[MUSIC PLAYING] ANDY WEISLOGEL: Good afternoon. I'm Andy Weislogel. I'm the Askin Curator of Earlier European and American art here at the Johnson Museum. And it's my great pleasure to introduce one of my favorite artists who has a major presence in the Visions of Dante exhibition, Sandow Burke. He's been with us over the past couple of days, and we've really been enjoying his presence, including a recent screening of his film, about which he'll talk a little bit when he comes to the podium.
He's a Los Angeles based artist, originally a graduate of the Otis Parsons Institute, whose work deals with contemporary life. Recent projects across his career, multimedia projects, have included works themed to inner city violence, graffiti, social and political issues, travel, prisons, Islam, surfing, and skateboarding. So a wide range of things. He has been the recipient of a number of different fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright, and a Getty Fellowship for painting. And he was awarded an Artist Research Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 2007.
His recently published mega project, American Quran, about which he spoke while it was in process last time he was here visiting us at Cornell a few years ago is an illuminated manuscript of the entire Quran in English. He's going to talk to us today, of course, about his large body of work around Dante's Divine Comedy. Please join me in welcoming Sandow Birk.
SANDOW BIRK: Hi. I have to say thank you to Laurent and Andy for bringing me here. It's my second time to Ithaca and I'm really-- the first time I came I saw the museum and I was dying to be in a show here and now I am. So I'm really proud to be part of the show and involved in the whole Dante discussion going on. So thank you for having me.
I'm just going to, as you said, I do tend to do big projects that last several years and then end and then I do a different big project. I'm going to talk about my Dante project. But at the very beginning, I'm going to sort of introduce myself.
I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles surfing and skateboarding my whole life. I started going to art school at the Otis Art Institute in downtown LA. And my art classes were slide talks where we were going through the history of world art and looking at slides. After two years of art school, I dropped out and went traveling around South America to go surfing. I eventually ended up back at school in Paris on the exchange program with Parsons School of Design. I did a semester in Paris and I did a semester in England. And my art history classes in Paris were inside the Louvre, and so coming from the suburbs of LA and looking at slides and then suddenly seeing these enormous salon paintings had a huge impact on me.
I think coming from LA, painters always, well, speaking for myself, I always feel intimidated being a working artist in Los Angeles where the whole city revolves around movies and television and music and records. And then here you are alone in your studio painting the way people did 500 years ago and it just seems a very strange occupation. So to go to Paris and see these enormous paintings that were the size of movie screens and learn about how people would stand in line to go see them really made a big impact on me.
So when I finally finished school, I took those experiences of seeing these paintings in Europe and I started thinking about how the paintings from the past could be reinterpreted to talk about the times we're living in. So I was living in South LA at the time and I started doing paintings about the neighborhood I was living in, like gang wars and drug deals and drive by shootings and things.
So coming out of school, I had sort of developed this way of working of looking at artworks from the past and thinking about how they can be reinterpreted or reimagined. And it's a process the way that I still work today. I did a whole series of paintings about the riots in 1992. I did a whole series of paintings where I traveled around California and painted a picture of every one of the 33 state prisons. This is Terminal Island State Prison in LA Harbor. This is San Quentin in San Francisco Bay, barely visible through the fog there. So that's my introduction to the how I got to the way I work and the process that I do.
One day I was in this used bookstore and stumbled across this book, which I bought for $10. And I had never studied Dante or read Dante, but I had this book and the images of Dore's prints inside just really were remarkable to me. They were just so strong and the technical ability of them. And I bought the book just because I liked the pictures and I had it sort of floating around on my coffee table in my studio for like a year and I would flip through it every once in a while.
And then I started reading a couple of lines and I read some more lines. And gradually, I started to get really sucked into the poem, as most of you probably have too. And gradually, pondering it off and on, I started to really think that there might be a way to reinterpret Dore's images particularly and to do a project about life in our own times, which is what all my work is about.
So I was scheduled to have an exhibition at my gallery in Los Angeles and I had a meeting with them and I said, I'm thinking of doing this project about Dante, like a series of paintings. What do you think? And they said, that sounds like a great idea. And that was sort of the beginning of my journey through the dark woods.
