Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Barnes Foundation

the barnes museum

"The Barnes Foundation is the only sane place to see art in America." --Matisse

After visiting The Barnes on Sunday, I can't say that it's the only sane place to see art in America, but I can say that I've never had a better time -- and a more enlightening experience -- at a museum.

Even though The Barnes exists a mere two and a half hours northeast of my home (by car), it wasn't until watching the documentary The Art of the Steal that I became aware of it. I was very interested in visiting the museum as the documentary progressed, and, not knowing the story or its outcome, I became increasingly stressed while watching (the odds that the museum was still around seemed to dwindle with each passing chapter). Luckily, as I found out at the film's conclusion, The Barnes Foundation is still around in (more or less) its original format. That is, until next year. Time to make reservations.

Until seeing The Art of the Steal I had also never fully realized that what I found off-putting about most museums was the clinical, hospital-like atmosphere: white (usually) sterile walls, spaced out paintings, placards, and everything with a very detached, technical feel. The level of reverence many of these institutions have for the work becomes apparent (if somehow The Art of the Steal fails to get this across) once you think about the fact that most pictures are framed in a way that masks part of the painting (bits of the perimeter). Albert Barnes, on the other hand, placed all of his frames outside of the painting so as to not cover part of their edge, and his museum is perhaps the only one to have done away with the small placards that detail the name and year of the painting (a distraction, he thought, since the paintings surely stand by themselves). Small details aside, what makes The Barnes truly special is its wall displays.

Each wall of The Barnes is arranged very precisely, with paintings from various artists and time periods mingling and mixing freely with one another for the purpose of comparison. Hanging above and around the paintings are metal objects -- door hinges, keys -- often positioned together to create new patterns (occasionally I noticed face-like designs). On the floor in front of the paintings (usually) sits antique furniture of some kind -- typically a desk, chest, or small cabinet (displayed as art in their own right) -- and atop the furniture there is sometimes pottery, small brass sculptures, candles, or other similar objects. The point is for everything to play off of, and highlight, everything else -- teaching as much as showing. For example, the pattern of an antique chest might hint at the pattern in part of a woman's dress in the painting hanging above, while the wooden spokes in the back of a chair sitting in the corner might mirror the branches of a tree in the nearby Cézanne. Some of the paintings (or walls) are arranged so that an accented color builds a pattern in the display: a red flower in one painting can be followed to the red socks worn by someone in another, which can then be followed to the red hair of a figure in another, etc. (Much of this, of course, creates a subconscious harmony, and no doubt Barnes used it as a very good teaching tool.) Other ensembles are arranged so that certain lines continue from one painting to another, zigzagging very subtly across a wall. Another kind of arrangement simply makes influences more apparent: a room with a few Modigliani paintings contains a center display with various African masks -- the very kind that influenced and inspired him -- and after looking at them we see the faces in his paintings a bit differently.

Albert Barnes also made it a point to highlight commonalities and connections between seemingly disparate things. He displays religious works from Africa and the East alongside Christian iconography to perhaps suggest that African images look just as strange to most Westerners as the Christian images look to most Africans. Why then, we're meant to ask, is one supposed to be sacred and the other silly? Thus, the connection -- human spirituality, the longing for purpose -- is what really matters.

There are still other reasons for some of Barnes' particular arrangements. On one of the walls hangs a large Manet (if I remember correctly), a painting of two women sitting near the center, with two red flowers blooming in the green grass below. Albert Barnes viewed one of the bright flowers as a "mistake" since it draws the eye down to the corner and upsets the composition, so he decided to "correct" it by placing a small Renoir above the Manet, a painting (of a woman) which contains a splash of red (in her dress). It's interesting to cover the Renoir with your thumb while looking at the Manet to see what he means. After doing this I noticed how my eyes tended to take in the entire wall at once (or what ever was in my field of vision), while my brain leaned more towards consciously separating each part of the wall into the various individual paintings. This, in a nutshell, is what's so great about The Barnes. Every room is a work of art in itself, and Barnes, their composer, was a great artist in his own right. Each wall demands various viewings/perspectives: up close, to see the individual paintings; at a medium distance, to see how the paintings and objects interact; and from across the room, to see the entire wall as a single piece. Sometimes the walls even echo other walls, with a painting on one side of the room mirroring something hanging in the same spot on the opposite wall. It's endlessly fascinating. I easily spent three and a half hours in the museum (it felt like an hour and a half) and could have just as easily spent more.

