Archive for January 2011
More list-making for inclement weather. It’s been three straight days of chill, damp and general gloom, so, to perk up the spirits, here’s some of the music that has kept the heart soothed and the existential ennui at bay over the years.
1. A Grand Love Story, Kid Loco (1997)
One of the best things that came out of the French boom of the late 1990s. A collection of largely instrumental tracks arranged to lush orchestral and electronic melodies, shot through with an illicit, suggestive eroticism à la Gainsbourg, the standout tune here is She’s My Lover (below), a decadent anthem resounding to Indian musical influence.
2. Homework, Daft Punk (1997)
French duo Daft Punk’s 1997 debut was the pioneering album of the 90s French house scene, which saw other emerging acts like Air, Etienne de Crecy, Dmitri from Paris etc. (Air’s 1998 single, Sexy Boy, pretty much set the standard for luxuriant, lilting electro lounge pop – and remains unequalled to this day, in this listener’s opinion.) The Punk-ers, however, were unique in their fusion of various genres from techno and rave to rock to synthpop to funk, producing the most danceable album this side of the 1970s. Around The World was their biggest hit here, but I personally prefer the screeching hardcore bassline of Rollin’ & Scratchin’ (below).
3. Ma jeunesse fout le camp …, Françoise Hardy (1967)
I’m not sure if there’s much else left to say about Hardy that hasn’t already been. Fragile, talented, melancholic, she was the Francophone Marianne Faithfull, a doe-eyed ingénue minus the commercial chic of Sylvie Vartan or the overt Lolita-esque persona of France Gall. And a persistent rumour has it that Bob Dylan’s seminal 1966 album Blonde on Blonde was at least in part written for her … Ma jeunesse is Hardy at her mournful, melodic best, a languorous, sun-drenched afternoon of breathy ballads that murmur and croon of lost love and wistful longing. I find Il Est Trop Loin (below) particularly affecting; the jangly guitar riffs really come into their own during the unexpected solo at the end.
4. Sketches of Spain, Miles Davis (1960)
Not exactly a canonical entry in the Miles Davis oeuvre, which is perhaps why I like it so much. Generally I find myself baffled by Davis; listening to Kind of Blue was a head-scratching experience, rather like patiently waiting for a motley company of free-floating notes to arrange themselves into some kind of discernible melody. Yeah, I “didn’t get it.” Sketches of Spain, however, is quite brilliant, allowing Davis to flex his improvisational tendencies within a more structured soundscape. Concierto de Aranjuez (below) is beautiful: dramatic yet impassive, hollow yet rich, a slowly unravelling thread of melody inching towards its stirring finale …
5. I Often Dream of Trains, Robyn Hitchcock (1984)
Not unlike Hardy on Ma jeunesse .., this is Hitchcock – lately of the post-punk band The Soft Boys – in soulful singer-songwriter mode. The sound is spare, stripped down, in many cases consisting of no more than a solo acoustic guitar. I Often Dream of Trains reminds me of a deserted landscape caught in the melancholy of fall, awash in a sea of fallen sepia-hued foliage … The title track (below) encapsulates the spirit in which the album was conceived.
6. Foxbase Alpha, Saint Etienne (1991)
That’s a witty, Lego-inspired spoof of the original album cover, borrowed from Flickr user hazymemory. Foxbase Alpha (isn’t that the trippiest title ?) was 60s-lovin’, disco-channeling, house-spinning British trio Saint Etienne’s formative first album, which spawned their much-loved cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart (below), an infectious dancefloor ditty I’ve gyrated to in the privacy of my room on a number of occasions.
7. The Platinum Collection, Blondie (1994)
Ok, so a greatest hits selection is sort of cheating, I know. No single, standalone Blondie album really convinces me though, except perhaps Autoamerican (1980), which channels the seedy, unvarnished chic of New York City in the 1970s. Parallel Lines (1978) and Eat to the Beat (1979), though, were the hitmakers, generating what would turn out to be instant Blondie classics: Heart of Glass , Dreaming (below), Atomic. Besides being a compromise in that respect, the Platinum Collection was also my introduction to La Harry & Co. – so it’s all good.
8. Penthouse, Luna (1995)
This is what a review from a 1997 issue of Details had to say: “Penthouse, Luna’s 1995 effort, remains one of the decade’s most eternally playable albums, a long weekend of cocktails, taxis, expensive restaurants, and broken hearts …… (Penthouse was the first album ever to begin and end with songs named after Faye Dunaway movies.)” Indeed it is – both redolent of the high life and a tribute to Dunaway. The opening track, Chinatown (below), gets my thumbs up; both the song (jingling tintinnabulation) and the film (neo-noir sleaze) are awesome.
