Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kris Kuksi, Recycled Sculpture

The beautiful thing about upcycled materials is that the end results often bear no resemblance to the original items. Such is the case with sculptor Kris Kuksi’s toy sculptures, which are constructed out of old toys, statues, and mechanical parts.

According to Kuksi’s artist statement, his work is “feeling that he has always belonged to the ‘Old World’. Yet, Kris’ work is about a new wilderness, refined and elevated, visualized as a cultivation emerging from the corrupt and demoralized fall of modern-day society. A place where new beginnings, new wars, new philosophies, and new endings exist.” That place is apparently also quite macabre and grotesque.
In any case, Kuksi’s mindblowingly detailed toy sculptures remind us that trash and discarded materials can be refashioned into nearly anything we want.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Debussy’s Homage to Poe, With the Blanks Filled In

What should be done with the unfinished works left behind by master composers at their deaths? This question has long dogged musicians and scholars of later eras, and the debate goes on. Maybe the proper way to respect the masters is to leave their incomplete scores alone. How can we presume to know what an ingenious composer might have intended?

On the other hand, some of these scores are tantalizingly close to being performable. When there are enough sketches, composers and scholars have often tried to fill in the gaps and produce a playable version of a piece. The composer Friedrich Cerha’s completed Act III of Berg’s “Lulu,” which Berg died before finishing and orchestrating, has been embraced by many prominent musicians, including James Levine, who will again conduct the three-act “Lulu” at the Metropolitan Opera in May.

My choice for the most frustrating case of an unfinished work by a master composer is Debussy’s opera “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Debussy’s libretto, adapted from Baudelaire’s translation of the Poe short story, survives incomplete, and the musical score exists only in meager sketches of certain scenes for piano. There are scant indications of basics like tempo and dynamics.

There is simply not enough of Debussy’s “Usher” to work from, and few have tried to finish it. None of which stopped Opéra Français de New York, in partnership with the French Institute Alliance Française, from presenting what was promoted as the American premiere of “a rare double bill of two works by Debussy” last weekend at Florence Gould Hall.

The 60-minute multimedia production, “Debussy and Poe: The Devil in the Belfry & The Fall of the House of Usher,” which I saw on Saturday, included not just performances of scenes from “Usher,” based on Debussy’s sketches, but also spoken dialogue and fragments of music (played on piano) from another, even less complete Debussy opera based on Poe, “The Devil in the Belfry.” Without enough of Debussy’s music, even in sketch form, to fill out an hour, “Debussy and Poe” was padded with four songs and a piano prelude by Debussy.

Still, on its own terms, “Debussy and Poe,” created by the directors Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil and the music director and pianist Jeff Cohen, was a dark, moody and intriguing theatrical amalgam, performed by a small cast accompanied by Mr. Cohen. A quasi-abstract set designed by Rick Martin evoked a spooky library at the Usher house.

For those of us who revere Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” first performed in Paris in 1902 after a nearly 10-year gestation, it is exasperating to have only that unorthodox and mesmerizing Debussy opera. Refined, intellectually cagey and ahead of his time in his comprehension of the unconscious, Debussy was a master of indirection, veiled emotions and psychological subtext. To him, most of what passed for opera was dramatically obvious and musically crude, with too much action and too predominant a role for music.

In Maeterlinck’s haunting “Pelléas et Mélisande,” a landmark play of the Symbolist movement, Debussy found a literary work that inspired him to a new kind of opera. Little happens onstage as the story, set in a vaguely medieval setting, unfolds. Mélisande, a secretive, fragile young woman lost in the forest, is found weeping by Golaud, a sullen widower, a grandson of a king. Golaud takes Mélisande home and marries her, only to see his mysterious wife and his impetuous, handsome younger brother, Pelléas, fall hopelessly, and fatally, in love.

The characters’ inner turbulence, the real story, is conveyed through Debussy’s sensual orchestral music. With its wayward harmonic language, milky colorings, avoidance of dramatic flourishes and spacious pacing, Debussy’s music illuminates the unconscious in ways that spoken dramas and more conventional operas can hardly match.

In Poe’s “Usher,” Debussy felt he had found another source suited to exploring the unconscious and the macabre. Strangely bonded and sickly siblings, Roderick and Madeline Usher, live reclusively in the family mansion, a house that they come to believe is almost alive and bent on their destruction.

Debussy worked intermittently on “Usher” for 10 years. In 1908 Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the enterprising director of the Met, secured the rights to present “The Devil in the Belfry” and “Usher” as a double bill of one-act operas. Debussy cautioned Gatti-Casazza not to get his hopes up, saying, “I am a lazy composer” who sometimes “requires weeks to decide on one harmonious chord over another.” Nothing came of the project. Debussy died in 1918.

During “Debussy and Poe” it was impossible to know how closely the music was drawn from Debussy’s sketches. The production began with the sturdy baritone Michael Chioldi, in spectral pale-faced makeup, singing an intensely subdued Debussy song, “Le Son du Cor S’Afflige” (“The Sound of the Horn Wails”). Then, as Mr. Cohen played fleeting piano sketches from “The Devil in the Belfry,” two young and attractive singers, the baritone Phillip Addis and the soprano Ariadne Greif, as the Usher siblings, spoke dialogue from “The Devil in the Belfry,” looking like children hiding in the corner of the house library, using flashlights to read a forbidden text.

This episode segued into the first two scenes of “Usher,” accompanied by piano, in which Mr. Addis and Ms. Greif were joined by Mr. Chioldi, playing a controlling family physician; David McFerrin, a baritone, as Roderick’s concerned friend; and Alexander Blaise, an actor, playing another friend. As the work progressed, the other Debussy songs and a piano prelude, “Des Pas sur la Neige” (“Footprints in the Snow”), lent substance and connective music to the sketchy work, which concluded with the final scene of “Usher” and Madeline’s death.

In some ways “Debussy and Poe” was a tease, a dramatic patchwork of their work. I was willing to go along and accept it as a mix of sources and speculation. Still, I left wondering what might have been.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Voice That Helped Remake Culture

Louis Armstrong, a k a Satchmo, a k a Pops, was to music what Picasso was to painting, what Joyce was to fiction: an innovator who changed the face of his art form, a fecund and endlessly inventive pioneer whose discovery of his own voice helped remake 20th-century culture.

His determination to entertain and the mass popularity he eventually achieved, coupled with his gregarious, open-hearted personality, would obscure the magnitude of his achievement and win him the disdain of many intellectuals and younger colleagues, who dismissed much of what he did after 1929 as middlebrow slumming, and who even mocked him as a kind of Uncle Tom.

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists, building upon Gary Giddins’s excellent 1988 study, “Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong,” and offering a stern rebuttal of James Lincoln Collier’s patronizing 1983 book, “Louis Armstrong: An American Genius.”

Mr. Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic of Commentary magazine, writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man: a charismatic musician who, like a Method actor, channeled his vast life experience into his work, displaying a stunning, almost Shakespearean range that encompassed the jubilant and the melancholy, the playful and the sorrowful.

At the same time, Mr. Teachout reminds us of Armstrong’s gifts: “the combination of hurtling momentum and expansive lyricism that propelled his playing and singing alike,” his revolutionary sense of rhythm, his “dazzling virtuosity and sensational brilliance of tone,” in another trumpeter’s words, which left listeners feeling as though they’d been staring into the sun. The author — who worked as a jazz bassist before becoming a full-time writer — also uses his firsthand knowledge of music to convey the magic of such Armstrong masterworks as “St. Louis Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” “West End Blues” and “Star Dust.”

During his lifetime Armstrong performed with virtually everyone, from early jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory, on through more recent masters like Leonard Bernstein and Johnny Cash. His freewheeling incandescence as both an instrumentalist and vocalist would influence not just every trumpet player to come but also countless composers, bandleaders and singers as varied as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

“Even before his face became known to the readers of newspapers and illustrated magazines — and, later, to filmgoers and TV viewers,” Mr. Teachout writes, “Armstrong was the first jazz musician whose voice was heard by large numbers of people. In this way he emerged from behind the anonymity of the recording process and impressed his personality on all who heard him, even those who found most instrumental jazz to be unapproachably abstract. It was the secret of his appeal, and he knew it. So did the many singing instrumentalists who followed in his footsteps, hoping to lure some of the same listeners who smiled at the sound of his gritty tenor voice, which deepened as he grew older but was always as recognizable as a fingerprint.”

