Monday, February 05, 2018

The Imaginary Bestiaries of Claudio Romo

A Journey in the Phantasmagorical
Garden of Apparitio Albinus
I was enchanted by these two books the moment I saw them.  I like the unusual, the weird and surreal.  And both of these books are that.  Claudio Romo is a wonderful illustrator as well as author, and he brings these two talents together in this pair of entertaining and beautifully strange picture books from Gingko Press.

These volumes complement each other well.  The first, A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, henceforth Albinus, is exactly what its title says: the tour of a garden.  But a garden with its own ocean.  With Titans who live in that ocean, one of whom has even been transformed into an island.  We meet strange creatures, such as the mimoid and the behemoth, a gigantic fish which floats in the sky carrying a mountain range on its back.  Levitating cities, inhabited by the Aurelians, have formed above the garden.  There are also insects, like the alebrijes, who “are born from, grow up in and feed on people’s dreams.  An average dreamer needs roughly a year to incubate a medium-sized alebrije in their mind.”  We are warned “alebrijes created from serene and harmonious dreams posses exquisite colors, shapes and behavior, often singing with a beautiful voice, whereas those born from nightmares are sinister in appearance and can be dangerous.” 

The Book of Imprudent Flora
The Book of Imprudent Flora, henceforth Flora, is more narrative: an explorer’s ship comes across a strange island in the Magellan straits.  This book is his account of that island’s inhabitants and flora.  This time it is the plant world rather than the animal one which is catalogued (though there are still giants).  In truth, such distinctions are irrelevant in Romo’s world.  The borders among genus and species break down completely.  All is intermixed, guided only by the author’s sense of the weird and memorable.  It’s the return of the repressed, Linnaeus-style.  

Humans have never really given up on animism; a part of us will always believe that a plant, a tree, a fish, a bug, a rock, a cloud, etc. has a soul.  And a soul to which we are connected in some meaningful way.  In the course of history we’ve gradually abandoned, or at least bracketed, that belief.  We’ve had to.  After all, you can’t mow the lawn if you feel the need to apologize to each blade of grass for hurting it.  And such a way of thinking means that not only will the trains not run on time but there won’t even be trains.  Yet we are who we are; and so our former animism pops up from time to time in cultural artifacts like horror movies, ghost tales, science-fiction, UFO abduction accounts, Halloween, etc.  And in the works of visual artists such as Romo.  

The Explorer and a specimen
from Flora
There are other influences on him, too.  He openly admits to: Borges The Book of Imaginary Beings, The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Casares, The Florentine Codex by Brother Bernardino, and of course the works of Hieronymus Bosch.  He also cites the annual carnivals held in his home town of Talcahuano in Chile.  They were a “phantasmagorical parade of people dressed up as impossible sea creatures…Their costumes glittered like Christmas trees, putting such a spell of enchantment on me that at a certain point, without even realizing it, I started following them.”  And, in a way, he still is.  

The mimoid from Albinus
I also sense the influence of Lewis Carroll, although that may just be me.  At times Romo’s writing can become humorous and the ideas whimsical.  For instance, one of the plants in Flora, is called Voracious Matilda.  It attracts its prey by secreting “an ectoplasmic substance which gives shape to the appetites of its prey.”  The explorers place a mouse in front of it.  Suddenly a crumb of cheese appears on the plant.  It even emits an aroma.  Then they put a cat in front of it.  This time the image of a mouse “(about to eat a piece of cheese)” materializes on the Matilda.  The parenthetical part is wonderful.  The idea of a hilarious infinite regression quickly flits across the reader’s mind: Put a dog in front of the Matilda and it would project a cat looking a mouse looking at a piece of cheese, and so forth ad infinitum; an endless series of desire.  It’s a testament to Romo’s talent that he doesn’t need to spell it out, the hint is sufficient. 

If these magnificent books aren't enough for you, here’s one in a similar vein: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel from Taschen.  Now, to be honest, I haven’t read this book.  And I probably won’t.  It’s $200, a little out of my price range.  Haeckel (1834-1919) was a German scientist whose illustrations of jellyfish, plankton, protozoa, and other marine life are in themselves beautiful works of art.  Like Romo's work, they, too, have a haunting quality.  Fortunately, over at The New York Review of Books you can see samples of Haeckel’s work along with an insightful essay by Lucy Jakub. 
The levitating Aurelian city from Albinus

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