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Entries in culture (65)

Saturday
Mar112017

Annie Oakley

A wistful Buffalo Bill Cody, circa 1890, a couple of years after he had gone to England to visit Queen Victoria.

This has been a week or so, here, of the physical and cultural landscapes of the American southwest, long before malls and freeways, snowbirds, wetbacks and ICE.  The West was a powerful image, for those of us in the west who didn't entirely see it as those in the East might have – fenceless, lawless, full of saguaro cactus and mesas.  Rather those of us in the west north saw it as something our grandparents and parents did.  They knew the flowers, the grasses, the winters, the colourful characters.  Allegedly my great-grandmother had an affair with Robert Service; one grandfather, an executive with Imperial Tobacco in Edmonton, had joined a travelling circus at 13, the other grandfather lived briefly near Olds in a chicken coop, with his school tie, violin and dancing pumps as an apprentice gentleman farmer: these were real, not myth.  

At the same time we were awash with the mythology of the American West as it came through popular culture and that increased to a tsunami after WWII.  For example, there was a tv program for kids about Annie Oakley who had worked for Buffalo Bill, Civil War veteran, Indian hunter, showman, huckster.  In Grade One I got  an Annie Oakley lunch kit.  My brother three years later got a Roy Rogers lunch kit which he promptly lost, for which I don't blame him, it had Dale Evans on it, who was such a drip. 

Annie Oakley, sharpshooter, a little proto-feminist.  In the tv program her sidekick was Tagg, a kid, a boy; her horse was beautiful.  We all drew horses as little girls, before we moved onto ballerinas, leaving the wild west behind.  However, Annie Oakley was a far more exotic model for very little girls than, say, Anne of Green Gables, a book which I could not read at all.  For Annie Oakley there were no rules; for Anne Shirley it was all about fighting the rules that cramped her style.  It made no sense to me.

The west is different from the east; it is another country.

Aladdin Industries Annie Oakley lunch kit, 1955. This one was on Ebay and sold for $350. The cream edges were pressed like leather, and the sides had a belt of bullets running around them.

Friday
Mar102017

e e cummings, 1920: Buffalo Bill's defunct 

Buffalo Bill's
defunct
        who used to
        ride a watersmooth-silver
                                  stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                  Jesus

he was a handsome man
                      and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

 

This must be on a whack of English 101 reading lists as there are dozens of webpages analysing it.  The most beautiful, the most dense with reference, every word so threaded through by poetry, art, the politics of capitalist America, is this by Louis J Budd, written in 1953:

The poem's attitude is epitomized in the word "defunct." Buffalo Bill has not undergone a tragic crisis, he has not passed through a spiritual ordeal; he simply has ceased operating, liquidated like a bank or a poorly-placed filling station. The reader primarily realizes that William F. Cody will no longer prance through metropolitan hippodromes as the chief asset of a gaudy commercial venture. More broadly, the reader should recognize that the westering dream and nostalgic enjoyment of that dream are ended, the dream ripped by realities or stultified by vulgar misuse and the nostalgia deflated by post-Versailles cynicism. Buffalo Bill and his cohorts, galloping through this world in a blinding shroud of physical exertions divorced from meaningful reality, never were alive to tulips or the small white hands of the rain and can be scarcely said to have died.
— from Louis J. Budd, "Cummings' BUFFALO BILL'S DEFUNCT." Explicator 11 (June 1953): Item 55.

I would like to have written this.

Saturday
Feb252017

the exercise of wealth

The Critic, photograph by Weegee, 1943. Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1943, above: Mrs George Washington Kavanaugh and Elizabeth Lehr Decies arriving at the last Vanderbilt Ball at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York just before it was demolished.  1,800 guests attended, in full fig clearly.  A set up: Weegee, the photographer, positioned the dishevelled person on the sidewalk where guests were arriving.  Not a particularly subtle piece of social criticism.