9. Gainsbourg Forever, Serge Gainsbourg (2001)
You knew this one was coming. A Franco-musico-phile compiling a list without the master on it ? That’s like having sex without using one’s mouth – possible, but what’s the point? I couldn’t make up my mind here about any one single Gainsbourg album either … Song-wise, La Chanson de Prèvert (below) is an all-time fave; back in the mid 2000s I had the good fortune of seeing Jane Birkin live, during which she performed a spoken-word version of this ballad – not good. Also, she seemed to have, well, become loopy in her old age … Anyways, this is the original, and still the greatest. The Lech Rules.
10. Huai Nian 懷念: Bai Guang Ji Nian Zhuan Ji 白光紀念專集, Bai Guang 白光 (1999)
I love practically Bai Guang’s entire oeuvre, which is rare for me. Born in Beijing in 1921, Bai made a name for herself in Republican China’s popular music and film industries in the 1940s, along with other luminaries of the era like Zhou Xuan. Her torch tunes tend towards being dancehall numbers, with several approximating almost the strident trills of a Viennese waltz. Bai’s signature number is, without a doubt, If I Don’t Have You 如果沒有你, but the Youtube community seems to have let me down there, so this is her Autumn Evening 秋夜 instead (below).
During my first days in NYC, when anything and everything could prove a source of wonder, the extensive African collection at the Met especially caught my breath – the bizarre visual force of the works was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. The demonically grinning ram headdress (below), for instance, juxtaposing the symmetry of the twin spirals and the menacing, open maw with its two rows of saw teeth, made a particular impression.
Image from the Metropolitan Museum’s website.
Strolling through the latest offering at the ACM, it all came back. Congo River: Arts of Central Africa presents a smattering of artifacts from various ethnic groups inhabiting the Lower Congo delta region, chiefly in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire) and Gabon. The near-abstract, alien-like visages reminded me once again of how irresistible African art can be – and how utterly remote. In a new millennium of mass media, the world wide web, global travel, and universal connectivity in general, the life of the Dark Continent can still seem as incomprehensible and unnerving as it did to Joseph Conrad more than a century ago. Standing by a display of reliquary figures of the Bembe people (below), conversation between CC and I drifted to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its sinister vision of Africa – so far removed, say, from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels of Alexander McCall Smith, with their gentle imagination and cast of good-natured, fallible characters. Conrad popularized the typical view of Africa as the barbarous, uncivilized other – for which Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously skewered him (read that essay here) – and if anything, this exhibition provides a new twist on that old formulation of exoticism.
I tried to break the spell–the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness–that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast … had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. (Heart of Darkness)
The “gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations” … Conrad’s Africa is a feverish, multi-sensorial nightmare which, like the black magic he invokes, ensorcels the perceptive and rational faculties. Here, however, in the stifling silence and the dim, low light of the cavernous gallery, the visual indices of that occult world still exert their fierce fascination – albeit now of a different order. Deracinated from the context of living ritual and shamanistic significance, the masks and figures on display assume instead a superlative beauty that is austere, aloof, abstract … yet provoking no less a visceral response for it. The formal beauty of the works are thrown into stark relief by the gallery design (below): each object is housed on its own glass-girdled altar – in many cases like the deity or ancestor it represents – which permits only a visual access and forbids interaction of any other variety (e.g. actual use, or a more tactile epistemology). The gallery was also structured by black rectangular blocks of varying heights, which, coupled with the ACM’s subdued lighting, transforms the space almost into the darkened interior of a temple, with enigmatic, eldritch faces poised against pitch-black surfaces at every turn – ritual articles transformed into objets d’art masquerading as quasi-deities of their own sanctuary. Take for instance the so-called ‘double face’ mask of Gabon’s Kwele tribe (below); according to the label, they are called pipibuze, meaning ‘man’, but their white colour – the result of applying kaolin clay – have led some scholars to theorize that they may indicate “benevolent forest spirits”. These objects are referred to as double-face precisely both front and back are carved with faces, a fact not made clear by the manner in which this particular one was displayed. I have no idea how these items were actually utilized by their creators (if at all), but it seems as if their Janus-faced nature must have been of some import. This dimension of their ontology is obscured, however, emphasizing the formal qualities of the work instead: the imperfect geometry of the heart-shaped visage, the subtle ornamentation provided by the perforated patterns, the cryptic, minimalist appeal of the facial features. The linear beauty of the mask, like its wraith-like presence in the murky gloom of the space, has displaced any sort of specific spiritual associations it may once have possessed, rendering it an almost purely aesthetic experience, an arcane sculptural form presiding over its own pagan shrine.
