I wasn't expecting to have more to say on transportation and art, but Sandow Birk's images of Dante's Inferno impress insistently with an urban dystopia of sprawl and "californication." The city is hell, literally. Hell looks like an awful hybrid of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The urban imagery is not accidental. On the way from Hell to Paradise in the Comedy, Virgil is Dante's guide. Virgil's own Aeneid is itself about expansion and the toils and costs of empire. It starts with the Trojan war and the founding of the city of Rome:
Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
For this, far distant from the Latian coast
She drove the remnants of the Trojan host;
And sev'n long years th' unhappy wand'ring train
Were toss'd by storms, and scatter'd thro' the main.
Such time, such toil, requir'd the Roman name,
Such length of labor for so vast a frame.
(Aenied, I: 1-33, trans. Dryden)
Dante himself reflects often on Florence, on other nearby city-states, and of course on Rome:
"Newcomers to the city and quick gains
have brought excess and arrogance to you,
o Florence, and you weep for it already!"
(Inferno, XVI: 73-75, trans. Mandelbaum)
In Canto XVI, as throughout Birk's vision of hell and Dante's Dis, decaying highways, bridges, and streets are important parts of his infernal infrastructure. Hell is both low-density sprawl and high density tenderloin slummery.
It is about personal destiny and national destiny. Birk suggests much about American westward expansion, about manifest destiny, and about the role of the city. Mostly it is a vision of excess, the overbuilt metropolis, emptied out after the self-created apocalypse. Detroit, perhaps? Earth in the age of WALL-E?
There's not a master interpretive scheme to impose on the works. While they are less explicitly cautionary or didactic than those in "Critical Messages," they are richer with ambiguity. This surprised me since the Inferno's scheme of sin and punishment is highly didactic and cautionary! But they open to a longer span of human history. They nod to classical antiquity, the end of the medieval era, Victorian artists Dore and Dickens, 19th century anxiety about metropolitan density and filth, and our own car and consumerist culture. The show neatly bookends the mainly rural imagery of "Critical Messages."
As it is, the show is unified as a take on hell. But from an interest in transportation, I wish we saw Birk's take on urban imagery in Purgatory and in Paradise. Does he see a positive role for the city? Can the city be redeemed? One must hope.