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Art, Lit, Phil

 

I have been reading Kafka’s Amerika, considered one of his only comical works. The particular version of the book that I have was bought at an outdoor bookstore in Connecticut earlier this year for $1. I also bought several other Kafka books, as well as The Painted Veil and Dr. Zhivago (both of which are films I’ve seen. Really good ones, too; perhaps I render myself a 55-year-old woman by admitting that.)

Whimsically simple illustrations by Emlen Etting accompany the text in this version. I took a picture of the above page because it really caught me for a second. I like how simply it’s drawn in connection to Kafka’s description of this odd, yet funny, scene. Standing at the balcony of an apartment are two of the main characters, Delamarche and Brunelda. Delamarche is basically a French rogue who bums through American cities with an Irish mate called Robinson in search of work. He flirts with waitresses and drinks a lot of liquor. He gets in scuffles with the police but knows how to outrun them; he also has a tendency to manipulate people into doing things for him. And I guess he wears a bath robe with a scarf sometimes. And Brunelda…Brunelda’s a former singer, a fat one, who lies supine all day on a couch while Delamarche attends to her. The picture illustrates the first moment the narrator/main character looks up and sees his friend/enemy Delamarche, and the first time he sees Brunelda. So simple, but I love it.

This was another one of Kafka’s unfinished novels. It is surreal and strange like his other works, often crossing the line between dream and reality. It reminded me of the twisting, organic tales my friends and I used to come up with when we had our Barbies partake in epics set in ancient lands: the book is almost childish, but I’ve found it a relief to turn to it as a breather from the city and working life of adulthood.

I also finished Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: I read this whilst lying on the beach on my stomach in Hawaii. One of my mother’s co-workers approached me, squinted at the cover of my book and said, “What did you major in?” “Journalism.” “Right, I was going to say, you had to have majored in something like that if you’re reading Henry James on vacation.” Hm. Never thought of it that way, but okay sir.

Henry James

 

This book made me shed a tiny tear. It was hopeful in the beginning; it follows Isabel, an intellectual 23-year-old from New York who is taken abroad by her aunt in the late 1800’s. She is approached by countless suitors who ask for her hand in marriage; she turns them all down in order to reach her “potential.” Then she is fooled into marriage by someone else, she is caught in a Machiavellian ring and well, her dreams are suffocated and things just get depressing. We can leave it to James to remind us that realism ain’t no joke.

To pick up my mood after finishing Portrait of a Lady, I went through a short read on Buddhism by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding. I recommend reading this book, even if you’re not religious or spiritual. It’s written very simply and clearly, and is a good introduction to the main principles of Buddhism. One of my favorite parts of the book is when he describes the relationship between the rose and the garbage:

Defiled or immaculate. Dirty or pure. These are concepts we form in our mind. A beautiful rose we have just cut and placed in a vase is immaculate. It smells so good, so pure, so fresh. It supports the idea of immaculateness. The opposite is a garbage can. It smells horrible, and is filled with rotten things.

But that is only when you look on the surface. If you look more deeply you will see that in just five or six days, the rose will become part of the garbage. You do not need to wait five days to see it. If you just look at the rose, and you look deeply, you can see it now. And if you look into the garbage can, you see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into lovely vegetables, and even a rose….Looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose. Roses and garbage inter-are. Without a rose, we cannot have garbage; without garbage, we cannot have a rose. They need each other very much. The rose and garbage are equal.

Which reminds me of a quote from Le Petit Prince: “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”

thich nhat hanh and bell

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“You can find out how to do something and do it, or do something and then find out what you did.”

Isamu Noguchi.

I’ve been meaning to write about my visit to the Noguchi Museum in Astoria/LIC last weekend.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to write on my art blog or this one, but it’s here for now.

I hadn’t heard of Isamu Noguchi before, so going to the museum was sort of on a whim, after a friend mentioned I should check it out.  It was a sunny Sunday morning.  I got coffee at Bakeway first (very good coffee, pretty good banana bread), which is on Broadway in Astoria, then walked straight to the sculpture garden.  It was really cold that day, so my fingers were freezing, but I caught a glimpse of a cat wandering around the sculpture garden (separate from the museum), and took some pictures.  Seems like it will be a good place to return in the warmer months.

