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Plays that deal with visual art and art making can be problematic. I remember seeing La Bohème as a child and already being cognizant that the bohemian lifestyle portrayed in the opera was mythic, a well used trope that only people like my father believed was real. (He tried to discourage me from pursuing my life as an artist with this warning: “All artists are immoral. They sleep with their models. It is not a career for anyone with standards.” Did I miss that class in art school?)
My friend Benny Sato Ambush recently sent me a copy of David Hare’s, The Bay at Nice. This small jewel of a play (a “chamber piece” in Campbell Robertson’s words) takes place in a museum in Leningrad during the Communist era. Valentina, once a young and wild art student in Paris who studied briefly with Matisse, has been asked by the museum curator to authenticate a painting that is purportedly by Matisse. No longer young, idealistic or even nice, Valentina’s character owns most of the performing space in this piece (Estelle Parsons and Irene Worth played the part in productions in London and Hartford.) We meet Valentina’s daughter Sophie and grope through the difficult life decisions she is facing in her relationship with her mother, her husband, her lover and a totalitarian government. There’s plenty to chew on. And as I told Benny, Hare captures an essence of visual art that does not feel forced or theatricized. Several passages are memorable and feel authentic to me. This isn’t your all purpose gaggle of bohemian wannabees singing, drinking and eating.
A few samplings:
Valentina: Picasso lived in a house so ugly—a great champagne millionaire’s Gothic mansion with turrets—that all his friends said ‘My God, how can you abide such a place?’ He said, ‘You are all prisoners of taste. Great artists love everything. There is no such thing as ugliness.’ He would kick the walls with his little sandalled foot and say, ‘They’re solid. What more do you want?’
The Museum Assistant: All art is loot. Who should own it? I shouldn’t say this, but there isn’t much justice in these things. If we examined the process whereby everything o these walls as acquired…we should have bare walls.
Sophia: Down here below you, people are forced to be ridiculous. Yes, We lead ridiculous lives. doing ridiculous things, which lack taste. Like working for a living. For organizations which have ridiculous names. ‘Oh, I’m from the Department of Highway Cleansing.’ “Oh, I’m Vegetation Officer in Minsk.’ that’s work. its called making a living. Mother, it involves silly names and unspeakable people—the mathematics teacher, for me to work beside her, to have lunch, to watch her pick her dirty grey hair from the soup, it’s torture, I’d rather lodge beside an open drain. But that’s how people live. We have to. We scrabble about in the real world. Because we don’t sit thinking all day about art.
Valentina (on the topic of Matisse): He taught us rules. He believed in them. not Renaissance rules. Those he was very against. He disliked Leonardo. Because of all that measuring. he said that was when art began to go wrong. When it became obsessed with measuring. Trying to establish how things work. It doesn’t matter how they work. You can’t see with a caliper. Of course there were rules. he was a classicist. This is what no one understood. He disliked in modern painting the way one part is emphasized—the nose, or the foot, or the breast. He hated this distortion. He said you should always aim for the whole. Remember your first impression and stick to it. Balance nature and your view. Don’t let your view run away of its own accord. For everything he did there was always a reason…
He said you should think of the body as an architect does. The foot is a bridge. Arms are like rolls of clay. Forearms are like ropes, since they can be knotted and twisted. in drawing a head never leave out the ear. Adjust the different parts to each other. Each is dissimilar and yet must add to the whole. A tree is like a human body. A body is like a cathedral.
A poster hanging in a coffee shop window on Smith Street promotes yet another Walt Whitman event. My friend Michael, a Whitman scholar, told me there is some kind of Whitman commemoration going on in Brooklyn every month.
In terms of square miles, Brooklyn is New York’s second-largest borough, after Queens; in terms of population, it is first. If Brooklyn were a city, it would be the fourth most populous in the United States. If Brooklyn were a country, its chief exports would include artisanal pickles, eco-friendly yoga wear, Red Hook-made Saipua soap (responsible for every store smelling like clove geranium) and books written by men named Jonathan.
In Brooklyn, material goods matter, but other things matter more.
Proteus Gowanus…in a former box factory, is the kind of place whose founder could get a MacArthur genius grant. Loosely speaking, it is a museum. Here are some of the things you will find in its labyrinthine rooms: an exhibit of neo-shaman art, ephemera having to do with morbid anatomy, a Reanimation Library that houses odd books (“Sex Lives of Animals Without Backbones,” “the Gun Digest of Exploded Fireworks Drawings”), and, every Thursday night, a meeting of the Fixers Collective, whose members will attempt to repair any broken thing you bring in…Proteus Gowanus has the best gift shop in the world. There are banned-book bracelets, orange glow-in-the-dark bicycle vests that say “UNINSURED,” and a CD of songs whose lyrics are taken from the journals of Lewis and Clark.
