Read some of what’s been posted to the Web about the “Box of Crazy,” the amazing cache of artwork and miscellaneous papers discovered–in 2008, supposedly–by the side of a road near Asheville, NC.
You’ll find it said that the centerpiece of the collection is a hyper-dramatic UFO sighting that the artist, one Daniel Christiansen, experienced in his town of St. Petersburg on July 7, 1977. A sighting that, in his mind at least, recapitulated the famous merkabah (“chariot”) vision of the Book of Ezekiel, chapter 1.
“From the handwritten notes, it seems that a turning point in his life came on 7th July 1977 with what he calls ‘The Tampa Bay Observation’: this seems to have focused all his previous thoughts about UFO visitations, Ezekiel, and unusual weather patterns into a single, tightly-draughted set of drawings, reaching towards a lucid yet hallucinatory quasi-religious UFO vision.” (“Cipher Mysteries” post of November 10)
I was thrilled to read this. For the wrong reasons, it turned out.
Not that I believed Ezekiel’s merkabah, initially witnessed in the 6th century BCE, really did show up in 1977 for an encore over Tampa Bay. If something like that had happened, others beside Christiansen couldn’t have failed to notice. It would have been in all the newspapers. We wouldn’t have had to learn about it from the contents of a mold-smelling wooden box found amid the trash more than 30 years later.
I was delighted to accept the “debunking” explanation offered on November 6 by the St. Petersburg Tribune. (And linked to by “Cipher Mysteries.”) From 1976 to the early 1980s, according to Tribune writer Paul Guzzo, St. Petersburg was home to an elaborate aerial light show designed by artist Rockne Krebs. “Prisms shooting laser lights were erected atop The Pier, and mirrors were placed on downtown buildings to reflect the light and create 3D web-like patterns over the city.”
Christiansen presumably saw one of these “web-like patterns” on 7/7/77, and that was what triggered his vision.
All of which is grist for my mill. Music to my ears. Whichever cliche you prefer.
What interests me about UFOs is precisely the way mundane stimuli evoke the contents of our individual and collective unconscious, which go on to transform a star or a bird or a light show into a vision of universal meaning. In the “Tampa Bay Apparition,” I thought, we had a laboratory case of this happening.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. It didn’t happen. At least not the way Paul Guzzo and I imagined it. The truth of the “Apparition” is more elusive and complex, and perhaps even more interesting.
Exhibit #1: A drawing from the “Box of Crazy,” which by my count is the 21st from the top of Dan Wickham’s Imgur post.
Of course you recognize the St. Petersburg Pier, extending eastward into Tampa Bay, as the centerpiece of this relatively crude sketch. In case you can’t read what Christiansen wrote at the bottom, here’s a transcription:
Touch-down of the Tampa Bay Tornado! (Transendental [sic] physic [sic])
An extraterestrial [sic] visitation by an identifiable flying object, treated at some length in the scriptures of old, when the son of man claims he had a like visitation twice – once at the river Chebar and then again out in the plains, as he again saw what appears to be on the order of what is represented in the above – barring, of course, the pier and the many twentieth century vehicles, together with other construction of a late date. From the account it appears that the visitation took place in the night-time as lamps or lanterns were let down from and hoisted up into the overhead cloud, incidentally, which appeared to be on fire. The author therefore take [sic] the liberty to disclose the millenniums old apparition as it would appear in the daytime. That such a visitation actually could take place here in St. Petersburg in the near future is believable when considering that a related extraterrestrial event took place only a few hundred miles from here at the city of Mobile Alabama in connection with the shooting of the movie Close Encounter of the Third Kind, for a period of the duration of the filming. Daniel Christiansen, March 1981.
The references to “the river Chebar” and “the plains” are to Ezekiel 1:1 and 3:23; the “son of man” is Ezekiel, as in 2:1. Notice the “would,” the “could,” and their implication. Writing these words in 1981, Christiansen couldn’t possibly have believed he’d seen anything like what he depicts, less than four years earlier.
If he did, he wouldn’t have needed to invoke “a related extraterrestrial event” in Mobile as evidence that “such a visitation” would be believable “here in St. Petersburg.” He’d have known that the merkabah showed up in St. Petersburg itself, on 7/7/77.
So what, then, was the significance of that date for Christiansen? Before we look at the piece de resistance of his artwork, let’s pause over Exhibit #2, which comes right after Exhibit #1 in Wickham’s post.
Here’s the pier again, with two of Ezekiel’s winged “living creatures” above it and six fairly conventional “flying saucers” above them. (Actually, above a line that’s above them. We’ll come back to that line.)
