Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Moving things along

Ok wow, so much has happened since the last time I wrote. In this case, life has just been happening so fast that there hasn't really been time to chronicle it, but I'm going to try to squeeze in a post. I think it will slip largely into travelogue mode because like I said, lots going on.

Do I remember correctly that high school and college essays are supposed to begin with a paragraph laying out everything that is to follow.. an outline... a sort of pre-summary? OK, well we went to Berlin to show the Hand of Man, and Berlin was awesome. We returned to Barcelona in time to catch the Barcelona Maker Faire, after which we spent a sweet couple of days in Cadaqués, on the Costa Brava. There was some art sprinkled in there, and plenty of reckoning about what the second half of our time here in Europe might look like.

After all that hassle negotiating the transport of the Hand over to Europe, it finally really did arrive in Berlin. Although local conditions precluded us from smashing cars, we still managed to annoy the venue folks with the Hand's steady drip drip drip of hydraulic oil onto the pavement. Germans don't seem to have a lot of love for drippy hydro systems, but everyone was happy after we fixed it. The Hand was the main advertising image for the Faire, and damn... that image was everywhere in Berlin! It was very cool to see it on every corner in town.

After we packed it all up for shipment back to Barcelona, we had a few days vacation in Berlin. Personally speaking, the charm of Berlin sort of snuck up on me. It's not a great beauty like Prague or Venice or even Barcelona. The architecture is quite boring and in some cases oppressive. There are no Mediterranean beaches or mountains in the distance; in fact the entire city is quite flat. Also, parts of it are a huge construction zone.

But... the city is spectacularly green, with a super-high percentage of area devoted to park (numbers are a bit hard to pin down, but Wikipedia calls it at about 33% of the city, while Barcelona lags behind at 10%), which people really seem to use. And the river Spree, which snakes through it, is wide and beautiful and you can go boating on it. I understand there are even some beaches in Berlin, although I'm not sure if they are on the Spree or on one or another of the city's lakes. The playgrounds are plentiful and the most imaginative I've ever seen. And there is no lack of monuments (mostly about the war). But more than all that, Berlin is full of art and artists and people who seem to really love living there. Time and again we heard people tell us that the cost-of-living to quality-of-life ratio there is better than anywhere else in Europe. And sure enough.. a bit of searching online shows flats for rent in Berlin comparable to ours in Barcelona coming in at 50-70% of the cost, with garden access to boot. Plus, artists in Berlin seem to actually have workshops, in which they seem to actually work! We even know a few of them already!

Sculpture by Keith Haring

Sculptures by Wilfried Fitzenreiter

Sculpture by Eduardo Chillida

Watercolor by Anne Bengard

So, unsurprisingly, we are starting to think about what it might look like to spend the second half of our time here in Europe over there in Berlin. The challenges would be huge, the bureaucracy burden is apparently even worse than in Spain (hard to believe) and at this point it's not at all clear if it would be worth the trouble. But we are thinking about it. Ironically Christina and I would trade places in some sense, insofar as she speaks German and I don't. It would be an interesting shift!

Well just in case we hadn't gotten our fill of laser cutters, 3D printers, and LEDs in Germany, we landed in Barcelona just in time for Maker Faire (for which I'd tried hard to arrange a showing of the Hand, but I was a bit too late to successfully navigate the requirements of the venue). Catching up with old friend Sabrina Merlo was definitely a highlight.

After that we tagged along with Sabrina and her kids Ruby and Arlo to a great little sublet in Salvador Dali's old beach town of Cadaqués for a few days. What a tough life we lead!

We returned from the coast in time for me to catch the second half of my final sculpture class of the course (after having sadly missed quite a few because of our travels). Here are another few pix of the male portrait. Again, this is after only 3 sessions, while the other students in my class worked on this one for 6 sessions. I'm frankly not sure when I will ever have time to finish it, which is a shame.

In the last few days we've done some memorable things, such as wander around the city during Día de Sant Joan which is widely, and I think correctly, billed as the single craziest day of the year in Barcelona. There are bonfires in the streets and everyone is throwing fireworks everywhere, regardless of whether or not people are nearby. Seriously. And police are nowhere to be seen. Somehow people do not seem to die en masse. Somehow it all seems to work.

Later that night we joined Grey and Nova and a hundred other people for a clandestine midnight marching band escapade at the end of a pier jutting out into the Mediterranean, complete with "firework twirling" courtesy of Christina. Highly memorable.

