Sunday, October 22, 2017

On the Appreciation of the Female Figure

A recent visit to a museum here in Berlin has me thinking about a theme near and dear to me... but a theme which, for several reasons, I have not discussed much on here.

The theme is female beauty and nudity.

The reasons I have not discussed it much are, roughly:
• I don't feel very authoritative on the matter. Which is to say that I feel I have more questions than answers... and maybe some tentative observations...
• It's an issue which I think can be quite sensitive and polarizing. Just like religion and politics, one tends not to discuss beauty and nudity much unless one knows they are safely in the midst of like-minded company.

Well, here goes, tentatively dipping a toe into turbid waters...

As a heterosexual male, I enjoy looking at beautiful women, and typically speaking, the less clothing they are wearing, the better.

You see, I'm already making some of you readers alarmed, and others offended!

But well, it's true. And I'm not alone. And you.. reader.. you know I'm not alone. You might even be like me. Our culture is rife with it. But why? (Here come the questions... mostly without answers...)
Why do people (men??) enjoy looking at beautiful/naked women?
And do women also enjoy it? Do straight women enjoy it? Do straight women enjoy it on a level to which they won't admit for fear of being identified (or self-identifying) as either lesbian or aligned with the patriarchy? These are questions to which I have no answers. (But Cardiff University believes it does...)

There is of course the evolutionary approach to answering this question, which goes something like: Beautiful women convey through their shape and features a "readiness," or "suitability" to bear children, and this is unconsciously internalized as a valuable or attractive feature by men. Seems reasonable, and in fact it is widely accepted as true.

But the effects and the power of beauty are really something to marvel at. My friend Michael Lujan calls it "cute privilege." Cute privilege is something the viewer bestows upon the (beautiful) viewed. The "Effects on Society" section of the Wikipedia page on "Beauty" gives a short but alarming summary of the topic. Beautiful people make more money, get loans more easily, marry more advantageously, and are less likely to be convicted by juries of crimes. Ugly people get the short end of all those sticks, and are also more likely to be involved in crime. That's crazy... and yet not really that surprising somehow.

But why? Why do we bestow such privilege on the beautiful?

Again, Wikipedia gives a curt but interesting fragment of an answer when they say "The experience of beauty often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being."

Emotional well-being.

There could not be a better segue to one of the more personal things I have to say on the matter, which is that looking at beautiful and/or naked women gives me a profound sense of emotional well-being. In a sense, this simple fact is the core of why I felt like it might be worth actually writing on this topic... of why it might actually be worth upsetting a reader or two. The thing is... it's true. And that makes it worth writing about.

I want to flesh the point out a little bit. (Sorry for that). I'm not talking about pornography. Pornography serves a different part of the brain, I think. I'm talking about the simple act of looking at a beautiful woman, or an artistic representation of one. For me, this act of looking is calming. It is soothing. I am not a religious person but there is a religious quality to the experience. It is as if, in a world which so often seems random and senseless and occasionally even malevolent, there still exists this one perfect, beautiful, elegant, balanced thing, and that is women. I am reminded of the title of Garry Winogrand's photography book from the 1960's, "Women are Beautiful." I couldn't have said it better myself, Garry... and I think those three words to myself all the time. Women are beautiful.

I started to discover this calming effect while in Barcelona. After having visited a few other cities in Europe now, I can say that Barcelona is in fact quite well endowed with a lovely coterie of public sculpture which glorifies the female form. Simply walking through the center of town and encountering one of these was a real gift.

(Barcelona has such wealth in this regard; believe me when I say that these three photos are but a small sample)

My favorite museum in Barcelona, the MEAM, also helped me discover this simple pleasure, not least of all through it's wonderful exhibition of the work of Jassans. And as I spend time thinking about this topic, Jassans comes right back to the forefront. As long-time readers of this blog might remember (and for those that missed it, my blog posts on Jassans are HERE and HERE), Josep Salvadó Jassans was a Catalan sculptor with a religious-like reverence for the female figure. He was in fact religious, and he did in fact see the female form as a kind of pinnacle of God's creation. His figures are, in my opinion, strong and balanced and his respect and reverence shines through.

