Monday, April 16, 2018

More Welding and More McQueen

There's a natural inclination to want your ideas to be "finished," to be complete and "ready for publication" before you set them down to paper (or your blog)... but one of the nice things about a format like a blog is that it is OK to be a little less formal... a little more free-form. After all, I've made mention before of how this blog is serving on some level as a sort of "public diary," and past entries demonstrate that I don't mind letting this be a place for the evolution of ideas.

As for the half-baked thoughts I'm referring to, they relate to my ongoing interest in the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, and some thoughts I have around creativity in general which are precipitated by my current interest in him.

But first, how about an update on my Burning Man project.

You may remember that the project is called "With Open Arms We Welcomed That Which Would Destroy Us," which is frankly a pretty cumbersome title. I'm usually referring to it simply as "With Open Arms," or WOA. There's a slight irony to the fact that the central figure in the sculpture is positioned with open arms (two sets of them, actually), and yet the "open arms" in the title have nothing whatsoever to do with that figure, but rather with "We" humans. We are the ones who have welcomed these technologies with open arms, and this technology (as embodied by the Robot God) is more than willing to welcome us back, or swallow us up. I'm sure this subtlety will be lost on many a viewer. But I digress.

I do love Burning Man, and I am grateful for their funding and vote of confidence this year, but those facts notwithstanding, I must say that their slow handling of the contracts (and funds distribution) this year has been very stressful. Despite the fact that, almost from day one, I have been politely requesting these things to be fast-tracked in light of the realities that I have a shorter build timeframe because of international shipping requirements (just as every funded artist living outside the USA), it was 6.5 weeks until my first check was sent out. There are additional delays associated with moving the money abroad, and I am probably still 10 days away from being able to actually buy metal with it. As such, I have had to wring the neck of my personal financial resources to get this project moving. Sitting back and waiting for the money simply wasn't an option if I want to get this ambitious thing built on time. It will all work out in the end, I'm sure, but it has been difficult.

The first four weeks of building have concentrated on the base of the sculpture, or the "throne," which is essentially done now.

Here I have used the overhead crane at BBK to place one element in mid-air, in a position advantageous for completing a certain set of welds, while Christina and I both weld. 

Here is the base, largely completed... (a few things are missing still, including the "leaves" around the bottom, some decorative bands around the top, and of course the frieze)

Here the elements of the base have been disassembled with the crane...

And here I have installed the aforementioned decorative bands...

Meanwhile I've been simultaneously working over at KAOS to finish molding the faces. The silicone cured properly, thank the lord Jeeze, and I made the fiberglass jackets. Here is a picture just before beginning the fiberglass... after the final layer of silicone.

De-molding them is turning out the be really difficult, and it seems I will probably destroy the originals in the process. Oh well, it's the silicone molds that matter most now.

Hopefully this week I will be able to purchase a sheet or two of aluminum and begin work on the body of the central figure, the deity. I will let you know how it goes!

OK, Alexander McQueen... and my still nascent and unstructured musings on him...
At a certain point I imagined that I would begin my discussion of him by saying something like "Well there's nothing that I can say about Alexander McQueen that hasn't been said before," but... I think I've now read about him and thought about him enough to have had some of my own ideas, and perhaps not yet read so much that I've already read someone else elucidating these thoughts. So maybe they are actually original, or maybe I just haven't read them in someone else's voice yet.

Yes, he was a fashion designer, but anyone who dismisses him as "just" a fashion designer has not taken the time to look at what he was doing. My sense of him was that he was very interested in fashion and had a natural gift for making clothes, both of which factors led him naturally into the field of fashion, but once he had the venue of the catwalk available to him his proclivities as an artist came to the fore and were showcased in the only format in which he was well-versed, namely the catwalk. Like any (good) artist, his work became autobiographical. As a gay man who suffered sexual abuse and also saw his sister physically abused (both of them abused by the same man - her first husband), I believe he identified with women and made clothing intended to make them feel sexy and powerful, as well as protected and somewhat unreachable. He famously said "I want to empower women. I want people to be afraid of the women I dress. When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there's a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off. It's almost like putting armor on a woman. It's a very psychological way of dressing."