George Washington Kavanaugh was the son of Luke Kavanaugh, a knitting machine manufacturer and the inventor of a knitting burr. Mrs CGW was sent into posterity by Weegee; he snapped her several times on this particular night. This was a mink-coated bejewelled waistless woman in her 70s with a limitless American textile and manufacturing fortune. Her expression never changes, no matter who the photographer: face forward, sweet smile, full makeup, hair, tiara, she's like an American Queen Mum.

Do I care about any of this?  Am I in thrall to wealth?  Hardly, but I am interested in the ability of some photographers to be subversive, others to be sycophants: each is creating a narrative no matter how documentary they feel they are being.

Robert Doisneau wasn't taking a cheap shot when he photographed the matrons of Palm Springs below; he didn't set them up, at least any more than they were doing themselves.  Slim Aarons genuinely felt he was part of the rich and famous, and serious about it.  He wouldn't have seen any reason to set them up.  These positions are difficult for us to take seriously in this overly ironized post-irony age— Doisneau's humanism, Aarons's affection, even Weegee's blunt social commentary.  And then there is Marina Garnier's curious social eye below, photographing wealthy women in New York at le Cirque for lunch: specimens to be pinned down like beautiful beetles. 

Marina Garnier, photographer. Eva Gabor and Ivana Trump leaving le Cirque, 1990Had I not been taken by the moonlit image of a small house in Palm Springs with a T-bird in front of it, I would not have arrived here.  But it has led me to think about how one can try to understand worlds we are not part of and how to use art to comment, resist and oppose: not to bludgeon, but to put into context.  The rich are not like us; they are always with us.

Wednesday
Feb222017

Palm Springs 1960: desert oasis

Slim Aarons, photographer: Poolside Gossip, 1970

Palm Springs, la vie en blanche, playground in the desert for Hollywood; every little modern house with its swimming pool and palm tree oasis.  Richard Neutra's Kaufman House was early, 1947. This picture, above, is by Slim Aarons who was both celebrity and celebrity  photographer.  These are the beautiful people of 1970 where architecture is an important signifier but also a non-competitive backdrop.  The contemporary architectural photos of the Kaufman House are unpeopled, still, pure:

Richard Neutra, Kaufman Desert House, Palm Springs, 1947. Julius Shulman, photographer

In 1960 Robert Doisneau, well known for his Paris street photography in black and white, was commissioned by Fortune Magazine to do Palm Springs; 23 reputedly banal images were published, and then in 2010 Flammarion published the whole archive in a book, Robert Doisneau: Palm Springs 1960
It includes images such as this one:

Robert Doisneau, photographer: Palm Springs, 1960the other people of Palm Springs, not celebrities from film but in wealth.  Clearly the town acted as a resort and a protected, beautiful club.  Today one can get maps of the famous houses and drive by them: not famous for their architecture but because Barry Manilow lived here (Kaufman House) or Frank Sinatra lived there (Twin Palms, now owned by Jimmy Pattison), which must be perfectly wretched for the people now living in these precise horizontal machines for easy living.  Or not. As in the beginning they are guarded/shuttered/defensive on the street side. It is an interesting split between defence at the front and openness at the back that failed to make it to mainstream houses of that era with their picture windows, open carports, declamatory front doors.  These things don't appear in Palm Springs architecture which is part of the enduring subtlety of this kind of modernism.  It is complex, socially-informed, ultimately protective of the lives within it.

Monday
Mar212016

Wearing Our Identity; measured in spoons

Widow's amauti. Eastern Arctic, Inuit: Nunatsiarmiut, 1890-1897. Sealskin, seal fur, glass beads, silver?, lead, brass, pewter?, spoons, coins, wool braid, linen? thread. © McCord Museum M5836 This is a widow's amauti. It has a small, flat baby pouch just below the hood in the back, indicating the widow's former role as a child-bearer (from birth until about two years of age, Inuit babies are carried in an amaut under the mother's hood). In the early 1800s, non-Aboriginal explorers, whalers and traders began providing the Inuit with an array of trade goods, including dyed cloth, coins, metal utensils and glass beads.

