Chtcheglov’s dictum that “all cities are geological” (thanks Dieter) came to mind Sunday morning as I wandered through the renovated buildings of the former Athens gas works (which have been turned into the intriguing exhibition space of Technopolis). It’s currently housing an exhibition entitled Material Links, an encounter between Greek and Chinese artists. Two of the works on exhibit, one Greek, one Chinese, have much to do with discovering the traces—or better tracings, since both have to do with word-images—made by the passage of individuals and inscribed within the collective memory of the city.
In his series It’s Changed, Qiu Zhijie fuses photography and calligraphy, creating what he calls light paintings—nocturnal shots of locations in the city which are “inscribed” with the tracings of an ideogram that is captured on film as he wields a flashlight in fluid, dance-like movements, just as the swathes of ink are left on rice-paper as the calligrapher guides his brush on rice paper. (Think of night photographs of Western cities and the streaks of red left by car lights on wet asphalt, though it’s a poor analogy since it lacks intent). The ghostly white of the ideograph hovers like a sprite over the space seemingly for an instant but nonetheless captured—one could almost say imprisoned—on film. One can even barely make out the very faint blur of a crouched human figure behind (within?) the ideograph. Qiu, who claims he was inspired to do this series by the story of Chan monks painting plum blossoms in the air , sees his light paintings well situated in the Chinese tradition of the literati writing down their feelings at a specific site. He claims that this documentation of feeling evoked by a place in the city is a kind of graffiti:
Inscribers are people who are shaped and transformed by these sites. These people at the same time shape the sites. This is a re-defining of place in both directions. When a good poem is written by literati on a rock, the surrounding lakes and mountains are transformed. When a not-so-good poem is inscribed, it may just be a souvenir. Ink marks of later visitors will soon cover them and erase those left by generations and generations of passers-by.
(To be honest I doubt that the graffitist is transformed by the site of his work, and certainly the scribbling, tag, or cartoon itself is only in very few instances actually evoked by the place. Or at least that’s the impression I have)
It’s also, as he says, “an excuse to leave ‘goose’s footprints’ in the snow”… an ephemeral tracing which in Qie’s case, however, doesn’t quite stick, precisely because his photographs are kept and written about and become part of the talk of the town and thus integrated within the cultural history of the city.
Egyptian-born Constantin Xenakis is another artist whose work in part treats the city as a palimpsest. Le Voyage, on exhibit in Material Links, is an artist’s book resembling in many ways a Yellow Pages directory, which we view opened to the last two pages. Of the right-hand page we see only the margin—telephone listings for paper suppliers, since most of the surface is covered by an overleaf with a portrait of the Alexandrian poet Kavafy. On the facing page we see a series of hieroglyphic shapes that look like tiny beads that have emerged from a bed of sand or animal-shaped chromosomes under a microscope. The left margin of several earlier pages are also visible. The leftmost and first of these, toward the beginning of the book, seems to be a directory of hieroglyphs. A second, much later in the book, the first letters of the lines of Kavafy’s poem of journey and return, Ithaki. I liked the image of the directory that is used in both the hieroglyphs and shop businesses. A very urban image—the city as market. In Kavafy’s poem the voyager is exhorted not only “to visit many Egyptian cities,/ to gather stores of knowledge from the learned” but also (in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation):
to stop at Phoenician trading centers,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
Since much extant ancient Egyptian writing is from commercial documents, the trace of papyrus is neatly re-found in the fact that the Yellow Page listings that we see are for paper companies.
But what footprint does each of us leave in the city? We, who are not artists or builders or merchants? Perhaps we do imprint the city with the talk and stories we share—how we ourselves are or become “the talk of the town”—with our behavior in public and as part of a public (and hence we really can talk about cities with varying degrees of civility), in short, with our engagement in the life of the city. “And the power of the play goes on”, writes Whitman, “and you may contribute a verse.”