The way I see it, he designed clothing seemingly on at least two different levels, or maybe three. The two* I've identified so far were the "ready-to-wear" clothes (ready-to-wear is a fashion industry term for clothing that can actually be sold in stores), and also what I call the "show-piece" clothes. These "show-pieces" were the really outrageous stuff, the things that in many cases bore more resemblance to sculpture than clothing, or at least bridged that gap. Insofar as he could be considered a sculptor, his "canvas" (if you will) was the human body, which is a wonderful and fascinating concept. These pieces were unwearable in any practical sense or setting; their purpose was to elucidate ideas and to shock viewers; and these are the items which interest me the most. I think that with his show-piece work he was really stretching the limits of fashion and reaching more towards theater or performance art, and his shows became, through these pieces as well as though other elements such as makeup and hair, stage sets, props, and production design, a way for him to tell stories. His shows told stories which illuminated political history, mental illness, and the culture of consumption that is the fashion industry, as well as many other themes. Of course the stories he tried to tell were limited in their narrative scope by the medium, and couldn't achieve the level of completeness that you might find in a Kubrick movie, or any real narrative art-form. But he was touching on themes which, the closer you look, appear more and more to be very personal. 
*(The possible third level of clothing design he might have been engaged in as well was "haute-couture," or high fashion, meaning hand-made one-off garments for specific clients. I'm not well-enough versed yet in all of this to understand if his haute-couture work overlaps with, or is perhaps synonymous with, his show-pieces.)

It's not hard to find cranky voices proclaiming "Fashion is not art," often in direct response to McQueen. This strikes me as a facile argument which, again, shows a failure to actually look at his work, and also betrays a short-sighted over-reliance on categorization. It's like saying "french fries are not haute-cuisine." Sure, most of the time they are not, but closing yourself off to the possibility that, in the hands of a truly talented and adventurous chef, they could ever be shows nothing other than your own closed-mindedness.

McQueen was apparently widely recognized as a master pattern maker. Pattern making is the art of seeing how a piece of fabric needs to be cut in order to then be sewn to other adjoining pieces in the process of making a garment, and then making an actual pattern (usually from paper) from that shape so that the shape can be cut repeatedly. By all accounts McQueen was preternaturally skilled at this; he could cut pieces of fabric on the fly, without patterns and without even drawing on the fabric, all while simply looking at the woman for whom the garment was intended, and could achieve perfect results. This is no small task. What we are talking about is the ability to understand how a two-dimensional planar surface (which describes pretty much all fabric) can be manipulated into a three-dimensional volume. 

This skill is just one of the various "bridges" I feel with McQueen. I tackle much the same problem of translating flat, planar surfaces (sheets of metal) into 3D volumes on a somewhat regular basis. Becoming Human was an exercise in this translation, and I am currently right in the middle of designing the patterns for the various parts of the figure in WOA.

I have also always been someone who sews, or "seamster" as I like to say. I learned to sew at a young age, used to make my own clothing somewhat regularly (and always made my own patterns), and wrote my college application essay about my love of sewing and its significance in my life. Also, McQueen's approach to his runway shows reminds me of the way I used to generate narratives for my robot performances; I would find a theme which inspired me and build a narrative around it. McQueen did much the same thing. And lastly, I resonate strongly with McQueen's explorations at the intersection of Formidable and Sexy. On some pre-conscious level, this is exactly the territory I find most compelling in the wide world of women, and depictions of them. But Jeeze, enough about me...

McQueen also placed a high value on shock. He wanted to provoke reactions and push boundaries, and in the process stimulate progress. These are values that I think every great artist espouses, and when people see that sort of courage they are drawn to it, they want to be a part of it. The magic he brought to the catwalk with his show-pieces rubbed off on his ready-to-wear stuff, and once he hit his stride suddenly everybody wanted some of that magic, some of that vision... and they could have it just by visiting a store and buying a McQueen. It was brilliant. He got very rich, very quickly.

