Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Museum Dreams: Mystical Math Manifestations

I've been spending a lot of time mildly awed by the natural world recently. Maybe it's living in the middle of a city that makes seeing the egret in the Palace lagoon every morning such a strange, dreamy experience: I walk out into the hard gray lines of the street and get out of the harsh glare of the bus and whoa, there's this dainty, gleaming creature in the dawn, feathers so mistily white that it looks out of focus even when it's right in front of me. Or perhaps it's being surrounded by all the strict geometry of an urban environment that makes me all swoony about naturally-occurring mathematical manifestations. Either way, I've been unusually struck by the mystical face of geometry in the last few days, and I started wandering around Wikimedia Commons looking for examples. The images I found were so startling and wonderful I couldn't help imagining exhibits arising from them - a delightful entanglement of art, math, science, and natural history. Here are a few of my favorites.

citrus cathedral

Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Exhibit Inspirations: Perplexing Perspectives

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533. Oil on oak.
Via Wikimedia Commons.
If you have taken any kind of art history class ever, you're probably familiar with the painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, done in 1533. It's the one with the anamorphic skull. You're either rolling your eyes at me (omigod not that fucking skull again) or staring at me in rank incomprehension, and that's cool, I dig. Okay, anamorphosis. It's a thing you can do so that a piece of art can only be seen in proper perspective from a specific point of view. The Ambassadors is the fantastically overused example of two rich dudes surrounded by All Their Stuff, except wait! there's this weird smeary thing! and when you stand in the right place, it's a grinning fucking skull! to remind you that we're all gonna die! - yes, even the rich dudes.  Talk about perspective: hey, so, don't forget, all your stuff is gonna be dust, guys. From the right point of view, we're all just skeletons waiting to happen.

Except anamorphosis is not always miserably depressing. In fact, sometimes it is extremely awesome. Used right, it can be a beautiful reminder that what you see is all dependent on your point of view, and shifting your stance can turn a mess into something magical. Plus, it's about science. Bam, science! I'm a really big fan of art that actively engages the brain and makes thoughtful use of the strange and marvelous ways that our eyes make sense of the world. It's fun and exciting and gives me that same thrill of discovery that Magic Eye pictures used to give me as a kid, even after the headache that inevitably came of staring at swarms of dots for hours on end. (Did I just go and spent half an hour on their website giving myself exactly the same headaches? Yes. Yes I did.) Except that with anamorphic art the level of artistry is usually pretty far above the leaping-pod-of-dolphins type of image that you find in the Magic Eye images (which are stereograms, not anamorphic images, so it's not their fault) and also? you can put them anywhere, little gems to be uncovered in a city street or cafe bathroom.

So today I have three examples of fabulous, inventive art that makes use of the unique and wonderful properties of light, vision, and perspective in their engineering. I find these pieces totally inspiring in their playfulness and weirdness, and so I have imagined them here together as the basis for an imaginary exhibit on the joys of perception...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Museum Dreams: The Great Books Room

Calligraphy on the walls of a monument
in the Qutb minar complex. Probably Alai
Gate, aka Alai Darwaza. When one sees a
building turned so throughly to text, it begs
the question: what is a book? Photo by
Shashwat Nagpal via Wikimedia Commons
In reading alone, the pages become translucent to me, pale as water. It is not like watching a film, nor do I feel surrounded by the story as if I was submerged within it; it is more like bending down to watch the gold flecks on the riverbed, the bodies of the fish alive and trembling under the bright surface. I see the surface and I don't see it; my eyes are focused underneath, underwater, to the fixed world over which the words flow flickering. I do not inhabit books as one inhabits houses. But still I'd to dwell for a while in a room all full of giant books, stars of eight-foot paper with their leaves fanned out like carousels, doors in their covers and their guts hollowed out into rooms of language. Books whose pages turn around you, a dizzying whirl of shifted scenarios and the rustle of invented life. Books whose covers open onto stairways carved in a spiral round the spine. Books opening like the wings of a suspension bridge on either side, angelic, enfolding. Books to get truly lost in - say, a dozen volumes connected by folded paper passageways that drop you, disoriented, into someone else's story. Books hallowed and hollowed like cathedrals. Poems clinging lichen-like, meandering like vines, drainspouts of sorrow and wonder. Favorite lines underscored with black pen fat as graffiti strokes. Notes taken in college become manifestoes on the walls, annotating, aggrandizing, letters large as your hand. Novels grave and sturdy as small houses, prayerbooks private as altars. Erotic books with pages of tracing paper to hide behind naked and leap out to surprise the beloved, wound with nothing but calligraphy like a black ribbon. You feel the walls of words with your palms, paper like stone, covers solemn as church doors. Here in the pages you hold yourself upright. On the other side of the page, an unknown reader looks down through the surface and sees you standing, small and alive between the lines.

