Monday, December 12, 2005

Sacred spaces

In the November issue of the Urbanite (pdf here), Zoë Saint-Paul looked at “The Sacred City,” a topic that we discussed when she was writing the piece, and one that I found provocative once she got me thinking about it. I am always on the lookout for peaceful places in Mobtown, but it doesn’t take long to see that the quiet and the sacred are not one and the same. At the time, I jotted down some notes on the theme and pass them along here, with only a few edits.


What constitutes the sacred? For me, it is something that enables one to feel one’s insignificance: to contemplate death, or the sweep of history, ideals, or one’s place in the world—in short, a feeling of humility. I place a great deal of importance on the divinity of man, however one thinks of that, and so I’m generally drawn towards the intersection, the harmony, of man and nature. (Many find the wilderness a sacred place, but not me—we are frequently reminded of the destructive power of nature.) That leaves one with the chance to catch a bit of the religious impulse, the happy and bittersweet feeling when one is connected to the moment, the place, oneself.

In the early 1980s, I was paying a visit to Père-Lachaise cemetery in northeast outskirts of Paris, searching for the grave of Guillaume Apollinaire, when I came upon a small group standing over his tomb, one of their number—a middle-aged man—reading several of his poems. I observed the rite from a distance, standing in the drizzling rain until they were done before my own visit. When we contemplate great men and women, their works, and their legacy, we may experience the sacred. I remember finding myself on the National Mall one winter evening when virtually no one was around, thinking about the remarkable founders honored there, a wellspring of patriotism.


Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
Silbury Hill, Wiltshire (1985)

[Photo credit: Marilyn Bridges, from Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes (Aperture, 1986); this largest man-made hill in Europe reaches 130 feet in height and covers some 5.25 acres. Believed to have been built in four stages beginning in c. 2500 BCE, it is said to be the burial place of King Sil, who was interred sitting on horseback. In fact, it may have served as an astronomical observatory.]


Relative quiet is helpful, but not required. I enjoy being out-of-doors where other people are going about their business, but not engaging me directly. I love the sound of the tugboats in the harbor at Fells Point, of the trains as they make their way through east Baltimore, of (even!) the crowd at the ballpark on a beautiful September evening.

When I was visiting the pyramids at Giza, I was endlessly frustrated at my inability to find peace in what is clearly a magical place—not the crowds, actually—the place is so big that it’s easy to avoid others, at least if everyone is pursuing the same strategy—but they aren’t: folks are hawking camel rides, selling souvenirs, offering to show you around, and they won’t go away. Later in the day, when I was several pyramids down at Saqqara (the “step pyramid”) and a storm was threatening, I [more or less] had the place to myself. Much smaller than Giza, but more personally profound, since I had a little slice of quiet.

A place to sit, or recline, is almost essential.
Physical comfort is essential. No cold!

Familiarity, a sense of being rooted to the place, helps—I’m pretty comfortable in Baltimore, having lived here for most of my adult life (save five years in California). I love Los Angeles, and have the ability to find a sacred place almost anywhere out there (it has more than a little to do with the climate, and the land, and the ocean, but there is also something about the place that makes me happy).

The familiar does not have to be due to direct experience. Folks feel comfortable in religious buildings the world over, and I felt at home in Paris the first time I ever visited, the result of years of middle-school French class indoctrination. I once visited Istanbul based on the purchase of a Victorian travelogue. Sometimes our “fit” with a place can be almost mystical, no?

The strange can be marvelous, but an awesome place is not the same as a sacred one.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

More camo

students in green
teachers in pink

“Camo Day” photos (more)

A second collection of odds and ends from the camouflaged world (part one is here, although you can likely scroll down the page a little to see it).

First up is the popularity in American secondary schools of “Camo Day,” where students and teachers dress appropriately [inset left]. Any Camo Day googling will quickly uncover a story on the Spurger [Texas] school that was flummoxed by a parent’s worry on the effect of a school tradition similar to Sadie Hawkins Day (where girls take the initiative in asking out boys): at Spurger, though, the boys often wore skirts or dresses for their celebration, raising a concern that the practice might lead to more widespread homosexuality. The school district cancelled the rite last year, replacing it with the manlier wearing of the ’flage.

Camo Madonna and Child
Camo Madonna and Child

In the late 1970s, French architect and artist Émile Aillaud imposed a camouflage pattern on seventeen high-rise buildings—the Cloud Towers [“Tours Nuages”], found in the Paris suburbs at Nanterre.


Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay has long employed camouflage in works investigating Western pastoralism and the theme of death in arcadia.


Reprinted here: several anecdotes from Patrick Wright’s review of DPM: Disruptive Pattern Material in the London Review of Books on the part of fine artists in the development of camouflage.

“I well remember at the beginning of the war,” Gertrude Stein wrote in 1938, “being with Picasso on the Boulevard Raspail when the first camouflaged truck passed. It was at night, we had heard of camouflage but we had not seen it and Picasso, amazed, looked at it and then cried out, yes it is we who made it, that is Cubism.” Stein went on to suggest that the entire First World War had been an exercise in Cubism. Hailing Picasso as the first to register an epoch-making change in the “composition” of the world, she concluded that a great convulsion had been necessary to awaken the masses to his discovery: “Wars are only a means of publicizing the thing already accomplished.”