These excerpts are from “Borough Haul: Are you hip enough to shop in Brooklyn?” by Patricia Marx, a must read survey of the material world that is Brooklyn (The New Yorker, March 8, 2010.)
Everyone says it was the art galleries and edgy performance places that were drawing the public. But I think it was the consumption spaces—the stores, bars, and cafes where you could look through plate-glass windows and see people living a kind of aspirational life, but in a low-key, affordable way. Brooklyn came to be understood as a place of creative consumption.
Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (with a chapter called “How Brooklyn Became Cool.”
Brooklyn in 2010 has more like the ambience of Lower Manhattan (Soho, Tribeca, LES) that I found so intoxicating when I arrived in the early 1970s than any other place I know. Like a bubble under the tablecloth, the best stuff just keep moving around. But for right now, it has lodged itself southeast of Manhattan.
Still riding high after a great weekend and art opening in Brooklyn. Thank you to Martine Bisagni and Amani Ansari for their Herculean effort to pull off a great event. More pictures coming* (I was too busy talking to take any during the opening to take my own) but here are a few of the installation.
*A few more photos have surfaced: You can view images taken by Martine Bisagni here.
It is not skill, knowledge, intellect,
good luck or bad, but choosing
to feel the strange notes
of our wildness,
for there is not nothingness
despite the easy magic
Another moment spent in the company of Terrance Keenan (along with a few others I’ve had in the past, here and here.) The “strange notes of our wildness” as well as the “easy magic” of our darker days—these are both zones I know well.
I am coupling this with another deep dive poem by the good and gentle William Stafford. He speaks with a sage’s measured gait, cutting right past everything that is moving so fast that it stays on the surface of things and can’t get seep down into the root system. I just love this man’s point of view.
A Ritual To Read To Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
For anyone who loves a journey and has an appetite for adventure, travel is as essential for pleasure as a working shower, delicious food and a good pair of walking shoes. An article in the Boston Globe by Drake Bennett applies a little more linearity to the concept of travel, vacations, and what that time away is really about.
Bennett points to research being conducted by both psychologists and economists on the concept of vacationing. Why do we take trips? What is it we want to happen? Is there one travel strategy that is better than another? Some of the findings are surprising.
From Bennett’s article:
For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before. And though it may feel unnecessary, it’s important to force yourself to actually take the time off in the first place — people, it turns out, are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable things like vacations as unpleasant ones like paperwork and visits to the dentist.
Dan Ariely, author of two recent books, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and most recently The Upside of Irrationality, identifies the three components for optimizing a vacation—anticipating, experiencing, and remembering. This may sound obvious but as he points out, each plays a unique part in maximizing the value of a trip. What’s more, we really don’t know that much about “maximizing” a vacation experience. In spite of pouring over guidebooks, most people have an incomplete understanding of what really makes an experience enjoyable. As Bennett points out:
A longer vacation seems, by definition, better than a shorter one, and having lots of paid vacation time is a highly valued job perk. But when we recall an experience, and how it made us feel, it turns out that length isn’t terribly important…Looking back, what matters far more is the intensity of sensation, whether it’s excitement or pain or contentment. And it’s not the overall average of the experience that people remember, but how they felt at the most intense moments, combined with how they felt right as the experience ended. Psychologists call this the “peak-end rule.”
The research on the peak-end rule has focused on shorter-term sensations… but psychologists suspect that it also applies to longer experiences. If so, that means worrying about whether it’s possible to get extra days off to stretch a trip is wasted energy. And if you’re deciding between a longer trip and a more eventful one — if, for example, the money it would cost for a few more nights in a hotel would mean you wouldn’t be able to afford a coveted splurge dinner or surfing lessons or concert tickets or a rain forest guide — then it makes more sense to just shorten the trip in the interest of making it more intense while you’re there.
Bennett quotes from psychologist Thomas Gilovich: “If you have to sacrifice how long your vacation is versus how intense it is, you want shorter and more intense.”
Other good nuggets in the article, so definitely worth a full read. What seems prettyy obvious is that just about everything Bennett points out about intelligent traveling seems to be good advice on living life in general. I’m definitely a fan of intensity over duration, of the peak-end approach for living a life as well as for planning a trip.
Seo 2, mixed media on canvas, 24 x 48″. From a series commissioned by Catherine Seo, professor of business and management and a social media maven. I painted this series with her hyperconnectedness in mind.
