Yes, this post is all youtube videos of me dancing at Burning Man. Deal.
Yes, this post is all youtube videos of me dancing at Burning Man. Deal.
First off, I should say that I appear in this book as a model.
Todd Hido‘s Excerpts from Silver Meadows (Nazraeli Press 2013) describes what might be a recognizable place, geographically speaking, to anyone familiar with midwestern suburbia. Hido has taken as inspiration his old neighborhood in Kent, Ohio. Far from being a paean to place, however, the Silver Meadows of the book is more an amalgam of memories retouched and distorted by time, and luridly-painted settings for imagined narratives. Houses and untended yards appear as they would in memory, through fogged or rain-streaked windshields dappled with sun spots. Lonely, bald trees stand silhouetted against goth-grim empty flatlands, as darkness creeps into the frame from the edges. Women appear and reappear in altered dress and coiffure connoting different eras. Hido himself is present, in a blurred-over yearbook photograph from early adolescence.
Hido has said that the images are not, individually or as a series, autobiographical, and that even the scattered objects from his own life, including family photos and a newspaper clipping of his varsity footballer father, are only there to “contaminate the artifice” of the staged scenes of his own creation. But this denial of Silver Meadows as some sort of personal history seems disingenuous. The inclusion of personal objects in the series invites us to infer that the collection as a whole is at least impressionistically autobiographical, and certain characters, some real and some fictitious or possibly composite, take on a real vitality. His father emerges as a fearsome figure, appearing in his football uniform in one image and in another, holding Hido’s brother in one arm and a keg in the other, in a spread that also includes an image of a wall with three holes punched through it. Of course, it doesn’t matter — who cares if it is or isn’t “about” Hido? — except that it means one might scratch one’s head when one comes to the women — and there are pages and pages of them, and many different ones, but who all seem to be employed and portrayed for the same purpose. Hardly any of them are dressed, many of them are on a bed or in the back seat of a car, or slouching against the wood-look paneling. They all seem sexually available, whether from desperation or apathy. Some are optimistically made-up and lingeried, but all are photographed without glamour, gamely attempting their best Hustler poses on dowdy woven cushions or in cheap hotel rooms with dirty carpets and merciless cheap hotel room lighting. Set as they are, many in fold-out spreads, amongst the pages that can resemble a Hido family scrapbook, these different but thematically interchangeable women might cause one to wonder at the implication that his straw-haired and bespectacled youth in the Ohio suburbs was populated by this improbable parade of nubile women spreading their cheeks for his benefit.
But ok, take it for granted that the superfluity of females and their shabby surroundings don’t represent actual experiences from Hido’s life, and that he never intended to imply that they did, despite having juxtaposed them with pictures of himself and his family in a project named after the street he grew up on. The scenarios are drippingly suggestive, not just of sex but of every regrettable, even disastrous, situation you can imagine involving sex and its pursuit (every situation except love, that is) — one cannot accuse Hido of not knowing how to stage a compelling scene. It’s clear why his work is so often described as “cinematic.” One spread features photographs of two characters (“played” by the same model). One recalls the wild girl from high school, who climbs into a car and lies in the backseat, drinking out of a paper bag-covered bottle. The other, a smartly-dressed and undressed adult, peeks out from a dainty headscarf in one photograph, and bends in sheer panties over a naked mattress in another. There is also in this spread a found vintage photograph of a totaled car. Silver Meadows is full of image pairings like this, that hint at disaster but never admit to a plot. This is the great seductive power of the book; it creates an atmosphere of a great crime or horror story — the clenched sphincter of suspense and the keening aftermath — without any of the satiating details. Contributing to this atmosphere is Hido’s use of color (beautiful beyond the dreams of Winsor & Newton), Hitchcock lighting and economy of detail. There is often a single object or prop that focuses the attention like a clue: a string of pearls, a receiver off its hook, a child’s tricycle lying on its side against a bare wall, a gnomic-looking fluffy cat.
But as in so many horror films, the women of Silver Meadows seem to be little else than agents and victims of disaster, and their salient characteristic is their sexuality.