Grella, by Jassans

Well, anyway, shortly after moving to Berlin I bought a year-long pass to the "State Museums of Berlin," a network of 18 state-operated museums here in town. And here I am bringing the narrative back around to the beginning of this post... the museum visit that got me thinking more on this topic. I've been slowly visiting these 18 museums, as time allows. The collections are not, at least by the standards of Barcelona, particularly full of the female form, preferring to veer more towards classical antiquities (lots of horses and soldiers and gods) and also Pop/Modernism (Beuys and Warhol and Kiefer). So I was naturally intrigued by the inclusion of The Helmut Newton Foundation on the list. Helmut Newton, for those that don't know, was a German/Australian fashion photographer whose work gradually included more and more nudity and even fetish elements, eventually earning him the name "The King of Kink." (Here is a pretty good article, written while he was still alive)

On first glance, the museum certainly seemed to fill the void left by the other museums' relative paucity of the female form; the Helmut Newton Foundation is packed to the rafters with images of naked and beautiful women.

(Sorry for the rather poor composition of this photo... cameras are not allowed in the museum, so I had to position myself behind a pillar where I could not be seen by guards!)

I was immediately seduced and happy to be there.


After not all that long I began to feel that something, some small thing, was amiss. Slowly the thoughts started creeping in: "How can someone get away with such unsophisticated objectification of the female body?" "Is this OK?" "Why, exactly, did he get so famous for this?" "Is this actually any different from pornography?" Some of his images, especially those of famous people, are very respectful while still being sexy, but many of them betray something else, something slightly more... sinister?

I myself am not a brilliant critical thinker, one of those people well-versed on the connections between different modes of modern thought, popular culture, identity politics, gender norms, semiotics, and all that. (I don't even really know what "semiotics" means, although I suppose I could look it up!) So I sought help from the internet. I looked up "Helmut Newton," imagining I would find plenty of insightful criticism. But no, that search gets you nothing but hagiographical paeans. I had to go with "Helmut Newton criticism" before Google gave me something to work with. I read a few good articles, but I thought this one was the best. It introduced me to the idea of The Male Gaze, an interesting concept which posits that the default perspective/viewpoint from which the dominant western culture is "produced" and is thereby made normative is that of the heterosexual male. It follows then that looking at sexy women is OK, and the sexier and more boobs and butt, the better. But if I'm reading this right, I think the Male Gaze is about more than just looking. I think it has the goal of commodification, objectification, and control of women through the use of framing, posture, props, narrative, and other sorts of editorializing. (And to the degree that it really is about control, what interesting things does this say about the secret fear that men have of women, of their emotion, of their power?)

Helmut Newton's work is a great place to see this, and it's easy to see in two of his most iconic images.

This is one of his "Big Nudes," seen also in the lobby photo above.

And this is "Tied Up Torso, Ramatuelle."

Newton was lauded in his time in his time for presenting women as emancipated, self confident, and powerful. And of course it's easy to see those qualities in these images. But I also can't help notice the high-heel shoes in "Big Nude 1" and the rope in "Tied Up Torso." Are these details the kinds of things that these women would have chosen for themselves? Or are they examples of "the Male Gaze?" The shoes and the rope both suggest, to me, ways in which the women are still under the control of men... and maybe it's this tension between their obvious strength/self possession and these kinky details which put a limit on that strength that is in part responsible for the appeal of the images. (Of course it's also possible that I am mis-reading the rope in "Ramatuelle." Perhaps her strong gesture is to suggest that she is just about to throw off the ropes of the patriarchy... but I somehow can't really see that)

I guess what I'm saying is that it's not my thing. So much of what makes or breaks images like these for an INDIVIDUAL is their personal psychology (and lord knows that is a wide-open and varied field). Perhaps these simple props, which for me undermine the images, were in fact the indispensable elements for Newton. Different psychologies. I would like the "Big Nude 1" a lot more, I think, if she were flat-footed on the ground, and I like this version of "Tied-Up Torso," in which the rope has been removed, much better.

