Mirages, the sun, the desert and the science of vision.
These lines are meant as an invitation for the visitor to travel along the mirages and images that Alexander Pilis has produced and now presents in the exhibition “Arquitetura Paralaxe: Apparatus Lapso Virtual” [Paralax Architecture: Virtual Lapse Apparatus]. Or an invitation to apprehend a mirage in the travels promoted by the scientist-cum-artist. Like our own Western roots, my dear visitor, his roots refer us to an in-depth instance of vision and contemplation to a time in which images have already been diluted. Or even an invitation to a time in which images had not yet been agglutinated outside words, narratives, and myths. Today we view them, living and mobile, set on magically translucent supports by a millennial technique that is associated to a century-old imaginary that must be constantly fed with new miracles and new mirages. As the artist he is, Alexander Pilis realizes that, in his “Apparatus”, the universe is made up of ciphers and harmony. As a scientist, he knows likewise that there is no science without transcendence.
The desert: I. The inhospitable
The desert is the site of countless discoveries and achievements of man, himself a primate that can only survive in less inhospitable habitats with milder temperature and humidity levels. Possibly this is the reason for the desert to have always instigated the fragile human being, inspiring him, challenging his limits, testing his endurance, his might and, above all, his imagination. And precisely for this reason the desert has instigated and compelled the human being to so numerous and so significant accomplishments and discoveries in his quest to overcome the unfathomable unknown and the unbeatable adversary.
From the cultures of the desert we have inherited, among other things, the three main monotheist religions, algebra, calculus applied to optics, trigonometry, astronomy, digits and figures, writing, and so many other things like the discovery of glass, a material as intriguing as the wind.
Ever since the advent of the glass and all its many ends and purposes, the human gaze has penetrated hermetic spaces that were previously secret and dark; it has penetrated, along with sunrays, the cloisters and cloistered objects that were previously windowless and without openings.
The sun: I. The implacable god
Like the god wind that implacably sweeps across the deserts, the god sun is possibly one of the most archaic of all deities. It evokes and directly conveys light, drives away night and its perils, warms the earth, induces birthing on it, and belongs to the kingdom of the above, of the heights the same heights that shower the entrails of the earth, inseminating it and causing all life to burgeon. The god sun coexists, therefore, with the wind, the bolts of lightning, the rain, the moon and the stars, the day and its disparate variations.
But this sun is also an implacable god that lashes the earth with excessive heat and dry weather, or it freezes and kills when storm winds are brought into play, or yet it floods and causes drowning when god thunder and his tempestuous daughters come into the picture.
This is not always a friendly deity, nor is his daughter, the light that we believe to have tamed every time we tame fire. One has to seek protection against the whims of father and daughter, as well as against their absences that make way for perilous night and for cold temperatures, and blindness. The shelters are inhospitable unless one recreates sources of heat and light inside them. Hence glass starts a new and novel page in the quest for the taming of light: while filtering it in adverse weather, it purges light so as to arrive to sun, light and heat only. For this reason, stained glass windows have always been viewed as significant light conveyors, in the sense that they bring sunrays into quiet and welcoming spaces, warming up interiors and introspections.
The desert: II. Mirages
Isolation, hopelessness, and vacant landscapes keep travelers moving on toward their confrontation with their destiny in a duel of giant will powers that has on one side the tameless, harsh, dry and sandy desert that comes forth with waving signals of ending and non-nostalgic farewell, and on the other side, the human animal endowed with will and desire, repeating to himself all the time: I shall overcome! And to convince themselves, humans produce images of the end of the victorious battle mirages of the successful conclusion. The desert is the habitat of Fata Morgana images, that is to say, the habitat of mirages. Mirages are abstractions, visible absences, ciphers, promising voids, all too willing voids. Not by chance, we have learned from the Arabs the word sifr, which means naught. A cipher is a mirage. A mirage is a form of ciphering a pledge that in principle could not be fulfilled.
The sun: II. The sacred fire
The taming of fire and the discovery of its secrets and its transformation into a serf in dwellings and in the human habitat convey airs of victory over the invincible; of profanation of the most sacred and feared; of an unnameable theft, and of a defying and abusive gesture that undoubtedly should be given exemplary punishment. But such punishment of the Promethean saga failed to take into account a significant mitigation of the crime that perhaps stands for it’s very raison d’être: as instance of the sacred, prior even to being a technique that facilitated handicraft, fire was used in worship. First and foremost, its life, its heat and its light were associated with the worshipping of and the contact with a deity, a reminiscence of unreachable heights bonding with deep insights. It was in attendance, therefore, to transcendence; However, the sacred fire was not limited to the primordial tamed fire; it was expanded nearly up until our day, in particular in the realm of the second tamed fire: the fire of thunderbolts and its visible manifestation, the lightning.
The taming of fire is recent and its incredible spread has changed the face of the globe. Its name is no longer fire, but electricity. Thanks to electricity everything can be turned into magic, as a same wire may be used to give light, heat, sound, magic, static images, animated images, signals and traces, apparitions, live voices, voices of the dead, resuscitating by electric shock, and killing by electrocution, in an unthinkably diverse assortment of possibilities. The magic is particularly interesting because only on rare occasions is fire actually visible. For instance, when it engages in mutiny or furiously rebels, producing lightnings in nature and short circuits in electric wiring networks or systems in which it is captured.
The desert: III. Optical science
The peoples of the desert were also the first ones to study optics and perspective, working our calculus and formulas that translated the behavior of lightning when it traverses lens, prisms, crystals or translucent liquids. It should be noted that glass results primarily from the use of high temperatures produced by fire to fuse silica derived from sand. The legend of the discovery of glass harks back to a nomadic tribe that one morning found a crystalline substance in their hearth. Many centuries after the legendary discovery and also many centuries before our day, the Persian scientist and mathematician Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, the inventor of the pin-hole photo camera who is known in the West as Alhazen (965-1040) developed a mathematical theory of perspective that he explained in his book of optics titled Ktab al-Manazir.
The desert: IV. The personal god
But the phenomenon that should be particularly noted in the exhibition of works by Alexander Pilis, which now is being held in a Christian chapel designed in the 20th century in abidance by the optics and mathematics of modernist architect Gregori Warschavchik, is the fusion of the elements ‘light, glass, science, technique, optics’all of them inherited from nomadic tribes moving across deserts with the elements ‘mirage, apparition, trans-appearance and transcendence’ that were learned or apprehended in life-threatening situations of which humans are rescued in extremis by the personal, implacable God likewise born in the desert. The paradoxical although fallible God who only helps those who help themselves. And, thanks to Him and His omnipotent assistance, human beings have developed techniques and science to protect and worship life and their God.
Norval Baitello junior