Read, Seen, Heard: Ambiguity of Perception.

Threads from the past few weeks of entertainment consumption. 

I waited for this book to become available at the new Cambridge Public Library (which is absolutely beautiful) even though it's rare now that I am compelled to read fiction. The last novel I finished, The Marriage Plot, wasn't as satisfying as the art history books I'm usually reading night and day. But I had a feeling that 1Q84 would invite me away from reality and deposit me completely into another dimension. 

Haruki Murakami taught at Tufts years ago... maybe he knew my Japanese art history professor. We talked about his style, along with another writer, Banana Yoshimoto, near the end of her seminar. I had already read several of Yoshimoto's books in high school, long before I became acquainted with Murakami. Paul Roquet has categorized the particular style of both as "ambient literature," with Murakami's "healing novel" Hear the Wind Sing marking the onset of this style in 1979. Yoshimoto is also thought of as using mood regulation and iyashi (healing) themes. Perhaps this is why I was enamored of her writing during my turbulent teenage years. These early examples of ambient literature are characterized by an avoidance of psychological interiority and light, transparent diction.

Roquet points out that Brian Eno was at the same time, in England, orchestrating ambient music (in 1978 he released Ambient I: Music for Airports). I've found myself attracted to music that is focused on sound rather than lyrics, music that offers a sensory, completely immersive and exhilarating experience. I don't want to commit to moods created by concrete, literal lyrical compositions. At times shared thoughts, even musical ones, are overwhelmingly intrusive and incessant in this age of (too much) information. No more messy confessionals. Not from me either. I crave an experiential atmosphere that can never be clear and obvious. I want mystery, malleable mystery. This review of Canadian artist Grimes (Claire Boucher) describes her experience as a student of neuroscience, the plasticity of her sound and how the listener may be unable to clearly read or define the tone or mood as the sounds refuse to exist as static formulations. 

Multi-media artist Claire Boucher.

According to the article, Boucher doesn't want you feel something specific, just something. As one adoring fan, I can tell you all about the successful results. My final semester of grad school was survived based on the subjective consistency of this music; it woke me from stagnation without forcing me to feel good or bad, just something. During every morning drive to New Hampshire I listened to nothing else both to calm my new teacher/marathon driver nerves and also to excite my passionate sensibility. These sounds, ambiguous and crystalline, yet human, warm, and spiritual, are like post-modern medicine. 

Think of Mona Lisa and her sfumato-ed elusiveness. We know her and we are inspired by her, but we can never truly know her or keep her obediently confined. We can apply our own interpretations as needed thanks to this smoke covered smudged portrait. Leonardo loved to manipulate the psychological ambiguity of perception. He knew more about vision and optics than anyone else at the time, thanks to his midnight hours spent dissecting cadavers by candlelight. He wanted to paint images as accurately as the human eye transmits them to our brain. What he discovered is that in vision, there are no harsh lines; objects are softened at the edges. Therefore, in order to imitate optical information, paintings must have no discernible transitions. So, sfumato (lost in smoke)! The painted result creates an image that is never at rest; with each new pair of eyes it is reborn. All of these artists are working toward "accommodating different levels of awareness and yet maintaining uncertainty."* 

Leonardo, 1503-1506. Isn't she magnificent!

I met with some friends yesterday at my Old University, just before they took their oldest daughter on a campus tour. I walked around feeling very strange. It hasn't even been a full year since I graduated, yet it seems that my experiences there were another lifetime ago. I felt the presence of ghosts, and memories. 

My first trip to Tufts. I was seduced by the quintessential collegiate atmosphere.

I haven't gotten very far into 1Q84, about 1/10th of its 900 pages. Enough to know a bit about two main characters. Tengo, a writer, is about to secretly rewrite a novel that exhibits poor style but a raw and perfect magic. At the behest of another literary contact he will do this and submit it, for the original author, to a prestigious writer's contest. The moral questions around this part of the plot are reminiscent of a film that Alex and I watched recently, World's Greatest Dad (2009). 

Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, it tricks you with a seemingly unoriginal start. It distracts you with music that is awkwardly timed and characters that are exhaustingly unlikable. But it pays off if you can make it through the first half. It's basically about a failed writer who works by day as a high school teacher (Robin Williams). He finds himself in a situation similar to Tengo's. I won't say more, except that it was excellent, offering the kind of post-film discussion you hope for. It's dark, sure, but highly recommended to those who don't mind being temporarily uncomfortable. 

Another dark, but brilliant film: Ariel (1988). Written and directed by Finn Aki Kaurismäki, Ariel is one part of the Proletariat Trilogy. An economical film in every sense, it is exemplary of the minimalist style associated with Scandinavia. I appreciated the lack of excessive dialogue, explanations, and running time. Things were either made obvious or opaque depending on the needs of the scene. In this film, you could also say, as in the work of Murakami and Yoshimoto, that there is an avoidance of psychological interiority. 

