Thursday, December 30, 2010
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Perhaps I stared too long at the eclipse the other night but I have been having very pronounced, visual dreams since then. It's lunacy: I never dream about art. Usually I dream about discovering places: endless caverns under houses and whole new sections of cities I already know like the back of my hand.
Two nights ago I dreamt I was watching a performance artist, Damaris Drummond, make a video out in nature, which she had painted over; every leaf...even the ground, so it appeared to be a set. The effect was quite remarkable.
Last night I had a bizarre dream. I was hiking with my ten year old son's scout pack in the woods and we happened upon and got directions from a handful of older, bronzed Swedish nudists vacationing in the woods, where they had their little datjas.
The fathers of the scouts went to some kind of lodge, more like a long-house, and sat on the floor, propped up against opposing walls and started playing a betting game, sans cards, by gesturing their arms and placing $5 bids. I get queasy around gambling so I got up and went to look for my son. I found him in a very clean and modern cabin: airy and bright.
He and one of his buddies were putting finishing touches on a huge, square canvas they whipped up and decided to paint in a couple minutes. It was intriguing: two black, overlapping outline drawings of life-size figures with washes of mainly blues and other pastel colors over everything. I was simultaneously studying the painting and ringing out and hanging up laundry on a slack line about a claw-foot tub in the same room. Some mothers called from outside, where the was a sunny, grassy opening in the woods. We all left and returned to the trail to walk home.
I sketched the composition (above) when I woke up from the dream in the middle of the night...but the figures in the dream painting were much more realistic.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
In 1991, I made a comic book called Infinous Space: an Explanation, a Love Story, a Vision of Life and Death. Infinous is not a word; I did not know that when I started but kept it when I realized my error, before I inked all the words and drawings. It is about me, in middle school, trying to figure out the dimensions of the universe. In the opening pages, I get frustrated while writing a science report when I realize I am missing my favorite show. I run downstairs to turn on the TV only to find that my father has invented a "plug box" which prevents me from plugging in the set. My father responds to my distraught protest:
Son, there is more to life than television. There is a universe outside and as an educated man and a father I feel it is my responsibility to open you up to this profound space.
I faint and he carries my limp body outside to show me the night sky:
Tonight there is a new moon and the sky is clear...the view should be quite spectacular.
I come around and we look up together at the speckled darkness and I perplexedly ask,
What are all of those things?!
Those are all stars son...distant suns...some are so far away that it takes millions of years for their light to reach us.
This is truly amazing.
My father is a special man and has really shown me a lot about the world, both as a parent and a scientist. I wrote the dialogue when I was 21 years old and now, 20 years later, I have three kids (12, 10 and 3). This early morning's total lunar eclipse brought the fascination of the universe and raising children full circle.
Today's predawn spectacle was the first full lunar eclipse on a winter solstice in 456 years. For 72 minutes the Earth cast a shadow on the Moon, which basically gave the illusion of a full moon cycle starting with a full moon, peaking in a new moon and returning to a full moon, all in an hour and 12 minutes. The difference was that the "new moon" eclipse was a deep, glowing red and the shadow was always convex.
The last winter solstice full lunar eclipse was in 1554. Culturally, Leonardo da Vinci had been dead for 35 years, Michelangelo was 79 years old and it was 10 years before William Shakespeare was born. Astronomically, Galileo Galilei had died 12 years prior, Nicolaus Copernicus died a year after him. It was 17 years before the birth of Johannes Kepler, who discovered the three laws of planetary motion (see diagram) and 18 years before Tycho Brahe pointed to supernovae to refute the perfection of the heavens, which turned astronomy, and the whole world, upside down. Brahe was born in 1546 and would have been eight years old at the time of the lunar eclipse.
Yesterday, I read that the effect of the eclipse was going to be eery and I thought that was too emotional a description, but when I saw it fully eclipsed at 3:17 am, it was indeed eery. It was very organic looking, like translucent organ and it was high in the sky and seemed smaller than ever. I watched it on and off through its cycle and woke up my older kids to witness the moment before the Moon slipped into the total eclipse. I dragged them downstairs and outside, onto the stone cold front porch to look up at the phenomenon. The icy winds were whipping about, otherwise there was no commotion; only one opossum out at the bottom of the front porch stairs and a kid from the apartments across the street who stepped out to look for a minute. There were not any wolves howling or zombies staggering about.
