Maggie Nelson on the Pleasure of Walking Out

I’m enjoying Maggie Nelson’s smart, probing The Art of Cruelty. Here’s one passage:

[I]n my own life, I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out on something. After all, you walk out when you realize that whatever it is you’re watching, for whatever reason, simply isn’t working. Walking out reminds you that while submission can at times be a pleasure, a risk worth taking, you don’t have to manufacture consent whenever or wherever it is nominally in demand…. The fact that the exit door isn’t barred, the feel of the fresh air on your face when you open it — all this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet, and to practice aversion towards that which does not. These are freedoms that life does not always grant…

This brings to mind a trip with friends years ago to see a play, a student production almost an hour out of town. I thought I might be the only one hating it, and certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone else to leave at intermission, but thought I owed it to myself at least to hint vaguely at the possibility of cutting our losses and leaving. Seconds later we were all on our way out. Yes, “the feel of the fresh air on your face” when you walk out of that theater– she really captures it.

This also reminds me why I found so silly the premise of this recent piece– here it is, “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through—and so does literature.” Nope, completely wrong, the freedom to toss a book aside — even if capriciously, even if for no good reason — is basic to the pleasure of reading.

The Penises of Southdowns Drive

I decided I wanted to document the penises of Southdowns Drive.

These graffiti appeared sometime maybe last summer. I found them amusing and somewhat charming, at least as far as penis graffiti go, and imagined they’d be removed or covered up pretty quickly, considering how many parents walk this route with young kids on the way to and from the park.

But nope, still there. Not sure if this should be attributed more to apathy and a lack of city responsiveness, or to a high degree of liberal tolerance on the community’s part.

Check ’em out next time you’re on Southdowns, just East of Bryan Park.

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A Man Called Destruction (Alex Chilton biography)

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I just read Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton.  I was a huge Alex Chilton fan in my not-so-wayward youth in the 1980s, as I discussed in this 2010 post (prompted then by the 33 1/3 book on Radio City and the Big Star box set), so it was great to fill in a lot of details and to understand parts of the story that had always been hazy or sketchy for me.  Overall it’s an excellent biography, I thought –at least for a fan; you might not have the stamina for the whole thing if you weren’t already one.

A few observations:

