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In his beloved book Invisible Cities (1972), fable writer Italo Calvino invents short conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan and descriptions of cities recounted by the Italian from his travels. Ten artists from across the globe have loosely translated this charming conceit in an exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), curated by the museum’s Susan Cross. As with Calvino, the artists that Cross selected have reimagined cities of various scales and materials as places of growth, death, pleasure, desire, decay, and memory. To cite Calvino: “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (11). The exhibition incrementally imagines these tropes and more.
Although visitors are left to determine their own route of exploration, Invisible Cities fortunately begins with Slovenian artist Miha Štrukelj’s The Melting Pot (2012). In step with the mission of the exhibition, this installation brilliantly engages the scale of the first of three second-floor galleries. His wall drawing, with extensions via black strings pulling the two dimensions into three, provides the impression of a rising city. An eight-inch square module on the wall allows easier orientation for analyzing the complex work. Attention to what architects call line weight can be seen in the overlay of heavier, interrupted charcoal traces on top of the dominant pencil lines. Raw construction sites, seen in rapidly growing cities like Shanghai, come to mind, as well as the elevated commuter rails of the Chicago Loop. Even the shadows cast by the iron tie-rods that survive from the earlier industrial use of this space as a factory engage with the drawing.
Process changes to product in a metropolis of wicker and rattan cages that resemble a city of discrete and combinable units created by Sopheap Pich from Cambodia (Compound, 2011). Like a fantastic aviary or private exotic zoo, these tubes and boxes mount to form a homogenous but varied skyline. The consistency of these elements seems as hollow as their interiors. The city has become handicraft, a work that comforts more than challenges the viewer.
Diana Al-Hadid from Syria engages the Eternal City of the late Baroque through cascades of frozen water streaked with silver and pastel shades of pink, gold, and turquoise in her work titled Nolli’s Orders (2012). The fragmentary sculpture and symbolic figures that encircle the innovative 1748 map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli inspired these recumbent nudes languishing on pillowy platforms as dripping lines add support and suggest the motion of water.
A vast two-dimensional engagement with city fragments claims the end wall in dazzling wallpaper by Francesco Simeti from Palermo, Sicily. Reminiscent of scenic exotic wallpaper by Dufour and Company in early nineteenth-century Paris, but more chaotic, La città d’oro (2012) invokes Calvino’s language and allusions. This golden city, however, is a mirage of good and bad, healthy and malignant, seductive and destructive. The artist has mined print media for images ranging from gilded Cambodian stupas to the post-tornado destruction of Joplin, Missouri. “Clouds” of varying forms—two-dimensional representations from Chinese paintings, the smoke of oil refineries, and the steam of nuclear power plants—surround each scene. The overall beauty of the design conceals at first the recognition of danger or destruction in the individual vignettes.
South Korean Lee Bul contributes four suspended constructions that call to mind sci-fi space stations. Suspended by wires, these erector-set-like units, inset with tiny mirrors and pieces of plywood, gently spin and float. Behind these sculptures stands a wall with six painted panels by Mary Lum from St. Paul, Minnesota. Their references to cities are both more immediate and more abstract. Urban collages, they incorporate the found objects of city streets, dissected and recomposed as if building a city or creating an urban plan. At times, these feel like maps that have been folded and then re-opened, guides for the flâneurs of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. These representations obfuscate cities, much as Calvino‘s stories do.
The exhibition’s coda consists of a series of smaller and less engaging installations. Carlos Gariacoa from Havana, city of Calvino’s birth, creates an architect’s utopian urban model. On three narrow steps, open rice-paper-covered towers glow like Asian lanterns. The all-too-visible lights, electrical cords, and power stripes that allow the “city” to glow also destroy the mirage, showing that even the creation of paper cities is messy. Ohio-born artist Kim Faler, who now works in North Adams, home of MASS MoCA, contributes a note of deconstruction/reconstruction. The informative brochure that accompanies the exhibition (there is no catalogue) explains that the artist removed a section of the modern gallery walling, recasting the balloon-frame structure in soap. Not only are the two-by-four-inch studs shown with wooden graining, but also cast nails, some bent, emerge from the frame, while on one horizontal cross-piece sits a cast-soap Ball Jar, beloved of carpenters as a container for nails. Now sagging, these elements seem too small, the two short segments of two-by-four-inch soap studs left on the floor and the large series of shims—cast-soap wedges used theoretically for leveling of the non-existent walls—seem too insignificant.
The final two artists engage the city as process and experience. Liz Glynn created two videos of the construction and destruction of a pyramid using wooden palettes (2010) and of a group project to build and destroy a model of ancient Rome (2008) made from cardboard and tape. Lagos Soundscapes (2010), a recording by Emeka Ogboh of the urban noises of his Nigerian capital, provides an aural background to a number of works. The repeated voice of a young female beggar and the calls from bus drivers for passengers to fill their transports become hypnotic.
Calvino’s Kublai Khan/Marco Polo dialogue ends in a discussion of the inferno as the ultimate city of humanity, while asserting that one should “seek to learn who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space” (165). MASS MoCA has given well-chosen artists the space of urban imagination, infernal or not, and they have achieved a discourse as varied, contradictory, and dream-like as Calvino’s vignettes.
Keith N. Morgan
Professor, History of Art and Architecture Department, Boston University