Friday, December 3, 2010


"They became vain in their reasonings and their senseless heart was darkened, professing themselves to be wise they became fools." ~ Romans I

Monday, November 22, 2010

heroes and/or fools?

"The person who takes one step ahead of others is a leader.
The person who takes three steps ahead of others is a martyr." anonymous quote.

A few days ago the pro-democracy political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from a Myanmar jail. Coincidentally, on Friday I was reading an old New Yorker article about the recently released political prisoner Zha Jianguo in China, who was jailed nine years ago for "incitement to subvert state power." Written by his brother, Jianguo is described as a Don Quixote figure...that what he does "politically is absurd, but his idealism and his courage in their purity are beautiful." And then, of course, there is the dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is jailed in China as a political prisoner despite being awarded the Nobel laureate for his criticisms of Communism.

Ai Weiwei with his work. Photograph: Lennart Preiss
Of course it is not just political activists, but artists as well, that walk this line....most recently (last week) the artist Ai Weiwei was subjected to house arrest in his home in Beijing; and in 2008 he was beaten up by police for testifying at the trial of an activist.

What does it means to have political conviction? To be committed to ideals and to society? It makes me think about sacrifice. So few people are capable of putting their lives on the line for society, for a present or future they will not be a part of. What power does such sacrifice wield in the minds and hearts of those of us who can't or don't. What clarity of purpose for those whose inner compass guides them without doubt or remorse.

Another person who comes to mind is Bobby Sands, the IRA member who starved himself to death for what he believed in. The movie Hunger, about Sands' life and hunger strike, was one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. Directed by artist Steve McQueen, the film is crafted without dialogue, except that the first half and second halves are divided by a mid-section of dialogue between Bobby Sands and a priest, who is questioning him about his decision to go on another hunger strike. Of course it will be this hunger strike that kills him.
Priest: You're in no shape to make this call.

Bobby: It's done. It won't be stopped.

Priest: Then fuck it. Life must mean nothing to you.

Bobby: God's gonna punish me?

Priest: Well if not just for the suicide, then he'd have to punish you for stupidity.

Bobby: Aye, and you for your arrogance. 'Cause my life is a real life, not some theological exercise, some religious trick that's got fuck-all to do with living. Jesus Christ had a backbone. But, see, them disciples? Every disciple since--you're just jumping in and out of the rhetoric and dead-end semantics. You need the revolutionary, you need the cultural-political soldier to give life a pulse, to give life a direction.

Priest: That's stupid talk. You're deluded.

Bobby: My life means everything to me. Freedom means everything. I know you don't mean to mock me, Dom, so I'll just let all that pass. This is one of those times when we've come to a pause. It's time to keep your beliefs pure. I believe that a united Ireland is right and just. Maybe it's impossible for a man like you to understand, but having a respect for my life, a desire for freedom, an unyielding love for that belief means I can see past any doubts I may have. Putting my life on the line is not just the only thing i can do, Dom. It's the right thing.
Are these people heroes, fools, both? The Hunger dialogue asks precisely that question. Regardless, as Jianguo has said, "Character is fate." Such actions are less chosen than compelled, from the depths of a person's character. The call to act out one's vision of a righteous life is one that these men and women have answered. "To achieve democracy in a country, some people must offer their blood and lives in the struggle."  And yet, none of these people can achieve political capital unless they have supporters. And so Aung San Suu Kyi said upon her release, “I’m not going to be able to do it alone. One person alone can’t do anything as important as bringing genuine democracy to a country.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

one's nature and path

Tom Schutyser "Caravanserai in Iran" 2003
"It was easy enough to say...that the path to contentment was to abide by one's own nature and follow its path. Such she believed was clearly true. But if one had not the slightest hint toward finding what one's nature was, then even stepping out on the path became a snaggy matter." Ada in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Friday, November 5, 2010

Alice Herz-Sommer. 107 on November 26th

Just Watch.

