Janardhana Balaji on Unsplah

FOG: A Misty Elegy

February 8 2023

The name of the FOG performing arts festival pays homage to Milanese fog but is also an evocation of discovery and surprises, a landscape where our senses are amplified, our vision becomes poetic and uncertain, disciplinary boundaries change, and the suspended temporal dimension leaves us room to listen and reflect.

It is 4.25 am, when I leave Chennai airport. I am the last passenger off the last flight of the day and I have stayed on to try and find out what has happened to one of our group’s backpacks, which has probably been left behind in Doha. The first thing I notice when I look through the airport building windows are hundreds of people standing behind the metal barrier. Hundreds. But when the door opens I can only hear a great silence, even though they are all clearly there to offer me paid services. They look at me without saying anything and then I stop and notice something else, something even more unexpected: a dense fog appearing behind them, concealing my first fleeting vision of India. A vision that does not exist. An invisible vision, which I will always seek, unsuccessfully, to remember.

Ilustration for FOG 2023, artwork Alessandro Gottardo

“The invisible,” writes Roberto Calasso in his book on Kafka, “has a mocking tendency to present itself as the visible, as if it might be distinguished from everything else, but only under certain circumstances, such as the clearing away of mist. Thus one is persuaded to treat it as the visible– and is immediately punished. But the illusion remains.” For Calasso, and perhaps also for Kafka, the invisible is other, it is substance and not accident, it is the unfathomable dimension. A fog that does not vanish, appearing, instead, in its maximum intensity, as sometimes happens when we look through an airplane porthole just a few seconds after takeoff; when the green fields and city suburbs in broad daylight suddenly become dark and every familiar detail disappears inside a low cloud or in a fog bank. It is usually a question of just a few minutes during which, as Ben Lerner would say, the world regroups around us and the invisible sends us cables from another dimension. Fans of old-school sci-fi will recognize it in Fredric Brown’s “mistout”, a kind of environmental curfew distinguishing the parallel world of What Mad Universe, a masterpiece of American science fiction published in 1948, the same year in which George Orwell wrote 1984.

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, installation view Palazzo Strozzi, © Ela Bialkowska OKNO studio, courtesy Palazzo Strozzi

“It was like walking into a closet. This was a blackout beyond blackouts,” says the book’s hero, Keith Winton, when he encounters it for the first time. Today we might describe it as a bit like walking through one of Carsten Höller’s works, pitch-black corridors that at a certain point, if you’re lucky, will lead you to a dream-like room possibly featuring giant upside-down rotating mushrooms. Mistout with a pinch of madness, you might say. The same madness that takes hold of many of the characters in Saramago’s Blindness, another great novel about the irrationality of the 20th century. Unlike in Brown’s story, here the loss of eyesight does not lead to darkness but to an even more disturbing whiteness, an impenetrable pale fog, the fog of our disconcertment, as Shakespeare’s Richard III might have said.

© Leonardo Merlini

The concept of haze, physical and ethical, often appears in great literature: accompanying  the dawns of the sailors on the Pequod in Moby Dick, although what was lucidly clouded was the obsessive mind of Captain Ahab, more diabolical than the white demon (as in Saramago, a terrifying whiteness) that he so desperately follows. Fog appears in all of Joseph Konrad’s works: we find it in the ports of tales about the sea and the coast; we find it in Heart of Darkness, on the Congo River, along which the protagonist travels to find Kurtz, the truly incommensurable spectre of that collective European nightmare of colonialism. Fog and the tropics, a combination that is only apparently bizarre, and I thought of Chennai but also of the fog in the forests of Madagascar, those first times I saw the evening descend upon the southern hemisphere.  It even happened in the capital, Antananarivo, but there it was caused by the bluish exhaust fumes of the many Renault 4 cars crowding the streets, a cloud that once smelled like progress but no one believed in that anymore.

Frame from the film White Noise, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The soldiers fighting in the battle of Ypres smelled nothing but the fog that suddenly descended on them was a gas, a terrifying chemical weapon that suffocated and killed. Something like the “airborne toxic event” in White Noise, the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo, which describes, in advance, with proven lucidity, the society that we would soon become, suffocated not by mustard gas in this case, but technology. “The enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend, escorted across the night by armored creatures with spiral wings. We weren’t sure how to react. It was a terrible thing to see […] But it was also spectacular, part of the grandness of a sweeping event.” Similar sensations must have been felt by Adam Jeffson, who shares the name of the first man and who would, in fact, be the last man on earth. The novel is Matthew P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, a crazy, visionary work published in 1901 that describes the end of the world due to the mysterious appearance of a purplish cloud, that left behind a pleasant peach-like smell, along with millions of dead bodies.

Olafur Eliasson, Tate Modern, London, Christer Ehrling on Unsplash

Luckily there were no casualties at the Tate Modern, in the vast hall where Olafur Eliasson created his foggy orange environment, one of his most famous installations. But maybe passing through Shiel’s purple cloud would have been a similar experience, at least at the level of visual perceptions. The relationship between these two apocalypses (including the climatic one explored by Eliasson in his exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence) and another cloud: the medieval Cloud of Unknowing, which reduces space to the attempt to attain a rational understanding of the world and moves matters onto the terrain of the experiential practice of mysticism. Clouds, fogs, silence, and revelations. Everything can be illuminated but beauty actually results when our judgemental gaze is blurred. Without judgement, the possibilities will shine.

I have written and spoken about these fogs in order to introduce the 2023 FOG festival at the Triennale Milano. But I’ve also done so in order to have had the occasion to return to Venice, to sit myself down on the Fondamenta delle Zattere and look across to the Giudecca island, hoping that the fog will lift, allowing me to glimpse the lights at Palanca or the Church of the Redentore. It didn’t happen though. So after a while I got up and left, silently, between people who did not turn their heads, bearing my secret. Knowing that thanks to the fog, I could imagine more intensely.

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