Feckin Sale

Posted on Saturday, December 31, 2011, under ,

After spotting the sign I simply had to get into the shop, located in the heart of Kyoto’s shopping district. Whichever profit-minded skull dreamt the sign up certainly does not dream of Stevens’ ‘baboons and periwinkles’. And, judging by the goods (the leopard-patterned leotards, skirts, scarves etc), the clientele (twenty-something flirts donned in kindred mini-pants and platform shoes) and the glittery atmosphere (jazzy brightness, shop assistants pacing frantically about, Sex and the City playing in the corner), neither does the sizeable portion of Kyoto youth.  

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Christmas Somniloquist

Posted on Thursday, December 29, 2011, under

A Somniloquist

Christmas Eve, near midnight.
The room has fallen silent,
swallowed up by darkness
save for my make-believe face
lit by the laptop light.

I’m half-way through an article
Chinese Taking the World by Storm
when a sudden voice fills the room:
Let’s go out and play!, it says.
I know well where it came from.

I turn round, you’re fast asleep,
your faint-pink, chopped lips
briefly parted by something
dreamt, which shaped
that plunging sound.

The next morning you tiptoe
to the window, draw
the curtains to the bitter fact:
the urban roofs intact,
circumvented by snow.

December 25th, 2011

© Branko M.

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You Are Now Leaving Iraq

Posted on Monday, December 19, 2011, under ,


Who would’ve thought that a conversation about poetry could give you an answer about weapons of mass destruction!
                                Charles Duelfer, CIA, in National Geographic: Interrogating Saddam (2010)

Iraq, the country he ruled and ruled
as his ‘personal torture chamber’,
has scaled down to a dim prison cell –
his personal torture chamber.
Here, as a former ruler of Iraq,
here he lives on borrowed time,
is brought meals twice a day
is allowed to read books
is lent an ear to his war poetry.
But they are not interested in his poetry.

They are desperate to wring out
a couple of answers from him. Just a couple.
A simple yes or no would do.
Are there weapons under the Iraqi sand?
Is he friends with the sectarians?
He keeps shtum. He keeps reading,
keeps writing his war poetry.

The interrogator tries to win his trust.
He does. George Piro befriends him.
He even renounces a hunger strike for George’s sake.
But still he keeps shtum. And writes poetry
no one is interested in.
The weeks and months wear on.
The time is running out. Under pressure,
under immense pressure,
George Piro finally breaks down
and decides to pay attention to his poetry:
his writing style, his use of metaphor.

It is a metaphor of rifles and swords –
a figure of speech that he used
to scare off the hostile neighbour –
which brings on the truth, yet not a pardon.
It makes the world pause to think:
what if he never made that speech,
what if he didn’t have
‘a very unique way of writing’?

© Branko Manojlovic, 2011

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The Night Hitch Died

Posted on Monday, December 19, 2011, under

I am not making this up. Friday night I dream I am in this large farmhouse kitchen, a bicolour cat in my arms. She is old and ailing. I think she is dying. I place her inside a wicker basket then completely cover it with a white hand-crochet lace. I place the basket on the kitchen cupboard. I am satisfied the moggy will die peacefully in here. I turn round to find Christopher Hitchens sitting at the dining table, legs crossed, a glass of what might be bourbon in his hand, lost in thought. I don’t think he says much, if anything.
A few days pass. Or perhaps weeks. In dreams they can do. I am back in the same kitchen after being away god knows where. Maybe just round the corner tending on sheep and pigs. I notice the basket is still sitting on the cupboard, covered with the same crochet lace. I walk over and remove the cover. The cat is still in there, barely alive. Fur dilapidated. One eye closed. She is breathing. I am instantly overcome by guilt. In dreams one can be. I pick the feline up and try to force-feed her milk but she coughs it all out. Then I notice Hitch, sitting at the table in the same disinterested way as before. This time Hitch talks, says something, but I now forget what. Maybe he jokes about the cat, how it always has been a fussy eater. Maybe he says how death is overrated. At this point the dream starts slipping away. I struggle to stay inside. In vain: as the sunrays tickle my eyelids Hitch seems to have had enough. I think I can just catch him getting off his chair and slowly walking out of the room, into the morning brightness.

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A Find

Posted on Sunday, December 11, 2011, under

Imagine you have walked numerous times past a parking lot near your home for the past six or seven years. Just cars, cars and empty spaces. How boring. Then, one cloudy Saturday morning, on your way to a nearby restaurant, you notice something is different, strange. You realize the car park isn’t there any more. Instead, there is a fence which looks it has sprung up overnight. Suddenly your curiosity is awoken and you take interest. You stop by this new fence, and raise yourself up on your toes to take a better look (you don’t believe you are actually doing this).

