Sunday, July 29, 2012

Art Pilgrimage: Rituals and Sacred Spaces in the Czech Republic

by Drew Martin
If art serves as a kind of an alternative religion, then the journey to a museum, biennale, or any other art event is a kind of pilgrimage. At least, this is how I am approaching the show Rituals & Sacred Spaces that I am in, which opens August 1st at Galerie Califia, Horažd’ovice, Czech Republic. In addition to making shrine-like sculptures at the gallery, I will create a series of drawings while I am traveling, documenting my way from New Jersey to Germany and finally, the Czech Republic. The invitation explains:

The exhibition Rituals & Sacred Spaces is inspired by a collection of sacred, votive clay figures and terracotta collected from several places in Western India, from the Gujarat state, near the south Rajasthan border. In their raw simplicity, there is a purpose to their existence. They are used for a centuries-old Hindu ritual ceremony, and essentially sacred from their inception.The contemporary artists participating in this show explore religious ritual or attempt to create their own sacred space in the gallery and its nearby vicinity.

The show is curated by Tony Ozuna, who grew up in Los Angeles but has been living in the Czech Republic for more than twenty years. The other artists include Veronika Richterová and Jan Petránek from the Czech Republic, Alejandro Gomer de Tuddo from Mexico, and Natalia Vasquez from Colombia. There will also be work by the Czech art group Rafani and a special opening performance by Tereza Damcová.

Pictured here is a photograph I took of my neighbor's hands. The image is on the invitations for the show and will hang in the gallery as a large silk print.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Woman with the 5 Elephants

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching The Woman with the 5 Elephants, which is about Svetlana Geier, a Ukrainian who translated Fyodor Dostoevsky's five major novels: Crime and Punishment, The IdiotThe Devils, A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov into German. Geier died in 2010 at the age of 87. The film is made when she was 85. She speaks about what is lost in translation when a word does not have a fitting partner, like the German gnade (grace), which she says sounds like a stuffed mattress. She explains that German and Russian are incompatible simply because you cannot say in Russian..."I have... (something)." In German, as in English, the object depends on the subject but in Russian it is the other way around. In this, Geier says you not only lose your nominative, but also your autonomy and your freedom.

Geier returns to Ukraine during the film with one of her granddaughters and gives a talk to young translators. She says translating is not like a caterpillar inching along, but that the meaning must emerge from the whole thought. Geier relayed this to a journalist in the beginning of her career and said you need to keep your "nose in the air," instead of tracking the sentence from left to right. To her dismay and amusement, that comment was published as her being "stuck up."

Stepping back and comprehending what is before you, is not only Geier's approach to her profession but also to how she views her environment and life. Geier is full of poetic comments. While pressing cloths, she talks about the relationship of text and textile and the need to iron out both when they lose their original form. She compares fresh linen on the bed to fresh snow - virgin territory.

Geier was deeply human. At the age of 15 she cared for her father when he was dying from the harm of the abuse he received as a political prisoner under Stalin. She referred to this time as the dress rehearsal to the main performance; taking care of her son who was debilitated from a shop accident. At the Ukraine border she is in awe that the conductor waited for her and her granddaughter to finish their conversation before asking them for their tickets and makes a comment about having to search for politeness on this planet. Geier concludes that language can remedy the hardships of life and of the profound effect good literature has on one's soul.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Shell-shocked: Michelle Jenneke Goes Viral

by Drew Martin
The video that went viral of Michelle “Shelly” Jenneke warming up and winning her heat for the 100 meter hurdles at the 2012 World Junior Championships in Barcelona this July, brought on 14 million views (to date), Australian pride, marriage proposals and jealousy rants. Jenneke prepared for her race by dancing in place, shaking off her nerves and getting psyched up. From the stands she would have appeared as a far-off, fidgeting speck but the zoom-lens close-up and the slow-motion replay matched with a number of dance tracks stole the fleeting moment and turned it into a never-ending lap(top) dance for YouTube viewers. The brilliant filmmaker Stanley Kubrick loved commercials for their ability to tell an entire story in a minute. I think he would be fascinated by the short Jenneke video because of the set-up. You cannot take your eyes off her and then she goes on to win the race by a full stride, so you feel rewarded because you are rooting for her even though you know nothing about her. The fastest man on Earth, Usain Bolt glamorizes the thrill of speed but running any distance of a mile or more conjures up pain and agony, and men and women who have run themselves down to their bones. Malcolm Gladwell captures this so well in this week’s The New Yorker article on running, Slackers: Alberto Salazar and the art of exhaustion…especially in the quote from Salazar…”I crossed the line and did not so much collapse as disintegrate.” Jenneke adds something to this sport that has been reserved for posturing sprinters and disciplined long distance runners, pure joy. Her bouncy gyrations shatter a repressed view of a sport that is naturally sexy. Jenneke pulls off the thin veil of times, bib numbers, lanes and corporate sponsors. Alenka Bikar from Ljubljana is no stranger to this. “The Pride of Slovenia” is known better for her derriere than her 200 meter performances. But why is this surprising? As Christopher McDougall points out in his best-seller, Born to Run, humans have large buttock muscles because of our natural running talent.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Spiral Jetty IPA

by Drew Martin
Last night I bought a pint of beer solely because of its name, Spiral Jetty. On the label is the following text: In 1970 American sculptor Robert Smithson broke artistic barriers and created a 1,500-foot long rock coil jutting into the Great Salt Lake. Smithson never set limits for himself or his art - so why should you?

