animals

Animals. They’re everywhere. I’ve never been much of an animal person.

  • BEAR: Sculpture by Eladio (dEmo) de Mora. DUMBO area of Brooklyn, New York. September 2012.
  • TURTLE: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. November 2012.
  • COW: Elephanta Island, Mumbai, India. January 2013.
  • CHICKEN: “The Chicken” by Chaïm Soutine, 1926. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. April 2007.
  • LION: Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (with United States Capitol in background), Washington, D.C. November 2012.
  • SHEEP: Near tomb of Xu Guangqi (Paul Siu), Guangqi Park, Shanghai, China. January 2011.
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la divina commedia di washington dc

Back in undergrad my focus was more on 16th- and 17th- century English literature, but I took a class on Dante Alighieri as a comparative literature component for my English degree, and I loved it. Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy) is fantastic. Utterly astounding in the richness of the symbolism, the depth, the allusions, et cetera. And it has many similarities (religious content, narrative structure, epic poetry) with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is probably my all-time favorite ‘book’ … so yeah, I like it.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to find a way to get through the many photos I have from my visit to DC, so I’m going to use Dante as a guide. Inferno, Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), meet Washington, DC, the nation’s capital.

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Inferno = Washington Metro. I ride the New York Subway quite often ($2.50 per swipe … ouch!) and though when I first moved to the city I found its jarring movements very annoying and was a bit disgusted at its lack of refinement, I can’t imagine New York without it. In comparison to the NYC Subway, the Washington Metro is a downright young’un. So sleek and modern and brutalist … and so I’M STUCK IN A CONCRETE TUNNEL. Exposed concrete, fairly dim lighting. Beautiful, but in a foreboding menacing sublime sort of way. Every time I took the escalator down and down and down I felt like I was slowly approaching doom. But coming back up feels like cheating death.

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Purgatorio = United States Capitol. Its design was actually the result of a design competition, followed by committees, resdesigns, and all the craziness that goes on with turning an idea into architecture. It’s a bit odd, don’t you think? Can the Capitol still be conceived of and judged as architecture? Of course it is structure, but the Capitol has so much weight as an icon and symbol of the legislative branch, the government, and the nation that it is no longer ‘mere’ architecture. With so much bureaucracy going on in that building, who the heck really knows what’s going on? All those stairs, do they lead up or down? Is progress being made and lessons learned or is it a place for walking in circles?

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Paradiso = Peace Monument. Hanging out in front of the United States Capitol is the Peace Monument by Franklin Simmons, erected in 1877. The figure of Grief leans against the figure of History, commemorating naval deaths during the Civil War. While the white marble is clean and ‘peaceful’, the arrangement of the figures hovering high above, touching the Heavens, looking down with frozen sadness at all the tourists scurrying by, is actually more haunting. Perhaps that understanding of human turmoil and remembrance of our own frailty and faults is as much as we can hope for.

If you’re further interested in the Divine Comedy, my professor for the Dante class, Guy Raffa, created this website related to the Divine Comedy which is worth checking out. It’s ostensibly a study guide, but the images are pretty nifty.

time warp: i hope i survive(d)

Am I alive? No, seriously … did I survive this past week? I honestly don’t know because I’m writing this post a week in advance of when this is being posted. Why? Because the next week (er, the past week) is my hell week. Paper due. Final thesis presentation. Hence the label of hell week. And hence this time warp. Are you humming “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror in your head yet? Or even out loud!? You should be.

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Image is from the National Gallery of Art in DC. “Multiverse” (2008) by Leo Villareal is an underground light tunnel in the concourse connecting the NGA’s east and west buildings. Reminds me of James Turrell’s “Light Inside” (1999) at the MFAH, which also acts as an underground connector tunnel and uses light. Very trippy.

artist: ai weiwei (pt. 2)

Ai Weiwei at the Hirshhorn, yadda yadda yadda. This is a continuation of my previous post, but I’m too busy with thesis to post insightful detail. Ah, exhaustion. So voila. These three were some of the larger pieces in the exhibit.

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“Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation and Remembrance”

When you go upstairs into the main gallery space, this curved wall is what greets you. It’s basically a giant spreadsheet and looks kind of neat, like someone’s idea of creative wallpapering. But then you hear it. The names being read. Huh? Then you read the description of the piece. They’re the names of the dead children. And then you feel like you’re going to cry. And the starkness of the rows and columns feels so inadequate. And it reminds you of 9/11 and then you really, really wanna cry.

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“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads”

This was considered a separate exhibit to the “According to What?” exhibition, but whatever, it’s all Ai Weiwei. The Hirshhorn is basically a giant hovering donut. In the center of the space situated around the fountain were 12 sculptures representing the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. I didn’t really like my dragon. I think he looks weird. Neat, but I didn’t really like their placement around the fountain – found it distracting.

