Monday, October 31, 2005

Gallery Report, 10/29/2005

On this chilly, windy Saturday past I spent an hour-and-a-half in Chelsea, introducing some out-of-town friends to the Art World. I led them to a short-list of shows, nine or ten names scrawled down on a sheet of paper folded and shoved in my jacket pocket. We moved relatively quickly since we also wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History that afternoon and, for the same reason, I refrained from too much "window-shopping." That most of the shows we saw were uninspiring - and several outright awful - should come as no surprise, but I was distressed nevertheless, my expectations having prepared me for a better showing.

Much later, sometime after our cellphones lost an hour, I stood outside a party on Bond Street, quite drunk, talking with a good friend about nothing. I mentioned something about painting and he placed a hand on my shoulder, as much to dramatize what he was about to say as to steady himself. "You know what you do is bullshit, right? I mean, it's all irrelevant. No one cares about painting or art anymore. You recognize this, right?" I do, of course I do. The Art World has withdrawn from society in the same way that academia, the theater or opera has. These are now esoteric arenas, marginalized - even pilloried - in the eyes of "the people." My friend continued, "I mean, it's not just painting or fine art. The same is true of classical music. These are mediums that screwed themselves. It's not your fault the Art World made itself irrelevant but, because of that, you're making irrelevant work." Fortunately, I was too drunk to sit on his dose of downer realism and I returned to the party no worse for the wear, if three sheets to the wind.

The next morning, I woke with a headache, dehydrated calf muscles and the memory of my friend's words. I had so easily brushed them aside when drunk, but I was now forced to retreat, to delay the confrontation, by rolling over and welcoming more sleep. I so wanted to wake up, to go into the studio and have a productive Sunday, but the knowledge that "no one cares" was too present, a cartoon thunderhead hanging above my pillows in an otherwise bright, sunny room. When I finally did rise, reluctantly, I wandered into the kitchen, fed my cat, put on some water for tea and ate a banana while I stared out the window and played with my belly hair. Banana finished, water not yet rolling, I decided I had better head to the toilet for some overdue release. On the way, I paused to lean against the frame of the studio door and survey the paintings in progress. Elation! Thirty seconds of looking was all it took; I was renewed. The thunderhead evaporated in the warm light and I made my way to the toilet free of worry about the irrelevance of contemporary art. After all, art is not at all irrelevant to me.

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Nancy Margolis: Kim Simonsson's ceramic sculptures are really cool looking. I love his - Kim is a him - sculpture of a doe-eyed manga troublemaker allowing a string of spit to hang down from her pursed lips. I'm also attracted to the two fawn pairings in the rear of the gallery. But so what? These are well executed, fun sculptures, but they leave me wanting a more substantial experience. Simonsson's artist statement suggests that he is interested in exploring contemporary societal ills by producing work that "call[s] forth questions" while "blur[ring]the distinction between traditional art and popular culture." Well, don't we all aim to produce such work? Personally, I think he just likes making really cool looking sculptures.
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Metro Pictures: I want to like Jim Shaw's work, but I rarely do; his latest New York solo effort is no exception. One of my friends liked the green-tinted resin sculpture at the back of the main gallery space, but it reminds me too much of my own art school resin fetish. Shaw melted and glued toys and colorful plastics together to produce a human-slug hybrid that calls to mind the Toxic Avenger or the Trash Heap from Fraggle Rock. Like the rest of this show, which features painting, drawing, sculpture and one marriage of painting and installation, this piece can't be called bad, but it is boring.
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Luhring Augustine: Ever since I saw the original Star Wars, I have been interested in designing my own chess set. Whether populated by holographic alien beasts (as in George Lucas's imagining), wizards, animal species or street gangs, I've always gotten a kick out of "alternative" boards and players. Unfortunately, my half-hearted attempts - usually Sculpy creations - never turned out as I desired; maybe one day, somewhere over the rainbow, I'll have enough money at my disposal to design a set I really love. I was pleasantly surprised, then, by "The Art of Chess," a group show at Luhring Augustine featuring ten artist designed chess sets. Alas, we are all individuals and most of these sets belong to another's sensibility. For example, Rachel Whiteread casts her collected dollhouse furniture and uses the sofas, chairs, and nightstands as player stand-ins. The board is comprised of squared carpet samples. I thought it colorful, but subjectively uninteresting and, more importantly, far from pragmatic. It would be difficult to distinguish king from rook or queen from pawn when each piece is distinct, both in terms of color and design. To make things more confusing, there are no repeated forms; rather than having one design for bishop or knight - a recliner, say - all four knights are different items of furniture. I didn't get the sense that Whiteread intended the set to be used for a real game.

There were two chess sets, however, that I though tremendous. Maurizio Cattelan created a "Good & Evil" set (pictured above), featuring delicately crafted players from diverse backgrounds. Hitler stands at attention on the evil side, while Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus stare back at him, unintimidated. Again, this set suffers for being a little difficult to play with - without a cheat sheet, it is hard to remember which pieces are what - but it is sexy enough to have me salivating. Good looking and pragmatic, the Chapman brothers present us with a slightly disturbing version of the classic chess set. Each side is coordinated by skin tone - one side Caucasian, the other black - and all players are penis-nosed pubescent girls, some riding on the backs of their friends. Here at last is a set that repeats forms for the respective pieces, making this the most playable set in the exhibition.
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Goff + Rosenthal: Reproduced in an advertisement for his exhibition, Stephen Bush's paintings caught my eye. In person, however, I am ambivalent. The swirls of abstract color seem arbitrary and the representational elements - cabins, bridges or other constructed forms - don't speak to human isolation or individualism in the way I thought they might when flipping through the pages of Art Forum. That said, I get the feeling that Bush is heading toward a more thoughtful body of work.
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David Zwirner: The biggest dud of the day was the Luc Tuymans show at Zwirner. According to the press release, these new paintings "[put] forth the image of a fragile America and the crumbling state of current affairs," but one of my friends described the pale paintings more colorfully: "This is too bland even to be hotel art." I can't help but agree.
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Charles Cowles: I have been enamored of Edward Burtynsky's large-scale photographs for years now. His subject matter - sprawling industry, scarred natural landscapes, urban development - has become standard issue Art World fare, particularly among the younger photographers finding favor in the press, but Burtynsky turned his viewfinder on these subjects years ago and he produces more powerful, meditative images than the majority of his imitators. This selection of photographs from China showcases his eye for color and composition and his instinct for isolating emotional heft in landscape.
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Robert Miller: I've been eagerly awaiting Patricia Piccinini's current solo show for several months and, though it doesn't disappoint, it is a mixed bag. The included photographs and video are very weak, but most of the sculptures and several of the drawings are as satisfying as they are grotesque. Continuing her investigation of genetic anomalies and fringe hybrid experiments, Piccinini presents viewers with a new cast of characters. My favorites are featured near the front of the gallery; part mole rat, part flying squirrel, part gopher, these intimidating little beasties apparently like to attack human faces. Close inspection of the back pouches on her "Surrogate" creature, in the rear gallery, will revolt many gallery visitors. Piccinini's attention to detail is admirable, on par with that of Ron Mueck, and I like her subject matter a lot. She does need to be careful, however, to avoid transitioning into a prop artist. The series of photographs turns some of her creations into just that - they harass construction workers or watch NASCAR on a fence - and, frankly, they look awful. Piccinini is no Hollywood special effects whiz and attempting such a series calls to mind Charlie White, an artist who should have gone into B-movie production where his talents would have been put to better, more complete and gratifying, use. (The image of Piccinini's work seen above is not current. The Robert Miller website is awful.)

