Art, Music, Books & Film

Imagined Cities

Imagine you are asked to collect a set of prompts that could conjure up your city for someone who has never been there. Think of it as an “inspiration box”. The only limit on your imagination is not to include any visual elements, no photographs or paintings, or visual elements expressed in form, either. That includes food– no croissants or meat pies or Currywurst.

The objects you will select will be just a subset of a vast number of sets of possible prompts, not only because your neighbor and every other resident of the city would submit a different set but also because you would probably select a different representation of your city each time you were asked. If I started the list after a bad day my box would contain sound bits of honking horns and surly shopkeepers, a menu from an overpriced restaurant, and a feuille volante exhorting the city’s residents to a rally in front of the Parliament. Give me a good day and I would include a recording of friends talking at a garden café and the clink of glasses raised in a toast, the sounds of a Hitchcock movie interspersed with the chirping of crickets, a nod to the open-air cinemas that are as much a part of the aural texture of summer in this city as the hum of air-conditioners. And perhaps a poem about jasmine—there are not many public gardens in the city but nearly everyone has a balcony, and its perfume accompanies summer nights as surely as moonlight and the conversation of friends.

Jasmine, in the form of a poem of the same title by Giorgos Seferis, was among the items in the “Inspiration Box” gathered by the organizers of the exhibition Strange Cities: Athens, which is sponsored by the Onassis Cultural Center and organized in cooperation with the curating agency Double Decker and the Athens-based architectural firm Spacelab Architecture. The boxes were given to 24 young photographers, graphic artists, sculptors, and painters from Europe and North America as a stimulus to imagine a city—Athens—that they had never visited.

Apart from the poem, the box also contained two chapters of a crime novelist’s account of the city, a recipe for stuffed vegetables, recordings of Manos Hatzidakis’ nostalgia-laden song “A Magic City” and an instrumental piece of electronic music by Konstantinos Vita, as well as sound bits recorded in the city.

Not surprisingly there were no visual elements in the box. The invitation was addressed to artists, and the organizers didn’t want to limit the imaginative field of the artists to whom the invitation was addressed. I was surprised, however, that there were no vials of aromas. I can’t imagine a place without its scents. If I were asked to make such a box of the resort town I summered at as a child, I would include sprigs of honeysuckle and a tube of suntan lotion, or the sickly sweet smell of the insecticide that the municipality used to spray our neighborhood with.

Though there were no pictures in the box and the brief specifically asked the artists not to look up anything about the city, this did not mean that the artists had no visual stimuli at hand. They already had their own treasury of images of Athens, accumulated from history classes or seen in the Corinthian columns adorning their own city’s banks and universities. They had probably also seen photos posted on Instagram and Facebook that chronicled a friend’s vacation in the city. And then the mosaic of images culled from articles in their newspapers, the stories of mass demonstrations, suicides in Constitution Square, and migrant detention camps, the tesserae of the crisis that has held the country in its grip the last six years. Athens teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

I have never been to Rotterdam or Genoa, but I can picture these cities vividly, drawing on my own trove of images culled from art and books and music (even if my reconstruction probably bears little resemblance to the actual city). I think of Rotterdam as a city of canals—this is Holland after all, why wouldn’t there be canals?—rebuilt on a modest and humane scale after the devastation wrought by the Nazi Luftwaffe, with ample green space, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways that is a mark of urban civility in the Dutch cities that I have visited. I imagine Genoa as a city of hills and grand maisons de ville built by prosperous merchants, but sprinkled with the osteria that bear witness to that life en plein air that I experienced in all the Mediterranean cities I have been to. I think of Genoa but my mind fills with images from Marseilles and Barcelona and Naples, and from the odd story my grandfather would recount, though he had never been there.

The sound bits were among the most interesting items of inspiration in the box. Some, such as the rattling of a subway train or the purring of a cat, could have been heard anywhere. Others, such as the music of a bouzouki and the smack of a butcher’s cleaver heard in a busy market hall, were unmistakably more Eastern. Still others would reveal their deeper meaning only to the initiated. The artists would have identified one of the sound bits as a conversation of friends at an outdoor café but none would have picked up on the word malakas, a peculiar and very common term of endearment used by younger Greek men, the equivalent, say, of dude. But malakas (in the vocative malaka, in case you’re tempted to use it, which I suggest you don’t) is also one of the most frequently used swear words. It literally means a wanker or jerkoff, but stands equally as well for asshole. This cannot be easily explained. 

Each of the objects evoked the city but also encrypted it in a way that only its residents could read. The recipe spoke of summer harvests and farmers’ markets but also of a culture that creates pleasure out of the most modest of ingredients. The subway sound clip could be heard as a mere statement of metropolitan fact, but it is more than that. Financed in large part from EU funds, the recently built lines are yet another juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity, the Teutonic austerity of its gleaning granite-clad stations relieved by works of art by Greek painters and sculptors but also display cases of the amphorae and statues found when the tunnels were built.

