Sunday, September 07, 2008

Abstract Glyphs: Mysterious Purveyors of Hidden Harmonies

What does Athens, Greece have to do with the Carpathian Mountains? That's a trick question, of course, as the "connection" between the two depends on first unraveling the meaning of the enigmatic title of this short blog entry... which has to do with a lucky find of (ostensibly "hidden") glyphs, and musing on them as mysterious purveyors of some unfathomably deep cosmic truth. (Of course, one is free to just revel in their just-as-ineffable quiet beauty without succumbing to my usual Borgesian overtones of over-intepretation ;-)

I have previously written about a trip my wife and I took to Greece earlier this summer. Though my discussion focused almost exclusively on Santorini (the second leg of our journey), we also stayed in Athens and Crete. While I have yet to "develop" the raw files from the other two legs of our journey (and the obligatory shots of the Acropolis, the Palace at Knossos, and Samaria Gorge), I wish to share a few images from a growing portfolio I've tentatively entitled Abstract Glyphs: Mysterious Purveyors of Hidden Harmonies, and which came about by chance in Athens.

After spending the first three nights of our trip in Athens, my wife and I took a cab to the port of Piraeus to catch a ferry to Santorini. Since the ferry was delayed a few hours, I had some time to prowl around with my camera. Indeed, I had the run of virtually the whole open dock area; but could not stray too far - say, back into the city - for fear of missing our ferry.

So, what might catch a photographer's eye on a small city dock? And what does this all have to do with glyphs and the Carpathian mountains? My eye quickly homed in onto the two dozen or so oversized rubber dinghies hanging over the side of the dock to prevent the moored ferries from slamming their hulls against the concrete overhangs (which you can just about make out from the link to a Google satellite view given above). Or, more precisely, my eye quickly homed in on the splotches of colorful paint that adorned nearly all of the rubber dinghies on the dock. What immediately came to mind, as I approached the first dinghy for a closer inspection, is a marvelous - and surrealistically strange and funny - novel I had read last year by Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz called Cosmos.

The novel begins as two young men meet - by chance - on the way to a Polish resort town in the Carpathian mountains. They are soon drawn to a particular rooming house as a direct (if unpredictable) consequence of seeing a sparrow hanged on a piece of wire hooked over a branch; an event that not only convinces the two that it has some deep hidden meaning, but is but a precursor of ever more bizarre and intricate "decodings of meaning" the two must make to understand their (increasingly confusing) lives. As the novel unfolds, our protagonists proceed to "discover" (though "conjure" may be more accurate) ever more recessed layers of "hidden meaning" from what (to all outside observers) are nothing but meaningless everyday things and events. They see arrows in ceiling stains that point in directions they must follow; and search through other people's rooms hoping to find important "clues," such a nail pounded partway into a wall just above the floor. Though disturbing on many levels (I'm leaving a lot out of this short description), the novel reminds us - and me, during the moment I took to walk over to inspect my first "paint splotched dingy" in Athens - that meaning exists in the world (or in a place, or encoded in a given object or symbol) only when there is someone to decode it.

There is no "meaning" in a signal without a receiver; and a receiver will interpret a signal as meaningless if it does not have the proper context in which to decode the signal's message. But what if there were no intended receiver, but there was a context in which a signal might nonetheless reveal a meaning? And what if there was no message sender (more precisely, no intentionally sent message), but a receiver was nonetheless present; and - purely by chance(!) - was in the proper context to receive a "message"? Is the whole world, perhaps, best described as a vast surreptitious web of timeless "meanings" in search of local senders and receivers?

Such were my thoughts, and such was the state of my mind - which also provided an inner meta-context - in which I took nearly a hundred photographs of "Hidden Glyphs of Unknown Meaning" at the port of Piraeus in Athens. Were these messages, I wondered; encoded by some mysterious (perhaps long deceased) author? Were they clues to the evolution of the universe? Hints for my own life's journey? Or just random irrelevant scrawls of disinterested natural forces (that confuse and confound unsuspecting errant passerbys with their siren-song of illusory order when meaning seems to magically arise in an otherwise random context)? What cosmic messages are locked in these hidden glyphs of unknown meaning? Is there perhaps an even deeper level of understanding - and by whom? - of the hyper-glyph that I unwittingly unleashed into the world by using my camera to muse on the indecipherable glyphs I found in Athens?