Both annoyed and impressed, my groggy and shivering daughter and son returned to their respective bedrooms to sleep. My three-year-old boy cried out for milk, which I gave him as he snuggled next to my wife. On the counter, where I prepared the milk, was my daughter's cell phone, recharging. The screen was flickering with a loop of a Bic lighter "concert" flame. Lying there alone, in the darkness, it looked like an eternal flame, dedicated to the cosmos. Knowing I needed to get some sleep, I crawled into my youngest son's empty little bed and curled up into a fetal position in order to concentrate my warmth under the chilly sheets, feeling like the 2001 star child after the mesmerizing event.
When I was walking to catch my train to New York at 7:00 am, I noticed the Moon was still up, about to set, but it appeared many times bigger. It was like a huge gold coin being deposited into the western horizon. Most of the other commuters did not take notice of it; they were probably more concerned about the freezing air and their busy workdays ahead. I do not understand our place in this universe any better today but I feel a certain bond with the Moon, like I had endured a rite of passage with it.
I had originally set my alarm for around 3:00 am but I was having a dream that I was watching the eclipse from my house with some of the senior staff of my company, which jarred me awake around 2:00 am, so I went out and watched the early phases of the eclipse. Unfortunately the song, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" jingled through my head throughout the dark morning. I never liked the song, partly because of Bonnie Tyler's voice, but I found myself questioning what the those lyrics mean. So I Googled it in the middle of the night and found this answer:
I think it means that your heart has been left in so much pain from a break up its like blacked out, like a total eclipse if you know what I mean...
Sunday, December 19, 2010
There is a brilliant new show up at The Drawing Center. It is my favorite one there since The Royal Art Lodge: Ask The Dust from the winter of 2003 (pictured left). Like that exhibit, this is something of a group show, but unlike those collaborative Canadians gathering for their weekly drawing jam sessions, this band of artists is loosely associated by the fact that they all have day jobs, which keep them away from their passion but also define and contribute to their artwork; whether it's done in their spare time or within the walls of their cubicles, the art is a byproduct of a daily grind.
Day Job is joyful, fun and inspiring. Nina Katchadourian, The Drawing Center's Viewing Program curator, asks
"The day job stands in way of 'freedom.' But is complete freedom necessarily the best climate for productivity?"
The obvious answer to how one might support artistic pursuits is to work around art and make use of one's constructive and visual skills. Perhaps this is most possible as an artist's assistant, working in a museum or gallery or even at an art supply store such as Pearl Paint, where you would at least get a discount on materials.
The show includes some artists who have applied their skills and knowledge of art: a museum guard, a framer, a medical illustrator, a digital retoucher, a television scene artist, a landscape architect, a jeweler and a few art teachers. More interesting, however, are the artists whose jobs are not an obvious link to the arts because it displays another skill set but also because these artists bring a unique perspective to the art world.
These artists include Pasquale Cortese (pictured right), a mechanical assembler of satellite communications equipment, who makes inked drawings that reflect flows of energy and precision; Raul Mendez (picture below-left), a cargo jet pilot, who draws aerials of imaginative landscapes; Julia Oldham, a videographer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who translates physics experiments and theories into performances; Alfred Steiner, an intellectual property lawyer, who addresses copyright questions; and, Justin Storms, a membership coordinator at The American Guild of Organists, who combines his obsession with whales with organs to draw huge whale pipe organ in remote landscapes.
Other artists in the show include a stay at home mom and a couple office workers who deal with themes such as the intrusion of the workplace into the domestic realm. Not addressed in the show are the day jobs, which extend to peers of the worker. Richard Serra, once a painter, was introduced to lead by his friend, the composer, Philip Glass, who worked as a plumber to make ends meet and had access to the metal, which inspired some of Serra's early works.
The day job may also be purely reactionary, fueling an escape from monotony or the inverse; doing anything to fly under the radar and to keep one's imaginative world intact and a private haven. The janitor/recluse Henry Darger created one of the longest adventure stories, with fantastic images.