Friday, October 28, 2005

Branta canadensis

Last night, after a satisfying workout and a shower, I crawled into bed and picked up a worn copy of "Bullfinch's Mythology". Some short time later, I was distracted from reading by a row in the street below. Two drivers shouted empty threats at one another, punctuating their proclamations with horn honks. I looked at the clock: 1:38 AM. I lowered the open book to my chest and stared at the ceiling, waiting for the unnecessary argument to conclude.

Then, I heard it. At first, I believed it an auditory hallucination. It persisted; barely audible, from high above Astoria, Queens, the sound fell to me. I moved to the bedside window to better listen. By happy chance, the angry drivers moved on, leaving 30th Street relatively quiet. The sound came clear then.

The first Canadas of the season - my first Canadas, anyway - were flying overhead. I imagined their pinion feathers quivering and bending in the cold fall air, their long black necks extended as they exchanged flight updates in the familiar "V" echelon.
"You there?"
"Yeah, you're still there?"
"Oh, yeah."
"Should we rotate the leader position?"
"Not yet."
"Attention! Turn more southwest."
"You there?"
"Yeah, you're still there?"
All this, communicated by a steady stream of honk-grunts, a sound impossible to reproduce on the page.

A profound longing, a stretched sadness, came over me as the big birds passed above, making their way south to Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, or even my childhood home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. These birds might well be descendants of Canadas that I hunted years ago, lying on my back in a cold-hardened, fallen corn field with a 12-gauge Browning over-and-under heavy on my chest.

Looking down from several thousand feet, a group of geese would spot our decoy spread and begin a long, beautiful pitch to us, a pitch that might take many minutes and, for some of the birds, would be their last. Hours later, a cooked goose would emerge from the oven, dressed and ready for Thanksgiving dinner. My family never ate turkey.

My thoughts return to the present and, glancing at the book nearby, I recall that geese are said to have alerted the Romans of the Gauls' approach, honking out a warning that allowed Roman soldiers to call for reinforcements, even though they still failed to defend the city against the invading army. Almost 2,400 years later, the Canadas above Queens were providing me with a warning of sorts, or more properly a reminder.

They told me that I need to return to fallow winter fields, to lie motionless as cold burns my exposed face and frozen corn stalks rudely stab my lower back. As the birds begin their descent, even breathing slows; only eyes track the existential marvel of Canadas and snows noisily and clumsily finding ground around my body. Whether or not I rise with my gun is unimportant; in fact, I doubt I will carry one into the field many more times. What matters is the erasure of any and all separation, the highlighting of the intimate connection I share with the geese, the field, the morning.

Later, inside the house, huddled around the firestove, my hands burn as they adjust to the warmth and coffee is brewing and people are laughing and we all wear too-heavy woolen clothes and boots. Outside, the geese number in the thousands; they clamor skyward from the saltwater marshes that lie between the barrier islands and the peninsula. The birds break into their loose, hungry skeins and head inland, circling high before pitching into fields to feed. All the while they call. If you are less fortunate than I, still in bed at dawn when the birds take wing, you will likely be awoken by their blanket of sound.

They call on those winter Virginia mornings just as they called over Queens last night, though with many more voices. The birds fade away south from my New York apartment. I roll away from the window, turn out the light and go to sleep happy.

Photo credit:, 2005

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Considering Excavations

On Tuesday night I attended a cocktail reception at Mixed Greens' new Chelsea digs, a nice, contemporary space with a comfortable flow. The reception was billed as a private affair and there were only twenty to thirty people in attendance, making art viewing and navigation easy.

The affair was pleasant enough; I sipped white wine and shuffled about the room, chatting with an artist friend of mine who had spent the day studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). When I applied to art graduate programs in 1999, no schools requested GRE scores, so I was surprised to learn that Stanford, a program on my friend's list, does so. In most respects, I feel that the requirement is a good one; too many artists lack a liberal arts grounding. My friend, however, but pointed out that the GRE isn't a reliable measure of general knowledge, even if it does provide review committees with some sense of an applicant's aptitude. We moved to the bar area, refilled our empty plastic cups and the conversation moved in some other direction.

Still, this is a concern that I return to regularly. Many contemporary artists, despite the impressive sums they (or their family) have spend on graduate schooling, are un(der)educated, ignorant especially of literature, science, and history. This cultural and intellectual illiteracy compromises their work. Little wonder so many artists draw only on their immediate experience or the events of the day without regard to context beyond art world borders!

Some of the onus for this failure must be placed on the art world itself. When applying to art graduate programs, prospective students have a better chance of being accepted if they are familiar with "the system." Attending an undergraduate program with a "fine arts" focus, rather than a general liberal arts college with multi-disciplinary requirements, makes the applicant more art world savvy. These fine arts undergrad programs are essentially high-priced trade schools; the young artist is an apprentice. Their time in these stepping stone institutions prepares them well for many aspects of the art world - whether graduate school applications, grant writing, or mastery of art speak - but it leaves them unable to discuss the similarity between Shakespeare and H. L. Mencken or the political factors which led to the twentieth century's European nationalism. In fact, some of the artists I know deride such knowledge as esoteric (or "nerdy") and conversations about these subjects as self-consciously "heady." (Last week's "The Significance of Pluto to the Waterboy" essay addresses this anti-intellectual posturing.)

But what serious artist wouldn't want to learn as much as possible and, more importantly, apply it? T.H. White's Merlin, in "The Once and Future King," puts it well.
“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing that the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
Personally, I agree with the wizard's prescription, but it doesn't apply universally. A great many ignorant people are perfectly happy! Still, the work of even the happiest, un(der)educated artist risks cultural irrelevance because it is too tied to art world insularity.

The celebrated art critic Donald Kuspit insists that most contemporary art "reifies innovation into novelty and upsets the balance, leaving a disspirited intellectuality in its wake." Indeed, the art world's decision to prioritize innovation is an imaginative failure. Moreover, the work produced in the quest for novelty is usually (and paradoxically) unoriginal, overly indebted to art world and auction house trade winds.

The variety of art world artist that I'm critiquing might be characterized as Archilochus's hedgehog, the creature that knows only one "big thing." The hedgehog is a specialist, in the context of the art world, shaped by trade school and the market. The fox, according the Archilochus, is a generalist, an animal that knows many things, but nothing so well as the hedgehog knows his or her one. Not surprisingly, I gravitate toward artwork made by foxes whose excavations are broad, even if their digs are more shallow. Digging deeply in just one spot will eventually make your work irrelevant to all but those who share your particular focus.

Bear in mind that, compared to most contemporary artists, I'm an intellectual conservative. I might even be labelled something of a traditionalist. Although I champion cultural relativism, I detest postmodern approaches to philosophy or morality; I'm as much a realistic pragmatist as I am a progressive dreamer, and I'm often out of step with contemporary aesthetic thinking. When I find a work of art frivolous, cloying or stupid, it's likely that other artists and critics will agree that it is superior, possibly even historically important!

Alvin Lustig, the twentieth century designer, believed that
"modernism reflected larger social goals of integrating art and life, blurring the boundaries that had separated high art and utilitarian object. As he put it, 'If I seem to place a heavy mantle of responsibility on the shoulders of those who are really only expected to make nice shapes and colors, it is because history demands it. Every act that allows productive facilities to serve only itself, contributes inevitably to the threat of destruction that already looms on the horizon.'"
That a work engages the intellect or is truly utilitarian is important to me. Lustig may have considered only architecture and graphic design capable of fulfilling these requirements, but I feel strongly that the best contemporary painting, drawing and sculpture can communicate in as vital a way as the walls of Lascaux. Centuries have complicated our interpretation of images, and necessitated that we process a great deal more information than our forebears, but we remain the essential ape.