Robert Everett-Green has reviewed, briefly but succinctly in the Globe & Mail, the current McCord Museum exhibition, Wearing Our Identity curated by Guislaine Lemay.  Nadia Myre, Algonquin artist in residence at the McCord, has chosen pieces from McCord’s collection plus new work by a range of aboriginal artists.  Everett-Green raises the issue of appropriation in such an exhibition, referring to the amauti, above, which has a line of pewter spoons attached to the front and pennies sewn on the back, pointing out that while the term appropriation is applied to Victorian middle-class ladies doing Indian beadwork patterns from The Ladies Home Journal, it does not apply to the widow in Baffin Island sewing spoons on her amauti.  It is a question of power, he posits. 

Victorian middle-class women were denied much participation in an outside life but they were allowed to do crafts – watercolours, needlework, and there were magazines that gave them instructions (impossible as Myre demonstrates).  Although they had more power than any aboriginal woman had, or has in the main even today, the Inuit widow had more freedom to make her own elaborations on her own parka.  

One of the most salient things I learned, long ago during my postcolonial education, was in the reading of Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, the back history of Jane Eyre through the lens of the other: the ones without power, the women, the fragile and the dangerous.  It is Antoinette Crosby’s nurse, Christophine, who says to Mr Rochester, newly arrived to take blind possession of a wife, a plantation and all its inhabitants, you know some things, I know other things – I paraphrase wildly, but the gist is that power doesn’t know everything, it actually doesn’t know anything other than itself; while the putatively powerless know a hell of a lot about the world, their environment, their culture, relationships of power – their survival depends upon this knowledge when brute force isn’t an option.

Yes, whether something is appropriation or adoption is a matter of power: the powerful take, those with a different kind of awareness incorporate the signs and materials at hand, whether they be trade goods or baseball caps: the original meaning of such materials is subverted by a different set of codes, inaccessible to power: it is the development of a decolonising language.

Monday
Dec282015

Bow and Arrow

the other side of my Alberta:

Thursday
Dec172015

Tanya Tagaq: Nanook of the North, 2012

Amid all the flurry of Tanya Tagaq's soundtrack to a re-issue of Robert Flaherty's 1923 silent film, Nanook of the North, here is an earlier video where she explains throat singing.  She appears to be in the British Museum, an interesting post-colonial meeting of ancient cultures, hers a bit older than the one in the background.

And here is a short excerpt of her performance at TIFF First Peoples 2012, accompanying the screening of Nanook of the North.

Flaherty's view of the north, based on laughing children and naive hunters bringing pelts in to a Hudson's Bay post, was famous and deeply patronising. 

Tagaq's soundtrack (composed by Derek Charke, with Tagaq and musicians Jesse Zubot and Jean Martin), the power of the voice, the chords, the sound of the wind and the animals, goes a long way to undercut the paternalism of Flaherty's gaze.  Tagaq's is a complex post-colonial project: to walk forward to encounter the colonial past and, while protecting, even feeding, the subjects of the film, to reveal the ethnographic expoitation of the filmmaker.  It is complex because although the Inuit in the film are real, this first film that showed how they lived was completely constructed by Flaherty. 

I saw Nanook of the North a long time ago, in the ealy 90s, and had to watch it in two minds: one saw the people, the other saw the ways that 'the people' were being made palatable to the film-going public through a sentimental narrative that goes, still, to the heart of attempts at reconciliation culminating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report released this week.  The more we see the truly tragic little people sitting at their desks in their Residential Schools, being so good, and so sad, the more they seem to obliterate the images of their descendents who are still struggling: not as photogenic, more present as some work at keeping one's alleys free of bottles, others get their PhDs.  The great awakening of the Canadian public to Residential Schools (why they needed awakening is a mystery as almost every community in Canada knew precisely where the school was) has, I fear, awakened a sentimentality that does not lead anyone out of the woods. 

Here, in all its endless insult is Flaherty's Nanook of the North:

 

Wednesday
Nov122014

Metropolis: postmodern watchlist 2014

Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas. Townhouse for Matt Sabatine, 110 East 64th Street, New York City, 1984. Metropolis Magazine, November 2014

Paul Makovsky and Michael Gotkin's 'Postmodern Watchlist', Metropolis Magazine, November 2014, discusses the historic preservation of postmodern buildings from the 1970s and early '80s and how the commission that designates landmark buildings hasn't a methodology for the kind of modifications and additions that both characterise postmodern buildings and are their fate.