Although Armstrong’s life story has been told many times before, Mr. Teachout does a nimble job of reconjuring the trajectory of Armstrong’s experience, which coincided with — or was in the vanguard of — so many formative events in 20th-century Afro-American history, from the Great Migration that brought many Southern blacks North to cities like Chicago to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. He recounts the travails of touring that Armstrong experienced in a still segregated South, to his acclamation in Europe in the ’30s and ’40s and the mainstream American success he finally achieved in the ’50s.

The reader gets a dramatic snapshot in this volume of Armstrong’s life on the mean streets of New Orleans, where he grew up, the illegitimate son of a 15-year-old country girl, among gamblers, church people, prostitutes and hustlers; his adventures in gangland Chicago and Jazz Age New York; the rapid metamorphosis of this shy, “little frog-mouthed boy who played the cornet” into the most influential soloist in jazz; and the long, hard years on the road, crisscrossing the United States dozens of time, playing so many one-nighters that he often came off the stage, in his own words, “too tired to raise an eyelash.”

In addition, Mr. Teachout does a fluent job of explicating Armstrong’s apprenticeship under Joe Oliver and Fletcher Henderson; his seminal work with the Hot Five; and the key business roles played by his wife Lil and his mobbed-up manager, the former boxing promoter Joe Glaser, in shaping his career.

As Mr. Teachout astutely points out, Armstrong’s trumpet playing, like his singing and copious writings (including two published memoirs and countless letters, which he pecked out on a typewriter he brought with him on the road), was the means for Armstrong to reflect on all that he had witnessed. “I seen everythin’ from a child comin’ up,” he said once. “Nothin’ happen I ain’t never seen before.”

“When I blow I think of times and things from outa the past that gives me an image of the tune. Like moving pictures passing in front of my eyes. A town, a chick somewhere back down the line, an old man with no name you seen once in a place you don’t remember.” This belief in music as a deeply felt and personal expression is one reason Armstrong avoided using musical terminology when speaking about his work and it’s one reason he said that he disliked bop (like other cooler, more modern forms of jazz), complaining that it “doesn’t come from the heart,” that it’s “all just flash.”

Boppers and avatars of the cool, in turn, rejected Armstrong’s desire to entertain the audience — to mug and clown on stage. And yet even Miles Davis, who in rejecting Satchmo’s crowd-pleasing ways went so far as to turn his back on the audience, acknowledged that the history of jazz radiated out from Louis Armstrong: “You can’t play nothing on trumpet,” Davis said, “that doesn’t come from him.”


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Filming a Friendship, Founded on Film

VILMOS ZSIGMOND and Laszlo Kovacs, whose cinematography would help change the look of American movies in the late 1960s and 1970s, first met in 1953 on a Budapest street corner near the Academy of Drama and Film, where both men were enrolled as cinematography students. Three years afterward — on Nov. 11, 1956, a week after Soviet troops poured into the city to crush the Hungarian uprising — they ran into each other again on the same corner.

“The Russian tanks were going up and down the street,” recalled Mr. Zsigmond, 79, in a recent phone interview to promote the documentary “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos,” an account of their long friendship that will be broadcast Nov. 17 on “Independent Lens” on PBS. “I said, ‘Laszlo, you know the Arriflex camera, you have it up in the film school in college.’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s where I have it.’ He knew what we were about to do.”

Mr. Kovacs got the camera and some 35-millimeter film stock. The two men roamed Budapest, surreptitiously recording over an hour’s worth of film of the crackdown, then smuggled the undeveloped negatives out of the country via rail to Vienna, jumping off the train 10 miles from the Austrian border and finishing the journey on foot. Their imagery joined the collective record of that grim period, appearing in newsreels, TV reports and documentaries throughout the next half-century.

After the revolution the men moved to Hollywood, paid their dues shooting low-budget horror, action and biker films, then graduated to higher-profile assignments, eventually collaborating with some of the most influential directors of the 1970s, including Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg. Their association lasted until 2007, when Mr. Kovacs died of pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Kovacs, whose filmography included “Easy Rider, “Five Easy Pieces” and “Frances,” had a style simpler and more forceful than Mr. Zsigmond’s, whose work on movies like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Deliverance” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (for which he won an Academy Award), was more lush and impressionistic. But their artistry came from a similar, shared place. “The whole story, you could write a book about it,” Mr. Zsigmond said, laughing.

The director of “No Subtitles Necessary,” the cinematographer James Chressanthis, who studied under both men in the 1980s, thought so too.

“The story about them during the revolution” were widespread in Hollywood, he said. “But you always heard different pieces of it, different versions of it. Beyond the fact that they were great cinematographers, there was this whole back story that hadn’t been definitively told.”

During the 1986 production of “The Witches of Eastwick” — which Mr. Zsigmond photographed, with Mr. Chressanthis serving as his assistant — Mr. Kovacs stopped by for a visit. “When I saw them together, I realized that this was a remarkable story that people needed to hear,” Mr. Chressanthis said. “But 20 years intervened.”

The one-two punch of Altman’s death in 2006 and the onset of health problems for Mr. Kovacs ultimately spurred Mr. Chressanthis and his co-producers to bring the two men together again — this time in front of a camera — and have them tell their tale.

The result is a movie about a friendship between men who shared certain unusual, difficult experiences, and how those experiences shaped their art.

Mr. Zsigmond described his and Mr. Kovacs’s feel for light and shadow — which they developed together on earlier, low-budget efforts, productions on which one man often served as the other’s assistant — as “poetic realism.”

“It came out of being a couple of guys who had to leave Hungary in a hurry so they didn’t get killed,” he said. “It came out of coming to America and shooting all these movies that were all very low-budget — we called them ‘no-budget movies’ — with very small crews and very small lights. Laszlo and I figured out pretty quick that if you shoot something at the right time of day, it’s going to look gorgeous without any additional light, and that if you do need additional light, you try to make the light look real, not ‘lit.’ I hate movies where the light looks phony.”

Mr. Kovacs’s battlefield-tested resourcefulness and affection for his adopted country’s landscapes informed the look of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 counterculture smash “Easy Rider.” The film was distinguished by trippy lens flares, mournful firelight and tight close-ups of motorcycle riders and their machines, which Mr. Kovacs captured while being towed in the back of a sandbag-stuffed trailer. The whole feature was shot with a camera on loan from Mr. Zsigmond.

Even after the men had risen to the upper echelons of their industry, they continued to act and think like low-budget filmmakers. The documentary’s anecdotes include an account of how Mr. Zsigmond “flashed,” or briefly exposed, the negative of Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” to create that movie’s decayed-boozy visuals, and how Mr. Kovacs, while shooting Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces,” constructed a much-needed camera brace out of a termite-riddled branch he’d found in the woods near the set.

One can see traces of the men’s idiosyncratic personalities showing up more vividly in Jerry Schatzberg’s 1973 feature “Scarecrow,” a road film about the deep friendship between hobos played by Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Mr. Zsigmond says the film’s warm light and embracing widescreen images of American landscapes were inspired by his early years with Mr. Kovacs, when they were adrift in a beautiful but forbidding new land.

“When we came to America, we had to stay together just to survive,” Mr. Zsigmond said. “It was like being brothers, that’s what it was.”


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Arthur Rimbaud Documentary

Johnny Cash—the Man in Black & White

Reinhard Kleist's brand-new graphic novel, Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness (Abrams Books), opens with a vintage Caddy (license plate "HELL") barreling past a neon sign on the outskirts of Reno. Without a word, its surly driver—the Man in Black himself—makes his way to the strip, where he spots a short, wealthy, sleazy-looking man walking into an alley with a prostitute and proceeds to fill him with lead. In the scene's final panel, the killer is inside an armored bus, pulling up to the gates of Folsom Prison. Get it? I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.

The Berlin-based artist has fun with this concept in his well-researched biography of the late country star, segueing into pen-and-ink depictions of Cash hits like "Big River," "Cocaine Blues," and "A Boy Named Sue" (which unbeknownst to me was penned by Shel Silverstein). Kleist uses a different, faux-tribal drawing style for "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"—a choice that reflects his interest in Cash's views on soldiers and war, an interest that also emerges in a studio scene with Bob Dylan.

