Rolywholyover Circus Log

A visit to the John Cage Exhibition,
"Rolywholyover A Circus"
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 6-20-95

  Note to WWW readers:

An unattributed John Cage quotation goes like this: "the wait during the download time is the best thing about the Web. What do you hear and think of while you're waiting?"

Be patient. Most of these pages will download in less than 4 ' 33 ". . . .


It is blindingly hot outside. I walk under a huge tent set up in the courtyard overlooking Benjamin Franklin parkway. No one is around; the space under the tent is empty. It's a little cooler here. I can hear the gentle sound of the tent's cover rippling slightly in the breeze, and sounds of traffic in the distance.

Inside the main doors of the Museum, scaffolding is set up in the foyer, going all the way to the ceiling. Today its many platforms are empty, except for a small plastic fan running from an extension cord. A man sits on a chair in front of the scaffolding, right next to the inner stone wall, and with a special electric tool he carefully cuts the capital letter L into the stone. I see that a list of donors to the Museum is being added. The L is to be part of the line NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS. Another man idles nearby, supervising.

All last week and part of this, just out of curiosity, I have been doing research on the history of the Alexandria Library and Museum initiated by the Ptolemaic pharoahs following Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in 332BC. The Museum/Library was intended to be an archive for all the books (scrolls) in the known world and survived for about 700 years. No trace of it exists today and specialists are still arguing over what happened to it and where it was in the city.

I have discovered, among other things, how indebted this Library/Museum project was to Egyptian as well as Greek civilization: it represents the vision of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, as much as the vision of Hermes, who is descended from Thoth. Most people writing on the Library, however, treat it as a solely Greek creation, an archive for Greek learning that just happened to be placed on the shores of Africa.

The more I've learned about Alexandria, the more I've been looking forward to this trip to one of our own Museums to visit Rolywholyover---it will be a break from all the library work but maybe also a continuation of it, a new spin on it.

I take a program and map for the exhibit. The show is organized into three main sections.

Museum Circle features works donated from museums of all kinds in the Delaware Valley area, plus in the center of the room duplicates of some of the books in Cage's library, stored in shelves and drawers, and near them a table and chairs for reading, writing, chess-playing (several games are available), and relaxing.

Cage Gallery is a room showing visual art (drawings, collages, handmade paper, etc.) made by John Cage. These are rearranged everyday in different places on the walls, according to a random pattern generated by a computer program.

Finally, Circus is a large room exhibiting works by visual artists whom Cage admired. The arrangement of the artworks is also regrouped randomly every day, using a computer program, with some works being displayed in new combinations and others temporarily rotated out of the pubic exhibit, to be stored to one side.

The following is a rough log of some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I strolled through Rolywholyover on that Tuesday in June. Numbers correspond to exhibited works listed in the show's brochure.

     Museum Circle

What's this here? Let's take a look:

29. Calithumpian Rattle, c. 1850. The exhibition brochure says: "Made from the wheel of a winnowing mill, this noisemaker produced 'music' as a traditional part of the wedding ceremony, serenading a newly married couple on their wedding night."

Huge wooden gears to turn against an iron tongue when the contraption is cranked, snapping the metal tongue against each of the gear's teeth. Played outside the new couple's bedroom window or door while they were trying to concentrate on other things? What songs and jokes would accompany the noise? What a healthy culture invented this contraption!

Cage's tongue is iron too, and produces a rowdy wedding music. But he also knows about winnowing, the gears needed for the job.

Cage is also about as "calithumpian" as a musician can get. Where'd this great word come from? A jokester's etymology: 'thumpian' from the rollicking dance that accompanies the music, and 'cali' from the Greek word for "beautiful" (?).

Who put those scare-quotes around the word 'music' in the above description?

a fence-wire tightener

   44. Microscope. Brass with its walnut case. Temple University School of Dentistry Historical Museum.

Dentists use microscopes?
When would the case be used? To carry the 'scope about the city?

24. Wall clock.
Here's to "maker unknown," who is well represented in this show.

The pendulum is still. Why do we say a clock makes the sound "tick tock"? Is the second noise that different than the first? Do seconds always come in pairs?

23. Hangman's rope. "Hemp, unravelled section." Historical Burlington County Prison Museum Association.

The threads have many colors, easier to see now that it's unravelled. When ravelled it unravelled a life or two in its time, number unknown.

42. Glenn Ligon. "Untitled (I feel most colored)." Rutgers University.

"... when against a white background" (?).
To foreground what is background, invisible, not talked about....

20. Box with Masonic Symbols. China, mid-nineteenth century.
Includes hands shaking, a beehive, and an hourglass with wings, all made out of a kind of iridescent paper and pasted to the wooden box's cover. While I'm taking notes on this object in the margins of my program, I can't for some reason remember what the word is for the thing with sand it in that measures time. I write "sand clock" down instead, plus "what's it called?"

49. Photograph of Walt Whitman. An early portrait, 1848, when he was just Walter Whitman. From a distance I thought at first it was a portrait of Thoreau. He's placed right next to a crazy quilt, which is right, since his Leaves was soon to be something of a crazy quilt itself.


Go to Rolywholyover, Part 2