When I was around ten I received a book titled "History of Painting in 1000 Colour Reproductions ". Of the thousand images in that book there were two small reproductions of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico that jumped out at me: an abandoned town square, smokestacks, statues, anonymous towers or temple-like structures. A bright autumn sun and deep shadows cut across the space. There is vague feeling of hollowness, of something staged- an effect that suggested everything had been exactly positioned - an opera awaiting the rising curtain.
What unfolds, in part, is the intersection of the classical past and industrial or technological present that articulates a sort of paralyzing inertia, where moving forward or backward seems equally impossible, where some unknowable fate dictates events. In de Chirico's suspended artificial world the sun has stopped in its course; time seems not to exist.
De Chirico, in fact, during his career, did design sets for theatrical productions. It’s a fact that often gets overlooked I think, but none-the-less it was critical for me in how I was thinking about my work. The image that came to mind was a make-believe movie/playhouse - a looming stage setting/backdrop that was itself, the principle player in an otherwise unknowable drama, with actors or narratives, if present at all, relegated to some insignificant or predetermined action.
If that book of 1000 paintings had been more comprehensive, one other Italian artist would have been on my list: the 18th C painter Francesco Guardi. Unlike de Chirico, Guardi's fantasies ( capriccio ) of the Venetian lagoon do not seem strange. One could almost describe them, from today’s vantage point ( a generalized sort of public view of classical historical landscape imagery ), as unremarkable. Not unlike the other capriccio artists of his day, Guardi depicts a view of a lost Golden Age. But with Guardi nothing is simple. I sense it's not so much about a long-ago utopia as it is about remoteness itself - irretrievable distance. I imagine a land so distant in the past that it is not remembered, even by it’s heirs. The occupants in Guardi's autumnal, eternal world are themselves little more than an artistic devices, props, no less so than de Chirico's silent mannequins. Bathed in soothing breezes and the soft light of Venetian skies is a quiet land of perpetual loss and failure. A home for all that is lost.
Guardi's views of the miasmatic lagoon and its many islands of sunken architectural fragments exist on the margins of some long dead civilization. For Guardi this was not just fanciful invention. The Venetian Republic by the late 1700's was a thousand year old empire in terminal decline. Continuously decimated by decades of conflict and successive waves of plague, Venice, once the most powerful empire in the Mediterranean, was whittled down to a shadow of its former self, officially succumbing to Napoleon in 1797.
In the twilit years of Venetian regime, Guardi no doubt felt ( to paraphrase de Chirico on the eve of WWI ) that some enigmatic and visionary reality had undercut the everyday understanding of our physical universe. What stands out for me now is the last part of this sentence. For me, what was most important was not the acute crisis of WWI, or the immanent collapse of an empire, but maybe to catch a glimpse of the slow moving, almost invisible, cultural and other tectonic processes that move through any historical period. By the early 80's I had begun to take an interest in photographing the buildings I remembered from the 1950's: the movie theatres, train stations, post offices, libraries, etc. This was a world that was changing, disappearing. So this was a bit of a routine - I would more or less be documenting these remaining buildings. It seems hard to say why at this point, but everything went along like this for a while and then everything was different - I happened upon a view of the grain elevator at the Welland Canal.
We ( my dad and I ) were travelling along the north shore of Lake Erie towards Port Colborne. I hadn't been back this way since I was a kid. As we approached the canal, you could see in the distance the silhouette of a large structure jutting out into the lake. Moving closer to the building, to get a better view, I was able to walk over with my camera to the pier opposite. It felt disproportionately immense, seeming to rise up out of the lake in front of me, dominating everything around it. Lit by the afternoon sun with strong shadows, the concrete structure appeared even more solid and three dimensional, an effect in part achieved by a series of giant cylinders/silos that characterized the facade. These cylinders were integrated into the overall design in such a way that they unmistakably resembled a row of columns supporting the entablature of some strikingly aberrant Greek temple.
We continued our drive, travelling along the canal. Explorers, not unlike de Chirico's Odysseus, paradoxically travelling in some familiar but at the same time strange land: iron lift bridges, the dark waters of the canal, abandoned rail lines, old factories or their ruins, the remains from a long ago world. Having grown up in Hamilton, the onetime bedrock of the Canadian economy, the industrial/manufacturing landscape was not unfamiliar to me. It was the aspect that defined the city. The surrounds of the Welland Canal however suggested a view I had not been seen before.
These buildings were unknown. Set against an open landscape of scrub brush and concrete pavements, the Canal seemed almost subversive: both isolating and connecting these buildings to everything around - the waterways, the land, the sky. Situated in such a way as to suggest incomparable mass, less structure than object, these were artifacts proclaiming and reclaiming some deep authority. These were monuments from outside of history, outcroppings from some unknown place.
The following photos from the Landscapes of Saturn series use materials in part that belong to the digital images credited. All credited images are in the public domain.
Interior with Landscape Mural, Niagara, Ontario
use of image credit:
John Frederick Kensett, Lake George, 1869 ( via wikipedia )
Grain elevators, Port Colborne, Ontario
use of image credit:
Historic American Engineering Record, Concrete-Central Elevator, 175 Buffalo River,
Buffalo, Erie County, NY., 1994, Library of Congress HAER NY,15-BUF,28-29
(via Wikipedia Commons: File: Concrete-Centra Elevator. jpg)
Parkinglot, Hamilton, Ontario
use of image credit:
U.S. National Park Service Historic American Engineering Record
Crown Roller Mill, 105 Fifth Avenue, South, Minneapolis, Hennepin County, MN, 1985
Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA,
(via Wikipedia Commons: File: Signs-Crown Roller Mill. jpg)