February 2007

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I’ve gone trekking in Tasmania and the Outback, and access to the Internet will not be part of the experience. I’ll return to musing–slowly–after March 20th.

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Like thousands of other Stoppard fans, I’m reading Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers in preparation for doing a Coast of Utopia marathon in May—3 plays, one after another, starting at 11am on a Saturday morning. As soon as the New York Times and the New Yorker reviewed the plays and both referenced the usefulness of Berlin’s book as a theatergoer’s guide to the complexity of characters, all available copies of the book, new and used, disappeared overnight. Penguin reissued the book in February to meet the back order demand.

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This 19th century exploration of how ideas impacted and defined the Russian future has so many other implications to ponder. I’m just venturing into this domain, so I’m sure Berlin’s point of view will color much of my thinking over the next few months. Here are a few related concepts to consider:

The truth is rather that the Russian is by nature mystically inclined, but this mystical inclination is at the same time intellectual. What meets us here is intellectual mysticism, or mystical intellectualism; that is, an intellect that express itself mystically.

Rudolf Steiner
Aspects of Human Evolution

The Russian revolution and its aftermath have done much to strengthen the belief, deeply entrenched in the Anglo-Saxon outlook, that a passionate interest in ideas is a symptom of mental and moral disorder…

This yearning for absolutes was one source of that notorious consistency which, as Berlin points out, was the most striking characteristic of Russian thinkers—their habit of taking ideas and concepts to their most extreme, even absurd conclusions: to stop before the extreme consequences of one’s reasoning was seen as a sign of moral cowardice, insufficient commitment to the truth.

Aileen Kelly
Introduction to Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin

Donald Hall’s definition of poetry:

human inside talking to human inside. It may also be reasonable person talking to reasonable person, but if it is not inside talking to inside, it is not a poem. This inside speaks through the second language. It is the ancient prong of carbon in the arc light. We all share more when we are five years old than when we are twenty-five; more at five minutes than at five years. The second language allows poetry to be universal.

And as is so often the case, what applies to poetry also applies to painting.

More from Pittsburgh:

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Carnegie Museum of Art

Modern Japanese Prints: 1868–1989

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The show includes stop-in-your-tracks stunners by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) who lived his life on the cusp between old and new Japan. Garnered from private collections, these Yoshitoshis from the 36 Ghosts series display his technical brilliance–vignetted color and the exactitude of a fine pen and ink drawing rendered through woodblock printing–as well as his mastery of color, texture and complex composition.

Permanent Collection

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The Carnegie moves new work into its contemporary galleries on a regular basis. In years past I have seen gorgeous works by Richard Diebenkorn, Peter Doig, Laura Owens, Luc Tuymans, Rachel Whiteread, Doris Salcedo, various paintings by The Germans (Richter, Kiefer, Baselitz and Polke) as well as a stunning Joan Mitchell (above.)

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Two views of a subtle, multi-layered Sigmar Polke.

Just back from 4 days in Pittsburgh. AKA The Burgh. It’s my favorite misunderstood city. And one that offers a full complement of visual language experiences.

The Mattress Factory Art Museum

The Mattress Factory has been exhibiting experimental/installation art for 30 years and boasts 3 permanently installed James Turrells, a Yayoi Kusama, among others. A current exhibit, Ships, Chips and the Stack of Documents, 2006, by Jesse Bercowetz and Matt Bua, offers up a provocation on the topics of conspiracy, disinformation, madness and extra terrestrial/other dimensional realities. Based on the ever evocative legend (Urban myth? Conspiratorial hogwash? Who knows?) of the USS Eldridge and infamous Philadelphia Experiment, the exhibit sucks you in, throwing out the bait and reeling you into its visually compelling tangle of crazy complexity, mystery and wacky lunacy. Much the way conspiracies take over the mind. (Google any of these topics and you just won’t believe the flotsam that will land on your beach.)

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The ship’s hull emerging from the 4th floor is a nice touch.

Another exhibit, by Dan Steinhilber, is a meditation on a tarp. Tarpness. A large room has been filled with one, and by using garage opener technology and wind machines, a single sheet of dulled plastic is transformed into an ocean in full wave form to the discarded skin of snake to an undulating field of wheat. It is mesmerizing and quite beautiful.

