A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

Pix Sell!


8-Bit Cinema (2013 - 2014)


I love watching little pixel-people scuttling about on the screen with single-minded purpose. They are the most uncomplicated people you will find: monosyllabic but demonstrative, like when they express anger, success, happiness or experience death. *thud*. game over. They are always busy, and in a hurry to get somewhere; and they feel the need to do things faster than we do in real life. You will never find a character idling away. I think there's a valuable lesson there (among other valuable lessons that I won’t get into today)!

Many years ago, I wrote down the walking speeds of many characters: the thief in Lode Runner, Donkey Kong, Mario... and compared them to that of the average human walking speed, keeping in mind different physical criteria (like size of characters, dimensions of their world, proportionate distances etc...)! My assessment may not have been mathematically accurate, but it was my way of celebrating the speed at which things happened in games! And overtime, all this interaction with video game characters in their two-dimensional worlds that allowed them to defy the laws of physics convinced me that they are definitely on a different time-space continuum and were messing up my circadian rhythm, if you will. You are forced to react to things hurled at you faster than you would otherwise, so you get into a zone by shutting off the world around you that’s moving slower, so that you can focus and channel your telekinetic abilities. And that also explains why games make you forget hunger, sleep and other biological needs. Even now, I find myself humming chiptunes when I am crunching numbers, doing mechanical work, or running to get to some place quick. They've proven to get the job done better.

Technically, all video games and movies we watch online are pixels moving on the screen (which is astounding when you think of it like that), but, the 8-bit style is more evidently so because of its straight-liney, hard-edgy, square-boxey aspects, and limited color palettes. Everything is pared down to the very basic, where a single dot is the difference between a man or a woman, anger or joy, and it still retains that evocative, and sometimes garish sensibility. The same goes for music, which is pared down to its basic frequencies. It reminds me of the type of rules-based traditional art I grew up learning in India. And it is also the same reason why I am drawn to LEGO!

Today, the 8-bit style has evolved beyond its humble gaming-days, when it was limited by a single-purpose. It is a goldmine of artistic possibilities for both the visual and music world! There is a profundity in the idea that what we see and what we hear both come from the exact same place! It changes how we think about art.

Cinefix’s 8-bit (and 16-bit) movies are fun because they compress popular movies (including some challenging ones) into two-minute videos (some adapted faithfully, like Hunger Games, and some reinterpreted very well, like Inception). And part of the experience is in guessing which games inspired each movie, and seeing the familiar games role-play our favorite movies. Fanboys will not be disappointed. And while you are at it, also check out some cool movie gifs by Pixelwood.

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It Boils Down to Intention!

rickepstein

American Craft Council Baltimore Show (2014)


Last weekend, The American Craft Council Show (ACC) ran for three days in Baltimore and showcased the works of over 650 American artists! They also had tons of talks, demonstrations, education programs and walking tours. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the show! I mostly ambled around in awe.

This post is a long one, about the shifting discourses of Arts and Crafts, and the latter's on-and-off resurgence over the last two hundred or so years.

Continue reading...
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Fifty Shades of Jane!

prideandprejudice

Pride and Prejudice (1813)



Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.

When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.

At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.

Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.

Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!

What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.

And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!

Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!

When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.

Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.


austen_googledoodle

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The Art of Connivery

americanhustle

American Hustle (2013)


If art is meant to elicit an involuntary reaction in us that comes from a place that the mind cannot touch, then con artists are the truest to that vision!

They are the incidental inheritors of the philosophies of happiness that have been steadily passed down from the times of Lao Tzu and Socrates to our present day. They apply them on their marks like an art form; by offering them confidence and pleasure, in exchange for cultivating their hopes and desires. And when they have manufactured enough of what they want, they suck out every bit of the outcome, and along with it, all self-worth, until their marks are reduced to nothing but the scars of this terrible violation, and the helpless realization that their rational mind was blindsided with emotions and impalpable offerings, just so that they may be stripped naked forever. Then, the artists move onto their next mark. They spare only those who can destroy them, or who can provide them with more marks to feed off!

There is no doubt art involved in the eduction of happiness through connivery, and in delivering the dementor’s kiss without suspicion. It is a systematized art (like the practice of game theory or behavioral economics), where the ultimate goal is not some sort of creative or existential nurturing, but something more elemental. But, when it is presented as a cinematic story, that engages in artistry with the former nurturing goal in mind, the two combined bring about ultimate happiness of the kind prescribed by the early monks, whose philosophies ought to be passed on for all time.

... And then there is that lovable, exasperating, conniving little master manipulator of them all! Who is the real artist? Rosalyn Rosenfeld or J-Law!