One of my favorite ensembles consisted of a play on "arches". I don't remember everything exactly, but on one section of a particular wall was a De Chirico painting of a few horses standing in front of some arches (part of a building or ruins). Above the painting was a hanging piece of metal with two arches, and below it was another painting that had two arches -- some sort of building. On the floor was a wood piece with arches that mirrored all of this. In the same place on the second half of the same wall hung paintings that were not literal arches, but implied arches. The metal work above and the wood work on the floor were the same, but the De Chirico on this half of the wall appeared to have no arches at all -- that is, until you looked closer and saw that the heads and necks of the two horses facing one another created arches. Similarly, in the painting hanging below, arches were created by the heads of two figures standing side by side.

Everything in the museum is done with a stunning attention to detail. Even a smaller version of a painting by Matisse is positioned in a spot in the stair-well (leading to the second floor) where you can see the larger version of the painting, which hangs near the top of the main room (on the first floor), behind it. Not only that, the arches of the small painting rhyme with various mini-arches in the architecture around it. (The painting itself is shaped with three arches. To see the large version of the painting on the first floor (above the windows), click here. This mural by Matisse -- though it is not a mural because it's painted on a piece of cut wood -- was made specifically for Albert Barnes as a gift. edit: this is incorrect - see comments section.)

* * *

the barnes museum renoir chairs
Above: not without a sense of humor, Barnes has positioned two wider-than-average
chairs below these particular Renoir nudes. Note also the curvy metal works hanging above.

Friday, November 19, 2010

To Bartleby, or not to Bartleby


john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon

john zerzan work cartoon
(from a poster produced by John Zerzan and Dan Todd, which originally
appeared in the booklet Adventures in Subversion: Flyers & Posters, 1981-85)

* * *


"Based on the fictional character Bartleby, this is a game played between two temps, which the full-time members of the staff can bet on. The objective is for both temps to remain entirely inactive for the duration of their assignment. They achieve this by maintaining an inscrutable 'poker face' whenever asked to do anything. Any actual work done loses points and the stakes can be raised by taking extremely long lunch breaks. These can be matched by their opponent taking monumental tea or cigarette breaks. The winner is the temp who has not done a stroke of work yet possesses a time sheet that will generate a full day's pay." --from The Chap Manifesto by Gustav Temple and Vic Darkwood

bartlebying chap manifesto bartleby work

* * *

"Offices have the distinct advantage of providing fiscal recompense somewhat greater than the minimum wage, which in turn reduces the period of hard labor that you are obliged to endure. But beware, many pitfalls await the unsuspecting. The modern business employs various tactics to break down the spirit of its employees. These include the offer of permanent positions, promotions and bonuses, and sending their staff on 'motivational weekends' in order to brainwash them into thinking that what they are doing is 'team-oriented' and 'worthwhile'. A high level of concentration must be maintained at all times to avoid being corrupted by such frippery. As long as you keep your wits about you, you will soon realise that the world of work simply involves shuffling the world's matter about from A to B and back again, at somebody else's behest and for somebody else's benefit. This 'matter' may take form of pieces of paper, electrical pulses on a computer screen, currency, metal ores or foodstuffs, but essentially the idea is always the same." --The Chap Manifesto

il posto olmi

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What's in a Face? A small moment from AMERICAN DREAM (1990)

There is moment in Barbara Kopple's documentary AMERICAN DREAM (1990) that, for me, distills the entire film into a single, emotional punch. The moment is very small, very quick, very easy to overlook, and seemingly insignificant (maybe it is). Whatever meaning the moment does have resides in a human face, something which surely contains enough mystery to mislead, confound, and confuse all of us on a regular basis. I watched the moment a few more times after the film was over to see if I thought there was something there or if I was just imagining things, and when I felt reasonably sure I hadn't deceived myself I copied the moment to my computer with the intention of using it as part of a future blog post.

* * *

Lev Kuleshov very famously edited together the face of a actor (Ivan Mozzhukhin) with a bowl of soup, a coffin containing a little girl, and a woman. When the actor followed the image of a bowl of soup he appeared to express hunger. Following the coffin he expressed sorrow, lust when following the woman. But the face was static and unchanging; it was the same exact shot repeated over and over. The audience, however, thought it was different each time, and even raved about the acting. What really happened, of course, is that they brought their own emotional response to the images and applied them to the actor.

* * *

A few weeks ago I watched the moment from AMERICAN DREAM again, and this time there was nothing there. I couldn't see what I had originally seen (or thought I had seen). But yesterday I watched it yet again and it couldn't have been any more clear: I was right the first time! There was something there, something powerful and moving. It wasn't in my imagination after all, and I don't understand how it could have looked so different to me a few weeks ago. (But of course I do understand. It's just strange because I am unable to return to how I saw it a few weeks ago.)

Here is the scene. What do you see? (Again, apologies for the choppy video.)


Watch it again. The moment takes place before :14.

Nothing? The woman, looking around frantically, waving the American flag, somewhat energetic, seemingly content...