(He liked birds)

As I think about McQueen and put him in the context of Stanley Kubrick, Björk, Damian Hirst, and other artists I admire, I can't help but try to formulate a sort of "recipe" for creativity. It's a monumental task and one which, insofar as it is intended to be universal, is pre-destined to fail, but there are a few key ingredients which do present themselves. I think some of the basics which we can see are 
• Skill (which can be more-or-less natural, or "in-born")
• Commitment, or passion (which manifests as a willingness to devote hundreds or even thousands of hours to developing that skill)
• Vision (which I think can manifest in a variety of ways; either as a personal story to tell, or a willingness to tell stories with resonance, or even just a goal such as Beauty or Perfection.)

I'm so slammed for time these days that I've literally written most of this post while riding on the metro, to and from BBK. 
It's the end of the workday, I'm on my way home to my lovely family, and I can't think of anything more to write. 
So, until next time...

Oh... I thought of one more thing..
I tried yoga for the first time

Monday, April 2, 2018

Vision Thing

Sometimes you slowly feel a blog post building up, building itself. You slowly start to notice that maybe you have something to say. Maybe a few things.

I've begun my Burning Man project in earnest, even though the Burning Man organization is dragging its feet in getting the contracts issued (and more importantly, the money issued) more than I can remember ever happening in the past. Even though I've been prodding my Project Liaison Jeremy (who happens to be an old friend), letting him know that I really need to get going, for some reason it's taking forever. I know enough to understand it's not his fault... but Jeeze, I've only got something like 13 weeks before this thing goes into a shipping container! (Is that how you are supposed to spell "Jeeze?" WWJD? How would Jesus spell Jeeze?)

Anyway, fabrication is actually going fairly well, after the rough start at BBK.

Here is the upper part of the base, along with the mid-section containing the "windows," being fabricated upside down.

Here I have turned it right-side-up, using the overhead cranes. The upper part of the base has now been sheathed in 2mm sheet steel. This is where the frieze will go. "Window bars," or columns, are at bottom.

The bottom of the base, the part which actually sits on the ground, is now being added. May God and his son Jeeze bless overhead cranes.

If Burning Man doesn't get that check cut soon, I'm going to have to slow down on my fabrication. Fingers crossed.
So far I have been getting good help from Christina, a fellow named Guy who I connected with through the Berlin Burners group on FB, and a gal named Isabelle from KAOS.

Speaking of KAOS, I am simultaneously working there making silicone molds of the faces. 

I made an error in mixing the 2-part silicone (which, in my opinion, is not really my fault; the instructions are extremely unclear), and it's possible that I will have to start over. That would be a major hassle, as I would have to clean off un-cured silicone (which is like cleaning off... I don't know... I can't think of anything quite as awfully viscous), and also spend another €400 on silicone. Fingers crossed (again!).

Christina and Kodiak are having a dream vacation in Tenerife, allowing me to work. And Jeeze, am I working. When I am not fabricating steel at BBK or fucking up silicone molds at KAOS, I am at home working on a 1/4 scale cardboard model of the figure. 

There are lots of conical sections and curved planes on this figure, all of them intersecting at weird angles, and so a bit of model-making is in order. I imagined that I might tackle this through 3D modeling, but... I downloaded a highly praised program called Fusion 360 and after about 4 days trying to model and unwrap (flatten) a single cone, I realized my time would be better spent with cardboard. Maybe one day, Fusion 360... maybe one day.
(Actually I will probably use that program for modeling the frieze in preparation for getting it CNC milled... which is a considerably simpler task. So it wasn't for nothing.)

