member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A New Perspective From the Scraps of the Old

Note: All photos in this post, unless otherwise marked, taken by Flickr member pitt6rngs, also known as Greg.

Forevertron, image by Mister Joe.

photo by Greg

photo by Greg

Tom Every of Freedom, Wisconsin, knows a scholarly, Victorian-era professor named Dr. Evermor. In 1890, Dr. Evermor began building a machine to “perpetuate himself through the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam inside a glass ball inside a copper egg.” The contraption he began building behind a surplus store, on the concrete slab left over from a demolished schoolhouse in Freedom is called Forevertron, and he (Every/Evermore) even constructed a gazebo called “The Teahouse,” complete with rather imposing thrones, for the King and Queen to have their imperial view. A 70-member bird-band is on hand to entertain them.

photo by Greg

photo by Greg

photo by Greg

photo by queenodesign.

photo by “What Jamie Found”

There are also Celestial Listening Ears, with two stations for listening to voices from the heavens. At the top of the entire contraption is a glass ball, strapped in copper, which will serve as Dr. Evermor’s space capsule.

At one time, not so long ago, you could take a tour of this--claimed to be the world’s largest sculpture formed of recycled scrap metal--Forevertron, a 300-ton kinetic sculpture, guided by Mr. Every himself. He would explain, “The Forevertron is built from important historical material, including those dynamos, which were constructed by [Thomas] Edison around 1882 -- they come from the Ford Museum. And this unit was the decontamination chamber from the Apollo space mission. A lot of the rest is from power houses from the 1920s.” He explained to the writers at RoadsideAmerica:

"The Apollo decontamination chamber was in three trailers [donated to a university]. We wrecked and scrapped most of it, but I kept the two autoclaves that the moon rocks were passed through...We contacted NASA to try to get papers authenticating it, and boy -- they're very touchy about what happened to that stuff. We did get the original drawings and it's the same damn thing."

photo by Greg

Photo by queenodesign

photo by whereling on Flickr

All the birds and all the bugs--some of them 15 tons of scrap metal teetering in the air over spindly legs--were created by this Dr. Evermor without the aid of models, sketches, or blueprints. And in fact, he’s never had any formal art training at all--he just grew up captivated by odd pieces of the refuse of society, which he started selling and trading at a young age, from a basket on his bike. As an adult, he went on to work in “industrial wreckage,” where he got some of the pieces he later used for his sculpture, which he began to build when he left that business in 1983. He had tired of destroying, of erasing these fascinating structures from the landscape of the country, and from the memories of its people. He wanted to create, and he wanted to remind. While he was building, he ceased to be Tom Every, and became Dr. Evermor.

photo by Great Beyond.

According to PBS’ Off The Map,

The Forevertron is made up of carburetors and generators, early x-ray machines and theater speakers, river barges and hamburger signs, to name just a few of its components. The end result is important to Dr. Evermor. Possibly more important, however, is that each historic piece speak for itself. His aim is to blend these objects while preserving their individuality and unique form: “Rather than imposing one’s will on something that’s already been created, you leave it alone and you just add or move another piece in as a blender that’ll tie it from one to another… things that were of historic significance we leave alone.” For example, the pair of late nineteenth-century bi-polar dynamos acquired from the Henry Ford Museum stand on their own while being seamlessly integrated into the Forevertron.

And, continuing with what appears to be developing here as a theme of animism and the curious power of charms, he explains:

These forms were made in a certain time frame, and we can pick up the energy of whoever the creator was, whether it be a small blade or something else. That unique form comes along again and is put in that place, so that you always have that energy. That little piece may have a very historical connection to other things and beings of a certain time frame.

It certainly is a large charm, full of the energy and impulse of the industrial age. Clunky, heavy steel transformed into feathers and the first strains of a celestial melody...

photo by Greg

photo by Greg

Sunday, April 4, 2010

How to Avoid Nightmares

In yesterday's post, I talked about how objects could be infused with such meaning from our lives and from their own creation and history that they might directly and powerfully affect our own actions and abilities. The artwork of Remedios Varo almost always has an undercurrent of such beliefs in its assemblage, beliefs she staunchly declared herself to hold. I recently came across some of her writings, in Cartas, suenos, y otros textos de Remedios Varo, compiled and edited by Isabel Castells, and I discovered that she carried out experiments in the spirit of these beliefs not only in her paintings, but in all areas of her life. Amongst her writings, there were recipes, using pieces of clothing, masks, rocks, glass, spices, and a few food items, along with very specific mixing and preparing instructions in order to replace bad dreams with happy or erotic ones:

