Monday, May 4, 2009

Grain elevators as colossal monsters

Grain elevators, unlike colossal figures, are not complete. Though they have metaphorical legs, boots, and heads, grain elevators also lack key parts, such as feet, hands, torsos, and hips. They are true mixtures or hybrids, occupying the point half-way between machine/buildings and human effigies. As a result, grain elevators both inspire awe in us and frighten us. They aren't, properly speaking, colossal figures; they are colossal monsters.

Perhaps the best example of this fantasy is an untitled engraving that the American illustrator Joseph Pennell made of a grain elevator in Hamburg, Germany, in 1914 (reproduced above; discussed on page 257 of American Colossus). Note well that Pennell's style, generally speaking, was more documentary that expressionistic. But here, the grain elevator -- perhaps a floater-- is a towering bottle-shaped block of darkness, equipped with four or five long arm-like appendages (canal spouts?) and several other, thinner stalks that extend above its head. The entire thing is surrounded by smoke, clouds and darkness. At its feet, there is a tiny craft, battered by dark waves. The overall effect is clearly intended to be frightening.

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