Kitty

The Noguchi museum is part indoor and part outdoor, as there is a garden as well as some parts of the former warehouse-turned-museum that are open-air.  This is something the sculptor/landscape architect designed to be a sort of culmination of his major works, and which now serves to carry on his legacy, in a city where he’d previously had a studio (he worked primarily in New York and in Japan, if I remember correctly, though he travelled a lot as well).

Upon entering, and again, knowing nothing of this artist — I merely wandered through the clearly Asian-influenced sculptures and the garden filled with rocks, trees, and stone works.  Hm.  Interesting.  Peaceful.  Thoughtful… Meditative.  Buddhist?  Nature?

I sat down in a room that was showing a film about Noguchi’s life, not expecting to end up sitting there for an hour.

But I was sucked into the narrative of his life.  Not only was his work interesting, but his life — his character, his way of living, his approach, even the way he dressed and held himself — fascinated me.  Noguchi was born the son of an American woman and a Japanese man — a poet — who later left Noguchi’s mother for a Japanese woman and family.  Noguchi and his mother remained in Japan throughout his childhood, which influenced him deeply in his work.  Yet despite the extent to which he was constantly drawn to his roots – the culture, nature, and way of life in Japan – he was an international traveler, and gained inspiration from his travels in Europe, Mexico, and Asia.  This, and he was caught between being half American and half Japanese during WWII, when he didn’t feel at home in either country.  And he continued to attempt to connect with his father, to much frustration.

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But while he seemed to be the child of an identity crisis both personally and politically, the consistency in his work and the way he held himself seems to be unwavering, like he was always quite certain of himself and his talent.  While macho American artists like Jackson Pollock, hailed by Greenberg, were busy strutting their feathers in New York during the art world shift in the 40’s and 50’s (when abstract expressionism took center stage), Noguchi, whose work was more low-key and ground-level and thus not in the ring of fire, remained on the fringes of the art world doing his own thing.  He drew up plans for architectural installations, gardens, public sculptures, and even worked on set designs for Martha Graham’s performances.  His work was natural, earthy, organic, albeit borderline conservative in some ways — but I was drawn to this, to this merging of art and life that he seemed to do so well, so naturally, so artlessly.

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At a certain point, Noguchi grew tired of the “politics” of the art world and returned to Japan (he did this several times throughout his life) — where he carved a studio space for himself in the country, and with the help of an assistant continued experimenting with myriads of stones and materials.  There was an interesting quote in the film, and though I wrote down the jist of it, this isn’t verbatim: “Work is like a conversation with oneself; through trial and experimentation, you try to nail something down.”

His assistant spoke of Noguchi: “If he made a mistake and cut too much on a stone, he would be disappointed.  If he left the stone for a while, a year or two, the stone would heal like a cut in the hand. Perhaps the thought in his mind had changed, but the stone had also changed color, and the beauty began to emerge again.”

At the moment this may be my favorite picture of Noguchi.  He’s dressed so sharply yet so simply, an outfit so ordinary yet striking at the same time — artist + camera exploring the world.

The crybaby – the exploiter – the pin-up girl – the self-absorbed… these terms have been used to describe Laurel Nakadate’s positions in her performance and video art, which explores the line between fiction and reality.  She’s known for starting conversations with strangers — particularly awkward old men — and creating absurd situations in their homes.

Although she lives in New York City, Nakadate was born in Iowa and is a Midwestern girl at heart.  She travels across the country to search for chance encounters, “to find beautiful places, to meet strangers, to find a guy who will do this ‘thing’ with me,” she said at a visiting artist lecture at NYU.

Her early video work involved her meeting old men, returning to their homes with them, and asking them to dance to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” with her, or to celebrate a fake birthday party with her.  She has asked men to follow her across open spaces, truck drivers to dance with her in parking lots.  She has videotaped herself facing an old pot-bellied artist, both in their underwear, watching one another as they turned around, as a way to “explore how we navigate relationships.”

Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice in 2005 wrote about Nakadate’s orientation toward herself and her body through her art, “If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world.”

But Nakadate’s work has recently taken another turn, where the artist is no longer at the center of the visual record she’s creating.  Instead of photographing herself crying every day, she’s taken to photographing other people and casting inexperienced Midwestern teenage girls as her main characters in films.

The Wolf Knife is about Chrissy and Julie — two seemingly innocent and naive 16-year-old girls who go on a road trip together from Florida to Nashville, Tennessee.  Chrissy is a troubled teen who lives with her mother and mother’s boyfriend, and asks Julie to join her in finding her real father in Nashville.