Pluck the chickens, carefully preserving the feathers. Put two liters of distilled water or rainwater to boil, without salt but with peeled and minced garlic. Let it boil at a low heat. While the birds are cooking, align the Oriental bed from northeast to southeast and let it rest with the window open. Close the window after half an hour and place the red brick below the left leg underneath the headboard (northeast). Let it rest. While the bed is resting, grate the strong root directly over the pot, attentively keeping your hands consistently heated from the steam. Stir and let it boil. Four kilos of honey should then be spread over the sheets of the bed. Take the chicken feathers and scatter them over the honeyed sheets. Lie on the bed carefully....(my translation)

So part of the recipe is in the correct placement of objects--a brick, a bed, a window...Here’s hoping the same could be done with found feathers and while boiling cabbage, for the sake of vegetarians.
And there’s much more in the book. There are her dreams, examples of her automatic writing, ideas for paintings, and a tongue-in-cheek record of a very important archaeological discovery, in very stuffy academic tones complete with bits of invented Latin, of prehistoric human bones which showed that we once were wheeled...

Homo Rodans

...complete with photos of the found and assembled bones.

This is an appeal: please make this book available again! It is out of print, but so, so fascinating...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nothing is Dead

All night waking to the sound
of light rain falling softly
through the leaves in the quiet
valley below the window
and to Paula lying here
asleep beside me and to
the murmur beside the bed
of the dogs' snoring like small
waves coming ashore I
am amazed at the fortune
of this moment in the whole
of the dark this unspoken
favor while it is with us
this breathing peace and then I
think of the frauds in office
at this instant devising
their massacres in my name
what part of me could they have
come from were they made of my
loathing itself and dredged from
the bitter depths of my shame

--W. S. Merwin

Animism is a belief that has had a large part in many religions throughout history, which claims that objects, rocks, plants, animals, and even certain words or "true" names have souls or spirits of their own. According to Wikipedia, "Jean Piaget applied the term in child psychology in reference to an implicit understanding of the world in a child's mind which assumes all events are the product of intention or consciousness." Although Piaget went on to explain that the rational human soon grew out of such beliefs, it's the idea that he's wrong that interests me--an idea I've explored before here and hereand would like to look at again now.
In dreams, every person, every object, is created by the dreamer, and carries a meaning, implicit in its shape, color, location, etc, which can be discerned with a little attention. In the ancient Hindu tradition, there is the concept of Maya: that the world is dreamed into being by One who sits on the lotus flower. That One's eyes open, and the world comes into being; they close, and it ends. In that concept, it is not only that the dreamer dreams up each character, but each character is also dreaming the others: like all human creations, once you have given something a space in the world (life, breath), it takes on a will, an intent of its own, it becomes its own creature. Ask any mother of a teenager, I think. So, we imagine a single dreamer, but once that dreamer has begun, each thing he has dreamed takes on its own life, from the starting point of its initial meaning. All of which would also suggest that objects and words have life-forces of their own as well, given them at least in part by you. So, those objects:

According to Lady Lavona in her Cabinet of Curiosities, "Lakota traditions say that life began with the rise of a great stone from the waters of creation. The Lakota word 'tunkaschila' meaning 'grandfather' is sometimes used for the word 'stone' because stones are referred to as our elders."

Agate stones found in northwest India by Jurgen Lehl, featured in his book Babaghuri.

Objects are infused with the meaning our interactions with them or places or people they resemble have created, so it makes perfect sense that what to one man is a pebble, not looked at twice, for another seems to add a certain power to his (her) intentions, words, and actions. And in fact, according to the Iroquois tradition, it was a rock that began the powerful, mind-changing and therefore world-changing tradition of storytelling amongst humans, by sharing a tale with a boy named Crow. The power of tales and the power of charms are both fleshed out with great talent in the excellent novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, by Chris Wooding.