If the women in these images are fictions, or liberal extrapolations from real women he knew, that is actually more troubling than interpreting the collection as a not-quite credible version of Hido’s life. It means that while the modern progressive axiom is that women can be anything, Hido chooses for his women to be just one thing. Hido was born and raised to adulthood in an era with women’s lib well underway, when women were noisily proclaiming the multifariousness of their abilities and rejecting the narrow scope their society had traditionally allowed them. He works in a field in which he no doubt interacts with talented, formidable, surprising, even oddball women on a daily basis. Yet with what one can presume is a vast and nuanced imagination to play with, he chooses to envision and portray women as these clichés, and ones from a particularly bleak vista in our cultural landscape, at that. The “woman as sex object” trope is a trope because it’s been done and done and done, and we call it a trope instead of something loftier like “motif” or “archetype” or even “tradition,” because sophisticated people of both genders recognize its paltriness and are rightly tired of it. It doesn’t take a prude to find something spiritually debilitating about the glut of sameness in Hido’s women, their sameness to these tropes that are relentlessly flogged in our culture despite cries against women’s objectification, their sameness to each other, as if a change of wig and panty color will distinguish the humanity in one woman from that of the next. One can’t but note the sameness even to women in Hido’s other projects: the female inhabitants of Silver Meadows also share that sameness with the ones in his Between the Two (Nazraeli 2006) series, and even with the model (also cast in Silver Meadows) in One Day (Kehrer Verlag, 2011). In the former, the coloring and lighting are mellower, the setting seems more modern, and there isn’t the shadow of violence that colors Silver Meadows and infuses the book with its considerable drama, but these could be the same women — naked or almost naked, mostly looking vulnerable or bored or ready for or resigned to whatever sex act one might propose, however grisly. Even Hido’s Instagram feed (possibly the platform’s most depressing), repeats it. And one has to remind oneself that it’s not that the women these characters are based on (however loosely), or the models themselves, are the same or even similar; it’s that Hido for some reason wants to see them that way. And not just in Silver Meadows, but, apparently, everywhere.
It turns the book into a grandiose memento masturbatori, a chronicle of a still-adolescent fixation shaped by the hand-me-down prurience of B-film kitsch, locker-room anecdotal one-upsmanship and the magazines one hides under the mattress until finally moving out of the basement.
And yet one can’t really fault Hido for his obsessions. After all, whose business is it to tell an artist what or how to think — if this troubling spectacle is what’s in his soul crying to be let out, well, then, so be it. But one might wonder why this work is as applauded as it is within the art world. It’s been decades since Hollywood has been able to portray women in such a simplistically obscenified way, even in corny genre films, without significant blowback. Neither could a “serious” contemporary writer get away with peopling his fiction with such one-dimensional characters without garnering verbose accusations of sexism from within his field. Fashion is in a continual battle between its own racking compulsion to exploit female insecurities and opposing forces intending to protect both the women working in the industry and the legions of women susceptible to their sometimes malign influence. In other industries, an artist dealing in the reduction and objectification of women stokes controversy (even while making plenty of money at it), and risks a diminution of his reputation as, well, a serious artist. But in the world of fine art, you can do the same and your work will sell for thousands of dollars and you will be regarded as one of the great practitioners in the artform and the top brass at the country’s most prestigious photography galleries will promote your work in magazines and elsewhere.
This has all been a bit harsh. But consider Silver Meadows‘s women as juxtaposed with its houses and landscapes. You’ll never look out a rain-spattered car window again without wishing you could see what Hido sees through it. He’s a poet of muddy driveways and peeling clapboard. Silver Meadows’s naked trees, snowswept hills and lonely decrepit tract housing, all supernaturally dark, vivid and familiar, elicit a deeper ache than mere nostalgia. He’s taken a setting that we think we know, the cliché of the tattered suburban Midwest, and shown a hidden world that the clichés haven’t begun to approach. Every tiretrack in the snow, abandoned chair in the weeds, the fierce light shining out of an unassuming home in the foggy night, seems to have not only a story to tell, but an epic of lost joys and tragedies.
But Hido infuses these inanimate objects with more humanity than he finds and reveals in the living women he photographs. What if he as diligently avoided cliché in his depictions of women as he does in his depictions of houses, cars, trees, street signs, the ground, the sky, etc.? What if he looked at a woman and considered that she might be nearly as interesting and complex as a broken chair?