At the bottom, Christiansen writes: “Carl Sagan the Jewish astronomer said that he believes that there are many civilizations in our galaxy more advanced than we are.” Below that: “Let Elmer and Bodil & their children see this.” Why does he emphasize Sagan’s being Jewish? To make a link between him and Ezekiel? And who were Elmer and Bodil, and why is it important that they and their children “see this”? We’re unlikely ever to know.
And now, Exhibit #3, the 40th image in Wickham’s post–and the one that’s gotten the most notoriety:
There’s no difficulty about reading the inscription “An Apparition / or / The Tampa Bay Observation / July 7 – 1977 / Daniel S. Christiansen / Alias: Ampel, / Nesna It Sirhc.”
[Added on December 3: Or at least I thought there was no difficulty–until after this post was published, and a reader named Heidi suggested that the word which I (and the “Cipher Mysteries” writer) read as “Observation,” might better be read as “Obscuration.” I think Heidi is probably right. Certainly the phrase that I read “screen of observation,” in the paragraph below, is to be read “screen of obscuration,” and I’ve corrected accordingly.]
(“Nesna It Sirhc” is “Christiansen” backward. What “Ampel” is, I have no idea.)
Here’s my best effort at decipherment of the scrawl beneath:
About 10 years ago, when in N. Plainfield N.J., I was working on the above biblical theme & it seemed to me then, as it had for about 25 centuries, since the matter had been observed and recorded by the prophet Ezekiel, that a likely [?] title for the apparent phenomenon should be “Cloud of Concealment”. Now, however, since the cloud no longer is there to act as a screen of obscuration, but is turned off while leaving the telescopically retractable spotlight in action – for to illuminate with the appropriate color – in this case amber color [referring to Ezekiel 1:4] – what supposedly lived in and behind the cloud, a title for the now evident exaltation could well be, “the Cloud of Revelation”. Since the cloud no longer conceals the matter, but is turned on and off at will, even as an engineer of a steam locomotive use [sic] the hologram [?] of a giant ocean liner of old, turned as [?] a cloud in the process of blowing a whistle of warning or otherwise in executing a [illegible word], so also may the cloud formation be recreated in the shown times [?], but with a significant difference. Due to the gravity, generating actions of the whole – that is, the plane radiate [?] detached, plus the whole attached to the cherubim plus the whole attached to the upper structure – an inversion of the normal earth gravity in ship was within the field of the affectation the cloud or vapors will sink downwards instead of upwards, as it normally would, and the [illegible word] colored light playing on the cloud will make it appear as a film.
“About 10 years ago, when in N. Plainfield, N.J. …” Christiansen was in Plainfield, NJ, at the end of 1967; he sent a Christmas present from there to his wife Nadia in St. Petersburg. In an “explanatory essay” dated November 11, 1981, he says that he moved to St. Petersburg, presumably to join his wife, in 1968. Ten years after that brings us to 1977 or 1978. And so we have the clue to the meaning of July 7, 1977:
It was the date when Christiansen executed this wildly intricate picture, which he intended, not as a depiction of what had been, but as an artistic meditation on what might be.
Plainly he’d seen Rockne Krebs’ light shows–“colored light playing on the cloud”–the year before. Just as plainly, he knew exactly what they were. He never mistook them for a re-enactment of the merkabah. Rather, he used them as an exegetical key to understanding the merkabah.
Ezekiel’s vision, he writes in his “explanatory essay,” “could hardly have been interpreted literally till the time in the twentieth century when the various elements Ezekiel described was [sic] finally evidenced as matters of fact, such as the fire with the color of amber and the wheels with the color of a byrol [sic] stone [Ezekiel 1:16] — which was caused by colored light reflections. … The fire that had the colour of amber had to await the day when electric lights were available, on earth, before it would allow a literal interpretation …”
How Krebs’ lights must have impressed him!
What does the picture show? At the bottom, the horizon, which Christiansen may have intended as the surface of Tampa Bay. To the far left, the St. Peterburg Pier. Then four conventional flying saucers or half-saucers, one closed and the others open, all but the closed disk sitting on the horizon. The UFO at the far right is partly obscured by something that looks like an ice cream cone, but which may be related to the “Tampa Bay Tornado” of Exhibit #1.
All this is squeezed into the very bottom. Ezekiel’s living creatures, Ezekiel’s wheels, sprawl out over the rest of the space. Above them there’s something else–which Ezekiel also describes:
“And over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of a firmament, like the colour of the terrible ice, stretched forth over their heads above. … And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne … and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man upon it above” [Ezekiel 1:22, 26].