If you caught the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix (the wrong actor as far as I'm concerned), you'll recognize the basic outline: The Depression-era upbringing amid cotton fields in Arkansas, where a neighbor kid teaches young J.R. Cash to play guitar. The horrible mishap that befalls his brother Jack. The Air Force service in Germany. The courtship and marriage to Vivian Liberto. The settling down in Memphis and forming a band. The record deal, tours with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, leading to a devastating addiction to uppers. The public disgraces. And, of course, the forbidden love with June Carter, whom he eventually marries.

But Kleist creates a fresh narrative, too, with side stories and small details you won't find in the film. Notably, he follows the character of Glen Sherley, a Folsom inmate who monitors Cash's career closely from behind bars and writes a song that Cash ends up using when he performs at Folsom in his big 1968 post-rehab comeback. In the book, as in the film, the Folsom sessions stand out as the dramatic peak. But there the movie ends. Kleist fast-forwards a quarter century, to 1994 and a solo recording session with rap producer Rick Rubin at Cash's cabin. By this time, Cash is an Old Man in Black, and through his chatter with Rubin we learn what became of Sherley after Cash helped get him sprung.

Artistically speaking, Kleist is a master of the genre who has spent much time studying Cash in all his facets—see his sketch gallery at the book's conclusion. He experiments with composition enough that the eye is never bored, and in just two pages of silent pictures, he manages to express the agony of drug withdrawal as viscerally as any words could. Kleist does his homework, taking seriously his duties not simply as a graphic artist but as the biographer catering to a newer generation of fans, those first drawn in by Cash's covers of artists like Danzig, Beck, and Soundgarden on Rubin's American Recordings and its sequel, Unchained. Like Rubin, and the late Cash himself, Kleist found a way to push an old story in a new direction.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Art Against the Inevitable in Sudan

THERE is a demand and a prayer made in each of Ibrahim El Salahi’s designs. This pioneer of Sudanese modernism has fused the diverse traditions of Sudan to make an art that is universal in its importance. His monumental painting The Inevitable (1984) is an uncompromising condemnation of civil war and injustice. The comparison with Picasso’s Guernica is not misplaced: indeed, the painting can be seen as an African counterpoint to it.

Born in 1930, El Salahi trained in Sudan and at the Slade in London, before travelling through Europe and returning to his home country to become a professor and Minister of Culture. He was one of the early members of what is now called the ‘Khartoum school’, which tried to define a cultural identity for the nation after the end of British colonial rule.

Sudan is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in Africa, and the early Khartoum school stressed this inescapable plurality. The grouping of poets and literary critics who called themselves the ‘School of the Desert and the Jungle’ recognised that their Sudanese heritage is a synthesis of these landscapes. The poet Salah Ahmad Ibrahim puts it unequivocally:

Liar is he who proclaims: I am the unmixed, the pure pedigree.
The Only. Yes!, a liar!

El Salahi’s early pictures are decorative versions of Koranic verses. After time away from his homeland, the artist felt estranged from Sudan, and so travelled throughout the country, looking again at the patterns in handicrafts and the local landscape. In the early 1970s, his art takes on the crimson colours of the Sudanese earth. El Salahi’s calligraphy spirals and unwraps into patterns, and finally into representations, maintaining the rhythm and structure of the Arabic alphabet, whilst also introducing the mask-like faces from the country’s southern culture. His paintings become peopled poems.

The result is a re-appropriation of the African traditions which influenced early European modernism and cubism, re-infused with their spiritual significance. El Salahi has on occasion defended himself against the charge that representation in the arts is not Islamic: “Islamic scholars say there is nothing at all to restrict you from reproducing the human image. In a way, it’s a kind of prayer too, because you are appreciating God’s creations and trying to think about them and meditation on His creativity”.

In 1975, El Salahi was imprisoned for six months without trial under the dictatorship of General Numieri, accused of anti-governmental activity. Deprived of even pen and paper, El Salahi secretly drew designs in the sand during his daily 25 minute exercise break, protected by other prisoners, and quickly erasing his work as the guards approached. Upon release, he went into exile in Qatar and Oxford. After this time, his paintings lose their earthly colours and are almost always expressed in black and white, pen on paper. By now, El Salahi had abandoned all distinction between design and representation.

The Inevitable is El Salahi’s reaction to his time spent in prison: the canvas is divided into nine separate sections that represent the different periods of time incarcerated, and act as a condemnation of the civil strife which ravaged the country after the end of British rule. Arabesque and Coptic motifs underlie and structure pained and distorted faces. Sheltering curves upsurge into rebellious arms and fists. The flood of white-space is channelled and complicated by the black ink.
Unforgettable in many of El Salahi’s later works are the hypnotic eyes which pose unavoidable questions to the viewer. In ‘Funeral and Crescent’, for example, where under an Islamic crest of a moon the huge emaciated faces of the cortège seem to carry the corpse on their own, every joint of a body is spiralled into an eye. In the simply named ‘Faces’, eyes and ears and noses and mouths all swirl deliriously outwards toward the viewer. In The Inevitable, eyes are either shaded-out into black voids, or are averted from the viewer. Only a soldier keeps a sideways watch on us. The picture is machine-like, sharp and cold. For there is a demand and a prayer made in each of El Salahi’s designs, and in this picture the questions posed are the same, but here the responsibility is even greater: who will dare to look at this? Who will dare to do something to avoid The Inevitable?


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Officials to restore birthplace of Robert Johnson

JACKSON, Miss. – The mystery surrounding bluesman Robert Johnson's life and death feeds the lingering fascination with his work.

There's the myth he sold his soul to the devil to create his haunting guitar intonations. There's the dispute over where he died after his alleged poisoning by a jealous man in 1938. Three different markers claim to be the site of his demise.

His birthplace, however, has been verified. The seminal bluesman came into the world in 1911 in a well-crafted home built by his stepfather in the Mississippi town of Hazlehurst.

Now, 71 years after his death, local officials want to restore the home in hopes of drawing Johnson fans and their tourism dollars to Copiah County, about 100 miles from the Delta region that most bluesmen called home.

Johnson's life and music have been the subject of multiple books. And producers are shopping a script in Hollywood about him penned by Jimmy White, the screenwriter for the Academy Award-winning film, "Ray."

"It's amazing that after all these years, people still talk about Robert Johnson on the level that they do," said the bluesman's grandson, Steven Johnson.

Johnson's influence can be heard in the works of numerous artists, from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton, who covered 14 of the bluesman's songs on his 2004 album, "Me and Mr. Johnson."

The house is an important piece of Johnson's legacy, said Grammy-winning pianist George Winston, who will headline a fundraiser for the restoration Monday at the Belhaven College Center for the Arts in Jackson.

"Everything with Robert is mysterious, but the more we can demystify, we can get down to the truth," said Winston. "He was an inspired musician. He took a quantum leap." The story goes that Johnson didn't play all that well at first, then left town for awhile. When he returned, his music had undergone a transformation.

"He came back and everybody couldn't believe how well he played," Winston said.

That's likely what gave rise to the soul-selling rumor, a transaction purportedly taking place at the crossroads of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49 in the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson's birthplace was verified in a letter from his half-sister years ago, said Janet Schriver, executive director of the Copiah County Office of Cultural Affairs.

The 1,500-square foot home now owned by the county has fallen into disrepair, but it still bears evidence of craftsmanship. Johnson's stepfather, Charles Dodds, was a furniture maker and a prosperous landowner. The house had a double-parlor, a long front porch and a pump that allowed water to flow into the kitchen, a modern convenience unheard in most homes occupied by blacks in the early 20th century, said Schriver.

Schriver said the county is trying to raise $250,000 for the restoration project, which coincides with efforts to get Johnson's life story to the screen.

White was commissioned by HBO about three years ago to write the script, but the production company's management changed and the project was scrapped, said Cathy Gurley, who handles publicity for the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.

HBO confirmed Thursday a project had been in development, but subsequently producers were allowed to take it elsewhere.

Gurley said "we're currently shopping the project."

White, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif., said he was moved by the "sheer genius" of Johnson, who was self-taught on the guitar.

"He was so good that he would literally turn his back when they were recording him. He didn't want the other musicians to see his fingering technique," White said.