I’ve generalized here — there’s one photograph of a woman, other than the occasional “found” one, that doesn’t fit with my assessment of the rest. It’s the one Hido made of me. This isn’t due to anything special I did, except possibly that he knew I wanted to be depicted differently from what he may or may not know are informally referred to in the local photo community as “Hido Girls.” Probably not even that, as he directed the shoot down to every detail, from where I looked, to the expression on my face, to where I placed my hand (and, I should point out, conducted a sitting that was spotlessly professional, friendly and fun). It’s a close-up, one of the very few portraits in the book in which the model is not looking into the camera. I’m staring “offscreen” with what could be fear at what might happen or horror at something that has happened already. What’s interesting about the photograph isn’t that I’m not half-naked or splayed out on a bed or some awful couch, although that does set it apart from the majority of Silver Meadows‘s portraits. It’s that while the other women seem to exist as supporting props (“character” implies more dimension than he gives them) in someone else’s experience, the effect of my portrait is to draw the reader into my own experience. Whatever is to be found out about me must be sought in my eyes; my body and its possible uses are simply not available for consideration. I’ll never tell what I was thinking at the moment Hido released the shutter, but the image offers the reader nothing else but to imagine what that was.
What other portrait of a woman in Hido’s repertoire would one look at and wonder what she was thinking? There might be a few, but it doesn’t seem like that is ever the point with “Hido Girls.” This would be fair enough if the vision of the feminine that Hido offered departed from stereotype, but it doesn’t. Why is it left to an obscure art reviewer to point this out when it should be clear, when it should be ballsmackingly obvious to anyone with any regard for the way women are portrayed in this or any field? For a photographer of Hido’s obvious talent and stature, one who, no doubt, has friends and colleagues with both discernment and influence (on him and in the industry), one hopes that somebody will steer him to rethink his artistic relationship with the female, even if market forces never do.
Many of the images discussed in the above article were not available for reproduction in the press. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post, July 31, 2013.
The American painter George Bellows is widely remembered for his early masterpiece, Stag at Sharkey’s (1909), a painting that represents a particularly American moment in art (one cannot imagine a French movement calling itself the “Ashcan School” ). Its depiction of a casual, democratic amalgam of high and low classes, unchecked criminality, bald financial opportunism, and exalted violence rendered with bravura and rough strokes make it exemplary of America’s penchant to elevate self-definition to the status of mythmaking. The work’s likely kindred is Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), or the later films noir, or even the Group Theater’s populist agitprop of the 1930s. It’s the sort of painting, and Bellows is the sort of painter, that people describe as masculine. Even the artist’s name sounds like a Bronx cheer shattering the polite silence of a museum.
The Royal Academy of Arts’s Bellows retrospective of seventy-one works displays a wider range of the artist’s talents while simultaneously zeroing in on why Stag at Sharkey’s has become his chef-d’oeuvre. In his Excavation series (1907–08), which depicts the section of Midtown New York razed to prepare for the future Penn Station, Bellows paints the vast construction site like a wound, with minute, bug-like workers against the muddy snow. He evokes a sense of destruction later associated with the station, which, less than sixty years later, was itself razed, one of the country’s most infamous desecrations of a historical and architectural treasure. Bellows avoids sentimentality, however, leaving no references to the less grand victims of this project: the demolished apartment blocks that once stood on this spot or their displaced inhabitants.