This is going to be a rare foray into the personal for me. Not that I haven’t written about homecomings and phlogged about friends on this site, but so far I’ve tended to shy away from dissecting my emotional life in any great detail.
Not so long ago a close friend of mine happened to disclose the fact that she’s developing feelings for a friend of hers – an individual I’ve met a couple of times, pretty briefly. Now there’s nothing wrong with this chap; if anything, he’s what I would call effervescent, with a cheery, chatty, witty disposition, one of those people who makes an impression socially. Which is why I was caught off-guard rather by my instinctive reaction .. and there’s no other way of saying this politely: distaste. When she finally uttered his name in response to my pressing queries, it came rushing up like the sour vomit soup of liquefied-dinner-and-gastric-juice that disgorges itself after one too many vodkas: distaste. It was like she’d just told me she wanted to get it on with, say, her neighbour’s dog.
Sounds like an overreaction doesn’t it ? I thought so too.
Why on earth would I be responding so vehemently to a piece of news that isn’t really that big a deal ? I mean, my friend’s been out with some pretty iffy characters in her time, people whom I’ve thought were all wrong for her, but I’ve always evaluated her hook-ups impersonally. Even when I was training a critical eye on the other party, it was never intended as a character assassination so much as a dispassionate judgment on their compatibility, potential for long-term romantic partnership .. those sorts of practical, quantifiable things. Why then this irrationally brutal verdict on someone whom I actually think might prove to be a pillar of support for my friend at a difficult, lonely juncture in her life ? I can’t explain it, insofar as any judgment I pass on him is at best based on very limited knowledge of his character.
… But from what little I’ve seen so far, yuck.
She’s too good for that muppet. He’s an asinine, one-dimensional dud. Why’s he panting after her when there are so many witless lians out there?
Another blast from the past. This is a paper I wrote for a 19th-century art class I took as an undergrad, which I particularly liked (both class and paper). A tad purple, the prose, and my syntax could definitely be less labyrinthine, but ah well, juvenile enthusiasm and all that …
Fantasy and Femininity: Delacroix’s ‘Abduction of Rebecca’ and Degas’ The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage’
Painted in 1846, Eugène Delacroix’s depiction of a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe1 (below) presents the viewer with a turbulent, tempestuous moment of high drama: the castle of the Norman knight Reginald Front-de-Boeuf has been set upon by marauding enemies, and with the structure looming in the background as a smoking specter, the Knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the primary antagonist of the tale, makes a frenzied getaway with the supine, unconscious person of the Jewess Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, long the object of his lustful and unwelcome attentions.
The Abduction of Rebecca (1846), Eugène Delacroix. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
The Abduction of Rebecca, in keeping with the mood and tone of its textual source, is an arrestingly melodramatic work, rendered in agitated, swirling lines, from the billowing clouds of smoke issuing from the castle windows to the wind-roiled movement of the figures’ robes, and the otherwise subdued palette of dark hues, consisting largely of various shades of brown, is brought into stark contrast with the rich jewel tints of the fabrics, and the overcast cerulean of the sky, heightening the already vehement sense of feverish passion that dominates the tableau. More immediately, however, this mood of melodrama confronts the viewer in the main grouping of figures in the foreground, a quartet that consists of Rebecca and her captors, a pair of beturbanned, Saracen slaves, caught in the act, as it were, of unceremoniously hauling her body onto the rearing form of a horse, poised dynamically in mid-motion, its mane and tail whipping violently in the wind, every equine muscle tensed as if ready to break into swift, strident flight at any given instant.
Delacroix was not just a voracious reader—his first exhibited painting, at the Salon of 1822, had its origin in Dante’s Inferno, and throughout his career he would portray themes from Byron, Shakespeare and Goethe, among others—but also a fervent admirer of Gericault (the younger artist apparently modeled for one of the dying figures in The Raft of the Medusa), and the latter’s Charging Chasseur of the Imperial Guard of 1812 suggests itself immediately as one of the visual sources for Rebecca. The similarities are at once obvious and compelling: both horses, pictured from the rear, are caught in poses of active movement, rising up energetically on their hind legs, as are the postures of their riders, turned back perhaps in acknowledgement of another presence (a reading made more explicit in the Delacroix). The settings of both works are likewise remarkably similar, indistinct, smoke-filled battle scenes of carnage, one featuring a fortress set aflame, the other, a burning wreck out of which the wheel of a chariot or carriage is visible; Delacroix seems also to have borrowed the characterization of terrain from the earlier painting, in which the immediate ground nearest in space to the viewer, inhabited by the chasseur and his horse, is marked out by a diagonal line delimiting a raised, narrow ledge of earth. Delacroix employs this division as the first spatial zone in a tripartite composition: the landscape slopes down from where the chief group of figures stands, to a lower middle ground occupied by Guilbert, before rising up again to form the hill on which is perched the castle. Following the visual cues provided by the figures, the viewer’s eye is directed along this line backwards: the Moors turn round to look to their master for instruction; the Templar points towards the procession headed their way, perhaps of enemy soldiers in hot pursuit; the troops snake down the hill from the castle of Front-de-Boeuf, a commanding, towering inferno, a grim silhouette against the murky sky, and the final stop for one’s gaze.
