samedi 14 avril 2018

Federico Garcia Lorca Little Viennese Waltz (Poet in New York 1929-1930)

The best a casual reader of surrealist-inspired poetry can do is enjoy the surprises and the non sequiturs that give form and substance to the art form. But  if one is even passingly familiar with the artist’s background, it can be helpful to call to mind details of that poet's life while reading the poetry. Federico Garcia Lorca's poem Pequeno Vals Vienes, translated as Little Viennese Waltz and Leonard Cohen’s Lorca-inspired song-poem Take this Waltz are lovely examples of the image-rich, emotive poetry that can result when a bizarre, haunting moment is captured by a talented artist.
Does Little Viennese Waltz have anything to do with Lorca’s depression and subsequent year-long pilgrimage to New york following a break-up with his lover, sculptor Emilio Aladren? When Lorca offers us “...this close-mouthed watz”, “this broken-waisted waltz”, “this waltz that dies in my arms”, “this ‘I will always love you’ waltz” and ends the poem with “my love, my love I will have to leave violin and grave, the waltzing ribbons”, is he bidding goodbye to the unfaithful Aladren? Who knows?
Perhaps Leonard Cohen knew. He named his daughter Lorca. He tells us that he discovered the poetry of Lorca at the age of 15 when, rummaging through a used bookstore in Montreal, he came upon a book of Lorca's poetry and experienced an epiphany which lead him to declare that he would become a poet in the style of Lorca.
But perhaps it’s not necessary to mine the lives of artists to discover the sources or the motivations that lead to their masterpieces. Perhaps it’s enough to be moved by the feelings aroused by beautiful art. Leonard Cohen’s Take this Waltz ends with this offering, “O my love, O my love, Take this waltz, take this waltz, it’s yours now. It’s all that there is.” Just a song, just a series of images, just a feeling. And perhaps that is good enough.

jeudi 22 mars 2018

George Nakashima (1905-1990)

A recent visit to a small cafe near the St. Lazare train station in Paris brought me to mind of the American Crafts movement and the woodwork of Japanese-American architect and furniture maker George Nakashima. The round wooden spindles hanging from a flat piece of wood, itself hanging from the ceiling, the large communal table made with two solid pieces of wood joined in the middle, and the wooden slats used to create ledges on which bags of coffee beans offered for sale are displayed all suggest a fusion of tradition and innovation, comfort and surprise.
I think the interior designers responsible for the look of Braun Notes may have had in mind the aesthetic that influenced late 19th century American architects and designers who sought simplicity and strength and insisted on the use of natural materials in their productions. And in design terms, the restroom might be the most interesting space at the cafe as the brass wash basin, the exposed copper pipe bringing water to a basic faucet and especially the long wooden counter running the length of the room, most bring to mind the Nakashima aesthetic. Braun Notes is, of course, a commercial enterprise built to sell a quick meal to a young, trendy clientele and not an art space (and as a restaurant it is not particularly comfortable or well-built), but its “look” certainly channels the philosophy that brought master designers and conservationists like George Nakashima to world attention. Nakashima was a forestry major who eventually received an MA in architecture. He travelled the world, studied traditional carpentry techniques in Japan, worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in India and mastered what he came to call the “free-edge” aesthetic and built “live-edge furniture”. His signature designs are his “conoid” chair and his tables made of slabs of wood with knots and burls, connected with wooden butterfly joints, smoothed out on top but left unfinished on the sides.
In his 1981 book, The Soul of a Tree, George Nakashima encapsulates his eco-art philosophy in these two sentences: “When trees mature, it is fair and moral that they are cut for man’s use, as they would soon decay and return to earth. Trees have a yearning to live again, perhaps to provide the beauty, strength and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth.” Nakashima tables are glorious and Braun Notes makes a good espresso.

dimanche 11 février 2018

Jean Luc Johannet’s Tower of Babel (1980s)

Carved on cliff faces in Lebanon at Wadi Brisa are two reliefs dating to about 500 BCE depicting the Tower of Babel. In late medieval Germany, Meister der Weltenchronik paints a charming little, five-storey tower standing beside a thatched workspace and half a dozen artisans busily constructing the modest tower. Two hundred years later, Dutch artist and map-maker Cornelius Anthonisz produces a dramatic etching of a colosseum-inspired building spiraling into the sky, the top smashed by a violent wind, chunks tumbling to the ground hitting people, and a small army of sword-wielding, trumpeting angels flying towards the catastrophe. In 2011, Iranian artist Goran Hassanpour assembles TV screens into a tee-pee shaped conical tower whose screens display different views of the same dramatic waterfall.

The story of the Tower of Babel has provided and continues to provide material upon which artists, historians, linguists, theologians and archaeologists build explanations for any number of positions and viewpoints.

