Monday, October 31, 2011

Missing the modern art.

While biking through Kyoto, we took a detour to the National Museum of Modern Art.  This was a museum that was surprisingly sparse when it came to art.  But maybe that's because there were no special exhibits open at the time we were there.  And while there wasn't much in the way of Art that inspired me, it did offer a couple of inspirational things including something for the bicycle fans.

First, there was this spectacular view of one of the best Japanese gates I saw on the whole trip.

But my favorite thing at the museum was a delightfully placed sculpture outside the museum.  In a brilliant bit of curating, there was a sculpture right behind the bicycle parking area.

This is Bird in Cloth Saddle, a 1974 sculpture by Makio Yamaguti.  And it does look like a bird and a bicycle saddle.

Although I'm not positive of the title.  The marker seems to read Bird in Croth Saddle and someone added the "l" later.  Is it just me, or does that seem like someone making fun of an Asian accent, "did you see that bird in a croth saddle"?

Whatever you call it, it's some fantastic Art-world whimsy.

The return of the Disco Cowboy, a Heel Toe Project event.

I recently posted about my participation in Shalee Cooper's Heel Toe Project.  It involves taking pictures of a pair of cowboy boots.  With that in mind, and with a bunch of invites to Halloween parties, I decided to break out a costume I created about a decade ago, the Disco Cowboy.  And this time, I featured the boots from the Heel Toe Project.

An addition to this year's version of the Disco Cowboy is the mustache.  I was invited to a "Hipsterween" party which threatened to draw a Sharpie mustache on the face of anyone who showed up without one, a mustache that is.  I have to say, I think the crazy mustache adds to the 70s vibe of the Disco Cowboy.  Consider these photos a Halloween tribute to the Heel Toe Project.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book twenty-seven: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

If you like your stories with a dose of happily dark magic, then get thee to a book store and purchase Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  This imaginative tale tells the story of Le Cirque des Reves, a place that seems to magically appear in towns and cities and is open only at night.  Two mysterious children, Celia and Marco grow up in different worlds and learning different magical traditions.  They are bound together and soon find their lives forced into a master magical rivalry.

It's not just the interesting main characters that make The Night Circus a delight to read.  The book is filled with strange, wonderful characters. Widget and Poppet, the twins born on the opening night of the circus give the story a charm that's hard to deny. They may also make you want to get basket full of kittens.  The creators of the circus, particularly the watchmaker, make you want to quit your job and do something more creative.

The circus itself may be the most interesting character with its never-ending tents that contain ever more amazing acts or illusions. And of course there's food; delectable treats like no others.  Yet for all its imagination, this circus seems somehow familiar.  The style and design are ripped from a Tim Burton production.  And I frequently found myself referencing Cirque du Soleil as I read about the various acts.

This book isn't perfect.  Sometimes the writing is thin and redundant.  The dialogue regularly veers dangerously close to that of a paperback romance. And sometimes I felt blindsided by plot points that appeared out of nowhere.  I guess that happens in a world filled with magic.  Even considering its weaknesses, The Night Circus is a fun, fast read that will delight all but the most curmudgeon-y readers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book twenty-six: A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

It's not often that a book makes me feel stupid.  But Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers did just that.  After rave reviews from many of my favorite sources, I was excited to read this book about women breaking the rules.  This "biography of sorts" is a devilish collection of complicated connections, academic literary references, and historical associations all tied loosely together by Villa Cimbrone, a getaway home for the rich and famous of Europe located in the Italian village of Ravello.

The book spends most of it's time tracking the lives of four women: Alice Keppel (a mistress of British aristocrats and royalty), Eve Fairfax (a friend of and inspiration for Auguste Rodin), Violet Trefusis (novelist), and Vita Sackville-West (the lover of Trefusis and general bad girl).  And while these women didn't necessarily live their lives at the same time, Holroyd ties their stories together through their association to Villa Cimbrone and through his own personal story and acquaintances.

