Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Piranesi II

Photoshopped to remove blemishes and adjust the contrast, this is a newspaper photograph of the zeppelin LZ126 departing from Friedrichshafen, Baden-Württemburg, Germany, on October 12, 1924, bound across the Atlantic to Lakehurst, New Jersey. There, a few days later, she will be commissioned as USS Los Angeles: the third of five zeppelins flown by the U.S. Navy between 1921 and 1935. A kind of lucky niece of the Titanic, the Los Angeles was the only one of the five Navy zeppelins that didn't come to its end as a twisted hulk bearing doomed men as it fell, motors still roaring, through an atmosphere more fatally energetic than had been calculated. The Los Angeles was also the only one one of the five to have been designed and built in Germany.

Thirteen years after that first flight, then, decommissioned but still on display, the Los Angeles was a designated vehicle of national hubris on the morning in 1937 when the Hindenburg in its own turn approached Lakehurst, swastika flag on its tail glowing darkly under thunderclouds. Nostalgic for Technicolor, we try to imagine the few seconds passing while the flag's red evaporated before colorless hydrogen flame. But this image from 1924 is black and white, and all happy beginning. If we think we see irony in its darkness, we're committing a retroactive imputation. As of 1924, the glow we see around the great airship's empennage is a dawn, both figurative and literal. The silhouettes of hatted German men and women in the foreground are all innocence.

Nevertheless, as Henri Focillon says, there can be a relation between blackness and time. In "The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet," sec. 4, Wallace Stevens quotes the observation from Focillon's study of Piranesi, quarryman of the dark.
Twenty years later, Piranesi returned to these etchings [the Prisons], and on taking them up again, he poured into them shadow after shadow, until one might say that he excavated this astonishing darkness not from the brazen plates, but from the living rock of some subterranean world. (Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose [Library of America, 1997], 672-73)
Piranesi's twenty years, as described by Focillon, were the maturing time of an artist. But the darkness we see in this picture is a couple of other things. It's the innocent mechanical literality of photography, of course: the aspect of a photographic image which floods the visual field with no help from anything except the facts of the subject and the light and the history of the photographed event wie es eigentlich gewesen. Beyond that, though, is a darkness imposed by an irony we find ourselves submitting to almost under protest. That is the darkness of poetry.

It is an irony which originates in an ancient and, I'd guess, universal metaphor about light and dark, the known and the unknown. "Dark," says the metaphor's vehicle, and its tenor completes the thought with "Little do they know." In the case of Piranesi's Prisons, specifically, the added darkness of the later states amounts to a lengthening of our sentence. We must now undertake an extra term of the hard labor of looking into the dark. But Piranesi the artist started innocent, and his first sentences were light.

As to us viewers from retrospect, we were almost born to dark. Having learned to read before we learned to see, we think we know what this image's silhouettes of the human don't reveal of themselves: their faces and their motives. We guess at those, but we luxuriate in the certainty of their darkness. "Little do they know," we think. And then we think, "I wish I didn't know."

Strange doom, imposed on us by our inability to tear our eyes away from the image produced by an all-seeing instrument innocently meant to stop history for a fraction of a second and record it as nothing but unmeaning light.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Survival supplies

For the Piranesi of our time, I'd like to nominate the photographer who blogs at DetroitFunk, http://detroitfunk.com.

This person appears to be anonymous. Just now, that nameless condition is an anomaly as full of dark meaning as the shadows in a Piranesi prison. Everywhere else in the American economy, art is a traffic in names. "Get me a Murakami," says somebody in the Art World, and in Japan somebody in an art factory turns on the lights for the night shift. But in Detroit, night is the default condition. There, names aren't readable anyway.

The photographer of DetroitFunk understands that, and when the sun is out he (or she) understands Piranesi's other subject too: ruin.

The anonymous photographer took this picture and the one above in the ruins of Detroit's Wilbur Wright High School, where artifacts from a Cold War fallout shelter rust and crumble. The large canister in the top image is labeled "Survival supplies," but the photographer of DetroitFunk doesn't do irony. In that respect, too, he's post-Art World. Jokiness turns out not to be necessary for survival in Detroit. That too marks a difference between Detroit and the Art World.

Of course, once upon a time, some small person in Detroit may have thought for a while like Takashi Murakami. But she appears to have grown up after that, into tracelessness. In any case, she's gone now. All that's left of her in traceless Detroit is a totemic little mini-Murakami: source and derivative, a commercial token of transactional love, smiling for a little while longer into the empty sky.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


In this formal notice, Paul Zukofsky takes an aggressive attitude toward quoting the work of his father, Louis Zukofsky.


Among other things, Paul Zukofsky writes:
Despite what you may have been told, you may not use LZ’s words as you see fit, as if you owned them, while you hide behind the rubric of “fair use”. “Fair use” is a very-broadly defined doctrine, of which I take a very narrow interpretation, and I expect my views to be respected. We can therefore either more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand; you can remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers, this last solution being the worst of the three, but one which I will use if I need to enforce my rights.

 In general, as a matter of principle, and for your own well-being, I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not. Working on LZ will be far more trouble than it is worth. You will be far more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish you, and/or your work. I do not, and no one should work under those conditions. However, if you have no choice in the matter, here are the procedures that I insist upon, and what you must do if you wish to spare yourself as much grief as possible.
So, in homage to Lawrence Lessig:


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Humiliation in life, art after death

Tyler Green's article about David Hockney's return to England is linked here. According to this article, the landscape of Hockney's art is now Yorkshire rather than California because Immigration and Customs Enforcement won't allow his partner to enter the United States.


England is the country that drove Alan Turing to suicide because his sexuality was like Hockney's, but here's its Alan Turing postage stamp by way of art in the aftermath.