A restored Johnson birthplace would offer his latter-day fans something rare: a tangible relic linked to the long-dead musician. Few personal artifacts from Johnson's life remain. Only two photographs of Johnson are known to exist, one known as the "studio portrait" made for Johnson by Hooks Brothers Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and the other referred to as "the dime store portrait" or "the photo booth self portrait" taken by Johnson himself.

White spent months researching Johnson's life and interviewing other blues artists, including David "Honeyboy" Edwards, who knew Johnson. Little known in their prime, outside of the audience for "race music," the bluesmen created an enduring musical legacy.

"As a writer, it was exciting for me because nobody has been able to crack the code of how to tell the story of a blues singer from that era, especially the legendary one who sold his soul to the devil," White said.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lost Chaplin film discovered in $5 can bought on eBay

When Morace Park bought a can of nitrate film on eBay for $5, he was surprised to discover that it contained footage of Charlie Chaplin.

The inventor was utterly astounded when his friend John Dwyer, a former member of the British Board of Film Classification, told him that he had discovered rare footage of the performer, and possibly an unknown Chaplin work. Unlike many nitrate films, the contents of this 1916 can were still intact.

The unearthed film, called Charlie Chaplin in Zepped, features footage of Zeppelins flying over England during the First World War, as well as some very early stop-motion animation, and unknown outtakes of Chaplin films from three Essanay pictures including The Tramp. These have all been cut together into a six-minute movie that Mr Park describes as "in support of the British First World War effort". It begins with a logo from Keystone studios, which first signed Chaplin, and there follows a certification from the Egyptian censors dating the projection as being in December 1916. There are outtakes, longer shots and new angles from the films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement.

The main, animated sequence of the film starts with Chaplin wishing that he could return to England from America and fight with the boys. He is taken on a flight through clouds before landing on a spire in England. The sequence also features a German sausage, from which pops the Kaiser. During the First World War there was some consternation that the actor did not join the war effort.

Mr Dwyer persuaded Mr Park, from Henham, Essex, that they should make a documentary about the discovery and their attempt to unearth the story behind the movie. The filmmakers enlisted the British director Hammad Khan – whose first feature Slakistan, about slackers living in Islamabad, is in post-production.

Mr Park and Mr Dwyer raised £120,000 from friends and family to finance the shooting. The project, currently known only as The Lost Film Project, follows the duo as they visit locations associated with Chaplin. Their journey began in Henham then they visited several locations in London frequented by Chaplin, as well as Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, the site of one of the big Zeppelin crashes.

In the past week the men have been in San Francisco, riding the world's largest Zeppelin over the city, and Niles, Fremont, home of Chaplin's Essanay studios. They are currently in Los Angeles, where they met and showed the footage to Ric Robertson, the executive administrator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The filmmakers are staying at Montecito Inn, the hotel that Chaplin built for his friends to stay in. They have also been in contact with the Chaplin family.

The filmmakers organised a transfer of the nitrate film on to a DVD, which they have been using to show footage of the film to Chaplin experts.

Mr Park said that most of the questions being raised are about the astonishing animation sequence and whether Chaplin himself was involved in the creation of the film.

Film historian Simon Louvish, author of Chaplin: The Tramp's Odyssey, cast doubts on whether Chaplin would have been involved in its creation.

"There are a number of these compilation films around, and in Senegal there were a number of films that had been cut together by other people using Chaplin footage," said Mr Louvish. "Keystone Pictures was going bust at the time and footage from these Chaplin films was freely available.

"This is less so of the Essanay films. Chaplin by 1916 was signing multimillion-dollar contracts and was very aware of the copyright on his films.

"It would be no surprise though if someone in Egypt, which was under British occupation at the time, decided to use one of the world's most famous figures to support the war."


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

new blog, LectureAndLearn

Another new blog that features what I spend quite a bit of my time doing. I watch and listen to lectures online. This new blog is a way of achieving an archive and presenting those that i find. The interests are varied like the education I have prescribed for myself since escaping "higher education".

Friday, November 6, 2009

Soddoma: Cantos of Ulysses

Through the slave quarters and to the river below, cross sections of freshening earth…

1. Shaft scene

Syphilitic skeletons borne in blood menstrual pillars of Sodom coitus breath scars thorns milk interprets the scrotal consummating corpse labia drunk and made holy clitoridectomies penis sheaths paleolithic barriers scavenging decomposition narrow receiving bowl.
Bushmen read the koka shastra, wandering wombs dilate the reproductive cycle…

2. Venus in furs

Hedged yogic castration, umbilical suckling male hymen ejaculatory ducts the membranous urethra pastoralists, conjugated estriols feminized (double castration) dislect of deep incised consumption an infant’s sexual attributes cranial/uteral childbirth masturbation swallows.
Whaling asps three miles by four, heavens corpse spinal venerated. It’s flaccid genital beard, (it’s) (madness to be confined-Rimbaud)

3. Coffin birth

Menstruation (ovum) migration explicit breath sutras tenderness, thick wash rape (decay) copulation abortifacients peyote insufficient mitochdrial DNA homologue of the penis (masculine machinery) the debauchery of an open wound herded to the dead.

4. Flesh allows sins without the body

Departing drew squalor copula weightless heat sweating petals de-centered borne wallow plurality of unrecorded raindrops rhythms tastes screams branches nausea erections vomiting animal bearers agony clutter the pineal eye
A smell is monogamous; intimate doctrine of a menstrual matter.

5. The absurdity of rigor mortis

Blood bathed lips of a reptilian beings drag Basilidan stones spreading the dust from her ribcages to make another opening in her entrails (the presence of unnecessary practice – peremptory expulsion) the jaws of the clitoris are pried open by hideous animals (ecstasy excludes the worker) inundated with hair.
In a time if war the mountains…having nothing, baring all, we ate the dead.

6. When confronted with conflict the mind re-enters the body; you are going where the smell is coming from.

Vertebras exposed misshapen fingers beat abdomens earth flash rises an intersex scrotal sac (divided) of freshly labes burning shitting expiating hesitation dilacerated forehead emanating from the mouths of disemboweled children which have come to signify bread human bridges of decomposed odors draws the flesh in mummification raised shoulders head down ochre resin the surface of the bone circulation of infection mineralized deposits inorganic tapeworms the vertical diameter of the head the breadth of cremation grooves worn into the pubic bone spina bifida occulta proliferations of forensic anthropology ask when will rape be as pure as birth?
The species of half-sex neuropsychological orgasms of the anal gene, spliced chromosome not noticed in mutation.

7. Whether goest thou…

Ejaculating the blood spray of the lotus consummating the decomposition of the corpse the rapist’s paradox, the pelvic grasp easing milk from the prostrate hair menstruation vaginal dreaming; ingredients; the silphum bone of a Namibian woman hardened impulse that collapses to repulsion retracting the narrative to transparency, it’s surgical augmentation lit by phallic lamp-arching tusks hybrid of distinctive strains grave blood a pregnant mare incites a doctrinal aria of machinations, of language – anima/animus
What is heaven without the significance of blood? Man and his beliefs must be in excess!

8. Blood house

Malignant roots necrophilous traits excoriations of physiognomy the immune system is unresponsive to foreign tissue until electricity is accompanied by the fear of drowning monologues of EKG readouts cosmogony commotion carnis enzymes human secretions reliquiae cibi the collecting of hair fingernails urine feces dead skin pedagogical serum unclothed bodies are often confused as being undisturbed until you look under the skin, whores are usually the cleanest bodies pulled from the river hand to vein mouth to cunt phallocentrism

9. I believe, so I cannot

Indigent numerology purity humility behaviorists recrocity pails full downstream consensual pre-scientific confinement the occipital lobes sinsemilla weighing departure a season in hell unrelated ecstasies smeared lingams bone fragments cognitive distonic transmutation glass variants decomposed absentia burial
Bestiality; rhythms of the unborn – flesh of the flesh

10. Fresh water beds (subject to birth), thus to the profane…

Urinating kisses necessity in suffocating silence buttocks bruised in blood and sensuality passages through bodily death diatonic coils currents of starvation re-absorbed hymns of the Rig Veda a drenching of meat, shifting the collapse of a consenting body the deep percussion of fist against skin a Urethran Oresteia a swaying fragrance unasked unsaid an odor a pile of earth made holy
The throat is a brothel, it is illiterate, and it is innocence

11. As for my sins (for Allen Ginsberg)

I’m a predatory species, a certain despondency; bred for dying the mouth opens and it squares the circles the circle the nature of deceit there are limitations to death the real threat is my own mind the size of the water gasping breaths quiet immersions glimpsed eternal anal concealment surveillance in the pubic beard, NAMBLA subtlety woke out of breath, vying prophet speaking in tongues, as for my sins.
Psychagogues; studies of the body are linked to the undead. Are the undying really the unborn?