What I feel is really missing from the show is work that deals more abstractly with the day job, such as loss, which a nurse would be influenced by, or the kind of rejection a salesman would be subjected to. I don't mean literal interpretations of loss and rejection but examples of work that can be approached with a thicker skin. This past summer I was asked to do a photo shoot in Prague. The shoot had a similar concept to what I had done twice before, in my neighborhood and in a friend's neighborhood. I knew I was going to have problems getting Czechs to participate but it was through my day job with proposal submissions and a high rejection rate that I could stomach the scoffs and so I was able to see the project through.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Following a recent interest in the original Star Trek series (see This Old Starship posting), which I have been viewing and enjoying with my kids, I decided to take a look behind the scenes so I borrowed I Am Spock, by Leonard Nimoy, from the library. I started with Nimoy because the Spock character is rather interesting. By the 23rd century the Earth has overcome racial prejudice and nationalism (except for some occasional Russian pride displayed by Chekov) and a couple kilt-swaggering scenes by Scotty. Alienation is left to the aliens so Spock, half human, half Vulcan, bears the brunt of most onboard social transgressions, which Nimoy identifies with growing up Jewish in a very Catholic part of Boston. In fact, there are many judaic references, including the V hand sign, Vulcan greeting that Nimoy created from a sign of the Hebrew letter, shin, he saw rabbis gesturing in temple (which stands for Shaddai, meaning "Almighty").
The character is the first of its kind: the first alien to not be incompatible with humans, culturally and physiologically: his existence is result of the consummation of a union between a human mother and a Vulcan father. The challenge for the writers, directors and especially Nimoy was to define what this character could be. Unlike Captain Kirk, who William Shatner is pretty consistent with throughout the series, Spock quickly changes from a somewhat aggressive and reactionary performance to a smooth and logical delivery. It is as if the actor and character learn from each other.
Nimoy details this evolution and explains the inconsistencies and digressions (mainly due to newer writers who did not understand the character). Once Spock was established and all the unevenness was ironed out, it was then a matter of further developing the Vulcan half breed he played on and off for decades.
I asked myself, "As keeper of this character - where does he go from here?"
The book was written in 1995 and I am unsure how it was received by Trekkies. It definitely was not an insider's book. Nimoy wrote it carefully for a general audience and is quite detailed about the day-to-day details of working on a television series, being an actor and director as well. Star Trek aside, the book works best as a story of an actor discovering himself as a director...not only in the genre where he cut his teeth (sci-fi) but also for comedy (Three Men and a Baby with Tom Selleck) and drama (The Good Mother with Liam Neeson). In discussing the latter, Nimoy explains:
We'd given ourselves a day to shoot this interview scene. I asked the cameraman to put two cameras on Diane Keaton, one for the larger shots, and one for tighter close-ups. (Let me explain something about camera work; it's a lot easier to simply light a set for the wide shots and shoot those, then go back and redo the scene again with different lighting for close-ups. Lighting that looks good for both types of shots requires a lot of painstaking setup, and camera people would much rather not do it.) So of course, when I told the cameraman to give us two cameras which required the much tougher type of lighting, he asked, "Why?"
"Because," I replied, "the psychiatrist is going to ask Diane Keaton a few very difficult questions. Her character's tense 'mask' is going to be slowly stripped away while she delivers several pages of intense, emotional dialogue. I want both cameras to be ready to capture both types of shots, so she doesn't have to go through this again and again. The fewer times she has to do it, the better."
"Okay," he said, and got right to work on it without further questions, because he understood what an enormous effort it would be for an actor to have to do such a difficult, draining scene - then go back and immediately do it once more.
For this scene, and other sensitive, emotional moments, we were using Agfa film in the cameras, because it gives a much softer effect; for the harsh "realistic" scene, such as those in the courtroom, we used Kodak film for its crisper "grittier" look.
I liked how Nimoy articulated his interest and secured his director position for this film: he assured the producer...
..."I have a strong background in Odets and Chekhov, the literature that is the line the The Good Mother extends."
I have never had much regard for movie actors and Hollywood business but I Am Spock gave me some insight of the craft and talent that goes into the productions. Most importantly Nimoy muses about the boundaries, overlapping and merging of one's character with one's character.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
I just finished reading a play that will take some time to digest: Copenhagen by the English playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, which is a conversation, in theory, of what could have been said during a (WWII) wartime meeting between the German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, and his peer, the elder, Jewish Dane, Niels Bohr...with plenty of interjections by Bohr's wife.