Photo credit: ripped from

Monday, October 24, 2005

A Ski Vacation in Dubai

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The October 17, 2005 issue of The New Yorker - the annual art/architecture special - includes some interesting articles. In the course of reading "Salesman," Nick Paumgarten's profile on New York dealer Leo Koenig, I was inspired (many times over) to write something reactionary. After allowing the reading to digest, however, I've decided to write very little. The Art World groupie in me enjoyed the elements of voyeurism - peeking in on other artist/dealer relationships is always intriguing - but such superficial thrills are temporal and, in the end, the piece was satisfying only as a guilty pleasure.

More exciting was Ian Parker's report about Dubai's rapid development ("The Mirage"). Parker describes this United Arab Emirates city as "a diagram of hormonally adolescent urban growth." His phrase evokes another, more familiar mess. With regard to thoughtless consumption, expansion and greed, Dubai paragons Las Vegas, Nevada. Passing through this latter city several years ago, my reaction against the town was so visceral that I almost forgave Theodore Kaczynski his transition from Luddite philosopher to terrorist - and, although I have never visited Dubai, photographs of the oil boom development(1) pique me. I suppose that garish displays of wealth or power generally offend my sensibility and when this variety of peacock trumpeting is coupled with a disregard for the environment, I am deeply saddened, even embittered.

Parker provides many examples of this unholy coupling. Reading the selection that follows, keep in mind that Dubai, like it's American sister city, is in the desert, an ecosystem short on water and long on heat.
"While I was in Dubai, I went to an early-evening meeting of the U.A.E.'s recently formed Green Building Council, held in the Grand Hyatt. I pushed open high double doors, and walked into a ballroom with a thirty-foot ceiling and multiple chandeliers, each with a hundred light bulbs. The outdoor temperature was more than a hundred degrees, but the air inside was almost uncomfortably cool. Although the room could easily have held a cocktail party for a thousand people, only twenty or so attended the meeting.

The environmental profligacy of Dubai is today most proudly expressed in the forthcoming indoor ski slope that is the defining feature of the new Mall of the Emirates. Encased inside a broad flattened tube that is visible for miles, it will be twelve hundred feet long: a steep, black diamond run of nine hundred feet, a forty-degree bend, then a gentler slope to the bottom. I went there before the refrigeration had begun: the snow-making machines had not yet been turned on. 'Obviously, it's going to be freezing here and a hundred and a twenty degrees outside, so we're going to be using a fair amount of electricity,' Phil Taylor, the chief executive of Ski Dubai...told me."
If the irresponsible construction craze isn't troubling enough, city officials and U.A.E. leaders are determined to turn Dubai into a disposable economy, one dependent on foreign tourism and stockholder petroleum wealth. (Hamza Mustafa, General Manager of The World, a luxury development being constructed on artificial islands, says of his city, "Dubai is to Europeans like Miami is to New Yorkers.") In order to support such an arrangement while maximizing profits, cheap labor is imported from outside the U.A.E., and these laborers are given second-class rights, poor benefits - if any - and required to depart the country before reaching retirement age.
"The invitation that Dubai sends out to professionals - to British airline pilots and German bankers - is quite different. These favored expatriates buy or rent apartments in the glass-plated towers on Sheikh Zayed Road, or find homes in the generously named developments that Emaar has built in the otherwise featureless desert: the Lakes, the Springs, the Meadows. In these neighborhoods, lawns are perpetually misted by sprinklers, and babies squint into the sun as they are wheeled along brand-new sidewalks by young Sri Lankan nannies. 'We live in Wonderland,' Rola Zaarour, a young Lebanese-Canadian woman, told me. Zaarour, who is single and works in public relations, has a red convertible and describes herself, smilingly, as 'shallow.' She came to Dubai three years ago, and admitted that she had never seen most of the city's old downtown, where the streets narrow to create a souk-like atmosphere, and where Indian and Pakistani workers, on their days off, shop for radios and alarm clocks that they will one day carry home. 'I didn't come to Dubai for anything "real",' she said. 'I've already lived in real places.'"
Rola Zaarour's escapist attitude, one shared by millions of people, risks undermining the now vulnerable supports of democracy and republicanism. Parker alludes to the conflict between the "real" and Zaarour's Wonderland with his article's title, "The Mirage." Too many of us prefer to believe in the illusory; the alternative, accepting that freedom and peace require substantial commitment and effort, was once a mainstream ideal, but today we market leisure in place of hard earned satisfaction. Las Vegas and Dubai are temples to this immoral tide; it pains me to look upon them, whether in photographs or in person.

(1) "In the seventies, oil production rose as global oil prices increased tenfold - to the country's spectacular advantage...Dubai International Airport was expanded on a scale that seemed preposterous at the the time, and, if for nothing else, the city soon became renowned as a glittering duty-free mall stumbled upon during 3 A.M. stopovers between East and West."

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Friday, October 21, 2005

Rappin' with Ben at the 2005 World Expo

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While in Japan, I visited the 2005 World Expo in Aichi. I've been meaning to write about the experience since my return, a month ago now. The United States pavilion, in particular, deserves critical attention, but the entire enterprise was problematic. Had the theme of this year's exposition been less agreeable - something other than "Nature's Wisdom" - my overall impressions would likely be even more negative. As is, it was difficult to distinguish between the 2005 World Expo and Disney's Epcot Center. Throngs of Japanese tourists crowded the walkways, moving from one pavilion to another, a routine punctuated with food or drink at any of the many restaurants or combinis that dotted the expo grounds. Souvenir carts were also popular pit stops and tourists loaded up on kitsch goodies such as stuffed animals, key chain ornaments, pens, badges and the like, most of these items prominently featuring Kiccoro and Morizo, the expo mascots.

The country pavilions were thinly disguised tourism pitches. New Zealand, for example, mesmerized pavilion visitors with a widescreen movie of the country's stunning landscapes. Cameras, borne via helicopter or gliders, raced over sun-streaked fields before rising up to meet the mountains or falling rapidly toward the ocean. The accompanying new age soundtrack - traditional Maori music given the Enya treatment - had me expecting a guest appearance by Gandalf and Frodo, New Zealand's unofficial spokespersons. On this count I was disappointed, but the attractive Kiwi girls working the pavilion were a nice enough distraction.

Other countries didn't succeed in "selling" themselves, at least subjectively. Brunei Darussalam decided the "Nature's Wisdom" theme translated best as a lesson on the benefit of offshore oil rigs. They presented photographs of schooling fish around the great, metal legs of the industrial installations. Oil rigs, the wall text proclaimed, are artificial reefs, helping to protect imperiled species by providing habitat. While true to an extent, this is an awfully weak argument for the rapid petroleum development Brunei endorses. In case a visitor should remain skeptical, however, they also showcase the colorful Las Vegas wonderlands oil money is building (think of the U.A.E.'s Dubai), inviting the Japanese to come play on their beaches and spend money in their hotels.

A citizen of the United States, I was eager to see what my country had to say for itself, particularly in light of the expo's "green" theme. Unfortunately, the lines at the Canadian and U.S. pavilions were among the expo's longest, not counting the corporate pavilions, and would-be visitors waited for over an hour to "see" North America. (Usually, lines were shorter for the Mexican pavilion.) Being "one of us," however, has its benefits. My friend, Ben, who is not only American, but also worked in the South Pacific Islands pavilion, suggested we bypass the line and ask the American college students in charge if we could be given - cough - special treatment. Sure enough, after talking with James, a young Bostonian who rocked back and forth on a Segway while monitoring the entrance, we were not only allowed to skip the line, but told that we should hang around after the conclusion of the tour if we wanted to ride a Segway ourselves. Nice. In we went.