Understanding a city is a bit like learning a language. You visit the monuments and parks and bazaars, and take in a view of the city from a hill, just as you start with the building blocks of basic verbs and concrete nouns and the phrases for thank you and please. You become familiar with the menus and the opening hours of shops, as you would the conjugations of the commonest of irregular verbs. It takes much study and exposure before you begin to pick up the prosody of the language (it is only now after many months of studying Dutch do I realize how musical the language is), and many more hours before you understand, much less are in a position to use, the idioms that color the language and reflect the culture in which it is spoken.

I wasn’t surprised that some of the artists played with the notions of old and new in imaging a 2000-year-old city. But I was struck by the uneasy encounter between past and present that one sees in these works.

John Diebel presents a collage of the Odeon of Herodus Atticus, a Hellenistic theatre still in use, set against the backdrop of the sea and with a starry sky in place of the floor. He’s superimposed floating rectangles in primary colors over the composition, elements of the old and new but without any organic relation between the two. The red, blue and yellow blocks hover over the stone arches of the theater like invasive drones. In his series of “Concealed Portraits”. Thomas Robson has taken reproductions of 19th century portraits of affluent women and men posing before idealized ruins of Classical Antiquity, and covered their faces with splashes of shiny white or blue paint.

John Diebel, untitled

John Diebel, untitled

Myth, Metaphor and Imagination” by London-based illustrator Tom Radclyffe is a grid of twelve incredibly detailed drawings of buildings. Some of the panels depict flowing masses of monolithic concrete structures or the wrought-iron filigree of what could be railings or patio chairs. Other panels are a densely packed maze of vaguely neo-Classical buildings with pitched roofs and Greek letters inscribed on the entablature of their pediments. Unlike in the actual city, however, here the old and the new are segregated, the monolithic apartment blocks in one set of panels, the columned structures in another.

Tom Radclyffe, "Myth, Metaphor and Imagination" (detail)

Tom Radclyffe, “Myth, Metaphor and Imagination” (detail)

Swedish photographer Eva Stenram exhibits a black-and-white photograph of an arm lying on a lawn at night. The flash has left a haunting opalescent afterglow to the leaves of grass, making it more satiny comforter than sod. Indeed, the arm almost seems as if it were hanging out from under the earth’s bedcovers, where the rest of the body lay. Stenram tells us that the arm was digitally cut from a photograph of a 1950s pinup girl. “Lost parts,” she writes, and I think of the limbless statues of goddesses in the National Archaeological Museum. Not lost, but simply misplaced.

Eva Stenram, "Arm"

Eva Stenram, “Arm”

I was excited by the show and decided that the box had indeed worked its magic. I returned home eager to learn more about the artists.

When I visited Stenram’s site I discovered that she has been working with detached arms and legs in her photography for several years. In fact, her “Arm” had already been presented at the The Function Room in London in March 2014. (I didn’t feel cheated; sometimes the act of selection alone makes art). Much of the work on Radcylffe’s site featured precisely the kind of minutely detailed hand-drawn cityscapes I had seen in his grid in Athens. Robson’s site features an entire virtual gallery of smeared portraits. Diebel had earlier paired an archival print of a neo-Gothic cathedral with the brightly colored Malevich-like shards I had seen in his Odeon collage.

The unvisited city was envisioned with images inspired by books and song and poetry, not all of which were in the Inspiration Box or indeed of the city in question.  But it was also perceived through an interpretative framework already at hand, the web of meaning with which each of us interprets the world. There are no imaginary cities, save for the ones of novelists. The rest are imagined, but no less intriguing.


Featured image: Angela Moore, “Jasmine”.

Moore’s evening photograph of a tendril of jasmine that has slipped through a window, with its palette of gold and indigo-blushed white and the utter simplicity of the composition, evokes for me the city more than any of the other works exhibited. She said she was inspired by the poem, and rightfully imagined that the city was more enchanting, more seductive at night than at day. Perhaps that is true of all cities.

The exhibition is being held through June 28th in the Diplarios School (Pl. Theatrou 3), an imposing if aging structure in the heart of the old city, a couple of blocks from the Central Market in a neighborhood now dotted by the stockrooms of Chinese import businesses, Bangladeshi grocers and halal butchers. For almost a century the four-story building was the home to the largest trade school in the city—65,000 young students learned their trade at the school until its closure in 2010.Traces of the students’ graffiti are still to be seen, along with a few classroom wall maps and the marks in the floor where lathes and presses once stood. A bequest of Arisitdes Diplaris, the school points to a centuries-old tradition of civic philanthropy that has marked the countenance of the city as surely and discretely as its now canalized and covered rivers have. The story of the school could just as well have been an element of inspiration as the song or recipe.

More photographs from the exhibition at the LIFO review of Strange Cities. The text is in Greek, but the images speak for themselves.



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