He abandons such restraint in his World War I pieces, the subjects of which he often got from news stories and photography in publications such as Collier’s and the Bryce reports in the New York Times. These paintings lack the punch of other great war-themed artworks, like Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Third of May, in which the antagonists are absent or faceless and war itself is the enemy. In The Germans Arrive (1918), on the other hand, Bellows depicts German soldiers as caricatured brutes with high cheekbones and Hun-style helmets, reducing the work to mere propaganda.1
Bellows also painted more genteel subjects, periodically returning to portraiture, but he seemed always compelled to expose some ugliness, inherent or perceived, in his sitters. His early portraits of children, such as Frankie, The Organ Boy(1907) or Little Girl in White (Queenie Burnett) (1907), could be by John Singer Sargent if not for the subjects’ wonky eyes—the overly black pupils of both children—and the clumsy construction of Frankie’s face. When Bellows resists this penchant for the grotesque, he seems to lose interest. His depiction of the relaxed park visitors in A Day in June (1913) is lovely, but it’s also static; nothing seems to be going on, inwardly or outwardly, in these people’s lives. This artist, who could render flesh so ripe that one can practically smell the sweat off it, doesn’t do much more here than sketch the characters. (continue reading)
Do you go to the First Thursday Art Walks downtown? The First Thursday of every month (barring when holidays kick it to the following week, as the 4th of July did in this instance) sees many of the downtown galleries open an extra hour or two, and hosting the opening of whatever new show is up that period. The epicenter of it all is 49 Geary, home to some of the most respected art galleries in the city (and country). Tonight, Modernbook Gallery presents photographer Jamie Baldridge’s new series Almost Fiction, featuring his digitally-manipulated, surreal narrative photographs. Baldridge will also be at the gallery signing copies of the series’s book, published by Modernbook Editions. Robert Koch has the opening reception for photographer Joshua Lutz’s non-linear narrative of his own mother’s battle with mental illness, Hesitating Beauty. At Haines Gallery, there is the opening reception for Congolese artist Aimé Mpane’s portraits made with plywood, glue, and finishing tools that date to the Stone Ages, and which explore the lingering effects of the Belgian Congo’s colonial history in A Dual Perspective. Today is also the last day one can see Tahiti Pehrson’s circadian rhythm-inspired cut-paper sculptures at K. Imperial Fine Art. A circadian rhythm is any biological process produced or synthesized within the organism or system where the internal physiological or behavioral events match the oscillation of 24 hours. You don’t want to miss that!
In addition to the openings and the ongoing shows that can make the First Thursday Art Walk a bit overwhelming, gallerists, curators, and even interns are often introducing the work and are available to answer questions. These are the people who know the work and its context better than anyone, and discussions with them are often as educative as they are enjoyable. Miniscule plastic cups of wine are also on offer, in case you need (very little) liquid courage to approach them.
Where? 49 Geary at Market
One of the effects of skyrocketing rent in any city is that the surrounding cities become cooler. Inexpensive space attracts artists who fill that space with work they can no longer afford to present in a city increasingly ransomed to luxury condo developers and corporate chains (Hello, Liz Claiborne).
When San Francisco was cheaper, it was more known for its artists and writers, and Oakland, perhaps unfairly, for gun crime and blight. Now San Francisco is a city dominated by tech money rather than its former Bohemianism, and the Oakland Art Murmur, at least in terms of sheer exuberance, wipes the floor with any equivalent art event happening in what we arrogantly term “The City.” It’s been decades since one could imagine, for instance, a restaurant large enough for a mid-sized crowd and space for both dancers and a live band — and that was run by people who thought it would be financially viable to regularly present lesser-known ethnic dance forms set to acoustic instrumentals and singing in foreign languages. There is actually one restaurant in Hayes Valley, with both interest and space to accommodate such events, whose plans are rumored to have been felled by a single grumpy neighborhood resident who complained to the city that he didn’t want his ‘hood becoming “another North Beach.” To this we say, “We should live so bloody long.” Ah well, San Francisco, we can’t win for losin’.
Well, San Mateo has it: On the third Friday of every month, Lebanese restaurant Tannourine hosts an evening of bellydancing, featuring FatChanceBellyDance and guests, often accompanied by live music by local North African band Helm. FatChance arose out of a Bay Area dance dynasty stretching back to the ’40s. Jamila Salimpour collected folk dances and finger cymbal patterns from Morocco, Egypt and Turkey, while dancing in nightclubs in Los Angeles and her own Bagdad Cabaret on Broadway here in San Francisco. In those days successful clubs could import dancers from these other countries, and so Jamila was able to learn certain steps from other dancers who got them straight from “the source.” She developed a vocabulary for the basic movements and a teaching method to break them down for the American student, and began to teach classes in Berkeley in the ’50s. In 1968, she formed “Bal Anat” with her students, presenting the various folkloric dances and costuming at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
Salimpour’s daughter Suhaila now helms Bal Anat, but one of her other students, (and this author’s mother), Masha Archer, branched off to form her own group in the early 1970s, the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe. While she shared Salimpour’s love of bellydance, she resisted what she felt was her teacher’s pessimism regarding the danceform ever having a life outside the nightclub and occasional theme festival (after all, even in the Middle East and North Africa, it had existed exclusively in nightclubs for decades and was not an artform its seminal cultures cared to preserve as anything but male entertainment. The original bellydancers, the Ouled Naïl, were Algerian Berbers who performed the danse du ventre for the French male colonists).
