Monthly Archives: January 2011

No Place Like Chrome

My observations tell me that people feel more at home in their cars than they do in their homes – probably because the amount of time spent in cars far exceeds the time spent at home. I have noted, too, that the younger set in our neighborhood – granted many are renters – dwell in their cars: they talk on the phone and text; stow clothing and books and computers in the trunks; apparently, their best music systems are in their cars; they have fights with exes inside their autos; eat while driving, and even drink. And in the newest models, movies and games are part of the deal, keeping the boredom of long commutes at bay while being transported by a mobile entertainment unit. Outfitted inside.

A car is a peculiar space, a kind of capsule that seems protective and insular, but it isn’t really. We all know that it can be a death chamber, too. Many of us feel as if it is a military tank that is armored, allowing us to muscle through any annoyance that we deem an obstacle. With the addition of four-wheel drive, although largely unnecessary, the attitude of conquest and invincibility is fueled by the belief that roads or no roads, we can forge ahead. In vehicles outfitted with air conditioning, sound systems and tinted windows, we can fool ourselves into believing that we are special or above the fray, despite being one of hundreds stuck in an unmoving line, all identical in our sense of uber-individuality. We are such ridiculous creatures, we believe that our choice of style in a car can create a persona for us, one that can even change our lives.

Maybe I am old school, but to me a car is a mechanical device, a tool, not an identity, and not a home. Even as a renter, home was home. I have owned the same car for 26 years: a 1984 Toyota Van Wagon. To me it is close to perfection in its function. This was a car with a soul, a member of the family. Albeit its exterior looked strange and futuristic in the mid-1980s, and does still today, it was reminiscent in color and shape to a potato on wheels, hence its name, Spud. The interior was basic: manual transmission, not a single cup-holder (these say a lot about living in cars), manual roll-up windows in front and sliders in back, it seated seven, or you could remove the seats and fit 4’x8’ sheets of plywood or drywall and still close the back hatch. Part of its charm was its flexibility, that it could be either a cargo van or a passenger vehicle – even a camper: the seats reclined and grouped together to form an amazingly comfortable full-size bed. To me, it was a three-in-one combo, and it was so much more (I can’t imagine most people using their cars for these purposes): we moved furniture in it, even tall stuff; we took demolition debris to the dump; I moved my sculptures to and fro, no matter how large; and when we would prune trees of huge limbs, they could easily be accommodated by Spud – as could anything we asked it to do. This was the miracle machine, the all-in-one genie.

I enjoyed the benefits offered by this incredible automobile, Spud – that is why we still have it and all its age-related problems. Affection, yes. Usefulness, yes. But not a sense of self. I guess what I am getting at is that no matter how much I loved or valued our car as an object, I didn’t desire to spend a lot of time in it because, to me, a car lacks placeness. And I fear that this society of ours has somehow deluded itself into thinking that there is a sense of place in a car: that our otherwise general lack of placeness, created in large part by the predominance of cars, has made people think that now the place is in the car. Au contraire.

Whether it be our need for escape, or our sense of finding a destination (and with GPS, what’s not to find?) or, perhaps, just our roving and circling – a migration of animals, all thinking that they need to be somewhere else other than where they are (like remote-control flipping or internet surfing) – the urge is to get in the car. The car somehow substitutes for real placeness. And I think that that is because we have lost our sense of place elsewhere, transferring our need for that into a moving object that nurtures our imagined sense of self and keeps us in motion, but ultimately provides us with nothing but conveyance. A car is like a pacifier for our loss of placeness, shuttling us about on our daily rounds so constantly that we have come to believe that the motion is the place, that the delivery system is the reality, that by keeping moving we are there. We are not there. When you find placeness, you will rarely want to be in a car. Maybe the car brought you there, and it can also take you away, but it is not in and of itself placeness.


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Coming in Out of the Code

Mostly, people talk about the smile.

“Enigmatic” is a common adjective used to describe it. And it is the most-discussed attribute, likely because we’ve all been programmed by school teachers to focus in on that one element of what is an overpowering whole.

Some people wax rhapsodic over the formal nature of the work, its perfect geometry, the enthralling link that directs the eye from the eerily smooth facial features down across the dark dress to the beautifully rendered and folded hands below.