So I'm going to take a step back and explain. By this point in time, I was showing pretty regularly. I had been showing with the same gallery in Los Angeles. I've now shown with them for 25 years. But I have a gallery in Los Angeles, I had a gallery in San Francisco, and I had a gallery in New York. And the general way that my occupation would work was I would have one big show every year. I would work all year and have a show. Work all year building up a body of work, have an exhibition of it in one gallery, and then the next year work towards the show in the next city. And it would just keep going around. So I had this sort of predestined way that my exhibitions were happening.
So I went to Koplin Del Rio and I said, how about having a series of paintings about Dante Inferno for this exhibition? And right around then, I got a phone call from San Francisco from this printing press that worked with my gallery in San Francisco and they asked if I wanted to do a project with them. And they said, what are you working on? And I said, well, I'm thinking about doing this Dante Inferno thing. And they said, well, that would be great. You could do a bunch of images and we could print them and make a little box set.
And then we thought about it some more and we said, well, it really doesn't make any sense to have all these pictures of the Inferno without having the text of the Inferno. So then we started shopping around trying to find an English language translation that we could use. And at one point, I was in a meeting with a copyright lawyer in Hollywood, this woman, and she was trying to get in touch with people and contact their publishers and get permission. And she just kind of made this joke. She said, well, it's so hard to get this permission, it would be so much easier if you just did it yourself.
So that same evening after that meeting, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, Marcus Sanders, who studied journalism in school and now he's a surf journalist. He writes for surfing magazines and things. And we were hanging out in a bar and he said, well, what are you working on? And I said, I'm supposed to do this Dante thing and this lady said I should write it. And he said, I could help you do that. I studied it in college. We could do this. And so that's yet another thing that led to this whole rabbit hole that I fell into.
So I began doing drawings and Marcus Sanders and I started doing our own English translation, which I can talk more about later afterwards. But basically we worked where we got all the English language translations from the library that we could get. So I had like five or six. And sort of read them and read them all and then sort of regurgitate them in our head and rewrite them into contemporary slang. In our heads, we were imagining it as if we're talking to someone at a bar or something. This would be how you told the story of how you went to hell.
So we started doing that. It eventually evolved into a book project with Trillium Press. And while we were doing that, I was also doing drawings that went along with it. And the earliest images I did were really similar to Dore's intentionally so that people would see them and make the connection that I was drawing on Dore and sort of spoofing on them.
And like I said, the exhibition was sort of preordained to be in Los Angeles. So it made sense that a lot of the imagery was about Los Angeles. But in the concept that I had, it was more that the action in my images was taking place in an unnamed American city, a contemporary urban space. And many times it looks like Los Angeles, but it isn't necessarily.
One of the other concepts was I'm not a religious person, and the part that I didn't like about Dante was his real strict Catholic view of the world where only certain people could go to this place or only could go to that and only Catholics could get to heaven. And so I started to sort of react to that and think, I'm going to make hell and heaven be how I want them to be.
And the images show that Dante and Virgil are not actually going to hell like he says in the text, but they're just walking around the streets of America and seeing things. And it's more like the conversation that they're having, Virgil and Dante, is going on in their heads as if they're hallucinating or having a dream or tripping on drugs or something. So all the scenes are definitely in real urban spaces.
And then often for the robes of Virgil, I would imagine a homeless person that would find things in the alley that they could use to wrap themselves up with. So in different scenes, he's wearing different things. In a previous one, he had an American flag. Several of them say grand opening sale or apartment for rent or the kind of banners you might find around the city. There's Dante in the boat with a surfboard.
So we did the project. It became-- Trillium Press made a really nice full bound leather bound giant edition of the book with letterpress and really fine lithographs that I'll show you at the end. And while we were working on it, we sort of stumbled into this project and didn't know that much about Dante when it started. But as it went on, we started getting in touch with real scholars and ended up working on it with Peter Hawkins. And he became sort of a mentor on it.