  • This isn’t news, but reading the whole biography made clear how incredibly strange Chilton’s career was, with some weirdly history-defying twists and diversions. He’s a teenage star as the singer of the somewhat manufactured pop group the Box Tops in the mid and late 60s.  When the band finally fizzles out in 1970, Chilton is all of 20 years old.  When Big Star similarly (well, very differently) fizzles out in 1974/5, the guy is 25 years old, having already lived through two full lives in the music business. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that in the immediate post-Big Star years, Chilton spent quite a lot of time in NYC and was even a semi-fixture at CGBGs right in the dawning of the punk scene.  He “stayed in New York for much of 1977, the year punk broke… Ball and Ork had already booked another prime gig: opening for Talking Heads at CBGB March 3-5, two sets each night.”  Chilton told a fanzine, “Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible.  In Memphis everybody thinks I’m a jerk.  Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.”  “CBGBs soon became Alex’s second home…. ‘I could drink free at CBGBs,’ Alex said. ‘The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were all coming out of that scene and were already too big to get close to or to be friends with.  But Richard Hell was omnipresent… The Dead Boys lived right across the street; I enjoyed their company.”  “Alex and the band opened at CB’s for Lester Bangs… The previous night, two of Alex’s favorite bands had been on the bill with Bangs– the Ramones and the Cramps… Alex had become obsessed with the Cramps and saw them whenever possible.”  Etc.  There’s something about all of this that just seems so strange.  Chilton was/ should have been a total legend at this point. But instead he’s this punk fanboy hanging around CBGBs waiting in line to see the Dead Boys.  And he’s still just 26 or so.
  • Perhaps the most mind-blowing such detail, with Chilton as a strange Zelig figure of the late 70s scene: “Alex still had his derelict apartment on East Ninth Street, which now had no electricity. He hadn’t paid rent in two months and was about to be evicted, so he packed his duffel bag once more and headed back to Memphis in time for his 27th birthday. A week later the Sex Pistols played their second show in America… in Memphis… Arriving early, Alex helped set up equipment… and tuned Steve Jones’ guitar for him.”  !!??!!
  • Something else I probably should have realized: Lou Reed’s Berlin was a big influence on Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third.  That makes sense. (That the album contains a cover of a Velvet Underground song (“Femme Fatale”) somehow kept me from considering Reed’s later music as an influence.)  In 1981 a New York Rocker writer and musician (Glenn Morrow), reviewing a dissolute live performance, observed, “Like a Memphis version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,… Chilton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plan t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness.”  Morrow concluded (wonderfully), “To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar player who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off-key.  It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop.  Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?”
  • Few others are likely to care about this, but I was fascinated to come across a citation from a thoughtful piece on Big Star published in 1975 or something by Mike Saunders, later “Metal” Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans!  I knew that he’d been a rock critic, but this still surprised me.
  • Speaking of the Sex Pistols, Chilton’s on-again off-again relationship with the beautiful Lesa Aldridge (a lot of the songs on Sister Lovers are about her) eventually degenerated into Sid and Nancy territory.  Not pretty.  (There’s also at least one verified report of Chilton making an offhand anti-semitic comment, although it’s not entirely clear to what degree this reflected real prejudice, as opposed to being more about trying to shock and piss off the journalist.) The drug intake at times becomes pretty startling even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.  Jim Dickinson on working on the Sister Lover sessions with Clinton: “”The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe,” said Dickinson. “That set the tone.””
  • The biography left me pondering some large questions about causality, character, talent, and luck.  What most explains Chilton’s fucked-up career and the fact that he never really got the recognition he deserved?  The book sometimes feel like it could be titled, Operation: Undermine Music Career. The book can suggest various different possibilities.  One relates to trauma and depression. Chilton’s beloved older brother Reid suffered a powerful seizure (he was prone to them) while taking a bath in 1957, just after graduating from high school, and drowned.  This hit the 7-year-old Alex hard, and he later attempted suicide twice (cutting his wrists), and once passed out in a bath and almost died as his brother did.  One gets the distinct impression that Chilton’s drug abuse was partially (as it usually is, probably) self-medication.  Or, one can read his drug & alcohol problems less as effect of something else, and more the central thing itself: perhaps he just happened to have an addictive personality, a tendency toward self-indulgence, and a dangerous profession for someone with those tendencies.
  • And then, when it comes to his relationship with the music business, do we see him mostly as a victim of a system that couldn’t recognize his genius? Or as bearing more culpability or at least agency in the process?  There’s a lot of evidence for the first view, as Big Star couldn’t have gotten much unluckier when it came to the way their records were handled.  OTOH, Chilton had opportunity after opportunity that he either squandered or passed up, either out of perversity, bohemian intransigence, integrity, drug-addledness, depression, just not caring, following his own muse, not working well with others (choose your own theory).
  • One detail that was fascinating to me: Alex’s older brother Howard got (or worked towards) his PhD in philosophy at Indiana University, and through Howard, Alex got turned onto the ideas of Wilhelm Reich.  He later cited Reich’s 1933 book Character Analysis as a major influence, saying that after reading it, “I began sorting things out.  Character Analysis helped me understand myself and the people around me… From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing and where I wanted to go.”  He also seems to have taken astrology pretty seriously, to the extent that he had to vet any potential musical partners to ensure compatible astrological signs.  (Well, it’s better than Scientology.)
  • I just read Carl Wilson’s good review of the book, in which he makes the nice observation that “Chilton’s story is … a mystery about whatever drives a handful of artists to be great at the expense of being good, to gamble double or nothing on the long odds.”

Finnish Sauna Bowdlerized!

Sarah brought home this book from our (great) local public library, the Monroe County Public Library:

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.13 PMFinnish Sauna by Allan Konya.  London: the Architectural Press, 1987. Selling for $64 and up on Amazon.  Here’s the sole review posted there (which a perfect 15 of 15 people found “helpful”):

Allan Konya has written the most complete text on the Finnish sauna, covering the broad spectrum from the origins and rituals (something often overlooked), design and construction, materials, siting and layout. Every facet of the subject is thoroughly covered in detail and one comes away feeling he has finally understood what it takes to make a “good” sauna. This book follows quite closely the earlier text; “The International Handbook of Finnish Sauna” written by Allan Konya and Alewyn Burger. Anyone interested in designing, building or using a sauna should try to locate this book. It is the “bible” of the Finnish Sauna and is far superior to any other text on the subject. I have designed and built several saunas and still find useful information and inspiration in this book.

