Sandra Huber
[ previous ] [ next ] [ notes ] [ #11: winter 2007 ]
Review of Land of the Snow Men, by George Belden
[Edited by Norman Lock and illustrated by Derek White]
(Calamari Press, 2005)


George Belden’s Land of the Snow Men makes us go outside. To the raw, newly discovered, blinding drifts of Antarctica, to the external perimeters of conventional art, the mad experimental.

Outsider Art or Art Brut holds as its credence that a reflection of the contemporary is presented in equal doses by the trained artist as by the outsider. Think Adelaide Hall, the Lacemaker, who created physical narrations on fragments of lace while residing in a mental institution in the early 1900’s; think Judith Scott, afflicted with Down’s Syndrome and fastidiously compiling amorphous bundles of bounded fibre; think George Belden, who composed a journal (replete with taped-on drawings) entitled Land of the Snow Men before being admitted to the Waterbury Asylum and diagnosed with a vague insanity. The latter example, however, lends a new meaning to Outsider Art as it takes upon itself an additional exteriority. Land of the Snow Men, of course, is a fiction – “ ‘It is an unreal geography,’ ” writes Belden, “Let them wonder!” (17) – where Norman Lock steps outside the perimeters of authorship and looks/writes back upon his text as another.

We long for the naïve. We long for the moment of raw discovery. As readers, as citizens of a global economy, we are saturated by knowledge, search engines, facile information, archives of answers. We long for an Aha. Perhaps that is the general affect of the contemporary, this longing, and if it is, the writings of George Belden help to satiate it. So we embark on his voyage, we suspend our disbelief, we voyeur.

Norman Lock brings us to the outskirts of the mind of George Belden who brings us to the untreaded outskirt of an Antarctic expedition. The reader is surrounded by a whimsical territory that yields, at times, slivers of actual beauty: hypotheses on physical shadows, the flickering of an aurora borealis, meanderings on poetic principles. There is a translucent nostalgia here, both in the journal and its drawings, for the wor(l)ds of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Kurt Schwitters, yet it is a nostalgia complicated by the tangible present: the book itself, published by Calamari Press in 2005, seems freshly spun off a computer screen, the illustrations resemble less a restoration of antique drawings as ostensible scans, and the script of George Belden upon them is unmistakably the work of a modern-day hand. Whether this is the intention of the author or illustrator or not is perhaps irrelevant for it offers to the book an additional layer of naïveté, of giving itself up, showing its face, however obscured.

And perhaps this is where Land of the Snow Men succeeds most perceptibly: in the fact that it is not art brut: it is not a found object: it is not what it seems: and in this it is most exemplary of the ever-changing contemporary. Knowledge giving in to fancy, a longing for first intensity, original creation, primary encounter, an existence outside the screen, a simultaneous shedding and lacquering of metaphor. It is a playful text and – above its philosophies, harsh wilderness, depictions of madness – manages to convey a tone as light as its page count.

(Upon opening the book I half expected to find, against all odds and reason, a six-cornered snowflake pressed accurately amid the pages or rising digitized as a holograph somewhere between Defying Analysis and Beauty of Their Bones. You should go, see for yourself.)



Recently I went to a Legacy Assessment held by the Municipal Archives in Toronto. It was a plain white house with a rather officious sign propped in the front yard with nothing else to characterize it as anything but ordinary. An archivist led me (and 2 other visitors) inside, telling us that the man who lived in the house recently suffered a stroke and is incapacitated, yet due to the extraordinary nature of what was found within, the city has taken it upon itself to assess the house's cultural value. As I saw for myself, Joseph Wagenbach made his house into a living sculpture, without anyone’s knowledge. His windows were covered in newspaper, he secluded himself and created: amorphous, chimerical and at times disturbing sculptures and they were everywhere. The next day, however, I received an email from the archivist disclaiming her project. In short, the house was a fiction, albeit an “actual” 3 dimensional one. I was so fascinated that I've since become involved in the project: I don a labcoat and gloves, I tour stunned groups of 2 or 3 for a 40-minute span inside the house of Joseph Wagenbach, relating his tragic tale and placing his “legacy” in a vocabulary of art history. I see a look of unhindered discovery in their eyes and an ethically uncomfortable sense of voyeurism (am I supposed to be looking at these things? What would Wagenbach think of this?)

Therefore, it was a little too fitting when I started to read Land of the Snow Men and to review it. On top of that, my own novel in-progress has to do with a similar theme. It seems I'm neck deep in this trend (trend?) of faux-discovery. I rather like it. And I'm intrigued to see, in my immediate environment, how far it will go and what jewels will become of it.

More information about Iris Häussler's Legacy Assessment at 105 Robinson Street in Toronto, Canada can be found at