A Workshop on Making Deviled Eggs

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.

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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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Avant Guard!

supermanatmet

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

fakingit

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.




Louis_Daguerre-2011-hp



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Your way or the Ai Weiwei way

aiweiwei

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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