On the Shelf
November 9, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in language and sensory perception: the verdict is in and English is a laughably inadequate language when it comes to describing scents. We must close the smell deficit, giving the olfactory its due in a mad rush of neologism. “In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself … the Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between twelve and fifteen dedicated smell words … ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bear cat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn … Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other ‘bloody smells that attract tigers.’ ”
- In her quest to compile a kind of contemporary ars moriendi, Robyn K. Coggins has taken an exhaustive survey of how people would like to die: “Sometimes I think getting sniped while walking down the street is the best way to go. Short, sweet, surprising; no worries, no time for pain. Sure, it’d be traumatic as hell for the people nearby, but who knows—your death might spark a social movement, a yearlong news story that launches media, legal, and criminal justice careers. What a death!”
- I can think of where not to die: in Gore Vidal’s pool, which has apparently fallen into disuse. “The pool was … filled with dead fish with bruised purple backs hovering beneath the dark green surface. Abandoned sun chairs lay by the side.” You can change all that, though. Vidal’s 10,500-square-foot property on the Amalfi coast, La Rondinaia, is for sale for a cool $21.1 million. Invite me over once you’ve fixed the place up. Don’t let me die in the pool.
- Far beyond the walls of the academy, poets like Tyler Knott Gregson are pouring their hearts out online, putting forth page after page of unvarnished verse. They’ve found that most coveted thing: a wide readership. Gregson’s new book of haiku has a first printing of a hundred thousand copies; he “belongs to a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce. These amateur poets are not winning literary awards, and most have never been in a graduate writing workshop … Their appeal lies in the unpolished flavor of their verses, which often read as if they were ripped from the pages of a diary … The rapid rise of Instapoets probably will not shake up the literary establishment, and their writing is unlikely to impress literary critics or purists who might sneer at conflating clicks with artistic quality. But they could reshape the lingering perception of poetry as a creative medium in decline.”
- In the late eighties, the artist Kembra Pfahler decided to sneak subversive commentary into the most accessible vehicle around: a rock band. “The first performance I ever did … was when I came home and looked around and there was nothing in the house except an egg. There wasn’t anything to use, I didn’t have a guitar, I had an egg. So I stood on my head and cracked an egg over it … I decided in 1989 to start a classic rock band … so I could slide the imagery into the consciousness of the viewer a little easier. This was The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black … The band allowed me to squeeze in all the strange images I’d been working on for all these years, what I now call my ‘manual of action,’ my own vocabulary of images: the sewn vagina; the egg piece; all of the costumes, like Abra Kedavour; the flowing anal bead shirt; the shark piece; the upside down Crucifix piece, where I hang upside down on the cross; the wall of vagina; the bowling ball piece. For the most part, the performances happened during the guitar solo, and were over before you knew what happened.”
November 6, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- If we’re going to gauge an artist’s success by the number of Twitter and Instagram followers she has, an aspirant artist can and should game the system: don’t wait for the followers, just go out and buy a bunch of fake ones. Constant Dullaart’s art is all about buying your following: “The bots are accepted as part of our social fabric, as long as they don’t spam us, right? But what actually happens to an art practice if you quantify the link between audience reception and market value? What is the quality of the followers, how many ‘managed’ or artificial identities are injected to increase market value? Many other artistic careers are justified in the press through their popularity on social media … My work was meant to comment on the value of audience quantification in the art world, in times when everything, even social relationships (now called social capital), can be defined in monetary terms.”
- Thirty years later, DeLillo’s White Noise is still the prophetic, funny, deathward-moving classic everyone wanted it to be: “White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue … in 1985, as the world accelerated toward an unrecognizable automated future and nuclear dread had become normalized, even the words Toyota Celica sounded like a prayer.”
- Today in poop jokes and the royal family: Isack van Ostade’s 1643 painting A Village Fair with a Church Behind has been a part of England’s royal collection since 1810. But this seemingly innocuous work contains the unthinkable: firm evidence that earlier generations of humankind defecated exactly as we do today. “As conservators began to clean the painting, they realized a bush in the painting’s right foreground was not original to the work. When they removed the bush, they discovered a squatting man relieving himself … Curators believe that the man was painted over in 1903 … Dutch artists often include people or animals answering the call of nature partly as a joke and partly to remind viewers of that crucial word ‘nature,’ the inspiration for their art. Queen Victoria thought the Dutch pictures in her collection were painted in a ‘low style.’ ”
- Roberto Calasso talks about his new memoir, The Art of the Publisher, and running the Italian publishing house Adelphi: “ ‘At the beginning, we were considered rather eccentric and aristocratic. Then, when we started to have remarkable commercial successes, we were accused of being too populist. That was curious because we were publishing exactly the same books … The word ‘information’ suffers from a kind of verbal inflation, which has confused the minds of lots of people. And that is really worrying. Not the simple fact of digitization, which I’m not scared of, but that in the mind of some people, these two terms conflate. But they are opposites, sometimes.”
