Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Julius Knipl and the longing for nostalgia

I usually board the train in Porter Square and you have to go down pretty deep to get to the inbound track. First there is a short escalator from the street where in the morning a man hands out a free daily. On the level below him is where the turnstiles and token booth are and down here another fellow sells the Globe and the Herald, as well as the NY Times for those of us that secretly wish we were in Manhattan. After you go through the turnstiles there are three steep escalators that go down over 100 feet. Once on the platform, the wide arch of the ceiling can be dizzying.

I’ve sat on the wooden bench in this subway terminal in every condition, the whole of my experience seemingly reflected on in this space. The subway station is a liminal space and this is what makes it sacred. All you can do is wait. And it's in the waiting that everything appears, everything you are and long to be takes shape. And then the from the distance you hear the train and as you are pulled out of whatever reverie you were in a return to the feeling of hope or dread or wherever the train is about take you, takes hold and you shuffle off your thinking and board the car. It is then I am often filled with an explicable nostalgia.

One of the most realized contemporary encounters with nostalgia, similar to some freakish longing for Weegee’s Coney Island, is found in the work of Ben Katchor, an artist most known for his comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.

In this strip, a happy, but vaguely melancholic Knipl roams the streets of a city that exists just on the outside of the real. Where it does exist is in the nostalgic, an only slightly fantastic world where men find hidden rooms above their drop ceilings, salt and pepper shakers mysteriously disappear from diners, and where, as Katchor narrates from one panel to the next, “there exists no more perfect tool for lifting a succession of discarded papers from the soft earth/ than this simple wooden stick with its long protruding nail.” Knipl’s city is haunted by itself. Already rich with its own invisible history, it keeps creating this history over and over again if only to sustain this eternal nostalgia for itself. Through Julius Knipl, Katchor reveals that the present is often merely a shadow of the past, and that what is forgotten is more authentic.

In one strip the first panel show a street-level subway train curving into view. The next shows Knipl having just left the station and the panels read, from one to the next: “In the same way a doctor associates certain physical signs with the end of a human life/ Mr. Knipl knows what to expect at the last stop on any subway line.” Then through a wonderful convention in which Julius Knipl speaks not in thought balloons but regular speech balloons even when he is alone, the real estate photographer describes the businesses he encounters: “A Trophy manufacturer, a movie theater converted into a business school, the offices of a wedding orchestra, a dietetic candy store, a bus driver’s uniform and supply store.” One can imagine a minyan taking place in the back of one of these stores, a few tired salesmen gathering for some companionship under the eave of their Judaism. But even here, on the outskirts of the city there exists an even lonelier sentiment: “However, these last manifestations of private enterprise can linger on for a quarter of a century.” And Knipl continues, “An illegal franchise of a defunct fast-food chain/ a plastic slipcover showroom.” The last panel shows Knipl resting inside the store, a sun-broken shadow cutting across the floor through the front door. It’s as if in the end, what these things offered was simply a place to rest, a place to sit down away from the center of things where the noise and the movement made it impossible to have some communion.

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