As Steinhilber notes:

Tarps have different associations for different people. It is the protective skin you cover things with when you want to keep natural elements out. You don’t want time to spoil, wreck, or rust. A tarp is used to avoid change. In this sculpture the tarp becomes change, mobile, and restless in space and time.

And always a delight to revisit: House Poem by Huang Xiang, on the street behind the museum. (To read more about Huang Xiang who some call the “Walt Whitman of China,” go the The Poetry Foundation as well as many other websites.)

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I’ve now heard two interviews with Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist who was taken to court by right wing factions in Turkey for having mentioned the Armenian genocide in her fiction writing. I have not yet read her latest novel, Bastard of Istanbul. Even though the American reviews of the book have been mixed, I am so compelled by her as a persona I have to read her work. She speaks with such intelligence and vision, and I had to stop what I was doing to listen carefully without distraction. She is soft spoken and yet strong, with no bitterness towards those who want her silenced or even destroyed.

When asked by an interviewer in the Boston Globe if she feels at home in Turkey after all that has happened, here is her answer:

My home is my writing. For a long time, my only continuity came frm my writing. There is a metaphor in the Koran about the tree called tuba. Some nationalist critics in Turkey have said I have no roots. I say I have roots like the tuba tree. According to the Koran, it has roots in the air.

Robert Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, once claimed that there are two kinds of people in the world–those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t. In the spirit of Mr. Benchley’s dichotomous claim, here’s one from Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the Boston Symphony:

The composer Ned Rorem maintains that everything and everyone falls into either French or German aesthetic camps. The French aesthetic favors lightness, texture and surface beauty; the German is concerned with rigor, depth and structure.

This is provocative to consider this in regard to the visual arts as well. Matisse is definitely French. Jackson Pollock too. But what about Rothko? Richter? Marden?

Celestial Music

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.
We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature. For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.
My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
On the same road, except it’s winter now;
She’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
Caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth-
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact
That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
Capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It’s this stillness we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

Louise Gluck

A recent article in the New York Sun describes a Flickr-based project called “Impressions of MoMA” or iMOMA, in which photos of the MOMA’s collection have been gathered together–150,000 items not counting the video and film libraries. Started last August by brothers Travis and Brady Hammond, iMOMA now includes 11,000 photos taken by over 2,000 individuals. “With mobile phones, everyone is an artist,” Brady Hammond said. “It would be the ultimate postmodern gallery.”

While iMOMA is conceptual, po-mo and wikified fun, it is just a more organized version of what is happening everywhere. Too many people busy capturing images rather than really looking, loading up on snapshots rather than the experience itself. Bad copies of copies, thumbnails as stand ins (this blog and others are full of postage stamp-sized versions of images that serve as a type of visual tagging system), the general proliferation of clones–this revolution has happened in other fields as well, most notably music. While the intellectual property issues in the visual arts are not trivial, they are of less concern to me than a metaphysical one–the distancing taking place between an object with artistic intentions and the recipient, or viewer.

The art I hold in highest regard demands full immersion, which requires a face to face, in the flesh experience. While some argue that the concept of an “original” is quaint and out of step with a new media cyberdized world, I have felt the energy field that surrounds some works, an aura that cannot be captured or simulated regardless of how high tech your device may be. I’d guess most of us agree that there are several categories of human experience that will never be fully simulated. Sex and art both depend on an exchange of energy to be successful and meaningful, and no cell phone can bring me the full body experience I’ve had standing in the Rothko Chapel or the Dia: Beacon’s Agnes Martin gallery.

So isn’t this best cast as a both/and? It is exciting to see new forms like iMOMA bubble up. But making art into a fun and entertaining card game is no replacement for the pilgrimage.

Jing Zhou, an associate professor of management at Rice University, has researched how grumpy people are more creative problem solvers. “It’s a departure from the general management philosophy that a positive mood leads to creative problem-solving,” said Zhou. A mood of contentment doesn’t fit with creativity. So bad moods can spark creativity, says the experts.

So that’s what’s how it works…

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