An impressive aspect of the newly opened exhibit Confabulatores Nocturni at the University of Tennessee’s Ewing Gallery is actually something other than the work itself—call it an energy permeating the efforts of four individuals forming a group named time[scape]lab. In this exhibition, UT design professors Brian and Katherine Ambroziak, architect Andrew McLellan, and artist Annie Stone have created and combined architectural drawings and models, selected literature, sculptural installation, and projected footage into what the artist/designers consider a kind of large-scale collage reflecting their various backgrounds and fascinations.
Remarkably, the show feels quite whole despite its contributors’ differing sensibilities and a dizzying range of influences. The degree of complexity represented by Confabulatores Nocturni might intimidate some viewers, but, as is the case when visiting Rome, it’s best to let one’s self off the hook, to realize it’s okay to not know Latin, or every saint’s name, or all of art history. Something meaningful always emerges.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of numerous writers celebrated in the exhibition, referred to “confabulatores nocturni”: night-time tellers of tales, often from The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. This storytelling profession is said to have begun with men hired to ease Alexander the Great’s insomnia, and still existed in Cairo as late as the mid-19th century.
Borges wrote, “[The title] is one of the most beautiful in the world.... [I]ts beauty lies in the fact that for us the word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite. To say a thousand nights is to say infinite nights, countless nights, endless nights. To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity.” Tension between the finite and the infinite isn’t easy to translate into architecture, but Confabulatores Nocturni attempts it.
Because another goal of time[scape]lab is to explore perception of time and the vagaries of memory, to “expand upon the potential of architecture to amplify our perception of time: linear, cyclical, measured, accelerated, seasonal, still,” references to infinity are unavoidable. Yet time is essentially divided into measurements, whereas infinity has no boundaries. The incorporation of Borges’ ideas into the show—alongside those of Italo Calvino, Lewis Carroll, Herman Melville, Michael Ondaatje, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Henry David Thoreau—sheds light on an apparent human drive to define and give tangible form to something abstract.
Another striking aspect of Confabulatores Nocturni is its presentation in low lighting. Positioned under glass domes, models occupy shelves projecting from the gallery walls. (The models have been made using a 3-D printer that produces delicate but solid forms from some kind of off-white powder.) Illuminated from beneath, they enliven their companion drawings, and here’s something I can’t say in every review: They are unlike anything I have ever seen before. Also in the show are long strips of printed paper hung side by side, each weighted at the bottom with string tied to a rock. Together, they suggest a vertical chessboard that’s also an optical illusion due to a shift in perspective from square to square.
Enter the “knight,” from another jar of metaphorical worms in this plump bait shop-of-a-show. In addition to themes related to perception, language and narrative, the cycle of time, isolation, nature’s interplay with the man-made, and physical passage into other realms, Confabulatores Nocturni includes what is known as the “Knight’s Tour” in chess. Dating back perhaps as far as to the ninth century, the Knight’s Tour challenge requires that the knight, moving according to established rules, lands once, and only once, on each and every square of a chessboard.
As with Borges’ investigation of the many but ultimately limited combinations of orthographical symbols, the Knight’s Tour—referred to in both stitchery on the aforementioned hanging paper and on the south gallery wall in the form of string strung nail-to-nail—speaks of near-impossibility, although a solution can be arrived at given extreme persistence. It’s also possible to connect chess to the cabanons (“small cabins” in French) time[scape]lab has illustrated and constructed, an element at the heart of Confabulatores Nocturni. Assorted cabanon models throughout the exhibition have, according to group members, been assigned to selected writers, “acquiring the personality of [each] scribe” and “the communicative structure between [them emerging] as a contemplation of the enigmatic Knight’s Tour.”
Every August, until his death in 1965, the architect Le Corbusier stayed in one such simple hut on the coast of France. In fact, the seemingly random window openings of cabanons in the show resemble Corbusier’s famed Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut. Furthermore, suspended in the center of the gallery space is a massive carved-out wooden boat with a mossy hole alluding to Carroll’s Alice stories. Besides being a remarkable object, the boat could drift ashore on Le Corbusier’s beach if time is the malleable entity Confabulatores Nocturni hints at.
Italo Calvino once wrote, “Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects,” and four lives inform the current show, making it indeed remarkable.