Valeria Luiselli and Lola Álvarez Bravo, Montage, Part 2
Friday, May 1, 2020
Continuing the thought of yesterday. Two artists consider the topography of Mexico and Mexico City. Lola Álvarez Bravo in a photo-montage called Landscapes of Mexico from around 1954; Valeria Luiselli in an essay from around 2012 called “Flying Home.” [I’m using the translation by Christina MacSweeney; I don’t know what the essay was originally called in Spanish.]
Both artists consider shifts in point of view that are hard to come by right now – you can’t get up into an airplane, or into the dusty reaches of a map archive, or to the top of a skyscraper to take photographs. From the windows of our rooms, available perspectives are constrained, and there is a corresponding longing for the kinds of spatial variety these artists collage together.
Part of what interests me is the way the same formal process of splicing together may apply to space and to time. The Álvarez Bravo takes modern buildings, ancient monuments, mountains and valleys – things which arise and erode in completely different scales of time – and juxtaposes them.
Juxtaposition seems like a modern technocratic word, loved by academics, but it is an older, deeper word, coming into English in the 1660s, from a 17th century French coinage combining the Latin iuxta, joining, with the French position. By the 17th century, with colonial projects well underway around the globe, this sense of placing distant things next to each other by force or abstraction needed a word.
Luiselli: We need the abstract plane to move around easily, to ravel and unravel possible journeys, plan itineraries, sketch out routes. A map, like a toy, is an anology of a portion of the world made to the measure of the eye and the hand. It is a fixed superimposition on a world in perpetual motion, made to the scale of the imagination: 1 cm = 1 km.
Álvarez Bravo is a master of self-aware juxtaposition. She leaves spatial scales incommensurate – a Baroque church towers over a mountain, what must be a large modern building is tiny compared to a brick tower that would have been built before the Spanish arrived – and in this way, she holds on to the distinct sense of time that belongs to each.
Cities are high and low in time and in space, in history and in architecture.
The writer in “Flying Home” goes to the city’s map archive, housed in the National Meteorological Service Building. She searches through huge tomes to try to learn about the drawing of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Then she tries to locate the city:
When I asked about the maps showing the original plans of Mexico City, the curator apologized and told me they didn’t exist. Legend has it that a Spanish soldier, a certain Alonso García Bravo, traced the design directly on to the ground. There are maps of the city from the sixteenth century, of course, but none precedes the grid plan of the historic centre. García Bravo made a few scratches in the damp earth somewhere around 1522 and became the first urban planner of the great capital of New Spain. It’s no surprise that it happened that way. Every inhabitant of Mexico City suspects it: if a sketch of the city has ever been made, the pencil scarcely touched the paper, and what is now called ‘urban planning’ is pure nostalgia for the future.
I see different ways to read that phrase “nostalgia for the future.” It could be the nostalgia of a reader now looking back at those first plans, and knowing the kind of planning that was to come in a future still embedded in our past; it could be the makers of the early plans, longing for, and imposing on, a future that they hoped would recall their past. Luiselli’s passage is also a collage. Points of view in time double up on each other, but keep their different senses of scale.
Valeria Luiselli and Lola Álvarez Bravo, Changes in Scale, Part 1
Thursday, April 30, 2020
Low this morning, daunted by similar days and already anticipating the evening feeling that the day has slipped by without any of the things I meant to do getting done. I am aware that today was to have been a special day. We had been able to invite Valeria Luiselli to come to the University of Chicago, and she was to have arrived yesterday. Tonight would have been the large public event. I would have met her yesterday, be going over my introductory remarks now.
These last few years, Luiselli has been a writer who has mattered very much to me. I read Tell Me How It Ends not that long after we arrived in Chicago. Picked it up at 57th Street Books because they had it prominently displayed. And then read it on my feet, walking around the neighborhood, unable to put it down, or to stand still as I took it in.
After the 2016 election, I had started a project called Migration Stories, and, when I found Luiselli’s book, was planning to teach a class called Writing in Crisis, about writing in the midst of crises, when you don’t know the end, and so you can’t determine the shape of your piece by how the story will come out. And here was a book about the crisis of unaccompanied children that took on this formal problem in its title and on every page. These children, sent or sent for by their adults, arriving to bureaucratized cruelty. Part of the cruelty, and part of the difficulty of doing ethical justice to their situation, was that no one knew how their stories would end.
I teach this book every year. The brazenness of our government's cruelty gets worse. And Luiselli has given new dimensions to her reflections by writing a related novel Lost Children Archive. I also teach another book of hers, an earlier set of essays, very visual, and grounded in Mexico City, translated by Christina MacSweeney and called Sidewalks in English, but published as Papeles Falsos (False Papers) in Spanish. I wish I could talk about Tell Me How it Ends and Sidewalks with their author today.
Today I am thinking about changes in scale. Part of what marks modernity as modernity is abrupt changes in scale. A few people are eating a kind of food, listening to a certain singer, traveling from one city to another, suddenly many hundreds of thousands can buy this food, packaged, can listen on the radio, can board a train. Part of what we are doing in lockdown is an experiment in scale unlike any I know of in human history.
Landscape changes scale like this – mountains rise up suddenly, there are cliffs and canyons, and the human landscape does, too – in its monuments and skyscrapers and airports. The bigger the city, the more it forces us to think about changes in scale – how crowded are the places for people who are poor, how high up are the places for people who are rich, what is industry next to, who is close together in a factory. Human problems are also formal problems.
In the fall of 2019, there was a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, curated by Zoe Ryan, called In a Cloud, In a Wall, In a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico. It considered the work of six artists who began in different places and spent significant time in Mexico City: Anni Albers (Germany, fled in the 1930s, United States), designer and curator Clara Porset (who left Cuba, arriving in Mexico City in 1935, and living her life in Mexico thereafter), sculptor Ruth Asawa (born in the US, of Japanese origin, who was a child in an internment camp in the US during WWII), textile artists Sheila Hicks and Cynthia Sargent, and photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo, who moved to Mexico City with her father at the age of three.
I first saw the show with my friend and colleague Ben Lytal, a novelist. We were immediately struck by the photo-montages of Álvarez Bravo. Here is a hasty shot of the huge blown-up one that opened the show:
We stopped before another one, a long horizontal piece, called Landscapes of Mexico. Ben said that it made him want to write, if I remember, he felt he could spend hours studying this work and practicing the things it made him ambitious to do. My photo of the whole of it is hard to make out, but gives one sense of scale:
In Papeles Falsos, Valeria Luiselli has a wonderful essay called, in translation, “Flying Home” that I taught last fall, on difficult-to-decipher landscapes of Mexico City, particularly all its waterways that have been drained or filled in and covered over. Its many missing lakes, the names of which make the titles for the essay’s sections, making a landscape of their own, a collage in letters. Luiselli’s essay takes many perspectives on the landscape – seen through the dusty corridors of a geographical archive, seen in maps of different historical eras, seen from the air.
This morning, I reread the essay; as I half-remembered, it is interesting to think about the essay and Bravo’s photo-montage together. Tomorrow, I will try to work through that here.
The essay begins aerially. Or with the irritating cartoon-maps shown on airplanes in which one makes infinitesimal progress toward a landing place. Here is the essay's third paragraph:
No invention has been more contrary to the spirit of cartography than these airplane maps. A map is a spatial abstraction; the imposition of a temporal dimension—whether in the form of a chronometer or a miniature plane that advances in a straight line across space—is in contradiction to its very purpose. As surfaces that by nature are immobile and frozen in time, maps don’t impose any limitations on the imagination of the person studying them. Only on a static, timeless surface can the mind roam freely.