- Uplifted Spirits, Earthbound Machines: Studies on Artists and the Dream of Flight, 1900-1935
The dream of flight has long enchanted and occupied artists, from Leonardo da Vinci, with his sketched flying machine, through 20th-century illustrators of fantasy pulp fiction. John Berger featured an early aviator in his novel, G, viewing the optimism and daring of such aviators as analogous to the innovative cubist painters and progressive political movements at the time. Panamarenko exhibited careful, conceptual drawings of dirigibles and aviation diagrams in the 1970s, and I displayed a painted hypertext kiosk, "Flight Paths: Space, Flight and Silicon" at NASA Ames Research Center in 1997.
Uplifted Spirits, Earthbound Machines is a swift and well-illustrated exploration of important aspects of this dreamscape. In contrast to Jyriki Siukonen's clean and subtle prose, the book is divided into three sections with the clunky names "Beginning," "Middle" and "End." "Beginning" starts with the machine aesthetics of the 19th century, highlighting iron architecture such as London's Crystal Palace, full of decorated machines. This was the era of Muybridge's animal motion photographs, often studied in attempts to create flying machines with flapping wings. One such notable attempt was Adel's bat-like "Avion III," exhibited prominently at the International Exposition in 1900 after significant funding of its development by the French government, despite the fact the cartoonish contraption could never fly.
Siukonen's "Middle" section concerns the first era of real flight and begins with a 1909 aviation exhibition in Paris (which was probably attended by Duchamp, Léger and Brancusi, an anecdote deconstructed in detail in the book's coda). The following year, Adolf Aarno flew over Tampere, Finland, in a small plane called "Demoiselle," purchased in Paris by the car dealer Sergei Nikolajeff, who was too heavy to fly it. When the 23-year-old architect Aalvar Alto flew over Helsinki in 1921, he was inspired to write a narrative exhorting destruction of the old buildings beneath him; the thrill of flight also inspired the architect Le Corbusier with the desire to smash things. When I looked afresh at his "Plan Voisin"'s gargantuan high-rise buildings with airstrips between them, I could not help but shudder at the thought of the tragic interface of airplanes and the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
The book's "End" section is the most ambitious and sweeping; Siukonen manages to link a dizzying range of insights about airplanes, sheet music, dreams, architecture, Soviet art and science using the Russian artist Tatlin's three "Letatlin" ornithopters as its anchor. Created in Tatlin's unheated studio in a monastery belfry with hard-won materials in economically depressed Moscow, like Adel's oddity, the "Letatlin" projects never flew. Siukonen locates these creations not only within art history but within the tradition of human-powered flight experiments, which includes competitions for effective "aviettes" (a French neologism merging "avion" and "bicyclette") staged in Paris by the Peugeot and Michelin firms and, in Tbilisi, the inventor Shukov's flapping wing machine (1908). We are assured that "Tatlin's dream certainly failed, but only according to the laws of physics."
The reader soon swoops over the architect Melinkov's "Laboratory of Sleep," which Siukonen compares to Caprioni's huge ill-designed 18-winged airplane, another flightless failure that was nevertheless pictured and lauded in Le Corbusier's "Vers une Architecture." Upon completion of Uplifted Spirits, Earthbound Machines, which grew out of Jyriki Siukonen's thesis at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, we realize that we have been treated to a promising critic's satisfying and artistic performance of intellectual stunt flying. [End Page 448]