12. The rhythm of the prey managed through paths of bone; allows some conditions to breathe.

Massive confinement addresses the conscience a theater of atrocity texts sober recited states all science is God, God does not exist obsession dictates ritual excavation of past mastery healing seizures migraine delta malignant roots of necrophilous traits reliquiae cibi succubi incubi ascension reawaken the form of life.
The external world has nothing to tell, it’s not a disorder it’s an opening a growing together of undoing

13. Head instead of body, a stone burnt halo of worms

Sodomized with urine feces in the brow death twice beaten manuscripts scared onto the tongues of man hunted erotic half skull spinal ropes of pure masturbation ropes made from the pubic hair of Christ black fruit cruel mud the true origin of foreskin that human smell his mouth dripped laughed again smooth muscles discrepancies excremental ejaculation intestinal composites half-remembered incest balancing writhing a counter recording rectum scratching muffled gray urine decay encrusted doors lubrication pushing her mouth into the blindfold glass cavern eye socket condensation discretion
Briefly humid fingertips spreading delicacy, internal muscles

14. Skin recedes, flesh peels

Curious emergence the agonizing receptive position the crushing weight nectar stretched slightly her breath preserved on his belt abject slaves shoulders bent pushing her mouth into the blindfold are animals really ignorant of taboos overlying tissue anus curvature craniofacial identification hollow cast anatomical points rectal incisors alter cremation purified with wine practical uses of graves discontinuity of being the gulf of death mainsprings animalcula orgiacal eroticism plethora of the genital organs habitual reserve interred field notes hair fociles toxicology preservation of blood evidence the striking of vows
Veneral orgasms, a preconscious reductionist velocity

15. Any sign of being: sidereal bodies

Anumalous monism postulate retinal unconscious naturalizing hemorrhagic nerve endings recoiled bleeding escophaged lining malnutrition normal vomiting of early infancy fecal incontinence intravenous lines vascular dementia middle temporal lobe structures surgical ablation unilateral spatial neglect motoric immobility conjunctival injection brief psychotic disorder schizoc affective sexual dysfunction lubrication swelling response sensory bondage infantilism oxygen depriving bulimia nervosa postual tremors premenstrual dysphoric disorder agonist medication constricted thought insertion dysarthria predisposed abscess orgasmic disorders syphilis meat racks bathhouses ecology of anal intercourse
Anchoring the apocalypse (archaic records – sexual antiquity)

16. Sloth

Vaccination contaminated blood nasal census, transmutation counting of pubic hairs uteral lacerations erogenous mixtures phosphorescent congestion her thighs rubbed with blood ankles bound to the wrist face sprayed, pussy filleted ashes bridled death stroked by penetration unwinding of the ceiling guttural mirrors magnified blond raven rubs her ass in my face I sleep, I eat, I drink decomposed my cock like a thorn impales her blood gives way to cartilage to bone if I can’t kill you, I’ll breed you earth bent to the pplow an orchid drinks from the serpent black and reflectent cunnlingus, raw sleep the margin of flesh unqualified embalming fragments of pregnancy an imbalanced mixture pressurized contagious hemophilia a perceiving body of primitive speech purged of paternal soil multilingual dysentery intravenous transmidible agents quarantine exhortations posthumously hanged puncture contagious blood the fetus predates the abdominal wheel
Subordinations to nature, betrothed laboring breaths and the ferocity of silence

17. Semen dries, efficacy of prayer

Agrarian societies ritual androgyny irregularities of creation putrefying male consumption flailed unclean intimacy calculus of bodily secretions sodomite, hysterical growth cycle mountagnard rosary when hair gives way to flesh the vaginal chambers of my brain blesses the wine with my spent cock swallowing the poison sac practioners of dissonance with a voice that has no tongue desecrated by an abyss that limits to the last breath the properties of sound buggery at the Sabbath a mercenary of thought locked down burning a child ingesting its skull ataraxia a deviation of nature peering at death through anal protusions oral decay the power of the animal that kills and refuses to feed his young that eats his young is pure he drinks of the waters that pour from hell consumed of sickness half conscious of sudden pain thickening screams smell the distance trembling, undulating, backwash of castration unprecedented chaos a laughing hymn of exhaustion listening posts set in the abdomen certain bodies lecture esoteris doctrine disembodied corpses are weighed and transported these abstractions of matter are no longer Bodhisattvas their physical manifestation burned unto consumation the hunger is mine their eyes synonymously endowed, liquefied spititus mercurialis, mystagogues of humidum radicale albino sparrow a littoral species paths acted its natural contents the genitals of either sex the palmer reflex the mucosa of the lower lip the pedagogical domain solidarity of substances
Dreams dissected, impregnated the pulmonary chamber

18. Yahweh, covered with hair; the progenitor of the sweat-born child

Explanatory respiration contrary of undirected thought speech delivered breech abstention of male’s ejaculation visualized liquor the phalangeal circulation embroidery that leaps irreconcilable behavior that demands the bowels be bled postulated pain divorces sound its overlapping change that is analogous to birth is not comprised of pitch only that of the effort the reburial of milk proteins of prehistory is unearthed accidentally by psychagogues
When we bleed why do we not bleed urine? In an autopsy when the lungs are examined, why do they not find milk? When the feet are cut off, why doesn’t that sense of balance shift to the hands?

19. Light extends to the darkness

I loaded the skins the deep percussion of fist against skin I turned Shepard’s lumber great sacks of flesh the remaining bones piled in the monastery candles deep in the petrified ice stones opening to excrement, excrement to ash the ash I will ingest entering into Laos I can sense the flames…why am I still alive
Never forget it was the Garden of Eden that grew the apple. I tmay not have delivered the apple into her hands but it did hide the seed.

20. Winter in Laos

In my brain washing decapitated head ash and bruising hair once as minutes bone vein thorn hungry finger skin Shiva’s steps inhalation drawing mud cap shorn washing cock in honey a buried library of semen swallowing circling contortions a grave of hair black raised veins open to the teeth inscribed hibernation burnt dried oils of cock zero syntactical pubic forms of closing hands swallowing dilation mouth husks elongated unnatural defecation smearing hymns buttocks skull testicle anorexia stomach fucked for blood murals loosened and bound masturbation cellar lingam jaw finger rose spade scales baskets of loin pelvis scythe Mahatma Buddha Jesus fuck floor urine mother father birth renunciation hallucination gravel thigh walls mattress ammonia vomiting constriction perfumed sedition gesture of cracked stain a confusing of shoulders the hairs on convulsion inwitted mulatto absorption hurling spinal fellatio a parasitic interracial hemorrhage the belly’d quill malarial excrement yaqui hookah mescalito mantis subcutaneous sarcophagous shuddering acceleration urinating in the Ganges firstborn ashes inches of stomach foreskin of the nostril a riverbed caked in burlap ovens of boiled rust the coils of mongoloid cannabis rose burst cremated hair calcified muscle matter roughened bone muscular appendage saliva placenta
Piercing pains in the hands, coldness in the mouth, the mind is in too much pain to go on.