The first thing you notice upon entering is a wall plaque with the prominent text, "A Message From President George W. Bush." A smiling photograph of Fearless Fosdick accompanies the plaque. Curious as to what our Commander in Chief had to say, I read the greeting. For the most part, it consisted of the usual rigmarole one associates with a formal greeting, but Bush also introduced the theme of our country's pavilion, "The Franklin Spirit," a commemoration of the life and legacy of Benjamin Franklin. "Today, many talented scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs are upholding Franklin's proud legacy, contributing to society's progress and improving lives through technological innovations and scientific breakthroughs." True enough, but it strikes me as a peculiar notion for this, the most unprogressive of presidents, to champion. After all, legislation his administration supports has encouraged many "talented scientists, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs" to depart the U.S. or to choose a more open-minded country, such as Canada, in the first place. The message closes with a nicety that seemed laughable given the context. "Laura joins me in sending our best wishes." Thanks, guy.

More irksome still was the "Message From The U.S. Commissioner General," Lisa Guillermin Gable. She writes,

"Throughout its history, the United States has approached the natural world with a sense of awe and respect. Today, we seek its preservation through a spirit of innovation driven by our traditional values of Hope, Optimism, Enterprise and Freedom."

First of all, do we really need to capitalize our contemporary buzzwords? I mean, c'mon people, it's patronizing! Furthermore, are Americans "seek[ing]" the preservation of the natural world? I glance again at Bush's photograph, not far from Ms. Gable's own headshot, and recall that this man is on a mission to roll back preservation and conservation measures alike, even "seek[ing]" to curtail future corrective efforts.

It is with this in mind that I entered the first large room of the pavilion, donned a pair of headphones (to hear the English translation), and watched a video on the life of Benjamin Franklin amid a concentrated crowd of Japanese tourists. An abridged survey of Franklin's many accomplishments, the film focused on his scientific experiments, including the apocryphal kite and key test. (There have been several good Franklin biographies published in the last few years, revealing the man to be a consummate schmoozer, ladies man, entrepreneur and raconteur. None of these traits should distract from the fact that the man was brilliant, energetic and creative; in fact, it is his ability to sweet-talk dignitaries that made him such an effective diplomat and scientist. These more colorful aspects of Franklin's character were left unexplored, of course; the pavilion focused only on a Disneyfied, reduced Franklin. The narration even had the audacity to refer to the man as Ben, rather than Benjamin, as though he were an old friend.)

Lost in thought about Franklin's accomplishments and wondering what the Japanese made of all this nonsense, I was ushered into a third room, this one a theatre with long, uncomfortable bench seating. My friend Ben (not Franklin; I don't know him) nudged me and whispered, "Get ready for the real Epcot experience." Sure enough, the second movie features Franklin himself, a costumed actor bubbling about the screen while waxing poetic about the miracle of modern technology. "Oh, if only I could have lived long enough to see what you people know," he says, shaking his head. At one point, he appears with a dew rag and sunglasses and proceeds to dance awkwardly while old-school hip-hop beats play in the background. "What curious music you people have today!," he exclaims. As if this pandering wasn't torturous enough, "Franklin" enthusiastically explains some of his own experiments. When he talks of the famous key and kite night, the audience is sprayed with a light mist while rain and lightening appear onscreen. A minute later, Franklin plugs our seats into a conductor and the benches vibrate, "proving" that electricity exists. (I wish I could have seen my face. At least that would have been funny.) The predominantly Japanese audience seemed equally unimpressed.

Finally the movie ended and we moved into the fourth and final room of the United States pavilion. Seemingly unrelated to Franklin, this room celebrated our space program, cheering plans to land humans on Mars and trumpeting our successes to date. Consisting mainly of large photographs of the moon and Mars, the gallery would have fit in at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., but most visitors were less interested in the display than in a young Japanese-American girl gliding about the room on a Segway. She spoke Japanese well and gave a brief talk about American ingenuity. The rehearsed speech ended with an enthusiastic description of the marvelous toy that conveyed her about the space.

Following the talk, Ben and I lingered long enough to be noticed; the girl rolled over to us and introduced herself. In turned out she was from Queens, New York, my current home, and after exchanging pleasantries we talked about being an American in Japan for a minute or two. Then Ben dropped the bomb. "So, James said we should ask you about riding the Segway." She seemed superficially insulted - "Oh, so that's why you're talking to me." - but smiled and explained how to control the machine. Ben and I took turns on the "Human Transporter," said our goodbyes and left the United States. Outside it had become dark, now nearing 8:00 PM, but the line of Japanese tourists awaiting entrance to the U.S. was still long.

"So do you want to see India?," Ben asked. "I've had this desire to see it, but just haven't gotten over there yet."

"Alright, India it is," I replied, and we headed off for Global Common #1.

Photo credit: copyright, Expo 2005, Aichi, Japan

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Significance of Pluto to the Waterboy

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Reading the science section of a recent edition of The Manchester Guardian, I learned that Pluto, the ninth planet from the sun, is "about to lose [planet] status." In light of new revelations regarding "the 10th object" (what an Orwellian name!), astronomers are reconsidering Pluto's classification, and many have decided that it should be deemed a "trans-Neptunian" or "minor" planet. Duncan Steel, an astronomer and comet researcher, thinks such a designation ridiculous.
"[Using] the term planet should be by public acclaim and not through the arrogant arguments of scientists. The nine planets are planets because the public thinks so."
I'm inclined to agree, but reading the Guardian article, I found myself thinking not about the heavens but about the state of American intellectualism.

The word "intellectual" makes most people groan; often I am no exception. Years ago, my father explained to me the important distinction between an intellectual thinker and an Intellectual with a capital "I.". When the word is used as a noun, he cautioned me, it points to pretension and hubris. In this form, it is most often employed by groups of over-educated urbanites sharing similar curriculum vitae. As an adjective, however, the word is to be cherished, for it suggests thoughtfulness, a willingness to engage complexity and more fully examine the dirty details. Most people do not distinguish between these two different uses of the word. Indeed, today it is most often used as a pejorative. (The spread of American anti-intellectualism has been discussed at great length in any number of papers, magazines and journals and I don't aspire to - nor am I equipped to - add anything original here.)

With respect to the lower-case meaning of "intellectual," Duncan Steel's comment warrants more attention. "The nine planets are planets because the public thinks so." True. No matter how many scientists rally behind the reclassification, the populace at large will still believe that there are nine planets, at least until another generation has been educated to think differently. After all, "Mary's Violet Eyes Make John Stay Up Nights Period." That's the mnemonic that we were taught as wee star-gazers and what is a solar system without the period?

Even though I now know better, Pluto will remain a planet in my mind. My thinking is mainstream, an example of the popular catchphrase, the tyranny of the majority. That Pluto is not a true planet is irrelevant because I stubbornly choose to ignore the facts. I admit to willful ignorance.

In "The Waterboy," Adam Sandler's character denies the teachings of his Colonel Sanders-esque biology professor. "Well, my momma says alligators is ornery cuz they got all them teeth and no toothbrush," he insists. When the professor corrects the misinformed student, the waterboy becomes enraged. The dynamic of the scene is extreme - the proud professor talks down to the imbecile, publicly mocking him for his faith in all things Momma - but it remains a fair reflection of contemporary American attitudes toward science, in particular, and intelligence more generally. Viewers aren't supposed to side with the informed professor, with his degree(s) and his knowledge. Instead, we are expected to champion the ignorant, but well-intentioned, boob because we are the waterboy, each and every one of us, and we won't be told how things are, certainly not by any "ivory-tower" intellectual. In other words, we refuse to be educated.

