Utopias of the Surface
Nothing is really visible, not even in the noon sun’s blinding reflection on the shimmering sea. A magical time, when gods appear.
-Claudio Magris, A Different Sea
Almost every day, I walk a few blocks west from my apartment to the Hudson River. This is one of the few places where the city opens onto an immensity of space — circulating with air, water and light — and I can feel myself expanding. Here, the world outside the limits of my body (so often closed up) seems to invite my senses to leave their shell and unfurl into space.
I follow the river south, staying close to the railing as joggers, dogs and children in strollers pass on my other side. Weather permitting, people will be sitting in the grass, lying in the sun, talking and taking pictures. Trees may be bare, budding or covered with leaves, and planters may be full of flowers. Someone might be shivering on a bench. The river is always changing: sometimes it’s choppy and lapping at the banks, sometimes it’s veiled in mist or ice, sometimes it’s scoured with infinitesimal ripples or gently rolling, reflecting the sky. Day and night, light is always playing on its surface.
Sometimes it seems as if the entire place is a living, feeling organism. Suddenly, for a moment, animism makes sense. Air rushes over the surface of my skin in tiny waves, light flickers and dances on my retinas, the inner currents of my being begin flowing outward into oceanic expanses. Everything moves together in a vast cosmic dream. But as much as I want to believe, I can’t accept that it’s true. I know that this moment is my personal vision, my solitary levitation.
Claudio Magris understood why. The noon sea that he squints across is darker than night, yet its reflection blinds him with shimmering light and color. Like a mirage that appears on the horizon but exists only within the eye, Magris’s sea and sky is a hallucinated world, a utopia dreamed by the eye and invoked by the circulating air, water and light. Strangely, Michel Foucault also understood this: “My body is like the City of the Sun. It has no place, but it is from it that all possible places, real or utopian, emerge and radiate” (Foucault 2006:233). Even when reflections overwhelm the eyes, the body is the “no place” where a world appears.
The appearance of a world is like a mystical vision, immersing us in sensuous and affective space. Our worlds, the utopian dreams of our bodies, give us form, shaping us as they exceed us, sometimes overwhelming us. Each of these worlds is revealed — or rather, generated — through a perspective. The spatial sense of self that we experience as our perspective is thus the self-sensing of our world. A world cannot exist without this minimum capacity to sense itself, no matter how impersonal or indistinct its perspective may become. Most often my perspective simply coincides with my body and myself. Yet even from this seeming lucidity, I still wonder, what is the worldly space that I perceive to be out there, surrounding me, the hallucinatory medium of my striving and my failures?
Certain church builders in 18th-century Germany incorporated this paradoxical structure of experience into a visionary form of sacred architecture: Bavarian Rococo. The interior of the Wieskirche, a pilgrimage church designed by Dominikus Zimmermann, is composed of ethereal flows of complex ornament and frescoes painted to create an elaborate perspectival illusion of infinity. The church envelops its worshipers in an imagistic space that expands their perceptions beyond all architectural limits. Ernst Bloch expressed the utopian aspiration of Bavarian Rococo as “nothing less than the wishful image again to live in a different space from the existing one, in fact in a deliberately impossible space” (Bloch 1986:705). As the church’s structure merges with the worshipers’ experience, the true sanctuary is revealed to exist not in architectural space but in perceptual space, where impossible images become living worlds.
Bavarian Rococo aesthetics radiate from the principle that our perceptual world is a part of us that is also not us. They reveal what appears to us as external space to be an extension of our bodies, even though this spatial consciousness goes beyond both body and self. The churches were designed to simulate the transcendent immensity of a divine revelation within the intimate world of experience, through an encounter with the perceptually incomprehensible. Karsten Harries described a site of one such ecstatic event, a fresco painted by Cosmas Damian Asam in the Aldersbach abbey church: “The fresco appears tilted out of its horizontal position, as if it had been pushed upward at its western end: we sense that there is a correct point of view, but that we should have to rise, angel-like, to reach it” (Harries 1983:63). Spatial encounters of this kind alter our worlds, rupture our perspectives and make us levitate.
If Bavarian Rococo transforms the utopian structure of perception into a shared spatial consciousness, then perhaps all utopias are architectures of collective hallucination. Like worlds themselves, utopias are immersive images, “no places” that reconfigure one’s reality. They channel the movement of the senses, situating and shaping the body and its relations with others. A utopia is an image that is experienced as a world, a conscious state that corresponds to certain ways of being. When this embodied vision generates an open metamorphic space, new forms of community may appear.
At first the image seems impossible, then simply improbable, as rare as water in the desert. Tomás Saraceno’s photographs “Cloud Cities” (2006) capture the Salar de Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia covered in a thin layer of water, perfectly reflecting the sky. The total sky-world that they open up is generated by light on the water’s surface, an optical illusion that the artist steps into and inhabits. These images are utopian worlds projected by the eye, or camera, with a most improbable human body projecting itself into them. Standing between endless sky above and endless sky below, Saraceno levitates in his own vision. From the surface of the images, and from his perspective in the sky, Saraceno invites us to float with him in a dream of what he calls “aerosolar” living.
The transformation of Saraceno’s utopia of sky into a collective experience and experiment is realized by his ongoing project Aerocene (2015). The project involves a series of flying sculptures that expand with air and move on the wind using the heat of the Earth and Sun. So far, one of the sculptures has floated over an international border and another has lifted a human passenger into the air. Imagining farther, Saraceno’s studio designed a flying city kept aloft by the warm breath of its inhabitants; prototypes of these transparent spherical structures invite people to climb inside, stay a while, breathe and dream. The studio also published instructions for how to make a flying sculpture from recycled materials, inspiring others to develop their own tools for environmental sensing and exploration. Here, the simple miracle of living in the sky becomes a shared reality, a collaborative medium of envisioning future worlds through air and light.
Now it is night, and something else is becoming visible. Saraceno’s photograph “Expedition to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, January 2016” (2016) reveals the sky-world opening onto cosmic darkness and infinite points of light, like so many distant utopias. This darkening elucidates that within and beyond the sky, an ontological surface of shared substance and structures connects our inner visions with an outside that we cannot see or imagine, but of which we are all a part. And so a universe appears in this dark night, filled with levitating bodies and luminous worlds — a universe moved and shaped by the dreams on its surface.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope, Volume 2. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1986.
Foucault, Michel. “Utopian Body.” In Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology, and Contemporary Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones, 229-234. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2006.
Harries, Karsten. The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Magris, Claudio. A Different Sea. UK: Harvill Press, 1995.
Saraceno, Tomás. “Projects.” http://tomassaraceno.com/ (accessed November 12, 2016).