Some of you have engaged with me on the topic of the Internet’s impact on the way we think, process, interact, make sense and process our world. Based on the streetchatter I hear in the Twitter neighborhood where I spend my time, this issue has been a Top Ten-er for months now. Steven Johnson, a reasonable voice through this ongoing discussions, has written a piece in the Sunday New York Times that addresses many of the same “yes that is true, but on the other hand” concerns I have as well on this complex, still TBD topic. The fact is I am of two minds: I am enchanted and enriched by the chaotic overstimulation of the web AND I need and crave the solitude of my contemplative time in the studio.
Here’s a quick and topical guide into the latest variation on the essential tension between these two nodes. Nicholas Carr (whose earlier article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I wrote about here and here) recently published a new book. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Also recently released is quite a different take on things, Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Both books are thorough and well documented defenses of each point of view. And they are looking at the same reality from two completely different ends of the observational spectrum.
There’s the issue of multitasking, for example. Carr makes the case that the distractions so prevalent in the online world are costing us the ability to concentrate. While tests have demonstrated that heavy multitaskers perform 10-20% worse than light multitaskers, those same tests “are meaningless as a cultural indicator without measuring what we gain from multitasking.”
Johnson uses himself as a case in point and makes an argument I have made many times:
Thanks to e-mail, Twitter and the blogosphere, I regularly exchange information with hundreds of people in a single day: scheduling meetings, sharing political gossip, trading edits on a book chapter, planning a family vacation, reading tech punditry. How many of those exchanges could happen were I limited exclusively to the technologies of the phone, the post office and the face-to-face meeting? I suspect that the number would be a small fraction of my current rate.
I have no doubt that I am slightly less focused in these interactions, but, frankly, most of what we do during the day doesn’t require our full powers of concentration. Even rocket scientists don’t do rocket science all day long.
In Johnson’s view, the core of the problem with Carr’s model is that it holds “slow contemplation of deep reading” as the highest form. According to Carr, the quiet solitude of the book is required for society to move forward. But says Johnson there is another way to view this:
Many great ideas that have advanced culture over the past centuries have emerged from a more connective space, in the collision of different worldviews and sensibilities, different metaphors and fields of expertise. (Gutenberg himself borrowed his printing press from the screw presses of Rhineland vintners, as Mr. Carr notes.)
It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently. One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.
Quiet contemplation has led to its fair share of important thoughts. But it cannot be denied that good ideas also emerge in networks.
Yes, we are a little less focused, thanks to the electric stimulus of the screen. Yes, we are reading slightly fewer long-form narratives and arguments than we did 50 years ago…but what of the other side of the ledger? We are reading more text, writing far more often, than we were in the heyday of television.
And the speed with which we can follow the trail of an idea, or discover new perspectives on a problem, has increased by several orders of magnitude. We are marginally less focused, and exponentially more connected. That’s a bargain all of us should be happy to make.
Can we go for the both/and on this?
I’ve followed Anne Carson’s work for many years. She’s a complex persona—part professor of classics, poet, novelist, essayist, critic and all around category buster—exploring a wide range of topics, approaches and methodologies. Meghan O’Rourke’s description is apt: “Anne Carson has somehow become a culture hero—the ‘anti-bourgeois’ variety of icon that, as Susan Sontag once noted, appeals by being ‘repetitive, obsessive, and impolite.'” But this is repetition, obsessiveness and impoliteness I can’t get enough of.
One of the most memorable Carson pieces for me is a short essay she wrote about one of my favorite all time plays, The Invention of Love*, Tom Stoppard’s extraordinarily erudite play that deals with the life of poet A. E. Houseman. (Carson’s piece was included in a handout and audience “aid” written by classicists and dramaturges when Stoppard’s play was performed in New York City a few years back. It is in my bookshelves, somewhere…) One of her earliest books, Eros the Bittersweet, is a fascinating treatise on the role of eros in Ancient Greek culture and has developed a kind of cult following. Her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, permanently reframed my relationship with the Heraklean myth cycle.
So of course I would be interested in her latest conception. This is how Ben Ratliff begins his New York Times review of her most recent book, Nox:
Anne Carson’s new book comes in a box the color of a rainy day, with a sliver of a family snapshot on the front. Inside is a Xerox-quality reproduction of a notebook, made after the death of her brother, including text and photographs and letters, pasted-in inkjet printouts, handwriting, paintings and collage. “Nox” has no page numbers, and it’s accordion-folded. It carries a whiff of visual art multiple or gift shop souvenir or “Griffin & Sabine.” But trust me: it’s an Anne Carson book. Maybe her best.
