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peter greenaway's flights of fancy

by Kim Bradley  

Peter Greenaway

Amor Victorious

Peter Greenaway
The Autopsy Room

The Arch of Feathers

The Minor Textsand The Major Texts

The Water-Sample Encylopedia

The Three Propellers, The Winds and The Baths

Jacques-Henri Lartigue
The BIg Splash
   The myth of Icarus was the theme of "Flying Over Water," British filmmaker Peter Greenaway's latest curatorial project, installed at the Fundacio Joan Miró in Barcelona, Mar. 6-June 1, 1997. Everyone knows this tale, in which Icarus's father attempts to flee from Crete's tyrannical King Minos by fashioning wings from feathers and wax for both his son and himself. Ignoring his father's cautions, Icarus brashly soars up into the heavens and near to the sun. The wax melts, and Icarus plunges into the sea. He was, as Greenaway points out with typically black humor, the world's first pilot; his shocking demise, our first air disaster.

True to Greenaway's fascination for the encyclopedic -- beautifully illustrated in his film Prospero's Books -- the exhibition "Flying Over Water" offered an encyclopedic take on Icarus, organized according to Greenaway's quirky classifications. Everything -- "from the material Icarus used to make his wings to the sound of his body falling into the sea" -- was included in this multimedia extravaganza, which featured lighting by Reinier van Brummelen and an extraordinary "sound track" by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, a director at IRCAM, the Centre Georges Pompidou's music and sound research institute.

The show's 30 separate sections included flying machines and related contraptions, an autopsy room in which a gruesome rendition of Icarus's flayed head rested on a metal tray, five live models serving as prototypical Icaruses, and an enormous landing platform erected for Icarus's hypothetical return. It was also full of feathers, including a zany, feather-filled clear plastic triumphal arch that spectators walked through to enter the foundation.

Once inside, the exhibition began with several large display cases containing artfully arranged children's books about flying, as well as flying-related memorabilia, such as toy planes and miniature bird statuettes. In the catalogue, Greenaway offered a provocative reason for why he chose these Minor Texts, as he calls them (as well as The Major Texts -- rare, illustrated manuscripts displayed in cases nearby) to introduce the show: "We should stop and read," he says, sarcastically. "So much visual material in our literate Western world is first a question of text, second a question of image. We should acknowledge this equivocal state of affairs."

In fact, "Flying Over Water" served Greenaway as a platform to emphasize this particular antitextual revelation. Greenaway complains that the history of film has amounted to "an illustrated text." His disillusionment with the "tyranny of text" imposed on cinema was one reason why he turned to other means of expression, including curatorial pursuits and, more recently, opera. (When asked about the emphasis on text in his latest film, The Pillow Book, in which an Oriental woman seeks out lovers to write on her body, Greenaway pointed out that, unlike letters of the Western world, "the Asian calligraphic mark is both an image and literature.") Ironically, the catalogue and explanatory texts for "Flying Over Water" are disappointing, but Greenaway did succeed in creating memorable images, the best of which were charged with cinematographic impact thanks to the special sound and lighting effects.

One of the most captivating installations was The Water-Sample Encyclopedia. In a separate gallery, 36 large, wide-brimmed glass jars containing samples of Barcelona's water were displayed on rows of identical white pedestals. Intriguing sounds, such as the loud plunk of a heavy drop of water, intermittently filled the space. Thanks to well-hidden light sources, some the jars seemed to mysteriously light up in synchronization with the sounds.

Another of my favorites, The Big Splash, was a quasi-scientific display humorously alluding to the splash Icarus made when he fell into the sea. Four tanks of water were equipped with moving metal plungers that plunked down on top of the water's surface. They made surprising noises, such as a resounding clang or a wheezing sound similar to that of air squeezed out by a hydraulic lift. In three tanks, air entered the water at different rates, from a slow burble to a furious boil. Another spectacular display featured a raised metal coffin surrounded by troughs of splashing water lit in such a way so that their watery reflections flashed onto the gallery walls.

As the show zigzagged through the foundation's galleries, it wove back and forth through time, from 19th-century ornithological displays to state-of-the-art computer graphics, including a computer program illustrating the trajectory of Icarus's pee (Greenaway assumes that Icarus peed from fright when he fell). The same action was also graphically illustrated in a simpler version: a rubber tube dangling inside a vitrine emitted a steady flow of yellow liquid under pressure. A number -- too many -- of smaller galleries contained groups of individual items relating to water (such as bathtubs) and to flying (a subcategory of which was wax, since it was used to build Icarus's wings). There were large stacks of candles, huge chunks of ice, rows of feathers and eggs evenly suspended from the ceiling, an assortment of bird wings and another of bird bones, and three massive blocks of beeswax.

The pinnacle of "Flying Over Water" was the combined display of The Beating Wings and The Skies. A pair of large, gorgeous white wings were fixed to two metal poles placed in front of a recessed, semi-circular space which served as a backdrop for projected colored light and images (such as of Mediterranean skies). Unfortunately, the wings didn't always work, and ended up looking a little hokey when stationary. But the piped-in sound which accompanied the display was amazing. A complex, looped sequence of sounds featured the reenactment of Icarus's ill-fated journey, beginning with men calling out Icarus's name, the beating of wings...then increasingly frantic flapping, seagulls crying, a thunderous splash, silence, then womens' voices joined in a lilting chorus. There were other snippets of unexpected sounds as well, such as a progressively-louder heart beat, a thundering storm, a pilot's voice, and the faint beeping sound heard when an airplane approaches a runway.

In spite of its considerable appeal, "Flying Over Water" somehow failed to pack the punch, for reasons difficult to pin down. During one viewing, I took an informal poll among members of the IKT, an independent curator's association which was celebrating its annual conference in Barcelona this year. Most curators harshly criticized the show's spectacularity (a quality which is apparently taboo among the European intelligentsia). But I suspect the show's main problem lay outside of any intrinsic flaws it contained, and was found rather in the difficulty the viewer had in relating its theme -- the myth of Icarus -- to our time.

After all, wanting to soar through the sky like a bird seems like a pretty tame aspiration compared to what an ambitious character of the `90s probably has up his or her sleeve. And Icarus's plunge into the sparkling sea is a fairly romantic way to go, compared to falling head first into the polluted slag heaps of today. "Flying Over Water" was funny, shocking, beautiful, and entertaining, but Icarus remained a distant, arcane figure.

KIM BRADLEY is an American art critic living in Barcelona.