The first time I drank beer was out of an aluminum can, on the tracks. It tasted awful. Since then American beer has taken off, and dare I write it - has become something of an art form. There are many domestic beers that are as good or even better than the European beers they were trying to match. I never imagined seeing a beer that would pull a page (742) out of my college tome History of Art by H. W. Janson. Smithson (1938-1973) intended for his Spiral Jetty to be submerged and erode. Nature reclaiming the work was integral to his design but he probably never envisioned such an embrace of his project. Although Smithson might object to the commercialization of it, he would probably be won over by its flavor. Spiral Jetty IPA is a great tasting beer.

Pictured here is my bottle in front of a model of Spiral Jetty, which I made to teach a class on sculpture.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Local Anaesthetics: The English Surgeon and The Flying Scotsman

by Drew Martin
I watched an interesting film yesterday called The English Surgeon. The first impression was "Oh, this is a real documentary about real issues. It is not trying to entertain, distract or fool me." The English Surgeon is about a leading British neurosurgeon, Dr. Henry Marsh, who leaves the comfort of his hospital and home to help Igor Petrovich perform brain surgeries against all odds in Ukraine. The premise is moving but sometimes the film reads like a Monty Python skit or a mockumentary such as Spinal Tap or Borat. Ukrainians must hate this film. All the landscapes are muddy. All the architecture is bleak. All the people seem to be peasants with brain tumors who cannot even form a proper queue. Bespectacled Marsh is a quixotic character, who shouts 'bloody hell' at his computer, salvages medical equipment from his London hospital and builds his own shipping crates in his garden. Adding to the potential farce is a young patient who is epileptic due to a large brain tumor. He is a bit of a town fool, who all-to-willingly goes under the knife. The Ukraine hospital is ill-equipped and does not have all the anaesthetics Marsh would typically use so he recommends to the young man to have the whole procedure under a local anaesthetic since the brain has no feeling. This means that while the young man is having his skull cut open and the tumor sucked out, he is also alert and babbles. After listening to the drilling and sawing of his cranium, he remarks that he understands why boxers can fight so long.

I also recently saw a film called The Flying Scotsman about Graeme Obree, a young bipolar and suicidal Scottish cyclist. Obree builds his own bike, using parts from his wife's washing machine, in order to break the world hour record, which is one of the most grueling sporting events. Obree's life is a great story but this was not a particularly good film. I am, however, drawn to tales of resourceful people who can tinker with and transform things into elevated objects. This ingenuity is taken to another level in The English Surgeon. The Marsh-Petrovich duo shop around second world markets to look at power drills for operations. They sit in a small apartment kitchen, modifying discarded penetrators (drill bits for bone). Petrovich saws off the sheathing of a penetrator on the edge of his kitchen table with a hack saw just before eating dinner. One wonders if this team could even jump start a car together but soon enough we see them in scrubs performing a successful operation on the young man, who is thereafter cured of his epilepsy.

Marsh was discouraged by others to help and Petrovich even received death threats for trying to buck the system. Petrovich questions what to do with one's life that will be most beneficial to others. While he and Marsh challenge the left-over Soviet system, they also know there are limits. In many instances we see them simply turn away patients, telling them it is too late to do anything and that they have inoperable tumors. In these moments we see the souls of a good people. The patients do not counter with anger and threats of lawsuits. Instead, they apologize for wasting the doctors' time and thank them. In one instance they tell a beautiful 20-something woman to return with her mother who is in Moscow. The young lady thinks she has something like Lyme disease, but Marsh explains to Petrovich that she has an inoperable tumor, will likely go blind in the next year and probably will not live for another five years. Petrovich says he does not know how to tell her this because she is so carefree and giggly, Marsh offers that he always has someone else with the patient when breaking such news. Marsh says they are constantly playing Russian roulette with two loaded guns to the patient's head. One gun is their illness, the other, the possibility that something will go horribly wrong. Contrasting the success of the epileptic's operation is a botch job with a young girl. Marsh operated on her in London but it was failure. He further damaged her brain and she lived out her remaining two years in misery. Marsh keeps in touch with the family. The film even takes us into the home of the mother where he is greeted lovingly by her relatives and then he visits her grave, marked with an enormous headstone with a bust of the young girl.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Francesca Woodman

by Drew Martin
I just watched an excellent documentary on Netflix about Francesca Woodman. It is called The Woodmans and is stitched together with very sobering interviews with her parents, brother and friends. Her parents, George and Betty Woodman, and brother Charlie are all artists and had quite an aesthetic life together in artsy homes in Boulder, Colorado, New York City, and Florence, Italy.