Dissolution of linear clarity is effected with recession; as the space of the painting recedes, so do the outlines and shapes of forms increasingly break down into hazy contours, into loose brushwork and free application of colour, providing the visual orientation of Abduction of Rebecca with an analogue in its subject matter, mined from the mists of history. Its spatial formulation, though running counter to the forward momentum of the chronological narrative of Scott’s novel, highlights the historical dimension of both texts, of the location of moments of discontinuity and flux in the past—Ivanhoe with the rupture between Saxon England and subsequent Norman hegemony, Rebecca with the forceful separation of the heroine from her beloved. Delacroix also engages his source material on another level: both the painting and the book are concerned with the notion of drama and artifice, of history as constructed narrative. Despite its basis in broad historical currents, Ivanhoe’s author was more interested in telling (and selling) a story than he was in observing the integrity of historical fact: “It is extremely probable that I may have confused the manners of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriate to a period either considerably earlier, or a good deal later than that era.”2 Scott, in the words of one commentator, was “a romantic antiquarian, not a sociologist or an archaeologist.”3
Delacroix was somewhat more scrupulous in the matter of verisimilitude (as evidenced by the accuracy with which he depicts his characters’ costumes), but no less interested in the theatrical aspect of the grand narrative of history, to which the overt melodrama of Rebecca is testament. In his choice of portrayal of a single moment of violence and fissure in the story, the artist also at once subjected the image to a process of stabilization and fixity, by literally foregrounding it, as well as embedding it in a set of dichotomous terms between the inert, defenseless, pale-skinned Rebecca, and the active, swarthy figures of the Moors in possession of her. The terms of the dialectic, however, are less clear-cut than their respective iconographies would suggest, and the differences between Gericault’s and Delacroix’s figures are instructive here, furnishing an example of both the stabilization process and dialectical ambivalence and fluidity. The former’s horse is a creature undeniably horrific and powerful, from the beady, unflinching stare of its single reddened eye, directly confronting the viewer, to the unashamed revelation of the anus, and the outline of its genitals. (Gericault made several drawings of studs where sexual organs were prominently on display, and in which an association between conspicuous, overweening virility and dominance over the feminine was made.4) While retaining the suggestions of movement and vigour, all hints of rude sexual prowess have been eliminated from Delacroix’s horse, its private regions modestly concealed by careful positioning of the tail, just as its head is now averted and its gaze downcast, thus denying the presence of the viewer and rendering the image “safe” for consumption. If an equation between horse and rider can be inferred—what Germer refers to as “powerful fictions of the unity of manliness and animality which invite narcissistic identification”5—then the Moor, who casts his glance away as his horse does, a mimicry of the animal by the human and vice versa, witnessed in the portrait of the chasseur as well, has been rendered impotent, desexualized, a victim of subjugation by the “real”, empowered male. He is, in other words, the Other, as originally the colour of his skin would imply, occupying the same end of the polarity as Rebecca, who is not only female and powerless (her vaunted skill in the healing arts avail her nothing here, serving only to exclude her more firmly from the sphere of the male, Christian warrior), but a Jew at that, reduced to no more than an unconscious figure, the only one in the painting who offers the viewer a full frontal profile but is yet refused the function and power of sight.
Edgar Degas, active some three decades later, was also taken with the themes of artifice and sexual difference in his work. The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (below), an oil canvas with traces of watercolour and pastel, probably dating to 1874, portrays an intimate moment backstage, behind the curtains: a group of young ballerinas are busy (and not quite so busy) practicing their steps under the keen eye of their master. The figures are aligned along the sides of the stage: to the left is a group of stationary girls, packed tightly together in a frieze-like arrangement, as well as three other dancers absorbed in various personal distractions. One bends over to tie her slipper; another has her face turned upwards in a yawning, Munch-like expression; the third sits on the floor, engaged in what seems to be an attempt to adjust a ribbon around her neck. The figures on this side of the stage include also the dance master, as well as the handles of two musical instruments (violins perhaps, or cellos) that jut abruptly up into the frame of the painting, and by which size connotes extreme proximity to the viewer. On the other side the dancers, divided into two clusters, are all in motion, and one trio of girls, pirouetting in a straight formation, are idly watched by two unidentified men lounging in chairs, by a pillar.
