Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Artist and the Mathematician: A Revolution of Human Thought

by Drew Martin
A couple years ago I bought a book titled The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. I was hoping it would be something like The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary but it did not have the same kind of flow or kick-start so I put it down and spurned it every time I saw it on the book shelf.

For some reason I picked it up a couple weeks ago and discovered what a brilliant book it is. The Artist and the Mathematician is about a French mathematics group that..."embarked on the ambitious project of setting the mathematics curriculum for calculus and mathematical analysis offered in all universities in France." They were the best mathematicians in their country whose collective genius changed the course of mathematics around the world.

They published as "Nicolas Bourbaki," a character they not only invented but also built a life around including a baptism, baptismal certificate, godparents, and even invitations to his "daughter's" wedding. There was one member of the collective who most captured the essence of Bourbaki, Alexandre Grothendieck - a brilliant man who survived a horrific childhood during the Holocaust, changed modern mathematics, and then abandoned his academic post, friends, and family to return to the solitude that he credited for the success of his deep understanding of mathematics.

The Bourbaki group enjoyed a special place in society:

Caf
é life in Paris would, therefore be dominated not only by the philosophers and the writers and artists, but also by the mathematicians. And perhaps for the first time in modern history, mathematics would play a key role in the general culture - in a way that it did only in the very distant past of ancient Greece. 

Since Sartre and his allies were decidedly non-mathematical in their approach to life, they would inevitably be left behind. Their philosophical theory of existentialism would end its reign as the strictly axiomatic, rigorous, and system-oriented theory called structuralism swept France and the rest of the Western world. The mathematicians would play a key role in the new milieu not only as proponents of a new and widely-used approach to life, but also as 'connectors' among practitioners in different fields: the exact sciences, the social sciences, art, literature, psychology, economics, and philosophy. This would launch a new age for mathematics, one in which the role of the discipline in our culture could not be matched by any other...

...in fact, the ideas developed by these mathematicians sitting in Parisian caf
és would prove to be of crucial importance for society as a whole. The ideas of these mathematicians would constitute nothing less than a revolution in human thought - one whose effect would be felt far and wide.

The art world in this period was driven by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamp who absorbed this mathematical and scientific awakening into their work.

Einstein's dramatic discovery in 1905 dealt a fatal blow to our view of the universe. His theory (of relativity) added a fourth dimension to our world: the dimension of time. It was now time for our new view of nature to enter into art. The mathematician Maurice Princet explained Einstein's theory to artists, and they began to mimic these discoveries in physics in their own work.

While Princet did not create cubism, his explanations did influence the new art form. Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Metzinger, Gris, and others created the new art form by destroying the old perspective and realism and creating the new way of painting. But the fourth dimension itself was now to enter as well. Artists tried both to paint in a way that seemed to reflect a new dimension and to create art in which time itself was the variable. Time was the added dimension. Marcel Duchamp, in particular, explored paintings in which subjects were depicted at different point in time. He even experimented with paintings in which time was accelerating or slowing down. Duchamp's Portrait de joueurs d'echecs, 1911...serves as a good illustration of these ideas...


...He painted a series of studies and canvases of checkers and chess players...The cubist painting (Portrait de joueurs d'echecs) shows his two brothers, Villon on the right and Duchamp-Villon on the left, engrossed in the game. The two figures are fused in the center, creating an illusion from a single point of view, thus doing away with the old spatial perspective. The figures reappear, deformed and at changing angles, higher on the canvass, reflecting the effects as a fourth dimension. The two players, however, are unaware of the fourth dimension and are locked in a static subspace of the dynamic universe around them.

Structuralism is defined by the author, Amir Aczel, as...

...a method of intellectual inquiry that provides a framework for organizing and understanding areas of human study concerned with the production and perception of meaning.


Structuralism is interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary.

Although this system originated with mathematicians as well as linguists, the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss is credited as being the father of structuralism because he released it from its breeding grounds to other fields where it flourished.

