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Disco Purgatorio

September 19, 2014 | by

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Divina. Photo: Antonio La Grotta

The Italian photographer Antonio La Grotta has done what some intrepid ruin pornographer ought to have done years ago: he’s taken pictures of Italy’s abandoned discotheques.

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Topkapi.

In the boom times of the eighties, these discos sprang up across the Italian countryside, shrines to saturnalia and synthesizers. Now there are purgatories where once there were infernos. La Grotta describes these edifices as “fake marble temples adorned with Greek statues made of gypsum, futuristic spaces of gigantic size, large enough to contain the dreams of success, money, fun … ” Now the discos are just “cement whales laid on large empty squares, places inhabited by echo and melancholy.”

You can see more of La Grotta’s photos on his website and on Slate’s Behold blog, but you should set the mood first. Here’s Kano’s “I’m Ready,” seven minutes of blissed-out Italo-Disco that will help you mourn a bygone era and celebrate Friday night.

Expo.

Expo.

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Plumbing the Depths

September 18, 2014 | by

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It was 1917 when Marcel Duchamp debuted Fountain, that perennially scandalous urinal, that Dadaist taunt, that porcelain keystone. Since then, befuddled museumgoers worldwide have asked, “How is that art?”; about half a dozen performance artists have made a show of peeing on, in, or around one of the many replicas of Fountain; and, at the Pompidou Center, one guy threw a hammer at it. But now, in 2014, the artist Alexander Melamid has outdone them all: he’s reconnected the urinal to plumbing. It flushes anew. And through its pipes, he hopes, will flow more than a century’s worth of the art world’s built-up shit.

Melamid’s new exhibition, “The Art of Plumbing,” opened last night at Vohn Gallery. It comprises paintings of assorted plumbing components—sometimes superimposed on canonical works by, say, Picasso or Rothko—with names like Form-N-Fit 1-1/2 Flanged Tailpiece, Large Drain Cleansing Bladder, and The No Clog Drain, Permaflow. At its center, atop a kind of plinth, is a fully functional urinal, its working parts very much visible.

“Modernism in art began in earnest with that urinal, severed from the sewage system. It was a truly revolutionary act,” an accompanying statement read. And yet, as the twentieth century wore on, artists descended into meaningless self-referentiality and the pursuit of wealth, thus necessitating another revolution:

Having acquired the skills to wield both pipe and wrench, the artist Alex Melamid will successfully perform an aesthetic coupling that will flush the human as well as the elephant waste from our great museums. Once sent down the drain and into the sewage system, this effluvial excess will affront the senses of public no longer.

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Cardboard, Glue, and Storytelling

September 16, 2014 | by

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Last year, Sadie Stein wrote here about Matteo Pericoli’s Laboratory of Literary Architecture, a “cross-disciplinary exploration of literature as architecture” in which students create physical models of literary texts. Pericoli has taught the course at the Scuola Holden in Italy, at Columbia University, and elsewhere—now he’s broadening the horizons, and the Laboratory has a robust new Web site to prove it. There’s also a new video—replete with a kind of slinky Sade-ish groove, because why not?—that walks you through the course’s fundamental questions.

But perhaps the easiest way to grasp what Pericoli’s up to here is to look at an example—the LabLitArch site features a number of them. Here, for instance, is Katherine Treppendahl, an intern architect, on her literary architecture independent study, seen above, of Ulysses:

The exterior space frame represents the overarching role of Joyce, the arranger, as well the modules of time within the text—each partition represents a different time of day. The two primary characters, Bloom and Stephen (Joyce’s Ulysses and Telemachus) are translated into different volumetric typologies. These volumes are stacked and arranged in terms of their presence, importance, and relationship within the story. The reader is represented as a pale tube snaking through these volumes. In the novel, there is a point at which the text shifts from a more conventional narrative style to a more abstract and self-conscious style. Within the model, as the reader moves into this territory, the volumes begin to break open and fracture. They are no longer whole vessels, and the “reader” is visible, moving uncertainly through this landscape.

There’s also a very fitting makeshift mission statement drawn from Alice Munro’s Selected Stories:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

Check out more of the student projects here.

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Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero

September 15, 2014 | by

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The Soviet Union’s 1989 series of James Fenimore Cooper stamps. Click to enlarge.

