Unreal Nature

September 30, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 2:46 pm

… I am sick to death of artists beating me over the head with objects extolling the oppressed that are just high-priced baubles to adorn the suites of the leveraged monsters who are destroying the world economy. That this has happened to Liza Lou, who once painstakingly rebuilt bits of Americana, such as kitchens and trailers, out of nothing but brightly colored beads, is especially disheartening.

Apparently, Liza took her MacArthur Genius Grant, moved to South Africa, hired some Zulus to fabricate her work (no joke) and discarded the provenance of joy and humor, which was once hers alone, to deliver political lectures in the form of hackneyed new work that is formally derivative, to the point of mimicry, of Mona Hatoum, especially a beaded cage at Lever House, which has everything Mona in it but the latter’s claustrophobic menace.

The berms and boxes at L&M, visually charmless, owe a lot to Rachel Whiteread, except the latter’s dry, resigned irony, which Lou is too unsophisticated to imitate. Some “Muslim” wall hangings there are decoratively worse than Thomas Kincaid. All that survives of Lou’s once protean quality is a tiny pillow with the impression of a head resembling Munch’s The Scream, that has a touch of Hans Bellmer in it.

Well, Liza Lou, I knew you when the work of your hands sparkled at the New Museum and PPOW Gallery. Enjoy the money, because your soul has left the building.

— from a review, Razzle Without Dazzle, of the Liza Lou show. The review is written by the ever irascible Charlie Finch at Artnet.com.



From a Burning Barn

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 3:45 am

I dreamed in negative exposure, of a room where night and light sound nothing alike and so are not balanced in opposition. A room expelled from a children’s story because its clock won’t go ticktock and there’s no hat for cat nor a spoon to reflect the moon. The only illumination, a levitating dress, a handkerchief bidding farewell from a steamer, the gossamer curtain suspended on the thermal of a hissing radiator.

Beyond the curtain, a window open onto outer space.

Beneath stars like those that Dante sees again—a riveder le stelle—when he emerges from the Inferno, she led the blindered horses of childhood from a burning barn and woke to a momentary scent of cigar smoke.

— from the beginning of Pink Ocean  by Stuart Dybek in the January 2008 issue of Poetry magazine



September 29, 2008

Getting It Right

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am

I have almost no time this morning. The quotes below are second-hand, taken from chapter-heading quotes found throughout The Infinite Book  by John D. Barrow. (I am quoting quotes …)

‘On two occasions I have ben asked, by members of Parliament, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.’
— Charles Babbage

‘Instead of being arrested, as we stated, for kicking his wife down a flight of stairs and hurling a lighted kerosene lamp after her, the Rev. James P. Wellman died unmarried four years ago.’
— apology printed in a US newspaper

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow
— T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

And, because these quotes probably make very little sense to you (though I hope they made you smile), here’s one last one that could be applied to this post:

I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.
— Professor of English, Ohio University

My name is below, not at the top, but I plead guilty …



September 28, 2008

New Debate Rules

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 am

OXFORD, MS—Amid discussions of possibly postponing the debate altogether, Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ) were able to agree Thursday on a new guideline that would allow each candidate one 15-second strangulation during Friday night’s presidential debate. “Both candidates will receive two minutes to answer each question, five minutes for discussion, and a one-time-only option to walk over to their opponent’s podium and cut off his oxygen supply for up to 15 seconds,” a statement from the Commission on Presidential Debates read in part …

From The Onion,  New Debate Rules Allow for One 15-Second Strangulation  (posted before Friday’s debate).




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:02 am

As far back as I can remember when I was growing up, my parents used to go horseback riding about the surrounding countryside. They had two big chestnut geldings; half-brothers, born on our farm to a mare that my father owned. My father would get up at 6:00 AM every weekday morning to go for a ride before he went to work (he was an architect). My mother, who did not work, rode with him only on weekends, when they went out after lunch, rather than before breakfast. All those years, always on those same two horses.

After about twenty five years, the two horses grew so old that they could no longer get about properly. My parents had them both loaded onto a van, trucked three hours to a livestock market (neither horse had ever been off the farm in his life), and auctioned off to the slaughterhouses (which bought horses to be made into canned dog food).

Waste not, want not.



September 27, 2008

Mind Tremors

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:53 am

This is one of my multi-article mash-ups where I think the contrast or juxtaposition of the separate pieces provokes a different or additional response than the parts alone.

First, from Don’t Judge New Media by Old Rules  by Cory Doctorow on the Internet Evolution  web site

Isn’t it amazing that there’s always exactly 60 minutes’ worth of news everyday, and that, when transcribed, it fills exactly one newspaper?

Have you ever stopped to think how utterly fortuitous it is that every televisual story worth telling can be neatly broken into segments of exactly 22 minutes (plus commercials) or 48 minutes (ditto)? That every story that makes a good subject for a film takes somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours to tell? That all albums fit conveniently on one or sometimes two CDs, except for best-of compilations? That all books are exactly long enough to bind within a single set of covers and not so short as to allow those covers to touch in the middle?

