Carried away by airships
Concorde never really took off, at least not as an economically viable mode of transport. It was always a folly brought about and continued by national and corporate pride posturing on the world stage. With its demise, perhaps there will be a return to a somewhat less urgent mode of travel - Zeppelin GmbH has applied for a certificate of airworthiness for its new airship, the Zeppelin NT.
In the 1930s, the 26 metre Zeppelins were the equivalent of Concorde. The Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg halved travel time between Europe and the Americas: New York was no longer four and a half days at sea, but two days in the comfort of an airship with a superb view. These leviathans of the skies were the culmination of years of trial and error. There had been airships, or more accurately, steerable balloons (in French, ballon dirigeable - hence the misnomer ‘dirigible’), of one form or another, making precarious progress above the earth for about 80 years. Count Zeppelin was responsible for the building of the first rigid airship. Not a great inventor, engineer, nor businessman, he was, however, rich, well connected and a good leader. The ‘Crazy Count’ organised a specialised team to build a complex frame to hold balloons filled with hydrogen. His first effort took off on July 2, 1900 and remained airborne for 18 minutes.
After a few years, the Zeppelins stopped having regular accidents, and in 1909 the Count founded the worlds first commercial air transport company. Until the beginning of The Great War, four Zeppelins ran domestic services all over Germany. Airships of every description were built by most of the European powers, Russia, and Japan, but Germany was the only country to use rigid airships during the First World War. Originally flown for reconnaissance, by 1915 they had begun to conduct a bombing campaign over England, which, though terrifying to the population, was largely ineffective. In the 1920s, airships were seen as the transport of the future. The Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the world while, in England, there were plans to link the Empire with a network of airship connections.
Boats are the oldest form of long-distance human transportation and throughout the ages nearly every vision of how the skies would be conquered involved extensions of nautical technology. The drawings of lighter-than-air craft by two 17th-century Jesuit fathers, de Lana and de Gusmão, are typical, involving sails, rudders, and a hull. Likewise, every effort was made to make the airship experience akin to that of travelling on an ocean liner. The advertising brochure for the Hindenburg stated ‘Those who are accustomed to steamship travel will soon find themselves at home in an Airship.’ They were equipped with luxurious cabins, a dining saloon, drawing room, reading and writing room, and, somewhat alarmingly considering the combustible nature of hydrogen, a smoking saloon. The pitch continues: ‘The prophetic vision of Jules Verne has been realised… you are conducted inside the hangar, there is the majestic airship, you are dazzled by its immense size and the beauty of its silver grey form.’ Though similar in colour, the new Zeppelin NT is somewhat more modest: it has twelve seats and an optional toilet.
Other, grander airships are in the pipeline. The Skycat, if it is ever realised, will be a revolutionary craft that combines a variety of modern technologies with the original lighter-than-air principle. This particular airship will come in three sizes: huge, immense and ‘biggest aircraft ever to fly’, the hubris of which sounds like an invitation to spectacular disaster.
The airship did once, and could yet again, combine the best aspects of planes and ships. The idea of spending a couple of days floating serenely above the earth in my own cabin is far more appealing than spending weeks on a boat surrounded by people I don’t like (Dr Johnson believed that ship-board travel was like being in prison - with the added peril of drowning), or several miserable hours on an aeroplane. The speed of passenger travel in the future will, of course, be dictated by economics and therefore, for most, the seating arrangements will always be a choice between unsatisfactory degrees of discomfort. Airlines are currently touting the latest in luxury as being able to lie down in a ‘bed’ on long flights. In fact, this is merely an effort to compensate for the hot, dry-as-a-desert, germ-laden air, swollen ankles and barely achieved half-sleep. It is a far cry from ‘an experience the enjoyment of which one will never forget’ promised by the Hindenburg. It might be added that plummeting to the ground engulfed by flames would also be an experience one would never forget.
As the early 20th century promise of warp speed for all recedes into the distance, perhaps there is a market for unhurried airborne travel. Frantic corporate travellers will keep their extra few centimetres of leg room but the truly wealthy will flaunt their repose by passing a few days journeying in slippered luxury. (Rather like the Comte de Lautreamont who, to draw attention to his life of leisure, would take his pet lobster on weekday strolls through the Bois de Boulogne.) Modern life is infected by a sense of urgency borne by an obsession with speed. Faster is not necessarily better. Slower will be cooler.
Amidst the over-abundance of visual information produced by technology and the media today, what particular role could possibly be ascribed to the handmade image? One characteristic appropriate to some current painterly practices is ‘scarcity’. It certainly fits the work of Swedish painter Cecilia Edefalk. A painting by Edefalk is a rare thing, and one gets the feeling that this scarcity is not an accidental feature, something that could be overcome through intensified labour. Her images are few, and they seem to rely upon the considerable time-span that keeps them apart.