Jean Luc Johannet’s Tower of Babel does not often travel as it’s fragile but currently it’s showing in Paris at the Halles St Pierre to the end of February 2018. It’s worth a look. It’s a gigantic pencil and china ink drawing made in the 1980s by a gifted polymath who is able to incorporate his training in architecture, sculpture, poetry and painting to produce a version of the Tower that is altogether unique. His work references the “naive art” movement exemplified by Ferdinand Cheval and the Catalan modernism of Antoni Gaudi. He also takes inspiration from Swiss set designer and sculptor H R Giger whose aesthetic sets the mood for the Alien films. Johannet’s Tower is a pyramidal structure built on a river, straining to reach a baroque sky and populated by mechanical birds, winged ships and shifting nightmarish flying creatures. The Tower itself looks alive, its projections resemble horned masks, giant cilia, rows of sardine-like statues and at least one monkey and snake embedded in other figures.

Johannet’s tower is the Lovecraft version of Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who.

mercredi 24 janvier 2018

T.S. Eliot - Peter Ackroyd - 1984

Any student of modernism as expressed in world literature and especially in Anglo-American literature would nominate T.S. Eliot to the list of writers who wrote groundbreaking poetry, beginning with Prufrock in 1915, The Wasteland in 1922 and ending with Four Quartets in 1945. Peter Ackroyd’s 1984 biography of T.S. Elliot takes the reader on a well-observed, fair-minded journey through the life and career of a towering cultural figure whose public image was not altogether attractive. Eliot, we all know, was considered aloof, arrogant, self-absorbed, highly intelligent and highly sensitive. He held anti-semitic views and joined his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound in espousing fascism. What we did not know, but may have guessed at, particularly after having read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats or watched the musical Cats was that T.S. Eliot had a sense of humour. Ackroyd reminds his readers that Eliot, while essentially a serious man — a product of his puritanical upbringing — nevertheless enjoyed light entertainment like detective fiction, music hall shows and American comic films (especially the work of the Marx Brothers). In his youth and throughout his life, Eliot read comic strips like the surrealistic, linguistically playful Krazy Kat and the classic, slapstick single strip Mutt and Jeff. At the offices of literary publishers Faber and Faber, where Eliot worked for some forty years, he liked to play practical jokes, including setting off firecrackers in the coal scuttle and a sending letter to the editor of the Times, proposing a "Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses.” Ackroyd tells us that Eliot, a dedicated writer of letters, wrote to friends “rambling in a high spirited or nonsensical manner about nothing in particular”. Such humour even stretched to the envelopes, and those addressed to friends such as Clive Bell often had on them verse instructions to the postman. It is a pity that Ackroyd could not give us more examples of the lighter side of Eliot’s personality but a bit of light investigation has revealed that the Eliot estate refused Ackroyd permission to quote from the poet’s unpublished work or correspondences. However, the hefty, two-volumed “Letters of T.S. Eliot” were published years after Ackroyd’s biography and are available to all — enabling us to fill in the many details and also to look anew and with more intimate evidence at the life and times of the “Old Possum”.

samedi 4 mars 2017

24 Hrs in Photos - Erik Kessels

Recently I became aware of a travelling exhibition whose subject matter, 21st century ”vernacular photography” intrigued me: Erik Kessels is a Dutch “vernacular photography” collector, curator and photography magazine editor who has been watching photographic trends with some trepidation so, in 2010, he decided to curate an unusual show which would invite the general public and cultural critics to think about emerging trends in electronic art practices.
Kessels printed close to one million random photos, all of which were published in one 24 hour period on Flickr. He then dumped those photos, weighing about two metric tonnes, into venues as varied as art galleries and churches, from the Netherlands to North America between 2011 and 2015. Inviting the public to walk on them, lie on them, pick them up and look at them, he asked people to essentially confront and make sense of the explosion of amateur photography that has resulted from the availability of good, cheap digital cameras and the concomitant unlimited number of photos that are now taken and shared electronically, daily, around the world.
Kessels’ installations, while dramatic, are hardly a celebration of the easy taking and casual sharing of photos on social media networks. In fact, he explains that this installation was meant to “present (the photos) as a sea of images that you can drown in”. He’s reminding us of “how public your private photos have become” and he says he wants to leave visitors feeling unsettled as we’re “walking over personal memories”. Kessels’ installations and various comments seem to be suggesting that contemporary vernacular photography, by its dubious quality and sheer quantity, trivializes experience. Too many photos are taken; they are not curated, organized, made into manageable, related tranches (he himself is a collector of family photo albums purchased from flea markets and displayed lovingly in art galleries), and they are released without context into the ether, their anonymity ultimately depriving them of meaning. The venues into which he dumps the photos also make statements. When the hills of photos cover museum floors, he asks us to decide if these giant mounds are works of art or installation art. Are they anti-art, post-art statements? What are we to make of photos he shoots of a priest standing on the museum floor reading a bible, or two monks standing against a wall facing the camera? He dumps two tonnes of photos in a church in France, covering the pews and he photographs a family sitting looking at the hills of photos. Is Kessels suggesting that the spiritual is being co-opted by the material?
I understand the impulse that compelled Kessels to execute this exhibition: he is concerned about quality of representation and communication being overtaken by sheer quantity of visual material available but his vision is only one side of a complex and not altogether negative trend.

