Mitchell F. Chan




Flat Works





In Progress



This project uses water vapor to write out, letter by letter, the book The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Savaedra.

Each letter dissipates into the air as quickly as it emerges, rendering the text only scarcely legible. The piece addresses the futility of grasping at stable meanings and the beauty of the ineffectual gesture.


On The Relationship to Cervantes' Work:

It's a popular culture misconception that Don Quixote is an emblem of the nobility in pursuing the impossible. In fact, he is a tragic figure, doomed by his affection for the books of chivalry to interpret the metaphorical as literal, and the fanciful as instructive.

Most striking about Don Quixote's place in literary history is the fact that a work widely considered to be the first modern novel would also be a ribald critique of the books themselves. The book Don Quixote, celebrated as a triumph of literature, is in fact concerned primarily with underlining the limitations of literature. Cervantes emphasizes, again and again, that literature can communicate no pure truth. He illustrates repeatedly, throught the title character, the pratfalls of investing oneself too much in the works of literature without proper perspective.

This is also true, in my opinion, of visual art, where the fanciful, offhand experiments of a small cabal of heavyweight artists are too often taken as gospel by an increasingly isolated community of art students, academics, historians, and curators. And so just as Don Quixote's over-credulousness leads him to receive numerous violent thrashings and endanger Sancho Panza endlessly, so does our own artistic credulousness lead to an abundance of hypersyllabic essays on, quite frankly, bad art.

The character Don Quixote lacks the ability to appreciate that works of art must function as metaphor rather than instruction.

Thus, this artwork completely dematerializes the content of Cervantes' book while, I believe, remaining true to the central metaphor of the book: the intangibleness and ephemerality of truth. Conversely, the artwork makes sure that it is itself intangible and ephemeral; it is a sculpture of air and water, never existing for more than a brief moment.


On the Metaphor of Execution:

The technical components of this piece, even those hidden from the sight of the viewer, reflect the impossibility of communication.

The raw material, the water vapour itself, is generated by an array of ultrasonic transducers submerged in a bucket of water hidden inside the pedestal. These devices, now common in "cool mist" humidifiers, are essentially speakers emitting a sound too high-pitched to hear, but at exactly the correct frequency to make the water above them break into airborne mist droplets.

Once pushed to the canisters, the water vapour is pushed out by pressure changes caused by speakers pushing up and down. Responding to signals from an Arduino microcontroller, these speakers are essentially producing subsonic frequencies in order to push the water vapour into vortex rings floating upwards.

Hence, the entirety of the visual effect is produced by two sounds which are inaudible to the human ear.

On the canisters, written in grease pencil, are notes I took while reading Don Quixote. These written notes, juxtaposed against the ephemeral text written in water vapour, emphasize a theme that dominates Cervantes' book: the idea that it is, in fact, our interpretation of the literary tradition that carries more weight in reality than the stories themselves. Our responses to art are often more real (if less beautiful) than the artworks themselves. Don Quixote's actions, which are responses to the books of chivalry, lead to harsh and painful repercussions that are ultimately inescapable. Meanwhile, those fictitous consequences described in the books themselves are ultimately mutable.


On Translation:

The version of the book being reproduced is the John Ormsby translation. This rewriting of the book in this new, illegible medium represents a new form of translation, and this series of translations is an important facet of the work.  In the book, Cervantes claims that he is not himself the author of the work, but rather that most of it he found in an old book market and had translated from the original Arabic.

It's not true, of course, but it's the most important of many instances in the book where Cervantes is trying to make us question the reliability of translations. Not just translations across languages, but even the translation of an idea to text.


On Reading the Text in the Video:

Although illegibility is a key component of the piece in person, watching the video is still a bit more rewarding if you can read the letters as they come out. The subtitles are actually cued to the sculpture as it performs, so each letter appears in the subtitles just as the sculpture is attempting to form it. The letters scroll upwards, like a vertical LED ticker tape. So if the letter is an "O", you'll see a bar of clouds, followed by several puffs coming from opposite sides of the sculpture, followed by another bar of clouds.



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