The fundamental assumption of structuralism is that all of human behavior arises from an innate structuring capability. This structuring ability latent in the human brain, gives rise to language. But the same structures hidden inside the brain also lead to myths, creativity, and various social patterns...


Structuralism deals with the relationships between parts and the whole. Totality takes logical priority over individual parts, and the relationships are more important than the entities they connect. The hidden structure is thus much more important than whit is obvious or apparent in any given situation. It is the symbolism that matters, rather than the entities symbolized. Because of the philosophical components of structure, we find the ideas of structure in areas far beyond the sciences...

Structuralism was a deep method that stripped away all the unnecessary elements of a system.


The linguistic origins of structuralism started with Roman Jakobson, who helped found the Moscow Circle of linguistics in 1915, the Saint Petersburg Circle of linguistics in 1917, and then the Circle of Prague.

In the Theses of 1929 the Prague linguists wrote:

In its social role, one must distinguish language following the existing relationship between it and the extra-linguistic reality. Language has a function in communication, that is, it is aimed at the signified: or it has a poetic function, that is, it is aimed at the symbolism itself.

A literary society founded in 1960 was also modeled after Bourbaki. They were called Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle - Workshop of potential literature). 
One of the most prominent members was the Italian writer Italo Calvino. 

Oulipo translated geometrical ideas into linguistic ones:


Point = Word, Line = Sentence, Place = Paragraph

Oulipo attempted to deconstruct literature and rebuild it in a new way, thus bringing the new structuralism from mathematics, anthropology, and art into the foundation of a new literature.

They created systems for producing poetry such as the M+/-n Method, and from that the S+7 Method, which brings to mind the game of juxtapositions by the surrealists that we refer to as Exquisite Corpse. Or perhaps it is even more akin to the word substitution game marketed as Mad Libs.

S+7 Method:

  • choose a text
  • select a dictionary (bilingual was typically used)
  • replace every noun with the seventh noun appearing after it in the dictionary
So a passage such as...

I saw a rabbit in the garden,
eating my cabbage, tomatoes, and carrots.
I tried to throw a stone at it,

but it bolted when it noticed my raised arm.

becomes...

I saw a radio in the garrison,
eating my cacophony, tongue, and cartwheels.
I tried to throw a stove at it,

but it bolted when it noticed my raised aroma.

Having done this on the spot with the student's dictionary next to me, the process is a kind of random/false creativity.

The way the brain processes information, according to Lé
vi-Strauss, is by using symbolism. The symbolism is what structural analysis  is designed to uncover. Structure is thus a code, consisting of concise symbols. The symbolism inherent in brain function follows mathematical rules that are tantamount to the ideas developed by Bourbaki: the notions of closeness, transformation, groupings, and other of the "mother structures" studied by the group.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sleeping Senses

by Drew Martin
Lately I have been having a kind of surge in lucid dreams, which I should probably keep to myself, but the increase in detail is worth noting.

I have always had vivid and complex dreams but what I experienced last night was one of the most bizarre dreams I have had in recent times. In it I was supposedly on some kind of drug but the fascinating effects of the drug were my dream sensibilities: unreal tactile feeling and movement, and my muddled non-awake comprehension of things. The sobriety I was yearning was really awakened consciousness.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film

by Drew Martin
In Sleeper (1973), Woody Allen plays Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and owner of the 'Happy Carrot' Health-Food store who was cryopreserved in 1973, and revived 200 years later. When Allen’s character realizes the duration of his stasis he says, “You know, I bought Polaroid at seven, it’s probably up millions by now.”

At the time Sleeper came out Polaroid was cutting edge, the kind of company that Apple grew up wanting to be, but unlike Apple, Polaroid was unique in that they had unchallenged rule over their product - consumer cameras that shot instant film.

The company was founded in 1937 and had their first consumer camera on the market in 1947.  In 1972 the company introduced the folding, single lens Polaroid SX-70, which changed the history of photography. By 2001 the Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy. It stopped making cameras in 2007 and stopped selling film after 2009 to the shock of die-hard Polaroid photographers. The decline had less to do with losing out to the digital age and more to do with mismanagement and lack of enthusiasm for their own product .