And most recently we saw "Björk Digital" at the CCCB. I'm a big fan of Björk; I had high expectations and I wasn't disappointed. Well, not grossly disappointed anyway. The show featured 6 new works by her which are essentially music videos from her newest album Vulnicura. But instead of regular videos, one is an immersive 2-screen experience and the remaining five are VR pieces. Personally I think Björk is a genius for her vision and her embrace of new technologies in the service of reaching people in new ways, and the show flaunted these strengths well. In retrospect (and through conversation with Sabrina) I do feel that the VR pieces did not perhaps take sufficient advantage of the possibilities of the platform, in the sense that there was no real interactivity. My experience in Venice with Paul McCarthy's VR piece sheds an illuminating light on this; while the characters in his VR followed me around and made me feel implicated in the narrative, with Björk's pieces I simply felt like a bystander watching her and her avatars go through various therapeutic and gymnastic maneuvers and transformations. Granted, the visuals were spectacular and the experience was great, but... maybe it could have been greater. Let's not forget that the medium is still in its infancy.

After the VR pieces was a video explaining her 2011 project "Biophilia." I use the term project because Biophilia was an album and an interrelated app which attempted to invent a whole new way of music-making, separate from sheet music. I won't get too into it here because it would take too long. But I have nothing but admiration for this kind of big vision. And Björk has it. The Biophilia app has been adopted into schools in several Scandinavian countries as part of their music programs. Christina downloaded the app and she and Kodiak have begun to make music. Initial reports from the family are positive. 

This brings me back to a theme which is starting to recur here, which is the concept of authorship. Let's recall that Damien Hirst is regularly lampooned for his lack of hands-on involvement in the fabrication of his work. But would any of us imagine that Björk is writing the code for Biophilia or her VR pieces? Or that Paul McCarthy writes code? Of course not... they need specialists to help them realize these big visions, although it seems almost certain that they are intimately involved in an artistic direction sort of capacity. Why would we imagine that Hirst isn't also involved in this way? Also, Björk is very vocal about sharing credit with her main collaborators, while Hirst hides them away in anonymity. Is Hirst a target because he's a visual artist, making objects, selling them, and getting rich? Certainly McCarthy is not so different. I had a recent discussion about a "Miró rug," which is to say a rug featuring a design by Miró. Certainly he did not weave it personally and certainly he benefitted financially and/or career-wise from the rug, but was he subject to the same withering criticism regularly leveled at Hirst? Maybe Hirst is criticized because he outsources his work on such a grand scale, or because he's smug, or rich. Who knows. What I can say is that there's a continuum, and it's not just along a single parameter. In my estimation, the variables at play here (among others) are the scale of the outsourcing, the degree to which credit is publicly shared, the public perception of the ego of the artist, and the amount of money changing hands. With these variables plotted on an imaginary graph, it's not hard to see why Björk is perceived in a generally more favorable light by the public than Hirst. But another thing I can unequivocally say is that big ambitious work takes vision, boldness, money, and a team, and I have a ton of admiration for anyone pulling off work on this scale. 

Well, now we settle into the summer. No school for Kodiak, lots of tourists, and HOT HOT HOT. 

Hasta la vista, baby.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Time to Work

Sometimes I publish a blog post only to find in the ensuing days that the ideas expressed therein were not complete, or have been leading on to other ideas. Such is the case with the last one or two posts. It's like I am having a conversation with myself (which we all do, all the time, don't we?) and writing it all down in this blog, hoping, in the way that all writers do I guess, that the act of writing it will make it more real, or maybe even reach someone.

As I said in the Venice post, reactions to art are highly personal. I think that in much the same way as our underlying psychologies inform our choices of mate and our political leanings, that same underlying psychology probably has much to do with what art / media we respond to. What follows is a snapshot of the current state of my thoughts about art, subject to change without prior notice from the management.

I personally am a person who is not particularly in touch with my emotional side. I am ruled by my intellect to the degree that basic core emotions are often parsed and intellectualized by some pre-conscious editor before even rising to the level of conscious experience. As such, I'm often only dimly aware that an emotion "happened," and figuring out what I actually feel, as opposed to think, can seem like detective work.

It seems too far fetched to imagine that this psychological underlayment would not be related to the fact that, for me, art which inspires an emotional reaction is the holy grail. Any piece of art which can jerk me out of the rational, which can pierce that controlled intellectual narrative, can actually affect me, is something I like and something I remember. By extension, I imagine that those who are ruled by their emotional side might well be attracted to art and media that presents a more intellectual experience, but this is only a guess.

