American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

Living Dolls.

Source: Reddit

The picture of dolls carrying corpses that popped up on Reddit late last month—that’s right: someone put this display in their yard in September at the latest, getting the jump on Halloween—is so brilliant I don’t know where to start with it. Of course it’s creepy and disturbing but then dolls are creepy and disturbing already. So many have the uncanny valley thing going on and I remember being seriously unsettled by those dolls whose eyes pop open when they sit up and close when they lie down because I couldn’t stop thinking, do they die if they never sit up again? And I thought that might not be so bad if it meant not looking into those cold, lifeless eyes ever again.

Maybe that’s why scary dolls are a horror film cliché, from 1929’s The Great Gabbo through The Twilight Zone‘s Talky Tina, who still creeps me out as an adult because she looks like one of those dead-eyed dolls from my childhood, up through Chucky and Annabelle.   

All of them, I think, owe a little something to the original scary doll story. If you’re only familiar with Disney’s Pinocchio it can’t prepare you for just how bonkers Carlo Collodi’s late 19th-century novel The Adventures of Pinocchio is. The two have more or less the same plot but the novel is darker and more rambling. Geppetto’s a poor woodcarver and decides he’ll make a little money by carving a puppet, but the block of wood he’s using is alive–it talks and bashes him in the legs before he even starts carving, which should have been a sign to throw that log in the fireplace. There’s a talking cricket but after Pinocchio smashes him with a hammer he comes back as a ghost and is then reincarnated, but never with a top hat or an umbrella. There’s also a fairy but she has blue hair–I guess that was too radical for the 1940s so Disney made her blonde with a blue dress. In the novel she first appears when Pinocchio is being chased through the woods by the Fox and the Cat, and does nothing while they throw a rope around his neck and leave him hanging from a tree. That was where Collodi planned to end the story, so be good kids and sleep well! Just remember–one wrong move and you’re dead!

Collodi was convinced to, ahem, finish the story and he more than doubled the length, including some scenes that made it to the film, like Pinocchio turning into a donkey and later, restored to his puppet self, being swallowed by The Terrible Dogfish–Disney turned it into a whale, referencing the story of Jonah which I guess they considered more believable–and scenes that didn’t, like Pinocchio being thrown in jail, working as a watchdog, and accidentally giving a dragon a heart attack.

It all ends happily, of course, with Pinocchio, through hard work and concern for others finally becoming a real boy. Is that a happy ending, though? He’s been through about three years of pretty demented adventures without ever getting older, but as a real boy he’s going to grow old and eventually die. That’ll probably keep him up at night.

He Told Us Where We Stand.

Source: RiffRaffStatue.org

There’s a statue of Riff Raff, the traitorous servant from Rocky Horror, on a street corner in Hamilton, New Zealand. That might seem like an unlikely place unless you know that Richard O’Brien, the musical’s creator and original butler, lived there and worked as a hairdresser, which might be why they gave the statue Riff Raff’s climactic look, after he decided to get his hair done at Dairy Queen.

There are also instructions on the statue’s base on how to do The Time Warp, the great dance that’ll take ya back to the moon-drenched shores of Transylvania, and a camera you can use to catch others doing The Time Warp if you can’t make it to New Zealand, and this is added to my list of approximately three thousand other reasons I’d really, really, really like to go to New Zealand, but that’s another story.

Why does Rocky Horror survive? It was a surprise hit on the London stage, a dud on the New York stage, and the film was a commercial and critical disaster that turned around into the biggest selling midnight movie of all time, developing a huge cult following, spawning a sequel, and I’m pretty sure it’s still a critical disaster because like anything campy it does everything wrong and does it brilliantly.

It’s also prescient in a weird way. It’s not just that Rocky Horror aggressively challenged gender norms. The sequel, Shock Treatment, would too, with Brad locked away like a fairy tale princess and finally rescued by Janet only after her rise and fall as a reality star. The never-to-be-made third film, Revenge Of The Old Queen would, if you can believe the bootleg scripts floating around, take things even farther: Janet goes her own way, Brad is dead and buried wearing nothing but a pearl necklace and high heels, and Riff Raff makes an unceremonious return to Earth, his teleporter putting him under a running shower head. If you wanna get really deep there’s even a fitting kind of symmetry in Tim Curry originating the role of Frank N. Furter but making a comeback of his own in the 2016 remake as The Criminologist—the life of the party reduced to a voyeur.

Way back in the early 1970’s when it all started O’Brien was riffing—no pun intended but let’s say it was intended anyway—on the glam rock of the time that killed the rhythm and blues rock that came before it (sorry, Eddie!), but he knew glam would burn out, or be taken down by whatever came next. When Riff Raff and Magenta crash Frank’s orgy they are the embodiment of punk rock, which makes it fitting that it’s the vengeful, murderous Riff who’s immortalized down under. Richard O’Brien knew the times they were a-changin’, and would keep changing. History doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme.

Because of the time difference whenever I check in on the Riff Raff statue it’s almost always tomorrow there, but it doesn’t matter. It’s always time to do The Time Warp.

Down To The Marrow.

By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights. But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror.

–Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp Of The Perverse

I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.

–T.S. Eliot

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

― Dorothy Parker

 

To thrust all that life under your tongue!—

that, all by itself, becomes a passion.

Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,

 

and yet she waits for me, year after year,

to so delicately undo an old wound,

to empty my breath from its bad prison.”

–Anne Sexton, Wanting To Die

I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as of the smallest, fear, paralyzing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing for something greater than all that is fearful.

― Franz Kafka

Number 48: The bones is yours Dad! They came from you my Daddy.

The President: Confess! Now you hep?

Number 48: Hip, Dad, hip.

The President: Confess!

Number 48: And a hip bone.

The President: Confess!

Number 48: And a thigh bone.

The President: Confess!

Number 48: Shin bone, knee bone.

The President: Confess!

Number 48: Back bone. All yours Dad.

The Prisoner

Dying

Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

–Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus

T’ain’t no sin to take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.

― Tom Waits

I’ve tasted blood and I want more.

–Janet Weiss, The Rocky Horror Picture Show

If it’s true that every seven years each cell in your body dies and is replaced, then I have truly inherited my life from a dead man; and the misdeeds of those times have been forgiven, and are buried with his bones.

― Neil Gaiman

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

-Shakespeare, The Tempest

to live in this world

you must be able

to do three things

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go

–Mary Oliver

The Art Of Happiness.

At the end of his autobiography, appropriately called My Autobiography since it’s hard to write someone else’s autobiography, Charlie Chaplin writes about his wife Oona and says, “I wish I could write more about this, but it involves love, and perfect love is the most beautiful of all frustrations because it is more than one can express.”

And I get it. Happiness is a great thing but for any kind of artist there’s also frustration in it. There’s a reason most fairy tales end with “and they lived happily ever after”. If they started with that there wouldn’t be much else to say, although some fairy tale versions–such as some of the Tales of the Arabian Nights–end with a line like, “And if they have not died they are still living,” which I think is more realistic. Happiness is ephemeral, which is what makes it nice when it comes along. It’s also hard to express, though, which is why most art is based on some kind of conflict. That’s why there’s also the saying that you know you’re a writer when something bad happens to you and your first thought is, “How can I make a story out of this?”

Taking a picture can also be frustrating because she doesn’t like to be still.

What got me thinking about this is that we have a new puppy and, well, let’s just say even when she frustrates me, mostly by chewing on my shoes or biting my finger because she’s still at that stage, it’s a beautiful frustration. And it’s frustrating that there’s so much I could say I’m not sure where to start. I guess introductions are best: her name is Junko. That’s pronounce “Joon-ko” because she’s named for Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mount Everest and the highest mountain on every continent, and I don’t know what Tabei would think of having a dog named after her but I like to think she’d be happy because Junko the puppy is smart and fearless, just like her namesake. She’s a climber and an explorer.

There’s also something for me in the fact that this strong, brave little girl has brought happiness into our lives at a time when we’re feeling sad about the loss of a strong, brave woman. I don’t know what Justice Ginsburg would think of being compared to a puppy, although it would probably make her laugh, and really I’m not comparing them even though they’re both small of stature but with a big ability to make the world a better place.

Well, Junko is small for now but she’s growing fast. And when I’m at work and she’s in the other room I’ll sometimes hear my wife snap, “Stop that!” followed by Junko’s short, quick bark, and I know Junko’s done something bad and my first thought is, how can I make a story out of this? And that makes me happy.

Here Are The Monkeys You Didn’t Order.

“Here are the monkeys you ordered.” Source: bencollier.net

A guy in Malaysia lost his cell phone and found it again full of monkey selfies and I have so many questions I don’t even know where to start. There are the obvious ones like, doesn’t this happen all the time in Malaysia? Monkeys seem to be pretty common there so I’m surprised this isn’t kind of a dog bites man story. And then there are the disturbing questions like, was Planet Of The Apes really a disturbing view of the future? And if so can it please be one of the good ones and not that horrendous Tim Burton flick?

Then there are the bigger philosophical questions. Were the monkeys aware of what they were doing? Did they know they were taking pictures of themselves? A series of copyright cases started in 2011 over a series of “monkey selfies” taken by macaques with a camera provided by photographer David Slater. The cases raised some thorny legal issues about ownership, and things took a really stupid turn when PETA filed a lawsuit arguing that the monkeys owned the photos, raising the question of whether they’re macaques, yourcaques, or nobody’scaques, but that’s another story.

And the history of animals creating art, as we understand it anyway, goes back to at least 1954 when Desmond Morris gave Congo, a chimpanzee in the London Zoo, pencils and paintbrushes, and elephants, dolphins, belugas, and even a bunny have produced paintings which raises the disturbing question, was Watership Down really a disturbing view of the future? And was the giraffe in this picture deliberately photobombing and if so would that be funny or disturbing or disturbingly funny?

Source: iflscience.com

We know animals make art. After all humans are animals, so cogito ergo pingo, or sumthing like that. The question is, do other species make art in the sense that we understand it? That’s a question that may be unanswerable, or at least can’t be answered until we can talk to the animals.

Roadside Attraction.

Source: roadsidesenryu

So I’ve captured a fair amount of roadside art over the years but this takes it to a whole new level. Some anonymous artist is putting up roadside signs with senryu, a form of  Japanese poetry. Although senryu tend to be seventeen syllables (with some exceptions) they’re different from haiku because while haiku traditionally evoke nature, particularly the seasons, senryu are humorous or satirical. Here’s an anonymous one I remember reading back in college:

As he loves her up

She talks only

To the cat.

Yeah, it falls short of the syllable count, but I think we can let it slide because it’s hilarious and says so much in just a few words.

The ones popping up around the country use the same design and shade of blue used for government road signs for services and recreation, which I think is also hilarious, and it’s why I’ll let it slide that not all of the signs are humorous or satirical. Some are thought provoking, poignant, even profound.

You can see the complete collection of signs at the website. And because there’s a website it’s technically possible to track down the artist but, as with some poems, I think it’s best to let the creator be anonymous.

Source: roadside senryu

Public And Private.

Source: Boston Globe

Public tributes to Chadwick Boseman, like the one in Graffiti Alley in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are a reminder that he was a public and very prominent figure. And yet he kept his cancer diagnosis private so that many of us who are fans were shocked by his death. I know some have criticized him for not speaking up, saying he missed an opportunity to educate the public about colorectal cancer and its changing demographics. It’s rising among younger people and Black people. I won’t repeat or even link to the critics but at the same time I will acknowledge them. He didn’t choose to get cancer, but he could choose how he responded to it. I don’t know why he chose not to talk about it but I know when I was diagnosed with cancer I didn’t want to talk about it, and didn’t tell anyone outside of a few people for three weeks. And when I did talk about it I joked about it because it was hard for me to admit even to myself, even after I’d started chemotherapy, that it was really happening.

There are a lot of reasons my own fight with cancer is different: I had a different, and much more treatable, cancer, and my own treatment was probably a lot easier than his. And yet I remember days when I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed. I was out of work for six months because my immune system crashed. He kept working, filming and co-producing Marshall, Black Panther, and two Avengers films. He was even confident he could finish Black Panther 2.

Also consider four major roles that help define his career, a career that was cut too short: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and T’Challa, the Black Panther. There was some luck involved—in art and in life none of us can control everything—but he chose to portray four people, three real and one fictional, who are all legendary. He chose roles that contributed to discussions about race in the United States.

Respect his choices.

Hail and farewell Chadwick Boseman.

 

It’s About Time.

So far seven authors have joined the Future Library, a project started in 2014 by artist Katie Paterson. The idea is that manuscripts by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón, Elif Shafak, Han Kang, Karl Ove Knausgård, and, most recently, Ocean Vuong will, after a ceremony in the Nordmarka forest, be sealed in the Deichman public library in Oslo, Norway. And they’ll stay sealed there until 2114 when one thousand trees, specifically planted just for this project, will be cut down and turned into paper to print one hundred copies of each manuscript.

So each year brings us a little closer to the great unsealing.

This isn’t the first time manuscripts have deliberately been put away until a later date. At least some of Mark Twain’s autobiography was, at his request, published incrementally with the complete volume finally released in 2010. And supposedly the Greek writer Longus would put a finished work away for seven years. At the end of that time he’d pull it out and if he still thought it was good he’d publish it. A lot can happen in seven years–I should know; I’ve got short stories that took at least that long to finish, but those are other stories–but I guess it worked for him since people still read Daphnis And Chloe.

The Future Library project raises a lot of questions. What sort of world will be there to receive the manuscripts when they’re finally published? And I’m going to be optimistic and assume there will still be people around to read the books, and that books will still be printed and preserved in libraries. I know it seems really really optimistic to assume that, although I also assume the internet will still exist in some form even if blogs like this one have long since dissolved, or I will show you fear in a handful of electrons.

A century ago this year, this month, this very week, in fact, the United States passed a major landmark with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, with Tennessee becoming the 36th and final state needed to add the right of women to vote to the Constitution. The Hermitage Hotel, an important meeting place where legislators gathered, has changed in the intervening hundred years but still stands in downtown Nashville, its outward appearance not that much different than 1920.

Considering that it’s not hard to imagine that one woman’s idea of a future library, now less than ninety-six years away and counting, could still come to pass.   

Get In Front Of It.

Last week during my regular working hours–I want to say “at work” but after all these months I still feel like working at home is kind of a weird gray area–we had a lot of lengthy meetings about the protocols for returning to the office. Since I work on a college campus during normal times I regularly go to different buildings to meet with people in different departments, and sometimes when I take a break or go to lunch I might go hang out in an empty classroom. Or I might go to one of the campus art galleries.

When I’ll actually go back to work is still to be determined, but for the first time in months I’m starting to see it as a possibility. Once I go back to my actual office, in a building I don’t also call home, a lot of the venturing out I’m used to doing will probably be verboten. But if the art galleries are open it will be a chance to get out and stand in front of actual paintings. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several months thinking about a comment by the art critic Robert Hughes I read, well, several years ago:

Every time I lecture, there is always some Gatesian nerd out there in the audience who sticks up his hand and says, “Well, since we can perfectly reproduce an image on a high-fidelity television screen, why do you need to go and see the original?” And the answer is because paintings are things in the physical world, made out of colored mud smeared on a piece of cloth or a piece of board, with a stick with hairs on the end. They have a particular address to your body, and none of this comes across in the computer image

There are levels of detail in a real painting that, at least with our current technology, can’t be reproduced on a computer screen–textures where the paint is layered. As much as we may think of paintings as flat they’re really three-dimensional objects, and I’m looking forward to eventually getting out and seeing the originals.

Hold It Up.

The Seated I by Wangechi Mutu. Source: Artnet

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has had four of Wangechi Mutu’s bronze “Seated” statues on display since last September, and I just read that the museum will be keeping two of them permanently. Cool, I thought, maybe I’ll get to see them someday, and then I read that they were caryatids, and that got me wondering. And that sent me on a dive into the history of caryatids, carved figures, usually of women, which traditionally act as pillars holding up buildings. They date back to ancient Greece where the first caryatids were actual women and they didn’t hold up buildings but were worshipers of Artemis in the Peloponnese city of Karyai. Mutu’s sculptures are large–each weighs about 840 pounds and is more than six feet tall–and represent seated women, but don’t actually hold up anything. So technically they’re not caryatids, at least not according to the ancient definition, but that doesn’t matter. Terms evolve over time and take on different meanings. Gargoyles were originally decorative waterspouts–the words “gargoyle” and “gargle” come from the same root word, and I’m not sure which was the inspiration for Gargamel, but that’s another story.

In more recent history there’s Rodin’s 1881 sculpture Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone, which shows, well, the title pretty much gives it away. Rodin earlier carved three male figures–the term for those is “telamon” or “atlas”–which stand tall and noble, but his caryatid is crushed under the weight of her stone.

Source: Tate Museum

And this is where I politely say, fuck you, Monsieur Rodin. The traditional caryatids exhibit real strength. They literally hold up buildings. And they come in groups so no one has to hold up the whole place by herself, and if one needs to step out for a drink or a bathroom break the others can hold her place. Also if Rodin can call his sculpture a caryatid then clearly the term is flexible and doesn’t have to be strictly applied to a figure holding up a roof.

There are also contemporary caryatids holding up buildings. The Supreme Court of Poland has three caryatids that hold up part of the building and symbolize faith, hope and love.

Source: Wikipedia

To get back to Mutu’s caryatids, she specifically calls her sculptures that, but also explained how she was deliberately breaking with tradition:

Caryatids, throughout history, have carried these buildings to express the might and the wealth of a particular place. In Greek architecture, you see these women in their beautiful robes, and then in African sculpture across the continent you see these women either kneeling or sitting, sometimes holding a child, as well as holding up the seat of the king. I wanted to keep the DNA of the woman in an active pose, but I didn’t want her to carry the weight of something or someone else.

The disks that are so prominent on three of the four sculptures face forward, partly obscuring the faces of the figures, and suggesting that these women push forward. They use their strength to carry themselves, and it’s fitting that they are collectively called The NewOnes, will free Us.

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