(There are so many tangential off-shoots which arise from this topic, which would make this post way too long, and about which I'm just not well-versed enough to discuss. One, though, which I find interesting is this idea that women willingly adopt elements of the Male Gaze, or self-objectify, presumably in the service of attracting male attention. Of course it happens all the time. But then, in the words of Hadley Freeman, "What is one person's embrace of their sexuality is another person's patriarchal oppression.")

Anyway, I know this is all very sensitive territory and I'm sure my arguments could be ripped apart by anyone with a sharp wit and a different viewpoint. These are just my opinions and observations.

I hadn't really intended to bring Jassans into this discussion when I started, but he poked his head in. Both Jassans and Newton present their subjects very dispassionately, without a lot of undue emotion. But, for their naturalism and their lack of props and art-direction, Jassans' work is much more powerful, to me, anyway.

3 sculptures by Jassans

Is Jassans' work free of the trappings and traps of "the Male Gaze?" Can a man appreciate the female form without objectifying it? Can this appreciation be "simple"? Can it be "innocent"? 
Jassans makes me think the answer is probably yes, but...

I don't really know.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Well well, what to say?

I felt strangely compelled to write that last post, even though in retrospect its pretty clear that my mood was at a nadir at the time. What does it say, then, that in this era of unerringly polished and positive online social media biographies, the allure of which I certainly feel just like everybody else, I was compelled to write at that time? Who knows. But I can feel things turning around.

In a strange stroke of good timing, Christina and I attended a workshop for parents of new students at Kodiak's school only one or two days after that last blog post. Considering the fact that the student body is almost entirely kids from expat families, and that a "new family" is very likely a family recently arrived in Germany, this workshop was actually structured as an offer of support for parents who might be going through a rough patch in this new culture. Apparently it's not uncommon. In fact, one of the slides at the workshop, a slide which made me feel oddly better was this:


I've clearly been in the "Irritability" phase for a little while now.
I find it interesting that I never really went through an Irritability phase in Spain, even though the culture of Spain is arguably more different from American culture than is the culture here in Germany. Maybe it was because I spoke the language? Maybe if one thinks about the Barcelona segment and the Berlin segment as one big "Europe-thing," then Spain was one big year-long Euphoria phase and I'm only now hitting the Irritability part?
In any case, the slide made me feel better because it normalized this phase.

But it's also true that the leaders of this workshop I've mentioned discussed the fact that they hold THIS workshop in the Fall for the new families, what they called "The Newbies," and another workshop in the Spring for the families who will be leaving after the current school year, or "The Leavers." And I can't help but notice that we are simultaneously Newbies and Leavers. This business of only staying for not even a full year is throwing me for a loop. I can't understand, on some visceral level, how and how much to invest in being here. It's complicated by difficulties which I've been facing in my own creative practice since... to be honest... since the accident in which my sculpture fell down (through the negligence of one former friend, thereby injuring another former friend. Again, I was not even there. The injured former-friend then "lawyered up" against me; that episode drags on and on and is not yet finished).

I have this mental image of the super-confident, continent-hopping artist who sets up an atelier in whichever city he* lands in, quickly marshaling tools and assistants and gallerists to make his vision come true. I'm sure this is how the "superstar artists" work. There is a lot of overlap between this idealized vision and the much-vaunted ability to "just be here," or "be here now," or "love what is," or whatever. My abilities in those departments are perhaps not all they could be, but I work on myself all the time and life isn't an inspirational Buddhist poster. Well, mine isn't anyway.
*(Sorry ladies that I'm not using his/hers here, I hope it's obvious I'm talking about myself!)

In the spirit of "being gentle" with myself, I find it worth reminding myself that there are a few forces arrayed against me, such as • culture shock, • having a family necessarily splits time and attention, • ateliers are expensive, • tools are expensive, • and what the hell am I supposed to do with the sculptures I might theoretically build here? But in the spirit of "not being too gentle" with myself, I should remember that • I have a duty to create (art is the proper task of life), • the correct attitude is to simply make the work, rather than worrying what will become of it, • we have actually finally now found TWO places which have shared tools, and where it seems likely we can work, • and that the biggest impediment to my getting back to work is actually myself. In this vein, I have begun to read "The War of Art" (clearly a pun on the famous "The Art of War"). The War of Art is a book which discusses the resistance all of us experience (and to varying degrees succumb to or overcome) to doing our work. Resistance, as discussed in this book, takes many different forms, such as addictions of all sorts, self-doubt, fear, procrastination, etc. It does not specifically discuss the greatest time-waster ever invented and my personal enemy, the internet, but I think this is probably because it was written in 2005. It also apparently discusses ways to combat this resistance. I am not yet in the combat section, so I can't comment. 