For me, music is the art form which most consistently elicits this kind of reaction (barring movies of course, which A) can yank your emotions around like nothing else, and B) I just don't watch that much). Maybe it's a song I haven't heard in years that I used to love, maybe it's a soaring orchestral part, maybe it's a movingly personal lyric. In my experience, the visual arts have a much harder time managing this, yet that's where my interests lie.

I believe that getting the heart racing through fear or through a thrilling experience hits the same target of jerking you out of the rational, and this is why motorcycle riding, roller coasters, and robot performances can be so fun. But fear / thrill is also probably the easiest reaction to elicit, at least among positive reactions (disgust or anger might be easier to foster, but you're likely going into debased territory if you're aiming for those). How do you tease out those subtler emotions, like sadness, joy, reverie, transcendence, or ecstasy? There are no clear answers here; this is the challenge of making this kind of work.

There's a quote I like very much from an article Amanda Palmer wrote about Nick Cave for the Guardian. I go back and read it every few months...
"But fundamentally this is what we – as artists – have always done. We take our pain and we transform it into some kind of narrative, some show or story, something … else. We frame our trauma as best we can, and we offer it up. At best, it’s a gift; at worst, it’s a product. And the amount of enduring respect we bestow on our artists seems to be directly proportionate to how well, how authentically, how selflessly, they can take and deliver an emotional selfie like this."

Does Damien Hirst fit into this at all? Or Jassans? Well, if we use "jerking you out of the rational" as the target, there are lots of ways to get there. I think that work which inspires thoughts about larger, deeper issues which by their nature defy easy intellectualization, such as love, beauty, mortality, loss, and similar concepts is capable of inspiring similar reactions to that which brings out a purely emotional response. And beauty itself, when it is undeniable... when it hits you hard because it stands apart so clearly from everything around it... can bring you there too.

These observations go some way towards describing why I have no love for abstract art, or art about art. Mondrian or Jackson Pollock might be interesting when viewed from within the framework of the flow of art history, but they don't say anything and don't seem to mean anything, at least not to me. Maybe one day I will think differently.

These are all from Niccolo dell'Arca's amazing Compianto Sul Cristo Morto

Two of my favorite Francis Bacon images

Last weekend I met a fellow artist through a play-date for Kodiak. He'd taken a 10-year hiatus from art-making, but recently come back to it with a new sense of purpose, one example of which is a commitment to finish a new piece every week (he's working with media in which that is a more feasible proposal than it would be in sculpture). I was inspired by this meeting to try increase my focus and increase my production. As such I spent four out of five days this week sculpting, either at class or at home.

These are pictures of my full-figure piece at class. These show the more-or-less finished result; she is actually a bit advanced now from when these pictures were taken, but the changes are slight.

 This is the portrait I just started. For reference, I've got about 6-7 hours into this one by now.

This is the plasticene (non-hardening, oil-based clay) piece I've been working on at home. It sat for quite a few weeks recently with no work done, but I'm newly motivated to finish it. The boobs need to get a bit smaller, she needs ears and hair, and a few other things, but I'm pretty happy with her. I've decided to mold and cast her, because... why not. Otherwise plasticene sculptures are destined for the trash-bin, sooner or later... they don't hold up. I continue to find the pose and expression quite compelling. 

Here is something I built from cardboard, hot glue, syringes, rubber tubing, and wood bits. It's a mask with kinetic elements, operated by simple syringe-based water hydraulics. The glove means I can make it operate wherever, whenever, while walking around. It still needs a bit of surface treatment, as in finishing the paint job and maybe some tiki-style design work on the face. Here is a 20-second video.

I keep saying that I am going to talk about the passage of time, and the perception of it. I'll keep it quick and get to the point. As an adult, I feel that time moves so fast, and I have very little sense of it. Memory isn't what it used to be, and so much of daily life is unremarkable and not really worthy of logging in to the memory banks anyway. What did I eat for dinner 2 nights ago? Or even last night? Who knows. One needs landmarks to understand the passage of time, and for me the important landmarks are the milestones of Kodiak's life (which will happen on their own), and my own work (which I need to be focused on in order to make happen). This sense of time flying by is just another reason to kick myself in the ass and get to work. One neat thing about sculpture is that it will continue to exist even after I no longer exist. But only if I make it.