Archer was also uninterested in authenticity for authenticity’s sake, and so described what she did as primarily an American style of dance derived from Middle Eastern and African folkloric roots. She altered steps to suit her taste and to make them, she felt, appropriate for the modern Western woman. She eliminated floorwork (basically what it sounds like, movements done on the knees or back) and emphasized balletic posture and fluid arm movement. She also furthered the dance’s reach by having her troupe perform at events that didn’t normally host Middle Eastern, or even any, dance performance. Her troupe danced at gallery openings, book fairs, city hall, the Cinco de Mayo parade, the San Francisco Photography Fair, even photographer Imogen Cunningham’s memorial (Archer’s own husband was the late photographer Charles Homer Archer), all part of her design to pull the dance out of the nightclub and into its rightful place as one of the great performance arts.
Another factor in Archer’s quest to create distance between the dance and the nightclub was her emphasis on the chorus, rather than having a lone woman dance by herself, as was customary in the clubs. The chorus is a group of “backup” dancers onstage performing basic movements behind the featured soloists and duets. Believing that the audience could be taught how to regard the dance by the dancers onstage, that seeing the chorus support and respect the featured dancers would influence the audience to do the same, Archer surrounded her featured dancers with a half-circle of supporting dancers, or the “tribe.” Importantly, Archer also continued Salimpour’s tradition of dancing in folk-inspired costuming, rather than the bare legs and sequins of the nightclub acts. Wearing pantaloons, hipscarves, and piles and piles of ethnic jewelry, the San Francisco Dance Troupe looked like something out of an Art Nouveau fantasy.
Archer’s troupe disbanded in 1986, and one of her students, Carolena Nericcio, started teaching, initially, simply to have people to dance with. Inevitably, she and her students started to perform. Nericcio and several of her dancers are heavily tattooed, and at first danced at tattoo shows and other festivals. Bellydance still had not shaken its more lubricious associations, and Nericcio had to endure predictably tactless questions such as, “Can I get a private dance?” and eventually named her troupe for her reply, “Fat chance.” She also began assembling the moves she inherited from Archer (and indirectly, from Salimpour) into a system that enabled dancers to better communicate with each other onstage, which ultimately allowed her to increase the repertoire of movements.
Bellydance (at least this style) is an improvisational dance, and under Archer’s tutelage, dancers had to become so attuned to each other that they could just sense when one movement would change to another. Nericcio established a standard group formation, which placed the “leader,” at the front left of a trio or quartet of dancers. She also created a language of cues, which could be as conspicuous as a plunge of the arms or as subtle as the making — or breaking — of eye contact, and with which the leader could signal to the other dancers a change from one movement to another, or to a variation on the same movement, or a rearrangement of the group from which another dancer could assume the lead position.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the codification of these rules and signals expanded the improvisational opportunities. With the necessity for telepathic abilities minimized, dancers could perform more complicated movements and combinations. The leader could signal the”Egyptian Basic” (a sort of emphatic, hip-swishing walk with raised arms) with a set number of spins on the end, or cue the front row to change places with the back while shimmying, and even without rehearsal, the dancers could perform these steps as a unified whole. In fact, some people who see FatChance perform are surprised to learn that what they witness is not choreographed beforehand. Each performance is a unique work of art invented in the moment, a phenomenon made possible by the silent language of cues and signals, assertion and deference, between dancers. Nericcio has also reinstated floorwork (to great effect) and added movements from flamenco, kathak and other belly dance styles to her version of bellydance, which she has labeled “American Tribal Style.”