Some note the elusive eyes – are they shy or coquettish, plotting or seducing?

All well and good, and, certainly, opinions with legitimate pedigree of art-critical pursuit and exploration. But, for me, the wonder and mystery of the Mona Lisa, as that painting now in the Louvre (and in a bazillion replications, modifications and satirical usages) is called, has always been in what is behind her: the odd and magical landscape against which she seems to be almost Photoshopped – a misty, flowing, timeless and rambling terrain that, actually, doesn’t seem to make much sense. All in one vista, which the eye can take in in one sweep, there are tall trees and, perhaps, what seem to be mountains; lagoons and lakes, and a primeval forest; a road that zig-zags to and from nowhere; an arched bridge that connects no discernible points nor appears to carry anything upon it.

For me, while La Gioconda herself seems an unreal and glowing thing – more humanoid than human, more theory than flesh, more love of pure painting than love of person or portrait verisimilitude – what lies beyond her is the map of Heaven, or the land we travel in our dreams. All gold and green and floating to a distant horizon, beyond which is …? More mystery.

But leave it to academics – those inveterate mystery-munchers and nit-picky killjoys, pluckers of gossamer wings, who seek to influence the macro by denuding the world of the magical micro – to try to identify, pigeonhole, define and cast in amber that undiscovered country that Lisa has her back to. News came out of Italy last week that a writer, Carla Glori, has determined, to her satisfaction, that Mona’s backyard is not a work of Leonardo’s imagination but, in fact, a real spot on this Earth. Glori, basing her “discovery” on the even more fascinating “revelations” by art historian Silvano Vinceti – who says that he’s found a true Da Vinci code finely etched by the artist into Mona Lisa’s eyeballs – declares that the landscape is that of the Northern Italian village of Bobbio. How did she arrive at this determination? The evidence, she states, is the bridge that stretches to Mona’s left, our right; the numbers 7 and 2 are, she says, almost microscopically painted on it, and those numbers stand for the year 1472, the year of the destruction by flood of the bridge at Bobbio, which, presumably, this is a rendering of. All this, and more, Glori lays out in – what else? – her new book, which is called – are we surprised? – “The Leonardo Enigma.” (Where would we seekers of truth and life’s essence be without the release of such books about that inveterate trickster, gamester, Easter-egg-hider, knower-of-all, revealer-of-some, inventor of lighter-than-air things, journal keeper of backwards sentences, and, oh, by the way, not too shabby an artist? He is the Sphinx of our modern age.)

But, let’s get a few things straight: First, the “secret code” observed by historian Vinceti appears, to others with a good magnifying glass (and, apparently, no book contract) to be little more than cracks or crazing, not to be unexpected in a 500-year-old painting. Which, second, means that Glori’s theory, based on Vinceti’s theory, has more cracks and crazings in it than the painting. And with a much shorter sell-by date. It would appear to most observers that that bridge isn’t the only thing that’s stretched.

But, third, and most to the point: Who cares? Who wants to know? Who needs to know? Who even asked? Even if Glori and Vinceti are right on the money – so what? What does their information add to the appreciation of the work? How can their “findings” be anything but reductive? Who, besides they, benefits from this new knowledge, if it is such, except maybe travel companies who can add an extra day’s stop to their “Da Vinci Code” tours?

Even if Glori is as right as right can be, by taking that landscape and pinning it to the map at Bobbio, she may give that painting and its famously puzzling locale a place, but, at the same time, destroys its luminous placeness. In art, to know is, often, to defuse; to define is to deflate; to suppress a viewer’s imagination is to defeat the purpose of having made the work in the first place. No one gains but the writer of the journal article in which the “discovery” appears.

It is important for the Mona Lisa, and the land behind her, to be unknown and unknowable, and to remain so. More important than attributing significance to a small, painted bridge and two numbers that may or may not be there is the imperative to ignore that presumption, so as not to muddy the more valuable point. We look into Lisa’s eyes for something more than scratched codes; we gaze into and drift off to the wide and watery land behind her because it is a place we know, or want to, or have seen in our souls, or in our sleep. This is art, not life; this is placeness, not location. Mona Lisa, the painting, is like two landscapes, two topographies, one imposed on the other, and no GPS coordinates or Mapquest directions can take us there, guide us through them and get us back, altered by the experience.


