Nostalgia for the Light

2 10 2012

I just spent several hours watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light. It’s a 90-minute film and a more focused audience could probably have knocked the viewing out in one sitting. I, on the other hand, found myself completely distracted by the telescope porn in some scenes, and watched them two or three times. When combined with several Internet research forays, I at least doubled, if not trebled, my viewing time.

If you’ve seen the trailer for the  movie, you already know that it is a visually spectacular film. If you haven’t seen the trailer, take a moment:

Obviously, I picked up the film for the observatories, but they were used mostly as a heuristic device, framing the director’s meditation on the aftermath of Chile’s Pinochet era. Guzmán contextualizes the terrors perpetrated under Pinochet and Chilean society’s subsequent refusal to own up to them in universal natural history (i.e., what emanates from the Big Bang), but Nostalgia is really about the human, not the eternal, epoch. And for all the work the director did to draw parallels between astronomy, archaeology, and the quest to unearth (literally) the remains of Pinochet’s victims, the film is almost exclusively about our understanding of the immediate past. The trauma of nostalgia in Guzmán’s narrative requires memory and suppression, or the development of historical consciousness. The universe does not remember, the universe does not forget. Yes, we can trace the calcium in our bones to its origin in the stars, but that “biological memory” has no moral drive behind it. The bones don’t hold the universe accountable for the calcium, while the survivors of Pinochet’s political massacres do hold the murderers so.

Unless. I was struck by the scenes focused on the work of architect Miguel Lawner. Lawner mapped Pinochet’s prisons by turning his body into a measuring device, moving it through space, step by step, until it remembered dimensions, locations, and functions of everything around it. It’s difficult to gauge how much of his mapping ability came from conscious effort and how much could be attributed to what we like to call “muscle memory.” Either way, it raises questions about the role of the body—beyond the brain—in preserving memories.

Miguel Lawner sketching a concentration camp from memory.

Structurally, this movie reminded me quite a bit of Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Like Herzog, Guzmán worked to tie together archaeology, historical consciousness, the human present, and vision. But Cave was much more optimistic about the human condition. Nostalgia reminds us that moving out of the cave doesn’t guarantee civilization, or if it does, it’s a civilization shot through with darkness.





University of Illinois

4 06 2011
Observatory, Small Observatory, and Auditorium, University of Illinois.

Observatory, Small Observatory, and Auditorium, University of Illinois. Photo credit: University of Illinois Archives.

If you’ve been looking for the online version of the excellent National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Astronomy and Astrophysics by the National Parks Service, you should know that most of the NPS links to the title page are broken. You can find the portal to the e-book at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/butowsky5/astro.htm (not at /butowsky/index.htm as the failed links would have you believe). The book is rather dated (1989), and the information included in it is most comprehensive for the observatories and instruments that have been nominated for National Historic Landmark status, but even the briefer entries are useful for dates and locations. I was happy to read the nomination entry for the observatory of my alma mater, designed by architect Charles A. Gunn in 1896.

University of Illinois Observatory.

University of Illinois Observatory. Photo credit: University of Illinois Archives.

It took me a bit of effort to track down Mr. Gunn, but according to the 1914 Alumni Record of University of Illinois, he was born in Chicago in 1870. He appears to have been a very well-rounded individual:  at university, he was in Adelphic, Sigma Chi, and Glee Club. He was Captain of his class baseball team, played varsity baseball, held the state and conference record for the ball throw, as well as the Hop, Step, and Jump, and broke the university record for the running broad jump in 1890.

Charles A. Gunn, 1913 Alumni Record, University of Illinois.

Charles A. Gunn, Entry from 1913 Alumni Record, University of Illinois.

It would seem Gunn designed the observatory as one of his last projects in Illinois, as he was recorded as working in New York between 1897 and 1903 (first as Assistant Architect at Columbia University, second as a solo act).

Charles Gunn, Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of University of Illinois, 1918.

Charles Gunn, Entry from Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of University of Illinois, 1918.

I’m not quite sure when Mr. Gunn got religion, but two of his children died young, in 1905 and 1907, so maybe he sought solace in the church after those events. At any rate, The Eighty-Second Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church of the USA (1919) notes that Mr. and Mrs. Gunn had returned to the Manila Station on the island of Luzon with the Philippine Mission after furlough.

Eighty-second Annual Report, Foreign Missions, Presbyterian Church USA.

Eighty-second Annual Report, Foreign Missions, Presbyterian Church USA.

Eighty-Second Annual Report, Presbyterian Church USA.

Eighty-Second Annual Report, Presbyterian Church USA.

But when did the Gunn family returned to mainland U.S.? Mr. Gunn continued to work in the Philippines, South China and Hainan from 1916 to 1921, after which point he worked in Shanghai until 1939 (see, for instance, the Missions Building, 169 Yuanmingyuan Road). He made the national U.S. press when hostilities between China and Japan came to a head in 1937 (“Daughter Fears for Parents in Peiping Mission,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1937; “Charles A. Gunn.” New York Times, Oct. 20, 1945), but I haven’t been able find any trace of him after that year. It would seem, however, that the observatory was a one-off, and his true calling was in the architecture of religion, not science.

University of Illinois Observatory.

University of Illinois Observatory. Photo credit: University of Illinois Archives.

For more information on the observatory, including plans to restore the space, check out the Facebook group, Friends of the University of Illinois Observatory (thanks, Mike!).