Abbott Thayer (1849-1921), the “father of camouflage,” American portraitist and landscape artist, was well known for his “angel” paintings, in which he added feathery white wings to portraits of girls and young women. In 1915, the painter was due to meet army authorities in London in order to exhibit a prototype camouflaged garment for snipers. Thayer, who was suffering from nervous tension at the time and was probably also fed up with being mocked and derided, pulled out of the meeting at short notice, leaving John Singer Sargent to attend on his own. The British generals are said to have been horrified when Sargent opened Thayer’s valise. According to Richard Murray of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the prototype garment resembled an old hunting jacket, trailing strips of coloured cloth and daubed with patches of colour that reflected Thayer’s interest in harlequin costumes. It’s not clear whether the British generals objected to the scruffiness, the disruptive coloration or the cowardice that some military traditionalists still believed was at the root of the camoufleur’s new systems of deception.

Chili 1
Chili 8
Chili 5
Chili 4

Chili Williams
WWII camo posters

The British artist Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927) and his colleagues came up with a grass-threaded fishing net, which would, he claimed, quickly become the “universal camouflage” material for French as well as British troops. Assisted by a carefully chosen band of scene painters from Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre, Solomon also produced steel-cored observation posts that resembled slender willow trees. Other effects were achieved with wire-netting, dyed raffia, papier-mâché and plaster of Paris, the last proving especially useful in the construction of dummy heads that could be pushed up over a trench parapet to tempt enemy snipers into revealing their positions. Later, he worked at the secret Elveden Explosives Area in Suffolk, devising schemes that would enable Britain’s new tanks—which would later be dubbed “Cubist slugs”—to blend into the landscape. Solomon was repeatedly frustrated by the attitudes of the military command. He was mockingly addressed as “Mr. Artist” when he visited GHQ in France, and felt blocked in his attempts to ascertain the terrain in which tanks were likely to be deployed. The trainee tank soldiers appear to have remembered his designs not so much as Cubist attempts to confound enemy observers, but as ludicrous “pink sunsets” that would soon disappear under the flying mud of the Western Front.


The camouflage sections had enjoyed moments of popular acclaim on the Home Front. During the war bond campaign, Trafalgar Square was briefly turned into a “camouflaged” village, and a shop in Hackney’s Mare Street drew considerable attention when decked out as a camouflaged trench.


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bawlamer happenings

Marnie poster
Connery and Hedren

A while back I wrote a little piece on Hitchcock’s Marnie, and how it was filmed on a little street in SoBo; in the comments, there was a short discussion on how parts must’ve been filmed on a sound stage, and other vagueries. Well, ff received an email yesterday from one Mark D. Phelps, who lived on Sanders Street when the movie was being fashioned. From Mr. Phelps’s note:

I grew up on Sanders Street in the 60’s and vividly remember the excitement of the filming. One time during the shooting I ran out of my house and up the street and was screamed at by the men in charge. We were all instructed to stay indoors and keep our front doors closed. Of the photos you published of the street, only one is the real street, the view from high up (filmed from the roof of a house at the top of the street on Riverside Avenue). The others are from a sound stage. How can you tell? Look at the steps. In those days the white steps were cheap wooden and hollow—you could crawl under them to hide if you were small enough. You can see the hollow area in the high shot. In the close-ups the steps are solid as if they were marble. … [T]he backdrop of the ship was totally fabricated and the subject of much consternation by the residents of south Baltimore when the film was released because it looked so fake. They covered up a dilapidated factory and a parking lot and inserted a huge ship at the end of the street.

(Thanks for writing, Mark!)


And then there’s this IM transcript, courtesy of a ffriend, reporting from his Hampden Estate on the goings-on in our little Appalachian burg.

Stalker: On Roland Ave, down toward 34th St., a couple of rednecks are dressing a couple deer. The skins are in bloody piles on the sidewalk.
honeyworsted: NO WAY!!
Stalker: The deer are tied to the fucking porch rails.
honeyworsted: FLICKR IT!!
Stalker: It's like the end times.
Stalker: They'll skin me.

honeyworsted: so are they like on their porch?
Stalker: No, they're standing on the ground, and the deer are hanging de-skinned from the white pickets.
Stalker: They're like flesh wreaths.
honeyworsted: wow
honeyworsted: wow
honeyworsted: we live in a city!!
Stalker: No, we live in Hampden.
Stalker: Fuck I'm gonna go see what I can do. Be back in 10 minutes.
honeyworsted: you should call the cops

Stalker: Well they weren't really friendly.
Stalker: I walked past and there were two little kids watching it.
Stalker: And I doubled back and stared at it for a second.
Stalker: One of the meat wreaths is now just a couple of leg shanks hanging from the railing.
Stalker: And one of the rednecks says, "Vegetarian, huh?"
Stalker: And his much taller and meaner seeming buddy laughed.
honeyworsted: hahaha
Stalker: And I said, "Naw, I just don't usually see things like that every day."
Stalker: And the taller and meaner redneck says, "You know, there really aren't that many rednecks in Baltimore anymore."
honeyworsted: couldn't they dress the deer in the woods??
Stalker: And then their "old ladies" came out on the porch.
honeyworsted: anymore??
Stalker: And I was outnumbered and outgunned.
honeyworsted: they sound kind of proud
Stalker: No, you bring the carcass back to your cave for dressing, unless you go to a dressing station out wherever you shot the defenseless fucking thing.

honeyworsted: fascinating!!
honeyworsted: bizarre!!
honeyworsted: so no pics huh?
Stalker: No, it's too dark, I would have had to have gotten along with them, but they were on the defensive. They're only done butchering one of them, if you want to go watch #2.
honeyworsted: does it look like they know what they're doing?
Stalker: Oh, they've killed and skinned before.
honeyworsted: isn't there some kind of law?
Stalker: I'll keep an eye out on Sundays and see if they do it again.
Stalker: I think it's disturbing the peace, maybe.
Stalker: It's gruesome as hell.
honeyworsted: there's got to be some kind of sanitation/health violation
Stalker: They got a hose!

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