The sight, however, is totally unexpected: the cars are gone, the car park is no more. The tarmac itself skimmed off from the surface of the earth like fat from the cooking liquid. All that’s left is the brown patch of earth which has somehow extended to the size of a football pitch. You can even see a few people milling about, apparently taking photos (!). As far as you can make out there is nothing to take snaps of, apart from the flat, square blocks of land, a few lunar-like ‘craters’ and a few longish trenches that give the place some sort of coherence. You must find out what the hell’s going on. You walk round the long fence until you reach a white tent which has been placed at the improvised entrance of what must be, as you begin to suspect, a brand-new archeological site. Soon enough you are handed an A3 size paper with the whole detailed explanation. Alas, you are unable to read the characters, and you do not speak their language very well. So you take a walk around the site, you take a photo or two and when, finally, your curiosity gets the better of you, you start looking for someone to speak to. The choices are limited. You turn to a couple of elderly gentlemen whose animated conversation and their outer appearance – tweed jackets, specs, rucksacks – leads you to suspect they could be knowledgeable or even speak English. As it turns out, you are right as far as their familiarity with the goings on. They tell you in their language (you ask them to speak very slowly) the place has been found to be a thousand-year-old settlement, or rather a group of houses which used to be part of an affluent neighbourhood in the ancient city of Heian-kyō.

The city in question, of course, is present day Kyōto. The Saturday in question is yesterday, December 10th, 2011. The patch of land does exist and has been dug up apparently by the students from the Bunkyo university. Its building is soon to be erected on the very spot (imagine the conservationists canvassing against it and collecting signatures for an ill-fated petition). The site, as my photo attests, is nothing to write home about, yet it should look remarkable to people who have lived for years in the neighbourhood. It is rather exhilarating to know that one thousand years ago here existed a community of aristocrats, and imagine their powdered faces and blackened teeth, their painted eyebrows, their shiny black hair, their multi-layered robes displaying seasonal colours. Imagine walking along a narrow Heian street in the moonlight, and sighting a woman who, having nothing better to do, is watching the shadow of a pine branch, imbued with the sweet futility of existence. 

            A woodblock print from 'One Hundred Aspects of the Moon' by Yoshitoshi

P.S. Today, Sunday, the site is already off-limits! Talk about the world of impermanence.

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Socrates vs Socrates

Posted on Tuesday, December 06, 2011, under , , , ,

As of yesterday, December 5th, 2011, if you googled ‘Death of Socrates’ the top couple of results would not be about the famous Greek, but that of a Brazilian football hero: Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira. For those of us who grew up in the early 80s playing footy in the park or the nearest parking lot, the mention of Brazilian Socrates inevitably brings back memories of one irretrievably lost sporting era when football (and most other sports) could indeed be a beautiful game, when creativity on the pitch and loyalty to clubs and fans came before financial gain. Just watch the Brazilian side on youtube at the two World Cups – Spain ’82 and Mexico ’86 respectively – the improvisation, the risk-taking, the ball-control, the whole team one well-oiled machine made up of free-spirited, individual talent. Mind you, not as individualistic as that Greek team in Monty Python’s Philosophy Football sketch (in which Socrates of all philosophers scores with that masterly diving header!).

Little did we know, those of us living outside of Brazil, that Socrates the footballer (also a qualified medical doctor) was politically active, playing a very prominent role in dismantling the Brazilian military regime, which eventually collapsed in 1985, and helping to bring in democracy and prosperity to the masses. This he did by forming the Corinthian Democracy Movement in the early 80s with the aim of spreading the powers of majority rule:

"Corinthians were a superb side at the time, winning the Sao Paulo state championship in 1982 and 1983, and their blend of stylish, attacking football married with the political campaigning of Socrates and his colleagues captured the imagination of many. To spread their message the Corinthians Democracy Movement emblazoned the clubs kits with political slogans on match days, and huge pro-democracy banners were erected at their Pacaembu stadium. The movement also attracted the support of artists and intellectuals, as the political left latched onto the power of football in spreading the message for change. In 1982, despite warnings from the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) not to interfere in political issues, the Corinthians Democracy Movement agreed that the club would take to the field in shirts bearing the slogan “Vote on the Fifteenth”, urging Brazilian citizens to make their voice heard in the upcoming elections."

