Manuel Rodriguez Sanchez
In researching contemporary art I have encountered an image that, while not entirely new yet not very common, seems to have gained increased circulation. The image is that of the flying house, defying gravity and drifting. The image, especially without apparatus, gives a feeling of slowness, and so a paradox, as though the weight of a house would somehow limit the degree to which it is defying the laws of physics.
It is an image I find strangely compelling, as though it possessed some measure of meaning that might reside in dream logic. In circumstances where some mechanical explanation is given, the method is similarly paradoxical, with a cluster of balloons, elaborate (and weight increasing) gear-works, or magic, which only enhance its curiosity. In my personal encounter with the images I have run across, I have paused and said to myself, ah, there is another one! The presence that I feel from the image, the weight and suggestion of slow movement, seems to be confirmed as a profoundly unconscious dream symbol for a number of reasons. First, it is most typical to run across the house as a singularity – it is typically just one house. Secondly, the house serves as the single focus of interest, typically combined with a landscape that serves to cradle the relative disturbance the symbol is creating. For these reasons we are delivered a deep symbol of human consciousness, and I will demonstrate as we go on that for its dreamy character, its isolation and its reflective capacity, we have in the flying house an inner symbol of human identity as an individual.
Before we embark on this visual essay, it would be suitable to define what the house might symbolize itself, which won’t take much. Four walls and a roof, basic shelter, comprise an image of belonging and permanence. The house is a symbol of social roots – the privacy and property of a house distinguishes homeowner from renter, householder from wanderer. A house in the country signifies an extension of personal, social roots into wilder spaces. Long ago a young husband built a house for his family, a settler built a homestead to convert the land. The significance of the private dwelling as a symbol of the natural family unit is pervasive even where families do not dwell in houses. A study held at Cabrini Green, a housing project in Chicago, asked children to draw a picture of what a home is, and all produced a simple, four-wall house with a peaked roof.
Today the house may carry as much anxiety as it might stability, being a symbol of access to the middle class, a place where the banks may be partners in ownership, an instrument of leverage for entering significant debts, subject to taxation and eminent domain, the place of keeping one’s valuables and so the place where they may be stolen. The house is subject to weathering, neighborhood decline, fire and natural disaster. But the flying house is a completely different story.
Because the flying house has the characteristics of dream logic, it would seem to belong in the category of Surrealism, which often claimed to draw from psychological and dream material, but the symbol itself is much older than that movement, as I will demonstrate. As it happens, for such a potent image the subject of the flying house was only touched upon by a few of its artists, among them Rene Magritte and Remedios Varo, both of whom could be characterized as working so deeply in human consciousness one could say there is a sense of mysticism.
Rene Magritte, The Castle in the Pyrenees
Viewing the event of a flying house in the language of mysticism (which is an arena where dream, symbol and double meaning play), what we have in the house is an image of stability. It perfectly serves this role in its very shape, the square, which is an ancient representation of the classical element of earth, so the simple house and the earth have long been rooted together.
Benoit Paillé, Landscape
But the imposition of a structure on the wilds of the land is easily spotted from a great distance, and for this reason its straight lines are the introduction of a certain human element into the natural state of the earth. The linear creativity is expansive, giving rise to borders, states, and structures. Even the sky is divided into airspace and orbit, and this could be seen as a superimposition, like the house, that man places on nature.
Mary Iverson, Linear Empires
The aspect of the flying house then is a curious recombination of this relationship of human and earth – a rearrangement of the scene without the abolishing of any element. Ultimately, this is a representation of human consciousness, and in that respect may be understood, and employed, in many ways. What else is human consciousness than to receive, interpret, order and arrange the outside world, then bring it into an intercourse with the inner mental world?
