Thoughts on the play…
Hotel Cassiopeia remains to be one of the most personal pieces that I have ever directed. Exploring the life and work of Joseph Cornell has been an inspirational and enlightening experience for all of us. It has required that we study Cornell’s life from beginning to end and notice the themes and images that haunted his life and motivated his work. In doing so, we have taken a journey into our own lives as artists and ask ourselves what experiences we have had – both witting and unwitting – that continue to feed us as artists and human beings. This has been a rich experience of discovery that has woven its way through the fiber of our work on the play itself.
As Cornell was a collage artist – bringing together disparate objects and images that created new worlds of resonance in their carefully arranged juxtaposition, so Charles Mee , the playwright, has cobbled together a nonlinear assemblage of thoughts and stories that probes the inner experiences of this great, but perhaps little known, American artist. With no particular regard to appropriate temporal continuity, Mee focuses rather on the relationships that fed and influenced Cornell’s work. Cornell fashioned boxes in which different worlds and different time frames coexist in “exquisite harmony”. Mee models his play after this poetic assemblage of disparate images and personalities.
Losing his father at age 7, Joseph almost immediately took on the responsibility for his mother and siblings. He was deeply affected by his invalid brother Robert whom he loved dearly. It was in his commitment to share the world with Robert , that he began collecting objects from his travels to the city which began to be developed into his famous shadowboxes. His mother remained a dominant force in his life until her death. Mee brings all of Cornell’s friends together as though they were objects in one of his boxes. Influenced by other artists of the period, Duchamp, Matta and Gorky come to tea and discuss their lives as artists and their view of the world. These dialogs are mixed with the poetry of ballerinas and lovely ladies as they dance through the moments and movies that fed his art. In them he found the fantasy, longing and escape that he so eagerly sought I his own life.
Joseph Cornell may have been a man of few words, but the poignancy of his images continue to speak meaningfully long after his death. It is this experience of art that has propelledpushed us through our work on this play. What is the power of art to invite participation on the part of the viewer. Upon accepting this gesture of hospitality what is the unsuspecting participant to do with the images and the personal narrative that may arise from this spiritual engagement. Far from inanimate, we have found that Joseph’s simple explorations of the meaning of found objects are imbued with life and the ability to point to true meaning in the soul of those who are willing and able to go with him on this journey. It is our hope that this may be your experience as we invite you to partake of this poetic and visual feast.
About the Artist
(1903 – 1972)
Joseph lived his life and made his art in a small house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, just outside New York City. He shared his house with his mother, his brother, Robert and hundreds of file boxes and files full of fascinating “finds”
that inspired his artwork.
Some described him as a bit of a recluse, but he loved living near the city and delighted in getting out and exploring its streets and neighborhoods. Sometimes he wrote about the many unusual things he saw, but often he brought them home. He was committed to sharing the world with his brother who was debilitated with Cerebral Palsy and was unable to move outside the house very much. Old books, records, photographs, movie films, theatre programs – the shops he visited were full of these things. He collected whatever struck his fancy, no matter how old ordinary it might look to someone else.
He called his collection a “diary journal, picture gallery, museum and clearing house for dreams and visions,” because it became an important part of his artwork. As part of the art scene in New York he became good friends with Duchamp, Magritte and Matta and was influenced by their surrealist sensibilities.
Once, while wandering down a street, Cornell noticed some compasses in one store and boxes in another nearby. He wondered what these objects would look like together. “My work was a natural outcome of my love for the city,” he said. He began
making boxes for his collection, choosing objects that combine both materials and ideas. He found some surprising and marvelous combinations. They contain objects that have sacred and magical properties – symbolic importance far beyond their mere appearances.
His boxes become reliquaries of imagination and vehicles for his reveries and ours. We might not even notice something as ordinary as a postcard or a shell if we saw it by itself, but in one of Cornell’s boxes, it suddenly seems very special and even a little mysterious. They contain objects that have sacred and magical properties – symbolic importance far beyond their mere appearances.
Cornell was very shy and often sad, but he said that his boxes gave him “ a world of complete happiness.” An ideal world is sometimes called a utopia. Isn’t it interesting that Cornell made his “happy world” in a cluttered basement studio on Utopia Parkway?