Since 2010, however, a group called The Impossible Project kick-started a defunct Polaroid production plant in Enschede, Holland, and have made instant film available to its niche market.


This morning I watched Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film, a 95-minute documentary that captures this free-fall moment for Polaroid photographers through many personal interviews.

What I did not know was how devoted the employees were to the founder and leader, Edwin Land, who considered himself first and foremost an artist. One of his first employees explained that she went to work for Polaroid thinking of it as a technology company and found herself dealing more with the art and the artist.

One of Land’s achievements with the SX-70 was its integral film, which meant everything was contained in the photograph: no peel away, no chemical waste, no detritus. Land did not want the people using his cameras to litter the land. His love for the photographic arts and the environment is evident with one of his first hired consultants, Ansel Adams. Land believed that everyone had a kernel of creativity and his cameras were tools to help them explore their inner artist.


Most of the film speaks about Polaroid as one would expect from an artistic point of view: the magical production of a physical product, the instant artifact and instant memory, and the social experience of taking pictures. One of the surprises was a clip by Paul Giambarba, a former art director at Polaroid, who was most known for the package design. He says what he did was big deal at the time because it gave the consumer the first chance to pronounce the company's name. A lot of people mispronounced it with attempts like poylaroad. Giambarba said this had a lot to do with the typeface of the original packaging that used Memphis, which made little distinction between the lowercase a and o (left logo, top). He improved the clarity of the name by setting up POLAROID in all caps New Gothic within a black end panel (left logo, bottom).

Click here to watch the trailer for Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Second Millennium Stone Age: Detailed Perfection and Pure Minimalism

by Drew Martin
Stone, in all its varieties, is known for its solidity and durability, but it also elicits a feeling of physical and emotional coldness, which is ironic considering some of the most moving and fleshiest artworks, especially sculptures by artists such as Michelangelo and Antonio Canova, were carved in marble. It also has a reputation for being archaic or even primitive, and yet for centuries it served as the medium to showcase advances in technical skills around the world.

On a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday, my daughter and I stumbled into the mesmerizing Islamic Art Galleries, and I was able to revisit one of my favorite pieces in the museum, which I had not seen for a long time. It is a red sandstone jali (screen) that was carved in the second half of the 16th century. It is airy and see-through, and it makes you rethink the function and possibilities of stone. What I like about this piece is that the geometric field of stars, which is so common in Islamic art, is most often purely decorative when used in tiled designs and filigreed plaster walls and arches, but here it has a structural function as it pushes the limit of its negative space while maintaining enough of its supportive strength. Although its design is a mathematically-inspired aesthetic solution within the centuries-old imposed boundaries of Islamic visual arts, there is something so modern in its look and feel that it might as well be a recent product of a 3-D printer.


Another stonework that caught my eye yesterday was a sphere of volcanic rock (andesite) from the Diquís culture, created sometime while these native Costa Ricans flourished between 700-1530 AD. I must have seen the sphere before but never really paid much attention to it, partly because it is stuck in a corner of Gallery 357 - for Pre-Columbian art, which is a room loaded with pure gold ornaments. This sphere and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of others made by the Diquís are amazing technological accomplishments. The sphere in the Met is 26 inches in diameter and weighs 850 lbs. but they can range from a few centimeters to more than six feet in diameter, and weigh up to 15 tons. Not much is known about how they were created or their purpose but they persist as beautifully minimal sculptures to behold and contemplate.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Living Out of a Box in Central Park

by Drew Martin
Today my daughter (top on right) and I took a bus into Port Authority and walked up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a school project. The 42nd Street/Times Square area, which was dominated by hookers and dealers when I was her age, is now ruled by more benign but surprisingly more annoying hucksters: people posing as the Statue of Liberty, a variety of superheros, and other characters, even a topless pair of Brazilian carnival women wearing only headdresses, thongs, and body paint. They are all there to shake some money from tourists in exchange for photos with them.