There you can see Virgil's robe says free drink with any purchase. And Geryon is one of the many helicopters that constantly hover over Los Angeles. And there they are looking down into the lights of hell from the Hollywood sign. Dante has a skateboard in that picture. And the phone booth has an ad on the side of it for a previous project that I had done. So I was putting ads for my own work in there. Here they are at the lake of ice.
And so the show in Los Angeles was Dante's Inferno. It was the finished book. It was all the original drawings that I had done for them. And then I did a series of paintings that went along with them too. And the centerpiece of the whole show was the painting of Inferno, which is so nice that they have here. And some of the other paintings were Canto 1. And meeting Farinata in the open grave. Meeting the Minotaur, which is a statue on top of a fast food stand in LA. The Hollywood sign again. And here's a copy of the really nice book that they put out, which is in the library here if you want to see them.
And once it was done, it got quite a big reception. So we took it to Chronicle Books in San Francisco and they came out with a paperback version of it, which are on the sofas in there. So that was Inferno. And then we decided it was going so well, we'd carry on and do Purgatory. And like I showed on the map, my next show was scheduled to be in San Francisco, already scheduled to be in it, which was sort of a fortuitous accident. Because it turns out San Francisco is famous for its hills. And so we were able to incorporate all these scenes of going up the really steep streets and things as if they're going up the mountain of purgatory.
So here they are in Chinatown in San Francisco and going up the stairs of the BART metro system. You can see the San Francisco skyline in the distance. But if you'll notice, it's not as if purgatory or paradise are better places. It's still just the trash strewn streets of contemporary America. And some of the paintings of them going up the steps of purgatory, these are the people that had to carry heavy rocks to push their noses to the ground. More steep streets and cable cars.
And then another great coincidence and just by accident was by now I was sort of more versed in Dante and I knew what was coming. I knew all the problems I was going to deal with going through this project. And one thing was the Garden of Eden was coming up. And we started looking around and there's actually a bar in North Beach in San Francisco called the Garden of Eden. So we used that as the entrance to the Garden of Eden. And the night of we had the opening for the show, afterwards we all went and drank in that bar. In the Garden of Eden, he meets Faith, Hope, and Charity.
And then obviously the question that I was struggling with was Beatrice. How am I going to depict Beatrice? And in the poem, she's described as the most beautiful woman in the whole world. And for months I was thinking, well, what do you do? If you put her one specific race, that means something and people are going to think that. What color hair should you put her? And I was really struggling with it. And eventually I just started thinking, OK, let's just calm down and think about in real life. Let's say this was the girl you had a crush on in high school and now you're going to see her at the 30th wedding anniversary-- I mean school reunion. Like what's she going to look like? So of course, she's gained weight. She's not as good looking as you remember her. And she's Italian, because she's in the poem.
And then just technically for the drawings, a problem for me as an artist was I had to choose specific clothes. Like for Dante, he has a hoodie sweatshirt on the whole time. Because in some pictures you can see him quite clearly, in some pictures he's really, really small, and you need an identifying thing so that every picture you know it's Dante. So the same thing was with Beatrice. I was like, well, what should she be wearing? And again, struggling. And I thought there's the thing that a little black cocktail dress is good for any occasion. So she just has a cocktail dress on.
And then go in with a theme that they're never in the other world, they're always in our world, I was thinking, what would be the tree of knowledge of good and evil in my neighborhood? And I sort of came to the idea that I guess any tree could be the tree of knowledge if you just ponder it or meditate on it or use it for reflection. And so I purposely went out and tried to find the most boring ugly tree and ugly housing thing in my neighborhood. And that's Dante looking at it.
The centerpiece painting for purgatory was an imagined urban city going up in levels corresponding to purgatory with little reminiscences of the Hollywood sign here. But the big radio tower is Sutro Tower from San Francisco, because I was always trying to throw in things from the local town for the audience.