So, what do two Socrateses, the Athenian and the Brazilian, apart from their name, have in common? A few parallels (however historically unverifiable): both men were physically strong and vigorous; both were courageous – the Athenian as a hoplite war veteran, the Brazilian as a political activist as well as the on-pitch adventurer; both strove towards achieving a fairer society, albeit by the apparently opposing, or at least different, means – the Greek had issues with the Athenian democracy of his time, mistrusted the majority rule (paradoxically considered as probably the first ‘free-speech martyr’) and was rather concerned with the moral and intellectual betterment, ‘welfare of the souls’, of his fellow citizens, whereas the Brazilian Socrates was a champion of the poor and the underprivileged; and judging by their actions, both men in their final hour faced death without much fear or regret: the Greek accepting, even welcoming, the death sentence, the Brazilian apparently a victim of his bohemian lifestyle. Whatever the parallels, straight or reverse, both men, as poet Kathy Evans Bush might say, acted like human beings. Curiously enough, she takes another Greek, Nestor, ‘the grandfatherly blabbermouth’, when she cooks up a poem from Nestor’s ‘point of view’ about yet another athlete (a coincidence?), LeBron James. The poem is called ‘The Iliad’, and the final lines go

Pro teams used to practice in
The gym where I taught high school.
Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Jerry West,
I saw them all up close and in truth
The only one who acted like a human
Being was Tom Boerwinkle so let's have
A poem contest for the man from Tennessee!

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In Memoriam: Petar Kralj (1941-2011)

Posted on Friday, November 18, 2011, under ,

Petar Kralj (1941-2011), that splendid figure of Yugoslav and Serbian theatre and film, is no longer with us. Who knows, by now he might have arrived at the Elysium café and joined his ex-Yugoslav thespian friends, feeding them the latest news from the old country. Unassuming as they come, Kralj was of that rare artistic breed who was able to project his private, almost tangible timidity and modesty into his roles, his sad azure eyes adding depth and a wistful dimension to his characters. Petar achieved one of his most memorable roles – and there were quite a few – in the film ‘Poseban Tretman’ a.k.a. ‘Special Treatment’ a.k.a. ‘What is it that attracts a human being to drink?’ (1980). Here he plays a failed actor, now an alcoholic convalescent who, as part of a travelling troupe, performs instructive sketches for the benefit of local communities. The following clip contains two great scenes. The first takes place at a restaurant where a snooty doctor, played by Ljuba Tadic, is lecturing an old man on ethics and integrity, while flirting with a blonde across the table (Milena Dravić, who that year won Palme d’Or for best supporting actress). The second scene has Petar Kralj stuttering Shakespeare (in Serbian!) while sitting on top of a cabinet, holding a carton of natural yoghurt. With English subtitles. 

My tribute for the wonderful man and artist. Click for better view:

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Posted on Saturday, November 12, 2011, under ,


Waking up well before dawn to the tune of a wake-up ring I ordered just a few hours ago
feels like a day’s unfinished business. A couple of hours later our minibus bound for the Bodrum airport, having been delayed by sheep of the hazardous dirt-road, makes a fifteen-minute loo break (hardly anyone gets off).

The garden-restaurant by the lake Bafa, bustling with tourists when we made a stop heading in the opposite direction a week ago, is now shut but for a single lightbulb-lit counter selling exorbitant crisps and coffee. Our driver has disappeared from view. A few of us pace about aimlessly, hands in pockets. We count minutes, seconds. My empty stomach begs me to get a bag of Walkers’ Salt and Vinegar.  From a coop nearby a black cock is announcing dawn before it has a chance to announce itself.

I walk over to the lakeside. The water is one with the leaden sky: no horizon, but the glossy blackness of the waves like hurried volcanic surfs, albeit moving up the greyscale chart by each passing minute. I take out the camera, hoping to snap the daybreak in the making, those last dour ghosts of yesterday retreating, sinking like dead fish before the light rears its head behind the thawing hills.

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Greek Tragedy

Posted on Thursday, November 10, 2011, under , ,

Two images normally spring to mind once we hear the name of Constantine P. Cavafy: his disarmingly sensual homoerotic vignettes, and his innovative poems concerned with some of the finer, if less-famed, points in Greek history. In the light of the recent political turmoil perhaps some Greek poets/intellectuals might be wondering what kind of poems Cavafy would end up writing about, say, the bailout plan by Merkel/Sarkozy or the inner workings of the Greek parliament. For one, as Greeks’ political self-determination once again hangs in the air, Greece does seem to be standing at a crossroads of sorts – whether it be the country’s potential exit from the Euro project, or its acceptance of the austerity measures – both of which would likely lead to the advanced stages of belt-tightening. There seems to be no end in sight for the current Greek tragedy: people’s houses are being impounded, personal debts are mounting, many have lost jobs or are about to – the unemployment rate is at a record high 16%. The young and the highly educated are setting off abroad – an estimated 10% of university graduates leave the country each year. The pressing needs of the majority are financial security, careers, prosperity. Indeed it is not easy to see how Cavafy’s view ‘at a slight angle to the universe’ would help matters.

