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The Greatest Artist in the Whole Wide World

July 22, 2014 | by

06 Edgar

A portrait of the author by his mother, Louise Oliver.

02 Edgar December 14th 1963

Louise Oliver, Edgar, December 14, 1963

03 Helen at 17 or So

Louise Oliver, Helen at Seventeen or So

04 Untitled January sketch

Louise Oliver, Untitled (January sketch)

05 Still Life with Glasses

Louise Oliver, Still Life with Glasses

One of our favorite places to play, all throughout my childhood, was in cemeteries. We would go get fried chicken at the Woolworth’s on Broughton Street and go with our sketch pads to the Colonial Cemetery to picnic atop the family vaults that were all shaped like gigantic brick bedsteads. Helen and I loved to climb on these strange bed-shaped vaults and to lie there on the gently curved bellies of the tombs and play at being dead. And while we played, Mother drew in her sketch pad.

At the very back of the cemetery was a playground with old, rusted iron swings that shrieked when you swung in them. Helen and I loved to swing high and make the swings shriek mournfully—the cry of our flight. On the other side of the brick wall, overlooking the playground, rose the Savannah jailhouse—a tall old building with a tower topped by a red onion dome. High up in the jailhouse wall were dark arched windows where you could sometimes see the silhouettes of men’s heads—the prisoners watching us as we swung.

“You’re the greatest artist in the whole wide world, Mother. You’re also the best, funnest, most beautiful Mother in the whole wide world. And you cook such good food too.”

Mother made us say that to her over and over again—every day. And I think we said it sincerely. Mother almost never cooked—but when she did, what she made was always luscious. And I think Mother was a great artist. There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is like a form of revelation.

Over the years of our childhood, Helen and I were to become Mother’s most trusted and devoted encouragers and critics. Mother would call us in from the backyard to examine whatever painting she was working on. We would make our pronouncements with great authority. Read More »

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Soviet Ghosts

July 17, 2014 | by

Soviet decay

A military base in East Germany, constructed in 1937 and used by the Germans as an elite riding and driving school. Photo: Rebecca Litchfield, via the Guardian

The Guardian, Beautiful/Decay, and others have featured unnerving photos from Rebecca Litchfield’s Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay, which documents the photographer’s travels to the ruins of the Soviet Union. The series examines how and why communities are abandoned, but this isn’t mere ruin porn; there’s an aspect of political subversion here, as Litchfield faced radiation exposure, arrest, and interrogation to secure these pictures, which include decommissioned locomotives, dilapidated military bases, and an abandoned sanatorium, many of them now deemed secret by the state. A more sensationalistic publisher might’ve subtitled the book, THE UNBELIEVABLE PHOTOGRAPHS THE FORMER USSR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE! As Litchfield explains,

We maximized our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on day three, our good fortune ran out as we visited a top-secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way toward it, but just meters away suddenly we were joined by military, and they weren’t happy …

See more photos here.

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Night at the Museum

July 7, 2014 | by

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“The Camera in the Mirror”

Google is growing up. Its cameras have entered the mirror stage. Since 2011, the company has sent elaborate camera-mounted trolleys into museums as part of Google Art Project, which allows users to browse galleries around the globe, clicking through room by room to simulate the sense of space. Sheathed occasionally (and abstrusely) in shimmering Mylar blankets, Google’s cameras take photographs in 360 degrees; whenever the trolley passes a mirror, it takes an accidental self-portrait.

Now, just as Jon Rafman’s “9-Eyes” presents moments of incidental beauty and sublimity from Google Street View, a new tumblr by Mario Santamaría called “The Camera in the Mirror” captures Google’s cameras as they capture themselves: unsettlingly alone and caught in a kind of perpetual anachronism, surrounded by art and artifacts from centuries past.

If Lacan and Baudrillard somehow procreated, and their child ate some bad LSD, the hallucinations might resemble something from “The Camera in the Mirror.” There are no people in these photos—only an inert, mechanical totem pole seemingly obsessed with itself. It’s hard not to ascribe human motivations to the thing, in part because it resembles a sleek bipedal extraterrestrial and in part because it sits, with chilling deliberation, at the center of every frame. In certain shots it looks imperious, haughty; in others it becomes almost playful or curious. In only a few minutes it takes on a kind of personality, and so the whole project becomes tinged with the rhetoric of science fiction: What does the machine want? Where is it going? Is there any stopping it?

I thought of a few lines from Sartre’s Nausea and gave myself the willies: “People who live in society have learnt how to see themselves, in mirrors, as they appear to their friends. I have no friends: is that why my flesh is so naked?”

And yet, as terrifyingly impenetrable as they seem, these photos are signs of fallible life from the Googleplex—they shatter the illusion of seamless museum-going, showing us the leering, error-prone business end of one of the world’s most ubiquitous and powerful corporations. They testify to Google’s mind-boggling wealth: among other niceties, these trolleys are mounted with the CLAUSS RODEON VR Head HD and CLAUSS VR Head ST, two panoramic cameras that take photos with about a thousand times more detail than the average digital camera. They cost upward of five thousand dollars apiece. Of course they want to look at themselves.