Then came purgatory. Again, our purgatory was, again, made into a really nice book and then into a trade book. And we started off on Paradiso, which by this time was already prescheduled to be shown in my gallery in New York. So at the beginning of Paradiso, Dante and Beatrice leave Eden and rise up into the heavens. And so I thought, well, how does one rise up into the heavens? They go to the airport. So here they are at LAX. And then they meet Freddie Mercury selling mercuries in the ring of mercury.
So by now, I was having more fun with it. And as you know, Dore didn't do that many images for Paradiso, so I had a lot of more leeway to start coming up with my own ideas. And again, the idea that throughout that they're not really going to the other life. They're just sort of meeting these street philosophers and having conversations with people as they go through the afterlife. So there's him having a conversation with a homeless person with a KFC bucket on his head.
And then the vision of the cross. I was thinking of places in New York that could represent the certain images. So the cross of the Manhattan bridge. The swirling lights of Times Square for the glowy parts. And the imperial M.
And also going through paradise, I was more sure of myself and I was really-- the images I was doing were really starting to be what I would say is more contradicting to Dante's text. So as my images start to be more and more inclusive, showing parts of different places in the world. There's scenes from Mexico City, this is Tokyo, from Indonesia. And I was trying to incorporate all these different religions from around the world in my view of heaven, whereas Dante's was getting narrower and narrower the higher he got.
Here they are in the planetarium by Central Park looking down through the planets. And one of my favorite things about Dante in the poem as a reader is the way that Dante throughout the whole poem remains sort of an everyman, the way that he's constantly surprised about everything. So he gets to Paradise and he's just totally surprised at stuff. And you're thinking in real life like, hey, man, you already went through hell and came out. How could this be surprising to you still? You should be accustomed to these amazing things.
So I love when he meets Adam, the first human, who I put as a Neanderthal man. Because I love the passage where he immediately says, oh wow, Adam, I was dying to meet you. And he comes out with the three questions that are exactly questions that we would ask today if you could meet the first human ever. What language do they speak? How long did he get to hang out in the Garden of Eden? These really sensible questions. I think it reveals his charm.
So here as they're getting higher and closer to the center of Heaven is Shiva, Indian goddess, sort of holding cell phones and water bottles. And when they eventually get to the very center of heaven, the rows of the celestial thing where he describes it as all these spinning lights and things like a vast stadium, I imagined it as Mecca where you actually see that in real life, that thousands and thousands of people wearing white going around in a circle.
And then at the very end when he meets God face to face and has this blinding realization and understands the whole world, it happens to him in a rainstorm in Chinatown when he's drinking a beer. And the title page for the last Canto of Paradiso features a broken shopping cart, which is exactly like the image from the very first chapter of Inferno. So you see it's all tied back together. It's all the same dumpy metropolis that we live in.
This is the center painting for Paradiso. Again, it's a fictional megatropolis. But if you examine the buildings all on the foreground, there's buildings from all different parts of the world from Tokyo and Sao Paulo and Mexico and Japan. And again, my imagining heaven as being this wonderful, welcoming place.
This is the three leather bound books all came together in a set. And the bindings were red, white, and green like the Italian flag. The three trade versions came out. And eventually as I had hoped during the course of-- this was a three and a half year project. I had hoped that they would all come back together and become an exhibition in one space. They were shown at the San Jose Museum of Art in California. And it's a really big exhibition and dispersed. So it's really nice that you have all the big ones here.
So that's sort of my relationship with Dante. And then just to carry on the story further, I was hanging out at a backyard barbecue with friends of mine in LA. This was one friend of mine, Paul Zaloom. He's a puppeteer by profession. He used to have a TV show called Beakman's World where he would do science experiments. It used to be on TV at 6:00 in the morning when kids could watch it. Kind of like Bill Nye the Science Guy. So he's a friend of mine. That's my current wife. She wasn't at that time my wife. She's my wife now. Elyse Pignolet. She's a ceramic artist. Paul Zaloom. Sean Meredith is a friend of ours, and he had gone to film school.