In such a climate, is it any wonder that the thoughtful practitioners of intellectual thinking have fled center stage? No longer do we celebrate the brooding, intelligent Hamlet. These days we consider the Prince of Denmark clinically depressed, in need of Zoloft and some faith in the afterlife. After all, there's no time for melancholy when everyone should be celebrating how wonderful they are. The intellectual thinkers have been reduced to the role of Iago, slipping in and out of the shadows, whispering nasty half-truths into the ears of the powerful. These arrogant scientists tell us what to think, or not think, of our planets and the deceitful bookworms of the patrician northeast insist on referencing ancient history to bemoan the current state of geo-political affairs. The majority, it would seem, no longer finds Hamlet's hand-wringing commendable or even acceptable. As the Electric Light Orchestra put it in their 1980s anthem,
"Don’t bring me down,no no no no,
I’ll tell you once more before I get off the floor
Don’t bring me down."
Another article in the same edition of The Guardian addresses this issue as a peculiarly American one, but anti-intellectualism, infectious and easy, can't remain confined within our borders. Peter Preston's book review, "What a superiority complex," critiques Lewis Lapham's recent collection of essays, "Theatre of War." Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine, is a remarkable verbal pugilist but his stylistic flourishes, encyclopedic knowledge and strident opinions don't always attract fanfare. As I wrote in "Lewis Lapham and the Evangelicals,"
"A year ago a co-worker told me he wouldn’t read Harper’s Magazine because 'it was just another liberal rag' edited by an 'insufferable egotist.' While I won’t deny the first charge, I am less inclined to accept the latter. Admittedly, Lewis Lapham’s monthly contribution ('Notebook'), typically three or four pages of rhetoric following the reader letters, ranges from excellent to unreadable. Lapham is a gifted wordsmith enamored of his craftsmanship; such writers can make splendid editors, but with their own work are as prone to failure as they are eloquence."
Despite his faults, Lapham's is a vital voice. I consider his magazine - and Harper's clearly belongs to Lapham - one of the best publications in circulation today. Preston shares my high regard for Lapham.
"The editor of Harper's magazine writes like a dream, researches like a punctilious professor of classical history and finds his lonely judgments vindicated time and again...Is Lapham an adornment to American journalism? Absolutely. Is his critique of wars not worth the fighting perceptive and exhilarating? Often better than that."
Yet Preston realizes Lapham is part of a tiny minority, one that "if not silent, [exists] only in a few small corners of intellectual refinement." In Preston's eyes, Lapham is a victim of American anti-intellectualism and he identifies with the man - it often seems most of Europe feels this way - but Preston moves beyond mere admiration by smartly analyzing the failures of the American intellectual elite.
"The difficulty - and it is a difficulty - is that the good side comes with a greyer side that readers outside America can't ignore, a built-in impotence verging on tragic irrelevance....[Lapham] and his fellow sages sit on the peripheries...because, in part, they choose to; because the sidelines fit their sense of rectitude and superior self better. It's a terrible shame."
It is a shame. It's a shame that the thoughtful folks don't emerge from stage left to take charge of the country. Less than a century ago, the United States was still guided by thinkers - rather than populists like George W. Bush or shrewd schmoozers like Bill Clinton - and the now familiar lament that intellectual individuals are weak-willed and incapable of decision-making is disproven by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and, long before him, Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps if we were offered better role models the hostility and defensiveness would fade.

As things stand, the only popular refuge for intellectual thinkers is satire, a haven for sharp-tongued wits trading in melancholia. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert succeed by disguising their thoughtfulness; their exasperated looks and smarmy monologues have found favor with an audience idealistic enough to be disturbed by contemporary doings, but too cautious to raise their own voices. No one wants to be called out.

A girl walks down the street with several friends. Reacting to something another of the group says, she responds,

"Actually, Pluto isn't considered a planet anymore."

"What? Are you serious?"

"Yeah, it doesn't really never did, but they've officially demoted it now."

"You are such a dork!" (wrinkling up his face and speaking in an uptight tone, a friend continues) "Um...act-u-ally, you guys...Pluto isn't technically a planet."

The group all breaks out in laughter and the girl sheepishly smiles. After all, it was a pretty dorky thing to point out.

And so it goes.

Photo credit: Touchstone still from "The Waterboy"

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Natural History of Japan

How's that for a title? It sounds rather all encompassing, as though this blog entry will be the definitive reference for suburban/exurban Japanese natural history queries. In fact, it's little more than a listing of the few species I observed and identified while visiting Japan for two weeks. I promised this post weeks ago and I apologize for the delay; too many other things caught my eye. Below you will find the common name, scientific name, and a brief description of my encounter with the creature(s). For some species, I've included a photograph.

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Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea):
These familiar looking herons were plentiful in the numerous rivers and streams of Japan. It made little difference to them if the stream bed had been coated in concrete - a common practice in Japan - or if apartments lined the banks; there they stood, looking remarkably like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) so well known in the Americas. Interestingly, it seems Ardea cinerea has been even more successful than A. herodias, having populated three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. (By the way, why is Europe considered a continent again?)

Rufous Turtle-Dove (Streptopelia orientalis):
This bird superficially resembles the mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), a handsome species I hunted in the harvested fields of Virginia every fall of my youth. As the name suggests, the rufous turtle-dove has browns and reds in the plumage. It is also more heavy-bodied than many other dove species, though still smaller than the rock dove (Columba livia), better known to most urban folks as the pigeon.

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Carrion Crow (Corvus corone orientalis):
As I have mentioned before, I have a soft spot for the corvid family. Jays, crows, ravens...oh, my! The Carrion Crow stands out because of the terrific name and its alarming size. My friend Ben contends that these large crows are the inspiration for the giant corvids populating so many video games (“Resident Evil,” for example). I believe it. They seem to be half again as large as your average American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) or Fish crow (Corvus ossifragus) and their scratchy squawk is a staple of Buddhist cemeteries and Shinto shrines. The irridescent quality of their plumage is readily apparent, particularly around the neck.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get very close to any of the carrion crows; they are a skiddish bunch. To get the picture above, I had to approach the bird without making eye contact, taking care to keep my gaze directed at the ground until I was within six feet. As soon as I raised the camera, the bird began shifting about, taking flight just moments after I snapped the slightly blurry photograph. Situations like this one had me cursing my decision not to bring my wildlife lens, the 280mm big boy or, as I like to call it, the Sweaty Butcher.

Insects (and spiders) Galore:
If I were a more knowledgeable amateur entomologist, or if I had a really good insect field guide handy while in country, I could have filled pages with the names of insect species I encountered. Katydids in the shower, cicadas whining in the trees, cranefly-like creatures hovering alongside trails, millipedes on fallen tree trunks, many species of ants rushing about their business, mosquitoes in the bedroom... Japan is an insect haven. The rainforests of Central and South America are teeming with insect life, almost certainly without compare, but I was nevertheless impressed by the sheer abundance found on Honshu. Below I give more detail about one spider species which I was able to identify. (Check out “Encounter With The Giant Asian Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)” for information about another frequently encountered species.)

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Giant Wood Spider (Nephila maculata):
A member of the orb web spider family, the giant wood spider provided me with repeated frights. I admire spiders a great deal as predators and find them to be generally fascinating creatures, but I still act irrationally when I believe a large spider might be on me. Several times I yelped and frantically brushed webbing from my face and hair, convinced I was about to be bitten by one of these hulking arachnids. Of course, I never was. In fact, I never even had a spider on me, though I did destroy quite a few webs with my hystrionics. In any event, my antics provided Ben with much mirth, so some good came of it.

