Imitation of Life

Recently, I was struck by an extraordinary Roman sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If anything comes close to a likeness of the human, and by extension, a likeness of life, I think it has to be this.

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The devious satyr is unsettling in his beauty—even uncanny. Arrested in this one pose, mangled, mounted in sterile space, he still seems capable of taking a breath, of magically coming to life, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Uncanny was also the first word that came to mind when I watched a video of BigDog, Boston Dynamic’s robotic animal, a machine eerily animal and eerily not so.

Sculpture and robotics are both technologies, both imitative arts. Where sculpture was perfected in antiquity, robotics is being perfected now. In both, there seems to be the potential for life to leap from objects, regardless of purpose and whether those objects move or remain still.

Maybe, as so many theorists predict, robots like BigDog will someday come to life. Maybe they never will, or maybe they already have, and will only grow more alive, through technology—which is to say, through imagination.

Xu Bing’s ¨Phoenix¨ at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

The words magic and machine share the same Indo European root: magh-, ¨to be able, to have power.¨

To some degree, our idea of machines has always been invested with a sense of magic. To the lay public, technological objects, whose inner workings remain hidden or are too complex to trace, appear to function by trickery or by a mysterious supernatural impulse.

The hidden element that allows a machine to work can provoke a sense of wonder and a religious mixture of awe and dread akin to what David Nye calls ¨the technological sublime.¨

Xu Bing’s art installation, ¨Phoenix,¨ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, seems to lift from these correspondences. Built from raw materials and debris found on construction sites in Beijing, two machine-like birds soar, by some inexpressible power, within the cathedral’s nave.

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Copyright GothamGirl 2009-2014

Physically, culturally, for better or for worse, these phoenixes defy expectations of what is possible.

Morocco: Correspondences

To Correspond:

1520s, “to be in agreement, to be in harmony with,” from Middle French correspondre (14c.) or directly from Medieval Latin correspondere, from cor- “together, with each other” + respondere “to answer”

Online Etymological Dictionary


 

Four miles from the village of Ait Benhaddou, along a winding, upward, desert path, stands a lone fig tree marking the site of a spring. Just ten or so years ago, before indoor plumbing came to the clutch of villages strung along the Ounila River valley, each family trekked with donkey and vessel here and back, here and back, to gather enough water for the day.

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After the shadeless climb, resting under the fig tree’s foliage, I imagine what an unlikely place of celebration and communion this must have been.  Today, a place remote, absolutely abandoned and silent; for so many years, a place where water was poured and portioned out, where food, stories, news was shared.

The roots, cutting through the rock like tributaries, mirror an unfinished electrical box outside the walls of a crumbling kasbah in the village of Tamedakthe.

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Drawing on vital substances from below, the roots and wires each mark sites where deep human needs and desires concentrate and are dispersed—where exchanges take place between elements, between people.

Walking back to Ait Benhaddou along the road servicing the valley, I notice the power lines that slip beside the pavement.

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Their upright and sloping lines seem not alien from, but a part of the surroundings, shaped as if in response to the landscape; like the fig tree’s roots, they are a visual reminder of the practical human connections (and incredible real solutions) that undergird daily life.

Four Suns


 

…what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

Wallace Stevens, from ¨Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu¨


 

 

There may be nothing so reliable as the sun.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESRabat, Morocco

 

Despite its turbulence, it is one of the few things we can count on;

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it is the closest thing we have to a fact.

SAM_0286Marseille, France

 

Thirty minutes north of Marseille, near a small Provencal town, an experimental synthetic star is under construction. The ITER Tokomak, which will take at least twenty years to complete, is designed to mimic the sun’s power and offer future generations an alternative, sustainable energy source.

Human-built, in process, hypothetical, it is an idea, and it throws everything known and enduring into question.

si-ITER2Photo credit: ITER Research Center