We were all standing around in his backyard and saying, hey, somebody said we should make a movie sometime. And Sean said, yeah, let's make a movie. And we said, OK, great. What should it be? And I said, I don't know. I just did this Dante thing. And they said, that sounds good. And then Paul Zaloom said, well, I'm only going to work on this movie if we do it with puppets. And we said that's a horrible idea. Who wants to sit through an hour of puppets?
But he knows everything about puppets. He went to school at Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. His whole profession is puppetry. And he sort of explained to us this whole tradition of paper puppet shows that comes out of Europe in the 1700s called toy theater where people would go to the newsstand and buy a little pamphlet and punch out the stage and punch out the puppets and put them on a stick. And then it would come with a text and they could do Shakespeare or something. And so he's convinced us that there was this whole tradition that we could riff off of.
So we set about making a puppet movie of Dante's Inferno, which we screened here last night. It's a feature length movie. We raised a little bit of money and we spent a year writing a script and building sets and building puppets. And then we filmed the whole thing in two weeks and then took about another year to edit.
So this is the stage we built for it. It's about the size of a ping pong table. And here's some of the sets. And you could see their hands were moved with sticks or by hand like that. And the four of us basically made the film. And then when we shot it over the two weeks, we brought in about 50 people to work on it. A bunch of puppeteering students from Cal Arts. Most of the voice actors worked for free. A bunch of film crew and stuff worked for free. And these are examples of some of the sets we used. This is a subway car. And purgatory. No, limbo.
And it came out quite good. When we were near finishing it, it turning out better than we thought it would be. It's quite political. It's quite funny. It's strays a lot from Dante, but it does stick really faithfully. We depict every level of hell. We depict all the sinners, all the sins and punishments from the poem. And it was coming out quite good. So we thought, well, maybe we have a better chance of this film being seen than just in little film festivals.
So we ended up calling a bunch of people and ended up getting Dermot Mulroney to do the voice of Dante and James Cromwell to do the voice of Virgil. And they came in and did the voiceovers and they were really fun to work with. James Cromwell knew quite a lot about Dante and had a lot of questions for us and challenged us on lots of things.
But it's a feature film. It opened at Sundance Film Festival in 2007. And it went around the world to film festivals. It was on Netflix for two years. It was on arts and entertainment channel for a year. And I think you can still see it on Vimeo. I think you can rent it for $4. If you like Dante, it's humorous. And that's what I've brought for you today.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: Sandow, thank you so much for taking us through your creative process and all of the thought and a lot of humor that goes with it too. It's perfect. You're perfect for this exhibition, obviously, and it's perfect continuation of actually some of the themes that we heard about and talked about this morning. And so I'm really pleased to be the first to ask you a couple more questions.
We were talking and in Natale's talk this morning. He made the excellent point about how all of a sudden in Foligno, the publisher had the great idea of marketing the vernacular, leaving Latin aside and striking off in a new direction. And of course, really in some sense, that's quite what you did in a number of ways. But I'm interested if you could talk a little bit more for us first about the process of not only identifying a visual pathway forward and creating a visual world but a little bit more about how you went about creating an American vernacular version of The Divine Comedy.
SANDOW BIRK: Sure. So thinking back, I think the strength of the project that I ended up doing came from naivete. I had never studied Dante. I didn't know what I was getting into. And I also didn't feel constrained or in such awe of the poem as many people. To me I felt like all the scholarly stuff was being done. That wasn't what I had to do. I could just do my own thing that riffs on it.
As a newcomer to Dante when I started reading the poem, the thing that I found most infuriating was the fact that I had to read and stop and then read the footnotes to learn about it and then go back and start again and then read a footnote. And just the constant interrupting was really annoying to me. And we imagined doing our project that the audience would be not people like you but people like me, people that weren't familiar with Dante, were coming to it for the first time. So one of our main goals was to try to squeeze all the information from the footnote into the text so you could read without stopping.