"Put as much as you can into your head as it is something no one can take away from you" 

"Everyday, life is beautiful."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bright Eyes

Possibly "The Child With The Dove" by a pupil of Jean Baptiste Greuze
"The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it. “The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.” That’s a fact." from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

we're all monkeys chasing coconuts

That's our culture: Drive a Volvo. Look like people on MTV where everyone's pretty and packaged and no one is struggling to pay their gas bill.....That's what punk rock's about. Not trying to fit into that disco world or arena rock world, where everything's about money. Where you buy people, you buy love, you buy Acapulco, you buy everything, and you do it by getting over on the world. I know we're all monkeys chasing coconuts, but one person's freedom and liberty is another person's oppression. ~ Dave Dictor of MDC in Gimme Something Better
 Yeah, what is this thing where people are trying to get over on the world or each other?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Yves Klein, Buddhism and Immateriality

Le Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void); Photomontage by Harry Shunk, October 1960.
"The shape of the body, its lines, its strange colors hovering between life and death, hold no interest for me. Only the essential, pure affective climate of the flesh is valid… Having rejected nothingness, I discovered the void."  Yves Klein from the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto, 1961
Hmm. One can't help but be intrigued by a line such as that last one! 

So digging a little deeper I find this description of art bridging modernism and Buddhism.

"A work of art stops being about an individual’s accumulation of masterpieces; it is now about the participation or the disappearance of the public. The artist puts down his gun and starts smiling. This means that the artist abandons his false noble image, competition and innovation, and the standard of value. The public will neither panic nor feel strongly about it when faced with “new” ideas and works; they regard Picasso’s paintings both as meaningless scrawls on a piece of white canvas and as artistic masterpieces. This is exactly the same way that Chan Buddhism sees a wooden statue of Sakyamuni: both as Buddha and as a piece of firewood. As “Buddha,” so as to connect with the living world; as “wood,” so as to go beyond it. At this point, “Buddha” and “art” exist only as an unchangeable meaning in the living world."  Huang Yong Ping from “Xiamen Dada—Postmodern?” (1986)

Klein's ideas of immateriality and art's ability to represent the void in his Chelsea manifesto fascinate me. What a rich text to explore. Chance, the ephemeral, natural phenomena, the circle/cycle of life, and being present through "sensibility" (which i choose to take as mindfulness) all make an appearance. It is not a perfect document and that is precisely what makes it so rich.
"All facts that are contradictory are authentic principles of an explanation of the universe. Truly, fire is one of these principles, essentially contradictory, one from the other, since it is both the sweetness and torture that lies at the heart and origin of our civilization. But what stirs this search for feeling in me through the making of super-graves and super coffins? What stirs this search in me for the imprint of fire? Why search for the Trace itself?"
Untitled Fire Painting 1961

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Universal Shapes and Forms

There are "universal shapes to which everyone is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond." ~ Henry Moore

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fashion Projects: Fashion and Memory film screening & reception

Film still from Boudicca's "Couture 3"

The M.A. Fashion Studies At Parsons The New School for Design presents:

A screening to celebrate the new issue of Fashion Projects, non-profit journal on fashion, art and visual culture. The screening features a range of short experimental films on the topic of fashion and memory–the topic of the new issue. They include films by the British-based fashion design duo Boudicca, Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf, designer Shelley Fox, and fashion photographer Laura Sciacovelli. The screening is curated by Tamsen Schwartzman and Francesca Granata.

The screening will take place Friday the 23rd of April at 6 pm in the Wollman Hall, 65 West 12th Street. (PS: It will start promptly!). A reception will follow the screening.

The event is free and open to the public.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Soot and Saliva: The Art of James Castle

Gabled building in vertical segments 

Using scraps of paper, string, soot, and saliva, James Castle (1899-1977) spent a lifetime creating art from a little bit of this and a little bit of that while living on farms in Boise, Idaho. The world of silence for a man who couldn't hear, speak, or read, burst with images, forms, and lettering that created their own unique sound.

Woman in red coat and boater hat,
collection of Susan and Alvin Chereskin

For almost 70 years, Castle found beauty in the most intimate of materials: siblings' schoolwork, reused flyers, brochures, envelopes, news clippings, paper containers, cardboard of any type. He'd make three-dimensional pieces of people, animals, or objects like chairs by layering and sculpting diverse types of paper and securing them with string, thread or ribbon.

Five dolls on top of piano 

His tonal images of landscapes and interiors, were drawn with a homemade paste made from soot and saliva that looked like charcoal when applied to paper using sticks or tissue. Castle paid attention to how things worked and examined objects like doors, locks, and even illustrated building schematics.


But for a man who couldn't read, the beauty of words were always present, whether through examining the mechanical construction of lettering or in the many small books he created. And in many ways, it are these that are the most poignant.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Scent of Spring

"Float" by tamsen ellen, 2007
"It is spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating adrift."