Remedios Varo, The Flutist
I believe that because the flying house as a symbol of the conscious identity represents a subject that is at its very best rather obscure in daily life (the workings of the mind are for this reason largely the domain of artists), there is a clear enough reason why it broaches on the mystical. For this reason, an encounter between the self and the reality-bending way in which consciousness reacts with the world leads to a clear suspension of natural laws. That this depicts one’s internal process would seem to defy the cornerstone of self-awareness, that one accurately understands reality. One sees a tree, and one recalls in memory the same tree, so there is no reason to question, or even consider, the way in which the memory arises from the fact. But in dreams we are able to witness the miraculous, the magical, and the suspension of real logic is routine. And we find in the symbolic presence of antigravity an indication of partial awareness of this fact. It is generally understood that dreams of flying are indications of lucidity. Lucidity is a state of clarity within dream, essentiality, a place in between what we could call ‘dream reality’ and the in-between reality of consciousness itself, the awareness of the dreamer.
Tereza Vickova, Photograph
Returning to the Rene Magritte’s painting, it would seem very evident that its stable and insightful character reveals the apparition of solidity in the workings of conscious perception. The painting combines two subjective devices he came to employ in his mature work – petrifaction and antigravity. The former relates nicely to the earthen symbolism of the house, the transformation of perception into hardened idea, and it is the primal, unshaped stone that is most often found floating. The titles of these paintings point clearly to an association with the concreteness of mental formations, as with Invisible World, Origins of Language, and Clear Ideas. Perhaps in The Familiar World the boulder’s symbolic role is made most plain, and in a painting that evokes the universe modeling art of alchemy, the boulder is declared to be familiar, indeed ordinal, and is placed at the top. This strongly suggests that for Magritte, the floating earth was symbolic of the solidness that consciousness assigns our own mental formations, and the emptiness of our individual identity in such a formation.
Rene Magritte, The Familiar World
The Castle in the Pyrenees adds another element to the mix. The stone, symbolizing earthen foundation, is placed over the ocean, a strong symbol for the abyss of the unconscious, and elements that essentially are not solid. The house then becomes something of the personal – it is a dwelling, a structure, and was somehow built on this most inaccessible, unnatural foundation. So the house can be viewed, though it is a static structure, as resembling human dynamis – our energy and action. The story behind the title suggests this layer. In the ancient myth behind the naming of the Pyrenees, the great mountain range that divides France from the peninsula of Spain, we have the story of a woman named Pyrene, which means Fire, who was wronged by a drunken Hercules. She managed to knife him in his sleep and escape. When he awoke, he believed that she had taken her own life, but could not find her body. In his grief he piled up the mountain range as a great tomb for her.
So we have a reference to a remote, inaccessible tomb for a fire that is not to be found residing there. In this way, the house symbolizes the memory of the fire, and the entire depiction of the painting is something of a memorial to the inaccessibility inherent in the structures of human identity, built as it were as on monolithic solidity that defies reality and holds itself above oblivion. Was this intentional, or accidental? The title suggests the artist was very aware of his depiction. But an artist could just as easily have arrived here in a more abstracted and accidental manner, by the arrangement of symbols in relation to themselves:
Ryan Browning, Birth of an Island, 2008
Understanding then that the flying house is a curious way of depicting the internal symbol of a fantasy of solidity and action in human consciousness, we can see that its aspect – a fixed thing floating in free space – is an anagram of the way we might ordinarily view reality. It would be more accurate to say that consciousness reflects reality in its thoughts through a personalized semblance of reality – to mention a flowering tree, we picture a flowering tree, and we do not picture it upside down! But the flying house is in a sense upside down, which is why we can recognize it to be dream logic. It is a rearrangement, where the rules of reality are changed in order to describe the reality of something that might not ordinarily be acknowledged, or is not easily presented.
Ekkehard Altenberger, Mirror House
It can take a flying house to picture what conscious identity is, because describing what it does is little more than explaining photography. And the photograph is an excellent example of relating how the mechanism is a sort of inversion of both the subject and the result. The lens of a camera, much like the human eye, operates on the principle of the camera obscura, where light information is collected through a small aperture which reproduces the image while turning it upside down. In a camera, this is corrected by a second lens, with human vision this is corrected organically by the brain. We do this unconsciously, correcting reality to some semblance of its appearance, mixed with our understanding of it.
