the Capuchin Crypt, both of whom took centuries to collect their contents, look positively peaceful and merry.

Become a Mummy

This just in: you too can be mummified. That's right, Summum, a religious nonprofit organization in Utah, practices "the rites of Modern Mummification and Transference."

Since the rest of the world is so interested, Summum offers this service to all. Simply inform your local funeral director, and viola! You can have a regular casket, or Summum's artists will take a death-mask and create a hand-made mummiform [outer shell] to fit your exact form, either in the Egyptian style or whatever asthetic or religious style you prefer.

You can also have your pet mummified and encased in bronze or other materials, for the modest fee of "$6,000 to over $128,000 depending on the size of the animal and the type of mummiform you choose." The technique is time-consuming and the materials are expensive, so be prepared.

Another wonder for the Cabinet!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Real Fairies

Here’s an item for the Cabinet, sent to me by Tinkergirl over at Brass Goggles: a mummified fairy has been found in the countryside near Derbyshire, UK. The fairy, delicate and clearly well-preserved, was one of several found when a crack opened in the side of a barrow (burial mound). It is exquisite, with skeletal wings, and immensely detailed: eyebrows and fingernails are still intact. The barrow where it was found appeared to contain more than twenty bodies.

The article says:
”The 8-inch remains, complete with wings, skin, teeth, and flowing red hair have been examined by anthropologists and forensic experts who can confirm that the body is genuine. X-rays of the ‘fairy reveal an anatomically identical skeleton to that of a child. The bones, however, are hollow like those of a bird, making them particularly light.”

Wow! Such an important discovery has not been made since the ground-breaking Piltdown Man, and can be compared with the surprising and pivotal Archeoraptor, as well as the discoveries of Reiner Protsch and Shinichi Fujimura.