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“Cube Light” (2008)

To be honest, I’m not really sure what to make of this piece. Ai Weiwei’s work is successful because of the political/cultural/social messages … but this is just glitzy. It is pretty though. Nice and sparkly. Shiny. Perhaps it’s a commentary on China’s vapid turn to the purely aesthetic? While “Cube Light” is impressive … is it really by Ai Weiwei? Really?

The end. Back to thesis now.

artist: ai weiwei (pt. 1)

Ai Weiwei. Yep, him again. It seems like nowadays everyone knows of the Chinese artist/dissident. His show at the Hirshhorn in DC was called “According to What?” and ran from October 7, 2012, to February 24, 2013. So yes, this means that I have been sitting on this post for … quite a while. Forgive me!

There was a pretty fascinating article about Ai Weiwei in The New Republic that’s worth a read. “Noble and Ignoble” by Jed Perl is basically about how Ai Weiwei kind of sucks as an artist, and while I kind of like Ai Weiwei’s work, I do agree that the work (which is fairly minimal in itself) owes a lot of its impact to the figure of Ai Weiwei the political dissident and not to Ai Weiwei the artist. But that’s his whole schtick anyway.

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“Colored Vases” (2007-2010)

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“Grapes” (2010)

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“Tea House” (2009)

My favorite piece was “Tea House” … but I’ve always been quite the minimalist myself and I like tea! A lot of Ai Weiwei’s work relies on having a basis of knowledge and interest in contemporary China and reading that in his works in order to fully flesh it out. Without that support, the artwork is nice but bland. Whatever. He’s making an appearance in my thesis. Then again, pretty much everyone/anyone who has/had anything to say about China is making an appearance in my thesis – it’s a monster (in a small package).

feeling a tad trampled on

And … I am once again feeling overwhelmed. What an uncomfortable yet familiar feeling. Ah thesis, how you torment me. How you so insistently crush my soul!

The statue is from the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Basically I stood under the statue and took a picture up at the horses hanging over me. Heh.

Oh, and today is St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone is supposedly Irish. It’s spring break. Am I out drinking and having fun? No. I did laundry. I went to school. I went to the library. I worked in studio. The end.

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united states botanic garden

The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) is located in DC on the Mall by the Capitol. It’s a good walk … and it’s free! … and hot! Ya know, because I’m poor. And, ya know, because it’s chilly outside. Apparently there are three parts: the Conservatory, the National Garden, and Bartholdi Park. Saw the first two, but didn’t venture to the park because I didn’t know it existed until I checked Wikipedia later. Whups.

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The Conservatory (the enclosed building aka greenhouse aka what you probably think of when you picture the USBG) was built in 1933 by Lord & Burnham, and I gotta say I love the keystones on the entrance façade. Each keystone has a different face and I just love those little flourishes of detailed ornament on solid Neoclassical architecture. It’s the little things that get me.

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The main central space (which is called the Jungle) has an upper-level walkway, which provides a nice change of perspective … but be prepared to get a bit misted when they spray the plants. Oh, and if you have a coat, scarf, hat, and mittens (as you should if you’re in DC in the winter), be prepared to carry them through the gardens – because it’s a bit steamy in there!

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To be honest, I don’t know much about plants and I don’t really care all that much about learning about plants. But it sure is fun to look at ’em (well, some of them – some are just boring to look at). The USBG is much bigger than I thought it would be when I approached, since the Conservatory is fairly deep and has many different sections, and there’s also the entire outdoor garden (National Garden) adjacent to the conservatory. Unfortunately the National Garden isn’t heated and a lot of the plants looked a bit … lacking life. Nice way to kill some time and be reminded that the world isn’t all concrete and steel. Plants – THEY’RE ALIVE!

monument v. memorial

What is the difference between a monument and a memorial? A monument can be a memorial and a memorial can be a monument. Or can they? Take for example the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, on opposite ends of the reflecting pool in Washington, DC. Why is one a monument and the other a memorial? Each is in commemoration of a past president, each is a popular tourist destination, and each can be considered a visually-impressive work of formal art/architecture in its own right.

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The Washington Monument is a monument to (in commemoration of) George Washington, 1st President of the United States. Washington is not represented via figural form. Instead his monument is an impressive stone obelisk.

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The Lincoln Memorial is a memorial to (in memory of) Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Inside is a larger than life-sized marble statue of a seated Lincoln, by the sculptor Daniel Chester French.