American Tribal Style has become so popular that Nericcio and her certified trainers (often members of FatChance itself) travel around the world teaching workshops in it. Satellite bellydance companies have formed on nearly every continent led by enthusiasts drawn to this dance’s mix of ancient roots, modern sensibility, and cooperative spirit. (continue reading about third Fridays at Tannourine and see more images and videos of American Tribal Style Bellydance here)
The first several hours I spent in SFMOMA’s Garry Winogrand retrospective, I thought writing about it would be easy: it seemed like each of the 300 images offered such imaginative fodder that the only problem would be to avoid long-windedness. But eventually I realized that that approach would be pointless, for the very reason that Winogrand’s work, while never simple or obvious, isn’t exactly opaque, either. They’re not the sort of images that one blinks at for a while before concluding that art is incomprehensible and wandering off in a state of alienation. The confluence of aesthetic and dramatic elements in each image is incredibly engaging — however one interprets them. What is the black man thinking as he stares into the eyes of the dehorned rhino in “Bronx Zoo, New York,” made in the turbulent year of 1963? What is the rhino thinking, for that matter? What is the tuxedoed man shouting as he drives his slick car in 1959′s “New York”? Or is he singing along with the radio? Is there someone just out of sight in the passenger seat that he’s shouting at or is he just taking advantage of a moment to himself in his car to enjoy a good scream? Is it reading too much into the image of the suited man of late middle-age from 1960, to think that the angle at which his solid frame is set against that of the tall buildings around him, and the gesture of pulling his spectacles case out of his inside breast pocket (or replacing it?), together with the grimace on his face, combine to look nearly like the posture of a man clutching at his chest at the start of a heart attack? And that the seeming grimness of his solitary experience is amplified by the comparatively jolly, oblivious men chatting behind him?
Part of what’s delightful about the collection is deciphering these elements as if they were clues to a hidden storyline, and then marveling at the fact that there is no storyline; that these are just rich, spontaneous momentary scenes that Winogrand managed to recognize and capture in the moment of convergence. Taken together, one could posit that they create a storyline of sorts of the American middle-century. To that end, the exhibition is divided into three parts: “Down from the Bronx” concentrates on photographs he took in New York between 1950 and 1971, “A Student of America,” on photographs from the same decades taken during trips outside New York, and “Boom and Bust,” also outside New York, from 1971 to his death in 1984. The common line on Winogrand’s canon is that the darkening of his vision over the decades reflected the country’s growing disenchantment in the post-Nixon years. This is not quite persuasive as an explication of Winogrand’s practice, nor of his vast, mercurial subject. One might, for instance, object to the presumption that everyone should share the same view of America, that there was, in fact, this downward turn of mood starting in the ’70s. Well, yes, maybe for some people, but if you were black, or a feminist, or homosexual, or pro-choice, or anti-HUAC, you might have felt the opposite, and that it was rather the entrenched and legislated bigotries of the ’50′s that had been disenchanting.
This interpretation also disregards the presence of more troubling material in the New York years. But such examples, though rare, are stunning. In one image from 1960, a woman makes her way through the cold and driven snow down what looks to be one of the wide, brownstone-lined streets of Harlem. She is black and she appears to be poor: rather than a shawl, she’s wrapped around her head a neckscarf, which isn’t wide enough to cover the back of her head or neck, or even long enough to tie under her chin, so she’s fastened it with a safety pin. For an era when a certain fastidiousness with one’s toilette was customary, regardless of a person’s means, she seems strangely unkempt. Her scarf is sloppily hung, and her coat is missing a button. These bits of negligence echo a dejection in her face. She seems tired, sad, and is one of the few women Winogrand photographs at such proximity who does not even look up at him (notable because this was also an era before the ubiquity — and compactness — of cameras; surely she would have noticed the tall ginger with his lens trained on her?).
The opposite is also true for the later work. Who could fail to detect some humor in such images as 1975′s “Fort Worth,” in which a boy’s smooth round face and tiny eyes weirdly resemble that of the sheep standing next to him? Or in the likeness of smiles on the faces of the elephants drinking from their waterbucket in 1974′s “Austin”? Is the tipsy ebullience of the three ladies in (another) “Fort Worth” from 1974-77 any less authentic than that of the slightly more polished but still frisky couple at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951?
Neither is it clear that the pall Winogrand’s work took on over the years (if we concede that it did) says more about the country he tasked himself with describing than it does about him. It’s not so out-of-the-ordinary for an artist as he ages to pass through an idealism or at least an exuberant realism (which is how I’d describe Winogrand’s New York work) into a more somber realism, or even unabashed expressionism, regardless of time or place. The young Donatello sculpted jaunty young Davids in gleaming marble and shining bronze, but towards the end of his life carved a harrowed, harrowing, Magdalene Penitent out of poplar wood. Goya went from rather sassy royal portraits and The Naked Maja to nightmares like Saturn Devouring his Son and the Black Paintings. Winogrand had much less time to experience and document the disintegration of his Weltanschauung, dying young and suddenly at age 56. Nevertheless if his work changes in tone over the arc of his truncated career, it might be worth considering a less neat (and historically-selective) explanation than that “America went to s***, obviously, and so did his photographs.” (continue reading)
It’s hard not to give oneself over entirely to awe when regarding any of the great man-made wonders of the world. One wants to stare moist-eyed at these masterpieces and ponder the soaring ambition, ingenuity and perseverance of man, but there’s always that moment when the docent or catalogue informs you of the horrific human cost of the endeavor: slaves crushed under limestone blocks and blinded architects and the like. With the introduction of the unwelcome historical factoid, uttered apologetically or printed small in the footnotes, what should be monuments to man’s genius instead become ostentatious symbols of his cruelty.
