Dodging Bullets vs. Shooting Them

By bullets I mean unwanted, unyielding change. By dodging I mean dodging. By shooting I mean effecting. This, then, is the title with which I catalogue the past year and a half, not only my own life, but of many of those close to me.

There may be cosmic reasons for the dodging, the shooting. If you add up the digits in 2016 you end up with 9, which according to numerology is the number of finality. But if you add up 2017 you get a 1, from whence the infinite is launched. Going from end to start, and not the other way around, is sloppy. Sloppy, sloppy.

The Chinese calendar had 2016 as a monkey and 2017 as a rooster. Both are highly annoying animals, at the very least acoustically.

Then there is my blood type. O-, the universal donor bitch. But that is a bad example of what I am trying to get at. My point is that there is something amiss in the air these past few years. Something smells, and it is recent and I am not the only one holding her nose.

What is going on?

America had a perfectly decent terrible candidate to elect, and instead elected an armed child. Beer sales are dropping in poor countries. All clothes look the same. Sorrow is the city, is the suburb, is the soon-to-open train.

I wish I knew what the lesson was. So I could learn it enough to play the shooting game.

 

 

 

Without Fear or Favor

I just spent ten days marveling at Asia. But, despite the magic of travel, no trip I’ve taken has ever been tinged with such sorrow.

Every morning for the past ten days, I read an entire physical, newspaper. Could the news be sadder than it is now? Gay men shocked to death in Chechnya, one hundred thousand people detained in Turkey, another blasphemy killing in Pakistan, another Russian journalist beaten dead, millions of refugees swallowed by the muds and sands of Bangladesh, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, a river disappears in Canada, one hundred young recruits blown up in Afghanistan, the total collapse of Venezuela, the sixth year of holocaust in Syria.

Putin, Assad and his pretty-faced wife, Maduro, Kony. The extermination wrought by this short list of names is too much to bear.When asked by a television reporter about the reports of gay men disappearing, dying, Chechen leader Kadyrov responded that the reports were false because there were no gay men in Chechnya, no people “oriented in the wrong way.”

And then there’s Trump, whose full frontal attack on Planned Parenthood and climate change may be the greatest crime against humanity in the news today. No lush diplomatic cake with China can sweeten the smog away.

When you do the math, there is no addition, only subtraction, division. Poverty and violence swallow entire countries whole. To write, and read, “Without Fear or Favor,” as The Japan Times proudly claims to do, is a privilege of the insufficient few.

Apart from donating, voting and speaking out, staying informed is its own form of protest, of empathy. But serious newspapers are suffering as free (often fake) news gains traction. So, today, I decided to subscribe to a few major national newspapers. The New York Times, for example, is on sale. For $1.50 a week you can read every article on their site. The Washington Post gives you unlimited access for $99 a year. A small price to pay to make sure someone is watching.

Everyday Poet, Everyday God

francis-and-dylanPope Francis is to the Vatican as Bob Dylan is to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Both represent a promise, long overdue, finally made real.

In the case of the Vatican, the overdue promise is to embody Jesus’s goodwill. In the case of the Nobel Prize Committee, the overdue promise is, in Alfred Nobel’s own words, to award a writer whose work both moved in “an ideal direction” and offered “the greatest benefit on mankind.”

I dare anyone to name the past three Nobel Laureates (Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro).  As a writer, it’s hard to benefit someone who has not read you. Harder still to benefit those that have not even heard about you. But Dylan, people know Dylan. They get Dylan.

To award Dylan is to award his audience. It is delivery to deliverance.

Just as Pope Francis’s gentle message draws the Catholic Church closer to love-hungry hordes, Dylan’s simple lyrics deliver art to culture-starved crowds. Dylan’s Nobel legitimizes the Prize for a population increasingly distant from the tangible, written word, and in doing so, gives new relevance to Literature.

Institutions must be commercial if they are to wield influence. Barely in time, the Vatican recognized that its message was lost without the right messenger. Apropos, the Nobel Committee realized that #trending is a good thing.

Photo Credit: Dylan’s photo is by Paul Natkin (Getty). Pope Francis’s photo is from the AP. 

