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2006 05 10
Angle of Incident - 3
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By Gary Michael Dault

“Life is a puzzling puff of wind, and what comes out of it can be no more than a puzzling puff of wind.”
Jean (Hans)Arp in Herbert Read, Arp (London: Thames & Hudson, 1968), p.142.

There are grace notes in the score of the city; you see them all the time when you’re not looking.

I saw this one, Dancer, a manhole cover, which lies flat on the street just outside of 80 Spadina Avenue, last Tuesday when I was out looking at art galleries. Painted, it was green as bottle-glass in the afternoon sun. I pulled my digital camera out of my coat pocket and took two pictures into the sun, blind, unable to see anything on the viewscreen but glare, hoping for (at least) some emerald residue in the pixillated heart of the camera that might later help shore up my memory of the thing’s planetary beauty.

The photo turned out better than it might have. How grassy green the disc is. Of what kind of coded industrial meaning can this livid green be in aid? Of what are its recognitions made, its messages, its discourse?

And why Dancer? Is Dancer a group of guerrilla sculptors who lay their cast discs out over the city? I googled Dancer Construction and Dancer Manhole Covers, and got lots of dance companies and construction companies and foundries and parts manufacturers. I also found a young artist named Michele Brody who, in 2002, at least, was studying manhole covers in New York and preparing a book about them. Among the edifying facts concerning manhole covers harvestable from the net, by the way, is an absorbing item about how manhole covers are being stolen for scrap metal all over the world: The Johnsville News for march 29, 2005, for example, tells me that 10,000 manhole covers were stolen in two months in Calcutta, India (it doesn’t say which two months) and that, according to China’s Xinhua news agency, 240,000 manhole and street drain covers were stolen in Beijing in 2004 (that’s a lot of manhole covers—the city must look like a Swiss cheese!). It’s not funny, of course: in Shanghai alone, between June 2003 and January 2004, eight people have fallen down uncovered manholes and been killed.

Eventually (dazzled by the green), I noticed that the cover was marked McCoy 1994, and, by googling McCoy, I found a couple of McCoy foundries: one in Troy, Ontario (did they make Dancer?) and McCoy Construction Castings in St. George, Ontario (patty of an umbrella organization of foundries run by the American firm of East Jordan Iron Works; did they make my beautiful green dancer?). Is Dancer a technical term when it is stamped on a manhole cover?

I don’t really care who the Dancer’s people are. I’m no industrial scholar. What I care about is finding a galvanizing green word floating on a green disc in the middle of a grey road in the middle of a hot afternoon in May.

Why green? Green speaks conventionally of nature, and this green portal—punctuating the sizzling asphalt of Spadina Avenue—thereby suggests a conduit to green-ness, a portal to some under-forest beneath the city, a rabbit-hole down which one might happily fall into some nether world of unruffled pastoralism.

The Green Dancer Disc strikes me as a live thing, an urban capillary, the top of a tendril, the route to a rhizome, a port in the tower of the computer-city.

For me, the Green Dancer Disc is like the jar that poet Wallace Stevens set “upon a hill in Tennessee” in his poem “Anecdote of the Jar” from his book, Harmonium (1923). “I placed a jar in Tennessee”, writes Stevens, “And round it was, upon a hill….” The jar—like my green dancer—“took dominion everywhere” Stevens says (that is to say, the jar is such a highly specific object that it renders everything around it imprecise, general, secondary, focusless). Which is what happened to Spadina Avenue when I saw the green manhole cover.

The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air

Okay, my dancer isn’t tall. But it certainly is a port in air.

Gary Michael Dault
[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 05/10 at 12:56 PM

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