The Daily

Arts & Culture

Look and Look Away

February 27, 2015 | by

On Songbook, Alec Soth’s new photobook.

Williston, ND, 2012, black-and-white photograph.

Customers waiting for Walmart to open. Williston, ND, 2012, black-and-white photograph.

If you follow the gaze of every shopper pictured in Alec Soth’s photograph of a crowded Walmart in North Dakota, you end up nowhere. The scene of big-box-store mayhem would have you think it’s Black Friday or Super Bowl Sunday morning or the peak of the shelf-clearing shopping spree that is sure to precede doomsday. But in Williston, the city at the center of the oil boom that has afforded North Dakota the lowest unemployment rate in the country, this was just commerce as usual. It was a national story a few years ago: word spread fast that some incarnation of the American Dream was up for grabs in North Dakota, and scores of men and women from all over the U.S. loaded up the family van and set course for the Peace Garden State. 

With this mind, it can be tempting to read Soth’s photograph—the empty shopping carts, the sweatpants in public, the claustrophobia-inducing crowd—as acutely tragic. The journey to a new and better life ends here? There are consumer traffic jams in the promised land? The streets aren’t paved with gold but with some sort of linoleum-vinyl composite? Read More »

Objects Are What We Aren’t

February 26, 2015 | by

Carl Andre’s sculptures are “plainly, inescapably there.”

“Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,” installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York. Art © Carl Andre/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

The train ride upstate to Beacon, New York, is all geometry and noise, lines cutting through the countryside so that materials—wood, iron, steel—can do their churning work. From Grand Central Station, that palatial space with marble floors and walls of artificial stone, it’s an hour-and-a-half trip to Dia:Beacon, an art museum in a former cardboard-box factory. Through the window, ice flows, steam billows from a nuclear plant, and craggy rocks rise up across the Hudson River. Inside is a mass of plastic—vinyl seats creaking with every clack on the tracks.

It’s wise to be mindful of materials while en route to see art by Carl Andre, whose sculpture occupies Dia:Beacon in a monumental retrospective, “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958–2010,” through March 9. Materiality is the matter at hand, even in pieces that suggest otherwise. There’s materiality and then more materiality, abetted by still more materiality for good measure. 

The effect is not as abstract as it might seem, though matters of the mind play a part in the whole of the show. It’s more an open invitation to look and reflect—to wonder at what might be at work in an experience as elemental as observing objects in space.  Read More »

Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Glass Hat

February 11, 2015 | by

Richard Price and the evolving role of pseudonyms.

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From the cover of The Whites.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, isn’t by Richard Price, except that it is. It’s by Harry Brandt, Price’s pseudonym, but it’s also not really by Brandt—Price’s name is on the cover, too, and so Price is Brandt, obviously, and it follows then that Brandt is Price, and thus, uh …

Let’s start over.

Richard Price’s new novel, The Whites, is by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It says so right there on the cover. Big deal, you might say; another author slumming it in genre fiction by creating a false identity for himself. But by publishing both his name and his pseudonym on the cover, Price has parted with centuries of pseudonymous convention. He hasn’t just pulled back the curtain. He’s brought up the house lights and waved to the audience. And he did it all, according to the New York Times, because he got sort of annoyed. Read More »

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Man in Hole

February 4, 2015 | by

Turning novels’ plots into data points.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Jockers, it should be clear, is pursuing a different meaning of plot than the one we conventionally reach for—he conceives of it as an emotional concern more than a narrative concern. His research was spurred by a concept called syuzhet, one of a pair of terms coined by the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp. As Jockers explains, Read More »

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How to Write a Dance

February 4, 2015 | by

Remy Charlip and the problems of dance notation.

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“Flowering Trees,” a page from Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats

How do you tell a person in another place or time what a dance looks like, and how it should be performed? You could use words, describing, second by second, the movements made by every dancer on stage—but inaccuracies would creep in. Take an instruction as simple as “lower your arm”: How would the precise angle, attitude, and displacement of the arm be explained? As an algebraic vector? And what about the hand, the fingers, the knuckles, the rest of the dancer’s body—what are they doing? Such a method would come to resemble programming code, in which reams of language and symbols come to stand for something that’s supposed to look simple and elegant. The problem is that a dance is read by a human, not a machine.

What about images, then? You could reduce the dance to two dimensions, represented frame by frame, using diagrams and drawings. Yet even for a short sequence, you’d need so many! It would come to resemble a flip-book or an animated GIF, preempting the most efficient and simple method we’ve ever had to record dance: moving images, or film.

Before we had image-capturing technology, the need to preserve dance, as a record, gave way to attempts to write dance down. Dance notation, the symbolic representation of human movement, has developed into systems for making graphics recognizable as living movement. Traditional dance notation marks a path through space and a relationship to music. As Edward Tufte writes in Envisioning Information (1990), “Systems of dance notation translate human movements into signs transcribed onto flatland, permanently preserving the visual instant.” It’s a question of “how to reduce the magnificent four-dimensional reality of time and three-space into little marks on paper flatlands.” Dance never looks the same twice, unless it’s on film. Read More »

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To Lie in the Cheese, to Smile in the Butter

February 3, 2015 | by

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Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906.

From Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein, a collection of experimental prose and “word portraits” written by Gertrude Stein between 1909 and 1912. Stein, who was born on this day in 1874, had arrived in Paris by 1903 and began to develop a kind of literary Cubism, steeping herself in the art of Picasso, Matisse, and others. These pieces saw her evolving approach to aphorism and especially to repetition, the device she made her trademark, even if it chagrined some early readers.

To lie in the cheese, to smile in the butter, to lengthen in the rain, to sit in the flour all that makes a model stronger, there is no strangeness where there is more useful color, a description has not every mission.

Leaning together and destroying a principle preciousness which is not mangled, this is so loaned that there is no habit, not at all and yet there is the late way, there is an instance of more.

To be painful is not more than a street, to be a principal apricot is not more than a cherry and yet there is an expression, there certainly is. Read More »

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