So when we entered Central Park and saw the caricaturists, bubble-makers, magicians and musicians, and then passed by a robot box guy walking around and somewhat interacting with passersby, we simply lumped him in with the others. But there was something quirky about him, and he did not seem to be actually hustling.

Even more curious, were three other boxes, which seemed to be his dormant kin, spaced around a shady hill. So we returned to take pictures and speak to one of the people who was inside a box with an open top. She said they were Parsons students doing an art project/research about public space and privacy. When we spoke to another boxed student 
(below) with only one slit in the box, for her eyes, she asked us questions about the impression they made on us.

Click here to see the robot box guy in motion and a quick chat with one of the other Parson's students.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Memoriam: Eric Olson

by Drew Martin
The Latin phrase in memoriam means into memory, and so, with this post I want to fondly remember someone I knew who was immensely full of life but is no longer alive.

My friend Eric Olson had a fatal heart attack this past Sunday. He was only 45, and is survived by his lovely wife and fraternal twin sons who are 14 years old. I met Eric through our sons' soccer team and looked forward to seeing him every weekend on the side of the pitch during the season for the past three years. We weren't very close friends but Eric had such a fun personality you always felt like a welcomed buddy in his presence.


One of my fondest memories of Eric was his redneck guise. He was very financially successful with a career he built up in life insurance, and had a beautiful home in a town we both lived for the past 15+ years but he often drove around in an old pickup truck while wearing one of his caps with a mullet wig. Sometimes he would grab a friend, cruise around, pull up to a fancy open house, and stride right in; to the horror of real estate agents and home sellers. This is pure performance art so I asked Eric if he would one day escort me to an art opening with this get-up. We never got a chance but he was totally game.

Eric's obituary acknowledged several charities with which he was involved, including SAY (Stuttering Association for the Young). I laughed to myself when I saw that because it was only then that I actually realized Eric had a stutter. I never consciously thought about it because it just got absorbed into Eric's friendly manner and joviality. In a post about the MIT Museum, I tell about an a not-so-friendly encounter with two cops in an SUV. When I told Eric, who was from Vermont/New Jersey but went to Boston College, this story right after the trip he let out a roaring laugh and said, "What Massholes!" (Massachusetts assholes). He had such a fun laugh. It was a therapeutic laugh that embraced you and made you laugh along with him.

Pictured here is probably my only picture of me (right) with Eric (left). It was taken with phone of my neighbor (middle) at an end of a soccer season party. We are in Eric's kitchen wearing the redneck hats and wigs he put on our heads for laughs.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Message to the Dalai Lama - "Don't Quit Your Day Job"

by Drew Martin
One nice thing about dreams is that you can meet the most surprising people in the most exceptional circumstances.

Last night I dreamt that I was instructing the Dalai Lama how to do an odd job in a museum. It was supposed to be during World War II and we were in a well-lit, I assume European, museum. In our small gallery room there was a big rock painted with hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. The museum was in a city that was being carpet-bombed so I was showing the Dalai Lama how to preserve the tiny flakes of paint that fell off the artifact every time the building was rattled.

Despite the dream taking place in the mid 1940s, I was my current mid 40s and the Dalai Lama was an awkward twenty-something-year-old monk who had to take on
 a day job in the museum to make ends meet/survive the times. I was a little amused by his out-of-character role, and I remembered to be easy on him knowing that he would one day take the world stage.

Pure Robin Williams, Pure Wit

by Drew Martin
Since the death of Robin Williams I have watched some of his performances on Mork and Mindy on YouTube. As a middle-aged adult I remember Williams for his more recent movie roles but I wanted to see him as I would have watched him when I was only nine or ten years old, when the show first ran and Williams reached a national audience after his Happy Days debut.

Here (top) he is playing his guileless Orkan character, Mork, being tortured by his alien culture's enemy, the Necrotons. Raquel Welch plays Captain Nirvana, who commands her assistants, Kama and Sutra, to restrain him as they torture him by throwing him in a hot tub after tickling him with a feather. Welch pours bubble bath into the water to add to his displeasure. As Williams disrobes under their threats, he hangs his rainbow suspenders over the privacy screen and calls them "moral support."

