Monday, September 17, 2007
So I just hauled myself up off of Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City," a big, overstuffed couch of a book I'd been stuck on for a couple of months. Larson offers a kitchen-sink account of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, focusing the whole glorious mess through the lens of the lives of two men: an architect and a serial killer.
I'd run aground because I was tired of reading about the serial killer, but I'm glad I finally managed to push through. The descriptions of the World's Fair are fascinating, even if Larson is prone to overwriting, and it's the kind of the book where the smallest detail, magnified, could be a book in its own right. I had already, for vaguely embarrassing reasons I won't go into, done a fairly substantial amount of research on midwestern life during the Gilded Age. But Larson still managed to surprise me many times over.
Among the surprises was Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape architect. By the time Olmstead, designer of NYC's Central Park and other magnificent spreads, took on the task of shaping the grounds of the World's Fair, he was old, infirm, and unapologetically cranky. Olmstead creaks his way through the pages of "Devil," pontificating here, complaining there, railing against this, that, and the other. Frankly I'm a little in love with him.
But what most interests me about Olmstead is that, years before conceptual art and "happenings," he conceived of art not as product, but as process. Throughout the year-plus of monumental labor preceding the fair, Olmstead is obsessed with the idea of "becomingness:" every element of the fair, from boats to buildings to landscape, must present itself as in process, evolving, becoming. Art for Olmstead isn't so much the shaping of sod as it is the shaping of experience. He's incensed, for example, when fair managers overrule his plan to have only one entrance to the fair, because he can no longer control fairgoers' first view of the White City.
Olmstead admits that the raw materials of art are cognitive. For his pains, he's beset by melancholia, abscessed dentition, dementia, and death. Take note: art rots your teeth.