The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage (c. 1874), Edgar Degas. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.
Broken up as they are into disparate groupings along two ends, the human figures mark out an empty central space in the composition, a corridor which proceeds from an uninhabited area in what would be the front of the stage, past the ballerinas towards the back, where the stage sets have been pulled aside to reveal the scaffolding, the nuts and bolts, of the mechanism by which the illusion of reality would later be simulated for an audience. Degas’ painting, as such, is chiefly concerned with the disruption of the ideas of theatricality and glamour, and the worlds of drama and the theatre. Ballet in late 19th century Paris was almost without exception an accompaniment to opera6, and “Garnier’s Palace”, as the Opéra was dubbed, was a grand, ostentatious structure, boasting an interior in which “putti, angels, gods, and muses rolled across ceilings and walls”, and “plush burgundy velvet draped the stage and cushioned the seats”; “foyers, staircases, loggias, and boxes provided endless locations in which to be seen, emphasizing that display was a raison d’être of the building’s existence … So too were the enormous gold-encrusted grand foyer and the more private but still penetrable boxes in the auditorium …”7 While the Opéra might not necessarily have been the precise setting of The Rehearsal, it was certainly the milieu in which ballet dancers of the period moved most frequently, and Degas’ removal of the figures in his painting from that gilded, glittering environment to a far more intimate, personal sphere, a private performance in an arena cut through down the middle by a swathe of empty space, speaks perhaps to the artist’s notion of the hollowness at the core of the world of professional dance. The effect is also one of layering: the painted backdrops are arranged in vertical tiers that recede towards the uncovered triangular space in which the scaffolding is framed, and a dancer’s hand rests on the edge of a piece of the outermost layer on the left side almost in a gesture of peeling back, a signifier surely of the motif of exposure, and revelation.
The scene that Degas portrays is, despite, or perhaps because of, its markedly private nature, one where sexual availability seems to be indicated. While male and female figures are subject to clear colour and sartorial codification—men are dressed in black suits, and the ballerinas in white tutus—the mere fact of the presence of the two men by the pillar, looking for all the world as if they unquestionably belong in what is essentially an overwhelmingly feminine environment, raises issues of propriety and possession. The meeting of male and female is also expressed by the figures of the ballet master and the dancer on the right, one half of the duo nearest to the interior, wearing a red ornament in her hair: her arms are outstretched in a posture of embrace, as are his, and across the gulf that separates them his right hand, by dint of an optical illusion, looks to be touching hers. Degas seems to implicate the viewer as well in his realm of sexual freedom: the immediacy of the musical instruments and the arbitrary cropping of the picture (the leftmost figure is cut in half) implies the natural processes of human vision, and the inclusion of the viewer in the scene being witnessed, an act of male voyeurism that might be explained by the viewer’s inhabitation of the musician’s space, an occupation then equally gender-biased as that of the ballet.
Both Delacroix and Degas, in their respective paintings, are explicitly concerned with the trope of artifice, and, by extension, painting as performance. Delacroix was inspired by literary themes to depict moments of furious drama, and Degas by the rarefied world of the ballerina. Their fictive realms are, at the centre, essentially feminine ones, and problems of gender issues, of the relations between men and women, are encoded in their representations, and one is reminded of Henry James’ comment on the writing of The Bostonians: “… I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of sentiment of sex, the agitation in their behalf.”8
1 All references to Ivanhoe are taken from Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
2 Quoted by Delancey Ferguson in his foreword to the Collier edition; see Scott, Ivanhoe, p. 10.
3 See Scott, Ivanhoe, p. 11.
4 See Philippe Grunchec, Géricault’s Horses: drawings and watercolours (New York: Vendome Press, 1984).
5 See Stefan Germer, “Pleasurable Fear: Géricault and uncanny trends at the opening of the nineteenth century”, Art History 22.2 (June 1999): 159-183, p. 167.
6 See Eunice Lipton, Looking into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1986), p. 74.
7 See Lipton, Looking into Degas, p. 75.
8 See Henry James, The Bostonians (New York: Modern Library, 1956).
Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son (1875), Claude Monet. In the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Picture courtesy of www.joanlansberry.com.
Another personal favourite: Monet’s outdoor portrait of his first wife Camille and their son, Jean (I think). The concluding passage of Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans probably sums up my feelings about this painting best:
But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.