Not entirely sure why it caught Sarah’s eye, but anyway, when she got it home she discovered something we both found hilarious: some reader has taken it upon themselves to render the book more American-family-friendly by censoring (or Bowdlerizing), with a black Sharpie, the book’s images of nude Finns lounging in saunas.

Here are some examples:

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Only a small amount of water should be thrown at a time!

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.15 PMPhoto on 6-11-13 at 8.15 PM #2What is that?  Is she carrying a baguette?

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Wow, nothing made it but the legs on that second girl!

I hate to tell you, concerned library user circa 1988, but you have taken what was a wholesome guide to Finnish saunas and those who enjoy them, and turned it into a very kinky volume– these images have become so much more erotic, as it is now impossible not to imagine precisely what lies under the tantalizingly thorough black ink.

Now to learn more about the often-overlooked rituals of the Finnish sauna…

Ai Weiwei and African Textiles & Art in Indianapolis

Road trip to Indianapolis.  First, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and, to start, the Ai Weiwei show: According to What?  This photo is of the kids looking at “a new sculpture made from steel rebar that was salvaged from schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.”  He and collaborators/assistants painstakingly bent all the rebar back so that it was perfectly straight and arranged it in a kind of rising and falling wave pattern.  Behind, you can see a list on the wall of the names of the many hundreds of victims of the earthquake, names you can also hear recited out loud from a speaker in the corner.

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I liked the show — I think we all did — although I find Ai Weiwei’s work comes across pretty effectively on video and in description, i.e. it’s not totally transformative to see it in person.  I guess this is to say that he’s basically a conceptual/ relational artist whose work is as much about the social dynamics and processes that lie behind it as about its physical instantiation. So, seeing the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, for example, I’m not sure you get so much less of an authentic experience of his work than you do from going to the show. With the steel rebar piece above, part of the point is that it looks like a minimalist abstract work, but is in fact much more a polemical, political statement that exists in relation to, and as a sort of record of, all of Ai Weiwei’s other activities related to his protest of the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake.

Sarah made the point that in some ways his approach to art resembles Jeff Koons’; like Koons, he has (or had) a big studio and a lot of assistants whom he oversees as they produce large, sculptural works based on the ideas he comes up with.  There’s definitely not a whole lot of emphasis on individual craft skill or anything like that.  (Of course, his ideas are much more interesting and affecting than Koons’, which seem to mostly just be about the ubiquity of commercial culture.)

Actually one part of the show I liked a lot were the walls of his photos taken during his years in the mid-late 1980s through 1992 or so he spent living in NYC on the Lower East Side.  It’s fun and fascinating to see these glimpses into his life as an expat unknown Chinese would-be artist, chronicling the Tompkins Square riots and the like. There are big group dinners in what look like cheap Chinatown restaurants, scenes in peoples’ tiny bedrooms, hanging out with Allen Ginsburg.  Makes you wonder to what degree his later political activism was some kind of syncretic blend of Chinese/ U.S. practices coming out of those Lower East Side years.

Anyway, all that said, I think he’s a fascinating & important figure, and needless to say a powerful voice of dissent, but I don’t personally love the artworks as art.  For sheer sensuous/aesthetic pleasure, they were kind of blown away for me by the stuff on display in the Majestic African Textiles exhibit next door.  When I saw these (below) across the room I actually said to Sarah, “oh, look, they have some Nick Cave soundsuits!” [see my post about those, with some images, here]- but these were in fact Nigerian mid-20th century masquerade/dance costumes of the sort that must have inspired Cave’s soundsuits.

These are so spectacular!

imageCheck out the penis & boobs on this one:

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And then these gorgeous, sometimes scary masks & figurines:

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imageimagephotophotoCall me a traditionalist formalist, but at the end of the day I’ll probably always take the art that, when you’re in the room with it, overwhelms you with sensuous/ tactile/ visual  qualities that you can’t experience the same way in reproduction.

So, go see the Ai Weiwei show, but be sure also to visit the Majestic African Textiles show.