Her most effective works depend not on information but rather on the lack of it. They create a sense of dearth, which sharpens the eye. Instead of adding new visual data, they take away, and the details that remain gain a new clarity. In a world brimming with information, this appears the most effective way to make visible what is already seen. These paintings teach you what, in a sense, you already know. Scarcity encourages concentration.
Talking about the current role of painting in terms of scarcity might sound like a version of a conservative defence of the ‘auratic’ quality of art. The unique ‘here’ and ‘now’ of the work of art, is, of course, threatened by all modern technologies of reproduction. The situation defined by Walter Benjamin in the 30s has become polarised through contemporary information technology: the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ seem even more evasive categories today, in the era of digital communication. Can the painted canvas recreate the old sense of ‘auratic’ presence? Ought it to?
While Edefalk’s strength does not lie in some magical uniqueness of painterly expression, her projects do seem to deal with the tension between an evaporating sense of self, and a cautious re-inscription of the personal into the very medium of its dissipation: repetition. The personal appears not in the form of a confident assertion of a unique self, but rather in those marginal, sometimes hardly detectable deviations which produce difference in repetition. This is as far as you can get from self-assured Expressionism: the subjective functions not as a starting-point, but rather as a barely visible trace on the outskirts of the intentional.
Edefalk’s paintings are usually executed in series. They imitate, distort, and intensify each other, all according to a principle of repetition which makes the distinction between original and copy difficult to uphold. Usually they begin with a photograph, which is then reproduced in paint. Unlike mechanical repetition, every step allows for small modifications, and sometimes drastic displacements. Subtle changes in posture or gesture can create radical shifts in atmosphere. In Another Movement (1990), based on a fragment from a magazine advertisement, minute alterations change our interpretation of the depicted scene - a man touching the back of a young women sitting naked in the sun. Depending upon how the man’s left hand rests on her bare back, the images convey either tenderness or a sense of icy distance.
The play between identity and difference is given an additional twist in the series of self-portraits called Echo (1992-94). The twelve paintings all refer back to a photograph taken by the artist showing herself in three-quarter profile. The sequence has been developed in the following manner: the first painting is reproduced by the second, the second by the third, the third by the fourth… The photograph, itself already a reproduction, is absent from the series.
The canvases differ in size, and a number of alterations give the series a quality quite different from that produced by strict repetition: one painting is painted upside-down (not just hung upside-down), another is inverted as if seen in a mirror, a third has been diluted to such a degree that it appears to be a grey monochrome. Small details differ radically from painting to painting: ‘I discover things in my paintings when I repeat them’, Edefalk explained in an interview. ‘It is a way to explore my own work. I am always surprised by the result. I think I can figure out what will happen. But with every new painting the others change’. 1
Edefalk’s use of repetition has two effects. First, something personal loses its special charge: an image, in this case showing the artist herself, is purged of all uniqueness through multiplication. It’s made anonymous. This move is well tested, and a recurrent strategy since, at least, Andy Warhol, who made great use of the anonymity inherent in mechanical reproduction. Warhol’s work is perhaps still the most effective example of the power of repetition, partly, no doubt, through the calculated choices of subject. Take a work from the ‘Disaster’ series, such as 5 Deaths 11 Times in Orange (1963): isn’t this the final provocation to European humanism with its traditional appraisal of death as a unique event, a moment of truth summing up a human life? ‘My death is mine,’ wrote Rainer Maria Rilke, aptly expressing a firmly established view. Through repetition, Warhol’s work attacks this belief in human uniqueness at its very root.
Edefalk’s treatment of the theme of self-portraiture - a subject no less closely linked to human uniqueness than death - might initially appear Warholian in its use of reproduction and multiplicity. The first impression created by the Echo series is that of an anonymous recurrence of the same. But the second effect follows very soon: the sameness dissolves, and makes way for difference - small shifts in tone, hardly discernible variations in colour and shape. Suddenly, every detail comes alive, a bearer of secret meaning. This is the return of subjectivity. Not that self-centred masculine subjectivity so well known in European painting, but a different, much more evasive form. Delicate. Listening. Feminine, perhaps?
‘I don’t feel I have a history, so repetition is a way of creating history,’ she contends. 2 In the interplay of reproduction and subtle variation, a self is emerging. An interesting detail in this series is the ear. It starts out as just one insignificant part of the body, but takes on new meaning step by step. At the end, it seems to play a decisive role for the series as a whole: ‘In the first painting, it was just a beautiful ear, but when it is repeated, it is obvious that the paintings have to do with listening… Sound enters through the ear. The sound grows in the painting and gives the painting life.’ 3
It’s an attentive face, one which listens rather than speaks. To enter the room where the twelve paintings are installed is like entering an echo chamber: these faces listen to each other listening. Without motion they communicate. In silence.
1. ‘Zum Sprechen Bringen - Ein Gespräch zwischen Cecilia Edefalk und Eva Meyer’, Be Magazine, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin 1994, p.149.
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