The imagery is sometimes fantastically surreal and comic, despite the wintery landscape and generally cruel looking surroundings. Some of the moments, especially one of mannequins in a shop window, reminded me of the French photographer 
Eugène Atget.  

Avenue de Gobelins, Paris, 1925.
Avenue de Gobelins, Paris, 1925.
Coiffeur, Bd. de Strasbourg, 1912.

Shown here: the creepiest mannequins frozen in time. As Atget became interested in Surrealist photography and street scenes, he repeatedly exploited the reflective windowpane to create a palimpsest or double exposed world in which these very alive looking figures exist. What do you think the photographer imagined that these figures were doing? Did he create a scenario for them? It seems that he has composed the photograph in a way that suggests a particular scene; but there is no obvious narrative. The reading is open for interpretation. In its ambiguity our individual imaginations are stimulated; supplementing what is left out.

*(Roquet, "Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction," Journal of Japanese Studies, 35:1, 2008.)


Building Character.

I've been thinking lately about my temporary or timely, depending on how you look at it, identity crisis. Before I moved to Cambridge and consequently activated my new academic persona I was completely comfortable and happy being slightly irreverent. Look! I'm in Philadelphia Magazine!
But this kind of fun colorful lifestyle was about to change.

Maybe it was the eight months of cold weather, maybe it was the twelve hour days in the library. I'm sure it was a combination of many things related to my new environment. My grounded sense of identity, as I had known it for so many years, began to quickly dissolve and mutate. There was nothing I could do to stop it. Before long I could relate to local eccentrics wearing shirts that said Danger: Re-Animated Corpse. It may sound insignificant or even dramatic, but it was difficult terrain and probably contributed to my gray days of malaise. 

At the beginning of the third semester I passed the comprehensive exams. High on success, I poured black dye over my head and starting wearing lipstick and nail polish. It was a small taste of liberation and it helped me unravel the stress uniform. However, I will say that the Cantabrigian look suits me quite well. Tweed, wool, menswear, wingtip oxfords, stripes, madras, plaid, neo-vintage nerd eyeglasses, J. Crew! These have all been happily absorbed into my wardrobe.

Now that I am beyond my grad school days, which ultimately turned out of course to be an immeasurable experience in the best sense, I have returned to the original (now with larger brain and tweed blazer!) fun-loving weirdo: me. That is worth celebrating! With new shoes probably. 

For a fresh breath of creative air see these gems. All of the women are incredible sources of inspiration. I especially love the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas. Instead of just telling you how to copy, they teach you how to have a great time and do it your own way. 

I get so excited about being expressive today, tomorrow, and forever though I still plan to dress monochromatically when I'm advanced. 



Don't Call Me Da Vinci.

While doing research for next week's class I came across this fantastically thrilling video. I'm thinking of showing it to my students.

Even though it might be unfounded, this is really what art history is about: an idea, even a wild one, and plenty of humble detective work. Seeing this made me recall a National Geographic video I saw a few months ago at Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. This is the worst exhibition I have ever seen. In fact I was politely outraged and offended by the entire event.

I know that this show has been touring the world for decades, bringing museums millions of visitors and much needed funding and probably introducing many people to both art and Egyptian culture. 
The objects on display were fine, many of them very interesting. However, there was a general tone set forth and this is what colored my opinion. From the moment we arrived we were treated to dramatic displays of showmanship. Harrison Ford narrated while we stood in a room featuring black lights and pseudo-Egyptian architecture. This was meant to build our anticipation while we were waiting to enter.  I should have run the other way immediately. Instead I pushed through, searching for the exit. The exhibition had the feel of a circus sideshow with objects on display in curio boxes for the scrutiny of tawdry onlookers who had been riled up by the pre-game into a hungry frenzy. If only the show could treat both the art and their consumers with respect by offering them something honest and challenging. I did see a pretty great sculpture of Akhenaten, but I desperately wanted to break free from the oppressive setting so I didn't get a closer look.

The crowning disgrace was a video (made by National Geographic) featuring the Indiana Jones-ish Head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass. He claims that "after extensive DNA testing"* he is absolutely, without a single doubt, certain that King Tut was the son of the visionary outsider Akhenaten. The video was projected in the last room of the show (right before the obscene gift shop and Egyptian cutouts you can put your head in for a silly snapshot) with what appeared to be a reproduction of the skeletal, mummified remains of Tut. Everyone in the packed room was enraptured. I was now openly disgusted. A woman next to me said, "It's true, I saw it all over the Discovery Channel." I wanted to scream. Why am I so angry when all of Egypt and maybe the world is on board?

*as you can see in the video, extensive amounts to one day

I first heard this incredible piece of information last semester when a student alerted me to the fact, as he read it in his textbook. Stokstad, how could you casually insert such news? It infuriates me that people do not question and challenge the things they see or read. Though, my expectations may be high and my temper too fiery. But really, this clip is just insulting and almost cruel. Why treat an audience like yielding lambs? It's all a little too convenient. Did the results really come in at dawn? What about inbreeding, which was very common then? How do they know for sure that these bodies are who they think they are? Hawass and his scientists claim that it has "worked out beautifully." Why is this story played like some cheap reality television show? Highly suspect.

