The Daily

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Signage, Segel, Cerebral Kisses

August 28, 2015 | by

Ed Ruscha, Standard, Amarillo, Texas (detail), 1962, black-and-white photograph.

Katherine Silver’s translation of Dinner, by the Argentinian novelist César Aira, found its way to me earlier this week, and I’ve since raced through it. It’s a slender, wacky fun house of a novel—featuring peptide-craving cadavers and intricate wind-up toys, among other oddities—and yet it begins at the most ordinary of places: the dinner table. There our sixty-something-year-old bachelor (who still lives with his mom) sits, having surrendered to an evening of drab gossip with a friend. Soon, and without much warning, Aira tosses us into a zombie-infested town where the dead crawl out of their graves to suck the endorphins from the brains of the living, culminating in what he tenderly calls the “cerebral kiss.” Aira writes with imagination and pith; in an interview with Bomb magazine, he told María Moreno, “In my work everything is invented, and I can go on inventing indefinitely.” I hope he does. —Caitlin Youngquist

Ed Ruscha has always been enigmatic about his photographic work; he has called it a hobby, despite the fact that he has produced a number of photo books (now rare and highly prized), including the famous Twentysix Gasoline StationsVarious Small Fires, and Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Those books have even inspired a book of their own, the recent Various Small Books, which catalogues other artists’ riffs on and homages to Ruscha’s volumes. And now I’ve discovered a photo book about Ruscha’s photographs and photo books—the aptly titled Ed Ruscha, Photographer. Somewhere between wanting to be a cartoonist and a commercial artist and becoming a painter, Ruscha fit in a side interest in photography. The book features not only his hymns to repetition and the midcentury American landscape but also his very early snapshots (taken Europe in 1961) and his more recent photographs, which attest to his abiding interest in highway signage. There is also a smattering of color work—strange, often red-stained still lifes involving liquids and food. Think Marilyn Minter crossed with Takeshi Murata put through an Ed Ruscha filter. —Nicole Rudick
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Staff Picks: Robot Maids, Airships, Geocities

August 21, 2015 | by

From the cover of Past Futures.

Many of the past’s technological prophesies seem so quaint today—nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners, urban transportation via zeppelins, clean car emissions, robot maids—and sometimes I’m not sure there’s intelligent life on this planet, much less another one. But I’m heartened by the new book Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travels, and Postwar Art of the Americas. It served as the catalogue to a show at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art earlier this year, and part of its aim is corrective: though the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the space race, they didn’t have a monopoly on exploring imagined worlds and ideas. Artists and writers in Latin America in the 1960s and seventies were also giving thought to what might be. Mexican David Alfaro Siqueiros imagined the cosmic landscape in paintings like Earth as seen from the stratosphere. Argentineans Ana Kamien and Marilú Marini choreographed a dance spectacle called Marvila the marvelous woman vs. Astra the super sneak from Planet Ultra and her destructive monster. One of my favorites is Paraguayan Carlos Colombino’s Cosmonaut, made from oil on carved wood, in which a spaceman’s face looks like it’s being sucked out, tentacle-like, from his helmet. It’s at once elegant and frightening, old and new—like the future itself. —Nicole Rudick

There’s an unexpected coup thirty minutes into Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond. The protagonist—Graham Dorrington, an aeronautical engineer who’s brought his latest airship to Guyana for its inaugural launch—is suddenly and irrevocably overshadowed by Mark Anthony Yhap, a local who’s been hired to help with the project. You can sense it coming. Dorrington’s enthusiastic affect, while endearing, has begun to spoil, and into the film’s growing protagonistic void steps a new—and more true—Herzogian hero. Gazing up at the airship and reclining in a clear-plastic inflatable armchair, Yhap delivers a Dude-esque monologue that completely refocuses the film. And, improbably, his appeal only grows from there: subsequent scenes depict his love for his red rooster and his habit of looking out at Kaieteur Falls through a single droplet of water. (Here, again, he delivers another of his unforgettable lines.) The film might not be Herzog’s greatest work, but Yhap alone makes it worth watching. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Yhap

From The White Diamond.

The Internet, as it matured, was bound to long for its low-tech past. For those who grew up on dial-up, it’s been fascinating to watch the growing nostalgia for the Web of the nineties; what began as a couple of wistful listicles has exploded into an art form, one that critiques the branded monotony of social media by remembering the alarums and excursions of simpler times. Last year, Paul Ford’s tilde.club invited users to unshackle themselves from the tedium of Facebook by building simple, custom-programmed homepages that recalled the unpretentious spirit of early university Web sites; Windows 93 emulated the unstable, rough-edged aesthetic of Microsoft at its peak; and now comes Cameron’s World, a sprawling digital collage that comprises more than seven hundred gifs and graphics rescued from the defunct Yahoo! GeoCities community, which was, in its way, the original social network. Though it’s easy to dismiss as a mere novelty, the collage, designed by the artist Cameron Askin, is a meticulous and weirdly affecting memento: it hearkens back to “a time when a website really was a ‘site,’ ” as Askin told Hyperallergic. “A homepage was thought of as a second ‘home.’ There’s more of a spatial sense to the online world.” Compare that to today, when controlled environments like Facebook “iron out many of the wilder intricacies of personal taste that used to define self-expression on personal homepages.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Cavewomen, Contentlessness, Crawfish Étouffée

August 14, 2015 | by

From the cover of Scattered at Sea.

