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Subversion of Rhyme and Reason

tflurry's picture

There is nothing quite like standing in the entrance of a building, looking down, and realizing that you can see through the floor. Nor is it quite like glancing up, and noticing a large naked figure staring at you from the ceiling. Then again, Isaiah Zagar is not your typical artist, so one should not expect a typical entrance to his life-work. The Magic Gardens in Philadelphia, PA are something else; completely covered in tiles and metal, glass and wood, the structure looks like something better suited to Wonderland than Philly. Yet Philly is where it calls home, and it is all the better for it; after all, in Wonderland no one would think twice about a giant wall of china and bottles. In a small residential area of Philly, the striking contrast makes the garden all the more arresting, all the better for it. The Magic Gardens, despite its name, has very few living plants in it at all; more are painted on the walls, but this is far more a garden of sights and insights than fruits and leaves. Every square inch of the space is covered in one material or another, used in the most unusual ways; things are drawn or painted onto some tiles, other tiles are arranged into figures. Some spaces have no tiles, but only ‘other’; broken crockery, smashed mirrors, carefully cut shapes and outlines. Words are a part of the presentation, but not always for the reading; some are arranged to be read, yes, but others are positioned not to be read, but so that people know the words are there; perhaps they are placed too small and too high to be read from street level. In other places the words are in another language, or swirled so that one can enjoy the beauty of the letters, but little more than that. These works are not particularly private, nor are they displayed; entire sides of buildings may be mosaicked here, and back allies known to none but the locals may feature mirror shine elsewhere. Zagar does not seem to particularly care about conventions; he simply needs to create mosaics, and in this lies his skill at subversion.


The mosaics we saw were incredibly subversive, usually in more ways than one. There were the mosaics he painted onto, drawing eyes or lips or part of a nude, ignoring the traditional idea of a tile as a medium rather than canvas. There were the figures he portrayed; himself as a four-limbed god-like figure, dogs, people going about their daily lives. The materials he used were unusual; while he usually used cement for his grouting material, in the grout he placed glass, bottles, lamp metal work, bicycle wheels, mirrors, tiles, bits of plate, anything he could get his hands on. Many of his chosen materials are what some would call ‘junk’ or even ‘garbage’, but he uses them with skill and care to create a transporting affect. Walking through the interior of the Magic Gardens felt like walking through a mad sort of palace or I Spy game, with bright colors and odd images everywhere. The exterior of the Gardens were similarly hectic, but with the deep sections and high dividing walls, the exterior seemed less a palace and more the last bastion of art in a world pledged to purge it. When one looked up, the tall walls and sharp outlines seemed well suited for fending off invading critics. Closer to floor level, the mood was much more calm, a hush in a ceramic forest, even as other tourists bustled around you. It almost seemed as if you had discovered a lost shrine of some sort, and had begun to explore. Below ground level, the volume and temperatures fell, and you were free to explore the nooks and crannies of the place, to find the faces in the tile and the words on the wall. As Zagar said, “Art is the center of the Real World”.


Then one must consider how his works affects its surroundings. While perhaps the residents of this town need no longer pay attention to these works, you can see the visitors ebb and flow around the pieces, puddling where the space permits it, drifting slowly where the alleys are too narrow to stop. They mill and swirl at the face of these monstrous creations, pointing, taking pictures, craning their necks and straining their eyes as they attempt to read the circuitous writing on the wall. The pieces became metaphorical rocks in the stream, altering the course and flow of people through the area, forcing them to slow down, to wander side to side, even to completely change direction for the sake of these works. Further, Zagar sculpts wherever he likes that he can get permission for, so his mosaics can be found all over the place; some can be found less than thirty feet from each other, while others are not on any map you could find, and are known almost exclusively by the locals. My friends and I found one such mosaic far enough from the Magic Gardens that the piece was off the edge of our map. The alleyway was the tall and narrow, blink-and-you-miss-it types, with mosaics lining building entrances on either side; one piece portrayed two people and a dog eating dinner, while another had some figures interacting. That might even be Zagar’s greatest achievement in these works; the seeming-randomness of his piece placement and mosaic materials impart a sense of whimsy and serendipity on the pieces; there is no telling where one will find a piece, or what materials can be seen in that piece, if only one is willing to look.



playcity23's picture

Herro Thea. Sorry this is so

Herro Thea. Sorry this is so late, and I know you've probably already done your essay already. Anne heavily implied that I should get my opinion of your previous essay we talked about if I'm to stay in her good graces. 

Your voice is lovely. I love to read an essay and see that there's an actual person behind it, not a faceless scholar. You went against the rest of us by focusing on subversiveness. My critiques are small and can be taken for what they are. I think the essay is a bit lengthy. Maybe you could cut down on the description? As entertaining as it is, I don't see the point being proven as much in there as opposed to the other paragraphs.

Mindy Lu's picture

I like the part of the

I like the part of the description of the magic garden and the mosaics of the content. It is beautiful and vivid, and I can even think about the views there in my mind when read her words. However, the passage only mention subversion, but not give enough explanation and combination with Flanagan's text. 

AnotherAbby's picture

Thea's Structure

Thea's structure focuses entirely on her experiences in the Magic Gardens. The descriptions are vivid and intricate, but the paper never seems to go beyond the initial experience in the city. Subversion is mentioned, but not expanded on too much further, and the notion of Critical Play is only hinted at. While the paper's description of how the art forces people to look at it by the physical structure of the place is an interesting idea, the implications of that definitely could have been taken further, beyond this one experience, and made more central to the paper.