Saturday, January 15, 2011

Nearby Bodies of Light

Ever-feline, the Flaneur finds himself mesmerized into mock hibernation by the lights visible in the chilly night.

As the microcosmic constellations of Xmas lights blink out one by one, the year waxes in whack. Gray nights of penetrating mists alternate with clear colder nights when my vision swims toward the little dipper. The big dipper so omnipresent and huge seems about to topple this way. Orion's belt lines up with the pyramids in Giza. There's a sparse little tree a few doors away still lit with a nimbus of tiny purple lights that feels like a hallucination or retinal afterimage when we're lit-up after dark.
In the meantime a golden light appeared on yonder university hillside. I thought for a moment that it was a flame, it seemed so incongruous and sudden. But it remained and undulated in my contemplation, unexplained even through daylight scrutiny with field glasses. All I could discern was that it continues to burn day and night. Only after a few weeks have I spied hard enough and deduced from its proximity to what looks like Lawrence Hall of Science what it could be. It is attached to a small rectangular building with an apparent tower alongside. As if it was an experiment monitoring or monitored out of the ether. It is in a grassy field a short distance from the concrete-slab retro-futurist Hall of Science, with its secular churchy look.
But why the incessant light-polluting yellow light? Are they attracting extra-terrestrial attention? Do they harvest the moth-like creatures drawn to the lamp I mistook for a flame?
Some metaphor for scientists or university students in there--suckered in by that eternal lamp of knowledge LED billboard bullshit.

Just below this in my eastern line of sight up to the hills, another battery of serious light pollution has reared its godzilla-like head up over the trees. High tension pylons of kleig lights have been installed at the high school sports fields. It's part of a make-over that includes a curvilinear viewing pavilion suitable for a dictator. Such moves were no doubt argued against by a hard-core few in the obscure meetings that usually precede the inevitable. It's never a question of money when it applies to football, or militarism in general.
So I accept it as the fait accompli it probably always was and I trust that they won't get away with lighting too much of the time. If they do abuse their welcome I know I will never have to rally myself to complain about it. There are many whose windows face that direction at much closer range and in Berkeley there is rarely a shortage of people willing to lodge a complaint.

These super-nova of conspicuous energy consumption go out fast. The center of my local milky way is quite nearer to home and it shines on brightly through the night. That locus is the art-lamp shop on the corner with it's ever-changing display windows filled with color, sculpture and light. This is the storefront and workshop of one of my oldest friends in California, Helen who sells lamps as Helly Welly. She lives in an apartment on the second floor and opens the whole place to musicians and other friends for folk-oriented jam session parties every New Year's Eve. Typically there are three or four different song circles in various rooms.
This year I fell by at 11:40 nursing a big bottle of Guinness stout. In the parlor upstairs I played harmonica joining in on some old swing tunes. Rang in 2011 with a brass bell, kissed a girl or two and I headed back home at 12:20. 40 minutes and I had just enough fun while avoiding solitude and self-pity at the over-hyped stroke of midnight. It was the end of a challenging year that didn't kill me but left me somewhat stronger and somewhat more secure. I walked off in the wet sidewalk away from the roisterous house of lamps.

A treasure cave of lamps it is too. There are as well numerous objects d'art some of which bearing incandescent elements but which are primarily works of assemblage. Her modus operandi is the judicious curation and juxtaposition of evocative keepsakes from the figurative attic of 20th century childhood.
A majority of her lamps incorporate these vintage, salvaged elements. Others make ingenious use of hardware repurposed as light-bearing structures. Her striking Tom Tom lamps are fondly remembered. Those began as light sockets installed in drums made of hand-made translucent papers stretched taut over tomato plant growers-- tapered, hooped frames made of wire. These evolved into similar wire and paper structures she built in more extravagant shapes. I owned two myself-- they threw the warmest light and evoked appreciation from all my guests.
Her latest creations center around two concepts: one is a column style, like a totem pole or an exquisite corpse, comprised of disparate thrift shop elements stacked-up on a center pole; the other style involves dangling beveled-glass elements to which she applies transparent color photographic images. The bevelled-glass style makes for dazzling chandeliers some of which alternate the glass with shrinked-plastic elements that are strangely expressionistic.

An example of he column-style led to a odd act of vandalism one dark and mysterious night last fall. I discovered it unbidden as I paused for a smoke on a midnight walk. Several of her columns had incorporated milk glass figures, some of storybook characters like Little Bo Peep and others, notably, included the Chinese goddess Quan Yin. The largest of these was arranged foremost in the display window left of her doorway.
I had stopped to admire them several times before that night, but when I looked again I saw that a circle had been inscribed in the glass window that framed the Quan Yin bust and above it was written "idolatry." It clearly wasn't scratched in because of the smooth almost snazzy lettering. An attempt to scrape off what could have been a white ink proved futile and I concluded that some sort of glass-etching pen must have been used.
I pondered what could have motivated this apparently puritanical vandal to damage her window in this show of apparent chastisement. Elsewhere all over town there are shops and yoga joints with unalloyed endorsement and display of buddhas, herukas, avatars and devi of all sorts. Why did her obvious secular artistic use of a such a figure draw this rebuke? It is apparent to me that whoever did it wanted to express something other than a mere accusation of idolatry and paganism. Neither religious christians nor muslims nor hebrews would wrong someone through such an obvious act of vandalism over so trivial a trangression of the interdiction against graven images in their respective creeds.
No, I suspect that it was foremost a vandal who saw an opportunity for a non sequitur, a punch line. I think it was likely an artist-anarchist type who laughs at all gods, the false and the true. I can't credit that anyone who goes around writing graffiti on windows with an etching pen gives a shit about "idolatry."
As time passes, due to the rain and perhaps to some scrubbing activity by Helen. The circle and the ironic charge of "idolatry" have all but eroded away. Meanwhile, to visitors and to automobile and foot traffic alike, Helly Welly's lamp-store has charmed for decades with its suggestion of warm interiors filled with suitably homey, dreamy and sometimes psychedelic lights. The entire place is sort of like a branch of the Smithsonian Institution of... the Twilight Zone.