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Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 12:00 am

The future is now

Vachel Lindsay-inspired exhibit is a study in contrasts


“Blow ashes into flame. Start a brotherhood of your own. Live in the New City that is revealed to you, as we are living in our City and in the streets of our Tomorrow.”
– Vachel Lindsay

Renowned Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay’s 1920 novel, The Golden Book of Springfield, quoted above, expressed a romantic, utopian vision of what Springfield would be like in the then far-off year of 2018. In the story, a dream book with golden wings descends from the sky to enlighten the capital city’s sleeping citizens of 1920 about the perfect society to come.

Some things this mythical winged book failed to predict include the Google Maps car, surreptitiously snapping and transmitting candid digital photos of his beloved city over the once unimaginable, now commonplace, World Wide Web. Another was an artist utilizing these images as part of an exhibit exploring the distance between the realities of 21st century Springfield and Lindsay’s vision of his city’s future as the perfect model of world peace and harmony.

In truth, the Springfield of today seems to bear little in common with Lindsay’s fanciful predictions. This very contrast is the subject of “New Springfield,” an ambitious exhibit by St. Cloud, Minn., artist Rosemary Williams, currently on display at UIS’s Visual Arts Gallery. The work, including an imposing composite photo and an overwhelming number of computer printouts, was created by Williams specifically for this exhibit and was inspired by pairing a close reading of Lindsay’s novel with her experiences visiting Springfield this past summer.

“The original idea was to talk about this preposterous notion that Vachel Lindsay put forth that in the year 2018 Springfield would be a utopia,” admits Williams. “But more than that I wanted to use it as a kind of mirror to look at these really romantic ideals of a century ago and ask, are we meeting them? Do we still care about them? Are there other things that we care about? What do we look like as a community?”  She is quick to point out that while Springfield is the specific focus of the exhibit, it can also be seen as a microcosm of present U.S. society. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be Springfield with all of its particular challenges.  Everywhere has challenges,” she says.

Dominating the gallery is a nearly nine-foot tall, 176-inch wide, photographic print depicting the Vachel Lindsay home at 603 S. Fifth Street, composited into one image from a large number of photographs taken by Williams during her visit. “I’ve done a lot of photographic work in the past that used the house or the apartment as a metaphor for the human body or a metaphor for the individual,” says Williams. “In this case I decided to use this not-quite-life-size but very impressively sized photo of the home, to represent Lindsay himself as this beautiful house that’s been restored, but right next to photos of falling down, boarded up houses.”

In order to accent the contrast between Lindsay’s vision of a utopian 21st century Springfield and today’s reality, Williams made a Herculean, though not completely realized, effort to print screen-grabs of Google Maps images of every single residence within the Springfield city limits. The pictures have been placed in stacks for gallery visitors to physically leaf through and explore. Continuing with her domicile-as-person metaphor, Williams explains that the Google Maps pictures are her way of seeing the residents as individuals, a viewpoint she found that physically visiting area neighborhoods did not encourage. “Looking at images of each house individually, one by one, was a very different experience than driving though a neighborhood and saying ‘maybe we should get out of here’ or ‘boy what a beautiful neighborhood,’” Williams recounts. “When you really look at each house you start to think about the people inside as individuals. You can find these tiny houses that just show incredible care, with beautiful flowers. These are things you don’t see when you’re just driving through.”

While many of the ideas in Lindsay’s novel might seem laughably outdated or otherwise absurd to modern sensibilities, Williams – whose work has been exhibited widely throughout the United States and Europe as well as profiled in the New York Times Magazine, The Times of London, and on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation – was also struck by how progressive many of the poet’s social ideas were, compared to many of his contemporaries of a century ago. For example, The Golden Book of Springfield describes its winged meta-tome appearing to a surprising variety of different social and racial types. “There’s an African American and a rabbi – there’s even a woman, oh my god!” Williams says drily. “But he really was thinking about different viewpoints in his own limited, overly romantic way. There is a kind of prescience for what some of the struggles of our time are.”         

“New Springfield” runs through Nov. 14. Williams will be presenting a public lecture on Thursday, Oct. 17, from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in Brookens Auditorium with a gallery reception to follow from 6:30-8 p.m., which will be free and open to the public. The UIS Visual Arts Gallery is on the UIS campus in the Health and Science Building, room 201 (HSB 201). Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com. He is a long-time contributor to IT and authors the ongoing arts and music blog “Faingold at Large” at www.illinoistimes.com.


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