The critique that divided 'building as object' from 'buildings as fabric' developed in the 1970s (Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York was about this very quality of combative individualism) where more and more buildings were suddenly realised to be part of a significant context. The buildings in the list waver between a genuine appreciation of historic methods and materials, and the semblance of such which was the thing that eventually made a mockery of architecture and architectural postmodernism: the keystone that was merely a keystone-shaped incision on the brick, or marble, or stucco rain screen.

The 60-year rule (that a style reaches its nadir at 60 and after that starts to gain historic currency), means that mid-70s architectural postmodernism, when the idea was at its newest and most exciting, won't be the subject of positive theoretical investigation until the 2030s.  I distinguish between architectural postmodernism and postmodernism in other disciplines as architects were distinctly vulnerable to image and style: slapping a pediment on a curtain wall tower was technically simple but theoretically complex.  But that kind of complex discussion was for the critics, who actually existed then, unlike now.

David Balzer's book, Curationism, points out how criticism has been supplanted by curatorial practice: the choosing of arrays of material, ideas, lists, that in their array begin, hopefully, to frame some sort of discussion.  This perhaps has to do with unstable critical positions, no longer is there the magisterial Pevsner, or a Peter Collins, or a Colin Rowe, historians that put architecture into linear continua.  Balzer and the reviewers of his book all cite the deep and lapidary access to unprocessable amounts of information today – we look to curators to process and chart paths for us through this democracy of material.  And it is precisely this democracy that obviates a 'central' critical position.  We are free to choose curators who aggregate images for us.

In the tricky postmodern era of the late 1970s and early 1980s there was no web, in fact there was no personal access to computers. Information came in books and magazines, journals and architects travelling the lecture circuit, showing their work, talking about their ideas.  They still do that, but I'm not sure why given that we can find it all somewhere on the web if we really look. Metropolis started in 1981, a wildly exciting monthly tabloid-sized architectural newspaper from New York, not much distributed outside major US cities, but if you went to New York and found a copy, holy cow, it was such a shot of adrenalin.  It was news from the centre of the earth.  I'm just not sure that kind of thing exists any more – that sense that there is a centre, or even a pulse.  Nonetheless, this was the climate that the postmodern Manhattan buildings, listed in the November 2014 Metropolis, grew up in.  These were buildings that 'curated' the city.  

Agrest and Gandelsonas's East 64th Street townhouse, above, was, quoting Diana Agrest, 'a hinge between two institutional buildings that had almost opposing styles—the Modernist Asia House by Philip Johnson and the Gothic Central Presbyterian Church.'  This is classic architectural postmodernism in the best sense: the obligation of any building to its context, the city and the history of architecture as a conversational act.  Architecture as a mediator.  

Where did that go?  I'm not sure, for although we now live in a socially and culturally mediated world where it is difficult to discern an original thought in the long curated lists of likes, most architecture remains out of sync with this role as a mediator.  It is still, more often than not, a declarative act, viz. the newly opened Museum of Human Rights which conducts a rather shouty debate with angry excluded communities.  

Or, perhaps it is the curators who assume we still want shouty debates, breaking news, cutting edges, heightened reactions, and, as always, the quiet side of the culture of architecture, such as the Agrest and Gandelsonas townhouse, is still seen as a minority interest. 

Wednesday
Jun042014

Indian Candy 2

Dana Claxton. Contact billboard, 9th Avenue SE, Calgary. right: Tantanka (buffalo) 2013. Indian Candy in the process of disappearing. Real billboard images are clear, art is ambiguous; advertising is immediate, art prints itself on the mind and sits there the rest of the day as one tries to make sense of it.

Artefacts exist, but it is not necessary to 'see' them.  Claxton is interested in the image, not the artefact, and how the image has a life much more insidious and invasive that the material thing.  It makes one rethink the value of archives (all the originals) and their digitisation, free to use in a way the originals will never be.

