Sunday, November 17, 2013

Four Books for Brooks Briggs.

Brooks Briggs, a Facebook friend and former co-worker recently posed an interesting question on Facebook: "What are the top three to five books that have influenced your life—for better or worse? What books influenced your thinking, your trajectory, and who you are today? And—if you have another moment to spare—give a little explanation about how or why. But you must honest. Ready? GO!"

I've been an avid reader for most of my life.  So I loved the challenge of this question.  But it's definitely too involved to be answered within the abbreviated limits of a Facebook update.  So I decided a blog post would be a more appropriate answer.  Here are four books that have been influential in my life.

A biography of Harry Houdini.  I can’t remember the title of this book or the name of the author. It was geared to younger readers. I checked it out from the Washakie County Library and read it at least three times in fifth or sixth grade. It was totally inspiring to a weird kid like me and it made me want to be a magician.  But more than that, it was so much fun to read that it’s the reason I’ve been a life-long reader.  Even today, I’m still willing to trudge through unpleasant books because I know that somewhere out there is a book like that biography of Harry Houdini that will be an immensely pleasurable read.  And I’m always happy to find such a book. Which brings me to my second choice.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.  This book could make it onto this list just for the fun factor.  The snappy, smart writing style makes it the ultimate page turner.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny. It features mad-cap, crazy plot lines that you’re somehow willing to believe.  And it’s got characters that are so brilliantly defined they jump to life off the page.  This makes it all the amore amazing that Tales of the City speaks to me on a much deeper level.  This is a book about people who find that the lives they thought they were supposed to lead, are somehow not the lives that are best for them.  These are outcasts and misfits who are embraced by a magical place that is willing to let them be themselves. I’ve returned to these characters time and time again.  I’ve consumed the book and all its sequels multiple times. I’ve watched the TV series. I’ve listened to the audio book.  I’m even one of a limited number of people who have seen the Broadway-style musical based on the novel.  Oh, and I've made a pilgrimage to visit the places that make the book so delightful. And every time I interact with the characters who populate 28 Barbary Lane, I’m a better person for it, even with all the sex and drugs.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  This is the perfect segue from my previous choice.  Great Expectations and Tales of the City have a lot in common.  They both began as serialized stories in popular periodicals. Both books are brilliant accomplishments in character development.  And they both capture the essence of a place and time, all while raising questions about social issues. of the era  Where Great Expectations differs from Tales of the City is in the theme that I took away from the novel; What is legal may not always be morally right.  And what is morally right may not always be legal.  That lesson has served me well.  It’s been a reminder to keep an open mind, to listen to the stories of others, and to try to be more caring towards people I may not fully understand. It’s a lesson that has inspired a fair amount of kindness and happiness in my life.

The Book of Mormon.  The assignment as laid out by Brooks was to talk about books that have been influential in your life, not your favorite books.  Up until now, the books I’ve listed have fallen into both categories.  With this selection, the story gets decidedly more complex.  When looking at the responses to Brooks' question, I noticed that many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints selected The Book of Mormon as an influential book.  I am no longer a member of the Church so this might seem like an odd choice for me.  I don’t even like The Book of Mormon.  I find the writing clunky.  I find the stories mostly heavy handed.  The violence is frequently overwhelming.  And I question the suggestion that the great civilizations of the Americas are a result of Judeo-Christian traditions.  And yet, many important decisions in my life were based on the principles extolled by this book or were influenced by the ideas that emanate from the book and its associated religion.  The perplexing part, most of those decisions were reasonably smart. I'll admit that I tend to make reasonably smart decisions.  But without The Book of Mormon my decisions would have been very different.  And I question if they would have been better.  On a more humorous note, The Book of Mormon does share something with Tales of the City: I've seen both the musicals!

There are many more books that have influenced me.  But this is a decent response to the question posed by Brooks.

A grey day at Tate Modern.

I usually go to museums because there's a temporary exhibit that I really want to see.  The exception: when I'm visiting a new city and there's a museum that I really want to visit. OK, so I didn't make it to the Louvre in Paris which is a bit embarrassing.  But I've always wanted to visit London's Tate Modern.  Unlike last summer which featured a blockbuster Damien Hirst exhibit, this year there wasn't much interesting going on at Tate Modern, at least not from a "special exhibitions" standpoint.  ( I have a feeling Tate Modern would disagree with this assessment.) The lack of blockbuster exhibits might be because the Modern is getting a massive addition and much of the museum is shut down, including the main hall.  That was a bummer.

I spent most of my time viewing the museum's permanent collection.  I always find it harder to write posts about permanent collections.  Temporary exhibits are either a review of an artists work so you get a more comprehensive understanding of the artist.  That's easy to write about.  Or they're constructed around a theme or idea.  That too is easy to write about.  But writing about a permanent collections can sometimes feel like a random review of "stuff in a gallery" as Steve Martin might call it, even though the curators try to assemble art that might relate to themes or ideas.

Why not take a different approach to viewing a permanent collection? For my visit to the Tate Modern, I've created my own curatorial theme.  That theme was inspired by a painting I stumbled onto early in the visit: Gerhard Richter's Grey (1974, Oil paint on canvas).

