Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hallie Ford offers Highway to Hell with an Urban take on Dante

A new show to Hallie Ford is both more evocative and less immediately relevant than "Critical Messages: Contemporary Northwest Artists on the Environment."

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.


Emily said...

I've been meaning to get down there myself -- looks like an amazing show. For all of the post-apocalyptic images out there that focus on cities, those seem to be the spaces reacting most dynamically to the food shortages, the fossil fuel crises, etc. There is much hope.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's an example of the dynamism you mention!

When David Bragdon left Portland for NYC to lead the PlaNYC 2030, he observed, "Portland's been doing these things for a longer time, but New York has been doing them more quickly and decisively," says Bragdon. "They closed Times Square to traffic! It's the most visible and complicated intersection in the country, and without a whole lot of hand wringing they got it done." (interview here)

In part because of agglomeration economies, cities really may be the most efficient and sustainable way to cluster and deliver goods and services.

So yeah, cities do offer hope! Just not likely on the suburban model, unfortunately for those who like their space.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

At last night's Chautauqua with Dante scholar Peter Hawkins and artist Sandow Birk, Birk talked briefly about how he used NYC in the Paradiso.

He said they still visited gas stations, diners - the sometimes seedy side of the city. At the same time, the city is a polyglot, cosmopolitan mix. Into his vision of heaven, he also introduced a Hindu, Islamic, and other non-Christian deities and imagery. Got to check out the books!

But it appeared that he did not try to portray a utopian city in heaven to counterbalance the dystopian city in hell. I got the sense of more of a continuum.

The talk also underscored the independence of Birk's work: These are not illustrations, but are accompaniments, inspired by Dante, but always Birk's own.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

And here's a note on Paradiso, and the way Birk envisions the city in heaven.