Claxton's images in Indian Candy belong to an era before even my time, more like the 1920s-40s, the era of the Hollywood western.  We used to see them at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, and on Fun-o-Rama, a kid's late afternoon TV program from Seattle in the 1950s: endless reruns of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the Three Stooges, lots of David Niven as a swashbuckler.  But even then the white hat/black hat/Indian chief thing was remote, disconnected to all the kids from the Esquimalt Reserve that went to our elementary school.  It never occurred to me that Donny Albany was an 'Indian'; it was something I learned much later, that he was the son of the Esquimalt band Chief. (old terminology, I know, but it was the 50s, sorry)

The power of Claxton's images is that they pinpoint an era and a process whereby the stereotypes were formed and then embedded in the American psyche via popular culture: the midway, movies, toys, games, TV.  During the long era of residential schools in both the US and Canada which were gutting the structures of North America's indigenous peoples, they were portrayed as dangerous, fearsome and inscrutable – a portrayal that was, and still is used on any group resisting assimilation.

Dana Claxton. Contact billboard, 9th Avenue SE, Calgary. Sitting Bull's signature, 2013Forgetting that this was our Contact billboard, I first thought it was something to do with the Stampede which starts its advertising about now.  However, violet is not a Stampede colour, nor is the dangerous allusion to difficult histories.  Clearly, if this is Sitting Bull's signature, he was taught to write in commercial script.  Is it shaky because someone else wrote it for the Wild West Show postcard and it seemed appropriate?  Another act of embedded 'weakness'? 

I don't think it is his signature.  You cannot trust documents. 

Tuesday
Jun032014

Dana Claxton: Indian Candy

Dana Claxton. Contact billboards, Dundas Street West, Toronto. left, Geronimo in Pink, 2013; right Tantanka (buffalo) 2013

Dana Claxton is one of the exhibitors at Scotiabank Contact this year, and three of her works are on billboards on Calgary's 9th Avenue SE: on my corner is Sitting Bull's signature taken from a postcard handed out by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where such troubling heroes had become exhibitions.

The billboards are owned by Pattison, and the exhibition of Contact works is part of Pattison's Art in Transit programme. May and June each year are a treat, as our same billboards always have Contact works, and then they go back to being commercials.  Would it be too much for Pattison to denote these billboards as permanent sites for photographs from the best of Canada's artists?  It gives so much to think about, these beautiful and provocative images.

Claxton's billboard images are drawn from her series Indian Candy, chromogenic prints on aluminum of the clichés of the 'wild west' indian: Tonto, Geronimo, Maria Tallchief in exotic headdress, a buffalo, writing on stone petroglyphs, Sitting Bull, a feathered war bonnet, a ledger drawing, all taken from the vast archive that is the net, pixellations and all, and then washed in bright candy-coloured chemical colours. The narrative line is the ambiguity between history and popular culture, the Wild West Show exemplifying the confusion: were the Indian Wars, the stock in trade of the western movie, history or entertainment?  After Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull crossed the border into Saskatchewan, living there for five years. Claxton's reserve is Wood Mountain First Nation and is descended from Sitting Bull's people.

It is interesting that actual location of all the original pieces she uses are in various archives – where doesn't matter as they can all be found on the web, somewhere, copied and re-assembled, manipulated, emphasised, re-arranged. The validity of the images is not in the contiguity of evidence, original piece next to original piece that traditionally makes a good archival collection. Their validity is that the images circulate in the public domain, and someone has pulled pieces together to say something. The order in which the fragments of evidence are shuffled tells particular histories: the way the US Department of the Interior arranged them both demonises and patronises Sitting Bull's resistance to colonisation; the way Claxton recontextualises the same pieces tells the aftermath.