---

The Dementor's Kiss:

"What's under a Dementor's hood?"
"Hmmm . . . well, the only people who really know are in no condition to tell us. You see, the Dementor lowers its hood only to use its last and worst weapon."
“What’s that?” asked Harry.
“They call it the Dementor’s Kiss,” said Lupin, with a slightly twisted smile.  “It’s what dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly.  I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and -- and suck out his soul.”
Harry accidentally spat out a bit of butterbeer.
“What -- they kill -- ?”
“Oh no,” said Lupin.  “Much worse than that.  You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working.  But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . . anything.  There’s no chance at all of recovery.  You’ll just -- exist.  As an empty shell.  And your soul is gone forever . . . lost.”

– From Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


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Loved Ones; No, Twos and Threes and Fours


Is it Love? (2010)

Sometimes I wonder what I might do in an abusive relationship. Then I think of all the wonderful people I can depend on, who will never let anything like this happen to me, and I am ever so grateful.

It's important to have more than one person in your life to love, and make you feel loved!

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Emergent Creativity


Blade Runner: The Aquarelle Edition (2013)


Anders Ramsell animated 12597 remarkably tiny (1.5 x 3 cms) hand-painted aquarelle works of the Blade Runner to create this stunning adaptation. The artistry here is staggering when one considers the difficulty of working with water colors. The aquarelle method uses transparent splashes of paint to create layered artwork that blends realism with abstraction. Because of its fluidity, you have little to no room for error. Once you commit your brush to paper, you go for it like you are aiming for an apple on a man's head. Add to that, Ramsell even manages movement and transformation in his art through the evocative use of color, which is astounding. I wonder how many more paintings he made for this movie that he didn't include in it.

In a way, The Aquarelle Edition serves well as a metaphor for the number of times Blade Runner has been re-cut or readapted. Each version of Blade Runner has either attempted to fine tune the original or offer a fresh take. In a sense, they have all added a new coat of paint to existing furniture. The original movie itself is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Today, there are more copyrighted alternate cuts and illegal fan edits of the movie than one can count.

I love Blade Runner. But, beyond my own fixation with the movie, I find that it affirms my belief that the space for alternate cuts is limitless. Each cut of this movie is as meritorious and popular as the other, and does not dilute the spirit of and a fan’s love for the original. This Aquarelle Edition further validates this opinion.

It is in sync with the fan-fiction tradition that we’ve been following for centuries now. Adaptations are like modern folk tales or epic poetries that survived by way of approximate transference over many generations and mediums. When novels first came out in the eighteenth century, readers who were used to folk tradition, continued to feel entitled to own fictional characters and reimagine them in their own stories.

For instance, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spawned many unauthorized sequels, satires, plays, adaptations, and even merchandise. Even back then, there was discussion on authorship and “original expression”, even though it didn't translate to a formal legal foundation around copyright. The discussion then must have been much like the discussion now on the hellish consequences of regular people owning 3D printers and making knockoffs of products. (I am dying to copy every damnedest designer jewelry or product there is that I have never needed or wanted, just for payback).

Even in the first half of the nineteenth century much of the culture was available for unreserved reuse. Moreover, even protected works (usually paintings, and rarely literature) were protected only against literal copying. It was only as businesses began to make deeper investments in cultural expression that copyright and fair-use were given attention.

The case that laid the foundation for fair-use was Folson v. Marsh in 1841, on whether a new biography of George Washington could use letters that had been collected and published by an earlier biographer. It turned out to be a dialogue between Republican ideology that celebrated uninhibited access to knowledge, and the profit-oriented media industry advocating copyright protection. The end result was the creation of more stringent pro-market laws that went on to shape our attitudes.

Some authors began to show a desire to own fictional characters as legal property, but they were also fickle-minded about ownership. For instance, when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a cult classic, it spawned several profitable but unauthorized copycat novels and merchandise. But, she didn’t seem to mind being cheated of licensing fees, because she was earning record-breaking royalties for the original. However, she later sued a German translation of the book in the US. I suspect this is because the sales of the translated book ate into her profits. Germans were the biggest immigrant group in the country, and in fact made up a third of the country at that time. Even though she lost the case, I have a feeling she might have won it if she had chosen to sue the english copycat novels that she let pass instead.

Even in our times, companies that have seen many Fan-edits of their films, have only on some occasions (and quite inconsistently and inexplicably) sued appropriators for causing customer confusion or for expropriating or leveraging their success.

I am both a fair use and anti-piracy advocate. I like the space that encourages both new and inspired material, and celebrates creative talent. I see creativity as a social phenomenon as much as individual expression. This is relevant especially in our times where the internet is full of impromptu creative literary and artistic works done purely for the love of art.

It would be deplorable therefore, if this Aquarelle Edition of the Blade Runner was ever to be sued for copyright infringement. We would be doing a huge disfavor to our culture, and crippling artists who find creativity through inspiration from others’ works.