 

The Difference between Coolness and Artness: What Turns Everyday Objects into Art

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The Frieze says “Hi!” via Martin Soto Climent’s Frenetic Gossamer (2016). Photo: Skye Arundhati Thomas.

Inevitably, many of the highlights at this year’s London Frieze are works that turn common objects into art. To enter the Fair, visitors must walk by a courtyard and  up a narrow hallway where Martin Soto’s pantyhose installation cuts the sky into the vaulted Gothic cathedral lines of a sacred place of worship.

The Gagosian is the first gallery one meets, featuring the works of Edmund de Waal: white and black porcelain vessels and small objects arranged onto shelves of the same color. The fragility of the exhibit is humbling. Here is a work of pure, selfless devotion to the things made by Man. Here is a work that, for a change, does not lessen but, rather, heightens the role of that being who is always lurking behind at art fairs: The Collector. But, more on this later, much later.

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Edmund de Waal, white sail (detail), 2016. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Immediately to the right of The Gagosian is London heavy-hitter Sadie Coles Gallery. Here hang several pieces by Scottish artist Jim Lambie. My favorite is Pin Code 3379 (2016), pictured below, which uses thousands of safety pins to hold together a torn navy blue canvas in lines that conjure a Scottish kilt. The scarred canvas belies the function of the safety pin, pointing a pricked finger at the past and present pains associated with Scotland’s national identity. It holds together, but at what cost.

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Around the corner from The Gagosian is Hong Kong’s Simon Lee Gallery. On display here are works by the Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Her installation includes paintings as well as a massive pile of cobalt-dyed cotton in the center of the space. Looking at it feels menacing: at any moment, the strands of cotton might turn into tentacles and drag you in.  It is a great feeling.

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But, then I saw the piece below by artist Haugeue Yang at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery. The S-shaped panel of small bells turns, making the piece jingle.  It was cool, sure, but I felt nothing. I began to wonder what makes a piece of art made from everyday objects successful? What is it that actually makes it art, and not just a cool thing to hang?

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I’ve come up with two words that sum it up: sanctity and uncanniness. In order for a piece built with everyday things to “do” it, to interfere with a viewer’s emotions, it must transgress the sanctity of the objects it uses.  The bells in the piece above fulfill their intended purpose: they chime. Edmund de Waal’s perfect white vessels, however, will never be sipped. No one will slip Soto’s pantyhose on.

It is this transgression, this violation of an object’s raison d’être, that provokes a sense of uncanniness in the viewer. Something is off, and it is creepy.  

“Uncanny” was one of Freud’s favorite words. I really like it, too, because it identifies a feeling that eschews description. Olowska’s pile of blue cotton is terrifying. Why? It is uncanny. Why? Something is not right. What? The object and our expectations of it. Why? Cotton exists to make underwear. But, what if it does not? Then, maybe, we must probe our surroundings.

And, it is in that private, silent rereading of life that our chest encounters art.

 

No to New Neon

fullsizerenderNeon art began in the 1960’s when an artist named Dan Flavin first displayed it in a New York gallery. Back then neon was street, current and controversial. Indeed, The New York Times compared it to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal: “When Dan Flavin first brought [neon] into art galleries during the 1960’s, he was, in effect, doing what Marcel Duchamp had done with his ready-mades nearly 50 years earlier.”

1960 was a long time ago: 56 solid years have passed.

But, somehow, someway, neon art keeps making it into the world’s most prestigious booths inside the planet’s most important art fairs. And, there are usually crowds of people gathered around taking selfies.

My problem isn’t with abstract neon art, but with the textural variety. Once, fifty years ago, when neon was used to light up offbeat words it challenged the way people thought and created meaning. Now, several decades later, when neon is used to say cute things, it is just cute. And cute things belong in a corner restaurant, not in prime wall space at the London Frieze, which is where the works pictured above and below made their debut.

Illuminating a romantic phrase or a catchy word with bright neon can certainly be regarded as a creative act, but it should no longer be considered top-shelf art.