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Future Library

June 26, 2014 | by

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© Katie Paterson; commissioned by Bjorvika Utvikling and produced by Situations

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© Katie Paterson

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© Giorgia Polizzi

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© Katie Paterson

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© Katie Paterson

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Photo © MJC

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© Giorgia Polizzi

Right now, one thousand new trees are growing about twenty minutes outside Oslo. In the city’s new library, a window from a quiet room on the fifth floor faces out onto the nascent forest, which you can see across the harbor. These—those trees, this room—are the basic components of the Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library, a century-long project that contemplates the full scale of the publishing process, with its many tangibles and intangibles:

It will be 100 years before the trees are cut down to provide the paper for an anthology of books—a Future Library for the city of Oslo—read for the first time in 2114 … Every year from 2014 to 2114, a writer will be commissioned to contribute a new text to a growing collection of unpublished, unread manuscripts held in trust in a specially designed room in the new Deichmanske Public Library in Bjørvika until their publication in 2114.

That room, intended to be “a space of contemplation,” is lined with wood from the felled forest; once the initial clear-cutting was complete, Paterson and a group of loggers planted the new saplings themselves, as photographed above.

An eight-person trust will guide the project into the future, with a small editorial panel—including the Booker Prize’s Ion Trewin—selecting the writers, the first of whom will be announced in September. Writers have no obligation to say what they’ll write or how long their manuscripts will be; they can produce whatever they want. A particularly ambitious or deranged author could take it upon himself to write an epic, laying waste to a significant percentage of the forest in so doing.

Paterson has also designed a limited run of certificates made from the trees that were cut down to make the new library. The double-sided print features a graphic of a tree trunk and functions as a deed or a share, entitling its owner to receive the anthology of Future Library books in 2114. New York’s James Cohan Gallery is showing the certificate in “The Fifth Season,” a group exhibition whose opening reception is tonight at 6 P.M.

“It grows in the mind,” William Pym, a curator at the gallery, said of the project. “There’s really not much to see.” Given its duration, Future Library is destined to be “forgotten and then remembered again,” he added, noting that attention paid to the project will ebb and flow over the years as new writers are chosen and as printing technologies advance.

The project foregrounds the most easily or willfully forgotten part of bookmaking: the trees. A bound book sits at a far remove from the natural world it came from—Future Library reminds us of the geographical realities of publishing, of the time and resources necessary to make paper. And as, presumably, digital media will continue to proliferate over the next century, Paterson’s art is resolutely, provocatively analog: every part of its process is tethered to the physical world. A visitor in Oslo can stand in the library and point to the source of the paper.

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Smuthound

June 24, 2014 | by

Warning: the slideshow below contains images deemed obscene in the fifties.

Fifty-seven years ago today, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Roth v. United States, the preeminent obscenity case of the time. That Roth isn’t Philip—not that he’s any slouch when it comes to indecency—but Samuel, a widely reviled publisher perhaps most remembered today for bootlegging portions of Ulysses. As Michael Bronsky described him in a piece for the Boston Phoenix,

Roth became so notorious as both literary pirate and smuthound (the word in use at the time) that he was attacked in The Nation and The New Yorker as a literary fake and social nuisance. Vanity Fair included him, along with the up-and-coming Adolf Hitler, in its 1932 photo essay titled “We Nominate for Oblivion.”

In the course of his long and thoroughly ribald career, Roth often found himself dragged to court—this particular case saw him violating a federal statute that banned the transmission of “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” materials using the postal service. Roth had been doing just that: his magazine American Aphrodite (“A Quarterly for the Fancy-Free,” the covers of later editions said) was the finest in literary smut. (And trust us: The Paris Review knows a thing or two about literary smut.) Read More »

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Razed in Cincinnati

June 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Cincinnati Public Library, via Flickr

A few days back, MessyNessyChic—let’s not dwell on the name—posted a series of photographs of Cincinnati’s old public library, erected in 1874 and demolished in 1955. Even if you’re disinclined to fetishize the past, it’s hard not to greet these images with awe and a certain degree of wistfulness. This was one hell of a library, with a checkerboard marble floor, soaring shelves, cast-iron alcoves, and several stories of spiral staircases. In the grandeur of its design, it’s something on the order of McKim, Mead, and White’s original Penn Station—a work of architecture so self-evidently valuable to the contemporary eye that its demolition can be met only with bewilderment and righteous despair: What clown authorized the wrecking ball here?

But aesthetics were not then, and aren’t now, a high municipal priority—as evidenced by the criticism of the time. Harper’s Weekly once wrote about the library, “The first impression made upon the mind on entering this hall is the immense capacity for storing books in its five tiers of alcoves, and then the eye is attracted and gratified by its graceful and carefully studied architecture …”

It seems backward, and dismayingly utilitarian, to note the “immense capacity” first and the “graceful” design second—by that logic, the world’s warehouses and hangars rate among our architectural marvels. But maybe they do; we won’t know for sure until we start tearing them down.

The Cincinnati Library’s Flickr collection hosts even more photographs of the building—they’re much easier to digest if you pretend it’s still standing. Read More »

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