Watch her again.

Now, for those of you who haven't seen the film, here is some information: AMERICAN DREAM is a documentary about Reagan-era union busting which gives a behind the scenes look at a major strike that took place at a Hormel meat packing plant in 1985-86. The context of the scene is very bleak. The workers have been on strike for quite a long time with no end in sight, and scabs are showing up to fill up the vacant jobs at the plant.

Here's what I saw:

The woman, looking around frantically, waving the American flag, somewhat energetic, seemingly content... Then her eyes, as they dart around -- quickly, just for a moment -- lock with the flag she is waving. As soon as this happens (or just before) she stops waving the flag the same way and her face changes inexplicably. And obviously it's very cold out. Everyone sees these things (more or less).

Here's what else I saw: A profound moment, some sort of epiphany captured. It's as if the woman just realized that what she thought of as America -- how she's seen America her entire life -- has suddenly changed because of the experiences she's recently been through. (We, as viewers, have been through a similar experience, though by no means a comparable one.) When she realizes this there's a deep sadness in her face, a deep resignation, even confusion. A kind of "What am I doing / where am I / who am I?" moment. Something she took for granted vanishes instantly and her worldview no longer makes sense.

The moment is doubly powerful because it's not an actor trying to convey something but an unguarded moment captured without fuss (though, as Marlon Brando was often quick to point out, we're all actors in our day to day lives to some extent). These small realizations are crucial moments in our lives, and how we choose to proceed from them is of the utmost importance. It's where our "character" lives and dies.

Or maybe she just realized she left the iron on. That's important too.

* * *

The first time I watched UGETSU (my first Mizoguchi film) I didn't like it. I didn't get it. I couldn't fall into its rhythms. Because of its reputation I gave it another try the following day, this time with the sound off. The first 20 minutes had me entranced. I put the sound back on, watched the whole thing all the way through, and loved it. When it was over I was sure I had seen a masterpiece.

I haven't seen it since.

I've also had the opposite happen: a favorite film seen a second time leaving me cold.

* * *

There is an unintentionally humorous 4-star review of AMERICAN DREAM on Netflix that relates to the "What am I doing / where am I / who am I?" moments and how we do everything we can to resist, ignore, and forget them. It ends with a threat turned lament.

"I would have given it 5 stars [if it] hadn't shown the pigs/hogs being taken to the slaughter house, then slaughtered and such. I [know] these people were meat packers, but they really didn't [need to] show that part. I just might become a vegetarian now."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

a few comments inspired by something i watched

A quick note: the possibilities I mention below probably aren't really in the video as much as they exist in my mind, but the video gives some idea.

* * *

While watching the video Living in the End Times According to Slavoj Zizek (see below), all I could think about was the possibility of a new kind of cinema-spectacle, one that combines theater, lecture, and live performance with images, text and sound, and which takes place within a dome (or arena) of screens. Or, if not a new kind of cinema, at least a new kind of lecture: interactive, on-the-spot, organic performance essays(?). Such a thing could be filmed in various ways, and, when finished, would exist mostly as something static even though it would be created more organically. (This, along with the abundant use of technology, would differentiate it sufficiently from something like The Living Theatre.)

When the video began and I saw all the screens on stage after reading the premise, I got excited because it -- or what I thought "it" was going to be -- seemed like something Žižek was made for. Standing in a center ring surrounded by screens, I pictured him frenetically jabbing and punching his way through and around a barrage of images while coating the stage with his patented saliva. Since he has the unique ability to speak unendingly (and often humorously, if not insightfully) about practically anything, and because he possesses a great breadth of cultural and political knowledge, Žižek is the perfect candidate for such an endeavor. (He's always reminded me of one of those pull-string dolls, only in his case the string flies into the doll at five times the speed and stretches all the way to Pluto. One needs a pair of scissors to debate him properly.)

If something truly spontaneous, collaborative, and organic was to be made using a similar format, the person controlling the images/screens and sounds would also have to be a quick thinking genius, a visual DJ of sorts spinning and combining things left and right at a moments notice, playing off the reactions and commentary of the "performer" (lecturer, improviser, participant, actor, protagonist, audience) with a near limitless collection of easy to find clips (or entire films from which to select scenes from), text, and audio. A kind of "freestyle filmmaking." (I imagine some things would have to be planned, or at least have some sort of framework in order to ensure that the result wouldn't be a rapid, flashy, nearly nonsensical mess of images, sound, and commentary.)

I wish there was more free association and less direct questioning in the actual video, as well as a better use of the multiple screens and images. Overall it's more standard than the things that rushed through my mind at various moments while I watched (and which I tried to give some impression of above). Most of it, at its core, is unfortunately little more than someone responding to pre-recorded questions and comments.