samedi 11 février 2017

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1984

It is bold to assert that the central theme of any novel is merely “silence, no change”*, but Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ tragicomic novel “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” may be just  such a work.
The novel begins “On the day that they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.” and it ends early the next morning with “They’ve killed me…”. In the last seconds of his life he even took care to brush off the dirt that was stuck to his guts... went into his house...and fell on his face in the kitchen.”
Little is recounted of the events  between these two statements that doesn’t have a direct bearing on an incident that so overwhelms a town and yet changes nothing of its mindset.
The death of Santiago is the main event; it is inevitable; it is predictable, and while the circumstances and the blame remain contested, the townspeople remain in perpetual limbo. The reader is left wondering how such an extraordinary series of circumstances fails to change the thinking of the community or cause it to reassess the disproportionately violent response to what many might consider just a social infraction.
We are told time and again that Santiago Nasar is “fated” to die at the hands of twin brothers Pablo and Pedro, who are compelled by the dictates of tradition to restore the lost honour of their sister, without recourse to the law (which is an ancillary force to be dealt with after the fact) or even to honest inquires made before serious action is taken..
Did Santiago actually take Angela’s virginity? All evidence points to his innocence. Angela’s brothers seek no verification, they merely react to the ancient command to save face, to restore the family reputation with obligatory brute force.
Does the town ever own up to its responsibility? Everyone is sorry it happened, but it was “fated” to happen and it may well happen again: consensus is universal, hence the conclusion, ”silence, no change”.
The narrator presents testimonies (fresh from the moment and from 27 years later, when he revisits the town) and legal documents (compromised and fragmentary, many lost in the flooding of the courthouse) depicting characters who choose to remain blind to their collective guilt and, hence, unwilling to change. In “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, Garcia Marquez is asking the reader to recognise the consequences of a culture locked in an antiquated and dangerous worldview.

* L.A. Times review, 1984

dimanche 27 novembre 2016

A Brief History of the Great Books Idea by Tim Lacy 2005

North American culture has embraced, rejected and, in recent times, re-embraced the idea of reading the “great books”. Allan Bloom’s “first volley in the culture wars” with the now infamous “Closing of the American Mind” published in 1987 was far from the beginning of the debate.
We can thank English Victorian poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) for laying down the notions that eventually lead to the establishment of  liberal arts colleges and reading groups that read “canonical” texts that disseminate “universal principles” to the “common reader” in order to promote the “common good”. If this language sounds familiar and if a little background to the debates is welcome, then I recommend a thoughtful little essay by Tim Lacy called “A Brief History of the Great Books Idea”.
Lacy’s essay takes us on a chronological journey starting with the England of Matthew Arnold and ending with the New York educator and social critic Earl Shorris (1936-2012) and his ongoing Clemente Course which has national (and now international) chapters that brings great books to the disadvantaged, exposing them to the edifying impulses “inherent” in great poetry, logic, history and moral philosophy.
As part of his overview, Lacy quickly and efficiently lays out the academic hesitations and shifts in public opinion that have led to serious but sometimes absurd and naive debates over appropriate content. Unsurprisingly, ideas of political economy authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are mentioned more than once: Lacy tells us that in the early 1930s, Charles Walgreen, founder of the drugstore chain threatened the University of Chicago with funding cuts if “subversive works”, which were “forced” on his niece were not removed from the curriculum. Walgreen lost out to the idea of open inquiry and Das Kapital is still taught at the university today.
Also on the lighter side is Lacy’s description of Dr Charles Eliot’s colourful career. He tells us, for instance, that Eliot (1868-1909), president of Harvard and editor of a “five-foot shelf of books” which contains the classics of Western thought,  believed that the set could offer a full liberal arts education to any adult willing to read from them for ten minutes a day. 350,000 sets were sold to households from 1909, when they were first issued, to 1930. Today, the set is available to download for free.
Finally, and on a more serious note, Lacy describes how the term “plurality of excellences” has in recent times, been substituted for the older idea of “excellence”, a shift that has necessitated a reassessment of “greatness”. Where “excellence” used to be found in largely Western, European and Victorian thought, the category has in the past 30 or 40 years expanded to include Eastern and contemporary texts. But what happens, Lacy asks, if “no central standard of excellence is imposed to construct the list (of necessary reading)”?
The debate over the very existence of “permanent, universal values and the persistence of the dream of a common culture” is of course ongoing and deep, and while Lacy’s essay only hints at the fractious nature of the dialogue, it is up to the interested reader and both friends and foe of Allan Bloom to thrash it out.