Indeed, if it’s not happening already, Urban Outfitters should soon offer a selection of aptly priced neon signs, and place them right next to the stacks of t-shirts that read: “Keep Calm and Blah Blah Blah.”

(Note: This text should in no way be construed as a diss upon the house of neon. I happen to love neon and consider it a wonderful, decorative part of life.)

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On Female Punctuation (!!!!!)

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Ed Ruscha’s unpunctuated “OOF”

For several weeks, I’ve been thinking about the exclamation mark and its odd relationship to gender. Why is it that intra-female communication is so lavishly punctuated by exclamation marks? Why do women seem to feel, or perhaps feign, so much excitement whilst exchanging short, declarative sentences?

My husband does not reply to simple “yes” or “no” questions with a “Yes!!!!” or a “No!!!!!” His no is a “No.” His yes a “Yes.”

Males do not replace “Ok” with “Okkkkkk!!!!!!!” Nor do they feel the need to effusively give their “Thanks!!!!!!!!”

Of course, the easy answer to the question of why this happens is that modern girls continue to be sickened by the disease to please, even each other. Or, indeed, especially each other. But, I hesitated writing about the subject because I felt that the disease to please was actually not at play here and that the true understanding of this phenomenon eluded me.

And it did, until today.

While visiting a rather unimpressive Banksy exhibit in Amsterdam’s Moco Museum, I was struck by how his works were sucked of all urgency when taken out of their intended context: the tumult of the street. Framed by stained glass in an antique museum, his works seemed trite, facile, t-shirt copies of themselves.

I realized that the same thing happens to female texting when taken out of the urgency of the moment: when read after the fact, heavily punctuated phrases become vapid, unnecessary, insecure and exhausting.

But in the immediacy of its creation, exclamatory female dialogue is actually symptomatic of a compelling need to express a sisterly bond as well as a deep appreciation for the other’s time and energy. The excitement transmitted by overzealous punctuation serves to acknowledge the deep gratitude that is generated by the very existence of such exchange within the context of the hyper-hectic life of the urban female.

So, yes!!!!!, when a friend takes the time to answer a mid-day question, I am honored. Yes!!!!! it is really exciting to be texting with someone who has several children, a marriage, a boss and fridge to keep happy. Yess!!!! I urgently want to say Thank you!!!!! when this person suggests a good doctor, restaurant, vitamin, or indestructible iPad case.

It is a relief to realize that female over-punctuation is nothing to be ashamed of but, rather, celebrated as an expression of the confident and generous collaboration between she who gives and she who receives.

 

 

 

 

Olympic Medal Grounds

unknownAlong with over 60% of the world’s population, I watched the Olympics last summer. For me, lonely athletic greatness is the ultimate tear-jerker. And I am a sucker for painless ways to cry. But, I just couldn’t get behind all the flags, all the anthems, all the medal counts. Each awards ceremony felt oppressive, itchy, and, yes, embarrassing.

As much as I enjoyed crying when the first Puerto Rican heard her national anthem on the Olympic podium or when my few fellow Colombians felt the weight of gold around their necks, I much more enjoyed watching them do their thing on the court, field, pool, track. I much preferred witnessing that sudden instant of triumph, like when Simone Manuel realized she had won gold, than watching jump-suited athletes choke back orchestrated tears on the stage. For me it’s ultimately a “don’t love the game, love the player” kind of thing.

Classifying athletes by nationality feels off. It feels old, even creepy, as if a third world war is somehow looming around the corner.  One obvious reason is that not all countries deserve so much credit.  Sure, most nations pay their Olympians a per win bonus. In the case of Colombia, for example, each gold medal winner gets 165 million pesos, which is a respectable amount of local currency. But, really, this sum is nothing when placed on the other side of the work/time equation.

An even bigger question for me is why athletes jump at the chance to give their countries so much credit. Is country really a reason to hit the gym in the morning? Or, is there simply no better way to classify athletes other than birthplace?

Classifying them by humility would be great. Or by kindness, by altruism. Then the Olympics could really own the claim of hard win over easy bad, instead of diluting itself into another day of the US v. China thumb wrestling medal grounds.