 

Friday
May302014

Samurai ningyo

Ningyo: samurai tradition has been celebrated on May 5 since 730 AD, originally called Tango-No-Sekku (the first day of the horse). During the Edo period of 1600-1868, the celebrations and displays by the samurai class were elaborate displays of weapons and combat; the first samurai dolls appear at the end of this period, at the beginning of the Meiji era.  The Bata Shoe Museum has a samurai doll, a ningyo much like this one, that dates from 1870.  The samurai as a military class had sidelined the emperor to figurehead status, a situation that lasted 'until 1868 when the Meiji emperor was restored to power'.  It is interesting that Bata's ningyo was created just two years later, valourising the tradition of a class that had just been demoted and its right to carry arms abolished. Originally it was only the samurai class that commissioned ningyo, however, as Japan embarked upon a long modernising process of industrialisation, they came to stand for 'pure' Japanese character and became generalised and idealised.

Samurai protected farmers: the strong protect the weak, and in turn the weak will serve the strong. This theme (according to an essay by Timothy Mertel) appears symbolically as the tiger and bamboo: the tiger protects the bamboo grove from predators, and the bamboo camouflages the tiger's lair.  This is the major tenet of Japanese feudal society.  

Our man, above, has been a fixture of my life forever, can't remember when he wasn't there – it might have been a wedding present for my parents. His sword is in a tiger skin sheath. The armour is, I think, from the Kamakura period (1185-1333): lacquered plates laced with silk and repoussé metal mounts. I'm taking this description from Mertel's piece, so far it all fits.  I've never known anything about this small figure until today.  He is wearing rather lovely cream silk jacquard bloomers.
The Bata Shoe museum describes the shoes thus: 'These samurai shoes are called tsuranuki. They are made of bear fur, which symbolises the intrinsic ferocity, strength and courage of a samurai warrior.'   

Ningyo bodies are straw with carved heads and hands covered in a crushed oyster shell paste which is then burnished and painted.  My fellow has the most delicate pale blue gloves embroidered with flowers.  His face is quite fierce, and is a particular samurai of legend, the details of which I cannot find.  

The armour: it is very interesting, and it was the flexibility of the dragon skin ceramic discs that reminded me of samurai armour: metal plates that were laced together so they moved and didn't inhibit action. 

Tuesday
Jan212014

Le monde au temps des surrealistes, 1929

Variétés - Le Surréalisme en 1929 Print, Illustrated book, photomechanical reproduction, letterpress 25.2 h x 17.8 w cm National Gallery of Australia

'Le monde au temps des surrealistes', published by Breton in 1929 to show the parts of the world important to the surrealists: the places, named by country, tend to be those with aboriginal art, the operative word being original.  Thus Europe, the United States, sites of a kind of universal western culture and product, do not figure.  

Jean Claire, in an essay on surrealist anti-materialism and non-western art, mentions the universalising tendencies in Europe at the time: the rise of Hitler's Volk, the appeal to Italian nationalism.  Politically the surrealists worked against synthesis, coordination, cultural coherence; masks and arcane rituals appealed precisely because they didn't understand them — they couldn't be appropriated by bourgeois culture.  

This is an 80-year old anti-globalisation map.  It is also the opposite of anthropology that seeks to understand the non-Western world.  The surrealists did not want to understand other cultures, it was important that there were other cultures. Can that be said, eighty years on?  As a child, David Bailey had read about Nagaland – a very obscure part of India on the Burmese border, and had always wanted to go there.  He went, eventually, in 2012 and found kids with iPhones and jeans and the elders living a thousand-year old life in their heads: when they go, it will go too.

Look up Naga people on wikipedia, one finds a struggle for statehood, a desire for autonomy, the predictable results of colonisation – that insistence that all peoples come under some central authority that they then have to spend much blood and many years to undo.  The surrealist map of the world isn't an exercise in sentimental preservation of innocent cultures, rather it can be seen as a map of the post-WWI periphery.  The south consists of islands and archipelagoes: a metaphor, contradictory, for the surrealist movement itself. 

Friday
Jan172014

Wang Shu: Geometry and Nature, 2011

Wang Shu's lecture when he was Harvard's GSD Kenzo Tange Professor in 2011.  Almost two hours, it shows the difference between someone who is deeply embedded in a culture with a thousand-year old relationship between landscape and occupation, and our immigrant multiculturalism, dislocated from any sort of visceral understanding of either the past or landscape, and easily captured by ephemera.  

