PHO704: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino published Invisible Cities in 1972. It is a deceptively simple work, in which Marco Polo describes 55 increasingly improbable and fantastical cities to Kublai Khan while it gradually dawns on the reader that in each case Polo is in fact describing his home city, Venice. At the same time it also becomes clear that Polo is describing urban problems such as overcrowding and inequality that have a disturbingly modern rather than medieval ring.

Invisible Cities has turned out to be a highly influential work. It is postmodern in arrangement and poses all the postmodern questions about authority, identity, reality and structure. Even its arrangement is far more complex than first appears. The 55 cities described are grouped into 11 themes and are carefully arranged in a mathematical structure whose inspiration derives from the Oulipo literary circle of which Calvino was a member. Gerry Johansson’s decision to caption his photobook Pontiac by street name as if navigating a geographical matrix is strangely similar (Johansson 2010).

Invisible Cities has inspired many artists. In 2019 Manchester International Festival presented it as performance art involving music, dance, design and visuals (Kenton 2019). However, it is the novel’s influence on photography that really concerns me here. Invisible Cities is saying that reality is what we choose to make of it. There is no objective Venice, Paris, London or New York out there. We each make our own version and we make it anew each time we visit. As Jeanette Winterson wrote in a review of Invisible Cities,

‘Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venices, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value. … Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps’ (Winterson 2001).

In some ways this knowledge – that reality is our own imagining – is an old as civilization. It is, for example, the opening sentence of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2005). It is also at the core of Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (Barthes 1977). Barthes points out that the idea of an all-powerful creator/author imposing a canonical version of anything is a fantasy (Barthes 1977). We write our own book, tell our own story out of the ingredients we find before us.

This realisation – that what I photograph is my reality and no one else’s – has had an electrifying effect on my practice. It relieves me of the burden of emulating or competing with anyone else, and so it is freeing. Nearly all images have at least some indexical value but at the same time they are also an expression of the mind behind the camera.

In turn this has helped me better to understand the practice of other photographers. One example is Maria Kapajeva’s book You Can Call Him Another Man, about a trove of images she found of her father’s life before she was born – and therefore of a man she both knew and did not know at all (Kapajeva 2018). An image, any image, shows what we both know and do not know. The image is free to acquire new meaning in whoever views it. It is not confined to the dusty reading of an archive.

ken-schles-invisible-city-2014
Fig. 1: Ken Schles 2014. From Invisible City. There is darkness on the edge of town …

A second example is Invisible City by Ken Schles (Schles 2014), a vintage noir journey around the junkie-ridden chaos of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s. The whole point of the book, however, is that this is his experience of New York, not yours or mine. As Schles points out,

‘We are solitary creatures situated in a place and point in time that is unique to each of us. The New York City my friends and neighbors knew was different from the NY I experienced. Let’s be honest: we’re all perpetual outsiders to each other’s experience. That’s the tragedy of being human. But we can struggle against that. So there’s possibility as well: we may be locked into our own place and time, but we can share our little revelations, those small realizations of the everyday, and share in whatever knowledge that might bring us or open us to. That’s a very human trait: the attempt to communicate something meaningful. Sharing these other ways of seeing gives us perspective on what each of us experiences’ (Bocchetto 2015).

Sharing our own experience while acknowledging that we are all outsiders to each other’s experience is the common theme here, whether Calvino, Kapajeva or Schles. I think it needs to become an important theme of my practice too.

References

BARTHES, Roland. 1977. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Roland BARTHES and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana, 142:148.

BOCCHETTO, Alex. 2015. ‘Ken Schles on “Invisible City” and “Night Walk”’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2015/01/interview-ken-schles-on-invisible-city-night-walk-and-existential-impulses.html [accessed 3 Nov 2020].

CALVINO, Italo. 1997. Invisible Cities. London: Vintage.

FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.

JOHANSSON, Gerry. 2010. ‘Pontiac’. Gerry Johansson [online]. Available at: http://gerryjohansson.com/page2/page37/page37.html [accessed 3 Nov 2020].

KAPAJEVA, Maria. 2018. ‘You Can Call Him Another Man’. Maria Kapajeva [online]. Available at: http://www.mariakapajeva.com/book-to-order/ [accessed 26 Oct 2020].

KENTON, Tristram. 2019. ‘Manchester’s Mythical Makeover: Invisible Cities – Manchester International Festival’. Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2019/jul/04/invisible-cities-manchester-international-festival [accessed 29 Oct 2020].

SCHLES, Ken. 2014. Invisible City. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl.

WINTERSON, Jeanette. 2001. ‘Invisible Cities’. Jeanette Winterson [online]. Available at: http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/journalism/invisible-cities/ [accessed 28 Oct 2020].

Figures

Figure 1. Ken SCHLES. 2014. Untitled. From: Ken Schles. 2014. Invisible City. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl.