The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience

by Celeste Olalquiaga
     
 

The Artificial Kingdom is the first book to provide a cultural history of kitsch, an immensely popular aesthetic phenomenon that has always been disdained as "bad taste," or a cheap imitation of art. Proposing instead that kitsch is the product of a larger sensibility of loss, Celeste Olalquiaga shows how it enables the momentary re-creation of

Overview

The Artificial Kingdom is the first book to provide a cultural history of kitsch, an immensely popular aesthetic phenomenon that has always been disdained as "bad taste," or a cheap imitation of art. Proposing instead that kitsch is the product of a larger sensibility of loss, Celeste Olalquiaga shows how it enables the momentary re-creation of experiences that exist only as memories or fantasies. Simultaneously exposing and celebrating this process, Olalquiaga gives us a bold, trenchant analysis of what and how we see when we look at kitsch.

Tracing its beginnings to the nineteenth century—when industrialization transformed nature into an artificial kingdom of miniature scale—Olalquiaga describes the at once exhilarated and melancholic atmosphere where kitsch came to life. In an arresting mix of theory and anecdote, she examines objects from both the past and the present, probing the fluid boundaries between reality and fantasy, and finding in kitsch a phenomenon as relevant to our own time as it was to the era that made it a massive experience.

Editorial Reviews

Liesl Schillinger
...[A] lushly overstuffed tchotchke of a book...it ought to be edged in gilt cordtassledscented with patchouli and displayed on a doilied Bavarian pickle dish. —The New York Times Book Review
Liesl Schillinger
...[A] lushly overstuffed tchotchke of a book...it ought to be edged in gilt cord, tassled, scented with patchouli and displayed on a doilied Bavarian pickle dish. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A playful yet intellectually rigorous examination of kitsch: its history, symbolic import, and emotional resonance. In her second book, Olalquiaga brings the full weight of her academic training (she has a Ph.D. from Columbia Univ.) to bear on an unlikely subject, reclaiming kitsch from the dustbin of art history. The very word conjures up the worst atrocities of taste, and yet the author manages to imbue all sorts of questionable kitschy objects with undeniable dynamism. Olalquiaga begins by confronting her own attraction to kitsch in the form of a preserved hermit crab in a glass globe—an object she first caught sight of (and then bought) in a Victorian bed-and-breakfast. From the acquisition of that humble item, she undertakes an exploration of the history of kitsch, from the "parlor oceans" (a.k.a. aquariums) of the 19th century to the dream spheres of paperweights, among other memorabilia. While the objects themselves vary, her argument does not: Olalquiaga makes a convincing case that our fascination with kitsch—and particularly with kitsch items that connect to the natural world—results from our alienation from nature. Thus we are bound to try to "repossess the experience of intensity or immediacy" through artificial objects that seem to capture life, however inexactly. That effort of repossession seems doomed from the start, since kitsch oscillates constantly between the embodiment of lived experience and its loss, exuding the "peculiar sadness of broken or even half-forgotten dreams." Olalquiaga doesn't hesitate to implicate herself in her own musings on kitsch's attractions. Her humor, as well as her insight, make this book a peculiar and delightfulpiece of scholarship.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780679433934
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/01/1998
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 7.87(h) x 1.16(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


RODNEY AND ME


* * *


    Meet Rodney, king of the hermit crabs. From the distant proximity of his glass-globe prison, Rodney stares back at me with silent intensity. Doomed to be mine for as long as I desire, perhaps he finds within the brittle limits of his crustacean body some forgiveness towards the human longing that drives me to love his death, a permanent state of suspension that sparks in my heart the boundless joy of recognition. Looking into Rodney's minuscule pupils (my friends claim those can't be real eyes, yet they shine like silver pins) I enter a faraway world: vaguely familiar memories beckon me with the magic appeal of those ocean waves which people often hear resonate in the huge open whorl of imperial Purpura shells. Spellbound, I travel to a time beyond memory, a place that stands still, vast and gleaming, in a remote corner of my mind.

    My first encounter with Rodney took place in San Francisco at a bed-and-breakfast, an old Victorian mansion where each bedroom was fancily decorated and named after a famous turn-of-the-century guest: the Isadora Duncan room, the Enrico Caruso room, the Luisa Tetrazzini suite. After sleeping one night in each, I made my way to a small white chamber hidden away in one of the towers and replete with ocean paraphernalia. Half the size of the others, this dormitory, a true sky parlour, radiated a soft pink light and seemed suspended in the breeze. A tiny frigate navigating happily amidst an urban sea, the Jack London room would take wind in the sails of its sheer muslin curtains, flying away from the Chateau Tivoli with a marine treasure-load of coral branch, dried sponges, captain's cap, ship photos, rusty anchor and, next to the bed, Rodney. The roundness of this self-contained world afforded me a unique kind of protection, the safety of receding into an intimacy at once foreign and very mine, a place where objects and atmosphere became the continuation of a static interior landscape. I had found a private decor where my feelings could manifest themselves outwardly in the most palpable of ways, as if having walked into a long-forgotten attic.

    Rodney's impassive condition is an open threshold, a portal where life and death meet, each one stepping back to let the other go by, neither concerned about a primacy that can only be momentary in an otherwise intertwined destiny. When I stare at Rodney, trapped in his ice palace as if the sea had frozen unexpectedly around him, enveloping his small life in a hard vitric globe like the hazy, hyalescent vision of a gypsy's magic ball, I feel my heart burst into tears, hoping that somehow the warmth of this lachrymal flood will dissolve Rodney's prison. Buried alive, Rodney will never again know the gradual unfolding of events, the sequential expectation generated when one is accustomed to watching one thing follow another. Time for this hermit crab is a static dimension from which there is no possible escape or change--only a resigned abeyance, a complete surrender to a single, infinite moment that he occupies entirely alone.

    Rodney's is the tempo of things that remain in a deep slumber until they are discovered anew, brought back to life in the glorious intensity of amazement, an experience where objects and events are able to flourish again, Sleeping Beauties whose radiant youth has only been enhanced by the long period during which they remained latent. It is as if their dormancy gave such things a quiet depth impossible to attain in the heavy bustling of continuous, uninterrupted time. As if suspension in limbo, instead of being empty or blank, carried the imprint of a peculiar duration, one that is measured, not in the productive accumulation of years or days, but rather in the subtle persistence of a stubborn anachronicity, the stoic refusal of things to depart once their usefulness is exhausted.

    The lost hours of temporal travelers--those who continually roam in the boundless space of distraction--are made up of cherished memories that somehow wandered off and miraculously found their way back, if only to bid a permanent farewell. For daydreamers there is no such thing as wasted time, only the busy intervals between one fantasy and the next, pregnant lapses during which reminiscing takes a back seat to a direct action that, nevertheless, secretly scrounges the landscape of the present for the wicks of invisible fires. Such ignitions act like the sudden blazes that are said to overcome boats while they innocently glide on a smooth sea: as they burst into flames, these watercrafts' customary voyage comes to an abrupt end, their hulks dragging them down into an all-consuming depth where they will begin a new existence as shipwrecks.

    Sunken treasures, the once-buoyant nautical crafts are now anchored to the bottom of the ocean as fantastic sculptures in a vast underwater garden. Here, these humbled navigators commence a new, sedentary existence: their whole physiognomy starts to metamorphose, camouflaging into the hues and textures of the marine scenario, in the same way that loose memories and idle fantasies slowly conform to the irregular panorama of our psyche. Contraband fixtures of the undulatory ocean desert, these capsized vessels develop and unfold, like madrepores, from the abandoned carcasses of transient creatures, one corpse piling upon another as in the mineral chimneys of coral reefs, which grow taller with each discarded life.

    Sometimes, these marine palaces rise high over the waves, as if challenging the sunlight to filter through their mazelike crevices without getting lost. More often, however, they remain within the seclusion of their island universe, along with the schools of colorful fish that glide past them and those occasional divers who tear entire chunks from their body, fragments of an existence based on what no longer is, but which as mementos will never cease to be. Memories, too, often lie peacefully sequestered in the recondite folds of our mind, patiently awaiting the moment when they will be aroused from this entrancement to fly again on the wings of fantasy. And despite all the transformations that have piled upon them, rendering them unrecognizable to a credulous beholder, the best of their sunken cargo remains untouched, ready to be salvaged or plundered, resuscitated anew.

    The fates of ships and of thoughts are very similar: confident, they sail on uncharted grounds, seeking to arrive at their destinations by the straightest possible line. Yet once at sea, set on their voyage, strange things beset them: nightmares of marine serpents, unpredictable storms, gigantic waves that roll them pitilessly, often swallowing their fragile bodies without warning. Few are the ships and thoughts that, having ventured forth on unknown--and sometimes even well-known--waters, emerge intact from the perilous experience. The bed of the sea is littered with the remnants of adventurous boats, much as the human mind is often but a cemetery of fearless thoughts gone astray. Yet these random thoughts, these forgotten shipwrecks, are full of secret treasures and untold mysteries, and here is to be found a plenitude like no other: a new life that, however still, abruptly transforms what it comes in contact with, charging the present with the unavoidable weight of things past.

    It is this miraculous palingenesis, this apparent return from the dead, that the casual encounter with stray objects can trigger in our hearts, those bivalve organs in whose cloistered interior experiences settle like grains of sand or parasites in oysters. These audacious intruders are then slowly enveloped by their receptacles' vital fluids--here nacre, there emotion--eventually producing a smooth, shiny pearl, a unique amalgam of interior and exterior whose birth celebrates the fusion of fixed and fluid, isolated and continuous, dejected and splendid: such are the veritable fruits of the bottom of the sea. These magnificent creations are what connect us to our innermost nature, as if to arrive there we first had to travel a long and circuitous road, paved with time, full of detours, strewn with the most exquisite delights and torturous pains, all to finally understand that only in such a transit, only in the precarious balance of suspended permanence and unrelenting change, excruciating solitude and boundless communion, lies the secret of all creatures and things.

    Rodney's eyes become sharply focused as my castle in the air pops and, motionless, I land after this kaleidoscopic voyage in the dim glow of a recalcitrant dusk. All of a sudden, the Jack London room comes back to life amidst late afternoon sounds that, one by one, make their distinct entrances, the crepuscule's reddish haze quickly giving way to a colorless penumbra. It is that time of day when light and darkness trade places, although neither is quite at its post yet: the last rays of the sun linger, hanging on to clouds whose bizarre formation is never more apparent, while the evening gently settles in, erasing the nitid contours of objects and people. Everything seems to disappear in this twilight, yet no amount of electric incandescence can bridge the uncertain gap between day and night, no human eye can grasp the polychromatic variegation of the skies' change of guard: alterations are so swift one would say they occur with every blink.

    Squinting, I stretch out my arm to grab Rodney. Unwilling to let go of the reverie, I press my face against the transparent bubble that holds him, hoping this gesture will bring him a little closer for a few more seconds. But I have returned from my musing and the spell is broken. Somewhere outside, a child's cry and its mother's gentle prodding remind me that I am on a rented bed in an unfamiliar city, thousands of miles from home and even further from the small girl who, for a moment there, returned to existence in the evanescent life of daydreams.

Meet the Author

Celeste Olalquiaga is the author of Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities (University of Minnesota Press, 1992). She was born in Santiago de Chile and grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, has received Rockefeller and Guggenheim awards, and lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >