Sunday, October 19, 2014

Maya Lin, Wedding Poetry, and the Ice Cream Brain Freeze Rush of Too Many Ideas at Once


notes about creativity

Charles Hood here, making a brief guest appearance while the “Under New Management” aspect of the AVC Blog continues to evolve.

I have just come back from one of those kinds of events that has you remembering things days later, and saying, “Oh yeah, how cool was that?” It was the Center for Art + Environment Conference at Nevada Museum of Art, a reminder yet again of how fun it is (a) to get to hang out with interesting people and (b) to get to fill up a trick-or-treat bag with ideas, ideas, and more ideas, all free for the asking.


In class we were talking about nursery rhymes the other night, and the “marriage poem” came up. I reminded students that traditionally it’s not four lines long, but five:

Something old,
something new,
something borrowed,
something blue,
and a silver sixpence in her shoe.

Like so many pieces of classic folklore that endure and endure, this one seems to fit many situations perfectly, this conference included. The rhyme --- and the conference --- keep staying with me.

Something old:

How old is the wind? (Well, how old is the atmosphere?) In the Antelope Valley, we live with the wind all year long, but most especially in spring, as these pines on my block verify.


Invisible, everywhere, nowhere—how can artists show the wind to us, help us think about it? At the conference we had a presentation by my heroes, the math / Google artists Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg. They gave us a wind map that's free and online, and that I'll show a bit further down this post. First just a quick (very quick) survey of things artists have done prior to this, when they show / talk about / think about wind.

In Basque Spain, Eduardo Chillida made a "wind comb" in 1976. (This photo and several below come from The Book of the Wind, Alessandro Nova.)

It works even in still weather, especially since the sea always is doing something. I bet it must be really amazing in a pounding winter storm.


If you can read Spanish, there's a full entry for this on the Spanish language version of Wikipedia. Artists have long shown the effects of wind, as in this medieval manuscript:

Or as in this dramatic and chaotic scene by Turner.

But how can we show the wind itself? Not the results, but the actual force itself? After sharing with us their failed ideas, Viegas and Wattenberg talked a bit about a free map that I just have fallen in love with. Here's my screen capture just before Hurricane Sandy hit.


Unlike my screen grab, the map is not static, and little horse-tails of wind are always in motion all across the Lower 48, in real time. The website for this is

http://hint.fm/wind/

The website says this: "The wind map is a personal art project, not associated with any company. We've done our best to make this as accurate as possible, but can't make any guarantees about the correctness of the data or our software. Please do not use the map or its data to fly a plane, sail a boat, or fight wildfires."

My wife couldn't be in Reno for this event, and when she found out I had met the wind map people, she added that to the list of things about me that really annoy her. (Another was that I saw a wild Pallas's Cat without her last summer in Tibet.)


Something new:

Kate Clark’s 2014 piece Licking the Plate was commissioned for the exhibition titled Late Harvest, up at the Nevada Museum of Art right now. I rarely use a word like mesmerizing about a piece of art, but this one truly transfixes a viewer, stopping person after person in her or his tracks. A full-size taxidermied kudu—an African game species much prized by Hemingway—has been given a human face. Take that, Star Trek: this is much creepier (and much grander) than anything one ever sees in the company of Captain Kirk.

The image here comes from the exhibition catalog for the Late Harvest show:


Is this piece saying that all animals have a face or soul? Inuit hunters would agree, if so. Or is it a comment on us as Homo sapiens --- we are each partly an animal, inside? We don't mind if it artists give animals a tiny bit of anthropomorphic modeling, as Audubon did with these owls.


If the artist takes it too far, though, it unsettles most people very greatly, myself included. You want to tell this kudu-centaur-mermaid-priestess, "Stop looking back: you're bugging the bejesus out of me."


Goya would admire it, since his Disasters of War etchings are so brutal and honest and unflinching that one can barely stand up under their witnessing. This piece will be up until January, and I urge folks to make the drive to see it in person. 

Something borrowed:

This image also comes from the Late Harvest exhibition catalog but represents an absence. The piece itself, after a nightmare of export permits and negotiations, was headed to the US to be in the art show, but then it turns out that while it was in storage insects had done their thing and the piece was too fragile and too damaged to be shipped. 


This is both a sculpture and the projection of a sculpture: look on the wall to see how the assembled animals create the profile of a man and a women. I quote from Joanne Northrup's very helpful introductory essay in the catalog. "Tim Noble and Sue Webster's British Wildlife (2000) is a complex shadow sculpture that includes eighty-eight taxidermy animals: forty-six birds (thirty-five species), forty mammals (eighteen species), and two fish." The project is partly an homage to Mr. Noble's father, who had acquired the Victorian specimens as props when he taught drawing classes. As Ms. Northrup says, the piece encompasses "fundamental dyads: light and shadow, form and anti-form, nature and culture, predator and prey, male and female, life and death."

It also is a testament to the transience of all matter, given that it's no longer in showable condition. (The artists had other pieces to represent their work, instead.) An assemblage like this may have some slight degree of "eeeww" factor, along the lines of "those poor animals" or "how barbaric." To my mind, this is too easy of a response. Let's just take one species, the Ring-necked Pheasant, a common game bird in England, and, after its introduction, common even in America. 

 
I've seen them not far from Reno itself, between Carson City and Minden, and around Antelope Valley College they occur along Ave D towards Quail Lake and up in Green Valley. Besides its introduction throughout the U.S., a pheasant is a very "British" bird, the kind of thing landed gentry would hunt on large estates. They are mentioned in Shakespeare and are one of about ten species that most lay people in England can name on sight.

(Photo credit: um, sorry, it's "out there" on the Internet but I can't find any authorship credits.

Yet the pheasant is not native to Europe but instead to China, and so its presence in British culture --- the Bard not withstanding --- is in some ways misleading. They're not native there nor here, and to say it's wrong to shoot them is to be perhaps too immediately judgmental. It might be that in shooting pheasants the British hunters are doing good things, if they were in some way creating better conditions for a less common and more properly indigenous species. Similarly, we probably all have an opinion about fox hunting, to name another species frequently seen in taxidermy shops, but the objective fact is that the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the most successful, widespread carnivore in the world. You think the coyote is adaptable and widespread? Our friend the coyote ain't got nuthun on the fox, which can be see in midday in Kew Gardens, at dusk by the Dead Sea in Israel, outside of Nome, Alaska, near the Mongolian border in China, or even trotting at dawn along an expressway in New Jersey. (How do I know? Range maps tell me so, plus in each of those instances, I've seen them myself.) It may well be wrong to shoot any animal for any purpose, but to shoot a fox, stuff it, and use it in an art piece (recycled or otherwise) will not change the worldwide status of the red fox.

Ethics and the distribution of candis aside, that shadow piece and the others similar to it strike me as extravagantly cool. Right on for art (and for the art museum), if it gives us experiences like that.

Something blue:

I have met Santa Monica-based Lita Albuquerque before and she impresses me more each time we speak. That may be because we share an affection for (and former art residencies in) Antarctica. A new book celebrates Stellar Axis, her installation in Antarctica that mapped out the unseen stars present in the sunlight-all-the-time austral summer sky. This picture comes from that book, released a few weeks ago by the Nevada Museum of Art and Skira Rizzoli. Here is the book cover and a shot of the installation.




The concept included participation by and interaction from science and support staff based in Antarctica, as this aerial shot from the book shows:


A good overview of her work can be found on her website, http://litaalbuquerque.com.

and a silver sixpence in her shoe.

Maya Lin is best known to the general public for the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C., and that indeed is one of the most remarkable pieces of memorial architecture since the Renaissance. Her art and architecture since then have explored many other themes, subjects, media, and geographies, and for the Nevada Museum of Art her exhibition up now considers Arctic ice / Arctic rivers and hence, by implication, Arctic futures.

This is a topic that I have been thinking about as well, and this photo was taken within about 600 miles of the North Pole. Is there less ice each year? Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is in trouble; I have seen it myself.


Maya Lin does many interesting things with topography, sea ice histories, and wave patterns. Among her art projects are representations of river systems cast in recycled silver. One thing about her exhibits and her website though, she sure does not like random bloggers like me doing right-click borrowings of her images. Her main gallery, Pace, feels the same way. Even captions for images are hard to come by. Here though is a representative of a wall-sized piece cast in silver that shows how she represents ocean basins.



This shot is a screen grab from her website, http://www.mayalin.com. It's a really interesting place; it too is highly recommended.

The Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art does something I have benefited from personally and try to model in my own teaching and life, and that is that it's really good at creating the right conditions for collaboration. Maya Lin spoke about this during her talk.




When asked about working with a team on projects, she said, "I leave my artist ego at the door; I need to disappear." Why? It's all about results. Maya Lin: "True success is the real connection. My goal is to put the visitor back into the landscape, and how that happens does not matter, just so long as it DOES happen."

I think one mistaken notion we've inherited from the Romantics is the idea of the mad scientist or the crazy poet locked in a tower. Even if we go back to High Modernism (which had as much a cult of personality as any contemporary issue of People magazine), there would never have been T.S. Eliot's masterpiece The Wateland if he and Ezra Pound had not sat down to go over a rough draft. Luckily, their notes survive, or at least Pound's comments right on the manuscript. (What Eliot said we can't be quite so certain about.)


I tried to pick a sample page where Pound had not just crossed out everything on the whole page top to bottom, and one on which he had not scribbled bad words in furious frustration. (Hi, Ez, I know how you feel.) His grumpiness helped, though; Eliot's 1922 book-length poem is widely credited as the single most important poem in the past 100 years. (As a side note, Modernism marks the arrival of the typewriter as a mean of production, and with it, the sense of the page as a typographical space.)

After too many years of in-fighting and territoriality, it feels like our campus is about to put into practice some of the ideas that I have seen carried out at the Nevada Museum of Art. AVC Language Arts teacher Scott Covell is making a zombie movie (slash parody of MTV music videos slash meditation on the power of images), and he recently let me sit in on a shooting session. 


He brought together folks from six departments on campus, and all I can say is, (a) making a movie is hard work, and (b), as I stated earlier on, hanging out with productive, smart, energized people is the best rush there is. He has a follow-up feature planned for next summer, and Covell asked if I would be willing to go with him when he approaches the Foundation for funding.

"Damn straight, amigo," I told him. It's just as Maya Lin says: "What matters are the connections. Who cares about status or name badges? Get some committed people together, give them permission to generate all the ideas they want, and then just stand back and watch great things happen."

++++++++

Charles Hood teaches in Language Arts and can be reached at chood@avc.edu. This blog does not represent the views or endorsement of the Board of Trustees nor the District as a whole, and the AVC Blog in no way wishes to suggest that you go out tomorrow and shoot foxes, pheasants, or any other animal, native or introduced.





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