21. Awareness of broken skin and the swarming of decay

The death it was concentrated in the mouth vacuity sweating from an obscure orifice the corpse knows only one thing ugliness is not dying decomposition a miserable excess the soul of a dying animal bred with the feces of the dead produces a cycle of transformation its potency applicable to the husbandry of the kundalini my soul encased in your breath of my words
Exonerating mouth cathedrals

22. Hands asleep crawl the eyes

What we need is a knowing thoughtful ecstasy of death an unquenchable sanatoria, a precious and thundering somoditical crematorium, a depth of skin these abdominal excretions show a prophetic willingness of nature turn their skin aware, nothing
A glassening inhalation

23. Mud smoke; aumgn

Her legs open to a faint heartbeat dying of thirst with straps across your feet; when hair gives way to flesh filth is migratory the precipitated nostril
Blood fear

24. Aboriginal fear

The sefrirotic tree a dying winged flood replicas of swarming crouching bird-like plunging nudes into flames darkness unsculptiral monotonous terrain ravings in grotesquely brutal sequence anthropomorphic resurrection mirror-eyed ecstasy summoned aboriginal monoliths swung from genitalia blown from blood hearts of erections augmentations of shitspeak
10050 Cielo Drive, I feel dead now

25. Four-sided blade

A chest ripe with intestines opens like the Sarawak chamber sore eyes that inhale appear like blackened buckets the light opening into darkness the smells narrowed the abscessed layers of skin has relieved the shoals to collapse this once inaccessible grotto now becomes open and dry
Black and semen drenched, two bodies seem to have been grabbed by wire, ever tasted blood? Sexuality the domain discipline the blown hair of a wound
Exaltation of the mother’s milk, umbilical impropriety
30. Sunken cheeks, infatuated with the body
The rain room is filled with possessions the dumpster is abridged stream hinged on a drowned distance of blood a hardened pederastic vision shifting up through the nakedness exclusive to the rigour wiped from the lips
A taste oriented ejaculation
31. Convulsions (inaudibility)
Hurling spurts of thick blood molested lying cold in soap morning like a hymn warming like cock sweat agitated by flesh hallucinations feed the entrails removing the lesions and then swallowing them the dying dead motion with their tongues for water
29 metallic bodies inserted into pubic areas, gender is an illusion
32. Horn cloth
Anointed with oil burned flesh ripped pregnant and retching diarrhea washing back into her face she was eventually exhumed most of her body little more than a greasy smudge police investigators found a severed head of an adult male in the womb others were extensively mutilated and left in repose

- Chris Mansel


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gary Snyder

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sequenced Chaos: Reviewing the work of Yu-Wen Wu

You quickly learn, at a museum of naval history, that there is art, and then there is marine art, a particular genre of painting that derives, not so much from the love of saltwater in its life- and danger-dealing aspects, but as commissioned expressions of ownership and power over vessels and fleets. At their best, paintings of raging seas, icebergs, and atmospheric effects in ranges of blues and oranges may rise to Turneresque heights, but ship imagery fixes them to a mundane plane.

By contrast, Yu-Wen Wu's practically monotone images of water in various forms, applied to compositions meant to evoke the experience of music, fall squarely on the side of pure art. In Suspended, A Song Cycle, an exhibition of wall-mounted mixed media works on panels, Wu manipulates selected visual effects of water and other fluid environments as elements to make artworks that are visual (that is, silent) musical compositions. The simple pictorial means and their reserved appearance yields surprising depths of meditative expression. The exhibit is on display at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Massachusetts, and has been extended through November 1st.

Wu, who was born in Taiwan and came to the United States at age seven, has taken thousands of photos of ocean waves, recording the time and the latitude and longitude of each. She applies them onto panels, printed on a thin paper that enables her to layer them up without permitting surface incident to interfere, minimizing edges. Sometimes a flattened wrinkle reveals the process of application, where it has been smoothed with a blade under a unifying matte of (presumably) acrylic medium. Creases and scratches on the surface are appropriate to the imagery, and are not displeasing evidence of craft. Technique at its best is puzzling, and we try to figure out the process.

Rectangular coordinates organize the surfaces. The photos, cut and butted up against each other, often repeat the same image. Their borders are disguised with the hachure and scratches that you see on photographic reproductions of the late 19th Century, before darkroom techniques and airbrushing, before Photoshop. The waves are made contiguous with brush strokes of gray and transparent whites. A handful of images could expand into an infinite field, but Wu limits that with the size of the panels and by applying perspective.

Echo is a large diptych of two squares containing a gray photograph of waves in Boston Harbor. It is immensely soothing to sit in front of, like a peaceful moment in a ferry crossing to a place that's waiting for you. Wu divides the photograph into strips that she pastes back together, preserving the whole image in the center, fragmenting it near the edges. She repeats three strips on left, right, and bottom, expanding the space and the moment. She adjusts the strips vertically or horizontally by different amounts with simple linear perspective.

Heraclitus wrote that you can't step into the same river twice. You may also have heard that you can't step in the same river even once. You can't take a photograph of water and preserve a singular form. No matter how short the exposure, it is always flowing; there will always be a degree of blur. This applies to fire, cloud, and the galaxies in deep space. Every photograph is a record, not only of its subject, but of time.

Music is traditionally the art of time. In the six panels of Glass Concerto (a reference to composer Philip Glass), music manuscript paper provides a linear framework for wave and galactic images. Music paper is a sign of music; rows of staves are a visual cue to reading time, an opportunity to serialize, to track. At extreme left, the copied music sheets include the coil-binding perforations that indicate the beginning. It's hard not to think of the suite of discrete panels as movements, since it is titled Concerto, and the last one is labeled "Coda," the tail of a composition. But they are art compositions, and not music. The eye is free to stroll back and forth, pause to examine, or jump back, which is never an option for the ear.

Four of the six one-foot-tall panels are divided vertically once or a number of times, and photos of regional Atlantic waves appear, repeat, and alternate with or without the horizontal staff lines. The photos are extrapolated into a larger perceptual space by overlapping copies. Wu disguises their edges with paint.

The waves of Glass Concerto were photographed in New York and New England waters. Wu has located them by latitude and longitude, which is to say, where they are relative to fixed points on land. Even when you know exactly where you are, the surface of the wave is moving up and down, currents are shifting, and the molecules themselves are swishing and sliding. Although Wu identifies the waters specifically, water behaves in the same ways under similar conditions everywhere. It's a universal constant, the material of the globe's greatest area, the oceans.

Dark, ominous, gelid, moody, even Brahmsian, the first panel starts with empty music sheets on the left. On the right, a wave of complex and elegant form has been broken up, reproduced, and recemented. It extends across the panel as in time, the repetitions reinforcing its form as they fix its motion.

People love to watch and listen to waves. Whitman sat on Long Island surf beaches to orchestrate his verses. Bach's great waves of notes recurring and rebuilding are sufficient to themselves; Disney's "Toccata and Fugue" in Fantasia is self-parodying. Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave builds on waves. Looking at the first wave in Glass Concerto, it is hard not to think of Fingal's Cave, and the cave itself, where ocean waves crash deep inside a gigantic aperture in an island of basalt columns, called Staffa ("Staves" in Norwegian). You can only reach it in fair weather in a fishing boat serving tourists part-time, but suspended in an Air France jet, you can look into it from 24,000 feet.

"Galaxy," the second movement of Glass Concerto, is a diptych, a very dark square joined to a very light square. Wu has brushed the dark square vertically and horizontally with red-black and blue-black. It sparkles like fresh rock. The outer edges are thickened in a way that suggests a removal of paint along with its application. A horizontal band across the bottom may be a gratuitous allusion to Brice Marden's gray encaustics. The lighter side has a large round structure which could be an elliptical galaxy seen in negative, or it's an ovum. The black-and-whiteness of this element distracts from the rest of the panels, arrangements of gray waves and music paper. The black square is a hole in the wall. The coda that concludes it is a photograph of galaxies in deep space, black with elliptical diaphanous colored drops.

The black square will remain a challenge in modern art, and one of its problems is cliché. Hard to believe, but standing in front of an Ad Reinhardt black square painting at MoMA, visitors still fume about the decline of painting, even though the colors tinting the black have become easier to perceive after 50 years.

From the Book of Dreams refers to the film strip, an archaic variety of slide show on a celluloid scroll. Wave photos from the Aegean Sea appear around, between, and behind cylindrical forms. They are columns of absent information, vertical bands of black blending episodically to green and yellow, curiously unnatural neutered colors, sapped or bleached, neither plant nor mineral, deeper and greener than lichens, less sour than tarnish—that nondescript green you get from adding yellow to black. In their vague, industrial ordinariness, they perform multiple compositional duties. While they derive from artifacts of photographic process, the effect is architectural. The columns provide a sense of presence as well as passage, contrasted with the waters behind and in between them, a manipulation of spatial sensation, an expanse crammed between pillars, at once a feeling of looking out and being in—claustrophobic, or that metal band your dentist clamps around a molar.

This piece, which curves around an inside corner of the gallery walls, also has a coda, and like that of Glass Concerto, it is a square, about two-thirds of the height of the long panel. It is a picture of clouds with the sun illuminating its margins. (A cloud does not have a surface or edge. A cloud is suspended in the air.)