I was perplexed to learn that the Soviet Union, in its waning days, produced a series of five vivid postage stamps devoted to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It seemed as if some lazy Soviet bureaucrat must’ve made a mistake. Why, after all, would the USSR want to commemorate some of the foundational texts of American lit, especially when Natty Bumppo stands as a paragon of rugged individualism? In other words, how had one of our folk heroes found an audience in a place where he should’ve been reviled?

Sandra Nickel, an author of young-adult novels, got the answer from her daughter’s Russian godmother, whose youth was apparently filled with totally authorized American classics:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of twelve—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words.

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life:

$_57What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship … In fact, Cooper’s second name, Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognized in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society … As [the] poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.”

There you have it. You can imagine Gorbachev, his state verging on dissolution, adhering one of the Leatherstocking stamps to a letter—perhaps to Reagan or H. W. Bush—and smiling warmly at the visage of Natty Bumppo, his troubled mind allayed, for the moment, by dusty schoolboy memories of The Deerslayer.

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Buzzing in My Ears

September 11, 2014 | by

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Steve Greene, Buzzing in My Ears, 2013; ink, acrylic, collage, gesso on paper; 14 x 11"

A few months ago, I wrote about my persistent fascination with industrial-supply catalogs, especially the Grainger catalog, which runs to many thousands of tissue-thin pages and contains everything from centrifugal belt-drive downblast exhaust ventilators to cementitious mortars.

A number of readers wrote to say they share my interest in these catalogs, which feature dauntingly precise language and serve as a kind of paean to utility. Among those who came out of the woodwork was the artist Steve Greene, who’s married to The Paris Review’s finance manager, Janet Gillespie. Steve has been using supply catalogs in his drawings and collages for years, to incredible effect; he was kind enough to send me some of his work, and to elaborate on his sources:

My go-to resource for years has been the Uline Shipping Supply Specialists catalog, which I subscribe to so I can keep replenishing favorite images. Nice heavy magazine paper with great color. An old favorite is the Arco Officer Candidate Tests by Solomon Wiener, Colonel, AUS-Ret, which is full of useful tips for aspiring military officers and practice tests that have been partially filled out in red ink. The others I take myself—the more wrong answers, the better. Then there are the Mobile Manual for Radio Amateurs, from 1960, and Magnetic Recording by S. J. Begun, from 1949, neither of which I would dare cut up—but both spend a lot of time on the copy machine. I still have stacks of pages from the Global Equipment Co. catalog, which I’ve been using for about thirty years. 

I particularly enjoy the random poetry of these books and catalogs, and their listings and names often make their way into my titles: 

Accelerator Pump Cam
Tough, Tear Resistant, Out-of order
Two Tubes 

Below are three additional pieces by Steve; you can see more of his work hereRead More »

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Strong Names

September 8, 2014 | by

Sometimes you go to Wikipedia to see whose birthday it is and you end up spending the next thirty minutes reading flap copy from old Harlequin romances. By “you” I mean me, here—I’ve just now crawled up out of the Jane Arbor mineshaft I fell into.

Arbor, who was, yes, born today in 1903, wrote fifty-seven romance novels in her day, all of them published by Mills & Boon, a UK imprint of Harlequin. Even without their florid illustrations, their titles are terrific; they sound variously like managerial concepts, short-lived sitcoms, or Yankee Candle scents. In addition to those in the slideshow above, here are a few favorites:

  • Ladder of Understanding (1949)
  • My Surgeon Neighbor (1950)
  • Memory Serves My Love (1952)
  • Jasmine Harvest (1963)
  • The Feathered Shaft (1970)
  • Two Pins in a Fountain (1977)

But Arbor’s true talent was in naming her characters, a gift that extended to the author herself. Jane Arbor is a pseudonym—and a pretty perfect one, dainty without lacking in heft and authority—for the comparatively ungainly Eileen Norah Owbridge. Arbor had a knack for naming her heroines’ love interests, all of whom have strong but subtle appellations of three or four syllables. They’re impossibly perfect names that seem hewn from granite, as are, presumably, the abdomens of the men they belong to. Names like Erie Nash. Dale Ransome. Elyot Vance. Lewis Craig. Mark Triton. Raoul Leduc. Grandmere Cordet. You see how a Piepenbring could be envious.

Without further prologue, then: the flap copy for three of Arbor’s novels. Read More »

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