The painting was created in the 1970s when Richer produced several groups of grey paintings.  He was apparently attracted to the neutrality and inconspicuousness of the color. This is one of those paintings that can inspire plenty of eye rolling and questions about what really constitutes Art. But I like grey and this painting struck me as a calming force in a chaotic world.  And there's this statement from the artist, "Grey is the epitome of non-statement, it does not trigger off feelings or associations, it is neither visible or invisible. Like no other color, it is suitable for illustrating 'nothing.'" That's an interesting statement from an artist who resisted ideologies of any kind.  And it's an interesting idea to inspire a way of looking at art.

With that in mind, I spent the rest of my visit at Tate Modern paying particular attention to the color grey. And I was surprised, how many feelings and associations grey can trigger.  Even from Richter who is responsible for another grey work of art at the museum.

Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (1971), depicts Richter and fellow German artist Blinky Palermo posed in a never ending stare-off. It's a silent debate that stays brilliantly true to the idea of "non-statement." And yet, there has to be some sort of conversation going on.

One of my favorite works in the museum was Alfredo Jarr's installation titled Lament of the Images (2002, Glass, perspex, metal, electrical components). This work consisted of two light tables one suspended from the ceiling which slowly lowered until it rested on the other, blocking out all of the light except for a thin sliver that made a fine line on the walls of the gallery.  The strange light seemed to wash out everything in the entire room, resulting in a neutral, monochromatic wash of contemplative grey.

Piles of seemingly unidentifiable gray matter could be found frequently at the museum.  Lynda Benglis's oozing, dripping pile of lead sitting in the corner of a gallery was a little creepy and seemed to question naturalness. Gilberto Zorio's work seemed to feature a similar, mini pile suspended elegantly from the ceiling.

Lynda Benglis, Quartered Meteor, 1969/1975, Lead

Gilberto Zorio, Terracotta Circle, (detail) 1969, terracotta, lead, glass, and aluminum

I forgot to capture the name of the artist and title of the work.  But its Japanese-like attitude brought a rustic grey calm to the gallery.

I'll end this grey commentary about a work created by the artist who started this whole post.  An entire gallery at Tate Modern is dedicated to Gerhard Richter's group of oil paintings inspired by the American avant-garde composer John Cage. The paintings were made while the artist listened to the music of Cage.  I like these paintings, partially because it looks as if the Richter is giving us a hint at what might be hidden under the grey canvas that started this whole post.

I suppose you can make the argument that focusing a museum visit around "grey" is stupid. You might be right. So in rebuttal, here's Dan Flavin's Untitled (1987).  Enjoy the bright and shining colors.
Dan Flavin, Untitled (to Don Judd, colorist) 1-5, 1987, Fluorescent tubes and metal

Friday, November 15, 2013


Upon the realization that we'd be in London on June 21, 2013 (the summer solstice), I decided that the most appropriate place to be on that date would be Stonehenge.  So I booked a guided tour that had us at Stonehenge during the summer solstice sunrise. The trip required that we depart London at 1:00 a.m. for a three hour bus ride.

As we neared the site, a strange gray mist enveloped everything. My perception of Stonehenge is that it is now fenced off and visitors can admire this serene, mystical place from afar.  But I learned that on the solstices, visitors are allowed to enter the massive monument.  These photos depict what I expected I would see at Stonehenge, particularly in the misty light of of a summer solstice dawn.

But my expectations were completely wrong. Because if you tilt the camera down, you can see the raucous, chanting, drunk crowds that invade the place in celebration of the start of summer.  No peaceful Druid celebrations here. (Well there were, but they were pushed far from Stonehenge in hopes of finding some miniscule moment of peace.)  This is an atmosphere that one might expect at Burning Man.

As we left to walk back to the bus, the misty dawn and rolling fields created magical vistas. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I'm certainly glad I did it.  But I wouldn't do it again.

Notre Dame

There are few things as grand as the great cathedrals of Europe.  And Notre Dame is one of the greatest.  I'm certainly not going to say anything that hasn't already been said about Notre Dame.  As is the case with most visitors, I could do little other than gawk in awe at the massive presence the building wields. We visited on a stormy day which seemed to add to the building's gravitas. The storm clouds gave the entire experience a Gothic air.  But as our visit progressed the sun came out to reveal heavenly views powerful enough to make an atheist consider the existence of a higher power.

From the lower levels, both inside and outside the building you can't help but be dazzled by the endlessly ornate sculptures. 

The stars of the inside of the building are the voluptuous stained glass windows.

We also waited in the super long, slow-moving line in order to climb the nearly 400 tower stairs which featured two stops along the way.  This is not a task for the faint of heart. The tiny spiral staircase can be dizzying and claustrophobic.  The climb also can be physically tough particularly because it's hard to stop and take a rest with other anxious tourists climbing behind you.

But the difficulties of making the trek are worth it.  The first stop gives you eye-to-eye views of the gargoyles, which are wonderfully creepy.

The second set of stairs leads up to the bell tower. The path is even more narrow and winding.  The path is so tight that it was difficult to pass people coming up as we were going down.  But the views from that level were spectacular.