Clearly he is distressed by the last twenty years of extreme development in China; traditionally there were no architects and planners, just builders within a system of landscape and landscape interpretation by poets and scholars.  It explains Wang Shu's practice completely: he is not an architect, he is Chinese. 

Monday
Dec232013

Christmas, rough

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

should be accompanied by the Pogues:

Thursday
Dec192013

christmas cakes

Puza Mandla fruit cake

It is a curious struggle to be on the right side of history.  Someone once mentioned that if everyone in France who said after the war they were in the Resistance actually had been, the war would have been much shorter.  
Something like this is happening in South Africa: evidently almost everyone was a Mandela supporter, for decades, even during apartheid.  Had that actually been true, he wouldn't have been on Robben Island for 27 years.  

The Robben Island Christmas Cake Story: depending on the source, either Mrs Brand, the wife of a warden on the political prisoner's wing, made a cake for the political prisoners each Christmas from 1985, continuing even when they all were in parliament, or Laloo Chiba, a fellow detainee, made the cake from 1978 on.  

Now, this recipe is structurally unlike anything I've ever encountered, ever.  I need a chemist to tell me how it works: a bread pudding (bread torn up, sprinkled with currants and cocoa powder) made in a round biscuit tin, but instead of eggs and milk to make it all stick together, you use puzamandla.  Puzamandla is drink made of sorghum, corn meal and yeast, so it is fermented, like sourdough starter or injera.  It was part of the Robben Island food rations, but in a very weak version.  Anyway, you pour puzamandla over the bread and raisins, let it sit 6 hours then put a plate on the top and a brick on the plate to press it all down for another 6 hours.  It isn't cooked.  It was a terrific treat.  

And for those of you who watch cooking programs, make sense of this, the new South Africa: 

Anel Poltgieter has messed around with the recipe a bit, baking a bread pudding.  But the real recipe is Laloo Chiba's from Anna Trapido's 2009 gastro-political biography, Hunger for Freedom.

Thursday
Oct102013

Picnic grounds

It isn't enough just to build public parks, orchards and other kinds of urban forests and urban farms, there must be a culture to support such things.  Farzaneh Bahrami in On Site review 25: identity, wrote about the public tradition of use in what we might see as the very inhospitable landscapes of modern transportation infrastructure:

Picnic on highways of Tehran, 13th day of spring (response to a Persian tradition to spend 13th day of the year in nature) photograph: Farzaneh BahramiThere is memory, history, tradition, culture and family here, not dependent on the quality of the space.  The point isn't to design a better highway median, but rather recognise that there is more to all of this than aesthetics.

Part of an ongoing research titled "Tehran, In the Search of Lost Public Space" by Farzaneh Bahrami. The paradoxical nature of Tehran's public spaces. photographs: Manuel Llinás

One may read Farzaneh Bahrami's essay 'Tehran, Occasionally Public' here:

http://www.e-publicspace.net/content/tehran-occasionally-public-or-reclamation-space

Friday
Sep202013

that different country

Now, this is a lovely thing: the Paris, Texas music of course, Ry Cooder's take on José López Alavez's 1915 'Cancion Mixteca'.

It is overlaid on an unrelated early film on the Navajo (for which I cannot find any information – on the film, not the Navajo), and shows construction details of hogans along with what always looks like a bucolic, slow, quiet life when looked at across the divide of seventy years or so.  We know it wasn't so, as with the whole continent, sequestration and, confusingly, assimilation was in play.  The kids posing behind the granny spinning wool indicates something of the coming divide: jeans and dresses; the velvet jackets and tiered skirts already marked as folkloric. 

This was part of America's terra nullius, the landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico, and they used it accordingly.

Wednesday
Jun192013

for he loves me so

Friday
May172013

Victoria Day

J R Robbins. Edward Oxford attempts to shoot Queen Victoria, 1840.

This for Canada's Victoria Day weekend, probably the last place in the world that still celebrates Queen Victoria's birthday. 

From another time, that other country:  'The twenty-fourth of May, is the Queen's birthday.  If you don't give us a holiday, we'll all run away.'