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A (tour de) Force of Nature

There are, around the country, many public or private lands that have been turned into recreational sites: railway beds converted into walking/biking trails; riparian edges, formerly industrialized, now used as public access to scenic waterways; other brownfields repurposed as parks; canal towpaths dressed up for strolling along 19th-century economic history. This change of direction in land use is an asset for those who live in proximity to any one of these reclaimed sites. I say, with an embarrassment of riches, that I live within walking distance of all the above, plus one other. An extraordinary other.

The long-abandoned Upper Roxborough Reservoir is a dual reclamation – first, as a manmade structure reclaimed by nature; currently, as a naturalized area embraced by people wanting it to be a protected ecosystem – very much like the recently born-again High Line, in New York City. And it is special in another way, too. There the reservoir sits in its present state – smack dab in the middle of housing developments looking to expand, but also adjacent to a long-preserved site: The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education – straddling the thin green line between “progress” and preservation, economic speculation and natural sustainability. Here’s hoping nature prevails.

Coming upon it, in some sense, is like finding the ruins of an ancient civilization and then, after climbing up to it, discovering within it a kind of Eden or, perhaps, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is most definitely a surprise – a revelation, even. And it is built at the highest point in Philadelphia, so its effect, and it is a powerful one, may be a result of oxygen deprivation. Inside, its structure has the appearance of a volcanic or meteor crater, a deep concave shape in a mound. Looking at it from the street, because it is built up from the ground, it resembles a miniature green planet emerging full-blown from our own, an island rising from land.

When you ascend its ramps or stairs, on foot or bicycle, you find yourself atop a butte with a surrounding pathway similar in feel to abandoned railroad beds (once there were tracks during construction of the reservoir). The path is probably 1½ to 2 stories above street level, but the reservoir’s interior depth seen from the path is much greater. Its bottomless-appearing bottom is encased by a steep cliff face made of brick and patches of concrete, which slopes and tapers down creating a giant bowl, or, rather, two giant rectangular bowls, side-by-side, similar to a set of joined pet bowls (for dinosaur-sized pets – and it does feel like the sort of primeval place where dino-slurping might have occurred). In one bowl has formed a water feature, a fresh-water lake, with undulating grasses and reeds at the juncture of plant material and water, sculpted patterns created by the wind. It is such a lovely thing to behold, and when the water fowl are present it makes it even more magical and real, as they add audible squawking and wing-flapping in addition to some splashing and the gentle whoosh of water landings.

The second bowl, viewable after following the path a while, is the dry-food bowl side – a regenerated woodland which, after heavy rains, becomes a short-lived wetland and provides changing landscapes seasonally. There are a surprising variety of trees, deciduous and non-, which grow ravenously in among the brick-faced walls as well as at the bottom of the bowls and also around the reservoir’s outer edge, making it all the more hidden from the street. And together with the grasses, the resulting ecosystem presents a near-complete education in the various cycles of growth and succession in nature.

The oval path continues around the entire site, the reclaimed area’s 34 acres inaccessible but visible through a chain link fence that surrounds the bowls. The journey provides the walker or peddler a three-quarter mile circuit through an unusual, reaccessioned environment: a combination of quiet greenspace, sunken forest and crater lake, along with a few remaining concrete structures from its original 1892 functions. It was decommissioned in the early 1960s, so it has had a life of its own for more than half a century. And, too, it supports the livelihoods of various small mammals, large numbers of wetland bird species and the yearly migration of thousands of toads for mating season (this has generated quite an annual springtime event, with volunteers blocking off streets to cars so that the hordes of brown American toads and greenish Pickerel frogs can make it to their appointed rounds).

Not only is this unique site a layered jumble of natural and manmade, knitted together in a stunning repurposing with a life of its own, a history and a future (we hope), but it also has that unmistakable and inexplicable heady feeling of placeness – a kind of accidental placeness that has power derived from a mix of human-built and natural that was never meant to be in concert. Often it is the other way around: humans come in and add something to a natural environment and create an intentional placeness. But here, at the city’s geographical pinnacle, despite the site’s original engineered purpose, one feels so detached from civilization and so connected to nature. Yet, there is such an integration of the two that it becomes a single whole: nature and culture, inseparable. Arslocii.