The privilege of referencing pre-existing works (passive fair-use), or using source material to churn out new products (transformative fair-use) is exercised everyday in news programs, social networks and artworks. Fair-use is simple to apply and most of it is done legally, and oftentimes even when we think we are doing it illegally. There are no fair-use laws as such, and no one needs to authorize your decision. In fact, fair users don’t even have to worry about carrying over the legal encumbrances of the source material, and the nitty-grittys of their copyright and licensing arrangements, as long as they are using the material "fairly". And because fairness is a grey area, you exercise fair-use through self-belief, with some adherence to suggested guidelines, and keep your fingers crossed in the event of a challenge.

The truth is, the discussion around fair-use is as unreadable as a kiss scene in the Twilight Saga. It hasn’t matured one bit to accommodate our new culture. Artists, intellectual property owners and courts routinely take subjective and unpredictable views on what can be deemed fair use and what can’t. Verdicts change from artist to artist, work to work and judge to judge. There are as many fair use cases being ruled in favor of owners as there are being ruled in favor of appropriators, and the logic behind the judgment is as elusive as a unicorn.

Copyright exponents suffer from tunnel-vision with their unswerving adherence to the concept of originality. They are purblind to the wonders of reclaimed narratives and liberated creativity. But, originality is a fictitious concept in art, and now, it is mostly legal fiction. To come up with sensible copyright laws and fair-use guidelines one needs to understand art as being creative and transmissive, but not necessarily original.

In philosophy, Carl Jung says every man’s unconscious has a feminine part called anima (likewise, he calls a female’s male part animus) that transcends his physical psyche. It can be identified as the totality of the unconscious. The anima cannot be separated from the man’s physical form as an independent part! The man may not even be aware of his anima, but he sees it in the woman who he finds fascinating.

I see artistic works much in the same way. Art has many parts, but also an unconscious anima that is born out of the whole, but cannot be precisely delineated from it. It is the space where creativity and originality take shape. When inspired art unintentionally derives from original art, the former is like the man and the latter is like his anima. When inspired art intentionally derives from the original art, then the former is like the man, but the latter is like the woman, where they are attracted to each other because they find their own anima and animus in each other.

Jung says, if the man and woman merge into one identity, then he will adopt the character of her animus and she will adopt the character of his anima. What happens therefore is that it is not the man and woman who play with each other, but their anima and animus!

Any artwork is a puzzle of intimately interconnected parts that can only be understood by referencing the whole; but the whole cannot be pared down to its individual parts. Somewhere in the making of the whole, the parts create a soul. This soul is always original, even if it is created using borrowed material. When you see art in this manner, you see that its purpose is to pollinate future culture. Even when art is redolent of the past, it means for itself to be brand new; and it can only be assessed on how well it has lived up to that intention of being new. A period film, for instance, may intend to be truthful to the past, and in that way, may not be "original", but we still find in it its unique soul, and how it brings the past into the present!

Everyone makes work on the basis of, and in reference and relationship to existing work.  From a legal point of view, proving any creation as originating from nothing, except one’s own innermost being, would require dissecting all the creative processes and stripping the work down to the basics. In doing so, most works that we hold in high esteem, as being the product of some “auteur” would be invalidated; but more importantly, such a striptease would not only be impossible in many cases, but would also undermine the true spirit of creativity.

Moreover, copyright laws’ emphasis on individual authors and works is a distortion of reality. In the music and film world (and even in the book world, and most of the art world), the end product is the work of many people willingly working in tandem. The dissection of a piece to prove originality is both impossible and futile! This is also true for fan-edits. Most of them are done by the digerati within a collaborative network that draws liberally from many sources. The original is oftentimes untraceable.

It is regrettable therefore that there is a sharp divide between those fighting to retain control of their works and those who want to draw on them to create new products.

There is a lot of valuable deliberation on copyright and fair use in both legal and social media circles, but most of the delibration revolves around improving regulatory laws, and coming up with fair use guidelines. But, because we are generating a huge body of fair-use work, it would also be useful to create of a legally viable space, such as a fair-use agora or a Fairuse-Con (like Comic-Con) where "transformative" fair-use videos such as fan-edits, parodies, satires, and other inspired works can be celebrated and encouraged, at least for non-commercial pleasure.

There are more fair-use videos out there than actual copyrighted works, and most of them are susceptible to legal action. This cannot be good. Fair use videos need to breathe freely, because when they do, an Aquarelle Edition of Blade Runner is born! Because there is no such thing as too much Blade Runner!

My previous post on fair use: "anmoku no ryokai"
A NYTimes video: "Allergy to Originality"

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Heart Above Art

day7

Better Out Than In (2013)


The heart floats just above reach. It is there for you to grab, if you have the means.