The female wood spiders are quite large, and rather striking, especially when compared to the smaller, dull-colored males. As with many orb weaver spiders, the male Nephila maculate searches out a female and takes up residence at the edge of her web. He courts her over time, usually by plucking the web to express his intentions. When the female finally responds, she might elect to kill the male and, should she instead be receptive to his advances, she will kill and devour the male after they mate. All in all, a pretty sour deal for the guy; his only purpose is to provide the sperm. In the picture above, you can see the male in the upper left of the frame. The image below shows a female quieting an unlucky cicada.
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Turtle Feeding:
In Kyoto's Imperial Park, Ben and I came upon a man feeding turtles on the shore of a coy pond. Though his English was basic, he did manage to explain what species we were seeing, though the common names he gave were notably different than those accepted in herpetological communities. For example, he called the Chinese softshell turtle (Pelodiscus sinensis) a "pig nosed turtle," which is a perfectly accurate description of this large species. In fact, the turtle was so much bigger than the other species vying for the man's bread handouts that several turtles would be pushed up and away from the feeding by the larger turtle's carapace whenever it surfaced. In the picture below, you can see the head of this beast, alongside one of the smaller, common species, a Reeve's pond turtle (Chinemys reevesii).
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The Reeve's pond turtle is evidently quite common in Japan, along with an introduced, or alien, species that we in the west are quite familiar with, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). I spotted at least three of these prolific, adaptable turtles clawing at the rock on which the turtle man perched. Whether intentional or not, the turtle man repeatedly ignored the sliders in favor of the other species. Given the xenophobia of the Japanese, I wondered if this wasn't a considered act.

The fourth species at the feeding site was a darker colored turtle, the Japanese pond turtle (Mauremys japonica). Though smaller than any of the other species present, these guys seemed the most successful feeders. They heaved themselves out of the water onto the rock and collected bread bits directly from the turtle man's fingers, as you can see above. Below, both M. japonica and C. reevesii crowd the edge of the rock awaiting service.

After ten minutes or so, Ben and I moved on, leaving the turtle man with his friends as dusk settled in and the players' shadows on the nearby baseball diamond stretched long.
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Photo credit: Gray Heron, copyright; all others, Hungry Hyaena, 2005

Monday, October 17, 2005

Accountability and penguins

I regard Bill Moyers as a national treasure. He is without question one of the more outstanding 20th century American journalists. Though his penchant for rhetoric has been aggressively (and fairly) criticized in the last few years, he remains an active and vital personality. In the course of the last decade, Moyers has become an outspoken defender of sensible environmental standards.

However, reading the transcript of his recent speech at the Society of Environmental Journalists Convention in Texas (found via Sustainablog), I was dismayed to discover a glaring natural history error.

In the speech, Moyers discusses "March of the Penguins," the popular film released earlier this year. He suggests that the filmmakers make a terrible mistake in not including a segment on global warming. Moyers reminds his audience of "...those reports...that the Arctic has suffered another record loss of sea ice."
"This summer, satellites monitoring the region found that ice reached its lowest monthly point on record - the fourth year in a row it has fallen below the monthly downward trend. The anticipated effects are well known: as the Arctic region absorbs more heat from the sun, causing the ice to melt still further, the relentless cycle of melting and heating will shrink the massive land glaciers of Greenland and dramatically raise sea levels. Scientists were quoted saying that with this new acceleration of melt the northern hemisphere may have crossed a critical threshold beyond which the climate cannot recover."
Of course, all of this is true, but what does it have to do with penguins? Moyers continues:
"If you've seen the film 'March of the Penguins,' you know it is a delight to the eye and a tug at the heart. The camera follows the flocks as they trek back and forth over the ice to their breeding ground. You see them huddle together to protect their eggs in temperatures that average 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. So powerful and beautiful a film can only increase one's awe of our small neighbors far to the north."
Oh, no he didn't! "Our small neighbors far to the north"? Given my opinion of the man, it pains me to point out that penguins don't live in the Arctic, or anywhere near it. They are creatures of the southern hemisphere, concentrated in Antarctica. The Arctic is home to many species endangered by the accelerating melting associated with global warming - the polar bear is the most notable example - but penguins, no matter the species, are not one of them.

Folks who think this an innocent, trivial slip by Moyers are also likely to feel that I make too big a deal out of natural history ignorance, but considering that the relationship of Arctic melting and penguins is central to Moyer's speech (in fact, the title of the speech references it), I find it appalling. Where is the journalist who checks his facts so that he can not be taken to task for what he sets down or announces? This is sloppy work; there is no way around it, and I imagine quite a few of the journalists in the room were mortified on Moyers' behalf. I've been tearing my hair out about it since I read it.

Photo credit: New York Times, 2004

Friday, October 14, 2005

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Temple brooms; Kyoto, Japan, 2005

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2005

A Little Vitriol to Start the Weekend

Diane Arbus
"Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City"

Finding my head above water at last, I find it hard to focus on writing. I'm lost in "visual thoughts" and impressions and I again cherish my time in the studio. My faith in painting is renewed.

As a result, coherent arguments and linear explanations are harder to formulate. I prefer to stare out a window, daydreaming, than to pick away at a keyboard. I'm in a pretty good mood, though, and I hope this movement up the crest continues.

Moreover, I love the fall and like the winter, but loathe the summer - reverse seasonal affective disorder, I guess - so I'm confident and optimistic.

At any rate, I recommend this post by Devo, over at Vitriolic Monkey. As one of those politically active individuals who regularly writes letters to my state senators and congressional representatives, I respond sympathetically to Devo's post. Ignorance and apathy reign on these shores.

As Devo points out, most U.S. citizens no longer know (or care to know) what a republic is, much less the difference between a republic and democracy. The republic is the more ideal government, at least from a pragmatic perspective. Most days, I think of myself as a political pragmatist (or realist). A democracy is inherently Utopian. It trends eventually toward dystopia (as any regular player of Sid Meier's Civilization series well knows).

But the United States government is neither a republic or democracy, at least not anymore. Having metamorphized through each stage - a republic initially, then a democracy - our country is now a hobbled hybrid, grotesque limbs and branches competing for control of the larger, ugly beast. Today, the Senate is an ol' boys club, comprised principally of monied aristocrats who are more beholden to their corporate backers than to their electoral constituency; the House is a riot of lobbying and district warfare, more closely resembling an Off-Track Betting store front than a fair-minded congress; and the executive branch resembles a castle, the concerns of the royalty across the moat becoming ever more distant from the interests of the middle-class, our most vital (and most rapidly shrinking) demographic.

The looming home heating crunch and the rising price of transportation might awaken some people from their slumber, but it will not be enough. Seasons like this one, plagued by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, will result in some environmental and social advances - better aid/catastrophe plans, more funding for alternative energy, further consideration of the natural "protections" offered by wetlands, coral reefs and the like - but I worry that they will also lend momentum to two disturbing currents.

The Rapturists, of course, will have more ammo for their apocalyptic arsenal; they will bang the Judgment drums, proselytizing to the poor and lost to find more converts. More common and acceptable, and therefore more sinister, is the iCulture phenomenon, that trend which has us all "trying to get mine" when we should instead be trying to save ours.