I do try to intersperse a few non-work activities into my schedule here and there... like going to museums to get inspiration for my work. Ha ha. I went back to the Museum of Photography, which I think was only given such a mundane name because "The Museum of Photographs of Sexy Women" didn't send the right message. Again, this is the home of the Helmut Newton collection, where you are not supposed to take photos. I guess photos of photos are a little like theft. Oh well, that never stopped me. It's fun trying to get the timing right, waiting for the security guards' attention to falter for a moment.

One of those photos actually had a mild influence on my cardboard model, shown above. I wonder if you can see it...

In the never-ending search for visual inspiration, I also visited a lovely Buddhist temple in the Berlin district of Spandau. 

I really do love Buddhist sculpture.

As a sculptor myself, I feel reasonably empowered when it comes to thinking about how to take an idea and shepherd it into 3D reality. But what about 2D? From time to time I come up with an idea that really should be expressed as an image. But I'm not really an "image maker." I have one of these ideas now. In fact, it really could be a series of images. And just like some of my sculptural work that I love the best, the ideas for these images have come from a place that feels more immediate, more subconscious, and less intellectually mediated or crafted. But how to make an image? If I knew how to paint, I would paint it. And I think it would look great as a painting, but only in the hands of someone who could really paint. No better way to screw up the transmission of an idea than to present it in a poorly crafted way. I could try collage, or photography. I'm a big fan of the little-known Anton Solomoukha, who worked in a kind of photo-collage style that he called "photographic painting." Still, though, anything having to do with photography would mean having to find models and actually interact with real people. Scary.

And OK, lastly... the latest installment of my series of "art-crushes." Readers of this blog will know that I have gone through several art-crushes in the last year or two... notably Damian Hirst, Björk, Francis Bacon, and Stanley Kubrick. What has become clear to me as I've thought about and written about these various characters is that I have a tremendous admiration for clarity of individual vision, and the boldness to see it through. 

I've always admired the fashion designer Alexander McQueen for similar reasons. I was a fan of his even before he died (which isn't saying much; he was pretty damn famous). I love him for all those reasons stated above (with the addition, in his case, of a strong tendency to think way outside the box), but I admit I am also additionally intrigued by his decision to kill himself. Or more accurately, I am intrigued by trying to understand what it was about his personality that lead him to that place. I am reminded of Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division. Anyone who has read more than just passingly about Ian Curtis knows that that poor bloke had a sensitivity and a rawness which simultaneously allowed him to write lyrics which have justifiably earned him an enduring place in popular culture, but also caused him to apparently be unable to cope with this world. He was just too sensitive. You can hear it in his songs, if you listen. I read somewhere once that one of the reasons Joy Division live shows were so intense was that Ian Curtis had no sense of stagecraft. The writer went on to explain that what he meant by "stagecraft" was the ability of a performer to pace himself (or herself), to only give as much to the performance as he could energetically manage, or even a bit less, and to save some of that energy, some of that personal space, for himself. Ian apparently couldn't do that; he put so much of himself into every lyric and every performance that he would collapse onstage or go into epileptic fits, until he finally killed himself. 

But back to McQueen. I don't actually know too much about him yet and so I can't comment authoritatively (I've finally given in and bought a book about him, so I will know more soon), but it seems he too was too sensitive for this world. He was hard-working and prolific, was extremely successful because of (and in spite of) the singularity of his vision, was occasionally self destructive, and was devoted to his mother. Apparently her death was too much for him; he killed himself a week after she died even though he was right in what looked like the middle of an extremely successful career. And yes, all this sensitivity and macabre-ness is intriguing, but at the end of the day it is his work which speaks the loudest. I don't care about fashion very much, but to me, McQueen was more like an artist. The web is full of images of his stuff, but here are a few just to illustrate the point:

Themes which emerge when you look at his work are things like the macabre, beauty, violence, nature, and elegance. And it was all presented with confidence and provocation. No wonder I like him so much.
I would have loved to see Savage Beauty, the museum exhibition of his work. 

I should get to bed. Gotta get back to BBK tomorrow morning and spend more personal money on steel, while I wait for Burning Man to get into gear. Jeeze.