3D rendering by Callum Morton
A Wonder is Brian Lipson's response to the extraordinary true story of the eighteenth century scholar and fraudster known as Psalmanazar - a man of ridiculous but terrifying fancy.
Brian and his collaborators Callum Morton, Susie Dee, Romanie Harper and Jethro Woodward have created a unique piece of performing furniture - a round table for 12 guests. This piece of animated sculpture will eventually form the centrepiece of a portable Multi-Artform event combining story-telling and visual enchantment.
You can watch a short video record of our first development here:
working drawing by Brian Lipson
A young man calling himself Psalmanazar appeared in London in 1703 claiming to be exiled from Formosa (present day Taiwan).
His dashing personality and extravagant tales rapidly made him a celebrity. He was welcomed into high society and invited to lecture at the top academic institutions of the time – including the Royal Society and Oxford University. His book A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (London, 1704) became an instant bestseller.
There was some suspicion as to the truth of his story, but the brilliance with which he refuted eminent doubters and the ever-increasing sensationalism of his inventions overshadowed all scepticism. His fair complexion, blond hair and blue eyes, for example, rather than being an impediment to credulity were used by Psalmanazar as evidence of his high breeding – he claimed that true Formosan aristocrats lived entirely underground and were therefore light skinned!
Towards the end of his life he wrote a confessional autobiography Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa (London, 1764)
In this book he admitted his fraud and stated that:
There was one maxim which I could never be prevailed upon to depart from, viz. that whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, tho' to ever so few people, and tho' ever so improbable, or even absurd, should never be amended or contradicted.
This statement evokes two twentieth century ideas that continue to have great application in modern times: Sigmund Freud’s requirement that his patients say whatever comes into their heads however absurd, and Adolf Hitler’s dictum If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.
Psalmanazar’s detailed descriptions of the supposed Formosan religious sacrifices – 20,000 young boys slaughtered every year! - prefigure both the fantasies of The Marquis de Sade and the industrial exterminations of the Holocaust.
Original drawing by George Psalmanazar of “A Temple where God is seen”. The large bath in front of the alter is designed to hold the blood of sacrificial victims.
In the published etched version of this drawing all the grisly mechanics of the sacrifice are carefully labeled:
13 - The Gridiron upon which the hearts of the young Chil-dren are burnt. 14 - The Furnace of Fire for burning them.
15 - The Chimneys by which the Smoke goes out. 16 - The Caldron in which the Flesh of the Sacrifice is boyled.
17 - The Furnace of Fire for boyling them. 18 - The Sanctuary, or the place in which the young Children are Slain.
19 - The pit in which their Blood and Bodies are placed.
In contrast his drawings of Formosan national dress are delightfully fanciful:
A Virgin, A Bride, A Widow and A Country Woman
And his invented Formosan language, alphabet and grammar was comprehensive and brilliant:
For many years I have wanted to make a show about Psalmanazar. The problem was to find the appropriate form. I am now collaborating with director Susie Dee, composer Jethro Woodward, visual artist Callum Morton and designer/maker Romanie Harper to make an intimate chamber-piece for 12 people sitting at a specially made round table (2m diameter).
Rendering of a plan view by Romanie Harper