Carson, a university classics professor by trade, is usually described as a poet, though that’s not her problem. None of her books contain all verse in any traditional sense — not counting her translations — and some contain none. There’s not much poetry in this one, yet the whole thing is poetry of a kind you’re not used to. Her words are often not very melodious. Even on the hot subjects of desire and impermanence (sex and death and all their implications), she’s analytical, pedagogical, privately plain-spoken, stonily amused. In “Nox,” the linkage of ideas approaches a kind of music; the language works only in their service, without much extra show.
Carson’s book is wrapped around the story of her real life brother Michael, a man who struggled with drugs and with staying out of jail, a drifter with whom Carson was never close. It doesn’t sound like a strong foundational start for a project of this scope. And yet based on Ratcliff’s review, it succeeds.
More from Ratliff’s review:
Every thought runs together in “Nox.” Elegy and history are cousins, she explains, because they’re both forms of autopsy. She describes translating as being in “a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch”; it’s her own nox. But Michael, whom she still does not understand, is her night as well, her dark room whose light will never go on. (“A brother never ends,” she writes.) Of course, her subject’s life was full of night, too: he traveled on a false passport. Even the dictionary entries are rolled into the big theme: the discussion about the metaphorical dark room leads her to talk of “entries” as endless ways into “a room I can never leave.” The book is totally recherché and weirdly clear, lingered over and neatly boxed, precious in the word’s best sense.
Her risk taking, her unpredictability, her exploratory mashing up of forms and functions, all part of what makes Carson’s work so compelling and inspiring. I love Ratliff’s phrase to describe this book—“weirdly clear”. It seems a fitting description of her work in general.
* If I could find my copy of that handout I’d quote from Anne Carson herself. But since I can’t, here’s a memorable description of Stoppard’s play by the old lion of the American Repertory Theater himself, Robert Brustein: “The Invention of Love (…) may well be the showiest of all of Stoppard’s intellectual exercises. (…) There is not enough plot here for twenty minutes of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight.” Oh yeah. Bring it on.
Reasons to stop in at the Peabody Essex Museum are many, but here’s my favorite from my latest trip: “Imprints—Photographs by Mark Ruwedel.”
At first glance I assumed these 41 images were an Olafur Eliasson-inspired conceptual/installation piece on landscape. The photographs have a reduced tonality and a barren understatedness that could lead to that assumption. But once I took a step closer I was disabused of that idea, caught quickly and willingly in the dynamic silence of Ruwedel’s portraits of place—haunted and emptied of a previous existence during an ancient earth eon.
Mark Feeney’s review in the Boston Globe describes it well:
Mark Ruwedel[‘s}…West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there…As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West…
Time is an abstraction, of course, and these pictures have a stripped-down, abstract quality. Looking at them, one thinks not so much of other Western photographers as of Minimalist sculpture, Robert Smithson and earth art, or even Zen mysticism. Look closely, though, and notice how concrete the abstractions are.
Ruwedel lugged a large-format camera across a variety of these exquisitely remote Western terrains, and the payoff is a level of detail in these photographs that would be impossible to achieve without this cumbersome tool. The textures and depth of complexity are mesmerizing. Included in this show are images of the dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River in the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado, the ancient Indian trails that lace through the Chocolate Mountains of California, and other uncommonly traveled spots.
The show is up until January 1. I’ll definitely be back.
For more of a sense of Ruwedel and his approach to photography, here a great clip of him talking about a recent show at LACMA called “The New Topographics”: Mark Ruwedel
Rayme 1, mixed media on canvas (to be included in my upcoming show at the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery)
Quick Black Hole Spin Change
I don’t like it—
two massive Black Holes
each twirling at the core of
two merging galaxies
get close enough
to fuse together
then quick as a wink
just as they are melting into a New Black Hole Blob
they undergo something called a “spin-flip”
they change the axes of their spins
and the fused-together Black Hole Blob
gets its own
quick as a cricket’s foot
Don’t like it at all
And then the new Black Hole Blob sometimes
bounces back and forth inside
its mergèd Galaxy
till it settles at the center
but sometimes a “newly” up-sized Black Hole
leaves its Galaxy
to sail out munchingly on its own
into the Universal It
I don’t like it
Nothing about it
in the Bhagavad Gita
the Book of Revelation
Shakespeare, Sappho, or Allen Ginsberg
Oh the value of a network of strong ties…it plays out in your life in so many ways. Here’s a thank you to my good friend Sally (her new blog, Butter and Lightning, is terrific BTW) for uncovering this gem.