So we would just squeeze little bits in there but just enough information that it would explain. And so that was really our main goal. And then also reading the original poem and he would use metaphors. Oh, it was like fireflies over the fields or something. And I would be like, I grew up in LA. I have no idea what fireflies look like or fields. But I do know what broken glass in an alley looks like and the sparkles of that or something. So I would try to find metaphors that were from my own personal experience. So those were two of the guiding things that we tried to do.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: You must have had a lot of fun coming up with contemporary ways of expressing the humor in Dante and the cursing and all of the violent language and things like that too, I can imagine.
SANDOW BIRK: Sure, yeah. And then in my normal life, I'm a painter. I work all alone all the time. So to do this project and have a writer friend of mine come in and work 50-50 with me was really great. And then when we made the movie, to have more people with more ideas and more thoughts and everyone adds something and it gets funnier and people are learning more. And it's not it's not normally how it works. So doing these collaborations was really exciting for me.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: I have just one other follow up question myself before we open it to questions from the floor. And that has to do with on the tour of the exhibition that we just offered prior to your talk, we were looking at some other contemporary artists using themselves and using their own bodies and their own identities to sort of inhabit Dante. And a number of contemporary artists look at Dante from a kind of autobiographical standpoint. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how much of your own personal story or your own personal journey or not came out or got invested into the Dante project.
SANDOW BIRK: Maybe less than you might think. I mean, I do identify with Dante through the poem, with the idea of him being the questioning everyman that always is curious. So I liked that. So I imagined him as being an everyman and I used the most generic outfit for him that I could think of with a hoodie and Levi's. Maybe he looks a little bit like me or like what I looked like 15 years ago. But I squeezed in skateboards and stuff, but it wasn't really meant to be me.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: Well, thank you. I think if we have questions in the room that we have time for a few. We're doing great on time, actually. In the back? Anna, you want to help?
AUDIENCE: Thank you. And I'm wondering if during this whole process you investigated other media to work in. Having seen what's in the exhibition, all the woodcuts, the engravings, etchings, and knowing that you're primarily a painter. So many of the images that we see, they're pen and ink or they could be transformed into another medium. And I'm wondering if you discovered any medium that you hadn't worked with and that you enjoyed.
SANDOW BIRK: That's a good question. And the answer is yes. As I mentioned, I was contacted by Trillium Press in San Francisco. They're a fine art printing. They bring in artists and they do art projects. That's all they do. When they came to me and asked if I wanted to do something and I said I want to do this Dante thing. I live in LA which is far from San Francisco, so we were trying to figure out how we could work from different cities. And I showed them a Dore. I said, I want to do something that resembles this with all the fine lines and the dark darks and light lights. And Dore's were engravings. Wood engravings. And they couldn't do that. But they said, we could do lithographs and sort of replicate the feel and look of them.
So all the images I drew were done with ink on translucent DuraLar plastic. And then I would do five of them and FedEx them up to San Francisco and they would make lithographic plates by exposing them into the darkroom. So it was like they put the actual drawing right onto the sheet of aluminum and expose it. So it's like a one to one of the picture. It's not like a photograph of my drawing. It's an actual drawing being burned into the plate. And then they were all done as lithographs. So I had never done lithographs before. So yeah. It was more that we were faced with the problem of how to do it and they solved the problem and I followed their directions.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: Maybe we'll take a question from one of our online participants. Ruth Campbell asks, is Dante the most robust of all your projects because it wound up in books and the film? Is it your most favorite project?
SANDOW BIRK: Oh, how much time? I would say it's the project that has gotten me the most visibility outside of the art world. It resonates with people that aren't really in the inner art world that I normally function in. I've done other painting series that are quite well known even before Dante. I did a series of paintings about an imaginary war between San Francisco and LA that got me a lot of attention about 20 years ago.
But as far as what I think my most important project was, when I finished Dante, the whole process of the three books and the movie had taken me five years or more. And during that five years, basically all that I was thinking about was Dante. I was either reading about Dante or reading someone writing about Dante and learning about it and emailing people about it. And in my personality at the end of that, I was just done. I really didn't want to think about Dante anymore. But then the book people had come to me and they said, oh, you should do Paradise Lost. You should do Lusiadas or something. And I was just like, those are really two similar. I want to just do something completely different.