I realize now how brilliant his character is for young kids trying to make sense of adult rules. Mork is sent to Earth by his superior, Orson, because humor is not permitted back on his home planet, Ork, and he cannot help himself from his constant jokes. His exiled mission is to report on human culture. At the end of every episode Mork reports to Orson what he has learned about human behavior from his personal experiences.

To make contact, a plain-clothed Mork meditates from his room in Boulder, Colorado, which places the alien-uniformed Mork in a black void. He typically waits for Orson to "pick up" on his call, during which time he ridicules his superior. Pictured here (bottom) is from an episode about gender equality where Mork tries out for the Denver Broncos cheerleaders. He body-spells F-A-T-S-O to poke at his superior's girth. Orson always catches Mork making fun of him, so in this case Mork apologetically explains that he was just doing a cheer for his "Pom-pom-posity."

I was always intrigued by these reports. They are brief, quirky, and something akin to a soliloquy and a stage performance, which was not typical for late 70's sitcom. The character addresses someone but the scene is always Williams on his own: pure Williams, pure wit.

Click here to watch Robin Williams performing with Raquel Welch in the Mork vs. the Necrotons episode of Mork and Mindy


Click here to see Robin Williams try out for the Denver Broncos cheerleaders in the Hold that Mork episode of Mork and Mindy

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Commuters

by Drew Martin
I took these pictures of George Segal's The Commuters two days ago at 6:30 a.m. after an hour bus ride from my northern New Jersey town. I have been commuting to and from work in New York by train for the past fifteen years so I do not often make my way through Port Authority, where the sculpture was installed in 1980. I remember this as a kid from the mid 80s and not much has changed, not even my comprehension of it. When you see it with young eyes, you get it: tired people waiting, and waiting for a bus that might never come. It has been 34 years and this trio is still waiting at the door of a gate with a clock set at 3 p.m. under "Next Departure."

The time should be set at 7 or 8 p.m. unless Segal meant it to remain as a broken clock. Despite having so many long hours of commute under my belt, I do not see the sculpture differently, although now it does seem more like a cruel joke. The perfect thing about this is that it is in the center of Port Authority, arguably one of the worst places to be in Manhattan.

I guess a New Yorker would say these white zombies are so sad looking because they have to return to New Jersey. While someone from New Jersey would say that they are beat up after a day in New York. Since I live in New Jersey, as did Segal, I am going to go with the latter. 


Segal's sculptures are all about body posture. His subjects' eyes for all of his sculptures are always closed because he took their forms by making casts of them with plastered gauze so the models had to close their eyes. In this instance the closed eyes are otherworldly. It is as if these commuters are dreaming of being in another place. Or perhaps they have died and yet they still have to wait to get to the afterlife. Maybe Segal saw the gates at the Port Authority as the Gates of Hell.

The sculptures are actually made from bronze and have a white patina to retain the plaster gauze look. Segal's conceptualizing about this process is a play on cast: a cast of characters, a cast for a broken limb, and to cast bronze. These total body casts were his way of showing that humans are fragile and broken. These commuters certainly are broken people.

I won't see the sculpture today. In a couple minutes I will jump on my bike and ride into Manhattan for work.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Coast of Dreamland

by Drew Martin
I had a very interesting dream this morning. I was in a seaside village somewhere in the world. There were small houses and a very pebbly beach with chilly, overcast weather. Something unique about the locals was that their main past-time revolved around a musical instrument of sorts. They all owned one and kept it on the stoop in front of their houses. 

The contraption was about the size of a large accordion, which had a slot near the top where you placed your hand when you were swinging it. With an underarm bowling-throw gesture you pressed a lever inside when you were full-swing, and out came about six or seven nested containers made of a gourd-like hard shell, which were tethered to each other. The smallest one would make its way to the farthest point about 20 yards out, and the largest one would land about ten feet away. The people tossed these things on the pebbly beach near the water and then reeled them in. As they did so the hard, woody shells rubbed on the pebbles and emitted bizarre and abstract sounds. There was nothing melodic or rhythmic in the noises they produced but the locals had an ear for the right aesthetic qualities they were trying to achieve. For them this was the highest art form. 