I currently have two ideas for sculptures I'd like to build. 

Ironically, the first is an old idea. That's ironic because, for all my talk about Europe being the source of new inspiration, this idea dates from at least a year or two before we left. This idea is not spectacularly ambitious, although it could be executed in almost any scale and the level of ambition would be directly proportional to it's size. But my point is that it's something I could actually do, probably almost entirely by myself, requiring nothing more than time in one of the aforementioned workshops. The fact that it is not mechanical in any way, but rather more closely resembles traditional sculpture, could however actually be seen as a down-side, or as not enough of a "stretch" for me... when seen from within the context of the value of "big ambitious ideas" that I was espousing back in the Björk and Damien Hirst posts of a few months ago... What I am actually trying to say here might become more clear in the context of the second idea...

The second idea did come to me here in Europe, and it is wildly ambitious. Getting really focused on a wildly ambitious project seems like it might be a form of resistance... or maybe not.  It would require me to work with specialists in the fields of programming and motion control... and I don't have tons of experience with that kind of collaboration. But as I mentioned in those old Björk and Hirst posts, ambitious projects require teams, and if I'm going to find those kinds of expert geeks anywhere, Berlin seems like it might just be the place. Funding a project like this is of course a whole separate can of worms, and will require me to overcome significant resistance in the form of self-doubt and inertia. As always, I've got my work cut out for me.

Art is the proper fucking task of life, mother fucker. 

Postscript 1: Shortly after writing the above text, I became aware that Burning Man has just announced its theme for 2018, and it is: "I, Robot." The page on which they've made this announcement is well adorned with pix of my work, which is nice. That second idea, mentioned above, would suit this theme well, so... mal sehen!*
*That's German

Postscript 2: Last Friday, October 13, marked one year since we set off from the Taos Mesa on this big adventure. I'll never tell you that this sort of thing is easy, and you shouldn't believe anyone who does tell you that... But I think we've done a pretty good job of expanding our horizons, especially those of Kodiak... and that was really one of the fundamental goals of this whole thing. I'm proud of us.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Cranky in Berlin

I am well aware that I haven't been blogging as much as I was in Barcelona, and yet when I ask myself why that is, I can't really come up with an answer that feels completely satisfactory... to me. But this question, and an attempt to answer it, might well serve as a framework (or at least a beginning) for this post.

The simplest thing to say, I guess, is that I'm not really feeling tremendously inspired in Berlin... neither to blog nor in any other way. There's nothing particularly bad about being here... but I'm certainly not feeling ON FIRE the way I was (at least once in a while) in Barcelona. All of which is a bit hard - and makes me a bit melancholy - to admit. But I do need to remind myself from time to time that we've only been here a little over 7 weeks, and that's really not a lot of time in a new country / culture, with a kid and a new school and apartment and all that.

In trying to uncover the reasons, I think it makes a lot of sense to begin with one factor that might actually have a fair bit of influence on other factors... and that is the fact that I am trying to learn German. The reason I am conjecturing that it might have implications for other factors is that learning a new language takes a lot of time. Including my class, my commute to class, and my study time, German chews up about 20 hours a week, which definitely takes a bite out of the 40 hours, give or take, that I have every week during Kodiak's school hours.

As mentioned earlier this puts me in much the same boat Christina found herself in while in Spain. In Spain I had time to soak up culture, look for a workshop, and get involved in clay sculpture, while Christina was busy learning Spanish. We've traded places.