The next project I ended up doing was a big print series about the war in Iraq, which was going on at that time. It became a three year project where my wife and I did this huge series of woodblock prints telling the story of the war in Iraq from the beginning to the imaginary end, because it was still going on when we did it. And so that three years, I was really just totally involved in the war in Iraq, reading about it in the newspaper every day and following on the maps where it was happening and Abu Ghraib and all the horrible stuff that was coming out.
And gradually I kept thinking about a new book project. And I kept thinking about Dante and the Catholic view of the world that I had been immersed in and then I was so immersed in the war and spending so much time listening to the radio and reading about the war in Iraq and Americans after 9/11 talking about is Islam fundamentally at odds with Western civilization? Is it a violent religion? And just all these discussions and going on and going on for years.
And then at one point, I just sat down. I said, I spend my life traveling around to go surfing. And I counted up how many times I had been to Islamic places to go surfing. And I think I counted 11 long trips to Islamic parts of the world, in Asia and North Africa. And I was like, I've been to the Islamic parts of the world. I've met these people. I've eaten amazing food. I've had wonderful times. The way that Americans are talking about Islam is nothing like my personal experience has been.
And I said, I'm going to stop listening to what everyone's saying. And I went down to the bookstore and got a copy of the Quran and I just started reading it myself. And from that, I became interested in the Quran and just learning all about it equally. And it grew out of this project to do an illuminated manuscript of the Quran, which I did. And I thought it was really important. It's finished. You can get it on Amazon.
I started off thinking, like all my projects, I thought it would take me four years. It ended up taking nine years. But I made an entirely hand transcribed, English version of the Quran. And every page has paintings of scenes of life in contemporary America that are metaphorical for what's going on in the text. So I think that's what I think is my most important project.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: Yeah, please. I think someone back there and then Donatella.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, thank you. A question about how your approach to the kind of visual side of things changed when the text became part of the project, both initially just within the printing maybe and then turning into a new translation. That is to say, do you imagine the text is a set of commentary on your images? Are your images a counterpoint to, et cetera? What's the relationship and how did it change?
SANDOW BIRK: Well, it didn't change, because it happened so early on that I hadn't really even begun. So the opportunity came to do text and image at the beginning. So I thought of them from the beginning as being together. But the other part of your question, I don't like it when my work is referred to as illustrating Dante, because I think it sort of does the opposite of illustrating if you think of illustrating as showing you what the text is saying. Because my pictures are showing you not what the text is saying. They're sort of contradicting the text. And I think that's what makes my project interesting and I wish it was more paid attention to.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. Well, mine is just a comment. I'll start maybe from the last thing. As you remember the other night in Rochester, I contradicted you when you said that you contradict that. Because I think that you actually capture the potential of Dante in many ways. Not always. Some little things maybe. But in the vast majority of your I would call it interpretive dialogue with Dante, you just grab that immense potential for universalizing discourse. And the focus on the city I think is powerful, your focus on the city, your focused on this urban life. The human compassion, denunciation of the problems.
And even this parts of hope that may fall into that category of utopian thinking. And I want to qualify that when I say utopia I mean something possible. So I think you grab something possible that we have the potential to do, but it's not here yet. So I think in your work, there is that element that is so Dantian, the way I read Dante, that is extremely suggestive and useful for people, for students, for people who are approaching Dante to see in what way you can really have a dialogue with him.
And then the fresh approach, tabula rasa, I start from scratch. That's something that everybody should do. Sometimes we who are in the profession are kind of imprisoned by certain things. And so I envy that very fresh approach that every student should have also. And then your way of locating yourself between the tradition and the innovation. The results a great tradition of what you are doing.
For example, I mean, let me just cite what seems to be least scholarly possible element. The shepherds who were doing the [INAUDIBLE], which is transferring with their cattle from one region of central Italy to another, they would used to stop in posts along the way and recite Dante. I mean, in Tuscany, we know that. We know that from people of the-- I mean, at least directly I know from people the age of my grandparents or so on. So there is that tradition of a Dante that speaks to everyone in this vernacular, universal vernacular, so that all of us can draw something that is from him and yet built on that. But the basic message is this denounce and hope that I think is very powerful in your work. And the beauty of your work besides, I mean, adds so much. So I just want to thank you for all your work.