This week, in anticipation of sending files to our printer, I’ve mostly been reading the work that will make up our Fall issue. But I’ve snuck moments to read from Amy Gerstler’s new collection, Scattered at Sea. Gerstler’s poems are witty and direct, informal but also decisive. She seems to be thinking about things that other people aren’t thinking about—or they are thinking about them but don’t take notice of the fact. So we have “On Wanting to Be Male,” in which she “Lusted after their sprint speed, briefcases, Tahitian aftershave, crew cuts, blue nuts, thrusty cutlasses” instead of the “undulating, oft-colonized potential baby cave” of the “female model.” Elsewhere, she imagines herself as a cavewoman who “Can’t keep cave clean” and has “Tender feeling for baby mammoth as we eat him.” There are moments of sublimity, too, as when she describes a sunset as “a cocktail of too many boozes / she’d like to switch off / via remote control / but there’s no antidote / for celestial events.” And when she says of the early Greek philosophers, “getting a lot of the science right /  While still pawing through entrails to divine the future,” I feel the distance between then and now shrink to almost nothing. —Nicole Rudick

SpeechwriterBarton Swaim’s memoir The Speechwriter is about his time working for Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina—but Sanford’s name never appears in print, which helps the book to shrug off the lurid connotations of political tell-alls. There’s actually nothing scandalous in The Speechwriter: it’s a sober, lucid, funny story about language and its fraught relation to statesmanship. Early on, Swaim learns that what the governor wants from him isn’t well-honed rhetoric—it’s logorrhea, a torrent of verbiage designed to conceal the total absence of content at the heart of the gubernatorial body. “Sometimes,” he writes, “I felt no more attachment to the words I was writing than a dog has to its vomit.” In the extent of its dysfunction, Sanford’s office seems like something out of an Armando Iannucci show, and Swaim allows himself to feel cynical about it, but never inhumane or Orwellian. In fact, unlike nearly every book of its kind, The Speechwriter at its core is sensitive and apolitical: Swain just wants to understand why we so often insist on mangling the language.Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Staff Picks: Baseball Cards, Barbarian Days, Blow-up Dolls

August 7, 2015 | by

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Cesare Paverse.

In the evenings, I’ve been reaching for Cesare Paverse’s 1936 debut collection of poetry, Hard Labor, translated from the Italian in 1976 by William Arrowsmith. Finished in exile in the small Calabrian village of Brancaleone, the book is haunted by disenchantment and a sort of muted longing. Pavese’s language is often plain, though nonetheless striking. His poems are short—few run over a page and a half­—but they read like stories. He takes us into the fields, where frost “murder[s] the wheat”; into the bedroom, where “[the girls] know how to love. They know more than the men”; to dinner. There’s a cat in heat, a waking country strumpet, a drunk whom he imagines fumbling into the sea. The ease with which Pavese kernels these small narratives into every one of his poems has left me in awe, wondering how his countless other works could have followed such a debut. Here are a few of my favorite lines from “Two Cigarettes”: “... If I come up to her room, / the woman whispers to me, she’ll show me a snapshot of him— / tanned and curly-headed. He shipped on dirty tramps / and kept the engines clean. But I’m better-looking.” —Caitlin Youngquist

War_So_Much_War-front_largeI managed to get my hands on an advance copy of War, So Much War, the first English translation of Mercè Rodoreda’s final novel, whose original Catalan version was published in 1980. The last shall be first, I guess: I’ve never read any Rodoreda until now, and hadn’t heard of her until last month, when my sister practically hurled a story of hers at my head. (I didn’t get to it.) So far the book has proven itself a weird but entirely bewitching introduction to the writer. The story follows Adrià Guinart, a teenaged boy who leaves his home in Barcelona at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, forging an errant path through the Catalonian countryside, making glancing and baffling contact with the fighting. More than anything, it’s a medieval romance. The first clue is the novel’s elliptical title (in Catalan: Quanta, Quanta Guerra…), which suggests romance’s cumulative, episodic, ongoing form. Sure enough, the plot is mostly a list of encounters. But romance is as much about discreteness as it is ongoingness, and each of the book’s short, reliably surreal chapters is like a small, beautiful stone. What is astonishing is that Rodoreda writes without visible contempt for her form—a brave stance, considering that the Western novel arguably had its genesis in the ridicule of medieval romance. But the farther I get into War, So Much War, the more I realize that Rodoreda’s form is the only one suited for her subject: the interruptions, the absurdities, the frivolities of war. —Oliver Preston
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Staff Picks: Local News, Livid Librarians, Loving It All

