The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Private faces in public places

A look contains the history of man...

— W.H. Auden, “Brussels in Winter”

Many years ago, at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, I had seen a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti that I have not been able to forget. It was done in the late Forties, and is called Piazza. On a bronze slab are placed five human figures, one of them a woman. The men seem to be walking towards the centre of a city square, where the woman stands rigid and alone. Yet no person is apparently directed towards an encounter with another. The figures are in bronze too, but beaten and stretched tall to an airy thinness, their faces featureless. They seem to be caught in a game of Statue, between pure accident and purer design, absorbed in themselves, in a state of eternally suspended convergence. The base they stand on is dark and shining, and their long reflections fall vertically across it. This could be a small, rain-washed city square, in the violet hour before the lamps are lit. It stands, however, in emptiness.

Yet its state of arrest stirred into life the moment I started walking around the piece. My moving gaze made each of the figures move. This, in turn, brought them all into slowly changing relations with one another. If I looked at the piece from above, the space appeared composed in miniature. But at eye-level, its scale was dramatically altered. The square looked vast and empty, the figures more anonymous. In Venice, my eye immediately linked these transformations with my actual experience of walking about in the city — from the quiet little squares in the Dorsoduro (where the museum is located) to the teeming, gridded expanse of St Mark’s across the Canal. Looking up suddenly from the sculpture, I felt that the other people in the gallery were also arranged in space, by the hand of chance or by my gaze.

The word, piazza, evokes the vitality, and the vanity, of Italian cities and towns, where squares could turn into catwalks and carnivals in the evening. But Giacometti is Swiss, from the land of Calvin, and his piazza is lenten and minimalist. A woman stands among four men, but if there is anything erotic in the situation, it is thinned out into a stark, gaunt scene. This is Lausanne in winter, not Rome in summer.

Giacometti’s sculpture is about looking and walking in urban spaces — how human beings register one another’s presence in public spaces with their minds, bodies, eyes. It is also about the strange relationships between chance and design, in life and in art. How do actual spaces and the spaces of art bring people together' Strangers who happen to be on the same city square by accident are brought into all sorts of relation with one another when they become figures in a sculpture, when coincidence becomes composition. This leads not only to aesthetics (how rules of art are obeyed or broken), but also to questions of conduct (what we can or cannot, may or may not, do in public).

These spaces, in art and in life, have their own visible and invisible grids, and the distances their own bridges, formed by words, touch and look. And in public, among strangers, it is the look — exchanged, met, averted, stolen or whatever — which plays with the limits of what can or may be communicated. Sometimes it is with, and through, our eyes that we live out the muddle of liberty and constraint, fear and desire, curiosity and indifference, courage and shame, secrecy and candour that constitutes our silent, or silenced, lives in public spaces.

In Calcutta, these games of the eye, of accident and arrangement, can be played endlessly in that most surreal and cinematic of settings, the Metro. Nowhere else in the city can people use and inhabit such expanses of uncluttered space, and look at one another, without unseemly jostling, against such a backdrop of unusual vistas and juxtapositions. Paradoxically, it is the stone-and-neon bleakness of the stations, and the pre-perestroika fascination with unending rows of pillars and gigantic tile-work which make the Metro such a treat of visuality. (The bans on photography and on crossing the White Line give these pleasures of the eye a perverse edge.)

I had once seen in Berlin a production of Wagner’s Parsifal, in the first act of which there was a fine gauze curtain stretched tight in front of the stage, on which was projected a huge perspectival grid, with its own distant vanishing point. When the singers moved about on the dimly lit stage behind this semi-transparent curtain, it looked as if the stage had become a gridded vastitude in which the human movements and voices were suspended. It was a sublime realization of Gurnemanz’s mysterious words later in the opera: “You see, my son, here time becomes space.” There was a particular thrill in watching this visual effect in a city where Albert Speer had designed, for the pleasure of his Führer’s eye, some of the most spectacular vistas ever created in modern urban design.

A less spectacular version of this effect meets our eyes when the escalator slowly descends to the platforms in Jatin Das Park station to reveal the long vista of pillars stretching down to the opposite end. It is a bit like being lowered on a filming crane from an aerial-view to an eye-level shot, much as one is compelled to move around and bend down in front of the Giacometti piece. The people, and their reflections on the polished floor of the platform, are immediately placed within a larger design. (Looking up at the TV screens, one catches Chaplin struggling up a descending escalator in the foreground of a distant view of the real escalator in the station.) This larger design provides the visual matrix holding the fleeting details of human behaviour and exchange difficult to observe elsewhere on the surface of the city.

Once, on my way to work, I had been part of a curious little drama of gazes in the train. It was one of those old compartments with sectioned seating. I was standing in the passage by the door, when a young man with an arresting face came in with his mother, whom he resembled almost exactly. The mother sat in the ladies’ section and seated her son next to her, quite by force. There was intense resentment on the man’s face, as he caught my eye and realized that I was watching them. At the next station, another woman got up, and promptly came up to where the man was sitting. He had to let her sit, to the open annoyance of his mother, who glared alternately at the woman (for being such a reservationist) and at her son (for being such a wimp). The son looked as if he wanted the earth to receive him. I looked away in vicarious embarrassment, and he noticed this with the corner of his eye. The woman got off at the next station. The mother optically commanded her son to re-occupy the vacated seat, but before he could obey, another woman quickly took it. The mother looked incensed, the son humiliated. By this time, the other women had begun to titter with their eyes. The pair got off at Park Street, and on his way out, the man gave me a quick look and an odd little smile. But I had made my face stony by then — to my mild regret now.

Who else can one recall after such an episode but that cruel Hermes of stolen glances — Thomas Mann’s last great creation, Felix Krull, the confidence man' The young Felix works in a Frankfurt hotel, whose lobby he regards as a garden, or maze, or sometimes even a jungle, of gazes, in all of which he feels thoroughly at home. Mann — behind the windows of whose soul civilization and its discontents fought a very famous battle — composes for him a beautiful and macabre ode to the human eye: “this bit of slime embedded in a bony hole, destined some day to moulder lifeless in the grave, to dissolve back into watery refuse, is able, so long as the spark of life remains alert there, to throw such beautiful, airy bridges across all chasms of strangeness that lie between man and man!” Felix places the “glance” and the “embrace” at the two opposite, and wordless, poles of human contact. Whatever lies between these poles “is determined, conditioned, and limited by manners and social convention”. It is only at the two extremes, in the glance and in the embrace, that happiness is to be found, “for there alone are unconditional freedom, secrecy, and profound ruthlessness”.

Civilization, however, permits only one of Mann’s two happy-making extremes in the Metro. But sometimes, the “spark of life” produces something as unexpected as a poem, out of nothing more than a visually alert reverie in the underworld gloom. This one came to me once on my way back home from work, and I called it “Chandni Chowk Station”: “Every day this descent/ Steps to a Cold War womb/ A pillared vista./ History leaves a blank tunnel./ O happy happy love!/ The removes of a city/ Beyond reach the face/ And no looking back.”

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