Francesca was a photographer who focused on black and white nude pictures, mainly of herself and other young female models. In 1981, at the age of 22, she committed suicide by jumping off a building in lower Manhattan. Her father said she was having a bad day; she found out she was not going to get an National Endowment for the Arts grant and her bicycle was stolen. Her parents question how they raised her, immersed in their own projects, fulfilling roles as professional artists, which Francesca never became. Interest in her work bloomed after her death. Her posthumous fame is met with mixed emotions by those who survived her.

The Woodmans is a well made film, punctuated with Francesca's beautiful photographs, which feel very fresh and relevant today. Click here to see a trailer of the film.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation

by Drew Martin
I recently finished reading E = mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis. He treats the formula as a character and the descendant of each component: E, m, =, c and 2. The book was inspired oddly enough by a remark from Cameron Diaz about wanting to know what the equation means. Bodanis looks at E = mc2 from a different angle. Instead of trying to tackle relativity or create another biography about Einstein, he focuses solely on the history of the formula.

E   In the early 1800's, Michael Faraday unified disparate concepts of energy, which had previously been looked at as unlinked forces.

=   In the mid 1500's, Robert Recorde promoted the equals sign as a computational symbol because he argued that nothing could be more equal than a pair of parallel lines of equal length. There were many competing symbols, which included // and ] [ . History favored Recorde's symbol. A century after its introduction, = found its way into the  language of equations.

m   Before having his head chopped in a guillotine because of his association with Louis XVI, Laurent Lavoisier demonstrated the conservation of mass, which helped recognize the commonality of different forms of matter.

c   Most people know that the c in Einstein's equation stands for the speed of light, but why c? C stands for celeritas, Latin for swiftness. Galileo was the first person who thought about measuring the speed of light. Ole Rømer was the first to best estimate c to be roughly 670 million miles per hour even though his work was not accepted at the time (late 1600's). Compared to the speed of sound, Mach 1, the speed of light is Mach 900,000. James Clerk Maxwell's 1821 breakthrough explained the mutual embrace of electricity and magnetism, leap-frogging light across the universe. It was one of the greatest theoretical achievements of all time.

2   Émilie du Châtelet (pictured here), Voltaire's companion, objected to Newton's idea (mv1), which stated that how objects make contact is simply a product of their mass times velocity. Châtelet revived Gottfried Leibniz's competing view (mv2) and supported it with evidence from the Willem 's Gravesande that energy is equal to a mass times it velocity-squared. Gravesande's experiments were simple; measure the deep of penetration of a metal ball falling into a clay floor. A ball propelled three times as fast does not go three times deeper but nine times deeper. If the speed of light is 670 million miles per hour then c2 is 448,900,000,000,000,000 miles per hour.

E = mc2 is a conversion formula and a way to express the vast amount of energy stored in mass.

Rice Dream

by Drew Martin
I just awoke from a dream in which I was attending the first day of a language class. It was either for Japanese or Chinese...I cannot remember which it was. I was in a well-lit classroom full of pupils at desks. The old instructor placed a bowl of rice in front of each student. Then he explained...

Lesson 1: stare at the bowl of rice and think about  all of the combinations of rice grains as a way to form a character.

It was a very Zen approach to kicking off the study of a language...I liked the lesson. I think this dream came about because of a recent focus on endangered languages. Google linked to the
Endangered Languages Project last week. Additionally, the most recent issue of National Geographic focuses on endangered languages. I have also been having conversations with friends about various languages and about the availability of studying Mandarin in high schools in the United States. This dream also made me think about the relationship of food and language. Eating moments are typically a time for conversation, but I was thinking more does the shape of food influence our written language and how does our language affect how we prepare food?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hiding in Plain View

by Drew Martin
I have written before about the Franklin Mineral Museum in "the fluorescent mineral capital of the world." Zinc deposits from this site have produced 357 different mineral species. I visited the Museum again yesterday and was reminded of the artist, Teresita Fernández and her interest in the collection. The following is from an interview between Anne Stringfield and Fernández:

AS: In thinking about context, I keep coming back to Robert Smithson as the artist whose work most strongly parallels yours. Your mirrored pieces could be seen as descendants of his Mirror Displacements, you both take a profoundly intellectual approach to your work, you share an interest in frames and boundaries, in cycles of building and ruin, and so on. Just how important is he to your practice?

TF: Smithson is an important artist for me. He prompts this inclusive view of the world where all references are permitted simply because they strike a chord with the artist; where expectations about place are reversed and ideas become inverted. I have a cabin on a lake near the Franklin Mineral Mine, in the area where Smithson spent so much time. This is the place where I’ve reread all of his writings. Smithson’s best work is all still intact, there to be explored, not in art museums, but virtually untouched in the very places he conceived it. You visit the mine, and enter a shabby little chamber full of dull, ordinary-looking rocks on shelves. When the lights are turned off and UV lights are turned on, the rocks glow with fantastic colors. It’s otherworldly. What interests me is that the rocks were always phosphorescent, you just couldn’t see it—it’s something hiding in plain view. And Smithson does this all the time, a kind of anthropomorphizing of the landscape so that you, as the viewer, are not privileged. He makes the landscape, in fact, look back at you.

Pictured here are images I took yesterday of the same fluorescent rocks that Fernández describes (in regular and UV light)