Beings of Lightness

1. Can Time be written in the Air?

The earliest methods of measuring time have involved the drawing of air elements into forms. Combustible bodies: incense sticks, coils and seals came into use alongside sundials and the clepsydra, before the entry of mechanized time. These incense clocks, literally referring to an “aromatic time,” were developed across Asia. 

The change of hour was not only noted through fine calibrations on the incense clock but was also anticipated through a variation in fragrance. The recognition of time thus, became an olfactory experience.  Hour symbols placed along the flame-track were called k’o [“notch” or “gradation”] in Chinese, which later came to stand in for the word “clock” itself. Although this “burning” time was collected as a trail of residue, it still remained intangible—forming a qualitative relationality with the principal tasks of life. The poet Fang Kan quotes in the P’ ei-wen Yün fu [a Qing dynasty treatise on rhyme, poetic diction and phrases]:      “The Yin-Hsiang [incense seal] finished its trail when the monk came out of meditation.”


Four nights ago: The sky is filling up with glimmering specks. Tukkals (traditional paper lanterns) float alongside newer breeds of China-made “Wishing Lamps” and LED fairy lights. They roam across the smog filled horizon like a swarm of fireflies. 

A scene from the kite festival, Uttarayan— predominantly celebrated in Western India.Marking the Sun’s journey into the Northern celestial horizon to enter the constellation of Capricorn. Elsewhere in the country, a symbolic beginning is made with the sharing of new harvest. 

A large white kite is launched into the sky and then, slowly, flaming Tukkals are tied to it. Forming a chain of 10, 18, even 38 burning fiercely—The string appears to extend endlessly and as the night grows heavier, the arms our kite-flyer have become numb with its weight. 


Of the numerous visions and narratives of “air ships”, here is one that was never made. And yet, it significantly altered the history of aeronautics and perception. It is not accompanied by a grand mythical backdrop, as were the cloud ships of Magonia and the eagle-propelled flying throne of the legendary Persian king, Kay-Kavus. The Italian Jesuit Polymath, Fr. Francesco Lana Terzi’s flying vessel was based on the general principles of vacuum with four masts carrying thin copper spheres, and was meant to navigate the skies as a sailboat. 

Illustrated in his treatise Prodromo dell'Arte Maestra (1670), Lana Terzi’s synthetic theory of aerial navigation included the history of eyesight and a language for the blind. A century before the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon globe aérostatique and in advance to the creation of Braille, Lana Terzi was preoccupied with conceiving the potential of flight and the development of visual perception as a correlated rhythm structure. In Prodromo we see a technical draft of his air ship, with the facing page carrying musical notations that formed a system of ciphers. This complex system of tactile lines invented by the Jesuit-polymath function as a cryptogram but were indeed a script meant to enable the blind to read via touch. 


“Love is a battle,” said Marie-Claude, still smiling. “And I plan to go on fighting. To the end.”

"Love is a battle?" said Franz. “Well, I don't feel at all like fighting.” And he left.


Silvio A. Bedini, The Scent of Time. A study of the Use of the Fire and Incense for Time Measurement in Oriental Countries, Transactions of the American Philosphical Society, New Series, Vol. 53 No. 5 (1963)

Francesco Lana Terzi  [eds. Thomas O’Brien Hubbard, John Henry Ledeboer], The Aerial Ship (Issue 4 of Aeronautical classics), Printed and published for the Aëronautical society of Great Britain. King, Sell & Olding, ltd. (1910)

Francesco Lana Terzi, Prodromo ouero saggio di alcune inuentioni nuoue premesso all'arte maestro. per li Rizzardi (1670)

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Harper Perennial Classics, (1999, from original: 1984)