Sight Seers
By George Pendle

On May 7, Alaa Abd El Fattah, my nephew, was detained by security forces in downtown Cairo at a demonstration in support of the Egyptian judges in their conflict with the government. He spent forty-five days in Tora jail. Three main impressions that stay with me from those days: 1. Manal, Alaa’s wife, and Laila, his mother, trekking to Tora jail to visit him. Laila spent five years, when Alaa was small, visiting his father, Ahmad Seif, in Tora jail. My heart broke for her, going through the same process again. 2. Seeing Alaa at one of his appearances before the prosecutor: the long-haired flower-child look had gone and there was this amazingly handsome young man with a shaved head and a thick black (Islamic?) beard. 3. Googling his name and finding half a million entries under “Free Alaa.” I guess, purely from my own point of view, this was when he stopped being my nephew and took possession of his own life.

Could there be something of the sacred left in the tourist’s experience today? As well as the similarities in scale, modern-day mass tourism maintains some of the metaphysical connotations of the pilgrimage. After all one does not actually purchase anything physical when planning a trip, rather its a means by which we can acquire experiences. Thus the sheer intangibility of the modern-day holiday (and one should not forget the religious provenance of this word) hearkens back to its spiritual predecessor. Similarly while a secular world may allow tourists to create their own holy places, sanctified by natural beauty, good weather or physical challenges, the idea that one returns from sacred journeys with a changed perspective is still implicitly the case. Tourists, like pilgrims, seek recreation in the fullest sense of the word.

It may seem absurd to view a sightseeing tour of Versailles or the Pyramids as a kind of pilgrim’s progress toward spiritual fulfillment-or it may seem entirely appropriate. For one thing, the pilgrim of yore had more in common with the present-day tourist than many suspect. One of the first books printed in English, Informacion for Pylgrymes unto the Holy Londe (1498) is a sort of primitive Rough Guide, advising pilgrims on how to negotiate with ships’ captains, obtain the best berth once aboard and find the strongest horses upon arrival. What’s more, many of the vices that today’s tourists are accused of in Ibiza or Las Vegas were also leveled against pilgrims. The sixteenth century Dutch theologian, Erasmus, condemned pilgrimages as little more than excuses for dissipation, accusing pilgrims of merely seeking adventure and a chance to boast of their exploits upon return.

More importantly, the pilgrim and the tourist are linked by the inevitable gap between the physical site they visit and the experience they seek. For both, exultation is transient and subject to skepticism. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan marks the spot where the first atom bomb fell on August 6, 1945. In its midst stands the Genbaku Dome, a tangled mass of concrete and steel that was the only structure to remain standing in the area after the devastation. Each year, this ruin draws thousands of international visitors to stand in silence before it. According to UNESCO, which has labeled it a World Heritage Site, it “acts a stark and powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humankind.” It is one of the most visited tourist sites in Japan. It is also a fake.

When weathering threatened to destroy its already fragile facade, the Genbaku Dome was carefully reconstructed so that it would forever appear as it did immediately after the atomic bomb was dropped. Those who go to pay their respects are paying their respects to a facsimile. Does this matter? The mere fact of the reconstruction need not invalidate the doubtless deep and genuine feelings of thousands of tourists. When a human becomes a tourist, a substantial and almost mystical transformation is undergone. A union with place occurs that surpasses its inherent qualities.

Existing between states of transcendence and self-consciousness, it is little wonder, when the contemporary artist sees the contemporary tourist as something of a kindred soul, for the tourist these days, whether in museums or out of them, is forever communing with representations. Perhaps nowhere has this relationship been better explored than in Francesco Bonami’s ‘Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye’ exhibition, a suitably movable feast, first seen at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005 before traveling to the United Kingdom and Italy. Here the very essence of modern tourism was laid bare by the coolest of observers.

The dislocated angst of the modern tourist, comparable in many ways to the self-flagellating conscience of the religious fanatic, was most terrifyingly evinced in Martin Parr’s day-glo snapshots of British holidaymakers in The Last Resort (1983-86). Here the dismal reality behind the promise of the travel brochure is revealed: refuse fills the water, sand has been replaced with concrete, and the faces of the tourists show the intense ennui of those in the Inferno, damned through their own volition.

Meanwhile Andy Warhol’s film Empire (1964), an eight-hour endurance piece of the Empire State Building, shows how the tourist site itself can be dulled and blunted by the imprint of our communion with it. So successfully has the building’s image been incorporated into the global imagination that it is hard to grant it any specific attribute. As Barthes wrote of the Eiffel Tower, “its simple primary, shape confers upon it the vocation of an infinite cipher.” The Empire State Building becomes a void not through the lack of signs attached to it, but because of the very multiplicity of symbols that it holds.

Similarly desolate, yet with hints of transcendence, was Jeff Carter’s sculpture Great Circle (Mecca) (2002), which consists of an illuminated arrow pointing toward Mecca. With its bright neon aluminum shell and Plexiglas cover, the arrow doesn’t look too dissimilar from a sign in a cinema or airport, and this similarity contrasts with the intensely personal spiritual journey to which it refers. Pointing the way toward the distant sacred, the arrow invites viewers to experience Mecca there in the gallery. At the same time, of course, it illustrates the dichotomy between the holy pilgrimage and the modern tourist, between the search for historical authenticity and the fundamental modernity of the world we inhabit.

Perhaps most intriguing of all was Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours (1988), a film of European and American tourists traveling through Papua New Guinea in search of the world’s last cannibal tribe. We see the tourists posing with the indigenous people, and haggling with them over “traditional” artworks. Yet these artworks have been produced by the locals specifically for tourist consumption. The tourists realize this yet play along with the game. They are complicit in the essential fakery of the situation, just as the locals are. Who are the tourists? Who are the cannibals? Who is consuming who?

It should come as little surprise that the very word “tourist” derives from the Latin “tornus,” which in turn came from the Greek word for a tool describing a circle. For as tourists it seems we are constantly running in a circular quest, chasing after authentic dreams or genuine fakes. At the end of O’Rourke’s film the tourists paint their faces in the manner of their “savage” hosts, and sail away from the island aboard a yacht, dancing to the incongruous sounds of Mozart. As they drift away they seem to transcend time, revealing an enigmatic link between person and place that goes beyond comprehension. It seems to answer the question “why do we travel?” with another question: “why do we live?”


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