You don’t reach a balloon by making an impression on it. You don’t get through to it. You reach it more literally, by coming in contact with it. And yet, the balloon is a symbol of associations; calling to mind many life instances. The words “There is always hope”, stencilled on the right edge, make the surface meaning transparent.

The girl stretches her hand. Time stops, but, you feel the upward movement. The unswerving helium in the balloon has nothing but the northerly direction in its makeup. It is what makes it tick. Every girl likes flitting between wanting to hold it and wanting to let it go and see it become tinier and tinier before it disappears into the sky. But, letting the heart go, knowing it doesn’t want to stay, tugs at an empty hole inside, that wants to contract and stretch the surrounding tissue of hope.

One of Banksy’s girls flies with balloons. She lives the fantasy, but none of her balloons have a heart. One of his heart balloons is caught in barbed wire. It is too close to tragedy for comfort. But, it is the tenuous excitement of holding a balloon that means for itself to vanish into the sky that I find most enticing.

Now the heart stands wounded and bandaged in New York. It is still both practicing and defying the laws of physics. What might have caused the wound; who fixed it up; why won’t it fly away; and why is it still within reach? The girl is gone!

As most graffiti artists fulminate against Banksy and the whole enterprise supporting his illegal activities (including authorities), he stands taller than the rest of his kind and represents them, perhaps without intending to, one can never say. But when we express disbelief as other graffiti artists vandalise Bansky’s art, we discredit Banksy and everything graffiti stands for; and we do so in the very sanctum sanctorum of street art. New York is where Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Poster Boy, Revs, El Celso, SAMO, and every artist with a street number in his nickname, who reached for the rooftops or for the platforms of subway stations, or boasted of street galleries, created the Mecca of graffiti art. And then there are some hooligans who charge a fee just for a peek at Banksy’s graffiti. They add one more dimension to the dialogue on the legitimacy of street art. In the mean time, Banksy is as visibly elusive as the balloon. But, I think the really banged up protagonist in this story is the girl. Who is she? In spite of all the artwork being white-washed overnight, and the judge declaring its doom, I hope it is not 5 Pointz.

However you see it, hope is never in letting go of either the girl or the balloon! Banksy's spray-painted, floating bubble-lettering says he agrees. (Listen to the October 31st audio guide).
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Binging on Bill

billwatterson

Watterson & Thompson's Exhibition (2014)


The painting above is Bill Watterson's tribute to Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. It is Watterson's first public art in more than 15 years, and was done for Thompson's Parkinson's fundraising project that over hundred cartoonists contributed to.

Watterson is a very selective endorser. He's also a media recluse. So when I read his foreword praising Thompson's Cul de Sac, I was eager to read it just to see what was so special about it that made him not want to contain himself.

"I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I've never been happier to be wrong. Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac has it all--intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.

Cul de Sac's whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it. Four-year-old Alice and her Blisshaven Preschool classmates will ring true to any parent. Doing projects in a cloud of glue and glitter, the little kids manage to reinterpret an otherwise incomprehensible world via their meandering, nonstop chatter. But I think my favorite character is Alice's older brother, Petey. A haunted, controlling milquetoast, he's surely one of the most neurotic kids to appear in comics. These children and their struggles are presented affectionately, and one of the things I like best about Cul de Sac is its natural warmth. Cul de Sac avoids both mawkishness and cynicism and instead finds genuine charm in its loopy appreciation of small events. Very few strips can hit this subtle note."


Apart from the foreword, the only other time I saw him in the news was also when he made the Petey Otterloop portrait!

"I thought it might be funny to paint Petey “seriously,” as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character. At first I intended to do the picture in a dark, Rembrandt-like way to accentuate the “high art” of painting vs the “low art” of comics — the joke being that the comic strip is intelligent and the painting is idiotic — but the picture went through quite a few permutations as it developed.

I found it interesting how the comical distortions in a cartoony drawing become freakish and grotesque when they’re depicted more three-dimensionally. (You sometimes see this in computer rendering and animation.)

Anyway, by the end, I wasn’t sure whether the painting came out funny or creepy, but I hope it’s intriguing somehow. The result surprised me, so I enjoyed it."

So it is undeniable that Watterson is obsessed with Richard Thompson, and it is making him less reclusive.

Both artists will be featured in The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s new exhibition galleries from March 22 to July 6, 2014.

Mental Floss shared an except of a rare and exclusive interview with Bill Watterson on their website. The full interview will be published in the December issue of their magazine.

Also, next month, Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary film about Bill Watterson will release in theaters, and video-on-demand. It is available for pre-order on their website.

While we are on the subject of binging on Bill Watterson, here are
His 2010 interview, (his first since 1989); and
His 1989 speech at The Ohio State University.