Someone was showing me how to cast the containers and then a young man came by and inquired about me because the instrument I was using was actually taken from his front stoop. He was upset that I might damage it and was also offended that it had been removed from his home, as it was a symbol of pride in that community.

Pictured here is a drawing I made of the dream after awakening this morning.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Op Art...as in Oppenheimer

by Drew Martin
I just finished (slow, focused reading + skimming) American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. My father is a nuclear physicist so the subject interested me on a personal level but I also wanted to know more about the man who unleashed the atom’s potential. Specifically, I wanted to get a glimpse of the kind of person who could be so smart but cause so much destruction.

The first half of the book is about Oppenheimer’s life and education, and the development of the atomic bomb, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second half of the book is about Oppenheimer’s attempt to head off a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the witch hunt brewing for his association with the communist party, and losing his government security clearance.


Although there was much moral debate during the Manhattan Project, the scientists, military, and civilians who supported the project believed they had to build the bomb before the Nazis. Many of the scientists had come from or, like Oppenheimer, studied in Germany so the U.S. side intimately knew  what their “enemy” counterparts knew because they had studied with each other and were on a first-name basis.


Max Born, a professor from Göttingen lamented, “It is satisfying to have had such clever and efficient pupils, but I wish they had shown less cleverness and more wisdom.”

A new level of consciousness was raised when the project continued even after Germany surrendered, and Japan was just about to give up. The thinking then switched to the notion that the bomb had to be used no matter what by the end of World War II, otherwise the next war would be fought exclusively with nuclear bombs. That is a tough justification for killing so many civilians, especially for someone who attended the Ethical Culture School in New York, where the students “were infused with the notion that they were being groomed to reform the world, that they were the vanguard of a highly modern ethical gospel.” Robert was one of their star students. Ethics were taught in a Socratic-style seminar where students discussed specific social and political issues.


Oppenheimer read Plato and Homer in Greek, and Caesar, Virgil and Horace in Latin. He was so smart that he skipped several grades and was regarded as precocious. When he was nine years old he told an older cousin, “Ask me a question in Latin and I will answer you in Greek.”

Oppenheimer was also a social misfit. He was easily agitated and anxious. Once, while at school in Cambridge, he tried to poison his head tutor with a laced apple. A French psychoanalyst said he was suffering a “crise morale” associated with sexual frustration. He prescribed “une femme” and a course of aphrodisiacs.


To many people’s surprise Oppenheimer grew into a very capable and charming man. The year before his death, at Princeton’s commencement where he received an honorary degree, he was hailed as a “physicist and sailor, philosopher and horseman, linguist and cook, lover of fine wine and better poetry.”


He was, in fact, an extraordinary combination of science and humanities. His conscious was affected by his readings, which ranged from the Bhagavad-Gita to Proust. From the latter he learned “indifference to the sufferings one causes…is the terrible and permanent form of cruelty.” But Oppenheimer was not indifferent. He was aware of the suffering he had caused others but he did not buckle with guilt.


Oppenheimer died from throat cancer (he was a heavy smoker) at the age of 62. It was a helpless end. His wife confided to a friend, “His death was pitiful. He turned into a child first, then an infant. He made noises. I couldn’t go into the room; I had to go into the room, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear it.” 

As always I look sideways at my readings and look at what is relevant to this ongoing theme of art and media. One of my favorite lines was how Oppenheimer expressed that the best way to send information is bundled in a human being. Certainly he had firsthand experience of this from all of  the great minds he studied with and met, and from his own travels and lectures.