Why would I bother to learn German, you ask? Especially considering that one can get by pretty well in Berlin without speaking it, and also that we'll almost certainly be returning to Taos next summer? Well, I don't have a completely compelling answer to that either, other than to say that I've always loved German and have always wanted to learn it. I guess that when I put it that way, it does sound reasonably compelling... but still, the usefulness of it in my life is questionable. Understanding the lyrics of Laibach and Rammstein will be nice, but...

That being said, my German class, of which I have now completed the first month, has been an unexpected pleasure. It's a fun group of people and a great teacher, I find that I really enjoy learning the language (although it is a hard one), and the class schedule gives my life a bit of structure.

For this last month of school, I've generally been spending the 2 or 3 free hours that I have after class soaking up the city in one way or another. Usually it's a museum or a gallery, or a bicycle or motorcycle ride through some interesting neighborhood such as Prenzlauer Berg or Neukölln or Bergmannkiez. I've climbed the Siegessäule and we've gone up the Fernsehturm as a family too. All of this has been fun... I really feel that long-inactive parts of my brain are getting a workout as I consciously try to learn this new city and it's language.... but...

There's only so long you can be a tourist.

And I get antsy... sometimes even crabby, if I can't work in one way or another.

I think it was easy to be a tourist in the first few months of Barcelona because Barcelona is SO different from anywhere else I've ever lived, and because being in Europe was so new. But even there, after a few months, I was getting antsy. It was around that time that we really stepped up the search for a workshop, a search which eventually turned out to be a big dead end. But all along it was relatively easy to do small art projects in our Raval apartment (no one seemed to care about a little noise and dust). This, and Jorge's figurative clay sculpture class, saved me.

Germany, on the other hand, doesn't really feel that different from other places I've lived, and being in Europe isn't that new anymore either. Plus, the time without a studio, and therefor without doing any real meaty work, is now almost a year. Also, there are explicit clauses in our lease prohibiting any work in the apartment, and Germans are so damn uptight that I wouldn't put it past one of my neighbors to report me to the property management if they heard a jigsaw (more on the Germans later). So yeah, we are really really ready for a studio. But this is turning out to be almost as difficult here as it was in Spain.

The mythical Berlin of cheap and easy artist space is 5-10 years gone, as far as I can tell. On the plus side, there are actually websites and networks dedicated to the rental market for art studio space  (which is a huge step up from Barcelona), but it's all expensive, far away, and competitive to get into (not to mention the near-universal fear of noise and dust, which feels like a prejudice against sculptors... everyone wants to rent their space to a fucking graphic designer). We have our eyes on 2 spaces, but neither one of them is actually very good, and we are vying against other interested parties for both of these distant and expensive spaces. Apparently we aren't the only artists who heard that Berlin is cool and moved here looking for a studio. 

If something doesn't click soon I will just start sculpting clay in the apartment, lease provisions be damned.

Also I would just like to point out that, although they say Berlin is one of the great world capitals of art, I'm not really feeling it (yet?). There are good resources for "classical" painting and sculpture up through the 19th century, but I still haven't stumbled upon much contemporary stuff. Barcelona's modest little MEAM has a better collection of contemporary figurative work than anything I've seen here yet. Maybe I'm spending too much time in Zehlendorf, maybe too much time studying German, or maybe its just that it's only been 7 weeks. Just today I visited two recommended galleries in Friedrichshain... one was empty (between shows??) and the other was closed forever. I continue looking.

When we were still in Barcelona, but considering a move to Berlin, several people weighed in with the opinion: "Berlin is cool, but winter sucks and its full of Germans." I shrugged it off, thinking "winter is winter, we have winter in Taos too... and the Germans can't be all that bad." Well I don't know about winter yet, but Germans do take a bit of getting used to. 

I remember despairing of the lack of eye contact in Barcelona and being excited to come to Germany, but the German alternative is not exactly what I had in mind. Germans stare. And they don't smile. Like, never. On the street, on the metro, they will just stare at you with a facial expression somewhere between dead and mildly scornful, as if to say (with their eyes) "who the fuck are you? And why are you here?" 

Another thing they love to do is honk at each other. The worst example I've seen recently involved a driver that pulled to the curb to pick up her young son, who was doing his darned best to get into the car quickly. The cars behind her were inconvenienced for less than a second before they started honking. Seriously, it was immediate... I'm not exaggerating. That would simply not happen in Spain, or Taos, or most places I can think of.