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And then there’s the Reflecting Pool, which is technically part of the Lincoln Memorial, but whatever. Positioned between the two and reflecting both structures, it feels more neutral, favoring neither one nor the other. It might seem odd to add value judgments (better, more successful, prettier) to monuments/memorials, but let’s be honest … people visit them because they’re tourist attractions, not to remember the contributions of Washington or Lincoln. You could talk about the memorial aspect of the Washington Monument or the monumental aspect of the Lincoln Memorial, but they’re not called the Washington Memorial and Lincoln Monument simply because those aren’t their names.

The way I always learned it, a monument is an architectural element and a memorial is a memory signifier. So while they may be the same actual object, whether you call that object a monument or memorial depends on what function of that object you’re describing or which takes precedence – the presence of form and physical architecture or the presence of history and transcendent memory. Is that clear? Hm … hope so.

artist: david hammons

Do you know who David Hammons is? The contemporary African-American artist? The one whose sculpture is in the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection? Well, I didn’t. That is, not until I went to the Hirshhorn, saw this sculpture, and looked him up.

The sculpture is an untitled piece from 1989, made out of glass bottles and silicone glue. I thought it was pretty amazing. What could be more simple, more perfect than a circle? But then there are the components – the individual glass bottles – that are connected in a way that seems so natural and unforced given the shape of the bottles and the invisibility of the adhesive.

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A lot of his work deals with the civil rights movement from his heyday during the 1970s and 1980s. And though this particular sculpture has a distant, minimalist feel, it’s not. It’s not pure form, pure materiality, or pure object. It’s not a circle formed by the repetition of that particular angle; it’s actually a flattened spiral with slight irregularities. The glass is not clean and sterile; they are bottles of Night Train, a brand of bum/street wine. The sculpture is more than an object; it is a commentary on racial stereotypes, creating a sense of high art out of low trash.

martin luther king, jr. memorial

Sigh. Yes, I know I’m a bit late with this post. Stop harping on me already! So for those of ya’ll living under rocks, yesterday (January 21, 2013, the third Monday of January) was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It also happened to be Inauguration Day, and Barack Obama got sworn-in for his second term as POTUS … ya know, no big.

I wanted to post yesterday because the circumstances of the day would have tied in perfectly with a discussion about the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. But you’ll excuse my tardiness, won’t you? The memorial faced a wave of criticism when it was unveiled in 2010 and a lot of the points made were quite valid. Yesterday there was an article in “The Atlantic” that tried to defend the memorial, but … did he visit the same memorial I did? I’m not buying a lot of what he says. And the author of the article? A lawyer. Um, yeah. No offense, but I’m going to trust my eye for aesthetics and spatial concerns over yours.

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Personally I don’t like the memorial. I don’t hate it and I’m not going to vilify it, but I found the overall effect to be harsh and cold and alienating – not words I would normally associate with Martin Luther King, Jr. Standing at 30 feet tall, with crossed arms and a stern expression, the figure towers menacingly over visitors. He is carved in white granite (which as a material feels inherently distant and inaccessible) and remains embedded, not fully realized, in the rock.

Certainly it was meant to convey a sense of strength and immovability in the face of adversity/discrimination, but it comes across as if he is stuck but too proud or arrogant to realize his position. He has no feet, they are swallowed by the rock; he cannot stand for himself, the rock goes all the way to his head; he is not free, he is completely attached to a giant chunk of rock. And yet there he is, staring out into the Tidal Basin … all by his lonesome.

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My major issues with the memorial are with the space, the scale, and the sense of the man created. The memorial is set back from the road and away from many of the other memorials, to where you need a sense of what you are looking for and where it is or you’ll overlook it. There’s a weird empty plaza which funnels you through a gap, at which point you see the gigantic chunk of white granite (that was seemingly pushed from that gap), and then only after you finally walk all around that chunk and crane your neck upwards do you see the figure of King, who stares at the water as if annoyed he’s staring at water with his back (er … his chunk-rock-back) to the entrance.

Basically, the amount of empty space is too much, the figure of King is too large, and the presence of rock is too heavy.

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There were other issues, such as an oddly-edited quote inscribed on the memorial (the one seen in the image directly above), but since that’s being fixed, I’ll leave it be. There was also the shoddiness of choosing a Chinese sculptor instead of an American for the representation of such an important American figure, but that’s politics/economics for you.

I appreciate that the memorial has King boldly standing in the open as opposed to being protected in a little house like Jefferson or Lincoln, and I appreciate that there at least is a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in DC. And maybe all that space won’t seem so useless when it’s filled with crowds of summertime tourists, and maybe the stone won’t seem so harsh when there is warm sunlight bounding down, and maybe the figure of King won’t seem so stern when you’re not freezing because it’s cold outside and there’s a cold breeze coming off the Tidal Basin. But I doubt it. In the end it was a poorly executed memorial for a great, important man in US history. It’s a shame.