Photo credit: Arbus photograph ripped from Artnet
(my favorite Arbus photograph)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Other Problems

"There were other problems, but these were not so obvious at the beginning. I was six when my mother asked my father to get her a garbage can. I wondered what a garbage can was. She said a garbage can was a container for things that had to be thrown away because they had no use whatsoever. That was news to me. We'd never had to throw away anything before. Paper bags, for instance, we crumpled and rolled around and then used in the outhouse. Bran left from sifting the wheat flour to make bread was given to the chickens, as were potato peels and other vegetable skins. Table scraps went to the puppy, and rotten fruit and vegetables were returned to the earth, which gave them back to us the next summer in red and yellow and green. Nothing was wasted. So I could not see why Mother would need a garbage can, not at first. But it became clearer to me as the days went by. We had new things in the village, things that could not be fed to the dogs or the chickens or the earth, things that would not even burn."
- Anwar F. Accawi, "Unbreakable Wonder" (Harper's Magazine, September 2005)

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Selling Atheism and Myth

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When transferring from the A/C/E subway line to the N/R/W at 42nd Street in Manhattan, passengers must walk down a long, underground tunnel. If they happen to look up at the tunnel's low ceiling, they'll notice three or four word excerpts on signs mounted to the ceiling reinforcements. If one reads the signs as he walks the length of the tunnel, he'll realize that each sign is a "piece" of a poem. The subject matter is mundane, literally, and the poem rather bleak. In short, the uncredited writer asks why we wake and go to work, day after day, our lives spiritually empty and dull. In the context of the smelly, humid subway tunnel, crowded with commuters, the poem resonates.

This past Saturday afternoon, as I made the E to W transfer, a group of teenage girls walked just behind me. Half listening to their conversation, I realized they were discussing the poem. They mocked it. "It's so stupid," one of them giggled. "What the fuck? I mean...," another girl trailed off. To some extent, I can sympathize with their reaction; the poem doesn't convey the most original sentiment. "You know what I don't get?," said a third girl. "What's it even advertising?"

What is it advertising?! What is this MTA commissioned public poetry advertising?! Burma Shave, this ain't, babe.

I should know better than to be surprised. These girls, roughly seventeen years of age, are plugged into consumer culture. Theirs is the generation of the spectacle and the billboard. They were thirteen when the World Trade Center fell (on television, again and again and again) and they represented America's youngest consumer demographic, parental parasites, during the economic bubble of the late nineties. The third girl's question is, from their perspective, a fair one. Why isn't this poem an advertisement?

I didn't know whether to laugh or shudder. I slipped into a brooding mood. These are dark times, I thought.

But it's not enough to criticize, break down, and dismiss. Even constructive criticism, that much celebrated will-o-the-wisp, which can be invaluable to the artist, politician, and athlete, provides little reward for the critic himself. He may be able to pinpoint a conceptual contradiction, a fatal weakness in policy, or an unfortunate quirk in form, but how useful is his ability to notice the negative? Is the critic able to turn his judgment inward to correct his own failings?

I enjoy reading good criticism, be it social, literary, or aesthetic, but even the most capable wordsmiths can't make criticism complete unless they prescribe some balm. A batter who has fallen into a slump will not be helped by a coach who only cites what the batter does wrong. The good coach - the complete coach - recognizes the failing and attempts to correct it, explaining to his player not just what is wrong, but also what might work.

Incomplete though most criticism may be, negative noise must be made before there exists any serious striving for improvement. I regularly talk with people who share my sense of disillusionment and betrayal. I see folks shake their heads when reading the day's newspaper headlines and I often hear folks complaining about the administration or about the passing of a particular bill, but our overall complacency is noteworthy. There is some noise being made, of course, but the majority of protests lack focus - people shout 'No blood for oil!' while wearing PETA sweatshirts - and the political plays made by those brave politicians - republicans, in the traditional sense of the word - resisting the red tide are far too esoteric for most of America to rally behind. (Thoughtful, politically savvy bloggers may seem ubiquitous, but they remain a tiny fraction of the general populace.)

Why are we so quiet? Has the barrage of bad news made toadies of us all? When I do get worked up about the "general state of things," I feel as though my outrage is excessive. Perhaps vehement rants about the current administration are considered passe, but does this make them any less vital? Is resistance possible in the current culture of distraction and fear? What does it take to reach "every man" in the era of spectacle?

Ronald Aronson has a good review in the most recent Bookforum, entitled, "Faith No More? Against the Rising Tide of Rejuvenated Religion, A Number of Writers Make the Case for Disbelief." In it, he suggests our contemporary apathy results from the unrealized promises of a better future.
"It's safe to say that the future didn't turn out as anyone expected. Scientific and technological progress has been relentless, but its promises of liberation have gone flat. Few still believe that their children's world will be better than theirs. We live after Marxism, after progress, after the Holocaust - and few imaginations are stirred, few hopes raised by our world's long-range tendencies. Indeed, the opposite is happening as terrorism becomes the West's main preoccupation. In countries like the United States, Britain, and France, there has been a turning away from improving societies and toward improving the self."
Aronson, reviewing seven recent books dealing with the decline of atheism, convincingly argues that the return to God and otherworldly authority figures increases the power of those who already hold the reins, and therefore represents a weakening of The Republic, a collapse of democratic ideals. Near the end of his piece, he writes,
"The rational and constantly self-questioning and self-correcting world view is essential to democracy and its ongoing public discussion about everything under the sun. Those disasters of history not explicitly tied to religion in fact still reflect starting points of authority and unquestionable dogma. Democracy, after all, is congruent with freedom, which is in turn congruent with the world view that presupposes little and questions everything. 'Democracy proceeds by one set of principles. Religion by the opposite.' Atheism is 'one of the natural allies' of democratic societies."
As an atheist, I agree with Aronson and the writers of most of the books he reviews. (To feel as I do, you must believe that moral living is better served by non-believers who recognize that an ethical core is "part of the furniture of the universe," as Plato put it. Moral acts or laws - the Ten Commandments, for example - designed to ingratiate a believer to their respective God or gods are necessarily less virtuous and, above all, self-serving.) However, Aronson needs to ask himself why so many atheists are content to revile religion without offering a thoughtful alternative. Such alternatives do exist, but atheists have a hard time making them attractive to the majority because the absence of an afterlife is too troubling for most people to accept. Unhappy in their own narrative, disappointed by the once promising future, they place their trust in a different sort of "future," an altogether supernatural one.

The recent surge in popular interest in aliens, ghosts, supernatural storms, elementals, and any number of other vaguely mystical beings - check the local TV listings if you don't know what I'm referring to - is proof enough that we are a culture living in fear of ourselves. As Pogo, Walt Kelly's philosophical cartoon opossum, said decades ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Aronson, trying to salvage some sense of hope, concludes his review with a recipe for a happy, secular society.
"A new atheism must absorb the experience of the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope might mean today."
Given the current climate, accomplishment of the goals set forth by Aronson seems highly unlikely at the societal level, though it remains possible for individuals. More importantly, listing what must be done without addressing how it can be done is, like negative criticism, altogether easy and almost pointless.

Underlying the fear and the increasingly fascist feel of the United States is an absence of myth. This is not new. Mark Rothko, the twentieth century painter, wrote extensively on our search for a "master narrative." He was convinced that the loss of myth, so much a part of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, was responsible for the violence and break-down that led to both World Wars. Though Rothko glossed over some of the more repugnant realities of both these eras - and ugly they could be - the loss of myth, of a central story and purpose - did contribute to what so many have deemed the "decline of Western civilization." Religious fundamentalists argue that this decline occurred as a result of loosening morals and a "turning away" from god worship, but the corruption and violence of the first half of the twentieth century is more accurately moored to the industrial revolution and the myriad temptations of free-market capitalism, both of which forced societies to become more focused on the individual good. I agree with Rothko; a myth is needed where a god is not. Star Wars is a myth - this is only true of the first trilogy, before Lucas introduced the idea of genetic superiority via metachlorion count - and so is The Lord of the Rings. Both sagas weave together the universal myths, those elements that can be found in all theology and everyday life, to create timeless narratives of self-worth and social obligation, reminding us that the little man can make a difference and that good can and will triumph over evil, but not without a lot of heart and courage. The philosophical problems with the concept of "good" and "evil" aside - postmodernism and relativism must take a back seat here - myths rarely grant power to a very few and, when this does occur, the powerful are inevitably overthrown and made examples of.

