Monday, May 23, 2011

Wheels within Wheels: Game of Thrones Opening Credits

People, it's time to talk about "Game of Thrones."

In particular, the stunning opening credit sequence--a mechanical map that lays out the backstory of Westeros and introduces the seven main houses (formerly the Seven Kingdoms). I've been more and more taken with the opening sequence as I've gotten deeper into A Song of Ice and Fire, the medieval fantasy series by George R. R. Martin on which the tv show is based.

The sequence offers up expository detail, fictional geography, and sly commentary, all while introducing the cast and crew members. Elastic, the company that also did the opening credits for "Rome," wanted to marry the Tolkein-like map to the concept of a world under glass. I like it: Martin's a good world-builder, and these credits offer a good legend for figuring out who's who and what's where. Since the books are (as yet) empty of robots, mechanics, or clockwork figures, these opening credits are a thoughtful addition (and amplification) to the story. Given how many people love the books, I wonder if this bodes well for its translation from textual to visual medium?

How Much Is That Automaton in The Window?

A keen-eyed former student sent me an article about an upcoming sale at Christie's (Hong Kong) of a perfectly matched pair of pistols that fire tiny avian automata.

The pistols date from about 1820, and are attributed to the Swiss artisans and horologists Frères Rochat. They are the only matched pair of automata-pistols in existence, although some museums and collections have single pistols from the same period. They are exquisite: made of gold, with red and blue enamel inlay, and encrusted with pearls and diamonds. But what bullets! After priming the pistols with a small key, pull the trigger and...TWEET! A tiny bird, with multi-colored plumage, shoots out of the barrel and perches on the end, singing a little song and flapping its wings for about 20 seconds. The entire mechanism is composed of tiny springs, gears, wires, levers, barrels, and pistons that are all enclosed within the pistol itself.

The tiny birds sound and look incredibly realistic. Similar kinds of automata were known in the medieval period. Several different historical sources mention golden trees with mechanical birds, or mechanical birds conjoined to programmable fountains, as early as the 9th century (Baghdad), and also in the 10th century (Istanbul). The travelers' reports of these marvels took root in the medieval imagination, and mechanical birds (made of gold and covered in gems) appear in numerous medieval histories and romances. In one, the birds are so lifelike that they fool real birds, who flock to the tree looking for mates (a nice avian echo of some old myths when people fall in love with statues).

So, if you've got between $2.5 and $5M to burn, catch a flight over to HK and make a bid! The auction is May 30.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Waterclocks and Weiwei

Thanks to AV for drawing my attention to this public sculpture by Ai Weiwei. Currently in the Pulizter Fountain in Midtown Manhattan, the sculpture comprises twelve brass animal heads, each corresponding to a figure in the Chinese zodiac.

From the NYT article:

"The heads are enlarged versions of those that were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of a famous fountain clock in the European-style gardens of the Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, near Beijing."

The notion of a water clock with brass zodiac figures actually goes back even farther than the 18th century, and isn't a European invention. Frankish chronicles from the 9th century detail the gift of a waterclock from the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, to Charlemagne in 807. The clock had twelve bronze horsemen who appeared through different windows to mark the hours. A later invention, of al-Jazari, the Syrian engineer and automaton-maker, marked the phases of the moon, played music, and had figures of the zodiac on it. (The image above is taken from a leaf of an early 14th century manuscript at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Later Europeans were taken with these inventions and started to incorporate them into their own garden settings as early as the 14th century, and they proliferated over the next several centuries...until the basic idea appeared in a Chinese palace built by Jesuit missionaries, and then was reinterpreted and installed in the middle of New York City.

Medieval history, people. It's where it's at.