Do-Ho Suh, Reflection
Curious then that in dream logic the stable and structural may be suspended in mid air. In a sense, this would make of the sky something like a second tier of land. But this new land is no place beyond – it remains essentially tied to the earth itself, it relates a logical continuation of the land. If this were not the case, and it were some celestial beyond, some kind of heaven, we would see the flying house depicted far more often than it is. No, the house is a continuation of our identity within reality, and is in no way supernal or ethereal. It points to a real, personal experience, and this explains its presence in the work of artists who are prying into their inner workings, rather than being a transcendental trope.
Tommy Hilding, The Bridge, 2007
With this increased understanding of the symbol as one of reflection, and seeing that the reflection is of our identification with reality, we can proceed to consider the implications. Given the scope of human individual identity, we can expect that in the employment of a reflection of this state, we will be presented with characteristics of the viewers themselves.
We know from oneirology that our dreaming attends to a vast array of cognitive purposes. Some of the strongest roles are in the formation and review of memory, problem solving, and the resolution of social mapping. The context for understanding this symbol then becomes the dreamer’s own purpose for having the dream.
We also know that symbols within dreams can be duplicitous – one moment being a background replica of something in waking, the next moment being an animated element of the individual’s own unconsciousness, wearing the symbol like a cloak. For this reason we must look at the overt and invert of each purpose.
Peter Shelton, Pagoda Window Skull, 1993
Ultimately, the reflective nature of the floating house, with its mirroring function, not only relates our own active consciousness as it processes reality, but also demonstrates in a curiously breathtaking, logical way, that by placing its symbol above the natural order, that it is in fact reflecting that which takes place below – both here on earth, and down in the depths of our unconscious lives.
Francois Mazabraud, Les Dessous de Table (Under The Table)
Given the powerful role of social mapping – the relationship between the self and others – it follows that a symbol regarding the way this identity is handled would be affected by the social conditions of the dreamer or artist. A person who lives under a state of social oppression may well find something ominous in the monolithic image of a stable structure that is high above and inaccessible.
Max Gomez Canle, Invasion, 2007
Or it may follow that the individual socially experiences a state of tranquility, perhaps having no qualms with the structural presence overhead. The symbol remains no less remote, its occupation no more distant, but in such a fanciful depiction might be well described as a castle in the sky. Such an image, I would think, would be fairly rare, better used to describe clouds. It would take considerable personal integrity to reconcile a vision of this remote, unreachable seat of conscious power that felt cheerful and perfectly in place.
One very old story comes to mind when we speak of a mirror land in the sky, that would be familiar to children of English descent and many more beyond. In what are considered oldest of that culture’s folklore, the Jack stories tell of a hero who as often as not accidentally gets himself into trouble, and bravely gets himself out. The most famous of the Jack tales involves a beanstalk, and a giant.
Because it is an old story, there are many versions, but here is the synopsis. Jack’s only cow stopped giving milk, so he is sent to town to sell it. On the way he meets an old man, who offers to trade a few magic beans for it. His mother, furious at the trade, tosses them out the window. In the morning, Jack discovers the beans have formed a stout vine that he climbs high into the sky, where he find himself in another land, and a castle. He discovers that a giant lives in the castle, who senses his presence, and thunders, “Fee fie fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.” With the help of the giant’s wife (who is not a giant), who wants Jack to help her murder the giant in his sleep, Jack discovers he has a goose that can lay golden eggs, and decides he is going to steal it. She plays a magic harp that soothes the giant to sleep. The murder fails, and he flees for his life with the goose. The giant tries to follow him, but the vine breaks under his weight and he falls to his death. Once back on earth, the goose turns out to only be able to lay ordinary eggs.
Like most tales of such antiquity, its roots contain shamanic elements, in this case probably Celtic. Shamanic traditions are inevitably composed of deep psychological elements, dream symbols, and social fabric. The dried up cow indicates earthly troubles, and the appetite of the giant suggest a powerful, oppressive force also lives up in the house in the sky. By way of magic, the courageous Jack ascends to that place in order to have a look at its occupants. He discovers a treasure there, one that produces gold, but taking it requires killing the monster that rules the house. It proves too difficult a task directly, but through the journey itself Jack defeats the giant when it severs the link between the flying house and reality and falls on its own. And with the help of his Anima, his inner feminine counterpart is set free of its subjection to the Giant. The treasure of the goose’s gold eggs turns out to be ordinary in reality, and could only be produced in a dangerous mirror land above that is approachable through the dream-logic of magic. Little in real life has changed, except that Jack has slain the giant, and so his only troubles are here on earth.