On display through May 27th at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is “China’s Terracotta Warriors: The First Emperor’s Legacy,” featuring ten of said warriors as well as 110 other objects from the burial sites surrounding First Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb completed around 208 B.C.. Merging seven states into the first incarnation of a unified China, the First Emperor (whom I’ll henceforth refer to by his name, Zheng, rather than his title) oversaw innovations in architecture, plumbing and irrigation, and the standardization of script, measurements and currency. He abolished the old hierarchical feudal system and instituted one of prefectures and counties answerable to and controlled by the central government — which led to what should be but isn’t one of the most infamous mass book-burnings in history. He initiated construction on the Great Wall of China, which can be seen from space but still wasn’t his most spectacular project. His chef d’oeuvre was his own underground burial complex, a 40-year vanity project the size of four football fields and for which he corralled over 700,00 workers and a vast amount of resources and wealth. This is not just a tomb — his tomb is there, but has not been opened — the complex includes a scale replica of his palace, stables (with bronze model and real, sacrificed horses), an armory, a zoo with more animals, rivers of Mercury modeled after the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers, entertainment parks with musicians and acrobats, additional burial pits and cemeteries, all rigged along the perimeter with auto-triggered crossbows and arrows to shoot potential graverobbers.
The most dazzling excavation from the site, and the focus of this exhibit, is the terracotta army, 8,000 in number, and each slightly larger than lifescale and individually featured. Not one looks like another, either in physiognomy, costume or even coiffure. They represent a one-off burst of realism in Chinese art, unprecedented and thereafter discontinued (at least until the modern era). The fact that the museum can only present ten of them is unfortunate; undoubtedly much of their power lies in their great number. Examining photographs from the site invites one to imagine what it would be like to stumble in upon this vast, silent and fearsome crowd; it really is an army, and even without their original coloring, they are vividly lifelike. Whether standing with their weight seemingly centered on the balls of their feet, as if ready to sprint forward at any moment, or crouching with their (absent) arrows primed, there is a directness to their gaze that suggests their sculptors intended whoever beheld them to feel beheld by them as well. This makes sense, as the warriors had a more active purpose than simply to be admired; presumably anyone who made it past the rigged arrows and crossbows needed a good fright to deter them from the treasures within. Also, a king who believed immortality was achievable and that he had only to prepare for it, needed an armed guard in death as he did in life.
Compare the terracotta warriors to the Greco-Roman way of depicting soldiers: Polykleitos seemed more concerned with perfecting his figures’ Contrapposto (probably one of the less effective battle postures) than with creating figures that would incite the same fear that a real soldier would. The Borghese Collection’s “Fighting Warrior” stands with his legs splayed, his shield-bearing arm outstretched, his weapon-bearing arm preparing to riposte. It almost seems like he’s posed this way as an excuse for a flattering in-the-round presentation of his beautiful thighs. The Greeks, and their Roman successors, had a complex purpose in depicting warriors, to convey not only the virtues of warriors themselves but the ideals of Man: proportionality, grace, the brave life, the noble death. One can be drawn into their experience, as one is to, say, that of Dying Gaul (a personification of the fallen region), with his pained brow and vanquished mien. The terracotta warriors possibly have a less lofty purpose, as a literal stand-in for the real thing. Despite their uniquely-fashioned visages, they do not invite one to consider them as people, to wonder about their experience and their non-military personae. Instead, staring out with illusory alertness, they project: “There’s nothing to see here; turn around or get an arrow through the neck.” They are possibly some of the most accurate depictions of warriors in art if one considers what a warrior’s role is to the men and states that send him to war — not a human being that experiences, but a machine that functions. (continue reading)