He offers a wealth of insight on everything from his work to comic art and comic business.
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Pixel by Pixel



The Pixel Painter (2013)



In 2005, when Hal Lasko, a traditional painter, became vision-impaired, he switched to MS Paint and has since created more than 150 digital works of art. His blindness prevents him from viewing his own paintings in their totality, but he continues to work on them pixel by pixel.

He recites Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees.
 
I think that I shall never see
 A poem lovely as a tree.
 
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
  
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
  
A tree that may in summer wear 
A nest of robins in her hair;
   
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
  
Poems Paintings are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.


Why hasn't God ever made a pixel painting?

Wired Article: This 98-Year-Old Man Spent 13 Years Creating Remarkable Art in MS Paint

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Disremembering Reality!

les_halles

Paris En Scène (2013)


The first time I was stupefied at what qualifies as a museum was when I visited the vomit-inducing Health Museum in Hyderabad and was surrounded by decomposed foetuses begging for formaldehyde. Two decades later, I read that the place was still running without power supply, stinking of sixty-year-old decomposed bodies and the artifacts were accumulating dust mounds and grime. It sounded like the perfect place to observe how bodies putrefy over time! Over the years, I have stretched my definition of a museum, but nothing has challenged my finer feelings as much as this Health Museum! I am inclined to think, the Living Dead museum in Pennsylvania is more happily dead.

In fact, the museums that I find positively mind-boggling these days, such as the International Spy Museum in DC, the Homeless Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts, may never qualify as museums in Hyderabad. There is also the Museum of Toilets in Delhi that sounds irresistible.

I am happy to note that exhibitions in museums are progressively becoming dramatic art forms. They are as much about the exhibits on display as they are about artistic expression, storytelling, and immersion. Few days ago, I was in the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, where I travelled to La Belle Époque in Paris. The music played on the headphones, and the narration spontaneously changed depending on which boulevard I found myself in. I walked into playhouses and cafes, explored the circuses and theatres, visited les salons d’artistes, and climbed to the first level of the Eiffel tower to catch the view of the city during Les Expositions Universelles! The exhibition, Paris en Scène (1889-1914), has over 250 artifacts on display, from theatrical costumes to photographs and film clips, and posters and paintings, and sculptures, and artistic technology and automobiles. But, as I stopped to look at them, I disremembered that I was in a museum. I was window-shopping in a real city!

This brings me to my present rumination on what constitutes as a museum. In my view, the sole purpose of museums is to immortalize ‘ideas and objects’ (artifacts). Immortalizing is not just about collecting and preserving artifacts to eternity, but is about making them larger than life. This is done by weaving narratives around them, and by simulating and augmenting their reality in our world through presentation. In a museum, I see what I cannot see anywhere else; or I see what I see everywhere else in a way that I can only see in a museum! As it often happens when one interprets the world to induce awe and wonder, one either creates or uses an art form or an artistic tool!

The Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit in The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has some of the rarest dinosaurs and prehistoric animals from South America and Africa. When the dinosaurs are viewed through a tablet or phone, their bones suddenly appear covered with flesh and skin, and they move as if they are alive! The PaleoLab in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg lets us see how dinosaur fossils are prepared for exhibit! One can also pretend to be a preparator and remove fossils from rocks, and clean and repair them using the hammers, chisels and brushes that scientists use.

Apart from the Paris exhibition, the Musée de la Civilisation also has a Game Story exhibition showcasing video games from the 1950s to our times organized by historical periods (some spanning two decades, and some five or six years). The exhibition feels no different from a video game parlor, except that I was time-travelling as I played games from different eras; and the variety of games and technology, and their advancements over time felt staggering.

This brings me to my question. Is a museum a museum if most of the exhibits on display are available for sale in regular stores? The Cartoon Art museum in San Francisco has a lovely collection of new and old comic books, arranged in different rooms by themes. The display resembles the 'Recommended by Staff' sections in bookstores. When I visited it a few weeks ago, the museum was celebrating the 75th anniversary of Superman. As I waded through the various eras and delighted in Superman’s many avatars over the seven decades, I also found myself quickly adding a lot of those books to my wishlist on Amazon. For the first time in my life, I could afford to buy museum artifacts and bring the exhibition home with me. The exhibition at the museum ended day before yesterday, but some part of it is on my bookshelf for my own private viewing pleasure.
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Go Easy on the Sutra!


The Kinda Sutra (2013)


This is beautiful Mughal'esque' artwork squandered on uninspired garbage! Oh, so wasted! I don't understand why. No, don't tell me why.

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Monsters Link!