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In Dreams

Every night of this past week I have had dreams, all very different, but all occurring in the same location. Not the same house, exactly, or the same room, but in each dream, or string of dreams, I found myself in the same town – a locale I am familiar with, one I have come, in the past year and a half, to consider a home away from home and, perhaps, some day, simply home.

I can’t tell you what’s happened, precisely, in these dreams – not that I don’t want to but because I can’t quite recall them in enough solid detail so that recounting them to you won’t make me sound like an idiot, or someone who knows a joke but forgets the punchline. Like most dreams, they were like exploded diagrams, full of familiar pieces that, reconnected, don’t combine to build anything that is recognizable or makes sense – fragments floating downstream, forming a porous whole.

I can’t begin to explain why I’m having these dreams. It could be because of a longing to be there, or because I’m working something out in my mind that’s related to it; maybe it’s just a fantasy of a play on words that’s got me in a vortex; or maybe it’s something murkier. Or maybe it’s just nothing, just one of those things, signifying nothing, sans sound and fury.

But there they are, these dreams of mine, and there it is, that location. The what and the why of it all, frankly, doesn’t engage me as much as does thinking about what a dream is, and what I am in it.

When it comes to these dreams, and others, the operative word, I think, is not what and why, but “where.” And that is because all dreams occur somewhere, and we are there then. And when we are there, being there is as real to us as my being here now writing this, and you being where you are, reading this. In fact, our location-consciousness may be greater in dreams, because we always seem to be extremely conscious of and impacted by and linked to where we are in our dreams, and often more so than in waking life, when we are so task-focused or self-focused that our surroundings recede to somewhere outside our sphere of self-consciousness. Where we are in dreams is often the point of the dreams themselves, and rarely too far off the point.

I would suggest, then, that a dream is not a mental state, or a process, but a place – a place that we are removed to, and one that is so with us at every moment we are there, intense beyond waking life’s intensity, bound only by its own rules, its own laws, its own physics, grounded only by our need to be awake and alert and integrated even when we are asleep and susceptible to exterior threats and fragmentation. Dreams are the essence of placeness.

But more: When we dream, we create. Even those who, in their waking lives, will admit to being uncreative will create magnificent dreams. We create places, sometimes out of nothing, other times out of pieces of “reality”; in this, we are like set designers. We create characters, some based on people we know, others from who knows what, and we give them lines to say, and we create “scripts” for them to follow, and plot lines that put most movies to shame (except those movies that are based on the belief that the more dreamlike or nightmarelike, the more effective the experience; see Hitchcock, Alfred). In this way, we are writers. The way we see our dreams – the angles, the movement – are like the way a director envisions his play or frames his shots. Like improvisational geniuses, we take sounds or smells that exist just outside our dream world – that is, in the so-called “real world” – and work them seamlessly into our dream scenarios, turning the storyline in a new direction instantaneously. In our dreams, we write autobiography, and fiction, and Greek drama and, unlike so many in Hollywood, actually get them produced. And when we awake, the “real” world seems drabber than anything we experienced during the night, like the way we feel when leaving a great museum, or a theater.

I would suggest, then, that to dream is to be an artist. And that the dream itself is art, but art with the life of one of those newly discovered elements that exist for a millisecond, noted solely by tailings recorded on a sensitive receptor. Dreams, as dreams, cannot be exhibited in galleries, although some physical art is based on dreams, nor will we see them on pages, though dreams can inform a written work, or jumpstart a creative process. But, despite their ephemeral nature – or, maybe, because of it – dreams’ impact on our waking lives can be as profound as any art of any form we put ourselves in the way of. They are our own portable, hard-wired creative suite.

This blog will not become a place for dream analysis, or ruminations on the supernatural (although we here tend to believe that nothing is supernatural, just not yet apprehended). But, if the term arslocii is designed to represent the idea of placeness as art, then dreams can not be thought of as – excuse the pun – out of place here.

And though I still don’t quite get why I am having those dreams of mine, and may never understand why, exactly, I do know that they are, at the very least, a creative effort, a form of personal art that can do nothing more or less than express something in me completely, with no intermediate medium to dilute the essence. And, knowing that, I am somewhat awed, and oddly comforted. And can’t wait to dream, to create, to be in a place of art and be an artist again tonight.

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