About Marco Polo, Invisible Cities and Visual Art
Essay on theme of Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities” applied to work of some contemporary artists as well as to work of Edita Pecotic
Trying to find the right framework around which to build my essay for the module ‘Themes and Concepts 2’of my Fine art Degree, I visited the recent exhibition ‘ The State of Play’ at the Serpentine Gallery, London.
The exhibited art works reminded me of various details from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”. I decided to build upon some of the themes from the exhibition and Calvino’s book in my essay, and to apply its ideas to the work of various contemporary artists in whose work I am interested, as well as to some of my own work and the issues I am trying to address.
Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ is a collection of surreal short stories about cities visited by the traveller Marco Polo, places where people act, depict and consider things that make no sense or are impossible.
It is written as of a succession of dialogues – meditative conversations between Kublai Khan, the emperor and Marco Polo, the traveller and visitor to Khan’s Empire. Marco Polo is describing to Kublai Khan various fantastic cities he saw on his travels in order for the Emperor to comprehend the sheer size of his own empire (home).
The issues covered in this collection of stories are visitor versus inhabitant, home vs. non-home, outsider vs. insider, foreign languages vs. mother tongue. All these topics are about issues I am interested in and are addressed in my work too.
I have specifically chosen a few of these stories to refer to for the purpose of this essay.
Cities and Signs:
One of Calvino’s short stories is about the city of Tamara – a city which streets are full of signboards jutting from the walls.
Calvino writes: “…Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts”
This refers to the semiotics of urban landscape, a panoramic view of a city surveyed by the viewer and symbolic representation of materials and social practices – opposition between the market and place. The signs are communicating to the viewer in well-premeditated language and form and in its communication, signs are influencing and (re) forming viewer’s opinions.
Pipilotti Rist ‘s videos and installations often features billboards and consumer symbols. Her installation at ‘The State of Play’ exhibition ‘Apple Tree Innocent on Diamond Hill (2003)’ deals with the issue of consumerism. To create this installation she used a combination of video shots of an open ocean and various plastic and paper see-through objects that hangs from an apple tree branch, swinging in front of video-projector so it projects its shadows over the ocean shot. A shadow resembles fish passing in shallow water, or driftwood surfing the surface of the ocean, so it looks surreal and dramatic.
This is a vision of Rist’s world of wrappings of various disposable objects one buys daily – white or translucent plastic bags, shovels, toothbrushes and its shadows mixed with wild nature of powerful ocean’s waves.
My photographs of billboards with cutout commercial messages are about the same issue – the issue of consumerism within contemporary cities that results in alienation of the consumer as well as the producer who becomes also a consumer on the other ‘end’ of the circle.
The boards are left empty and open so one can have a look to see what is behind. Large empty hole left in billboards represent new windows that perhaps could open a previously unknown view.
my other work, a short film ‘Desperately Fighting Scary Black Horses’ the same issue of consumerism is addressed. A video-shot of a moving billboard is edited in the way to appear that the little house from the billboard (as symbol of the individual) is trying to push back powerful horses – (logo of Lloyds Bank). The repetitive movement of little house, the endless stream of passing traffic and lullaby background music adds to atmosphere of everlasting and tedious daily struggles.
Cities and Memory:
Italo Clavino writes about a city called ZORA, a city that no one, having seen it, can ever forget:
“ … the city which can not be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honey-comb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember…”
This paragraph describes the power of memory and inevitably with it nostalgia for lost and vanished places and events. It raises issue of nostalgia that is addressed in melancholic and romantic works of Mariele Neudecker.
A Mariele Neudecker video installation carries melancholic nostalgias as well as alienating effects.
My short film ‘Sunset at Willesden Junction’ is also about longing and recollection of romantic places one cannot forget. This work raises issues of alienation of the individual in urban environment as well as feelings of displacement of outsider within new, non-home environment.
Another artist whose work is relevant to these issues is Tacita Dean. Her film ‘Disappearance at Sea’ is visual meditation on seemingly polarised opposites – lighthouse and sea: man-made structure and nature, as well as position of the individual (viewer) in that setting.
Cities and Desire:
Another Calvino’s short story is about city of Fedora, in which city centre is the metal building with a crystal globe in every room, so everybody can have a look in the globe and can see different (desired) Fedora.
This reminds me of work of Sarah Sze called ‘Second Means of Egress (Orange)’ from ‘State of Play’ exhibition. This work is inspired by fire escapes staircases usually found on the back facades of toll city buildings.
Miniature staircases created by Sze, although too small to climb on, invokes in the viewer the desire of climbing this networked maze of false starts and dead-ends, ladders and steps, balconies and platforms to experience the feeling of danger of being lost (thus orange colour) in our own desire.
Calvino writes that it is ‘…the fun of sliding down the spiral, twisting minaret (which never find a pedestal from which to rise)’
In this story about Fedora, Marco Polo tells Khan that in his large Empire there must be a place for both Fedoras – big and small ones, as they are both real cities as well as assumptions, as a big one represents what is accepted as necessary and a small one what is imagined as possible.
Reference to this is in my animation work and the use of small Lego figures. These animations are about desire (Beauty Contest) and loneliness (Home Alone). Both of it is result of alienation and irony of modern city life where individual is isolated and lost in its environment and is open to consumer’s exploitation.
This is a story of city of Armilla, an unfinished or demolished city – we don’t know, but city which has no walls, no ceilings, and no floors – just water pipes that rises vertically where the houses should be. As Calvino deliberately puts – ‘you would think the plumbers had finished their job and are gone away before the bricklayers arrived’.
City without walls is an open city, a city that, perhaps, welcomes visitors. This is a reminder of another piece of work from the above-mentioned exhibition – ‘ The State of Play” – an installation work by Andreas Slominski called ‘ Wall Built from Top to Bottom’.
As most of his work, this work is done in ‘impossible’ and bizarre manner by turning simple idea into absurd solutions – he built a brick wall against rules of gravity – from top to bottom.
This work refers to all great walls from human history – The Great Wall of China or Berlin Wall, as well as ‘ invisible’ walls – administrative borders, passports and visas, which are modern kind of walls that keep outsiders – outside.
Throughout my work I have references to visible and invisible walls/ fences as symbols of divisions as well as, somehow, integrations too.
The Book Art project that I did is a book of photographs of wired fences and it’s shadows on a sunny Sunday morning. This refers to issues of division between visitors and inhabitants as well as outsiders and insider where visible and invisible barriers are erected to keep undesired out.
Another of my works addressing this issue is painting ‘ Frighten Stations Gathered Together for Mutual Support’ where London train stations – points of (new) arrivals, become metaphoric points of unease and fear.
The central insight of the book ‘Invisible Cities’, as well as of most of my work is in the Marco Polo’s sentence:
“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice”
Venice, Marco’s home is the ‘first city that remains implicit’ in everything else: it is the ‘invisible city’ of the book’s title, multiplied as a cycle of seemingly unrelated short stories, which are fundamentally suggestions of the Original.
This applies to my work too, as it is also about cities that are all connected to my own hometown – Korcula and my adoptive hometown – London.
The idea that is left ot hang above is summarised in this Calvino’s sentence:
“True, also in Hypatia the day will come when my only desire will be to leave. I know I must not go down to the harbour then, but climb the citadel’s highest pinnacle and wait for a ship to go by up there. But will it ever go by?”
(Edita, 2004) + read also by Edita Pecotic – Non Places of Travel – essay