-- Tu Fu (eighth century Chinese poet)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Living in Nature

I'm drooling.  It must be time to get out of dodge! 

Shell House, designed by Artechnic, is in the woods of Karuizawa, Japan



The Modern weeHouse is a Prefab Home designed by Alchemy Architects.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Billions and billions of stars

Awesome, in the deepest sense of the word. Truly awesome.

Nature and Culture

the things of this world, 2009 - Herbert Pfostl

Whatever the rift that separates their regimes, nature and culture have at least this much in common: both compel the living to serve the interests of the unborn. Yet they differ in their strategies in one decisive respect: culture perpetuates itself through the power of the dead, while nature, as far as we know, makes no use of this resource except in a strictly organic sense. In the human realm the dead and the unborn are native allies, so much so that from their posthumous abode--wherever it be--the former hound the living with guilt, dread, and a sense of responsibility, obliging us, by whatever means necessary, to take the unborn into our care and to keep the story going, even if we never quite figure out what the story is about, what our part in it is, the end toward which it's progressing, or the moral it contains. One day the science of genetics may decode the secrets of this custodianship, but meanwhile we may rest assured that there exists an allegiance between the dead the unborn of which we the living are merely the ligature.
~ The Dominion of the Dead ~ Robert Pogue Harrison

Fetal Trapping in Northern California, 2006 - Mark Rydan

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Underneath Brooklyn

"Wherever the entrances are, they are kept secret. There are men who know the mysteries of the old subway. But no one is willing to lead the way within it." ~
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday July 23, 1911

Well, one man knows all the secrets and is willing to lead you down a manhole cover, through a dirt passage, and into the cavernous space of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Bob Diamond. Bob discovered the entrance to the tunnel in 1979, after being told by numerous "experts" of civil engineering, city history, and LIRR managers that it absolutely didn't exist. Of course it wasn't supposed to exist. But that's a longer story...

In 1844 the LIRR put train tracks down the center of Atlantic Avenue to connect goods arriving by steamship at the Red Hook ferry terminal to a railway system that was to extend to Boston. But at that time trains didn't have breaks and the manual system for slowing a train down meant you needed great distances to stop a train. When the train kept hitting people, a public outcry ensued to move the train underground. Of course, a train had never been put underground in the US. The Brooklyn Common Council met and decreed, "The right of the public is not confined to its mere surface. The land itself may be dug and fashioned so as to be made the most subservient to their accommodation." Brooklyn Daily Eagle March 7 1844 Geez....what we take for granted today!

So in came the sand hogs and masons to construct what became a 21 ft wide, 17 ft high barrel vault tunnel out of Manhattan bedrock and brick layed with Portland cement to extend from Court Street to Hicks Street. And steam driven locomotives of the LIRR moved underground in 1845 in the first instance of an NYC subway.

As early as 1847, usage of the tunnel had dropped considerably. "From mid 1845 through early 1847, the LIRR fell victim to Wall Street stock manipulations with it's attendant fare wars, unforeseen competition from its “partner” the N&W [another railroad company] acting with its former board member Vanderbilt, some possibly bad decisions by its board of directors, and last but not least, the seizure of it's one remaining steamboat [used in parts of their routes]." Bob Diamond

In 1859, the tunnel was ordered to be filled-in. However the contractor hired Electus Litchfield, who took the $130,000 and instead only filled-in the ends of the tunnel, closed the air holes to the street, and had a document signed that the whole job was done (with none the wiser). Guess sometimes a half-assed work ethic pays off.

And that's when the tunnel became legend. The tunnel was thought to be gone, but stories abounded about pirates, bootleggers, dead bodies, gangs, and spies. Of course, the best story is that John Wilkes Booth buried his diary identifying who hired him to assassinate President Lincoln behind a wall in a black tin box. Bob Diamond heard about this story on the radio, and so began his search for the legendary tunnel.

Bob's stories are remarkable, amusing, and full of surprising twists and turns. His knowledge of railroad development, New York politics, and social history is astounding. For 120 years, people have remained skeptical about the existence of the tunnel, even right up to the minutes before it's discovery. With the manhole open, and a gas company employee arising from it shaking his head, declaring there only to be a pile of dirt below, Bob had to say, "can I take a look?" His tenaciousness paid off. Once descended into the ground, he found a small hole in the dirt that he crawled through, where he discovered another dirt wall. With the assurance of certainty of the tunnel's existence, he began to dig....and dig....and came to the sealed off opening to the tunnel. Eureka.