Diane Arbus, Adventurer

Camera-obscura-...-Diane--007I read the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus, originally published in 1984, only a little over a decade after her death, but reissued and, I believe, the basis for the 2006 film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which stars a horribly mis-cast Nicole Kidman (!!) and which looks awful.

The biography is not perfect — somehow I felt the truth of who Arbus was, what she felt and thought, remained to some degree elusive or hidden from Bosworth and the reader — but I found it very gripping.

I had never known that Arbus was born Diane Nemerov and was the sister of famous poet (twice poet laureate, winner of Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Bollinger prizes) Howard Nemerov!  Quite the talented-sibling duo.  Howard is quoted late in the book saying that Diane once commented to him, “You know, I’m going to be remembered for being Howard Nemerov’s sisrer;” “how ironic and untrue,” he observed to Bosworth. (Although I think Nemerov’s own fame emerged more fully after the book was first published.)  They were cosseted children of privilege, of immigrant Jewish parents, in a rarefied Upper West Side Manhattan world, their father a wealthy founder of the Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue (Diane grew up to hate shopping for clothes); attended the elite Fieldston prep school where they were both recognized as very talented.  Yet oddly, Diane and Howard’s parents gave them very little if any money as adults, and both of them had to scrape and scheme to support themselves in their early adulthood.

I was thinking about some other famous later 20th-c American poets whose fathers were very wealthy industrialists or financiers. James Merrill, son of Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill-Lynch; Louise Glück, daughter of the inventor of the X-Acto knife.  I went to a private high school in Boston founded by another son of Charles Merrill, and I always found it funny to think that the Merrill money alternately funded a school and a poetry career.  Economic capital –> Aesthetic/cultural capital.

Diane married Allan Arbus as a teenager and they became a successful fashion-photography duo in the 1940s and 1950s.  People comment that the two of them were often in a corner consulting about a shot, whispering conspiratorially.  There’s an amazing reproduction of an image from a 1947 feature article in Glamour on “case histories of seven married couples who are collaborating on joint careers in the arts, the sciences, and business” that shows a prim-looking Diane in a long dark dress feeding their young daughter Doon.  They both eventually became disenchanted by the fashion world– after their divorce, Allan eventually became a successful actor, starring as Maj. Sidney Freedman on M.A.S.H. (!- this actually does not come up in the biography).

One limitation of the book is that it does not reproduce a single Arbus photograph.  I know them pretty well, but if you didn’t, you’d definitely want to read the biography with one of her collections in hand.  I am going to try to get hold of the 2003 catalogue Diane Arbus Revelations because I really only know the famous images from the 1972 Aperture monograph.

Even after reading the biography, I can’t quite decide what I think about the question of the degree to which the ways her photography sensationalizes and (cruelly?) exoticizes its subjects.  One of her mentors, Marvin Israel, says:

A photograph for Diane was an event.  It could be argued that for Diane the most valuable thing wasn’t the photograph (the result), it was the experience, the event… Once she became an adventurer — because Diana really was an adventurer — she went places no one else [no photographer] had ever gone to.  [Those] places were scary… But once [she] became an adventurer [she was] geared to adventure and she sought out adventure and her life was based on that… the photograph was like her trophy– it was what she received as an award for her adventure.

It would be difficult to defend the work on purely aesthetic grounds.  She was “adventuring,” pushing herself to enter into forbidden, strange, exotic zones– that sense of symbolic boundary-crossing was fundamental to the images. And a critique can certainly be fairly made of the ways different kinds of social marginality (e.g. ethnic, economic, disability-based) get conflated into what can seem like one big category of the non-normative. On the other hand, she was no slumming tourist, dropping in to get the photo and then going back to her upper-middle-class world.  She returned again and again, obsessively, to many of her subjects.  The famous photo of the “Jewish giant” with his parents came out of over years of visiting and photographing him: “from 1962 to 1970 she kept returning to the Carmels’ cramped apartment until she finally captured the image she wanted.”  And she became a regular at the Coney Island sideshows and Hubert’s Freak Museum, far beyond what could have been needed to get the photos, and got to know many of the performers very well (“the living skeleton, the embalmed whale, the ventriloquist with his two-headed cat”) and considered some of them friends.

