Shades of Old Detroit

art, Cabinet of Wonders, history, moments in time, place

I just came across this while looking for something else in Google images: a project by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, called The Ruins of Detroit, a 5-year collaboration between 2005 and 2010.  This is part of what they have to say about the work:

“Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire.”

My father grew up in Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, worked in the auto factories during the summer, and went to the grand movie houses during the height of the movie era.  I have always wanted to visit the Detroit of his youth, and looking at these pictures is, in some ways, like looking at him: under the age are traces of a marvelous youth, a grace and power that still speak to us, despite the passage of time.  It’s both breathtaking and heartbreaking to see these remains of another era.  Particularly, I find the image of the theatre to be beautiful and sad.

The Secret of Kells

animation, art, Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history

I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I’ve had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C’mon, I’ve heard it’s good.”

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that’s when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.


Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle’s will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you’ve just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)

Which is excellent, because the movie begins: “I have seen the book which turns darkness into light.”  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It’s also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.

Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it’s not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they’re talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:

Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats’ feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.
This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It’s quite a work of art — the movie as well as the book.  
Good luck — you’re in for a treat.

Tyger, Tyger in a Folded World

animation, architecture, art, Cabinet of Wonders, neat stuff, paper, surreal

I just came across this, pretty much by accident.  It’s amazing, a small film by Guilherme Marcondes, a Brazilian filmmaker, based on the William Blake poem. He uses puppetry, illustration, photography and CGI to make a fantastically rich little gem:


Mr. Marcondes is influenced by the pastiche of Brazilian culture and the DIY quality of the Brazilian film schools of which he came.  Clearly, he uses anything he can get his hands on, including things like origami and the ancient Japanese puppet-art of bunraku.  It’s all very stylized and fabulous, and makes me want to know more about his earlier life — did he study all these kinds of art?  He must have.

I went to his website, where he has samples of his work, and I found this, from a movie called Bunraku, the opening sequence of which he was given carte blanche to do:


 I never heard of this movie, Bunraku.  It looks like it was released in France and Canada, but not here…?  It looks like a very violent movie, definitely not my type of thing, but the art direction looks really interesting: the pans through cities seem to unfold like a pop-up book, and the scenery is an odd conglomeration of bits.  Which leads me to the fact that Mr. Marcondes originally studied architecture: 

“I like experiencing architecture, not practicing it. Just as I go to the movies or listen to music, I like to wander around a city, paying attention to how the space is organized, how the transportation works, etc. I’m interested in how the environment we live in changes and conditions our personalities. That’s clearer in Tyger than in any other film I’ve made. That also explains why I like J.G. Ballard so much!”  [link]

And on that note, I will leave you to ponder a world where cities are made to pop up as you move through them, and when the apocalypse comes, flowers of light grow through the cracks of the world.

More in the Way of Hands, Mechanical

art, Cabinet of Wonders, culture, machines, making stuff, photographs, technology


Since I’ve been on the subject of waldos, and making things by hand, I might as well show a few of the myriad interesting images I’ve come across. The hand can be interpreted in so many ways.


First, an amazing clockwork hand manipulator, which I would love to have, even if it’s really simply art for art’s sake. However, imagine if this could read Jacquard cards (or complex cams) and thus make your hand move in specific ways. Gives a new meaning to the term “player piano” – or perhaps, “piano player.” Which would it be?

And a YouTube video of how it works:


Shane Willis’ cool Escher-inspired hands repairing each other.


Part of a school project where students had to build working hands out of popsicle sticks and strings as a study of engineering and physiognomy.


A Becker Lock Grip hand, modded by the writer of a blog on “Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues.” In fact, modded twice. Really a very nice hand to have if you need a prosthetic arm, because it is so moddable (and cool looking). An interesting discussion, too, of people’s reactions to different prosthetics he’s tried… And a neat video of him using it to chop tomatoes.


(Editor’s note: Wolf Schweitzer, author of the Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues blog, above, has written to tell me that I must include the beautiful Monestier-Lescoeur hand, made by a sculptor and automata maker who does very interesting work. He’s right – check it out: you can see the video here)


Another school project, with instructions


Kroenen’s Mechanical hand, a reproduction of the one in the movie Hellboy.


A cheap mechanical hand ($17) which I came across on BoingBoing

I wasn’t able to get a copy of this amazing tattoo of a hand emerging from this person’s flesh, but I encourage you to go look at it.


In the Waldo tradition, this person made an oversized wooden hand to fit on their arm


Lastly, Ambroise Pare’s excellent rendering of a mechanical hand, made from the original but with metal parts inside. From a nice Timeline of Robotics website.

The picture at the top was in Google Images, but led to a site which proposed to scan my computer for viruses, and nothing more. So I snagged the image and got out of there…