Here's what I liked about the book.  Learning more about late 19th and early 20th Century British literary society was engaging and surprisingly fun. This book inspires rich, lush imagery.  Holroyd's writing is more than just descriptive, it transports the reader to distant places and times.  I also liked learning about four women of whom I knew nothing before this book; four women who lived their lives in defiance of the cultural norms of their times.  And I like power women.

But as I said, A Book of Secrets made me feel stupid.  I consider myself fairly well read.  But this book made me realize that I'm a long way from accessing literary and historical references with any real facility.  Holroyd's deep knowledge of his subject matter means he can make allusions to other literature and ideas with ease.  Most of those references went right over my head.  Even attempts to figure out those references proved difficult without hours of study.  In fact, I might not even be qualified to write a review of this book.

A Book of Secrets is also sometimes difficult to follow.  As the story travels through different times and places, and interacts with a myriad of characters, it's easy to get lost.

Holroyd is a talented writer and this story is personal in a way that few biographies are.  Holroyd, who is nearing the end of his career, even notes that this is his last book, which adds a strange melancholy to the story. While I enjoyed the writing, the book mostly soared far over my head.  As much as I hate to admit, that may say more about my literary shalowness than about A Book of Secrets.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The art of the tree

I've already expressed my profound admiration for the gardeners of Japan. But I just can't stop thinking about the endless effort that goes into creating the perfect garden vistas.  One of the most amazing signs of that effort can be found in the trees.  Everywhere we went, there were spectacular constructs used to ensure that trees could maintain the perfect shape; things that encouraged branches to hang in just the right position to frame a view; ropes and posts that when combined with trees created serendipitous archways and gates.

Rather than talk about it, why not just show you a few photographs.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book twenty five: Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

Continuing my quest to better understand Japanese Culture, I picked up Amelie Nothomb's short novel, Fear and Trembling.  This is the story of a smart, attractive Belgian women (also named Amelie) who has moved back to Japan and taken a job at a large Japanese enterprise, the Yumimoto Corporation.  Because she was raised in Japan her language skills are substantial.  But because she is not Japanese, it seems impossible for her to be accepted into the culture.

As she tries to make her way in the corporation, Amelie makes mistake after mistake.  But only because the demands of Japanese corporate culture are so impossible to navigate.  Soon, she's upset just about everyone including a tyrannical boss and her female Japanese supervisor.  The result? She's assigned to evermore menial and degrading office tasks.

The book's horrific tales of corporate cruelty are tempered with brilliant bits of humor. The story provides lots of interesting insight into why it's hard for foreigners to feel completely welcome in Japan, even when the entire country is so polite to outsiders.  Sometimes the madcap antics of the book cross the line into absurdity, and not always in a good way.  But Nothomb's crisp writing help make this super-short story a decent read.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Battle of the all-star Imperial Palaces.

Is it a coincidence that Kyoto and Tokyo are comprised of the same letters?  To me it seems like it was written in the stars.  Both cities have been the capital of Japan; Kyoto in the past; Tokyo in the present.  Both boast ideologies that are quintessentially Japanese: Kyoto more traditional, Tokyo more modern.  And both have some pretty damn impressive imperial palaces.  We visited them both and here's a rundown of the two.

Kyoto's Imperial Palace requires permission from the imperial family to visit.  So be sure to get your papers before hand.  We didn't know this but lucked out as we arrived just minutes before the last English tour of the day and there were still a couple of spots available.  Although once again I didn't understand the complexities of Japanese paper work which elicited several dramatic eye rolls from our helpful Imperial Palace worker.

Kyoto's Imperial Palace offers a sense of tradition that inspires the imagination. I felt like I was in one of the epic Japanese art house movies. The palace burned down and moved repeatedly in the same general area since the 12th Century.  This latest version dates from 1855.  It was abandoned in 1869 when Japan's imperial family  moved the Edo, changed the city's name to Tokyo, and made it the capital.

