In Ancient Greek literature sudden and vast travel occurred regularly. As the nomadic and expansive ideas of the writers of that era sought to understand their world through travel they often created mystical methods of transcontinental journeying. Great waves tore Odysseus and his crew from his homeland, and the wings that Daedalus built helped him soar to freedom from his island prison. Airplane travel in the 20th Century led to unprecedented opportunities for travel and communication that mimic the adventurous nature of these fictional tales. If travel should broaden the mind then broader travel may have stretched the mind even further. The concept of travel has been broached across the arts, culminating in works in the late 20th Century and early this century that create a reality from the myth.
Visual artist Franz Ackermann has made a career from his indefinite nomadism, developing an exciting collection of paintings, photographs, drawings and installations that reflect the idea of skipping to and from urban locales. Ackermann’s work is amongst the best that describes the chaos and fragility of being in constant motion. It is often inspired by the artist’s own travels by flight. Support studies were developed from photographs that he has taken at overnight stays in airport terminals, for example.
The chaos of travel is something that people of the 20th and 21st Centuries are among the first to experience. The jarring feeling of disillusionment that Odysseus had when he and his crew were swept to the far side of the world by a wrathful Poseidon is one that thousands of fliers experience every day across the globe, manifested in the ominous and mostly symptomless feeling of jetlag. Ackermann captures this jarring nature, and also references constantly that most unusual of phenomena related to air travel: the airport terminal.
Marc Augé wrote of airport terminals as defiantly similar places in his book Non-Places. He described the experience of flying from one airport to another as like leaving a place only to land where you took off (i.e. flying from A to A and back again). It is only after leaving the airport terminal, Augé suggests, that one has the feeling of being in a new place. Airport security has its own laws and its own systems of operation. With this perception, the whole experience of flying in and out of airports could be seen as a sort of illusion, shattered once the traveller leaves the station of the airport.
The airport is a station, but it is also an experience in itself. Any of us who are lucky enough to have attempted air travel at any point have experienced the strange rituals: the security checks, the baggage lines, waiting patiently, approaching passport control with an unidentifiable anxiety, walking through the cuboid tunnel known as the LiTTYWaT (Little Tunnel Thingy That You Walk Through – apparently the official USAF term for the walkway to an airplane) watching the planes take off and land…and it is in this last point that the real miracle emerges. Terminals and take-off areas are somewhat standardised, but airports themselves also harbour one of the most interesting sights that we are privileged to enjoy: that of an airplane taking off.
The process of travel by flight is one that had been pursued by literature for aeons. The story of Daedelus’ wings, which he built and used to escape from an island prison, and which later took the life of his son Icarus, is an Ancient Greek example of a desire to use flight as a swift and convenient mode of transport. The story of Icarus is about, primarily, invention and a longing for adventure – the actual flight is used as a mechanism to describe the characters of the story (inventors, adventurers, and, ultimately, an over-zealous youth who flies too close to the sun). The writing of Colum McCann similarly takes inspiration from travel by flight as a central theme. This is seen, for example, in the adventurous jet-setting of the protagonist in Songdogs, the displacement of home described through two Irish brothers in New York in Let The Great World Spin, and, most recently, the crisscrossing of the Atlantic Ocean outlined in Transatlantic. The device of travel in McCann’s work is often related to a similar one from Daedelus’ story (the relationship to home), however for McCann the device is a real entity, used to travel away from and toward a destination.
The constancy of movement in descriptions of travel by flight are part of the reason why this concept is so thrilling. The use of such a dynamic device as a medium creates an ongoing tension with the viewer/reader. Ackermann’s landscapes create a disillusionment with the idea of “solid ground” – the art asks the viewer to be as jarred as the artist, who travels daily as a part of his livelihood. Similarly McCann’s stories rely on the displacement of this travel to highlight points about nationality and the idea of a home.
In ancient writings travel was taken without an end in mind – adventurers would take to the sea and stumble across forgotten islands and magnificent creatures. Today the myth has become something entirely different, as the experience of crossing continents can be done over the space of hours. We are living in the mythological age, where every day more seems possible, and it is sometimes nice to be reminded of that.
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