Armed with nothing but flowery little dresses, junk food and each other, the girls embark on their quest.  The film is filled with long, empty scenes, several without the actors speaking or moving.  In one, the girls sit on the ground in a parking lot, eating fries and cheetos under a burning sun.  We watch them lying next to one another on motel beds or sitting near beaches, the wind tossing their hair.

The girls are never seen actually driving a car, mostly because Nakadate didn’t want the film to be about driving or The Road — rather, it was about their relationship.  The camera focuses on close-ups of their faces, figures, and skin as they tell one another of their sexual experiences, crushes, family problems, or ask aimless questions like “Would you rather date a black prisoner or white prisoner?”

While the camera follows their most intimate moments, Nakadate’s signature creepy old men from her video works lurk in the shadows.  The film starts out with Chrissy’s mother’s boyfriend offering Chrissy a pair of pink underwear.  As the film progresses, we discover that Chrissy wasn’t going to Nashville to find her real father; in reality she’s made plans to meet an older guy she’d been “talking” to — her former 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Dews (Dave Cloud), who is an chain-smoking 50-something man living with his geriatric father.  The way Nakadate directs the camera on the girls as they stand in bathing suits near the beach, in parking lots, and near motels — looking very vulnerable — makes the audience feel disturbed, as though they were voyeurs themselves.

The process behind the film, though very different from her video works, still involved a sense of “chance encounter” and improvisation.  Nakadate said in a Q&A session after the film’s screening at IFC that she had about 20 scenes she knew she had to do, and the rest were improvised, which she considered an advantage.  She shot the film in 10 days, many of the scenes made up on the spot.

For example, the ending scene of The Wolf Knife concerns a struggle between the two girls at the end of their road trip, in which they wrestle one another in a parking lot.  By chance, fireworks began going off behind them, in the background.

“I just had to go with it,” Nakadate said.  “The fireworks were by accident, but they’re one of the great gifts that you get when you’re making a film with nothing — which is that the world takes care of you anyway.”

The actresses, Christina Kolozsvary and Julie Potratz, were on the verge of being pure non-actors, Nakadate said.  “These young women were really pushed to a place where they really became the characters,” she said.  Chrissy’s bedroom in the film was the actress’s real bedroom; the woman who played her mother was her actual mother.

“When you work with non-actors, they’re really experiencing the scenes… while real actors are trained to experience the scene but it’s not really them,” Nakadate said.  “These young women were really pushed to a place where it really was them.”

Currently, Kolozsvary is in grad school for film and Potratz in grad school for art.

Although she’s not physically in The Wolf Knife, Nakadate’s signature voyeuristic presence is still felt.  Many of the issues Chrissy and Julie deal with — isolation, loneliness, naivete, sexual curiosity — can be found in Nakadate’s earlier work as well.  But she plans to take her feature filmmaking to the next level.

“I do have ambitions to make a film with a better budget because there’s a challenge there,” Nakadate said.  She didn’t wish to disclose any more information about her third film, other than this time, it will be be about adults rather than young girls.

When Bohdan Holomicek gave up “the poetry of the darkroom” to shoot photos using a digital camera, he was already well into a ripe old age—ironically around the time when normally one stops trying to keep up with technology.  Despite criticism from his colleagues for being a traitor, the veteran photographer used the step to renew and intensify the vigor of his already obsessive creative process.

Holomicek, 67, teems with an energy that could outperform any young contemporary photographer.  He did not see why the purism of film should prevail—digital cameras allowed him to shoot more photos in less time. Most importantly, it was way cheaper.

Street smarts

Perhaps Holomicek’s unflagging reputation for thumbing the establishment is in his lack of official training in photography. For Holomicek, the art of taking pictures and his daily life has been the same thing for the past 40 years.  He has intertwined the mundane scenes of ordinary existence into his art-making process.

Holomicek’s ability to pair art with life began when he was working at a factory starting at 6am, and every day went out to shoot photos when he wasn’t working.  He had no one to push him but himself; a rare obsessive personality took form, and he began producing thousands of photos. He took photos originally just for himself, his family, and his friends—it was a way of preserving his memories, pure thoughts in tangible form, a way for him to string his life together into one long pictorial story.  Soon they formed into complex storylines and documentaries, growing almost organically off one another.  The photos, when placed together in a film-like sequence, captured universal feelings—they grew to become more than just personal, private memories for one man.

