Grand Canyon Journal 1: Fly-over

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A few weeks ago, I was flying from St. Louis to Los Angeles on one of those clear, bright winter afternoons that makes America look like a Björk video. Since the entertainment option in the cabin consisted of watching Madagascar 2 from an angle so oblique that the form of a skull threatened to emerge, my face was mostly glued to the window, gazing down at the otherworldly panorama unspooling below me like an economy class version of Andrew Wyeth’s late career frequent flyer. Vast fields of white snow dotted with traces of civilization gave way to a stretch of Gabriel Orozco-esque center pivot irrigated parcels of land which slowly dissolved into a variegated expanse of desert before being swallowed up by the yawning chasm of…THE GRAND CANYON. Brief aside: granted it must be difficult to name massive land forms, but “The Grand Canyon” is a pretty uninspired piece of work. Unlike such visionary nomenclature as, ahem, The Grand Tetons in Wyoming, TGC falls into the patently less grand “Man with a Van” category of names: plucky with a dash of assonance. There’s a strange mix of hubris and embarrassment in this name that promises a glimpse of the sublime but delivers a Chevy Chase joke. And yet, the affectation of the name belies an anxiety that’s much clearer from 30,000 feet: as much as we love to name, we fear the fact that something so stupifyingly huge can look so incredibly small.

YouTube text comment posted in response to "David Copperfield - Floating Over the Grand Canyon"

Which brings me to David Copperfield. When I got back to LA, naturally, I searched YouTube to look for a video that resembled my aerial experience of TGC. Unfortunately, all the videos shot from commercial jets did just that – they resembled my experience. Peering through my browser window, I tasted little of the flavor of the dramatic shifts in scale, light, and color that I witnessed through my airplane window. I caught only a whiff of the uncanny multiplicity of speeds I experienced: the physical velocity of the plane hurtling through space, the slow pace of the landscape revealing itself like a tracking shot beneath me and the terror of erosion, that imperceptible force that thinks about the entire era of humankind the way we think about a “dog year.” It was then, in the “Related Videos” sidebar of my YouTube page, that I first encountered “David Copperfield – Floating Over the Grand Canyon.” This was a fly-over, nay, a float-over of an entirely different order.

Superstudio, "The Continuous Monument: St. Moritz Revisited,"1969. Cut-and-pasted printed paper, color pencil, and oil stick on board.

Could Superstudio, the radical Italian architectural firm from the 1960s and 70s whose proposals included draining the canals of Venice and flooding their native Florence until only the dome of the cathedral emerged from the displaced waters, have art directed this David Copperfield video? While it seems unlikely, the video bears several of the hallmarks of Superstudio’s inimitable (or possibly-imitated-by-Copperfield-here) style: an ecstatic investigation of the relationship between monumentality and nature, the spanning of impossibly great distances, white, geometric design objects set off against colorful landscapes, the picturesque interrupted by mystico-modernist bravado and a type of showmanship so earnest, rehearsed, and excessive that it produces a corrosive joy in the viewer, one that erodes our battle-worn utopias a little further. Of course, if David Copperfield floated in from anywhere to the Grand Canyon, it would have been from Las Vegas, whose hotels and casinos echo with the kind of corrosive laughter that Superstudio would have approved of and whose concierges can easily arrange an airplane, helicopter, or magic carpet ride to TGC.

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If Las Vegas itself is a magic show, then we can consider the spectacular destruction of the Aladdin Hotel and Casino its disappearing act and the green screen magic carpet ride at the Luxor its “prestige”—the finale act where that which has disappeared rematerializes. YouTube user afglionheart may have been right to call David Copperfield a “jinn” (or, as we say, a genie), because he’s gotten me caught up in something that I’m afraid I won’t be able to extricate myself from for the next couple of weeks. You see, after flying over TGC and then watching David Copperfield’s video, I embarked on an impromptu magic carpet ride myself to see David Copperfield perform in Las Vegas and then to go see the Grand Canyon with my own eyes, or, from the ground, rather.

During my stint as guest blogger, I will post reflections on my trip from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon (which took place between January 10 – 13, 2010). I’ll try to get out of the plane, so to speak, and get at the relationship between these two sites, excavating analog and digital artifacts that may help us understand their perverse dialectic. However, like the Colorado River that has been carving out the Grand Canyon for the last 17 million years or so, my guest blogging will (as you can probably already tell) have many tributaries which we will follow without fear of getting lost in the darker recesses of the canyon. Along the way, I will discuss topics such as medievalism, magic, IMAX Theaters, sunsets, tourism, contemporary art, petroglyphs, parking garage design, Avatar, anthropology, alchemy, and Caspar David Friedrich. Also, as you can probably tell, I don’t really like the name “The Grand Canyon.” I welcome alternate name suggestions for TGC in the comments below.

The Las Vegas Strip

But before I wrap up this first post, I thought I’d end with a little magic trick myself, one that David Copperfield and Superstudio may indeed work on together if they ever collaborate again. Here we go. Imagine the Las Vegas Strip, that great canyon of concrete, glass, steel, and lights displaced, bit by bit onto the floor of TGC so that each hotel, each casino, each attraction — the black glass pyramid of the Luxor, the medieval castle of Excalibur, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the volcano of the Mirage — sits astride the Colorado River. Imagine all of that, including the signature synchronized dancing fountains of the Bellagio bursting forth from the river itself, as you fly through TGC in this sweet HD video:

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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this post, especially the old Bonnie Tyler video! If I didn’t know about YouTube, I’d ask where on Earth did you find that?!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences (and your sense of humor). Have a good one.

    Reply

  2. Ben says:

    David Copperfield and the Grand Canyon. . .wow the 80’s. . .Where are we now? No more prime time magic.

    I did a little googlearch and came up with this for a name for TGC.

    The Paiutes call the plateau that the canyon cuts through Kaibab, or “Mountain Lying Down.”

    You need to contact David and have hime redo that trick. . .maybe Beyonce could sing.

    Reply

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  4. sanya says:

    Good writing Karthik!

    Reply

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