The ominous giant above certainly stands for the powerful role the flying house plays as a symbol of consciousness. And under the conditions of oppression, the individual may find it difficult not to regard such a place, in its remoteness, to be a representation of the individual’s powerlessness. Even at it is clearly drawn from the internal stuff of our own psyche, shaped into the very image of stability in our reality, it is out of reach yet overbearing. It is curious that one of the most destructive forces unleashed by humans upon themselves, the atomic bomb, was delivered in a ‘Flying Fortress’, and the oppressive symbolism of it would be noted by many thinkers as forming a distinctly oppressive giant in collective consciousness.
Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Dirty Bomb, 2008
Another way of projecting oppression onto the symbol, rather than the outright destructive nature of its occupant, would be to reverse the meaning of its antigravity, becoming a representation of instability. It would follow in this case that the weight of the structure would dramatically increase. Monolithic cities in grim landscapes can be found as a subject of artists in the Soviet days, characterized by the massive, sterile structures, and at times these are found floating in mid-air, all reflections on a grand scale of the oppressive lack of vitality perched up there in the chambers of conscious identity. Even recently, in a popular Japanese cartoon Howl’s Moving Castle, the tale includes a struggle to maintain the necessary magic to keep a tremendous, scarcely occupied structure aloft –wonder and fear combine in the mysterious maintenance of stability in identity.
Bzzz88, Flying City
Deep symbols will appear as they are personally perceived: as an object of mystery, whether the viewer finds it ambiguous, hopeful or despairing. This is the role of symbols of this kind, as we internally project into them the meanings we summoned them for in the first place. The symbol of the flying house, particularly in its contemporary art contexts, seems to introduce another layer to the mix – decay. The exposure of the underside foundations, crumbling, falling bits, and fire have made their way into the symbol’s use.
Laurent Chehere, Flying House, 2012
Mark McCoy, Hallow, 2008
This could be interpreted in a number of ways. If we are to understand the flying house as a symbol for the individual identity in the context of social mapping, we can see a sense of instability, and the flying house is a ready reflection to the sense of rootlessness and lack of belonging. The uncertainty of the structure, viewed in this way, is a reflection of the uncertainty of the individual. The isolation of this places the individual in the setting of insulation symbolized by the house, but also sets them adrift, without foundation. This more despairing reading of Magritte’s painting makes the castle not an illusory house for a dynamic element of consciousness, but instead the individual has become trapped, inaccessible, and actually occupies the empty tomb. This reading of consciousness places reality in question, and traps the individual’s identity within the dynamic of consciousness alone. Instead of reflecting reality, this reading interprets consciousness as equal to reality. The resulting existential isolation, and the erasure of identity, is a significant theme in contemporary, post-modern art.
Jeremy Geddes, Cosmonaut, 2010
Alternately, and perfectly in step with the reflective, inverse capabilities of deep symbols, the opposite may be true to similar effect. In a music video What else is there? for Royksopp, Martin de Thurah presents a dark landscape of slowly drifting structures shedding debris to accompany the message of a floating singer who is shedding droplets of a similarly dreamlike white fluid. The message of the song suggests that in the presence of everything, of a total reality, there is nothing left but the isolation of the individual, and the desire for contact with another individual as the only remaining need.
In either case, reality has become something foreign to the conscious needs of the individual, and the individual finds the emptiness of their internal flying house to be a literal, direct translation of reality. Distinguished again from the Magritte symbolism, this art does not reveal that our identities are largely empty reflections of self-structured reality. Instead, it finds that our consciousness is as concrete as reality, and any other dynamic in the human experience than that between individuals is essentially what is empty – reality, and its reflection, are both empty.