If 50 minutes is too long, jump around a bit. (And, as is often the case, see the comments section for more.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Planet Earth & planet Earth

Why are there no oil refineries on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no polluted rivers on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no industrial landscapes on Planet Earth?

BBC planet earth

Why are there no clear-cuts on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no parking lots on Planet Earth?

planet earth tv series

Why is there no Great Pacific Garbage Patch on Planet Earth?

planet earth Attenborough BBC

Why are there no shopping malls on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no melting ice caps on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

Why are there no humans on Planet Earth?

planet earth BBC

* * *

David Attenborough opens Planet Earth with the following narration:

"A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity. This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before."

He closes the series with this:

"Our planet is still full of wonders. As we explore them, we gain not only understanding, but power. It's not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands: it's the survival of the natural world in all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours."

With the statements that open and close the television series Planet Earth, we can assume that everything that lies between them is meant to inspire conservation via an awe-inspiring showcase of beauty and wonder. The problem, however, is that seeking out the "last wildernesses" can just as easily do the opposite. By leaving humans out of the equation and deliberately avoiding human footprints of any sort, Planet Earth obscures the fact that we're living on the edge of one of the largest extinction events in the history of the planet -- and one that's largely caused by humans. It even makes such a thing seem untrue. The fact that the life of nearly everything the series focuses on is at risk couldn't seem like more of a fantasy, and the trashing of much of the planet couldn't seem any more inconsequential.

With its many areas of focus: fresh water, oceans, mountains, caves, deserts, plains, jungles, etc. -- combined with its name, Planet Earth -- the mini-series gives the impression of being a comprehensive picture. Thus, our impact on the environment seems relatively small since there are so many places where Earth is (seemingly) untouched. Even Attenborough's mention that the planet is "fragile" seems to be slowly undermined. Not only does the series create these impressions by choosing to avoid humans, it's made worse by leaving out the mere mention of humans, even in places where it would be more than appropriate. During the episode Shallow Seas, there's a section on humpback whales where Attenborough goes out of his way to avoid mentioning specifically that humans are the main culprits in declining fish populations:

"The polar seas in summer are the most productive on the planet, and the whales gorge themselves 'round the clock. But it may not always be this way; fish and krill stocks are declining so rapidly that spectacles like this might soon be part of history."

Don't get me wrong -- trying to help and encourage people to fall in love with the natural world (while educating them along the way) is certainly a worthy goal, and Planet Earth is certainly an interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile television series. It's just unfortunate that the series seems to work better as a narcotic, something that soothes us and incurs forgetfulness. By focusing on pictures where every frame is packed with wonder and beauty, everything naturally seems fine. Sure, we've been trashing the planet all these years, but, whaddya know, things out there still look bountiful and pristine... damn near unscathed, really. And that's because what Planet Earth shows is not planet Earth at all -- far from it. It shows only the dream and leaves out the nightmare.

This false picture is the least harmful aspect of the series, however. The more damaging aspect can be gleaned from one of the phrases in Attenborough's closing narration: "As we explore them [the wonders of our planet], we gain not only understanding, but power." The assumption being hinted at -- and one that's made more explicit throughout the series -- is that human beings are the sovereign kings of planet Earth. Or, at the very least, beings who exist outside of the ecosystem.

There is a section in the series during the episode Caves that I found to be somewhat strange. We see humans, yes, but not as we would see them in a nature documentary; we see them jumping (parachuting) into a cave. They're treated very much like aliens visiting Earth, recording and documenting what they see:

"[the cave is] deep enough to engulf the Empire State Building," (it's interesting to note that we aren't given a measurement for scale... we're meant to be impressed by understanding that the cave is "great" because it trumps something that was made by humans... Of course it's also true that scale is easier to imagine when you use something people know for comparison, though I suspect few people can picture the Empire State Building any easier than they can picture 1,250 feet; they just know it's apparently a very impressive building. And then there is that word "engulf." Anyway...) "These depths were first explored only two years before men landed on the Moon." (Again, the context is mankind's accomplishments, and this time with an added extra-terrestrial element.)

BBC planet earth

Attenborough views humans as silent observers, scientists who go around collecting information for their own pride and gain. This anthropocentric understanding makes sense and sheds light on the hidden assumptions in the rest of the series. By showing a planet Earth divorced from humans, where the only people glimpsed (very rarely) are scientists, explorers and thrill seekers ("using" the world instead of living in it), humans are understood as existing outside of the rhythms and cycles of the natural world, which further cements our apartness and separateness from the environment. Such a way of seeing the world makes conservation on the size and scope that's needed all but impossible.

* * *

planet earth cartoon