The play was written 57 years after the brief and awkward 1941 meeting. The topic of discussion was the development of the atomic bomb and the nuclear capabilities of the German and the allied forces. The conversation was never recorded and left open to numerous accounts of what could have been said and hearsay.
The problem with much of the material Frayn had to work with is the hatred of and bias towards Heisenberg for his Nazi involvement: the competencies of both physicists have been skewed over time.
I wish I could see Copenhagen performed because I marveled at the physics-dominated lines, which the actors would be required to commit to memory. I am still, however, a little unsure of the work. On one hand, it seemed a bit heavy....as if it was developed around a checklist of everything that could have been discussed. On the other hand, despite a lot of technical information about slow and fast fission, the conversation never really enters the deep thinking of a physicist. It comes off as drama with buzzwords. For all of Frayn's efforts to construct a play about the struggles of humans to simultaneously create and accept the consequences of a devastating atomic bomb, the fact that so much of the discussion is about the past, relieves the characters and (unfortunately) the reader from the raw moments characters endure, for example, in Greek classics and Shakespeare.
What I enjoyed most of all was a very thorough postscript. I am glad Frayn did not let this play "speak for itself" because there is much to be gained from reading this addendum. By stepping back from the volley of lines and comparing the play with its content, one can appreciate the Frayn has given us a reflective piece...it is a play about uncertainty: uncertainty principle of physics, the uncertainty of the German nuclear program including Heisenberg's fumbling or thwarting of it and certainly the uncertainty of what was said between the two men during the visit that inspired the play. This is not unrelated to Heisenberg's urge to be understood, even for a man who may not have understood himself.
Though I love being a visual person I constantly remind myself of this mode's limitations so I specifically enjoyed one articulation of Heisenberg...
"...he had the first truly quantum-mechanical mind - the ability to take the leap beyond the classical visualizing picture into the abstract, all-but-impossible-to-visualise world of the subatomic..."
One focus of the postscript I appreciated was Frayn's effort to explain the difficulty and pitfalls of laying a fictitious dialogue into a historic nest:
I can only appeal to Heisenberg himself. In his memoirs dialogue plays an important part, he says, because he hopes 'to demonstrate that science is rooted in conversations.' But, as he explains, conversations, even real conversations, cannot be reconstructed literally several decades later. So he freely reinvents them, and appeals in his turn to Thucydides. (Heisenberg's father was a professor of classics, and he was an accomplished classicist himself, on top of all his other distinctions.) Thucydides explains in his preface to the 'History of the Pelopennesian War' that, although he had avoided all 'storytelling', when it came to speeches, 'I have found it impossible to remember their exact wording. Hence I have made each orator speak as, in my opinion, he would have done in the circumstances, but keeping as close as I could to the train of thought that guided his actual speech.'...The greatest challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people's heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions - and this is precisely where recorded and recordable history cannot reach. Even when all the external evidence has been mastered, the only way into the protagonist's heads is through the imagination. This indeed is the substance of the play.
If WWII seems too distant for younger readers to connect with (Frayn was born in 1933), Copenhagen is entirely relevant for the current discussions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. The postscript clearly explains the difference between developing a reactor and a bomb and this is done so in favor of Heisenberg, who insists throughout the play that he made no move towards nuclear weapons. One of the issues presented in Copenhagen is not about drawing a moral line as a scientist when one's research may be devastating but trying to determine where that line is. While Heisenberg was working on a nuclear reactor for Germany, Bohr (through Los Alamos) contributed to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The deaths from the blasts and the acute effects were in the hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
I recall trying to look up women's skirts on television when I was a little kid. It must have been funny to watch me walk closer and closer towards the boob tube with my head cocked nearly upside down. To a young boy it was entirely frustrating because everything got fuzzy and flat when I put my face up against the bulging glass screen of our old black and white set. I always remember those early and curious attempts to pass a certain barrier of media, trying to get closer to the real thing.
So I decided to make another painting with some nudes, which only the viewer could expose if he or she so desires. I thought I would do an Adam and Eve scene, with strands of yarn for locks of hair to cover Eve's breasts and canvas leaves sewn over the privies. Perhaps it could be an interesting comment on desire; to move the viewer to act on his or her curiosity, but in a playful way. I was also thinking of Goya's paired canvases, the clothed and naked Maja, the practice by the Romans of covering the pubic areas of Greek nudes and the look but do not touch of most art, especially the recent offenses at Marina Abramović's The Artist Is Present at MoMA.