Not long ago we were in Denmark (which is quite awesome, as far as I can tell), and we saw lots of Danish people who appeared happy (some of them even smiling at us!), proving that it is not actually a requirement to be dour and unfriendly when living in northern Europe. 

Anyway, I digress.

As I write this... I can certainly sense a lot of frustration in my tone and content. This business with the search for an art studio is showing itself to be more difficult and complicated than I'd ever imagined. And the question is not just one of finding an actual space within which to work (even though that is proving to be a colossal task)... it reverberates on other levels too. If we are able to find a studio and I give in to my natural inclinations to work on a larger scale, then what to do with that work when it's finished? Show it in a gallery? Store it? But where? Ship it back to the States? If I work smaller (which I probably should), then similar questions arise... also pointing in the direction of trying to have a show, or ship stuff home. I have practically no experience with the "gallery world,' and so I'm not even sure if arranging a show would be possible. The "context" within which I'm typically used to working is that of a festival, with a fixed show date, but the festival thing is not really happening here. So then, the option that remains is to work simply for the point (the joy?) of working... and figure out what to do with it later. This is what I should do. This is what I did in Barcelona, and I was quite happy doing it. But again... a studio. It doesn't seem so much to ask... a room in which to set up some tools and do some work, in which noise and dust are allowed... does it? It all makes our giant workshop in the mesa, with plenty of storage, look pretty lovely. 

When I get frustrated, I must remember that the very worst thing we could do would be to reach the end of our time here and feel that perhaps we could have tried harder. So... get to work trying to get to work.

OK, phew. Now that my rant is over, I can talk about some of the fun stuff. 

First off, Berlin is a lovely place to motorcycle. It reminds me of the San Francisco of my teens... which is to say San Francisco in the 1990's. Even though it's technically illegal here, you can split lanes - the cops don't care. In fact a few weeks ago I rode slowly past a group of cops who were standing on the sidewalk watching me go by, only to arrive at the end of the block and realize I'd been driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Apparently they didn't care about that either. Also reminiscent of San Francisco, you can park pretty much anywhere you want. Sidewalks, courtyards, between cars... it doesn't really matter (as long as its not in a bicycle lane!). That has been fun. 

In addition to climbing the Siegessäule one day after class...

we also went up the Fernsehturm, which is a structure that I have a strange fondness for. 

Note Kodiak's reflection and mine in the window....

Here's a night portrait. I think my fondness for this tower comes from several sources... 1) its a building which is really more like a machine, 2) for this reason it is quite out of place in the city, 3) it's history as something built by the East, right next to the wall as a kind of provocation to the west, is funny to me, and 4) it's one of the only things I actually clearly remember from the day I strolled around East Berlin in 1987 or so (before the fall of the Wall).

I mentioned that Berlin has good resources for classical painting and sculpture. Here are a few that have caught my eye. This is the famous "Amazon zu Pferde," or Amazon on a horse, by August Kiss that adorns the Alte Museum on Museum Insel. The action and intensity is an even match, in my opinion, to some of the stuff I saw in Venice a few months ago by Damien Hirst. 

Another one I like is this, by Eduard Müller. Also lots of crazy dynamism and conflict in this one.

Kodiak and I visited the Natural History Museum where we saw the Holotype (or very best specimen, against which all others are judged) of Archaeopteryx. Pictures of this exact fossil are in pretty much every dinosaur book, and it was fun to see it in person.

And, as mentioned, we went to Denmark. That was actually last weekend, when Kodiak had a few days off school. 

We took the ferry across a small part of the Baltic,

We saw the "Little Mermaid" sculpture,

We experienced that famous "Danish Design," (haha, sort of an idiosyncratic example, to say the least... I wonder if anyone can guess what that is?)

We went to the Viking Museum in Roskilde (which was super awesome... a highlight!) Look at that smiling Danish guy!

And we posed charmingly in front of a good looking Danish bridge!

OK, until next time... Hopefully I'll have some art to show one of these days.