I'm looking forward to the forthcoming documentary called "What's Behind the Wall." Archeologists are currently excavating the remaining closed off section of the tunnel. There are also hopes to revitalize plans dropped in 2000 "to rescue this tunnel and reconnect it to the waterfront" with historic trolly cars. This is a marvelous piece of New York's history that needs to be preserved and brought to light. Help the cause....go on the tour! More pictures here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

for MLK day

Words from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address worth remembering.

"bamboo 2" by tamsen ellen
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here...It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the poeple, shall not perish from the earth.
He's right, no one would have noticed the deaths at Gettysburg had it not been for his words that transformed a place and time into a "monumental" idea. "Ideas are more than battles" ~ Charles Sumner

The Road

"Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life.
The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type." Nietzsche.

I loved reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It felt like watching a movie and I read it in about as much time. But I also loved the poetic and symbolic resonances of this story. (spoiler alert) Amidst the earth's devastation, a family (albeit without a mother) takes to the road, walking through the earthly landscape, carrying "the fire," until they reach the sea.

Asako Narahashi - "Kawaguchiko" - 2003 - from half awake and half asleep in the water

The earth/sea contrast didn't strike me at first. It wasn't until they reached the ocean and the father died that I saw the sea as this force confronting earthly mortality. If the earth is a place with generative properties, the sea is no place that man can live. It offers no foothold. The sea could be read as a final mortal oblivion.

Roberto Kusterle - 2004

In Swinburne's poem A Forsaken Garden, "the ghost of a garden fronts the sea." One almost thinks McCarthy read these lines when imagining The Road:

The sun burns sere and the rain dishevels
One gaunt bleak blossom of scentless breath.
Only the wind here hovers and revels
In a round where life seems barren as death.
Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping,
Haply, of lovers none ever will know,
Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping
Years ago.

So Swinburne writes that it is to the sea that the dying look. And if there is any confusion that it is the sea that swallows the living, that consumes the "generative and degenerative" laws of mortal time, the poem's last stanza reads:

Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seasacape

The sea may be unearthly, but The Road does not end in despair. It only uses the sea as a metaphor of lifelessness, of human oblivion, to counter the power of fire.

Of course "fire" represents human life force. To the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE), fire is the primordial element out of which everything else arises. However, fire represents not just human being but human legacy. In The Road, "We carry the fire" symbolizes carrying the flame of civilization, the survival of mankind. The boy is not only the father's legacy, he is the legacy of humanity, the meaning of life.

Roberto Kusterle - "secret of lights" - 2004

In Virgil's The Aeneid, Aeneas is entrusted to relocate the House of Troy. The ghost of Hector, a fallen Trojan warrior, appears to Aeneas. "From the inner altars he carries out the garlands and the great Vesta and, in his hands, the fire that never dies" -- a fire that feeds the household gods (penates) and preserves Troy's "continuity in time." The writings of the historian Fustel de Coulanges explain that in antiquity "to be at home meant to reside within the blessing sphere of the sacred fire, in which and through which the dead maintained a presence among the living." (from Dominion of the Dead) To carry the fire is to carry the heritage of the dead into the future of those who are yet unborn.

Of course The Aeneid is a story of wanderers. Of a journey filled with the suffering and loneliness of homelessness, as well as the joy of discovery, hope and anticipation of what lies ahead. So there they they are, father and son, walking the road of life to its inevitable conclusion, meeting the good and the bad along the way. It's hard not think of Simon Hoegsberg's photograph We're All Going to Die - 100 Meters of Existence. In contrast to the darkness of The Road, Hoegsberg's photograph has a stark white background, another symbol for death. While Simon similarly captures people walking along a road, they more resemble us, people caught up in their lives, relatively oblivious that the end comes eventually.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

what is poetry?

Glass plate, Kookaburras, c. 1884-1917 from Powerhouse Museum Collection

There is a very entertaining interview with TS Eliot, published in The Bed Post (1962) in which the interviewer asks: what do you feel to be function of poetry? Eliot replies:

‘The function of poetry is to give pleasure and if you ask what kind of pleasure I can only say the kind of pleasure that poetry gives. But I think good poetry is doing something for the reader that is beyond pleasure. It isn’t merely pleasure; it is an enhancement of life, an enlargement of our sensibility and is doing something which to those who enjoy it makes life more worth living.’