Issue 20: Ecologies (Spring 2014)
Spyros Papapetros. On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extension of Life; Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 2012. 380 pages.
Spyros Papapetros begins his study by breaking open the title, detailing and illustrating some of the myriad ways he will employ and lead us to understand the word “animation.” In the early pages of the book Papapetros moves from a case study of a wave of Pokémon episode-triggered blackouts, to Saint Catherine of Sienna’s collapse before a Giotto mosaic wherein stylized, curled waves suggest the movement of the sea, to Charles Darwin’s observations about his dog barking at a parasol animated by a light wind. Papapetros even investigates more oblique senses of the word that seem to veer far from the subject matter implied by his title. Examining Herbert Spencer’s analysis of Darwin’s dog, for example, Papapetros says that Spencer’s description “becomes more animated by the implementation of contextual details.”1
Papapetros’s book “is not only about the animation of objects, but also the reanimation of an earlier form of scholarship.”2 Papapetros likens On the Animation of the Inorganic to a medieval book of wonders because it includes descriptions of miraculous happenings but does not necessarily provide rational explanations for them. In this spirit, chapters are organized in clusters of subjects or variations on a single idea, not always with connections made logically clear. This method is similar to art historian and iconologist Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne series (which Papapetros writes about in his first chapter, The Movement of Accessories) wherein Warburg assembled images based on what meanings they might acquire in a particular grouping rather than the images’ autonomous meanings. But where Warburg portends that the meanings of his assemblages are incompatible to words, Papapetros uses both images and words to provide a more complex and textured experience. Warburg’s work is particularly relevant because Papapetros considers at length the thread of a Pueblo Indian snake motif in one of Warburg’s writings and highlights such visual and conceptual rhymes as the “animal biomorphism”3 of the steam locomotive, juxtaposed with the movements of a snake. Papapetros continues this line of inquiry through an ancient Greek text, early pneumatic tires, and more.
Such excursions and transitions might seem forced or overextended if presented only textually, but On the Animation of the Inorganic is copiously illustrated with black and white photos, film stills, drawings and diagrams, and a section of color plates (including stills from infamous Pokémon episodes, a detail of Botticelli’s Venus and several of Léger’s nudes). For example, in the Warburg sequence Papapetros includes paired photos – a stack of worn-out tires and snakes in a Pueblo kiva – alongside his argument. The similarities are undeniable, and unsettling for reasons that—as predicted—cannot be fully explained in any logical way. Furthermore, Léger’s nudes clearly inspire Papapetros’s title Nudes in the Forest, the fourth of On the Animation of the Inorganic’s six long chapters. In addition to reproductions of several of Léger’s works this chapter includes comments on cosmogonic theories about “primeval waters,” drawings of the Michelin Man, and photos of crystals. Papapetros justifies the inclusion of the crystals with an observation: “There is something between the solid and the liquid in Léger’s landscape, a fluctuation between mineral layers and fluid sources.”4 Other pairings and compounds seem more logical – German Expressionist film architecture (Nosferatu; The Golem) with a Mies van der Rohe glass skyscraper for instance. The last, more conventionally organized chapter, Daphne’s Legacy, looks at variations on the myth of Daphne as presented in visual art and opera. While the narrative may be simpler, the concepts are very subtle, such as looking at how ‘organic’ and ‘inorganic’ can signify a number of different states when artists try to render the essence of Daphne’s “vegetal morphology.”5 Trying to simplify Papapetros’s technique here is like trying to reconcile the red and blue images in a 3-D film when they are too far apart; we experience the total image without bringing it fully into focus.
Papapetros’s prose style approaches but does not quite cross into academic jargon. His sentences remain clear and lively even as they present complex ideas and arcane references. Though the concepts Papapetros presents throughout On the Animation of the Inorganic can be dense, this undulating density aligns with and extends the project of the book’s paired photos and clustered drawings. As Papapetros aims to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about the inorganic, it is in its breadth and ambition that the book admirably succeeds.