Why the conflation of this painting and this passage in particular ? – I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s the worm’s-eye view of the figure, with her wind-billowed dress and her veil-shrouded visage, which reminds me of a Greek marble head of a similarly veiled woman housed in the Met (below). She seems the very epitome of feminine grace and remote allure, quite literally a vision in white and light. And the little child next to her, dwarfed and indistinct … She is unreachable, always already lost.
The image is so lovely it hurts.
A two-hour conversation with a friend this afternoon had me tripping down memory lane. Its been a year and a half since I’ve left NYC – with only a single trip back since – and while I don’t regret leaving, sometimes a lingering nostalgia can tiptoe up on me from nowhere, like it did today … Perhaps enough time has passed for me to pay homage to all the things I love about the city so nice they named it twice ?
Here are twenty of them, in no particular order (and I make no apologies for the fact that most are food-associated).
1. Central Park. Especially in the fall, when the leaves are just turning their annual russet and orange and brown, and making out with one’s date near the children’s play area is probably the most pleasant, naughty thing to do ..
2. The Kim’s outlet on Broadway between 113th and 114th Sts. Long gone, alas.
3. Game nights. Monopoly, Bowl of Fun, charades at EC with BX, FK, MC, JM. Random rounds of Big 2 around the city with FK, JP, AL.
4. Aimless afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum.
5. Cheap, ginormous tempura bowls at Ennju (20 E. 17th St.) with RX on Fridays.
6. Shopping in SoHo and around – Uniqlo, Banana Rep., A/X, Zara, Aldo, J. Crew, the Apple Store.
7. The Film Forum. Where you can run into your (crotchety) prof. at a Godard screening in the middle of the day.
8. Korean barbeque at Shilla in K-Town. Actually, I miss most of K-Town.
9. The Strand bookstore down on Union Sq. My shamefully large collection of unread books originated here.
10. Butler Library in the summer.
11. Chicken rice carts. Mostly a seasonal phenomenon.
12. Grocery runs at D’Agostino’s on 110th St. and Broadway. Followed by snack runs at Jas Mart across the street, now gone too.
13. The Starbucks outlets on Broadway at 111th and 115th Sts. So many caffeine-soaked hours spent in those little cafes ..
14. Being at the Rubin Museum on Fridays – a refuge from the insanity and stresses of school.
15. Frozen treats with mochi and watermelon at Red Mango. Enjoying them with friends made all the difference.
16. Taqueria y Fonda, on Amsterdam between 107th and 108th Sts. Total hole-in-the-wall, but the tastiest Mexican grub on the Upper West Side.
17. The AMC theater on Times Sq. (below).
18. The dong po pork 东坡肉 at Columbia Cottage. Mmmmm …
19. 720 Riverside Dr.
20. The pervasive smell of pee in the NYC subway. Yes, it seems I can remember the stench with some degree of affection now.
Stills from Andreas Hykade’s Love and Theft (2010).
I’ve been meaning to get round to this post for a while. The recently-concluded Animation Nation 2010, which happened in December last year, brought several disappointments and a couple of delights. Metropia, a dystopian look at a corporate-controlled Europe of the near future, and starring the voices of Juliette Lewis and Vince Gallo (eww), was a tedious dud; My Dog Tulip, based on the book of the same name by J. R. Ackerley, was absolutely charming, if a trifle long. The best thing that came out of the animation festival, though, was at a screening of shorts from Stuttgart, during which I caught Love and Theft, by one Andreas Hykade (a full version of which is available on Youtube, below).
Hykade maintains a personal site, where you can find examples of both his commercial and artistic work. His graphics are simple and stylized, often featuring stark, bold shapes and bright primary colours. Love and Theft is a seven-minute tribute of sorts to traditional cel animation, which Hykade utilizes to create a cartoon of rapidly mutating figures borrowed from popular culture; characters include Charlie Brown, Betty Boop, Spongebob, Spiderman. Now what I really enjoyed was the mickey-mousing of the movement of the shifting images to the beats of a throbbing electro soundtrack, which sounded in parts rather like Daft Punk’s techno-inflected dancefloor rhythms. The head-spinning undulation of the visuals, the hypnotic, repetitive energy of the pulsating bassline … it’s awesomely trippy.
Love and Theft also recalled for me the work of Viking Eggeling, a Swede who was one of the first artists to experiment with the potential of animation. Associated with the Dada crowd, Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924) is comprised of moving lines and abstract shapes, set against a plain black backdrop. The result, like Hykade’s film, is very much rooted in the fluidity of evolving pictorial forms – like a series of dancing Cubist collages … Symphonie is a silent film, but these days, thanks to the Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s dvds, in which it is included, it tends to come with marching-band-esque musical accompaniment. Strange, but not altogether unenjoyable.
