Friday, July 31, 2009

Two skies

Sky 1

Jacob van Ruisdael, Winter Scene with Mill. Click to enlarge.

Pink with reflected light, the sails of the mill reach into the sky, not very far, and set its winds to work on behalf of Ruisdael's model civilization. On its mound, the mill stands by a road leading to our homes. On ground and slush and ice, people and building materials arrange themselves in an orderly pattern. They and the air and the water and the cold, they and the white and gray and pink, belong to one another. Every substance brought into being here -- flesh and cloth and snow, canvas and pigment and the warm motherly smell of linseed oil -- partakes equally of the sky. Everything that this sky comprehends is either weather or a comforting shelter from weather, and everyone is one flesh. There is no death.

Sky 2
Weegee, "Murder on the Roof," August 14, 1941.
International Center of Photography collection (,
accession no. 123.1982

In ancient Athens the people watching from their high roof would have been citizens of the polis, drafted into the chorus to ask what the chorus was created in order to ask: This that is happening before my eyes -- what does it mean? What does it teach me about how to live in relation to the gods and my city?

Here, though, the people on the roof are only an audience. They are separated from the drama of death and understanding by a void like the space in front of a stage which the audience is forbidden to cross. Behind them, too, the sky is blank canvas. Desert and tabula rasa of the air, it is a backdrop never to be marked by evidence of meaning.