Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The neck of the hourglass

Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art has a fascinating exhibition at the moment ‘looking at how contemporary artists disrupt prevailing forms of registering and representing the world’. Two exhibits at Transmission Interrupted in particular got me thinking about the ways we see our cities, Jem Cohen’s beautiful video of New York (NYC Weights and Measures) and Mircea Cantor’s Monument for the end of the world. Cantor’s piece is a large model city, simply made from plain wood and dominated by a huge crane beneath a set of wind chimes kept in motion by a fan. The text tells us that ‘the work alludes to the anticipatory commemoration of a future event’.


I found the installation evocative if visually unsatisfying, although I do understand that Cantor wished to give a sense of unfinished vulnerability to the piece. But the concept is very significant.

Some time ago, reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities I was moved by the description of Laudomia, a city that like all cities gives space for the living and another space for the dead, the cemetery. Laudomia also includes a third city, one for the unborn. This is ‘rightly… an equally vast residence’:

‘Naturally the space is not in proportion to their number, which is presumably infinite, but since the area is empty, surrounded by an architecture all niches and bays and grooves, and since the unborn can be imagined of any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants’ eggs, there is nothing against imagining them erect or crouching on every object or bracket that juts from the walls, on every capital or plinth, lined up or dispersed, intent on the concerns of their future life, and so you can contemplate in a marble vein all Laudomia of a hundred or a thousand years hence…’

Calvino describes the citizens visiting this space, this city, to think of the future. But he tells us: ‘The Laudomia of the unborn does not transmit, like the city of the dead, any sense of security to the inhabitants of the living Laudomia: only alarm.’ There are two possible paths: a future teeming with lives to come, crammed into that confined space, or else a Laudomia that will come to an end.

‘Then the Laudomia of the dead and that of the unborn are like the two bulbs of an hourglass which is not turned over; each passage between birth and death is a grain of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to fall, which is now at the top of the pile, waiting.’

Oh, Calvino. His extraordinary imagination and intellectual precision leave me stricken. But at risk of bathos in following his thought, this story made me think how distorted it is that our cities build monument after monument to the dead or to commemorate past events in war and culture, and yet we make no space at all for the future. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if every city had such a space, a place where we could think about lives to come? I like Calvino’s choice of emptiness for such a city to the unborn since how else could it take shape? We tend to see ourselves as the end point of history, and this makes sense in terms of our knowledge, life spans and the necessity of repressing thoughts of death. But to acknowledge that our homes are homes of people to come could be powerful and positive. Today’s cultural short-sightedness sets us stumbling into a bleak future, but human imaginations make our cultures endlessly malleable.


  1. I liked this thought a lot. I've never quite managed to get my head around Mircea Cantor's work, but I blogged about it here:

  2. Hi William, glad you liked the post. Thanks for featuring it on your blog.