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Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities is a book by Italo Calvino. I remember being referred to it by way of a Swoon interview a few years back who mentioned it as being one of her favourite books. Anything with a title like 'Invisible Cities' just had to be worth reading, so after buying it it immediately became one of my favourites too. The vocabulary was lush, the rhythms dreamy and the descriptions so fantastic and I remember thinking to myself that I should definitely do some project related to this great book in the future.

Around a year ago I was just starting my final year in Illustration at UCA Maidstone and was in the process of coming up with a few proposals for my minor project. I thought it would great to return to Invisible Cities, yet my vision for the final product only went as far as mere paint on paper. A couple of months and eye-opening tutorials later I would be hacking away at and sticking together bits of found wood at the uni's 3D workshop.

At some point during those two months the idea of doing a project about Invisible Cities had changed slightly to becoming a project about Invisible Cities and the book on which it is based - Marco Polo's 13th century travels. This actually gave the project a whole new spin due to the fact that now the project was based in Asia and had some form of place in time, as opposed to the timeless poetry of Invisible Cities. The mythical Silk Road (roughly the road Marco Polo describes) now also played a much bigger role in the project and as I'm very attracted to the idea of cultural mutation and ethnographic mixing, I began to view the Silk Road as this extensive cultural gamut - a trail in which one could see, by travelling it, a gradient of languages (sounds), folklore (sights), food (smells) and architecture (spaces) mutating into one another from Europe all the way to China and back. I saw the cities described in Invisible Cities as the cities which Marco Polo had seen during his journey along the Silk Route. That, or cities which he had actually never seen, but rather had heard about through a fellow silk route traveller in a language which he could not fully comprehend and had therefore left enough space for imagination to take root. These fantastical cities could also be a fabulous case of lost in translation during Marco Polo and the Kublai Khan's many dialogues in a made-up language throughout the book.

All of this and much more (as will be explained later on..) contributed to the evolution of this project into a 3D illustration installation or sculpture. The initial idea was to illustrate a series of interpretations of the various cities described in Invisible Cities, but I quickly reduced the amount of interpretations to just one after my illustration tutor Neil Breeden suggested a move from 2D to 3D. I therefore conceived this idea of having a generic Invisible Cities-type floating city inside some kind of curtain-covered cabinet, perhaps inspired by Victorian-era Cabinets of Curiosities. I wanted to have this city confined in a dark space with only a bit of light illuminating it in order to give it an air of mysticism and other-worldliness and to make the viewer feel as if he has entered some other time and context.

Even though it is never explicitly mentioned in either book, Russia and its central Asian ex-communist satellite countries quickly became very involved in the project. Central to this involvement was early 1900s Russian colour photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii whose works I find endlessly fascinating. The Russian onion dome too was a major influence on the project. I also always loved (in ways in which Edward Said might not have approved) these late 19th century/early 20th century monochrome ethnographic photographs which always seem to look so weirdly other-worldly. All of this and much more informed the visual direction of the project.

This project acted as a sort of culmination of lots of experiences and interests: places I'd been to, ancient scripts, old maps, migration, melting pots etc. I remember for example thinking of Segovia, this magical city nestled in the mountains just north of Madrid, as having a skyline which I wanted my project to somehow possess. But above all, the place which was always at the back of my mind all throughout the project is Valletta, the capital of Malta and in a way our own little cultural melting pot. A few years away from Malta have allowed me to view my motherland somewhat objectively and I guess some of that came through in this project. For example, the shape of the structure itself was very much influenced by the six-sided turrets found along the Valletta (and the rest of the port area's) fortifications called Gardjoli.

The structure was built for the most part by myself (with my father acting as a construction consultant) and was done almost entirely from found bits of wood in the streets and in the uni's 3D workshop. The typography which I used to write a quotation from the book with was designed and hand-painted by myself and was based on what I thought might look like late 19th century British imperialist lettering. The architecture of the structure is heavily inspired by Moorish architecture (mosques, shrines etc) while the city buildings are based on a mixture of Asian and European architectural styles which are vaguely meant to reflect Marco Polo's journey. The interior contains a sprinkling of exotic spices to evoke the smell of a market along the Silk Route and is illuminated by a light which I like to think of as being moonlight.

One last theme that I toyed around with throughout Invisible Cities was this idea of creating something magical, otherworldly and rare.. notions which I, writing from a desk on a laptop connected to the internet and downloading ridiculous amounts of readily available-but-previously-obscure music in the middle of London, feel are becoming increasingly hard to come by in this day and age. Perhaps that's why my geographical focus throughout this project (regardless of whether it shows through or not) was the remote steppe of Central Asian and not neon-lit Japan, green Thai curry Thailand or let's get spiritual India (places which until recently seemed worlds away). I wanted to capture that feeling you sometimes get when discovering that special thing you were always searching for when trawling through some musty old antique shop.. that thing and that space which although enjoyed by many belongs only to you.

(This text was mostly lifted from a blog post I wrote about the whole project. The first part which talks mostly about the idea and is accompanied by images which inspired the project can be found here - http://leftylemur.blogspot.com/2011/09/invisible-cities.html . A second blog post which explains the construction process and is also accompanied by construction and final pictures can be found here - http://leftylemur.blogspot.com/2011/10/invisible-cities-pt-2.html )

Thanks for reading!