A dialog of thoughts and questions from Dime- Store Alchemy – Simic
Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-known objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art.
He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he might find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as on old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places. (pg 14)
How do we see these things?
How do we make sense of them?
Where is the pattern – the order?
In the end – how is it we see what we see?
Joseph Cornell could not draw, paint or sculpt, and yet he was a great American artist. He roamed the streets of New York form the late 1920’s till his death in 1972, foraging in used bookstores and junk shops. “My work was a natural outcome of my love for the city,” he said. One day in 1931 he saw some compasses in on e shop window and some boxes in the next, and it occurred to him to put them together. (pg 16)
You don’t make art, you find it. You accept everything as its material.
The collage technique, that art of reassembling fragments is the most important innovation in the art of the 20th century. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized. (pg 19)
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see,” Thoreau writes. Cornell speaks of “being plunged into a world of complete happiness in which every triviality becomes imbued with a significance. (pg 19)
“Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low ,cease to be perceived as contradictions,” states Andre Breton in the Second Surrealist Manifesto (pg 21)
“Is it possible, after all, that in spite of bricks and shaven faces, this world we line in is brimmed with wonders, and I and all mankind, beneath our garbs or commonplace, conceal enigmas that the stars themselves, and perhaps the highest seraphim, can not resolve?” writes Melville. The clarity of one’s vision is a work of art. (pg 22)
The quest for the lost and the beautiful. Cornell – Orpheus in the city of the soul, the invisible city which occupies the same space as New York. He explored the unknown as much as it is possible for any artist and poet to do so. (pg 25)
How do we connect the bits and pieces of our lives into a sense of beauty? - perhaps forget about a coherent reality?
What do we see? What do we half see?
When do shadows become more important than the light?
When do the shadows reveal more than the light?
What causes us to notice – to see as though we had not seen before?
What makes us look – and then look again?
Did Cornell know what he was doing? Yes, but mostly no. Does anyone fully? He knew what he liked to see and touch. I have in mind especially their astonishing discovery that lyric poetry can come our of chance operations. All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image. The city was huge image machine! (pg 30)
How is it we what we see?
What are the filters that cause us to see on thing and pass another?
What are the filters that cause us to respond the way we do to what we see?
How do we constantly find order in the chaos of the everyday and make it art?
Here’s how Cornell described the contents of some 150 files he kept at home – “a diary journal respository laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key… the core of a labyrinth, a clearinghouse for dreams and visions…childhood regained.” (pg 37)
How do we catalog the relics of our lives – the bits and pieces – the gems and treasures – the leftovers that make a path to our soul?
Cornell’s boxes are the reliquaries of days when imagination reigned. they are inviting , of course, to start our childhood reveries all over again. These are dreams that a child would know. Dreams in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives. A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks leaning against each other make a house. In that world one plays the game of being someone else. This is what Cornell is after, too. How to construct a vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination of the viewer and keep him company forever.
“People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry of the images,” writes Rene Magritte. The images that Cornell has in his boxes partake of both dream and reality. One is to both look and admire the elegance and visual properties of the composition and to then make up stories about one sees.
Our challenge is to make this transcendence the world of the play.
It is a portal through which we are encouraged to enter a mysterious world of our own imagination.
How can we succeed in inviting the audience to participate in creating a world of their own imagining?
The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner. Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.
Why does he/she – the artist – do what they do? Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?
For a fun and interactive experience of Cornell’s work
check out Joseph Cornell - Navigating the Imagination http://www.pem.org/sites/cornell/
By searching Joseph Cornell Boxes on Google and clicking on images you will be able to access a wide and varied selection of Cornell’s famous shadowboxes.
A collection of Cornell’s shadow boxes and assemblages can be found in the new modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
An Interesting Article on the Subject.
The Right Stuff – Why Some Objects Speak Louder than Words – Holly Brubach
Books of interest:
Dime-Store Alchemy – The Art of Joseph Cornell - Charles Simic
Joseph Cornell - Navigating the Imagination – Lynda Roscoe Haritgan
Joseph Cornell – Master of Dreams – Diane Waldman
Utopia Parkway – the Life and Work of Joseph Cornell – Deborah Soloman