Symphonie Diagonale (1924), Viking Eggeling, sans sountrack.
Symphonie Diagonale (1924), Viking Eggeling, with music.
Kedai Runcit No. 12 [Retail Store No. 12], Gallery 12, Malaysia. A stand made up to resemble an old-school candy and toy store – of the sort one would be hard-pressed to find in Singapore these days – featuring young Malaysian artists. Beyond nostalgia, a droll comment on the undeniably commercial and elitist nature of the international art fair ?
The inaugural edition of Art Stage Singapore was a mammoth affair. Occupying an entire basement level in the suitably massive Marina Bay Sands Exhibition and Convention Centre, the event touts itself as “Asia Pacific’s new top international modern and contemporary art fair … a meeting place, a show, a market place, an ‘instant’ museum, and much more.” At least that’s the vision set out by its director, the redoubtable Lorenzo Rudolf – or the man who used to helm the prestigious Art Basel. (Read an interview with him here.) I’d headed down a tad earlier to catch a panel discussion on contemporary Chinese art – involving artist Shen Shaomin*, critic Pi Li, and collector Ulli Sigg, among others – but even then it took me nearly four long hours just to give the place a cursory once-over. Leafing through the catalogue (which cost a surprisingly economical 10 SGD), I realized just how much I’d missed. In that vein, this post adopts a straightforward ‘greatest hits’ approach, listing my three favourite moments of the afternoon.
* Shen’s short slide show, presented as part of the discussion, featured numerous photos taken with scholar and art historian Wu Hung, as well as a selection of Wu’s comments on his (Shen’s) work. Wu is an accomplished academic and a gifted thinker, as well as being my former advisor – something not lost on the artist, who clearly had bromantic feelings going on <lol> ..
A disclaimer, though: some of my choices are going to seem pretty obvious, insofar as works like Ai Weiwei’s large-scale installation, Through, quite literally stood out from the run-of-the-mill offerings; and there were a couple of stops, like the Singapore platform, titled Remaking Art in the Everyday, or the contribution of Malaysian Gallery 12, Kedai Runcit No. 12 (above), that I wished I’d paid more time and attention to … but, alas, I had to rush off for a German dinner at Brotzeit with CH and his delightful friends, KR and IG, who happened to be visiting from Mumbai.
Plus, after a couple of hours I was getting pretty art-ed out already.
Anyways. Bearing that in mind, here we go.
1. Through (2007-8), Ai Weiwei
As mentioned, Ai’s installation was one of the highlights of the event, if only in terms of sheer size. Taking up a space of some 115 sq meters, it involves colossal wooden beams and traditional Chinese furniture (mostly tables) dating from the Qing era, or so the wall label informed us. The objects were all mutually supportive, with niches and holes cut into each to accommodate the other, in effect creating a geometric forest of wooden structures. The artist declares that “certain objects, certain materials, need a certain scale to achieve a clear identity and voice, and that is what large-scale events provide. Artists are not in a position to decide the conditions imposed upon them but they can make statements about those conditions.” Which is well and good, and pretty commensensical as artists’ pronouncements go; the label continues:
Employing materials and techniques embedded in Chinese culture, Ai’s elegant objects can overwhelm viewers who do not fully grasp the conceptual implications of his work; their imposing, meticulous physical presence and massive scale often require considerable teamwork and vast production spaces to realize, and are made possible thanks to the artist’s influence, wealth and sprawling social network.
As much as I appreciate the “imposing, meticulous physical presence” of the piece, in the same way I do Richard Serra‘s steel behemoths, and interesting as the meta-commentary on the role of the contemporary artist is, surely scale can’t be the final word in any act of exegesis here. The vintage of the wooden objects certainly deserve consideration, for one, but the most noteworthy facet of the work, at least for me, is how they fit together as a cohesive whole. The niches cut into the beams of course reference the traditional process of construction for Chinese furniture, where, instead of nails, joints are used to fit the different parts together. This seamless mode of joinage, however, is belied by the disruptive manner in which the vertical beams and the horizontal tables come together: large holes are cut into the tabletops to allow the pillars to pass through. If one is allowed to adduce social factors in attempting to read the work, then perhaps a statement on the supposed cohesion of Chinese society – founded on paternal Confucian strictures and the extended familial unit – and the intrusion into that sphere by the praxis of the modern Communist state, may not be altogether implausible.