Cyclical Cycles is a complex framed drawing, a frieze of a discontinuous sequence of Hawaiian crashing waves in a frame, the whole underlined by a long panel of sky photos, clouds changing over time. The drawing is an elongated grid of lines in pencil on the back of a translucent paper. The wave photos, in groups tinted vaguely violet or blue, are also fixed to the back and seen through it, veiled. Wu has drawn diagonal lines across the front surface of the page, interrupting and offsetting them where they meet the horizontal lines. The offsets add an apparent perspective thickness to the piece, but they are more like vectors that intersect bands moving at a different speeds, or faults that enable the mid-oceanic ridges to expand across a spherical surface. They imply an analysis of motion, space, and time, whether artistic or scientific.

Artistic license seems to have governed the arrangement of a row of sky pictures on a panel hung beneath the framed image in Cyclical Cycles. One square is set apart from the rest of the row, and the whole of them may or may not be the same width as the drawing inside the frame.

Some of the works in the exhibit are on board, with wooden edges. They present a more finished effect than the bright white stretched canvas edges of others. All of the works are the same thickness, which seems neither thick nor thin, but ordinary, ready-to-paint. The third dimension is apparently irrelevant to the individual artworks. It does not distinguish between purely surface or wall object. The imagery requires that the off-white surfaces not wrap around the edge of the panels, but be flat on the surface. However, the flat white fabric edges are almost repellent in their resistance to visual or tactile response. The paintings on boards with white-rubbed wooden edges are more inviting.

In the Form of Snow and Spray is a nearly nine-foot-long celebration of water, an especially musical composition. Illuminated snowflakes are blurs of white, like stars in the little galaxy of your backyard at night. Its second panel is a filigree of churning foam, the aftermath of a crashing wave. The finale is a spray of water coming apart in air, like leaping fountain waters, or fireworks, or expanding sound itself.

Music used to be divided between abstract and programmatic, as art was divided between representational and abstract. Experiments of the last 50 years have changed dichotomies to polytomies, now that we have art designed not be produced, music written not to be played or heard, and combinations of the many.

Yu-Wen Wu's works are handsomely produced, elegant, thoughtful, and moving. Their combination of simplicity and artful containment of chaos projects an immediate sense of meditative serenity. They are sensually pleasing, and suggest scientific and philosophical truths. The images become something other—allegories of sound or mathematics. While Wu states that they are about suspended time, we're also suspended in the planet's fluid elements, bobbing on the surface, surrounded by the air, always wandering in the second and third dimensions, the whole ball of flux whirling in a sequence of orbits in a restless universe.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Something in the Air

German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks to Erik Morse about the 20th- and 21st-century phenomena of chemical warfare, designer ventilation and high-density urban living