- Pet names Nabokov had for his wife, Véra: “beloved insecticle … his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet … his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.” He wrote her hundreds of letters. She rarely wrote back.
November 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
- When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
- When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
- For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
- Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”
November 4, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The French artist Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, first published in 1983, is back in print. If you or I made a book about stalking and photographing a complete stranger, we would be cast out of our communities; when Sophie Calle makes one, it’s a minor masterwork. In 1980, she saw a man on the street and tried to photograph him—he eluded her. That night, she ran into him at a party. His name was Henri B., and he told her he was going to Venice. She decided to go, too. In Suite Vénetienne, “Calle spends thirteen days looking for and trailing Henri B. around the city … at last, she finds [him]—he’s been staying in a pensione a hundred meters from her own. She stands outside his hotel and watches as he comes and goes … The strength of the project comes from the interplay between Calle’s physical pursuit and her emotional remove. Calle doesn’t care for Henri B ... Yet proximity to her subject seems to create a kind of attachment. Calle dreams of Henri B., he ‘consumes’ her. She has high expectations of their encounters, then worries about displeasing him. They meet. She frets it was banal. She tries to rent his former hotel room. She envisions herself sleeping in his bed.”
- Beneath the chapel in St. Leonard’s Church in Worcestershire is a single skull, just one, lonely skull. Scuttlebutt has it that someone stole this little guy from Shakespeare’s tomb back in the eighteenth century. But we may never know if this skull is Shakespeare’s. And I don’t mean that rhetorically—we will actually probably never know, because the Church of England doesn’t want any DNA testing on the skull. In a seven-thousand word statement, some stuffed-shirt barrister guy “sided with prominent Shakespeare scholars who have rubbished the claims and concluded they read ‘like a piece of Gothic fiction’ … He said he had seen ‘no scholarly or other evidence that comes anywhere near providing any support for the truth of the story” and that there was “nothing whatsoever to link it to William Shakespeare.’”
- Later today we’ll share some exciting news about Lydia Davis. But first, in the name of public service, some not-so-exciting news. A copy of Davis’s Collected Stories—a copy from the NYU Library, no less—has gone missing. It was last spotted in North Brooklyn, outside Tony’s Pizza at Dekalb and Knickerbocker, near the B38 bus stop. Have you seen this book? Its cover is handsome, its spine thick, its borrower concerned.
- Today in comic-book news you didn’t know you cared about: two parodic, dystopian episodes of Judge Dredd are back in print. The comics, from 1978, depict a postnuclear America in which commercial culture has run amok, and they made lawyers squeamish: “In Burger Wars, Dredd finds a devastated middle America in thrall to the warring Burger Lords, modeled on Ronald McDonald and Burger King’s eponymous monarch, who capture the heroes and force them to live on burgers and shakes. In Soul Food, a Dr. Moreau–style genetic engineer living in the blasted wasteland has created mutated creatures based on mascots of American retail culture including the Jolly Green Giant and Michelin’s tire-man Bibendum … Ben Smith, head of books and comic books at Rebellion Publishing, said: ‘The most common question we have been asked at conventions over the years is “Will you be reprinting Burger Wars?” It’s a delight, and frankly a relief, to be able to finally say, Yes!’ ”
- Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, In Jackson Heights, is (really!) a riveting three-hour testament to a neighborhood’s civic life. “What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices … The discussions that he films involve such matters as fair labor practices, gentrification, the legal ramifications of urban gardening, the push for change in traffic-safety regulations, school redistricting, police harassment of gay and transgender bar patrons, fear of deportation, citizenship-test study, and the laws and norms to pass a taxi-driver test. In other words, the movie is about the very stuff of life … The problems that Wiseman finds are local, practical, intimate, but the emotions that he films are grand and tragic.”
November 3, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In 1929, William Seabrook published The Magic Island, an account of his travels in Haiti, and so introduced American readers to zombies, which soon came to dominate the cinema: “The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.”
- Knausgaard has at last hunkered down with Houellebecq’s Submission, which meant he had to read Huysmans’s Against the Grain, too—at his daughter’s gymnastics practice—which got him contemplating satire, ennui, political upheaval, and the nature of the sacred. He’s ready to tell you all about it. “When a person has grown up in a certain culture, within a certain societal system, it is largely unthinkable that that culture, that system, might be changed so radically, since everything in life—the beliefs instilled in us as children at home and at school, the vocations we are trained in and to which we later devote our labor, the programs we watch on TV and listen to on the radio, the words we read in newspapers, magazines and books, the images we see in films and advertising—occurs within the same framework, confirming and sustaining it, and this is so completely pervasive that to all intents and purposes it is the world, it is society, it is who we are. Minor modifications and adjustments take place … but total upheaval isn’t even a faint possibility, it is simply unimaginable, and therefore does not exist. And yet society’s total upheaval is what Submission depicts.” (Fingers crossed for a Houellebecq review of the next volume of My Struggle.)