Along those lines, could then the solitary pole (below), standing in the midst of the installation and dwarfed by its fellows, be emblematic of the individual, subjugated by overarching socio-political structures ? I’m finding it difficult otherwise to account for its presence …
2. Procession (2009), Paresh Maity
I l-o-v-e-d this piece. 50 metallic ants, put together from used motorcycle parts, including lit-up headlights as Cyclopean eyes, crawl across a bed of twigs. Cue B-grade horror flick featuring the invasion of giant bugs .. Below is a still from Them! (1954), an old black-and-white sci-fi film about the attack of oversized radioactive ants.
Procession also reminds me of other art-animals put together from found materials – Picasso’s Baboon and Young, for instance (below). Both Picasso’s and Maity’s pieces are witty, humorous likenesses, a point of intersection between the industrial and the zoological. Baboon, in its indexing of the goods of the factory line, the commodities of mass production – a jug, toy cars, an automobile spring – reifies the “typically Cubist paradox”* of interrogating the semiotic and material modes of visual representation with these signifiers of daily life, provoking metaphysical uncertainty. It re-directs the aims of both analytic and synthetic Cubism: it does not merely yoke together its various elements, but engages them rather in an active reconstruction of the once fractured subject. Analytic Cubism’s shattering of the human figure into its constitutive planes and dimensions witnessed in, for instance, Ma Jolie, and the figure-ground reversal of, say, Guitar (1912) – where positive and negative spaces are inverted so that the sound hole of the instrument is indicated by an empty can projecting outwards – is here explicitly denied by the re-assembling, or re-imagining, of disparate industrial fragments into a new organic whole. Like Baboon and Young, Maity’s ants, constructed from vehicular parts and re-imagined in their, or a, natural habitat (the bed of twigs), gesture at once at both the realms of nature and society; they are hybrids caught in the flux between two dialectical poles which yet firmly occupies its own semantic space between these variable ontologies.
* See Timothy Hilton, Picasso (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1975), p. 119.
Baboon and Young (1951), Pablo Picasso. Image courtesy of MoMA‘s website.
3. Crystal City (2009), Wu Chi-Tsung
Here’s the scoop on Wu’s piece from the catalogue:
Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung (吳季璁) presents 水晶城市, or Crystal City (2009). Through a series of installations using a projector, LED lighting and plastic, Wu reveals the invisible city in which modern society resides, made up of electronic equipment, programs, networks, media and information. The artist chose the word “crystal” because this information-dense city grows like one; each component element organically comes together, infinitely expanding and spreading according to a set internal rhythm and logic. it is a city that is transparent, light, and lacking in real physical volume, but it projects a very real experienced world of unparalleled reality. It is this space that the artists considers contemporary society’s spiritual home.
At its most essential, Crystal City is a cluster of transparent boxes assembled in a dark room – with a toy train, bearing a light, making its way back and forth, casting a series of constantly distending and dissolving shadows. Beyond the pure visual pleasure derived from watching the gossamer silhouettes shift and morph and flicker across the surface of the wall, the piece also calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave:
Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see … Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
(Summary from a University of Washington page – read it in full here.)
Standing at the entrance to the little room, watching the exquisite dance of shadows from the harsh fluorescent glow outside, its not hard to imagine that Wu is deliberately making claims, contra Plato, for the impalpable realm of shadows as the highest form of “unparalleled reality” – a postmodern idea if ever I heard one.
The good life. That’s how a friend of mine, JT, captioned the picture above – which shows one of her pet dogs taking a blissfully oblivious nap on the couch.
I don’t disagree.
I’ve recently been rereading an old fav, The Great Gatsby, and reacquainting myself with all the reasons why I love this book. Well, one of the chief reasons is this: Fitzgerald managed to capture the unbridled romanticism and hedonistic abandon that characterized the life of the leisured classes in the 1920s in the most sumptuous images. Parties and music under the moonlight, crates of fresh oranges and lemons just for juice, drunken afternoon soirees in Manhattan apartments, roomfuls of pristine white furniture open to mile-long gardens and a midday sea breeze … but for me the most arresting passage is the well-known one that goes
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”
No one described the good life – and its melancholy – better than Fitzgerald.
Yet here, in one fell stroke, a dog has him pipped. The mound of soft, rich, multicoloured material as a metaphor for easy livin’ simply doesn’t measure up to the image of simple contentment that a doggy siesta evokes. Perhaps its the unusual sight of a jet-black canine snoozing on a plush sofa upholstered in dainty blooms that captured my notice, but, in any case, I’d take some untroubled shut-eye over a pile of pretty shirts myself, any day. (A last-ditch scenario of course, but nonetheless ..)
A still from the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Image courtesy of Let’s Be Preppy!