Stendhal Syndrome: Mal d’Antartique
I happened upon the hauntingly beautiful An Unfinished Ballad 155 Mercer New York on Sunday. I found a deep open-onto-the-street gallery or store front or whatever this perplexing space was, without a front wall or window. Inside was dark, high ceilings, with a white blue glow from the back room. A ribbon cord cut across the space/gallery so I could only peer in. A young woman in a parka emerged from around a doorway and welcomed me at the adjacent door. Tea candles glowed in paper bags up the tall stairs. I entered the first floor. It was a freezing cold day. Inside the building I could see my breath. On a partial wall was a hanging white banner with writing, ostensibly on what I was to discover. I didn’t read it, the siren screen called me in. I wanted to guess myself what was unveiling. Three wicker flat cushions were on the floor. I sat.
The flickering image moved horizontally, a slow pan. Mesmerizing. All blue white snow with shadows, then emerging black foreboding rock then back to snow and then more rock. I felt I was witnessing something not many had seen. I didn’t need to know what glacier, what mountain, where, why or when. Switzerland? I suspected Antarctica. Time and space were compressed and the maker of the images was as invisible as I. The images chilled me but it felt peaceful in this unheated glacial capsule. I read the banner: “Scott Cohen’s photographic and film travelogues capture a dreamy abstraction lodged inside a nearly imagined verité…Thought of as a lyrical promenade, near and beyond, the exhibition presents a collection of works that conjure both the loss and anticipation of an ephemeral world.”
I walked up the what felt like 12 flights of stairs, perhaps like the start of a hike up a small glacier at Admiralty Bay, the candles guiding me up. On the top floor: large photographs of icebergs. Antarctica. A tabular one with a bird, perhaps a petrel that travelled from Iceland gliding sideways alongside it. A pinnacle iceberg I think, with a white face and grey body, floating in stern charcoal sea. A human in that water would be dead in seconds. But here is this stunning traveling beauty of ice, only a fraction revealed to the human eye, that I felt reflects our strength, secretive nature and grave precariousness back at us. A lovingly rendered urban voyage. Curated by Barbara Stehle, till Jan 26. #AnUnfinishedBallad.
addendum: On the top floor of 115 Mercer Street tears streamed down my cold cheeks. Scott’s images; his captures captured me, my intense reaction I did not expect. But why the involuntary tears. What stirred such feelings that afternoon? Was it overtiredness? Worry of imminent loss? My heart? Was it my memory of Paradise Bay where I felt something similar? A combination of everything? An editor once asked me to write about Mal de Paris, a documented overwhelming longing experience foreigners had from a visit to Paris, once they left. It is in the continuum of Stendhal Syndrome with respect to the power of place or the voyage.
During the French author’s 1817 visit to Italy when he wrote Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio he described an experience seeing Giotto’s frescoes:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations…Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
I felt this extraordinary sadness that these icebergs may become, even if decades or centuries away, a thing of the past. The world and climate has always changed but I wonder what is at stake for the present world’s grandchildren’s children. Icebergs are ancient in themselves but while the earth will continue to exist for a long time, I’m not sure humankind will, the way we are being on this planet.
Wikipedia: “Stendhal syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”
What does the science say to us? The jury is still out. The Daily Telegraph (July 28, 2010) noted that Italian scientists were exploring the phenomenon, monitoring “heart beat, blood pressure and rate of breathing as visitors take in the exquisite frescoes [in Palazzo Medici Riccard] which adorn the palace.” I couldn’t find the results of the study.
Was I perhaps experiencing a Stendhal moment, or was it Mal d’Antartique.