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Kumari Loves a Monster (2010)


What's not to love about loveable monsters? What stops one from becoming a tamil pulp fiction heroine? This picture book is Blaft letting me embrace my unmaiyaana kaadhal (true love); my inner-Kumari! :)

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Sense and Sensibility

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The Work of Director Michel Gondry (2003)


Some of Art is about making us either experience or overlook the contradictory nature of human imagination; that it is boundless, but boundless within its limits. For instance, when a blind person imagines color or a deaf person imagines melody, their mind’s eye fails to capture what their senses have not experienced; likewise, sighted and hearing people fail to find the vocabulary needed to describe color and melody to them. Our imagination is ostensibly limited when it comes to translating our literal world for those who don’t perceive it the same way as us. But, when we attempt to overcome this limitation by transforming the literal to nonliteral, we consciously enter creative space. We are persuaded by the boundlessness of imagination, and the possibility that the blind and the deaf can appreciate color and melody!

I think of all art forms the same way as I do our many senses. Each art form has singular, non-replicable qualities, same as each of our senses. And when we appreciate an art form using other art forms, we do so the same way that a blind person appreciates color using his other capacities. Consider a realistic painting of a sculpture. Even at its realistic best, it is still a painting, and not a sculpture. Its textures and temperatures have been replaced by something alien; the three-dimensional cold marble stone is now a flat oil on canvas. But, the sculpture as the painting adds a new dimension to its existence, that can only be appreciated when we contemplate why a realistic painting of a sculpture was made to begin with!

Of all art forms, I think of cinema as the one with superpowers. Because, it comes closest to sincerely reproducing other art forms, while making it near impossible for other art forms to reproduce it! For instance, when one watches a recording of a stage drama, a musical performance, or a dance recital, there is little information lost between watching the actual event and the recording on screen. When one scans each page in a book, and plays them on screen page by page, they are able to access its content just as in a book. The only things lost in these experiences are the intrinsic qualities, like the ambience of the theatre, the experience of dressing up for the event, the smell of the book, and the foibles peculiar to the medium such as dog-earing pages, or holding the chapter’s end page while reading!

But, most of our obsession and creative challenge with cinema is not with reproducing another art form, but overcoming reproduction, and taking advantage of the unique qualities of the medium that make it different from the other art forms. Every art form has special qualities that cannot be replicated into another medium. Those qualities are best perceived in the interpretative space, where the narrative is either fragile and does not provide the basis for the piece; or where it moves away from the recognizable world. Cinema is the only art form where one can truly reside in both the traditional and the interpretative narrative spaces at once; and the world can be both recognizable and alien. It is truly free of being realistic, and even when it depicts reality, it is not dependent on the chronological order of the story or the relative values of duration. One can travel any length of time and distance as quickly or as slowly as they choose! One can reproduce the world of their subconscious, their dreams, their thought processes, not truthfully, but sincerely; like Michel Gondry.

His work is on a different register, but it still feels familiar; like he means to express actual functioning of thought, or use his illusory world to explain the real world. He manipulates reality and shows us something visceral using a cinematic vocabulary that cannot be translated. But, it speaks to us personally and reverberates through our sensations, so that everything about this world that makes up our reality is on a new trajectory. In his world, people can inhabit many time-spaces at once, they can choose their own speed of movement, get lost in their imagination, liberate what is repressed, fall through different rabbit holes to new worlds and new scenes, and mingle the known with the unknown. It is oneiric, mimetic, self-evident and revelatory all at once. His work is inspired by dreams and music, it is made of rhythmic images, and celebrates the spectacular power of fragments and cinematic continuity.

Canudo thought of cinema as "a painting and a sculpture developing in time, as in music and poetry, which realize themselves by transforming air into rhythm for the duration of their execution". That’s what I think of Gondry’s music videos.
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Avant Guard!

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Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy (2008)


There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.

A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.

Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).

All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!

I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.

And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”

Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!

Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
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The feminist who illustrated through her life!



Wild Wasps & Nipple Fruit (2011)



The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.

Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.

I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.

Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.

She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.

I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.

I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.

Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.

Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.




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State-of-the-art: Solid, Liquid & Gas.

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Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. 1840-1990 (2013)


I walked through this exhibition open-mouthed, with my jaw hanging halfway down my chest. Every kind of photo manipulation being done in Photoshop today was already done in the 1840s within 20 years of the first photograph being taken! But, what was especially astounding was how these tricks were achieved and why they were done.

The how part consists of many different demanding processes having to do with clunky equipment, lots of chemicals, sunlight, and ingenuity.

The why part has to do with elevating photography to an art form, manipulating truth for political gains, bringing color to black and white, adding and subtracting people, and more happily for humor and gags. Any which way you see it, photography was the art of whipping up fictional hysteria, sometimes with the intention of making us believe they were real. Of course, there were also naturalists trying to document reality as truthfully as possible, but this wasn’t their exhibition, and even they inadvertently succumbed to the fictional aspect of photography, both due to the limitations of the technology at that time, and their own prejudices on how the medium should be used.