In any case, this is not how art history or archaeology should be conducted. Even as a young art historian I know that it takes more than one day to prove something and even then you can never be completely sure. Especially when you're talking about something from 4,000 years ago. Despite the exhibition providing an good amount of educational history and information as a whole this show and its co-horts, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, are the anti-thesis of educational. I may be spoiled by having many, many incredible Egyptian collections right here in the Northeast, but this kind of representation is an irresponsible way of educating. I am still shocked that these respected and valuable resources would sign on so whole-heartedly. It's very sad.

I'm not sure exactly what inspired this invective. Perhaps it is a combination of the critical thinking I was supposed to be constantly wielding during grad school, a strong affinity for Egyptian art, or the makings of a true art history crime story. It's not so impossible that there are some sketchy politics and dangerous capitalization at work here. My instincts tell me that something is not right. After a quick search I found this article from 2011 that discusses some of Hawass' history and behavior. Even though Hawass has done great things in his field, there are also a large number of questionable things. After Mubarak left office in Egypt last year protests resulted in Hawass also losing his position. Ok, so I'm not the only one in the world who felt uncomfortable with this guy.

In happier news...
Stay tuned for Tuesday's lesson, "Don't Call Me Da Vinci and Other Renaissance Men."*

Even though Michelangelo is misspelled, how can I resist?! Anyway spelling is the least of my concerns.

Can you tell which works they are citing here?

*title conceived of by A. Teich


Donatello and People Watching.

Donatello's St. George at the moment when he meets the dragon, 1417, Florence.

Parisian children at a puppet show of St. George and the Slaying of the Dragon, 1963.
St. George is about to meet the dragon.

The Slaying of the Dragon!
This schiacchiato* relief, also by Donatello, is set in the base of the above sculpture. 

St. George goes in for the kill!

After driving back and forth to New Hampshire and talking about the brilliant works of great artists all week, I am tired. As a proper humanist I have worked both body and mind. You'd think that the last thing I would want to do is ponder more art. But no. I was dreaming last night about three things: 1. the quiz that I needed to write (an hour before passing it out in class) and 2. how incredibly lucky I am that I get to read and talk about art every day, learning all the time. This kind of work is not for making money (you do, but as any adjunct will tell you it is besides the point in many ways). This week in class we discussed Renaissance artists. Among them, Donatello and his extraordinary skills; his diversity, his ability to depict such a range in figures, his innovative ideas and expressions of psychological characterizations. I think it was these ideas that inspired my third dream.

Judith and Holofernes, Bronze, 1450's, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
Mary Magdalen, Poplar, 1450's, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence.

The third thing, from either my dream last night or a daydream, I'm not sure, was a hazy fleeting thought. It was based on the judgmental values of individuals. This is something that is important in art history, of course, as we all look at art with a different unique set of values and world views and life experience. 

When I arrived home I drifted toward my Netflix queue, looking subconsciously for something that might help me realize this kind of abstract, yet mundane thought. I turned on Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin, from 2008. This is a film in which there is no dialogue; the camera is focused on a group of women watching a film. All we see are lights flickering across their quietly expressive faces and what we hear is a moving tale. The film that they are watching is based on the stories of Khosrow and Shirin. These stories are from a medieval Persian love-poem filled with tragedy, usually linked to the artist Nizami. The story of the ill fated pair Khosrow, a pre-Islamic Sassanian king, and Shirin, an Armenian princess, expresses the metaphysics of spiritual longing.

Shirin, Abbas Kiarostami, 2008.

A scene from the beginning of the tale.
Khosrow (secretly) observes Shirin bathing, 1431, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Khosrow at the castle of Shirin, Timurid Period, Iran, 15th century, Freer Sackler, DC.

Somehow, watching these people watch, each with their own individual interpretation of the narrative got me thinking again of my dreamy thought. I was swept away, imaging what connections they were making. The thing about art is that the viewer is always trying to find a way in, a way to relate. How were these women relating? For ninety minutes I never once got tired of trying to figure it out. My imagination was constantly animating. You can read a nice description of Shirin here. Of course, the director may have tricked me into thinking that these Iranian women were responding to Khosrow and Shirin, but it's possible that, as the article discusses, the actresses were instructed to meditate on their own love stories. Incredibly intimate and moving.

In the Spirit of the Beehive, Frankenstein is projected for a small town in Spain in the 1940's. In this scene, the audience is spied on. Their wide ranging responses to the film are captured.

Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973.

One of my favorite things to do at our local grocery store is stare at people (discreetly! with sunglasses on!) and imagine their entire lives. Every detail is developed based on the available iconography. Clothing, facial features, eyes especially, ornamentation, and most of all: the items in their shopping cart. I want to know the love stories of all of these people. 

*schiacchiato: flat, low relief carving style invented by Donatello