Later, in the 1960s after her divorce, this “adventuring” transitioned into sexual adventures, sometimes of a pretty seamy variety:

Sex was the quickest, most primitive way to begin connecting with another human being, and the raunchier and grosser the person or environment, the more intense the experience, and this enlarged her life… She… described in a particularly detached way how one night she’d had sex in the back of a Greyhound bus (“If you sit on the inside back seat of a Greyhound bus, it means you’re sexually available.” [ed. note: good to know!)  No introductions were made, not a word was spoken, and after this swift, mute encounter in the dark, she got off on the next stop and waited on the highway for an hour or so until another bus came along which would bring her back to New York. … It was almost as if she was determined to explore with her body and her mind every nightmare, every fantasy, she might have repressed deep into her subconscious…. Crookson listened as she told him of picking up a Puerto Rican boy on Third Avenue “because he was so beautiful.”… At this point Crookson interrupted to ask her if she hadn’t ever faced actual danger as a result of such recklessness.  Yes, she answered, but she’d always been “thrilled” to take risks to “test” herself- and besides, nothing bad had ever happened to her and for some strange reasons she was positive it never would…. [W]hen her camera was with her she always felt in control….. It seemed as if merging with her subjects… was a way of giving herself to them after they revealed themselves to her camera.

Many comment that Arbus carried her often-bulky cameras and other equipment in front of her like a shield– even when she photographed at orgies (these images have apparently never surfaced).  I was surprised that there is not a single reference to her ever getting mugged or having her camera stolen, given all the stories about her wandering about Central Park in the middle of the night or the like.

To me probably the most haunting images are the late ones taken at the institution for mentally-disabled patients in Vineland, New Jersey:

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Arbus’s Guggenheim proposal (she won it): “While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future,  its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning.”

Music Videos @ Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Another visit in Cincinnati was to the Contemporary Arts Center, which for a while was the only building in the U.S. designed by Pritzker-prize-winning, Rem Koolhaus-protege, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.

From wiki: “A winner of many international competitions, theoretically influential and groundbreaking, a number of Hadid’s winning designs were initially never built: notably, The Peak Club in Hong Kong (1983) and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales (1994).”  It’s funny to look at a (seemingly abandoned/ not up to date — only up to 1990) accounting of her early works: over and over, “Not Realized.”  Here is a good, albeit somewhat skeptical, analysis of the Cincinnati museum.  I like the building, although it is showy and I agree with the critique that “we are often forced to acknowledge the building at times when perhaps we should be admiring the work presented inside the building instead.” Although maybe that is not such a problem really.

(I just remembered an amusing bit in Bruce Wagner’s good novel Memorial — the protagonist is a semi-successful bitter architect who is always mentally fulminating about various international art and architecture stars including, obsessively, “fucking Zaha Hadid.”)

Right now the whole experience is very 21st-century and postmodern (or late 20th-century anyway) since the building is full of a show about the history of music videos.  I actually thought it held up pretty well — although most of the videos are things you could easily pull up on Youtube, they did make sense as a curated collection, and the experience of watching them on large screens with headphones in this context was often pretty engaging.  No question of course that music videos have been a major occasion for groundbreaking aesthetic experiment over the past 30 years.  A lot of Bjork… there was one whole little room based around her amazing video for “Wanderlust” featuring these somewhat Snuffleupagus-like felt yak creatures.  Also several Kanye West videos (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” lip-synched by Zack Galifianakis and Bonnie Prince Billy in the sidekick/Flava Flav role = great; the “Runaway” video featuring an apparent Victoria’s Secret model in painted-on feathers in the Man Who Fell to Earth angel role = crap), early David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, several Michel Gondry videos, Missy Elliot and Hype Williams’s fantastic “The Rain,” all kinds of other stuff.

There was a huge, noisy school group there (once they left, we were almost the only ones in the whole place) and the guards kept shutting off certain screens in order to protect the sensibilities of the little brats.  There was one little room specifically dedicated to “Controversial” videos which featured little peepholes you had to peer through — quite irritating actually as, ironically, you had to kneel to see them if you were over 5′ 5″ tall.  These mostly weren’t too exciting — the one I’d never seen that made an impression was the rather creepily erotic and fascinating video for a song called “Twin Flames” by the Klaxons.