Monday, October 05, 2009

BibliOdyssey: Outer Space

Watching a documentary on Apollo 11 this weekend, I marvelled at how unsophisticated the technology was. The onboard computer was a little more sophisticated than a digital watch and all the computing power together was about the same as the PC that I am typing this on.
At the end one of the conclusions was that in todays world, the mission would never have been allowed. Too dangerous. Dangerous it was, but amazing example of human ingenuity.
Just as well they didn't use some of the designs developed by Karl Hans Janke.
Karl Hans Janke (1909-1988) graduated from high school and attended a technical college for a couple of years and studied dentistry although he didn't complete the course. He was drafted into the German army in 1940 where he was hospitalised on a number of occasions because of behavioural problems and was eventually discharged from the service on medical grounds in 1943.
By the late 1940s Janke was found to be malnourished and exhibiting increasingly eccentric behaviour and, after a short prison sentence and hospital assessment, he was committed to a psychiatric institution in Wermsdorf, Saxony in 1950 with a diagnosis of chronic paranoid schizophrenia. He remained at this facility for the rest of his life.
The institutional staff either encouraged or tolerated the passion Janke showed for sketching technical designs: he had his own "office" in the hospital in which he produced four thousand drawings and constructed hundreds of models of his "inventions". Apparently the boxes containing his works were stowed away at the hospital and forgotten after his death and weren't rediscovered until 2000 when the imaginative artistry and sheer enormity of his output was finally recognised.
Janke was, in his own mind at least, a serious engineer, intent on helping mankind by devising all manner of rocket ship (especially), space vehicle, ferry, bike, propulsion mechanism and associated transport system. His drawings range from simple prototype sketches to incredibly detailed schematics reminiscent of technical manual designs. He was an energetic correspondent with the patent office and various technological and aerospace type agencies and departments, endeavouring - without much luck - to share his inventions with his scientific "peers". Fearing theft of his intellectual property however, Janke was also assiduous in dating and signing his works with an accompanying statement declaring himself as the author and originator of each idea depicted.
It's an astonishing collection and, on casual perusal, might simply be regarded as an interesting and artistic obsession (like blogging?), albeit at the extreme end of the continuum. But the delusional nature of Janke's illness becomes readily apparent from closer inspection (and reading around). His elaborate and grandiose ideas about harnessing stellar atomic energy meld with naive conceptual visions for its applications and connections to nature and other lifeforms. He skips from a vague - to put it mildly - comprehension of the atom to designing end-point technical gizmos and transporters that will rely on his illusory power source. There is also a whole series of watercolour sketches outlining the origin of the world (including as a hatching egg), for instance, that hints at the breadth of eccentricity within Janke's deranged belief system.
I'm sure some people will consider Janke's thoughts and designs about futuristic transport to alien planets and odd energy sources to be visionary genius or prescient, with parallels in the modern world say, but they really are the product of deluded fantasies, no doubt helped along by photographs and schematics he saw in newspapers over decades that documented the evolution of rockets and satellites. This was a fellow who built a totally psychotic world in his own head - and he had no insight that it was from an illness - with only tenuous connections to reality; whose extraordinary artistic output wasn't so much a symptom as it was a documentary record of the nature and extent of his distorted thought patterns. That's not to say that his portfolio isn't brilliant in an 'outsider art' way. It is, of course. But any deeper meanings relate to aesthetic qualities or psychiatric disturbance and not to technological virtuosity.
Janke's works have been exhibited in both space art and psychiatric art exhibitions. The accompanying catalogues (linked below) have articles translated into English in which the authors speculate - perhaps wildly at times - about the probable background and origins of Janke's inspiration. One idea of particular note observes that Janke often backdated his designs and research to 1928 (he signs them with 1928-1956, for example) and the inference goes that 1928 was the year Fritz Lang released his sci-fi film, 'Woman in the Moon'*, (or at least, the year when the book it was based on was released; the film: 1929) which just might have been the trigger for Janke's life-long obsession with outer space creativity. Maybe.
"Janke went to great pains to emphasize that all his technological inventions and ideas were for the benefit of humanity and aimed towards propagating peace. In his final testament, he wrote: 'I ask you to keep the images and albums with the numerous drawings and models that I created for you humans.' "
I think you have to be a bit mad to be as creative as he was.

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