SANDOW BIRK: Thank you.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: Are there other questions in the room or comments for Sandow Birk? Oh, I think we have one more in the back.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. Thanks very much. I wanted to follow up with what Donatella just said about the hopefulness of Dante and the open endedness. I mean, Dante did have rules he had to follow, but he broke them all the time. There were rules in the culture that he was supposed to follow and he broke them. And so they're gay poets in purgatory who are going to go to heaven. They're saints. They're pagans in heaven. He's breaking rules left and right. He doesn't boast and brag about that because he doesn't, because he was writing what he wrote. But he's challenging what the traditional reader might have thought in a way that you're challenging what we might think about Dante. So there's a real parallel there.
But I wanted to ask a question. But maybe you answered it when you talked about this image. But my question is prompted by the previous image you had up, which is of Dante at the very end of the whole thing with his vision. And the way I can say the question is this. In the poem, Dante grows and learns and he outgrows Virgil and keeps learning. And at a certain point, he's teaching Virgil. And that's part of the wonderful relationship between the two of them. The student teaches the teacher at a certain point.
But then you get to the very end of the whole thing, so 100 cantos, and I want to ask you, does your Dante grow? Or how does your Dante grow? And maybe can you elaborate on the vision as you imagine it at the very, very end. But I just want to say in parentheses, maybe you did this minutes ago when you talked about how you went from here through the war of Iraq to do a book about the Quran.
SANDOW BIRK: I guess, yeah, the sequence of my projects is how I grow. How Dante grows, I don't really know. I guess coming at it from a visual angle, as we were working in sequence, so when I was at the beginning of Paradiso, I'm still imagining, oh my gosh, how am I going to depict these things that are so ephemeral that even Dore can't figure out how to do it? Or most artists can't figure out how to do it. So what can I do?
And I guess my answer was to make it all happen interior. I'm not showing you all the pictures in my series, obviously, but the final final end page of the book is Dante sitting on a sofa reading The Divine Comedy. So it's as if him in his hoodie, he's reading the poem now. But yeah, I imagine he grows. I think he grows. He travels. He sees things, meets people, has conversations.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] to your version of Dante? [INAUDIBLE]
SANDOW BIRK: Yeah.
ANDY WEISLOGEL: All right. Well, Sandow, thank you again so much for being with us.
So now we'll take a little break. There's coffee and snacks if you need a refresher. We will meet back here please a little bit before 3:15 when we'll hear our last speaker of the day, Professor Maryemma Graham.
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If Dante were a “sneaker- and hoodie-clad slacker” living in contemporary New York—instead of a medieval poet exiled from Florence, Italy—would his “Divine Comedy” begin at a corner bodega and descend into the bowels of the subway? And would Dante’s journey to the afterlife be as relevant today as it was in 14th-century Europe?
Join celebrated artist Sandow Birk as he details his five-year journey to rewrite Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in American vernacular and illustrate it with more than 200 drawings and paintings set in today’s urban America. The project culminated in three leatherbound, limited-edition art books, “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso,” which were later published in trade editions and exhibited across the country. Mr. Birk will also explore his creation of an award-winning, feature-length film adaptation of Dante’s “Inferno” (2007), made with paper puppets and toy theatre sets.
This is the third talk in Cornell’s “Visions of Dante” symposium held in conjunction with the Johnson Museum of Art’s “Visions of Dante” exhibition, timed to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Mr. Birk’s drawings and paintings are part of the exhibit.
“Visions of Dante: A Central NY Humanities Corridor Symposium” was held on Saturday, October 16, 2021, at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, in conjunction with their exhibition “Visions of Dante.” The symposium was cosponsored by the Central New York Humanities Corridor, a unique regional collaboration between Syracuse University, Cornell University, the University of Rochester, the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium, and other liberal arts schools and colleges in the central New York region.
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