- Subtlety? Fuck it. Maybe we need art that’s also blunt-force trauma, art that announces its intentions with no equivocation: “Because bluntness is also a virtue. When artists don’t muffle themselves in service of subtlety (or in fear of being called unsubtle), they kindle fervor and fire. When we dispense with subtlety, we’re rewarded with work that resonates in every seat in the theater, not just in the orchestra section. And the more a work has something important to convey, the more it should not be subtle … When we stop fussing over what’s too heavy-handed, we can also start piling on the pleasure, and grabbing straight for the heartstrings. When we don’t worry about taking the long way around, we gain an emotional directness that is more in tune with the way people actually feel. People’s emotions, after all, are not always subtle. They are not hidden under a blanket inside their souls. People feel things, strongly, and creators that underplay that are making it harder for their audiences to connect purely and viscerally to their work.”
- Filmmaking depends on a basic bit of magic: making real landscapes look like new places. The illusion can be shattered, however momentarily, by something as basic as recognition: when you see a location trying to pass as something (somewhere?) it isn’t, you see the whole apparatus of the movie industry coming out at you. “Seeing a locale you know intimately on screen gives you, much more than a flicker of recognition, a jarring effect that can sometimes prevent you from parsing the film’s internal landscape … Indeed, most of the ‘work’ imagining the geographical world of the film is done by the spectator, who must conjure up the unseen habitat from the slim shards of location the filmmaker divulges … In order to achieve this peculiar illusion, you need to privatize (or, failing that, eschew, by way of a studio set) the actual world—to tame reality into fiction, you must shut off streets (usually at a cost), place production assistants on street corners to keep curious bystanders out of the frame, you must painstakingly ensure continuity between takes and hope the messiness of the off-camera world does not become apparent on screen.”
- Pity the still-life painters: next to portraits and sweeping landscapes, the depiction of inanimate objects can seem like a frivolous pastime. But in America, the still-life tradition has given us “the history of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, the masses rather than the elite,” a new exhibition suggests: “At that moment in early American history when the young country began discovering not just the untamed wilderness to the West, but also the untamed elements of within democracy, still life spoke of more than just young men and flowers … ”
November 2, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Suspense, mystery, confusion, a certain contemplative je ne sais quoi … you can use ellipses for just about anything these days. Try ending your e-mails with them for a much-needed injection of professional ambiguity. And remember their roots: “Penny dreadful scribblers and yellow journalists adopted the mark wholeheartedly, entwining its brand with high melodrama, cheap commercialism, and camp … Adorno, noting the dots’ prevalence in comic books and trashy romance, argued that a ‘hack … must depend on typography to simulate … an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something [he] does not have’ … Some ellipses feel hammy and overwrought. But others allude to charged material with superlative restraint (as in Fitzgerald or Joyce). They can be gently mysterious … They convey the endless rovings of consciousness.”
- Today in rediscovered Expressionist dance costumes: there are these, which look to have come from a very forward-thinking children’s sci-fi featurette. Two dancers from Hamburg, Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, designed the costumes in the 1920s. “The dancers created twenty full-body costumes for performances between 1919 and 1924, all accompanied by avant-garde music, often composed by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt.” In 1924, Schulz shot Holdt and then herself, thus ensuring that their avant-garde costumes were tainted with bad memories and left in storage for many decades.
- As the notion of the “bookless library” wends its way from cheap joke to reality, James Gleick asks: Whither the library? “The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them … A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly.”
- The landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church lived in a mansion called Olana, which doubled as “a 3-D landscape artwork with more than five miles of carriage roads.” But what of its craftsmanship? A tour of Olana leaves one with more questions than answers: “We would learn that what was strange about this window, which appeared to be stained glass, was that its diamond-patterned grille was sagging at the edges; it was made of paper. ‘Church cared more about appearances than authenticity,’ we were informed. From the hall we filed into a narrow private study, where the walls were bordered with a script I thought was Arabic, but when I asked its meaning, I was told that it was nonsense Church invented, because he liked the way it looked … There was an empty easel with a palette; shelves of art supplies; a painting by the artist’s mentor, dim; a case of carved-stone artifacts collected on a trip to South America. ‘Some of those objects are authentic, others made for tourists,’ said the guide. ‘Church didn’t care.’ ”
- Most people went to Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage to dance. Bill Bernstein went to take pictures. His work stands as a vibrant document of the disco era, which he remembers for its inclusiveness: “On a typical night of shooting, Bernstein would arrive at a club at around eleven p.m. or midnight, never drinking, just wandering the dance floor and lounge areas looking for interesting subjects. ‘I would just sort of try to keep my eyes open, and stay there until I felt like I couldn’t do any more, or I was exhausted,’ he says. ‘The speakers were gigantic and the room would vibrate. Between the room vibrating with the noise and the lighting, which was constantly flickering and moving, after about four hours, I was drained.’ ”