In a series of conversations, the Venetian traveller Marco Polo describes the cities of a sprawling empire to its Emperor, Kublai Khan. The Empire has grown too vast for Kublai Khan to understand the life of its cities, and ambassadors visit the Imperial Court to warn him of famines and conspiracies, or inform him of newly-discovered turquoise mines and advantageous fur prices.
Newly arrived at the palace and ignorant of the Emperor’s language, Marco Polo describes the cities using pantomime and by taking objects out of his knapsacks – ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes, a skull (“teeth green with mold, clenching a round white pearl”) – and arranges them before him “like chessmen.” “Obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused.”
These silent conversations are at the heart of Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities. Out of Marco Polo’s emblems and gestures grows a world of fifty-five fabulist cities conveying ethereal truths about the human condition.
I have been given a task: create an artifact – anything – that exists on an imaginary island. I am here for a project about storytelling and do not understand why I am sitting at a long table at the King Ghazi Hotel stamping the mud tracks of a fictitious reptile onto a piece of paper. I certainly do not understand how this is related to storytelling. But somehow, the splotches of brown acrylic paint on paper spin out into an entire world. As the world grows, I surprise myself by inventing the lowland rainforests, dissident philosophers and ancient rock engravings that populate it. My creative process has always been stuttering, difficult and plagued by self-doubt but it is almost as if there is something alchemical about creating this artifact and my typing fingers fill the screen with words.
Kublai Khan and Marco Polo sit on the marble steps of the Emperor’s palace among gardens of magnolias and discuss empire. I sit on a plastic grass mat talking to Nicholas Jeeves, a (non)artist-in-residence at the Spring Sessions. “Even though I make art objects, I don’t think of myself as an artist” he tells me. “And I don’t think of myself as a writer even though I write.” At the Spring Sessions, he led a collaborative project to create artifacts from an imaginary island, documented through a postcard book from the fictitious Hemani Museum of Anthropology. I am here to interview him for the Spring Sessions blog. Nicholas’ arms are draped in tattoos rather than Venetian silks, but I arrive at the interview with the notion that he is my guide to (what I have now convinced myself is) the mysterious power of artifacts.
At first, I feel like he is refusing to answer my questions. I sit on the ground, equipped with my voice recorder and years of training as a social scientist, waiting for him to give me the answers I am looking for but the conversation zips awkwardly between arbitrary topics. He tells me “Despite having led a life of the mind, as time has gone by, instead of things becoming clearer and the details becoming sharper as I investigate more things, the exact opposite has happened. Things have become more mystifying and baffling.”
After half an hour of conversational ping-pong, I begin to understand that the project is not about creating a postcard book of imagined artifacts but catalyzing a creative process through them. “We are going to take the core of your idea and make one artifact from it” Nicholas says. “But this world you are making, you can go on to develop it for the next six months, the next year, or two years, or twenty years of your life. We can create a whole multiverse from what we began with in the Spring Sessions.”
Nicholas’ own work often involves exploring fantasy worlds. “I am more interested in not knowing what I am doing than in knowing what I am doing” he tells me. “In relation to this idea, my mentor at Cambridge told me that today, we live in a world where people take drugs because they know what they are going to do to them. Take this drug for this, take that drug for that. [My mentor] said, ‘I took a lot of drugs in the 60s and 70s but I was only interested in them because I didn’t know what they were going to do to me. That seems to be the only reason to take drugs.’ To me, that seems to be the only reason to make art, because you don’t know what is going to happen.”
Perhaps the power of artifacts/emblems lies here, in the notion that they are a springboard for exploring the imagination. The observer meditates upon the physical form of the artifact/emblem and projects a mishmash of subconscious associations onto its surface: archetypes, memories, social biases, sensations, fragments of history. If you are lucky, something new emerges from this cerebral jumble, perhaps a feeling or maybe even an epiphany (which Nicholas excitedly describes as “the flash of a new neurological pathway being created”).
It strikes me that this exploratory quality is found in the silent conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, conversations that are “enhanced [by] the space that remained around [them], a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue, you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.”
As the seasons pass, Marco Polo beings to learn the Tartar language and words began to replace objects and gestures in his tales, but communication between him and the Emperor is not as happy as it had been. “Now [Marco’s] accounts were the most precise and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet, each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor’s mind that first gesture or object with which Marco had designated the place. The new fact received a meaning from that emblem and also added to the emblem a new meaning.”
The Emperor asks Marco Polo, “ ‘On the day when I know all the emblems, shall I be able to possess my empire at last?’ And the Venetian answered: ‘Sire, do not believe it. On that day, you will be an emblem among emblems.’ ”
Thoraya El-Rayyes is a writer and literary translator living in Amman, Jordan. Her translations of Arabic fiction have appeared in various literary magazines including World Literature Today, The Common, CutBank, and Banipal.