Even today, Holomicek firmly avoids expensive film techniques. “The question of technique is not as important,” he said. It’s more about the content, and what the viewer sees in the photo—technique is secondary. Perhaps because of this, and because he never saw himself as a “professional photographer,” Holomicek’s focus is on the ordinary scenes of life, rather than those that cry out with drama, blood, and social justice issues.

Photography as time as value

The first were black and white film photos, portraying day in and day out of a lost age of the 1950’s and 60’s, and, like many famous Czech photographers, the Prague Spring of 1968, all the way up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In between these defining moments of Czech history, Holomicek met and befriended former dissident and President Vaclav Havel. Photographing the president with his family led to a friendship between the two.

“These photographs will gain value in time,” Holomicek said as his images flashed before us on his Powerpoint (which he later told us he had compiled into a slideshow an hour before class, at a local pub. I could imagine him, sitting at a bar table with his laptop and a beer, joking with the bartender, sorting quickly through his photo archives like a pro.) “At the time, little things like shoes or fashions or the way a street looked are so ordinary, they are invisible. But in 50 years, the value of those things will have increased, because they are no longer there.”

Vaclav Koubek, a traditional Czech musician, is playing on his iTunes as he goes through the photographs of the lost decades of the 50s and 60s.  Holomicek’s words about the value of time ring true as the slow, nostalgic sound of Koubek’s accordion waltzes along to the passing images. “This is the type of music they used to play on the radio all the time in those days,” Holomicek said.

The value of time applies to the people Holomicek photographs as well—ordinary people, mostly his friends and acquaintances, or strangers on the street going about their daily lives. “People will die and vanish; all that will remain are images of them,” he said. An image of Holomicek, a self-portrait, appeared on the screen; he was surrounded by his close friends, perhaps his wife, a sister, an old friend. He stares fixedly at the viewer, resolution etched into his face, the same expression that is so prevalent in his self-portraits.

Start of a new era

“My first digital camera was the start of my new era,” said Holomicek as the accordion-heavy music of Koubek switched to more upbeat, contemporary hits on his iTunes.

The new photographs, taken by cheap digital cameras or even with his iPhone, are moving films in themselves. They are stop motions of certain scenes and events—a whirling bar filled with smiling drinkers, people walking across the street, views from a moving car—every picture taken half a second before the next. They are fast-paced and energetic, and the viewer feels as though he/she is in a dance club with a strobe light chopping up actions and colors into dizzying patterns.

The digital era allowed Holomicek to take more pictures more quickly of strangers on the street, too. He has hundreds and hundreds of them—people he’d never seen before and would never see again.  “Taking a picture of someone is a give-and-take,” he said. “You take a picture of someone, but you also bring something to their day, because you let them know they’re worth being photographed and recorded.”

One fascinating sequence was of dozens of photos taken from the window of a moving car of the exact same road and tree. Holomicek must have driven past that spot hundreds of times, with different seasons changing the horizon, and different people behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. The tree and the line that creates the path from the window never change, but the sky and the colors of the grass are always moving.

One more face in a sea of images

“I don’t care if you’re the president or just someone on the street—I photograph all.”

Holomicek’s personality face-to-face is far more genial than his earlier somber, thoughtful self-portraits may depict. While he speaks to us in person, his eyes crinkle in well-worn laughing lines when he grins.

It is impossible to not feel a sense of his fun-loving nature in the humor of his newer images: a woman takes shots in a slow-motion scene; an old woman is surprised by his lens on the street and breaks into a hearty laugh; friends wrap their arms around friends; lovers embrace, and Holomicek often photographs himself in these scenes, soaking up the warmth of every moment.

“There are other people who are concerned with images of poverty, war, blood, violence … but that’s not what I do,” Holomicek said.  Quick, colorful, easy-going images fluttered past us—some superficial, some shots of social outings, but most of his contemporary images concern smiles.

As what I presume is a tradition, at the end of the lecture Holomicek gives every semester, he stands at the front of the class with his camera and takes a photo of us at our desks. I was sitting in the third row, and at the last moment raised my arm up in a wave as I smiled at his lens. He took the photo and nodded to me.  “Thank you for waving,” he said.

Thank you for letting me be a part of your memory, Mr. Holomicek. That image—a classroom of foreign students, hungry to learn, one student in the middle back row bridging the gap between photographer and subject with an acknowledging wave—that image will gain value with time.