Martin de Thurah, Video Still
Royksopp, What else is there?, Video
Another way despair may be projected onto the symbol of the flying house can be found in the dream function of memory. One subject of modernity that has been widely addressed can be found in the effects media have on our memories and the identity that relies on them. The archival role media plays that changes our relationship to the depth and accessibility of information. The speed and global reach of media and their effect on our ability to recall information, use complex language, and distinguish culture. The way in which modernization profoundly diminishes the distinctiveness of traditional cultures, and the way urbanization replaces the natural face of the land with human growth. All these can be viewed under the umbrella of memory, and many people find the effects devastating.
Richard Baxter, Memory Drift
The impact of this projection onto the symbolic structure of the flying house would seem plainly to be that of blowing apart the integrity of it. Still, as it belongs in unconscious fashion to our identity within reality, the structure becomes a flying exploding house.
Given the suitability of the flying house for all manner of projections, and in contemporary voices an absorbent sponge for the grievance of the individual, I think it would be significant to point out here that in the many images I have collected for this essay, one peculiar rule stands out – nearly all the artists are male. Could it be possible that the flying house metaphor in some way is a reflection of what we could call the masculine polarity of the human psyche? I could read in this that the flying house is a masculine projection, and shows a deep awareness of the patriarchal divorce between structure and, to use the classical understanding, the feminine psychic symbol of the earth itself. Indeed more often than not, the flying house is defined by its detached relationship from earth and sea below.
As I mentioned before, the conscious symbol is an object of mystery , whether the viewer finds it ambiguous, hopeful or despairing. As with a great deal of art, the ambiguous plays a strong role, it could be said that it truly speaks for itself. The viewer may be uncomprehending yet moved, and the artist may very well be operating under the same principle. So I will leave the dumbstruck silent, and conclude this exploration by mentioning the remaining projection – that of the hopeful. Should we find ourselves considering our conscious identity in this symbolic way, it may be that we also view this identity in a beneficial light. The biology of the mind demonstrates that the symbols and their appearance are transformed by the kind of attention they are given.
A flying house has recently entered modern consciousness in the form of a Disney animated film called Up, which it could be easily said most modern children have now seen. In it an old man, bogged down by life decides to elevate his house and travel using balloons. The film proved so popular National Geographic set about making the flight a reality, and literally floated a house on a cluster of colorful balloons. In this curious way the flying house of the inner mind became reality.
Disney, See the World
The idea of taking the house with you refers back to the previous mention of Giants, and the oppressive nature of mental formation reflected in the ominous above. Here we find this projection of oppression reversed, where actual reality has become oppressive, and the inner reflection of reality, the flying house, becomes the refuge. Here one may occupy the house where a preferable reality is reflected – mobility, travel, independence – and escape. When the inner reflection of reality is a structure of hope, aspiration and imagination, it becomes preferable when worldly reality is viewed as oppressive. This is not the first story Disney has spun that defied the laws of physics to escape earthly difficulties, in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the inventiveness and downright bohemian values of the characters transform a derelict car into a means of adventure and justice.
And Up is not the first tale of a house being used to take the integrity of the individual, combined with their own ingenuity, to escape oppressive conditions. In The Wizard of Oz, the first step towards a new life in a flying house begins a journey of troublemaking for oppressors. And there is influential The Flying House by Winsor McCay, from the Great Depression era, in which a married couple escape the burdens of high interest loans by flying away, in the process knocking about a number of elements of the industrial society that has delivered both their predicament and their means of escape.
Winsor McCay, The Flying House, 1921
In conclusion the flying house is a perfect example of a deep conscious symbol. Its role in art clearly demonstrates the function of such a symbol, how it influences us, and how we employ it. It shows that ultimately the symbol is a construction of mind, and it is dependant on the condition of that mind. An objective view might see it as a perfect component for describing the mysteries of human consciousness, and the way we order and relate to reality and our own inner life. A subjective view might find in the flying house a way of describing the curious juxtaposition of the inner and outer lives, or of the invisible and seen. And the symbol may become a medium onto which we project our dispositions and outlooks, seeing in them our own struggles, transforming them into symbols of our own isolation, or of our hopes and aspirations, however it is that we may be inclined…
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