Concerning the arts, he had a very interesting start. He was, by all standards, pampered and privileged. His father Julius emigrated from Germany in 1888 and became a wealthy “fabrics” man in New York. He was also an art lover and he spent his free time roaming the art galleries and museums in New York. Through this interest he met the woman to become his wife and mother of Robert, Ella Friedman, a fetching young painter with a spring-loaded artificial thumb. She had studied the early Impressionist painters in Paris, and taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished painter and gave private lessons in her rooftop studio in New York.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child. A Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain, and Pierre-August Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings – Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890) – dominated a living room wallpapered in gilted gold. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection. The Oppenheimers spent a small fortune on these works of art. In 1926, for instance, Julius paid $12,900 for Van Gogh’s First Steps (After Millet).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fine, Totally Fine

by Drew Martin
Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen daijobu) is a neo-slacker Japanese love-story from 2008 with 1960's new wave tendencies. It is both utterly silly and brilliant, and had me burst-out laughing in a few parts. Though it got mediocre reviews and viewers complained it is painfully slow, I would rank it as one of my favorite films; on level with Daisies.

A lovely Yoshino Kimura plays Akari Kinoshita in the movie, a socially awkward, totally spastic young woman who spends much of her time spying on and drawing a homeless woman who makes crazy trash sculptures. She is constantly eating dildoey fish paste sausages, which she keeps in her pocket and offers to strangers. When she gets a job in a hospital her klutziness is amplified: she breaks her finger pushing an elevator button, and slips on blood while cleaning up after an operation. Despite her flaws, two young men (friends about to turn thirty and want to get more serious in their lives) fall deeply in love with her. One of them is a young hospital administrator who hired her despite the fact that she showed up for her interview bloody and muddy (she was attacked by tourists after she dropped and broke their expensive camera when she was trying to take their picture).

The other courter, the friend of the administrator, is the hapless son of a depressed used-book store owner. He is obsessed with blood and gore and dreams of making an extreme haunted house. The administrator helps place Akari at the bookstore when she loses her job at the hospital, and his friend immediately falls in love with her. The bookstore is a more forgiving environment for Akari, which she decorates with her homeless woman paintings.

Most of the smart humor (there is also a lot of raw humor too) is either a visual sequence, like when Akari runs to press the elevator button, and her finger impossibly snaps back at a right angle. Or it is a visual punchline to banter. 

In one of the last scenes the two friends, who have lost Akari to a sensitive art restorer, visit the young couple in Nara, where her boyfriend moved to restore statues of Buddha. The four of them sit to share food and drink in the couple’s apartment. They talk about what the former courters want to see in Nara, and they play a drawing game.

The administrator compliments Akari on her drawing and passes the pad to his hapless friend who has to draw something that begins with the Japanese character, Ra. When he presents the drawing for the others to guess, the administrator laughs “What’s that?”

Akari looks closely and guesses “A fat snake…the legendary tsuchinoko?”  Together, they keep guessing in bewilderment…"A bird?...a monster?.." The friend is offended and says “It’s a camel! Rakuda.” 

The administrator taunts him but Akari’s boyfriend leans in, inspects the drawing and says “But I like the picture. Whether it looks like a camel or not, it’s an interesting shape.” The drawer is honored and proudly holds out his hand and he and the boyfriend shake, which is a total acceptance of all that has happened and acknowledges that Akari has found the right guy.  The picture is not actually shown until the very end, to conclude the scene.

In the next and final scene, several hours later, the four friends are still in the same spot. It is nighttime and the boyfriend and the hapless guy are sleeping where they were once sitting on the floor. Akari and the administrator sit across from each other. She thanks him but he does not understand. Of course she means “for everything” because he was the first one to reach out to her and to lead her to her boyfriend. But instead of this being said and deepening, the conversation turns toward pickles. She leaves the room to get more for the administrator, and he looks around her place. 

Over his shoulder is one of the homeless woman’s sculptures, a picture of the woman by Akari, and one of her boyfriend (half his face has a large red birthmark) which is significant because previously she only drew the woman. Then we see a few more areas he would observe: a work space with sculptures of Buddha, Akari’s crayons and pastels, a couch flanked by more of the homeless woman’s sculptures (she was institutionalized), and finally the last shot: the friend’s drawing of the camel, torn from the notepad and pinned to a beam.