Or, if you were Edward Oxford, try to shoot the Queen, be declared insane, and then be sent to Australia.

Sunday
Apr282013

Vancouver Art Gallery

Much dismay that the Vancouver Art Gallery is going to move out of its present location, the classical Rattenbury court house on Georgia Street, and into a new building on the site of the old bus depot on Cambie.  The streets don't mean much to those who don't know Vancouver well, but the bus depot site is at the end of Georgia that is accumulating large cultural edifices: the CBC building, Vancouver Public Library, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and now the art gallery.  

The QE Theatre — an opera and ballet hall – is in its original 1959 Affleck building, the library moved from its 1957 Burrard Street location and building into the 1995 Safdie coliseum-referenced library on Georgia: Library Square with huge public spaces in and out, often used by the CBC as performance space.  The CBC is in a 1975 Merrick building on Georgia, expanded in 2009 (Dialog and Bakker) to include a 4000 square-foot performance studio and a glassy public face on the street.  The 1958 McCarter Nairne Post Office building, also on Georgia, its future very much in danger, has been discussed as a possible home for the Vancouver Art Gallery: right location, large industrial spaces, although its massive structure would make changes almost prohibitively expensive, plus it was sold in March for $159 million to a developer.

The Vancouver Art Gallery's first building was built in 1931 on a 66'-wide lot (the original CPR survey grid based on chains for residential plots) a couple of blocks away on Georgia from the Hotel Vancouver.  It looked like a bank vault, which says something about the way art was perceived, as a precious commodity meant to be safeguarded.
Vancouver Art Gallery under construction, 1931. Art Deco single storey gallery on a 66' lot in a residential area - 1145 W. Georgia Street. CIty of Vancouver Archives AM54-S4-: Bu P401.1McCarter Naire Architects, Vancouver Art Gallery, 1931The building was given an International Style renovation and expansion in 1950 by Ross Lort: a part plate glass front wall, part slab, all offset planes and classic white gallery space behind.  It had become a small, exceptionally accommodating gallery that under the direction of Doris Shadbolt and Tony Emery, was at the centre of the explosion of art and performance, from N.E. Thing Co to Gathie Falk, in Vancouver in the 1960s and early 1970s. 

Ross Lort, architect. Vancouver Art Gallery, 1950.

Then, in 1983, the Vancouver Art Gallery moved to the Erickson-renovated 1911 court house building, made redundant by the 1980 Erickson-designed Law Courts complex and Robson Square which filled the two blocks to the west behind the court house.  It seemed appropriate in the ghastly post-modern 1980s when protests on the Court House steps were over, and museums, opera companies and symphonies turned to block-buster shows for survival, that the VAG be housed in the pomposity of a building shouting out its authority.

Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983-present.

Art goes on no matter what the official gallery is, artists challenge and change; where they do it and where you see it is worthy of attention.  In the 1980s artists were like the punk scene occupying marginal and arcane spaces, they certainly weren't in the main spaces of the new Vancouver Art Gallery in the way that they had fluidly slipped in and out of the old modernist unpretentious gallery down the street.  The more we pull access to art out of the everyday, the more inexplicable it becomes to the everyday.  Much like the original 1931 vault-like gallery, the court house gallery demanded, simply by the architecture itself, reverence for the exceptionalism of art.

I'm not unhappy to see the Vancouver Art Gallery leave the court house building, but one does worry about the current civic support, all over the country, for Bilbao-effect galleries and museums.  By their very spectacularity they become objects rather than fabric, appropriate one would think perhaps for programs such as justice, or health, or governance.  Historically, art is deemed to be one of these important conditions requiring separation in a significant architecture.

Might we have something more wabi-sabi: a necessary anchor for history, retrospectives, biennials and curation, plus the infiltration of the rest of the city, starting from that block, with a rootless, opportunistic, transient architecture that reflects the kind of programming most major galleries are engaged with today.  There must be some place for a gallery architecture to constantly renew and reconstruct itself if it is to be an embedded part of the processes of cultural renewal and reconstruction, and not just the place where, after the fact, such changes are displayed.