Charles Wisseman, Mixed Media Artist



Dante globe 2014

Posted on February 10, 2014 at 1:35 AM

“Midway on life’s journey I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”—Dante’s Inferno.


January in the north can be a dark and introspective time for me. My wife was off travelling with a friend, and I needed a new project to lift my spirits. I only really feel good when I am making something, but ideas can be elusive when I am feeling down. Realizing that mid-winter light deprivation might be part of the problem, I sat in my shop and played with light. In my collection of art materials I found a glass deck prism, designed to be embedded in the top deck of wooden sailing ships to scatter natural light into the level below. This gave me the idea of an inner contemplative space with a light as the focal point. I chose as my space a cheap 12-inch world globe, found at a garage sale, which conveniently split apart into north and south hemispheres along a seam. I was remembering a book I recently read (“Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur”, by Stanley Kroonenberg), which reviews the history of ideas about the underworld and the rich literature about worlds existing inside the earth—such as the Jules Verne classic about journeying to the center of the earth. I mounted the hexagonal deck prism in the north pole with a ring held in by twelve brass bolts, to give a suggestion of bulkheads and windows in an undersea submersible. This globe is meant as a vessel to journey to dark interior spaces.

I painted the inside of the north half a deep night sky blue-black, and scattered glow-in-dark stick-on stars to suggest a planetarium. I remember putting stars like this on my bedroom ceiling as a kid. I cut a hole around the north pole along the 80th parallel to admit light. This cap piece of the globe became a removable element with retaining clips, a central knob for manipulation, a ring with the 24 hour time marks, and an inside layer of glow-in-dark material. When the cap is removed, a small LED flashlight with wooden stabilizing ring can be placed on the prism to illuminate the interior. When the light is turned off, the glow-in-dark elements are visible through the viewer when the surrounding room light is off.

I was feeling in a dark place, and remembered the Dante quote from a recent lecture a on the history of illustrations created for the famous medieval poem, The Inferno, in which Dante imagines being led on a tour of hell by the Roman poet, Virgil. I took an old classic pathology text on malignancy, discarded from the library of the hospital where I saw many tumors as a staff pathologist, and cut (excised) a hexagonal inverted cone with nine steps through the pages of cancers (a modern metaphor for hell). This geometry inverts the shape of the deck prism above. The carved book was molded and glued into the bottom of the lower hemisphere, with each step labelled as one of Dante’s nine circles of hell. Starting from the top, the levels are: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery. (Interesting that in those violent times, violence was a lesser sin than breaches of trust). Below the lowest level of hell is a hole draining out the south pole. A threaded knob screws in from below to seal the drain, and a cork can be inserted from above. Fine glass blasting beads can be poured into the pit of hell. When the cork is pulled up, the beads drain out like an hourglass as the viewer contemplates his sins in the deepening pit of hell emerging from this. The sand can be either a desert waste or a Zen garden, depending on frame of mind.


Covering the pit is a removable wooden platform, held down by magnets, which represents our middle earth existing between the celestial light and stars above and the pit of hell below. The wood is a slice of a tree burl with a complex, map-like pattern and irregular knobby edges to represent the land of the world. On the underside is a gold stamped pattern of a labyrinth, a traditional symbol of the journey into the deeper self and back out again. In the center of the platform is a movable, magnetically-attached diamond of walnut wood with a compass image stamped in silver on a black paper surface. The words of Dante’s quote run around the sides of this wooden piece, whose direction is changeable and indeterminate, as if adrift with bearings lost. In the center of the compass block is a hole to mount a world tree, which in many mythologies connects the upper and lower worlds. A fir tree made for model railroad landscaping is a default choice of tree, but this can be exchanged for others, depending on mood or season. A small cocktail umbrella with smiley faces is a more defiantly darkness-denying choice; a weathervane is for days when feeling buffeted and directionless.

The wooden land platform is surrounded by a ring of medium-blue painted wood, representing the old idea of a flat earth with an ocean circling the land. A lighter blue tubular wall surrounds this ocean and rises to about an inch above the equator. This represents the sky and horizon, with drawings of the four winds at N-E-S-W (clip art from antique maps). At the upper inner edge of the blue sky-ring is an inch-wide strip of blotter, soaked with yellowish glow-in-the-dark paint, and decorated in black ink around the circumference with the 12 symbols of the zodiac, to represent the ecliptic (Ideally this would be tilted with respect to the equator, but that did not work well here). Around the outer edge of the sky-ring is a strip of oak veneer with a snake shape and a line-drawn snake-head pattern, swallowing its tail. This is the ancient image of the ouroboros, a representation of the creation/destruction cycle of eternal return, encircling the world.

The two hemispheres of the world are joined at the equator with a cut-down 12 inch lazy susan gear on the southern half engaging a metal ring (cut from an old light fixture) lining the lower edge of the northern half. An observation port part way up the northern half (formed from a cut down fisheye door security viewer). Two brass knobs mounted at 120 degrees east and west can be used to turn the northern half on the lazy susan gear to change the vantage point on the interior, or to use as handles to pull open the globe.

The base is a walnut box with a sliding top. Contained inside is a copy of Dante’s Inferno (Robert Pinsky translation), a container of glass beads for the hour glass, the LED flashlight with wooden stabilizing ring, and extra interchangeable world trees. The world globe sits in a stainless steel bowl which can catch draining sand. To allow the sand to drain smoothly, and to more easily watch it drain, this can be raised up on three removable legs topped with wooden balls. The bowl rests in a hole in a mahogany ring centered on the sliding top. I was trying to evoke the idea of the world resting on an architectural and geometric pedestal. Under the bowl is an image of a turtle I made in a moku hanga Japanese printmaking class at Paper and Book Intensive a few years ago, with Martin Vinaver of Mexico. This references the Hindu idea of the world resting on the back of an infinite stack on turtles.


Sacred geometry is one of the themes here: zero is the snake, 1 is the globe, 2 is the north and south hemispheres, 3 legs to raise the globe and 3 protrusions on the upper half, 4 winds and compass points, 5 and 7 in the circles of hell, 6 in hexagonal prism and hexagonal hell, 8 bolts hold the sky ring, 9 circles in hell, (10 and 11 could be levels of hell plus drain flushing from hell and/or world platform), 12 zodiac figures and bolts holding in the deck prism, 24 time zones, 90 degrees of latitude, 360 degrees of longitude, infinite turtles.

At the end of the project I felt better, passed a dark month closer to spring ( it is snowing hard as I type this, though), used up some of my large collection of found objects and miscellaneous hoarded materials, and tried some new techniques with tools (and damaged at least one tool).

This piece can be used as a meditation environment/personal space/altar/confessional. There is a ritual to setting up: choosing orientation for the compass, the zodiac sign viewpoint, the central world tree, pouring sand and raising the globe to allow sand to drain. The sand sets a time-frame for meditation as it drains down through deeper levels of hell, so you can choose a level of sin to contemplate for this moment.

February 2014


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