The most celebrated and controversial German philosopher since Jürgen Habermas, Peter Sloterdijk has established an academic career confronting the darkest traditions of 20th-century European ideology. President and professor of the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe in Germany, his first book, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (Critique of Cynical Reason, published in 1983 and translated into English in 1988), remains the best selling philosophical work in the German language since World War II, but it was his controversial polemic on the language of genetic engineering and biopolitics in a lecture he gave in 1999, ‘Regeln für den Menschenpark’ (Rules for the Human Park), that brought him to international attention. It also marked the philosopher’s distinctive turn toward a Heideggerian approach to Postmodernity, identifying the question of ‘Being’ as bound up with the technologies of architectonics and anthropogenesis.
Between 1998 and 2004, Sloterdijk composed his magnum opus, the 2,400-page Sphären (Spheres) trilogy. In its three sections – ‘Bubbles’, ‘Globes’ and ‘Foam’ – Sphären narrates a Western history of macro- and micro-space from the Greek agora to the contemporary urban apartment. With the technological advancements of the 20th century – most represented, according to Sloterdijk, in the use of airborne terrorism and interior ventilation – traditional maps of geometric space have been greatly redesigned, unveiling heretofore unexplored strata: atmosphere, environment and ecology. In a show of puffery, Sloterdijk declared that the Sphären project was the rightful companion to Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927) and the book that Heidegger should have written. With Semiotext(e)’s publication of Terror From the Air in March this year – translated from Luftbeben: An den Wurzeln des Terrors (Air Trembling: At the Roots of Terror, 2002), the introduction to Sphären III – English-speaking readers have had their first glimpse of Sloterdijk’s opus on Postmodern space. This year Polity published God’s Zeal: The Battle of Three Monotheisms, a study on the origins of conflict between Judeo-Christianity and Islam, and Derrida: An Egyptian was published by Wiley.
ERIK MORSE What role do you think literature plays in explicating what you call ‘sphereology’ – the study of the human need for interior space?
PETER SLOTERDIJK I’ve always felt that there is a split in the European tradition between the language of philosophy and the language of art and literature that is based on the suppression of atmospheric knowledge. Similarly, until recent developments in space photography, conventional maps omitted information about the atmosphere. My ambition was to bring the atmospheric dimension back to the perception of the real. My essay Terror from the Air was extracted from Sphären. It is called ‘Air Trembling’ in German, and is the introductory part of the third volume of the Sphären trilogy. Everything in these works is about the reconstruction of atmospheric perception.
EM One of the fundamental arguments in Terror from the Air is that classical warfare ineradicably changed with the German deployment of chlorine gas during the second battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915. It is your contention that, with this first use of chemical warfare, a new kind of ‘atmo-terrorism’ has been released upon the world, one in which the environment rather than the body is attacked. However, terrorism as a style of warfare has been present in the West as far back as the first encounters between European armies and indigenous or tribal groups: for example, night-time raids, camouflage and hit-and-run offensives. How are these examples distinct from the use of gas in the battlefields in 1915?
PS It’s ‘only’ a technical difference. As Clausewitz [Carl von Clausewitz, 1780–1831, Prussian military theorist and strategist] demonstrated in his book, Vom Kriege [On War, 1832], in every war there is an element of excess, of montée aux extrême [rising to the extreme] – every war accelerates towards something worse. In all kinds of war, the temptation is very strong not only to fight against the enemy one-to-one but to destroy its environment – to make the fateful step from the duel to the practice of extinction. In the 20th century, montée aux extrême has developed a new technical means, such as chemical warfare. This is what I suggest in my essay on modern warfare.
EM Who coined the term montée aux extrême?
PS René Girard. He published a book on Clausewitz, Achever Clausewitz [Finishing Clausewitz, 1997]. I think Girard is the most important theorist on the competitive behaviour of human beings.
EM In his book Le Part Maudit [The Accursed Share, 1949; published in English, 1991], Georges Bataille discusses life originating from the heat of the sun. How do you think the fear of weapons of mass destruction in the atomic age changed our traditional perception of the sun from life-giver to ultimate destroyer?
PS I feel quite close to Bataille when he says that life on earth in general, and human life in particular, depends on this absurd generosity from the sun. However, his theories are affected by a certain blindness – he ignores the positive aspects of the greenhouse effect (which I use here in the original sense of the term), without which the heat of the sun could not be absorbed adequately and the surface temperature of the Earth would be minus 15 to minus 18 degrees centigrade, which is unlivable for most biological life forms. So, emphasizing the positive aspects of the sun alone is an error if it is not combined with a discussion of the atmosphere. On the one hand, we have civilized and cultivated ourselves through the use of atmospheric modifications thanks to modern air-conditioning, but, on the other, employed atmospheric terrorism. The classical study of the sun, or heliology, makes the assumption that there is a strong analogy between God and the sun; the sun as the physical manifestation of God. But we have to take into account that the deepest ambition of the 20th century is the ‘victory over the sun’ – the title of one of the most important works of art, in my opinion, to come out of the Russian revolution – a Futurist opera staged in 1913 by a group of artists called ‘Soyuz Molodyozhi’ [Union of the Youth]. The production team included Aleksei Kruchenykh, Mikhail Matyushin, Velimir Khlebnikov and Kasimir Malevich. The opera explored the idea that the Earth will become a sun and, therefore, independent. This is the end-point of the atmospheric movement of modern times – that as long as the Earth is dependent on an outside source, the dream of human autonomy will never be fulfilled. But if we succeed in creating an artificial sun on the surface of the Earth, then we’ll become independent, a God-like race, the masters of the universe. And, at least symbolically, there is a link between the dreams of the Russian Revolution and the American physicists who managed through the Manhattan Project to create an artificial sun. The fire of the atomic bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the only time this terrible weapon has been employed on the battleground, which proves the 20th century to be the age of atmospheric warfare. Nothing can be like it was before – this is the connection between Hiroshima and Auschwitz and Ypres.
EM Moving from Bataille to another 20th-century theorist who is of central importance to your work, I’m interested in how you apply Gaston Bachelard’s ‘myths’ of air, water and fire into ‘sphereology’.
PS In that he was one of the authors who privileged the rediscovery of the atmospheric, Bachelard certainly played a role in my thinking. In my younger days I read him, but when I wrote the trilogy, aside from a few quotations from his book L’air et les songes [Air and Dreams, 1943], he wasn’t central to my thinking. Although we share a certain predisposition toward the phenomenological tradition and also a combination of the psychoanalytical and phenomenological aspects, the emphasis in my work is very different from his.
EM Do you think the German and French academies have more respect for Bachelard’s work than the American academy, where he is not part of the philosophical canon?
PS Bachelard deserves respect as a classical author. I cannot comment on the politics of the American academy, but his writing should not be missing from the canon.
EM Many recording and sonic technologies were developed in tandem with military research. I’m curious if you think technologies such as magnetic tape, wireless transmission, radar and sonar contributed to an environment of ‘atmo-terrorism’ where human speech becomes lost in the vast matrix of the airwaves.
PS We have created an artificial sound environment that has no parallel in the history of human societies. Until the 19th century, voices had to be produced and perceived in situ – the source of sound had to be quite close to the receiver. It is only through radio technology that the phenomenon of long-range acoustic communication has been made possible and through sonospheric coherence that Postmodern reality is created. World War I was a print war – the mobilization of soldiers could only be achieved through print technology, which is relatively close to radio technology, in that reading means to hear or hallucinate voices from different speakers – for instance, you hear the voice of the German emperor who sent you to the Front. There is constant movement from the Gutenberg world to the radio world: the world of waves and the world of print are systematically linked by a common feature, which, to put it in classical terms, is actio in distans – action at a distance.
EM How would you characterize the movement from print to communication via airwaves to the condition that Paul Virilio terms ‘telepresence’ – a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they are present, to give the appearance that they are present, or to have an effect at a location other than their true location. Is that yet another progression?
PS It is a kind of chain of causality. The Emperor in Rome will put his signature on a document that will be read on the periphery of the Empire, in, say, Alexandria. The distance from Rome to Alexandria is 2,000 kilometres but the soul of the reader, the receiver of this order, is prepared to perform exactly what the author has commanded. In this way, the world of the written commander prepares for the world of the airwaves.
EM How do we apply these rules for communication in the classical age to the so-called ‘hypermodern period’ when the speed of the message has been accelerated to a point at which it appears omnipresent or telepresent?
PS The power of the message presupposes that the synchronization of the sender and receiver has been pre-established to prepare the receiver for a position of obedience towards the message. Now, the proliferation of communication has resulted in the weakening of the message.
em Is there a direct link between the failure of the ‘message’ and the way people now communicate in metropolises, apartments and skyscrapers, for example?
PS Certainly. Urbanization is the main feature of contemporary culture. In the third volume of Sphären, I deal almost exclusively with the relationship between urban communication and the luxurious functions of modern life.
EM Do you equate all forms of modern communication in urban space to a kind of advertising à la Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk [known in English as The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s unfinished collection of notes assembled between 1927 and 1940 that reflect on the various lifestyles and dwellings of post-revolutionary Paris]?
PS The Sphären project is about the creation of a specific human interior. On a metaphysical level, the meaning of my theory is that human beings never live outside of nature but always create a kind of existential space around themselves. Urban spaces are a humanized environment where nature is completely replaced by a man-made reality. This can provoke a kind of alienation; a sense of loss within cities that you might normally expect to feel in nature. In the third volume of Sphären, in a long chapter titled ‘The Foam City’, I try to describe these multiplicities of modern life in terms of foam-making – all individuals are living in a specific bubble within a communicating foam.
EM For those readers who are unfamiliar with your theories of bubbles and foams, what do you see as the fate of the traditional house in this larger progression or digression of dwelling in the 20th century?
PS My ‘foam city’ is a theory of living in an apartment. An apartment is obviously a place that contains the means of communication to link you with the outer world, yet it is also a spatialized immune system. It immunizes you against the influences of the outer world but it simultaneously links you to the Mitwelt [‘social world’], which is a form of ‘connected isolation’ – a term coined by Thom Mayne, an American architect, in the early 1970s. ‘Connected isolation’ could be a Heideggerian concept. It is probably one of the most profound concepts that has ever been developed within modern architectural theory because it contains a judgment on the modern way of life. I don’t believe in Heidegger’s hypothesis of modern times as the time of homelessness. What I see is a transformation in all these traditional complaints about modern homelessness into a language of immunology. For me, practical metaphysics has to be translated into the language of general immunology because human beings, due to their openness to the world, are extremely vulnerable – from a biological level, to the juridical and social levels, to the symbolic and ritual levels. We are always trying to create and find a protective environment. The task of building convincing immune systems is so broad and so all-encompassing that there is no space left for nostalgic longings. This is an ongoing task that has to be performed and theorized with every technique that is available. There is no way back.
EM In this new ‘foam city’ has Benjamin’s classical description of the flâneur been made obsolete?
PS I have quoted Benjamin in a very positive way. In some of the most interesting parts of Passagen-Werk, he develops the idea that the bourgeoisie of the 19th century created these artificial interiors. And so when the world became globalized, the bourgeoisie in their salons wanted to absorb everything that is exterior into this interiority. According to Benjamin, the art of the bourgeois form of life was, in the 19th century, the effort to neutralize everything that is exterior and to create an interior that contains the totality. And that is what the arcades are all about. In the arcades, in the passage, the whole world of production – the whole world of trading and exploring – is neutralized and re-presented in the presence of the commodity. The commodities bring these outer totalities into the apartment of the bourgeoisie. Between the ocean and the apartment is the passage; the arcade where all these goods can be bought.
EM You have made the distinction in past interviews that between, for instance, 19th-century Paris and late 20th-century Los Angeles, there is a shift from the arcade to the shopping mall and the stadium, in the space of these ventilated hyper-interiors.
PS Yes. But between the modern shopping mall and the primitive arcade of the early 19th century, there was a step that is very symbolic. This is the London Crystal Palace, which is for me the major symbol of the Postmodern construction of reality. [A cast-iron and glass building designed by Joseph Paxton to house The Great Exhibition of 1851. It included 14,000 exhibitors from around the world, displaying examples of the latest developments in technology.] Because the power of interiorization here reached a kind of historic maximum, I chose it as the title for my most recent book on Postmodern capitalism: The Crystal Palace. In German the title is Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals [the big interior of capitalism]. Weltinnenraum is a word borrowed from Rainer Maria Rilke who, in a poem from 1914, created a vision of a fantastic space in which everything communicates with everything else. In his vision of pantheistic communication, everything is produced by psychic powers, whereas in the Weltinnenraum of capitalism, the communicative force is money.
EM Finally, when you speak of a symbolic immunology, it’s difficult not to discuss a literal spreading of disease as well, such as the most recent phenomenon of the swine flu outbreak that was defined as a potentially global exterminator, particularly in cities. So you begin to see the results of space becoming more dense and people living in closer and closer quarters, where there is a rising fear of a single strain of disease or one weapon wiping out civilization.
PS That is quite correct. Because people feel very strongly that their private constructions of immunity are endangered by the presence of too many constructions of immune spheres which are pressed against each other and destroy each other. That is why in the United States there is a new type of discourse that encourages obscene forms of speech. For instance, the new term, ‘toxic people’, came from the USA and is invading Europe today. This means things are going wrong and the immune situation of Americans is collapsing.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon: Spacemen 3 and the Birth of Spiritualized (Omnibus Press, 2004) and, with Tav Falco, the upcoming Memphis Underground: A Dual Narrative of the Bluff City (Creation Books, 2010). His writing has been published in Arthur, Bomb, Bookforum, Filmmaker, Interview, Semiotext(e)’s Animal Shelter and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.