I wanted to make a fun canvas that was the opposite of all of such titillating displays but I also wanted to take the subjects beyond the Adam and Eve story because it is one that the modern world could do without. In place of the Old Testament duo, I turned to the Hindu loving couple, Maithuna, who are in spiritual and physical harmony. I started with a two thousand year old Maithuna stone carving from Karli, India, flipped the couple and gave them some music (in the form of a boom box) for their pleasure. The male in my painting is actually wearing a pendant, which shows the original pair. Although the large, round breasts of the female in the carving are exposed, the couple's loins are clothed. In my version, I painted them nude with their sturdy forms and then sewed a loin cloth over the male and a dress over the female, which can be easily lifted by the viewer. The material I chose was from a Declaration of Independence tie my brother gave me a couple years ago.
Friday, December 3, 2010
I had set out to write about cartoons and quantum physics in the previous post but ended up writing about radio. A decade ago, I used to listen to the wonderful, two-hour interviews between Dorian Devins and her science guests on her science radio show The Green Room on WFMU out of Jersey City, New Jersey. One guest was explaining quantum physics when he paused for an aside and said (roughly) "It's like that wonderful cartoon of the skier by Charles Adams whose tracks seamlessly diverge around a pine tree. You have evidence of what happened and yet you cannot observe it and it is impossible to witness."
You will find clippings of cartoons in the most curious places: they made someone chuckle enough to cut them out/print them out and stick them somewhere. Although they invite humor, they have a deeper power to redirect emotional circumstances, disarm threatening situations and to succinctly explain or interpret phenomena that gets lost in jargon or simply buried in words. The question is, what do we do with them? If they have such potential, why are they are so easily dismissed? No one is going to receive a Nobel Prize for trying to explain quantum physics with cartoons but it was quite interesting to hear a respected scientist referring to one in order to help explain something quite complex.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
My college newspaper office was next to the college radio station. I spent some time in the former and one day a small group of guys from an experimental radio show walked over to meet me because they liked the cartoon strips I was contributing to the paper. I think their intention was two-fold; to introduce themselves but also to initiate me into their tribe. After I humbly replied to their playful compliments in my shy, soft voice, however, one of them turned to the others with a sigh and a shrug of his shoulders and disappointingly and apologetically said:
"He doesn't have a radio voice."
None-the-less, we all became friends and I sometimes visited them during their wacky, multi-layered shows. Unlike the college newspaper, which was a hodgepodge of information and various interests, their shows were chaotic but also very focused and thematic. My one and only time speaking on the air was for a show dedicated to elevators. I wrote and read a story I made up about a father who worked as an elevator man and with whom I would spend my free days as a child vertically transporting people.
Radio is literally in all of us, pulsing through our bodies. It is the grandfather of modern media and a form of communication that still fascinates me. The orange ring design of the Museum of Peripheral Art and also the name came from growing up in the periphery of Manhattan and being within range of its radio and television broadcast waves. That being said, I should not give New York all the credit here since the first use of radio was in New Jersey by Guglielmo Marconi (pictured right), the inventor of wireless telegraphy.
I relish WNYC, especially Leonard Lopate's show, and feel very much part of the station. Not only is it around the corner from me but the company I work for built their new offices, studios and performance space and it was one of my first awarded projects. Despite their proximity, I now listen to them at work on the Internet, especially because I can access archives.
I started writing this post because I wanted to discuss something very different: cartoons and quantum physics, which I will save for the next post. The connection to radio is because of what I heard a physicist say about a cartoon on my favorite show of all time: WFMU's ever fascinating The Green Room with Dorian out of Jersey City, New Jersey, which was billed as "Interviews with some of the most intelligent people on earth!" The Green Room was originally broadcast every Monday from 6pm - 8pm, then was shortened to a 7pm - 8pm slot. The two-hour, in-depth interviews were typically with one scientist per show, who were often college professors, Nobel Prize scientists and MacArthur Fellows. The show ended in 2001, at which time Dorian transitioned to the one-hour general interests interview show Speakeasy, which apparently went off the air in the summer of 2009.
Although the Green Room archives simply have only lists of guests and links to related sites, the Speakeasy archives are still up and playable, click here >>>