Monday, April 30, 2007

It's all about the process?

I'm excited about working these days, not least because I have a show of my new drawings scheduled at Gallery Joe next May. But a lot has been going on in my life lately, and it's been a crazy time to make art. I moved in to a new apartment in my building this month, and I've been dealing with the usual moving stresses: not being able to find anything, wishing I were a minimalist instead of a hoarder and seriously contemplating dumping our remaining unpacked boxes out in the street to be run over by semi trucks. There are a thousand end-of-the-year teaching details to take care of and I'm preparing for a sabbatical next year. Plus it's spring.

But that's not the problem.

The problem is the bees.

Not the dying bees. The live bees. The ones who hate art.

Here's the deal. I do all my work sitting in my comfortable chair overlooking my tiny roof deck container garden, which holds a bird bath and overlooks fantastic magnolia and cherry trees.

I draw in front of the open screen door, and I look up to watch the blue jays and the squirrels drink from my bird bath, and I take breaks to water my lilacs and irises and to draw bugs and sparrows and whatever else comes to the rooftop. It's a blissful routine.

Today, though, I went out to water the plants and was immediately attacked by two giant bees. They're huge. They buzzed my head- one of them hit my hair. I went back inside. I tried again later. Same result. Again. Nearly fell off the roof. I should explain that what I call my roof deck is really just the roof of my neighbor's apartment. It's a three story drop.

I retreated into the studio and closed the screen door behind me, which led me to notice that there are yellow jackets building a nest right above the corner of the screen, where it doesn't really close. Where there's a two inch gap.

(The image is not upside down, the wasps are. They're hanging from the inside of my door frame like Spiderman.)

This yellow jacket action appears to have irritated these other giant bees, who are constantly bombarding the door area with patrols. I closed the sliding glass doors and watched them all for a while, imagining bee vs. wasp feuds or, more likely bee vs. human feuds. I imagined being told, post-fall, that it was nothing personal, that I just got caught up in this whole bee-vs.-human episode that was being fought on other fronts right now. Wrong place at the wrong time, said the bee that was explaining the cause of my untimely death. It got hotter and hotter in my chair as the closed door caused my studio to heat up and the wasps calmly went about building their nest.

I decided my plants could depend on the rain if the bees were going to be that way and lugged all my stuff downstairs to the new apartment, which has back yard. I set myself up with a sun hat on top of my geeky magnifying visor. I looked up at the birds and the manic, giant bees patrolling my roof and got to work on the idyllic nature drawing I'm making these days. In between bouts I sucked up to the neighborhood cat. She eats butterflies. So I can hope for the best.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ubu in the Rain

Is it just me, or is this image from a recent New York Times article the oddest picture of two politicians ever? Does it remind the rest of you of the sound stage scene from Singing in the Rain? Are Putin and King Abdullah about to do internationally significant dance of love? Or crawl through a tunnel of Vaseline?

I might be thinking this way because I went to the William Kentridge lecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently. Kentridge showed scenes from two versions of a play, Ubu and the Truth Commission, that was based on a mix of Ubu Roi and testimony from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It sounded like a dubious project- Ubu Roi is a funny, depraved, absurdist play, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimony, well, isn't. (Kind of like mixing international politics and Singing in the Rain.) Kentridge showed videos of two versions of the project; there was a theatrical production and a hand-drawn video piece; both versions completely justified the juxtaposition.

Kentridge's Ubu/perpetrator in the theatrical version was terrifyingly human: funny, bestial, compelling, charismatic and absolutely corrupt in a chillingly familiar way. Ubu in the play was a torturer in dirty tightie-whities, sorry for himself, immersed in his appetites and utterly oblivious to the reality of the people he victimized.

Well, maybe not to their reality. They just weren't as real to him as he was.

As we were watching the play, I hoped for an autopsy of the tragedy: to figure out What Went Wrong, like we all do in the face of the past. The comfortable answers I was looking for (something in the water, it's been taken care of) were, of course, not going to be given. The play didn't provide an easy answer, but the answer that it did provide was mind-bendingly universal. The text of the production is rooted in recent South African history, but Kentridge reported that audiences in Switzerland and Australia said it seemed to speak directly to their circumstances. Which is odd.

It might be true that in order to autopsy the crimes of the past we really don't have to look much further back than our own middle school experiences of bullying and being bullied. The people who do these things do it because they're encouraged to, because they can, and because they think the people they're hurting are, not less than human, but less human than they are. It might be that in order to commit atrocities, one needs not to completely dehumanize a person or population, but just to perceive it as less human than oneself. Which isn't so far away from being mean to waitresses.

Kentridge used himself as a model for a set of etchings about Ubu called Ubu Tells the Truth, and he talked about the fact that in the process of determining the truth about apartheid era atrocities, much of the evidence came from pictures and videos the perpetrators of the atrocities themselves had filmed. They turned in evidence that they themselves had kept in order to buy immunity from prosecution. It seems insane that they would have kept such evidence, but they did, and they complained about the petty inconveniences of being torturers. The smell of blood was all over their clothes.

It reminds me, since I work in academia, of the way that academics, including myself, adapt to the privileges of tenure and lose perspective on the real world. I'm all for academia- I think it's a place where, if one is focused and careful, one can buy the right to keep the best parts of one self and the culture alive, but I've also seen tenured professors complain about having to lick their own stamps. Which isn't exactly an atrocity (although it was atrocious), but it's an insensitivity that comes from having little bit of power for too long, so one can only imagine what happens when one has too much for a long time. Kentridge's talk brought home the idea that the people who thrive in conditions of atrocity are part of us. They're normal, and it might be that they're us, gone awry. It's not, I think, that one commits horrors by mistake, but that it takes effort not to fall in line, and that with enough narcissism and enough scope, we're all capable.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Read this! Then donate to these people, fast!

Our congress people are too weak and stupid to allow aid organizations in Zambia to buy grain that's not produced in the US of A- the agribusiness and shipping lobbies think this is a great idea, but it means the food is going to run out for starving people in Zambia next month because it takes too long to get there from here. A bunch of people will die unless the aid organizations get enough private donations so they can buy Zambian grain. Until we can change this law, let's NOT be this guy.