Feasibility: closer to a narwhal than a unicorn.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Museum Dreams: The Imaginary Academy

Please note: this is the first in a new series of posts dedicated to imaginary museum exhibits. Because the new California Academy of Sciences is so radically different from the old, and because the old Academy is so radically imprinted into my brain, and because there is such a radical absence of images of the old exhibits on the internet, my memories of the original museum are essentially now one of an imaginary place. It seems like a good place to start.

A floor map of the old Academy. Things on this map that no longer
 exist: Fish Roundabout, North American Bird Hall, Astronomy Hall,
Botany Annex, North American Mammal Hall, Fossil Hall, Hall of
Man, Anthropology Hall, Mineral Hall. Not pictured: Life Through 
Time, the dinosaur exhibit that I remember more clearly than my
father's face. You can tour it & other extinct exhibits here.
by MetaGrrrl (AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved)

The first line of my favorite Philip Roth novel is "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." This is how I feel about the Academy. I can't remember the faces of my parents; I know my father had a beard but as far as I'm concerned it never happened. What happened was the slick backs of the dolphin statues, the weary fins of the fish swimming the endless blue spiral in the luminous twilight of the tank. What happened was Foucault's Pendulum like a brass moon larger than my body looming this way and that way in the dark. What happened were the jewelbox terrariums in the walls of a white room full of the sound of falling water and alligators private and quiet in their pit. What happened was the eery green hologram of a triceratops' skull and velociraptors leaping from the foliage. My first bad dreams were of museums gone wrong, black shadows in the halls and every beloved exhibit gone nightmare. I thought the museum belonged to me. There has never been a temple like it.

Eventually we went somewhere no longer in walking distance and I forgot about it for almost twenty years. I heard they closed it down to keep the earthquakes out. I began to dream of it again. I was three thousand miles away and I dreamed of the exhibits somewhere temporary, a brown hall with the touch tank alive with starfish in a light like old beer, packing crates, a prickling joy. I wanted to go home. I wanted to fall on my knees in the first temple. There are gods you can only speak to when you stand somewhere that was holy as a child.

When the museum reopened I stood in line with my heart shaking in my stomach. Under the new green roof was a white gape of space. The emptiness was shaped like velociraptors and jewelbox terrariums. An absence in the space of a spiral tank shedding twilight, a room full of bones, glass boxes of gems. The alligators squirmed in a pit made of windows, uneasy, their underbellies showing. The room scooped clean as an eggshell and the pendulum swinging from the roof like an embarrassed yolk. I ran my tongue over the museum and felt nothing but hollows where teeth used to be. If you set down a piano in that smiling void the jangling would ring out through the space and hang there humming. The architect's name is Renzo Piano. I want to set him down there with clumsy hands and jangle the whereabouts of my ikons out of him. He will stand there humming and ask me why I want such dusty old gods anyway. Look, he says, these ones are so clean, so modern, so bright.

Afterwards I ran frantically to another kind of emptiness, the internet, and searched with shaking hands for proof I hadn't made it up. There were so few pictures I was sure I had invented it, my memories recalled dreams, the rooms of Jurassic forest and the space-dark of the planetarium illusions, imaginary collections of moon rocks and bones. Maybe there had never been such a museum. I turned up page after page of photos of shiny new artificial rainforest, the same sole T Rex skeleton over and over. Renzo Piano, you made the dinosaurs extinct -- again. I am trembling as I write this. It is like being told you made up your mother. It is like coming home to your father with his arm around a woman that you've never seen, a room full of blank stares when you demand to see the woman who goes back inside you so far she comes out the other side and it turns out you were inside her in the first place. Where did she go, you plead, what have you done with my mother. But this one is so beautiful, says your father, what do you need to remember her for?

Renzo Piano stands reverberating in his luminous galleries. Under his feet are the ruins of the temple I imagined coming home to. An extinct museum. There will be no case for its fossil. I will not remember it in glass boxes. In my imagination it is still alive, extravagant and musty, shattered by the avoidance of a shattering. How safe it is now, where no earthquake can uproot it from my bones.
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