These are all technological norms that represent technological hangovers: We now assume that certain distributors will carry a particular sort of carton, and its contents will go onto a certain kind of shelf; 10-foot-tall photography books don’t fit in those cartons, and the trucks are already fitted for those cartons, and the shelves have been screwed into the walls of the bookstores.

… TV sitcoms, novels, feature films, and other traditional forms are cages as well as frames. The reason that every sitcom lasts 22 minutes is that no one tries to make sitcoms about stories that take five minutes to tell. The reason movies last 90 minutes is that no one tries to make feature films about subjects that take 30 seconds to elucidate — or 30 days.

The critics of new media often point to its failure to live up to the standards of old media. Some scientists and science journalists wring their hands at the idea that the Mars landers and the Large Hadron Collider emanate information in the form of anthropomorphized Twitter messages, arguing that these messages lack the formal virtues of science reporting and papers.

It’s true. They do. They don’t succeed at being better in-depth science articles than the science articles. They succeed at being better Twitter messages than science articles; they succeed at producing and sustaining a different kind of interest and understanding than a long article in the weekend paper.

The low cost of deploying new media online is revealing a heretofore unsuspected appetite for stories in different boxes than we’ve heretofore used — and a universe of stories waiting to be told.

Here’s the second piece: The Unsettler: Atom Egoyan’s Adoration renews a provocative intellectual vision  by Denis Seguin in the October/November issue of The Walrus. My quotes are from pages two and three of the four page article:

Adoration  is a classic set-up, a series of intellectual mousetraps. As is his forte, he uses our society’s obsession with communication technology as the wedge that drives his characters apart; media isolates us even as it connects us. And he uses and abuses narrative conventions to tell us one thing while actually telling us something else.

… Egoyan is using film against me, against us. The always-in-touch modern world gives us a false sense of knowing what’s going on around us. The slender slices of “reality” delivered by the news media create a simulacrum of the world, which each of us then distorts into our own projection.

The irony is Egoyan shows us this in Adoration — in the guise of an Internet video forum in which Simon shares his appropriated history — and you don’t notice you are participating. Simon’s video screen is divided into increasingly smaller screens, each with a person who is interpreting and refining or regurgitating a new version of Simon’s “truth.” And, sitting in the cinema, we unwittingly do the same.

Never mind the intricate plotting; never mind the dialogue that says one thing but suggests something else; never mind the acting, which would be infuriatingly stylized in any other film. What Egoyan achieves in Adoration is a gift to the viewer: a mind tremor. You can walk away from this film feeling many things, but what stays with you is the intimation that you don’t know yourself as well as you think.

Old questions in new clothes. Stories in different boxes. A movie in which the message is that movies are bad at communicating messages. Boxes inside of boxes; stories inside of stories.



September 26, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:48 am

When I was a little kid I spent a good part of my summers swimming. I always swam deep, just above the bottom of the pool, pollywogging toward milky visions of imaginary worlds in a blue liquid light. Though I could hear the gentle rumble of fluid turbulence in my ears, the water contained me so impartially as to cancel out all constraints. Peaceful. Restful. Weightless.



September 25, 2008

Stay a Student

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:25 am

The first quote, below, is from Homage to the Runner: Bloody Brain Work  by Marvin Bell in The Pushcart Book of Essays  edited by Anthony Brandt (originally in American Poetry Review). I disagree with some of what he says, and I think he contradicts himself within the quote (can a person be both practical and yet “take a direct approach to the mysterious”?). Nevertheless, I like his main point. See what you think.

Poetry is a way of life, not a career. A career means you solicit the powerful and the famous. A way of life means you live where you are with the people around you. A career means you become an authority. A way of life means you stay a student, even if you teach for a living. A career means your life increasingly comes from your art. A way of life means you art continues to arise from your life. Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought: all forms of psychological cowardice. A way of life is nourished by the practical, the unadorned, the complex, and a direct approach to the mysterious. Obscurity is a celebrated path to nowhere, an affliction. For poetry to be a way of life in a referential world, it requires of us the courage of clarity — linear, syntactical and referential — which in no way compromises the great wildness of experience and imagination …

First, I strongly disagree with the sentence, “Careerism feeds off of the theoretical, the fancified, the complicated, the coded, and the overwrought: all forms of psychological cowardice.” It’s a bizarre statement, and I’m not even sure why any part of it necessarily has to do with careerism. In fact, those who shy away from careerism could just as easily be accused of psychological cowardice.

Next, setting aside the question of possible sour grapes on Bell’s part, I think the demands of a career can provide a useful correction to excesses of personal indulgence. The demand side of a career is not some nasty monster — it’s an audience of real people.

Also, can the desire for a career be separated out of a person or is it simply part of who they are? Some people may find pleasure in making art that is a response to the desires and preferences of the mass audience. That may be who they are, not a choice made that is in opposition to “a way of life” that they might otherwise have followed. In other words, the career artist is not that way because of his career. He’s that way because that’s who he is. He’s more about mirroring the public than expressing what he finds in his private world.