So we’re inside the UFO. The lid that’s been lifted off the flying saucer immediately beneath it is shown on gigantic scale. It’s none other than the “likeness of a firmament” that Ezekiel described. Ezekiel’s enthroned “man”–the UFO pilot, presumably–must be inside the bubble at the top (which you can see only in the miniature UFOs at the bottom of the picture). If I’m not mistaken, the thick horizontal line running across the picture in Exhibit #2, about half-way down, is an earlier, cruder attempt at envisioning that “firmament.”
And what’s the “Tampa Bay Tornado” of Exhibit #1?
Paul Guzzo claims, I suppose on the basis of meteorological records, that on 7/7/77 “a tornado whipped through Pasco County,” to the north of St. Petersburg. News of this may well have influenced Christiansen’s imagination, though I doubt if he’d have actually seen the twister. But he had to be thinking mostly of Ezekiel 1:4, “a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up.”
The cloud masks the merkabah. This is why Christiansen dubs it “Cloud of Concealment,” a phrase that recurs in his “explanatory essay” of November 11, 1981. (Notice, by the way, his fondness for numerically significant dates–7/7/77, 11/11/81.)
“The pictures [sic] represented above, to the left, was photographed at Santos, Brazil, in 1967 by an American tourist. His or her name was not given, but after 12 years it developed that this picture of an obvious other-world invasion was considered fit for publication in the below named magazine. After some thorough scrutiny by Arial [sic] Phenomenon Research Organization (APRO), it was finally released over the temporay [sic] title: lenticular cloud formation. But to this author’s mind, it would be more in line with the nature of clouds to call them Clouds of Concealment.”
You can see the Santos photo at http://www1.topfoto.co.uk/gallery/fortean/ppages/ppage24.html. It’s copyrighted, so I won’t reproduce it here. But do click on the link, to see the picture that shaped Christiansen’s perspective on Ezekiel and on UFOs. Compare it particularly with Exhibit #2, above.
The UFO archives are filled with photos, genuine and faked, of UFOs that actually look like flying machines. Why does Christiansen choose to dwell upon a photo of what plainly are clouds, albeit very peculiar ones? Because of Ezekiel’s cloud; and because of Christiansen’s own fascination with natural phenomena that mask or morph into machines. (Look back at his “puma train,” from last week’s post.)
Again quoting the “explanatory essay”:
“In view of this old event, depicted partly in the above, where the lower part of a cloud is revealed with some tell tale mechanical objects that has been made to emerge from deep within the cloud … the conspicuously and conically formed appearance of fire, with the colour of amber, which would give the appearance of a tornado, except for ‘the glow of the fire’, plus the over-head cloud that may be named a cloud in the sense that the clouds that were photographed in South America were clouds, in which there were concealed crafts of great capacities …”
Elsewhere in the essay, Christiansen explains Ezekiel’s grotesque “creature” shapes as mechanical casings for the human-like extraterrestrials within. This is very rational, very “scientific” in its way–and entirely at odds with Christiansen’s own powerful depictions of the creatures, in which they’re living beings in what appears to be great pain. The puma may be really a train. But, more profoundly, it’s really a puma.
So, to sum up …
Is the “Box of Crazy” the work of a crazy man?
I think so, at least to some degree. But if we go on to ask whether that makes it any less important, any less worthy of our attention, I would have to say: not in the slightest.
William Blake, to whom I compared Christiansen in my earlier post, wasn’t the most normal sort of guy either. If we nevertheless choose to pour our heart’s blood–our care, our empathy, our imagination–into seeing through his eyes and hearing what he was trying to tell us, it’s because the power of his artistic vision persuades us there’s something there we can’t find anywhere else. Something from the depths of the communal soul, that tells us not only who Blake was, but who we are.
Does Daniel Christiansen deserve any less, because his art doesn’t hang in museums, but was found in a smelly box amid garbage?
And if you say, the name of Blake has echoed down through the generations because thousands who saw his art have resonated to it–then what will you say of the “Box of Crazy”? As I write these words, 23 days after Dan Wickham posted his first set of scans to Imgur, there’ve been over 444,000 visits to that page. Let’s allow for multiple visits by the same person. (Me, for example.) Tens if not hundreds of thousands will still have opened the box, paged through it, marveled at it.
How’s that for resonance?
“Deep calleth unto deep,” says one of my favorite Bible verses (Psalm 42:8). The shared unconscious of our species calls to the unconscious of the artist–be that artist William Blake or Daniel Christiansen, or, yes, the prophet Ezekiel. Unto us the artist bears the message.
For this we value the art, and don’t look away. For this we seek to understand.
by David Halperin
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