If you're looking for cool, traditional Japanese architecture, this is a good place to start.  I loved the epic scale of the wide open gravel court yards and entry ways surrounded by endless lengths of building covered with amazing cypress roofs.  Yeah, I now may know more about traditional Japanese cypress roofs that you could possibly want to know.

Everywhere you looked there were interesting shapes and patterns.  The gables were amazing as were the bold graphic shapes and patterns created by painting the ends of dark beams with white paint.

As is frequently the case, some of the most interesting areas of this Japanese landmark are the gardens. It came as no surprise that this garden was built in the middle of the 19th Century.  They had an exotic romanticism that you often see in the Asian-inspired paintings of European Romanticists. They were lovely.  Our guide told us that when the royal family lived at this residence, a favorite party game was to float small boats, each with an individual glass of Sake down the garden's streams. Party goers had to write an original Japanese poem of a very specific length before the boats reached them in order to retrieve one of the drinks.  Sounds like a lot of fun.

The Tokyo Imperial Palace is currently the home of the Emperor of Japan.  It is built on the area that was previously the Edo Castle. This large park houses a number of buildings including the main residence.  As is the often the case, most of the buildings have either been destroyed in earthquakes or burnt in fires.  So most of the buildings of the Tokyo Imperial Palace are relatively new, completed in 1968.  I'm older than that.

The walk from Tokyo Station to the Palace is magical thanks to an entire forest of carefully formed pine trees.  I wouldn't have been surprised to find a Teletubby or two lurking about.

Here are photo of Felix and Me getting about as close as you can get to the Imperial Palace. Nonetheless, the view was beautiful.  And is it just me or does Felix look like some sexy movie star from the 50s? I wish I could look so chic.  Instead, I'll just have to look grumpy.

I liked how the tradition of Japan is juxtaposed with the modern city.  Every where you looked the two worlds seemed to mesh effortlessly.

I also like that this is a serious palace with massive stone walls and vast moats.  Once again, Japan's views inspired my imagination.

While much of the compound is new, many of the massive, protective gates were very old.

As always, the gardens were spectacular.

There you have it, a view of Japan's two Imperial Palaces.  I can't pick a favorite; I liked them both for different reason.  You decide which wins the Battle of the all-star Imperial Palaces.

Book twenty-four: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

As part of my preparation for a trip to Japan, I picked up several novels that looked to Japan for inspiration.  If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous was one of these books.  I also chose this book because it's Watrous's debut novel.  And I love reading first-time novelists.

If You Follow Me is the story of 22-year-old Marina who moves to Japan to teach English.  She and her girlfriend are both assigned to teach in a small rural town. Like any move to a strange place, the initial experience is less than fun. From the baffling rules for taking out the trash, to figuring out how to manage being a women in a male dominated culture, Marina struggles to fit in.  Her supervisor, Miyoshi tries to help by writing her letters with helpful suggestions.  But most of his notes come off critically harsh. All this fuss puts a strain on Marina's relationship with Carolyn.  So even her significant other seems to be distant.

But as the story progresses, Marina seems to settle in.  And while she continues to make culturally insensitive mistakes, she gets better at managing the situations.

If You Follow Me is solid first novel.  It's cast of quirky characters, entertaining situations, and culture-clashing humor make for a book that any world traveler would enjoy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book twenty-three: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.

Oh those crazy performance artists.  I've often suggested that Art is best when it's about "the object" and that the fleeting nature of Performance Art (not to mention the general bizarre-ness of the whole affair) somehow makes the genre feel less permanent, less like Art for the ages.  And what good is Art if it can't stand the test of time.

But lately, I've had to rethink my ideas due to the amount of attention being lavished on Performance Art and because of some major museum retrospectives like MoMA's surprising show, The Artist Is Present featuring the works of Marina Abramovic.

Maybe that's why Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang seems somehow relevant in the current Art-world zeitgeist.  This is the story of Caleb and Camille Fang, a married couple who double as performance artists.  Much of their work involves setting up public situations that involve their two children, Annie and Buster (frequently referred to in their parents work as Child A and Child B).  And while the parents call it Art, "Their children called it mischief."