The actors are well-cast and stay in character roles that are spared from being caricatures by the writer and director of this film, Yosuke Fujita. Fujita is a brilliant genius. His sets and props are intimate but never too precious, which can be said about the experiences of the film: Fujita has a thing for used-book stores and was once a janitor in a hospital, which explains the detailed level of humor that comes out in those scenes.

Click here to watch the trailer for Fine, Totally Fine, although I do not think it is a good sampling.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Kiki Dreams

by Drew Martin
Two nights ago I dreamt that I was at the new Whitney Museum of American Art during a move-in period for the artists who needed to fabricate their work on site, or were there to oversee the installation of their pieces. Though the new Whitney at the High Line is at least twice the size of the Breuer building, it was much grander and more open in my dream. At one point I reached down to feel the rough, yet-to-be-polished stone floor (the actual floor will finished with reclaimed century-old pine planks), which was ribbed like a raked Japanese rock garden.

I was following Kiki Smith around, who was looking at the installation of bronze-cast goats she had made for the room, which she complained were too high. Instantly, they lowered and she moved into a well-lit atrium space. I followed her wondering if she was referencing Picasso's goat Esmeralda. She climbed up into a boxy cart with glass sides – something like a vendor’s booth for selling popcorn on the street. In it she was naked and looked a bit pickled in formaldehyde, and her body was contorted and dwarfed into a crude totem-like form. Her privies were large and engorged as if she was giving birth. None-the-less, she gave an impressive speech to a small crowd sitting on the ground. When she got out, she was back to her normal self and we started talking about something, but that part I do not remember. There was a young woman there with white-gold locks; I wondered if it was her daughter, niece, or some other relations.

Pictured here, detail of My Blue Lake by Kiki Smith.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sister From Another Planet: Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson

by Drew Martin
Before I watched the fairly new sci-fi movie Under the Skin, which is set in Scotland and features Scarlett Johansson, I saw the trailer. In it there is an LA Weekly quote, "A genuine revelation. We may finally have an heir to Kubrick."

After seeing it last night, I would say that's true even though that remark was probably inspired by a lot of deliberate Kubrick setups, especially from 2001: A Space Odyssey, such as his details of alignment and symmetry, abstract sequences, glowing white other world, free-floating goners, and sometimes painfully slow scenes.

Despite some obvious references, the whole film feels unique, and will certainly be the source of a lot of knock-offs, as you see following other groundbreaking movies such as The Matrix.

For me this was a little bit of The Brother From Another Planet meets 
Mary Howitt's 1829 poem The Spider and the Fly. The first line of the poem is "'Will you walk into my parlour?' said the Spider to the Fly." The cunning spider ensnares a naive fly through seduction and flattery. It is a cautionary tale about flattery and charm disguised for evil intentions.

Johansson is the perfect seductress, totally unemotional until her typical sultry charm is required to draw men into her tarry lair, in which they mindlessly sink, and are sucked of their innards. What I really like about this film is that such scenes, which sound cheesy, are handled with that numbing Kubrickesque dreaminess, and all the details about what is going on are never provided so you can fill in the blanks. This may be what saves this film from an onslaught of imitations: it is hard to copy something that is intentionally left out.

I really like the focus in this movie on the meaning of layers of clothing for sensitivity to our surroundings (a fur coat, a wetsuit, a borrowed jacket from a friend), and human skin as the thin membrane that it is: the undermost garment of fashion and the outermost layer of a person. The men that only want Johansson's flesh are pitted for their own. But then she seduces a young man with facial deformaties, played by Adam Pearson who has neurofibromatosis, which causes excess body tissue and non-cancerous tumours, as it did more excessively in Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man.
 She traps him then lets him go after staring at herself in the mirror, which is the moment she breaks from her prescribed routine and tries to achieve an unattainable human life. In a subsequent scene where a fully-naked Johansson examines her human form, she looks at her body in the mirror as if her skin is a new, beautiful dress.

Click here to watch the trailer for Under the Skin.