I would encourage you to visit the exhibition if it ever comes to your part of the world, and read the book, which is a lot sooner and surer to arrive at your doorstep than the exhibition!

The picture above is called "Two ways of Life", and was rendered in 1857 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. "Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print." The Met Museum website showcases all the works in the exhibition, which is over 200 photographs.

NPR has a wonderful article about the exhibition with slideshows. Don't miss the slideshow in the bottom with Joseph Stalin and his mysteriously disappearing inner circle.

Here’s Getty Museum's video of how daguerreotypes were made, just for context on how difficult it was to take photographs at one point. The exhibition showed manipulated daguerreotypes, such as images within images, and other special effects.

And for contrast, here’s Getty Museum's video about a naturalist called PH Emerson, who wanted photography to capture the English countryside as realistically as possible.




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Two Women's Unfettered Imagination

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The Nature Notes (1905) & The Country Diary (1906) of An Edwardian Lady


Until the Renaissance period, women were not allowed to become artists. Art was mainly a man's vocation, and in fact, women were rarely even depicted in paintings, except as angels or other divine beings.

But even as some women attempted to enter the 'artist's guild' in the Renaissance period, artists were considered respectable only if they were knowledgeable in mathematics and biological sciences; and women were unequivocally barred from learning biological sciences, since the study of the human body required working with male and female nudes and corpses; and also women working with animals and insects was associated with witchcraft! It was a frustrating conundrum, which did not fully get resolved until the late 19th century, although with each passing decade women inched closer and closer to full freedom: first painting still life, then depicting historical and mythological scenes, and then portraits of draped people (In fact nudes had to wait till the 20th century)! The few women who did manage to somehow break this quandary during the Renaissance were nuns or aristocrats who were able to gyp the system. Needless to say, few were willing to risk everything for a trifling chance to paint!

In the 1600s, a time when both art and science were inaccessible to women, a woman called Maria Sibylla Merian broke every rule in the book, and became one of the greatest naturalists and scientific illustrators of all time! At the age of 13, she was the first person to observe the metamorphosis of a silkworm, and her account of this pre-dated published accounts of scientists by almost ten years! She was also one of the first few scientists to venture out of Europe and travel all the way to Surinam to study insects with the help of local tribes; and eventually became the first to study the relationship between insects and their host plants, which changed the way naturalists thought about symbiosis; and gave birth to a whole branch in science called ecology. Until Merian drew insects with the food they ate, scientists believed that they reproduced spontaneously from decaying matter. Moreover, her aesthetic detail and the stunning quality of her work raised the standards of scientific illustration.

It convinces me that some of the best work in science happens outside of the strict parameters of scientific approaches. Maria's work was uninhibited by predetermined rules, and was a result of her own unfettered curiosity and imagination. You see this holds true even in other areas of Science. Several amateur astronomers even today contribute significantly to the study of astronomy, not only with finding comets and novae, and data collection, but also with inventing telescopic devices.

But even after two hundred fifty years since Maria Sibylla Merian, not all was fine for women artists and scientists. In the Victorian era (late 1800s), Edith Holden showed every sign of greatness, but her vast knowledge of her local ecology went completely unnoticed for fifty years after her death, and seventy years after she wrote The Country Diary and The Nature Notes!

Unlike Maria Sybilla Merian, Edith Holden did not actively pursue her calling as a naturalist. Her nature notes were never meant to be published, although she meant to share them with her students at the girls' school. She was just a young artist, exploring her countryside on her bicycle and discovering nature, admiring everyone and everything around her, while being blissfully unaware of how exceptional she herself was. Her diaries have simple hand-written notes about her everyday adventures arranged by date; interspersed with her exquisite water color paintings of flowers, plants, animals, birds and insects. When you read her notes, you see yourself in Birmingham in the Edwardian Period. 107 years ago, exact to this date, on a dull and grey day, she was watching birds building nests, carrying a bicycle half a mile down a thorny lane to picnic on a fence, and wondering why the white Periwinkles have five petals and the blue ones have four.

And while she painted the scenes of the West Midlands countryside, and illustrated various species in graphic detail, she had to make do with finding recognition only as an artist for children's books, as women were not otherwise taken seriously as proper artists or scientists. But to Merian and Holden, the pursuit of nature was mostly one of curiosity! They were just full of wonder and amazement; You saw that in Merian because all her writings were presented not as facts, but in sentences that began with  "perhaps" "maybe" "probably". And Holden shares not only her thoughts about nature, but poetry written by all her favorite poets. Evidently, there was a poem for every season and every 'naturey' thing; and everyone knew their physical surroundings like the palm of their hand! I am not surprised how much nature was a subject of contemplation by poets, but just the level of knowledge about the wonders that seasonal changes brought to their places! But, I mostly wonder what would have become of Maria Sibylla Merian and Edith Holden if they were in fact allowed full freedom to pursue their dreams.