The children have now grown up.  Annie is a reasonably successful movie actor.  Buster a reasonably successful writer.  But the weirdness of being raised by performance artists has left its mark.  So Annie and Buster have to break through their past trauma to create new lives for themselves.

Much of the fun of this book is packed into the descriptions of Caleb and Camille's past successful performance pieces.   There's the time when the parents taught their musically illiterate children the worst street performance song ever, put them on the street, and made them perform under the guise that they needed to raise money to save their dying pet.  Caleb waits in the crowd heckling the children, calling them awful.  Soon the crowd is riled us, some agreeing with Caleb, others taking pity on the poor kids.

There's the family vacation to Florida, where Caleb (using a false name) publicly proposes to Camille (also using a false name) on the flight.  Camille says yes as the entire plane erupts in to cheers ushering in a sunshine filled, happy week of relaxation for A and B.  The happy vacation crashes to a halt on the flight back as Caleb repeats his mile-high proposal.  Only this time Camille says no, an argument ensues, making everyone on the plane, including A and B hopelessly uncomfortable.

With it's inventive wit, art-world weirdness, page-turning plot complete with an ultimate performance-art twist, I can easily recommend Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

These boots were made for photographing.

This is the first post in what will likely be a short series.  A while back famed Salt Lake City photographer Shalee Cooper announced a new project call The Heel Toe Project.  Shalee's been collecting and photographing  used cowboy boots for some time.  The results are beautiful.  You can see some of her photographs here.  For her latest project, she's invited people to purchase a pair from her collection.  Each pair comes with a disposable camera.  The goal of the project is "to follow the lives of the boots and the people they accompany through a photographic essay documenting the shared human experience."

Shalee also made three other suggestions:

1. One photograph of yourself in the boots.
2. One photograph that includes the boots.
3. Contemplate these three universal experiences: life, love and loss.

I was out of town for the original event where you could purchase a pair of boots.  But a few weeks ago, I saw a Kayo Gallery Facebook post noting that there were still a few pairs left.  So I ordered a pair.

My decision to participate may have been made a little too hastily.  I hadn't given any thought as to how I would participate in this program.  So with just a couple of weeks until the deadline, I was without any ideas.  I started by imagining some bizarre, abstract photograph effort that could only be accomplished with a disposable camera.  But I soon realized the limitations of disposable cameras might make this difficult.

So I spent some time on the official Heel Toe Project website.  And I also reviewed the video and other information on the project's Kickstarter page.  One of the things that inspired me the most, was the reason for Shalee's interest in the boots in the first place.  She saw these worn pairs of boots more as life stories than as objects.  She wondered what life the boots had lived before they came into her possession.

I decided to take the idea of story seriously.  Or maybe not so seriously, depending on how the photos turn out.  I also decided to embrace the disposable camera technology.  My photo essay will be a series of "snapshots" of a pair of boots living its life.  I imaged the boots coming to Salt Lake City for an extended stay, maybe a few months, a year or two at the most.  And yet, before you know it Salt Lake City has become home for more than 25 years.  So consider these postcards from a life at home.

To ensure that I delivered on the three universal experiences (life, love, and loss), I chose eight or nine locations around Salt Lake City that have some sort of meaning in my life.  In choosing locations, I was surprised to find how many of the places that came to mind are no longer in existence.  Some of the places I did visit, I hadn't been to for decades, even though they are very near my house.  They brought back a flood of strange memories.  It will remain a secret as to whether those places are about life, love, or loss.

The photos scattered throughout this post are digital pictures I took as test pictures in hopes that the actual photos might be usable.  I'll post more as I'm sure I'll be writing more about The Heel Toe Project, particularly since the next stop on the path is an exhibition at Kayo Gallery in Salt Lake City on November 18.   With a little luck, one of my photos might be hanging on the gallery wall.