Without livable myths, most of us turn to the Abrahamic God, abandoning mythical narrative to the realms of science fiction and fantasy. But that god, at least as it is usually conceived of, is a pale shadow of myth for "He" is without practice, only ritual and faith. Faith is a virtue, but it is too easily coopted and dubbed loyalty. Scared by the world we inhabit, we turn to television in the hopes of being frightened further by spectres, aliens, and possessed girls. Dissatisfied with our "little" lives, we celebrate garish displays of wealth, influence, and sexuality, turning all three into absurd caricatures of themselves - reducing them in the process, which ultimately makes them that much more easily abused. But wait! There exists a narrative we can all identify with, a truth all contemporary Americans can rally behind.

So Tired.
If Late
Get Fired.
Why Bother?
Why the Pain?
Just Go Home
Do It Again."

But I don't get it. What's it selling?

Photo credit: 1971, Walt Kelly, "Pogo"

Monday, October 03, 2005

Gallery Report, 10/01/2005

Stuck in a creative trough for a while now, I resorted to extreme measures. This past week, I picked up "Art & Fear," a good natured, if at times preachy, book with apotropaic qualities. I have read it several times before, most recently in 1999. Opening the book on Tuesday night, I found the following note taped to the inside front cover.

"A book that can always be read again and again and, contrary to the opinion of [an old artist friend], every artist needs a security blanket once in a while. While some sections seem to be [aimed] at old ladies who paint flowers for the craft show, most of the book is informative and warm. Instead of opening your veins, reread this book. (November 7, 1999)"

Apparently, in 1999, I knew I would one day return to "Art & Fear," but I also realized I might need a push. I'm glad I wrote the note then, otherwise I might have returned the book to the shelf and missed out on some good "healing." By Friday, I felt much better about my work but worried this calm would prove temporary, like the eye of a hurricane. Frightened of what the remainder of the storm may bring, it seemed prudent to stay out of the studio for a while longer. I elected to wander around Chelsea on Saturday, considering other artists' work instead of my own. I'm happy I did.

I ran into a number of people I know - artists, dealers, and art lovers - and felt a part of the New York art community. I even stopped and struck up conversation with an artist I don't know personally, but showed with in a Miami group show in 2004. Such gregariousness is unusual, but I was feeling pretty good about life, by and large.

Not surprisingly, most of the shows I saw were mediocre and there were several unexpected disappoints. Zak Smith, at Fredericks & Freiser, Lucy McKenzie, at Metro Pictures, and Yoshitomo Nara, at Boesky, had been well publicized and praised, but I found the shows dull and, in the case of McKenzie, baffling and esoteric. Zak Smith is a good painter, but he doesn't do anything interesting with his ability and Nara, whose work I appreciate, needs to mix things up a little bit. Having said that, these three shows are far superior to the worst of what I saw, most of which I have already forgotten, thankfully.


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Postmasters: Omer Fast is not an artist I knew of, but his two-channel video installation at Postmasters captivated me. Fast interviewed "character interpreters" who work in Colonial Williamsburg and presents the filmed interviews on one screen, while the second screen offers a montage of scenes in and around Williamsburg, Virginia, including footage of the many new housing developments and strip malls, colonial reenactments, and other goings on. The resulting is experience is rather melancholy, forcing the viewer to engage history as a brand of fiction and to confront our contemporary alienation from meaning and utility. I may be a biased viewer, however, as I went to undergrad at The College of William & Mary, situated in the heart of Williamsburg, and I always felt the town was representative of our proud nation's loss of that which it strives to celebrate.

In the back room, Fast includes a series of pencil portraits of the interviewed individuals. Alongside each skillfully handled drawing, Fast writes a synopsis of his time with the person, some of which are amusing or awkward.


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Luhring Augustine: Joel Sternfeld's photographs from the late 1970s are beautiful, meditative images of Americana and American landscapes. I have coveted these prints for several years and was duly excited to learn of his more recent pictures, which are currently on display at Luhring Augustine. In 2005, Sternfeld turns his lens on "experimental utopias," which include everything from traditional hippy communes to the research and medical facilities constructed at the behest of Dr. "Patch" Adams. Though I like his choice of subject and remain impressed by the clarity of Sternfeld's vision, I feel these more recent images lose for being "about something." With so focused a theme, the magical realism of Sternfeld's older work disappears, and these photos would fit better in the pages of National Geographic. Don't get me wrong; National Geographic publishes stunning photographs by outstanding photographers, but readers meditate on the conceptual content of the photos, in the context of the article they accompany, rather than the photographs themselves. In other words, Sternfeld's latest works are wonderful illustrations.


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Jessica Murray Projects: In the all around fun category, David Ellis's "Orchestrion" stands out. Ellis builds primitive looking instruments out of unconventional materials - a paintbrush bangs an old chair seat and a sculpted tree stump houses a tree-ring turntable - and hooks them all up to a computer, allowing him to control them. Walking into an Ellis installation, viewers should be prepared for a percussive cacophony. The artist sits in the space, editing the loops and playing with beat ideas on a laptop, with the eventual goal of producing a sound-track for one of his videos, a film of a twenty day performance at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Maybe I'm partial to the work because Ellis is a southern boy or because he seems so willing to throw himself into numerous projects at once, but whatever the case, his racket is satisfying.


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Tanya Bonakar: The works included in the group show "Controlled" deal with "man's interaction with, and attempt to control, elements from nature." A timely subject, certainly, but most of these works fail to communicate anything particularly insightful. Two works, however, stand out. One of Carla Klein's two large scale paintings of the great salt flats in Utah evokes an Antarctic landscape, barren save a few tire tracks, presumably made by whatever outdoor vehicle has brought us here, to the end of the world. Everything is white and blue, and the cinematic dimensions of the painting support make us feel adrift in the space and wholly at Nature's mercy. Klein's second painting fails because she includes the dashboard of the vehicle and more sky; the sense of isolation is gone and the painting is unremarkable without it. In the next room, Mark Dion, one of my favorite conceptual artists, includes his "Mobile Bio-Type: Eastern Woodlands," a small greenhouse on wheels that houses a sampling of a forest floor, moss, hummus and all. Dion is forever questioning our all too human urge to classify, quantify and qualify and this rolling greenhouse would be fit just as well in the Museum of Natural History. It isn't the most successful Dion piece, but it is the best work in this particular show.


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David Zwirner: The best show of the day was Marcel Dzama's collection of drawings and paintings at Zwirner. Dzama, a young Canadian, makes smart, acceptably deviant watercolor works on paper populated by hybrid man-animals, bloodthirsty, horny humans and innumerable other creatures. A few years ago, his works featured only one or two characters usually engaged in some violent or sexual act. Now the paintings are crowded with actors and the stages reference a generalized mythology, history and folklore. i think Dzama's work wonderful, a perfect blend of Goya and Gorey. The only failing of the exhibition is the space. These works do better when viewed independently of one another. Hung in a large gallery space, the works seem too similar and forced me to wonder if Dzama may soon become bored with this series.

A few streets north, when viewing Jon Pylypchuk's show at Friedrich Petzal, I thought back to the Dzama show. Pylypchuk's work is sometimes visually satisfying in an indie-rock, rough sort of way; I believe this is a result of his unorthodox material use - I like seeing fake fur pressed into oil paint. Ultimately, though, Pylypchuk's slacker paintings and sculptures prove unintelligent...especially when compared to Dzama's paintings.