July 31, 2015 | by

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A still from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

When Ingrid Sischy died last week, most obituaries remembered her primarily as the editor of Interview, which she was, for eighteen years. But I’ve always thought of her as an ex-editor of Artforum, which she ran for most of the eighties. That decade saw a profound change in what was considered art, how it would be exhibited, and how it would be discussed in, among other places, the most important art magazine of the day—and Sischy, the first woman editor of Artforum, was the right man for the job. I’m grateful to our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, for sending me Janet Malcolm’s magnificent “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a two-part article on Sischy and Artforum and the art world that appeared in The New Yorker in 1986. In the process of profiling Sischy, Malcolm provides generous sketches of the magazine’s earlier years as well as the concerns of Sischy’s day, including the “trial” of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the “Primitivism” show at MoMA. Sischy’s fair-mindedness and originality as an art editor come to the fore, but so does the silliness of art-world kerfuffles and the startling differences between generations and modes of thought. Malcolm, for instance, reproduces a very pissy response by the critic Barbara Rose in which she decries Sischy’s Artforum as a “media magazine” and pits her cohorts, who were “all very impressed by Wittgenstein and by Anglo-American philosophy,” against Sontagian cultural permissiveness, in which “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all.” —Nicole Rudick

k10442One of the many perceptive essays in The Meaning of the Library (it doesn’t beg to be taken to the beach, I know) is Laura Marcus’s “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery,” which finds compelling motifs in movie scenes set in libraries. On film, it seems, our libraries are presented with curious regularity as mazes (Hitchcock’s Blackmail), haunted repositories of secrets (Ghostbusters, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase), dusty Egyptological tombs (Alain Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde), or utopias of knowledge (Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire). “It is striking,” Marcus writes, “how so many films have taken up these questions of order and of mystery or confusion, as well as ideas of haunting in relationship to the book and the library.” She finds intriguing outliers, too, such as 1932’s Forbidden, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s bitter small-town librarian, having endured insults from local children, says, “I wish I owned this library … I’d get an axe and smash it to a million pieces, then I’d set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burned.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Staff Picks: Buses, Basements, Boots, Bed-and-Breakfasts

July 24, 2015 | by

Spacesuits

Space suits.

I finally got my hands on a copy of Spacesuits, an illustrated history of the protective clothing worn by space explorers, from the earliest designs in the 1930s to the universally recognizable suits worn during the Apollo missions. The book, with its clinically detailed photographs and methodical descriptions of suits, helmets, gloves, and boots, is surprisingly enthralling; one doesn’t expect vacant clothing to so easily assert its own cultural significance. What’s also surprising are the immense efforts required to preserve these suits—which, it turns out, are among the most fragile items in the Smithsonian’s collection. For some rather timely evidence, look no further than the Kickstarter campaign launched this week by the Smithsonian—with a $500,000 goal—to better document, display, and preserve the space suit worn by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I have copies of most of Dubravka Ugresic’s books, and all of them are heavily dog-eared; flip to any page, and it’s more likely than not that several sentences are underlined. I suspect my various notations are due to the fact that Ugresic pulls no punches, and so reading her work—especially her nonfiction—is like having it all laid out for you. And by “it,” I mean, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “life, the universe and everything.” The editors of Music & Literature have given over a third of their latest issue to Ugresic, and my copy of the magazine is already thoroughly dog-eared and underlined. Ugresic’s writing is radical, accessible, aggressive, pungent, and funny, and she is one of the most unique writers in exile at work today—and one of the best writers, period. In an interview in the issue with Daniel Medin, she explains that “as an outsider I was free to shape my own literary taste, to pick my own literary traditions, to build my own system of literary values.” She is quick to add, however, that “going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.” —Nicole Rudick

nextnextlevelHaving just returned from a two-week tour in which my band played for many a small crowd in many a dank basement—see photo below—I approached Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level with some trepidation. It, too, concerns musicians, small crowds, and dank basements: that is, it concerns “the problem of making art in the twenty-first century.” Neyfakh tells the story of his friend Juiceboxxx, a white rapper who’s pursued his craft on the fringes of DIY culture for more than a decade. Juiceboxxx, whose name belies his creative energy, tours constantly, publishes ceaselessly, and self-promotes relentlessly. But what’s the point, really? As he tells an interviewer, “When you fucking kind of have this identity based on this totally absurd premise—like, where do you go if you want to stop doing it, man? Like, where do you go?” As someone who’s poured time and energy into a band called Vulture Shit, I ask myself these questions a lot. Neyfakh’s perceptive, thoughtful book may not make them easier to answer, but it’s a much-needed balm: a funny, broad-minded, enchanting reflection on the intersection of art and commerce. You’ll find no better account of what it’s like to make music outside the mainstream in 2015. —Dan Piepenbring
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