Here is a bit more from the Bell piece. This is from earlier in the essay and sets up the quote already given:

“Literature is for beginners.” I was thinking about thinking. Because, for the poet, after all, poetry is the result, not the intention. Poetry is the residue of bloody brain work, the signal that a process has taken place that creates an emotional approach to thinking. All technique is subsumed in what we later call the “poetic” quality of the text. All the fame in the world is secondary to the epiphanic moment when the poem began to cohere. For the poet, the true consequence is the next poem: hence, a way of life, not a career.

Again, I’m not sure why he chooses to imply a conflict between the epiphanic moment and a career. Yes, the a career can be a distraction, but so can being unable to pay your bills. And yet, and yet … I like what he’s saying.

Not related to questions of careerism, here is a quote that I like from an interview with Bell. He’s talking about his Dead Man poems:

I’ve noticed that they engage a kind of reader who has extra mental energy—maybe, I should say, one who wants to boogie and think at the same time. A reader who has one eye on the individual and the other on the human condition.



September 24, 2008

Private Weather

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

Today I’m going to give you random, unrelated, disconnected, completely-out-of-context sentence fragments from a review of two books by poet-critic Adam Kirsch. The review/article is titled The Plight of the Poet-Critic  and it is by Carmine Starnino in the May 2008 issue of Poetrymagazine. Some of the quotes are from Starnino and some are Starnino’s quotes of Kirsch.

The bits and pieces are intended to stir up your mind. They are partial sentences and are not directly related to one another. Follow them wherever they may lead reference art in general and photography in particular.

… who can be transgressive, not in the fashionable way of the seminar, but in the disturbing and baffling way of the nightmare

… achieves a telescoping of ideas and images

… buoyant, clowning, exclamatory — a rhapsody of friendship and love

… whether risks, to use Frost’s words, “were weakly lost or richly spent.”

… the wish-fulfillment of a young man who enjoys the vanity of his own good sense, but is restless under a dispensation he is helpless to change

… an ability to evoke the way the climate of a period manner can suddenly be made to pivot into the private weather of a poem

… Solemnity is to seriousness as sentimentality is to emotion: the attempt to induce a feeling that refuses to occur spontaneously.

… he simply refuses to believe that what a poet has put into a poem automatically belongs there

… [his] devotion to the ordinary is not a disciplined response to disenchantment. It is, rather, a peculiarly American form of mental laziness.

… his canon seem[s] like a toy kingdom, a Monaco of poetry existing in placid unrelation to the empire all around it.

The whole review is very good, but it’s long. Read it if you have time. [ link ]



September 23, 2008

The Fiction of Myself

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:23 am

[This is an indirect response to a post on Felix Grant’s blog titled Secret Garden. Though not obviously about the same thing, I think that the William Kittredge quotes used below may be closely related to what he was trying to get at. ]

Storytelling and make-believe, like war and agriculture, are among the arts of self-defense, and all of them are ways of enclosing otherness and claiming ownership.

That’s taken from the story called Home  by William Kittredge in his book, The Next Rodeo.

In the middle of the story, he tells an anecdote that begins:

When I was maybe eight years old, in the fall of the year, I would have to go out in the garden after school with damp burlap sacks and cover the long rows of cucumber and tomato plants, so they wouldn’t freeze.

He hated this job. One day, an enormous black bird suddenly appeared from the nearby corn field,”black tail feathers flaring and a monstrous yellow-orange air sac pulsating from its white breast” and it seemed  to be stalking him. He was completely terrified until if flew away and he then realized it was only a courting sage-grouse.

For that childhood moment I believed the world to be absolutely inhabited by an otherness that was utterly demonic and natural, not of my own making. But soon as that bird was enclosed in a story that defined it as a commomplace prairie chicken, I was no longer frightened. It is a skill we learn early, the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world. Storytelling and make-believe, like war and agriculture, are among the arts of self-defense, and all of them are ways of enclosing otherness and claiming ownership.

Such emblematic memories continue to surface, as I grow older and find ways to accept them into the fiction of myself. One of the earliest, from a time before I ever went to school, is of studying the worn oiled softwood flooring in the Warner Valley store where my mother took me when she picked up the mail three times a week. I have no idea how many years that floor had been tromped and dirtied and swept, but by the time I recall it was worn into a topography of swales and buttes, traffic patterns and hard knots, much like the land, if you will, under the wear of a glacier. For a child, as his mother gossiped with the postmistress, it was a place, high ground and valleys, prospects and sanctuaries, and I in my boredom could invent stories about it — finding a coherency I loved, a place that was mine. They tore up that floor somewhere around the time I started school, and I had the sense to grieve.

That tale rings so true for me. Though now that I am grown, rather than a fully enveloping fiction, I have little enclaves, both macro and micro, that are the environments of the stories I make about, or for, myself — which is what I think, perhaps, Felix was describing or mourning the loss of, in his blog post.

But when I was little, the “place that was mine” was all encompassing.

As Kittredge says in the first sentences of his story:

In the long-ago land of my childhood we clearly understood the high desert country of southeastern Oregon as the actual world. The rest of the creation was distant as news on the radio.



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