The City of Dream

Francine Prose, November 2013 (ITA version)

“With cities, it is as with dreams; everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

There are cities we visit and revisit in our dreams. Sometimes we recognize these cities from our waking life; sometimes an aspect of the dream will remind us of a city to which we have traveled in the past. Sometimes we wander the alleys and passageways of our dream with no idea where we may be, and even less notion of where we could possibly be going. At other times our dreaming consciousness knows precisely where we are, even as it understands that the city in our dream has nothing—nothing physically–in common with the city where we dream ourselves to be. Perhaps it is a city we have not seen for years and which, even then, looked nothing like the city we navigate in our dream. More often we recognize the dream-city only from the previous dreams in which we wandered that same unknown but strangely familiar city. We are lost there, just as we have lost our way so many times before. The streets turn and twist in the maze we recall. But if only we could remember how we found our way out the last time, or why precisely we were there, or where we were supposed to be, or where in the world we were going.

And sometimes—this is the strangest thing, and the most difficult to explain—we may (in our waking lives) visit a city, distant or close by, an exotic or perfectly ordinary city. It’s something akin to, but not quite like, a déjà vu: We feel that we have been in this city before. But not in real life. Somehow we have discovered, in life, the Kabul or the Kyoto of our dreams.

When I was a child, the tales I loved best, and the ones that disturbed me most, were the fables about enchanted cities like Atlantis, cities that appear and vanish, places that the traveler visits once and can never locate again. Perhaps what so disturbed me were the hidden parables, buried within these stories, of the way that time and experience seals off the past and transforms it, behind our backs, into the dream city that cannot remain the same, that can never be recovered or revisited, that will never again have the scale and the shimmering mysteriousness that it did when we were little. To the child, all cities possess the potential to become the city in the dream. All it takes is a change of light, a shifting of the seasons, an invitation to venture beyond the reassuring boundaries of the neighborhood, the safe and comforting parameters of the daylight into the bewildering but thrilling labyrinth of the city at night.

In his story, Cinnamon Shops, the Polish writer Bruno Schulz sends a young boy out into the night his to retrieve his father’s forgotten wallet, and the boy discovers that his town has become another place entirely. “It is exceedingly thoughtless to send a young boy out on an urgent and important errand into a night like that, because in its semi-obscurity the streets multiply, becoming confused and interchanged. There open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are doubles, make-believe streets. One’s imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night.” In yet another of Schulz’s stories, Street of Crocodiles, the boy finds in his father’s desk an old map of the city in which they live: “The engraver concentrated on the complicated and manifold profusion of streets and alleyways, the sharp lines of cornices, architraves, archivolts, and pilasters, lit by the dark gold of a late and cloudy afternoon which steeped all corners and recesses in the deep sepia of shade. The solids and prisms of that shade darkly honeycombed the ravines of streets, drowning in the warm color here half a street, there a gap between houses. They dramatized and orchestrated in a bleak romantic chiaroscuro the complex architectural polyphony. On that map, made in the style of baroque panorama, the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known.

In her beautiful and mysterious photos, Irene Kung gives us just such a map of the city, the city of daylight transformed into the nocturnal city of dreams. In her photos, cathedrals become the heavenly palaces they must have seemed to the faithful who knew nothing of architecture and structural engineering. Monuments retain their identity and their geographical location, and yet in the process of leaving the earth to float upward into the unconscious, they shed the dry husks of culture and of purpose to become wondrous abstractions. The domes of a mosque turn into a squad of flying saucers transmitting messages from their home planet to the dark earth they hover above. Conversely, we may wonder what that cross is doing atop the swirling, mosque-like dome of Sacré Coeur.

All it takes is a trick of the light and the particular luminosity of Irene Kung’s vision to dissolve the deceptively solid line between reality and imagination, and to make our eyes play the same “tricks” on us as they do in our dreams. Intellectually, we know that the giant snail and the robed goddess in her chariot drawn by lions are statuary: fountains. But it takes us a moment to realize this, and in that momentary lapse, an impression forms, one that can never be fully erased: the illusion that they are actual beings, creatures in motion, surrounded by a sparkling nimbus of mist and water. The British Houses of Parliament strike us a country estate from which the mounted knight and his horse have just set out on their journey. Even though we know perfectly well that pyramids are built from the ground up, from a large solid base to the point at their top, Irene Kung’s images persuade us that these structures have been created somewhere else, and delivered and lowered to the ground, fully formed.

In the daylight world, architecture is a legible text in which we can clearly read the typography of history and of time. But these photos so successfully blur the boundaries between past and future that the notions of “period” and “style” seem as tangential as they are for the dreamer. Who would have imagined that the buttresses and spires of Notre Dame waited until the dark of night to reveal their secret identity as a rocket blasting into the sky?

When we attempt to imagine what the subjects of these photos recall, we may be vaguely reminded of favorite works of art, not because Kung’s photos resemble them so much as because they evoke the same freedom of having been liberated from the confines of waking reality. So in Kung’s image Madrid’s Plaza Mayor looks less like the public space we have walked through our on strolls through the Spanish capital than like the background of a Joseph Cornell shadow box we always wished we could enter. And the Battersea power station suggests the fantastic and terrible future that Fritz Lang created and gave us, as a dark and cautionary gift, in his Metropolis. Somehow we feel certain that we have seen Milan’s Torre Velasca in an old science fiction film, but which one? The answer evades us, just as those sorts of answers so frequently escape us in dreams.

Oddly, or not so oddly, the better we know a building or place or monument, the better we think we know it, the more surprised we are to see how changed it appears in these photographs. Every day, we may cross the bridge that transverses the Isola Tiberina; but until Irene Kung showed it to us from a new perspective, we never noticed how much it resembles Atlantis, newly risen from the Tiber and just about to float away in its swirling waters. I have grown up under the shadow of the Empire State, the Flatiron building and the Chrysler buildings. But seeing them in Irene Kung’s photos makes me want to go out and sneak up on them, unawares, in the middle of the night, the way a child imagines creeping down the stairs to spy on those aspects of grown-up life that the grown-ups keep hidden.

The absence of people in these photos makes the images all the more personal, dramatic and cinematic. And though they have the power to suggest a world in which the humans have departed or vanished, these images possess, in their intimacy and mystery, the paradoxical solidity and permanence of the most evanescent dreams. The city is there. It has always been there. Irene Kung’s photos remind us: We have only to close our eyes and fall asleep and wait for the dream in which it appears.