A frightful beast...(from the book)

One thing that steampunk literature and science-fiction offer us is, though they often take current politics all the way to their natural and frightening conclusion, with politicians and wealthy moguls holding impossible amounts of power and exercising excessive violence on everyone else (in this tale, those people are called The Fraternity), they also introduce characters in them that have devised equally impossible ways around that clamping-down of double-fisted control. These types of stories remind us that it has always been this way with humans: some have wanted too much power, have gone to previously unimaginable lengths to get it and achieved frightening amounts of control, and others have created alleys and tunnels and caves--and stories--and taken them down.

In The Haunting, awful creatures began to overtake the Victorian city of London, and after that other large cities around the world, immediately following the first aerial bombing in human history--which in this tale was the Vernichtung, carried out by Prussian airships, about twenty years prior. At first, these creatures were believed to be simple delusions, shell-shock and waking nightmares, and so by the time the government got around to trying to deal with them, they had become quite numerous and powerful. They are wych-kin: demons, ghosts, and seemingly indestructible beasts, many of whom are unaffected by walls or locks or even bullets from guns.

There are ghouls, who are not even aware they are dead:

They walked slowly along the cloisters, the pews on their right, heading for the arched double doors at the north end of the church. Thaniel felt the skin creep along his nape, his eyes searching the slices and patches of shadow that lurked in the hollow body of the building.
“That’s our ghoul,” Crott muttered suddenly, pointing.
They saw it then, slouching along the central aisle, their lamplight splashing across the left side of its body and showing it up in translucent white. Rags and tatters clothed it; a bony hand showed through a torn sleeve. Its head was half-fleshed, a white eggshell of skull showing through behind its eye socket, and its lips were withered to nothing, showing a skeleton smile beneath a collapsed nose and lidless eyes that stared endlessly. Half corpse, half skeleton, it managed to be neither. The portions of its form that were lit seemed to hang in the air, flat pictures supported by nothing, for its unlit parts were invisible.
“Does it know we are here?” Alaizabel asked.
“It knows,” said Thaniel. “Do not be fooled. Keep walking...”

There are Draugs, who bring the deepest, darkest part of the sea up to you, and take you back with them. There are Cradlejacks, who multiply in number by scratching or biting their victims, thus infecting them. There is Rawhead, who seems to have stepped directly out of a tale told to bad children. Wych-kin: they remind me of the threat of nuclear annihilation, of the tsunamis and ice-ages our environmental destruction is calling down, of drug-resistant disease. I think many of us wake up in the dark thinking, how do you fight that?.
That is how a monster is made.

But in The Haunting there are also wych-kin hunters, one of the best of them having begun the trade at the tender age of eight--before cynicism and rage could take their best crack at him. The mythology surrounding the amazing hunting abilities of his father, and a successful history at his side have given him a pretty firm belief in both his abilities and the tools of his trade. The hunters learn as they go, many dying, for example, before one survives to tell the others that a particular string of protective charms has somehow worked to destroy a particular type of demon. Charms, made of feather and bone, tiny shells, special rocks, or spices...

Armonia, Remedios Varo

There’s power in what we believe, in where we put our focus: headlines and channels full of explosions and fear increase fear, and so increase explosions. The more we focus on what we fear, the stronger the feared thing becomes against us. The more detail we put into the explanations for why we cannot defeat it, the more real our inability becomes against it. But it is the things we do know how to do, the abilities that are within our grasp, the objects around us which our lives have imbued with meaning and power: charmss--those are the things that will save us, because of what we have put into them; just like the demon or the darkness that gets us in the end will be the one we believed could.

Remember that great, imaginary organization Remedios Varo created, the Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life (see the quote at the top of the blog)? They discovered that the placement of particular objects could, indeed, influence events, though it was often in a way that you had to pay careful attention in order to catch. In all her artwork, she put that organization’s beliefs to the test: placing numbers and blossoms and feathers and stones together on a staff to create the music of the universe--harmony with some spirit of the place itself, or showing the way the tiles of the floor really did have their own creative impulse, their own intention:

The Alchemist, Remedios Varo

--she created magic. And she changed the world--for example, for me.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I’d say that these are the ideas fleshed out in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. The writing and the details are excellent--even at the end, when you’re hurrying to discover the outcome, don’t scan; Wooding put hard work and much thought on the details and action right up to the end, and his style of writing adds a great deal to the story. It’s one of those few books to flesh out an idea so well, so thoroughly, without it ever turning into a treatise. When he comes to the logic behind the terrors, it has been made so clear by the action, he barely has to mention the underlying idea.

Highly recommended.