There are very few male and female naturalist writers in this era who are also painters; This was a lot more common up until the Victorian era. Just as women are beginning to experience professional equality today, we are beginning to lose this ability!



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Running the Heinrich-athon

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Ornithoblogical (2009-Present)


Ever since I pre-ordered Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, I have been on a Bernd Heinrich-athon. I feel this uncharacteristic need to finish reading his books that have been staring me in the face for months, before reaching for his new one. The plan is to check each book off from this list after reading it, and share some overarching thoughts when I am done with the whole pile.

A Year in the Maine Woods

The Trees in my Forest

Summer World: A Season of Bounty

Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

The Geese of Beaver Bog

Speaking of Bernd Heinrich-athon, the man also writes a lot about running: humans running, animals running; Apparently, a lot of living species are built for distance. I am steering clear of those for now, and will save them for when I reach for a treadmill!

In the mean time, I present Anna Raff's bird paintings that have been keeping me entertained for over three years. After 576 paintings, I am amazed that she hasn't run out of ideas, and her birds continue to make me laugh.
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Realism behind Fantasy

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This is an issue close to my heart. Visual effects artists literalize the magic of cinema. The demand for them is overwhelming in the industry, and yet, VFX shops are struggling to keep afloat and artists are barely making ends meet. Realism is the life of the artists making fantasies.

I urge you to type "VFX Protests" in your favorite search engine and read about the struggles of my favorite people. Here's a start: A Wired Article.
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Your way or the Ai Weiwei way

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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)


As I was half way through watching Ai Weiwei's documentary, Tapi, who had just watched it the night before casually stated that it was the last day of Ai Weiwei's exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum; not expecting that he would have to vault out the door with me that very instant to go see it! I then came back and watched the second half of the documentary, which ended on a disheartening note, and some more videos about his art installations.

With Ai Weiwei's work, one can't separate his art from the polity or his life experiences. He's determined to make bold statements about the lack of transparency in the Chinese government using the most visible tools of outreach: Art Installations and Social Activism through blogs, Twitter, documentaries, videos and photographs. Even alone, each of these are audacious tools in a highly censored country, and he combines them so that they feed off of each other. This, while being under constant government surveillance, having his blogs shutdown, getting arrested multiple times (including a "disappearance"), and seeing his studio destroyed!

After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ai Weiwei made a documentary to show how the government had covered up the deaths of over 5385 children who were buried alive when shoddily constructed public schools collapsed during the earthquake. He then rallied support on twitter for a "citizens' investigation" to compile a list of all the students who were killed. When the blog where he shared the list was shut down by the authorities, he turned it into art, and pasted the names of the student victims on the wall as a massive spreadsheet! One art installation at the exhibition was made out of steel rebar that Weiwei found in junkyards after the government tried to dispose of evidence!

When one looks at the art pieces, it is hard to see the commitment of hundreds of volunteers and the toil that went into pounding thousands of steel rebar to shape, or painting hundred million sunflower seeds, or sculpting thousands of porcelain river crabs, without seeing the accompanying videos showing them willingly laboring away; and then the abstractness transforms into a real, heavy feeling. Weiwei's art is equally about all these people coming together to say something in this ideational way, as it is about the message in the art itself! That regular people are even voicing their opinion is out of the ordinary.

The exhibits make sense only when you read the context, or watch the accompanying videos and see what informed them, and what happened before, during, and after the making of these pieces. It is about cause and effect, and wanting to change the effect into something more positive! Weiwei sees his art as a game of chess, where he makes his move and waits for the opponent to counter. Although, he says in China, the problem is that after every move, the government changes the rules of play, making it impossible to win.

Weiwei's passport was revoked by the Chinese government, so he couldn't attend his own exhibition in DC, but his spirit is indomitable and reverberates across the globe! His photos and videos cover every inch of the walls and floors in Hirshhorn, as I would imagine they do in several other museums all over the world!

When you see thousands of people watching his artwork in a different countries, or thousands of people posting nude photos of themselves online when he is charged for pornography, or thousands honoring the Sichuan earthquake victims in Munich, Germany, or thousands coming together for a River-Crab Party after the demolition of his studio in Shanghai, you see one man's single-mindedness transforming into many people's like-mindedness.
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Standing in a Horse's Shoes.

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The Making of War Horse (2011)


Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!

Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.

I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough. 

What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!

Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye. 

The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!

The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.  

But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!

With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!

In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.

I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!   

Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.
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