Cavafy was a poet of peripheries: his homosexuality, his Alexandrianism, his interest in the less-prominent historical figures, his imaginative reenactments of the myth. As E.M. Forster put it, not necessary unfavourably, ‘Such a writer can never be popular. He flies both too slowly and too high. Whether subjective or objective, he is equally remote from the bustle of the moment, he will never compose either a Royalist or a Venizelist Hymn. He has the strength (and of course the limitations) of the recluse, who, though not afraid of the world, always stands at a slight angle to it […]’1

                                                  Cavafy Etching by David Hockney, 1967

As for me, I’d much rather read Cavafy’s poems than some disheartening report on the latest squabble in the Greek legislative assembly. Cavafy’s characters, real or imaginary, are rarely concerned with their financial stability and that alone makes them more interesting, more human. The poet’s sympathies usually rest with the downtrodden, the marginalized, protagonist lurking in the shadows, earning just enough to get by, ‘putting / the pure sensuality of his pure flesh / above his honour and reputation’ (‘Days of 1896’). In ‘Orophernis’ (1914), money, or rather a drachma coin, serves as a springboard for Cavafy’s musings on the Hellenic pride, toned down by his trademark irony. The poem is a curious amalgam of the mundane, historical fact and erotic idealization. Here are the closing lines:

His end must have been recorded somewhere only to be lost;
or maybe history passed over it
and rightly didn’t bother to notice
a thing so trivial.

The figure on this four drachma coin,
something of whose young charm can still be seen,
a ray of his poetic beauty—
this sensuous image of an Ionian boy,
this is Orophernis, son of Ariarathis.2

There is lots of material in Cavafy’s oeuvre, especially in his historical poems, for the contemporary reader to try and unpick, from which a few parallels between the then and the now could be drawn. Cavafy was particularly attracted by the Hellenistic and the Byzantine eras, often by a certain turning point in history when the Hellenistic world surrenders on the military and political front (at the same time struggling to keep its cultural and spiritual integrity), when the Greek identity, as well as survival, is at stake. It is the nation’s moments of crisis, and the effect that the crisis has on the citizens’ morale, that Cavafy is often drawn to. And more often then not it is corruption, hubris and decadence of those in charge that lead to a civilization’s downfall:

He’s lost his old fire, his courage.
Now his tired, almost decrepit body
will be his first concern. And the rest of his life he’ll spend
without worrying. So Philip says, anyway.
Tonight he’s playing a game with dice;
he’s in a mood to amuse himself.
Cover the table with roses.
Let the banquet begin. Slaves! The music, the lights!
from The Battle of Magnesia3

In 1928 Cavafy wrote In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C., a somewhat unusual poem in that, although no name is attached to the colony and despite the title, the issues of governing and economics addressed seem to speak directly of the 20th century political intolerance, totalitarianism, extreme radicalism. Cavafy argues against the ‘Political Reformer’ and his enforced administrative changes in a gently ironic tone, calling for equanimity and patience instead. This poem’s strong anti-bureaucrat stance fits in nicely with today’s Eurozone predicament, and can well speak to the 21st century reader, Greek or not Greek. Here is the poem in full:

In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C.E.

There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony don't go as one would wish,
and though we move forward, anyway,
perhaps, as not a few think, the time has come
for us to bring in a Political Reformer.

Yet the obstacle and difficulty
is that they make a big deal
out of everything, these Reformers.
(It would be a stroke of good luck
if one never needed them.) Everything,
every little thing, they ask about and examine,
and instantly radical reforms come to mind
and they demand they be implemented without delay.

They lean toward sacrifice.
Give up that property of yours,
your owning it is risky:
such possessions are harmful to the Colonies.
Give up that income
and that coming from it,
and this third one, as a natural consequence.
They are essential, but it can't be helped;
They create an adverse liability for you.

And as they proceed in their inspection,
they find (then find again) needless things,
which they demand must go —
things that nevertheless are hard to dismiss.

And when, with good luck, they finish their work,
having ordered and pared everything down to the last detail,
they leave, taking away their rightful wages, as well.
We'll see what remains, after
so much expert surgery.

Perhaps the time had not yet come.
Let's not rush; haste is a dangerous thing.
Premature measures bring regret.
Certainly and unfortunately, there is much disorder in the Colony.
But is there anything human without imperfection?
And, anyway, look, we're moving forward.4

I wish more people read Cavafy. I wish more Greeks read Cavafy. If your ‘average Joe’ in Greece read a poem of Cavafy a day, who knows, it might make him want to look at the current political difficulties from a slight angle, even help one reinvent his day. 

Post Scriptum — I visited Greece on three of four occasions. My memories are sketchy. From the late 70s I remember our little cottage off the beaten track on the island of Thasos, the swarms of moths vying for space around the lightbulb above the entrance door; waking up to the sight of the long line of ants from one end of the ceiling to the other; the bee-stings all over my nine-year-old body (honey is the island’s major produce). I remember Greek men incessantly playing tavli in downtown taverns (not quite as pitiful as Cavafy’s ‘old man’), and cart-sellers shouting ‘karpouzia, karpouzia!’ (watermelons) each morning. From the late 90s I remember gangs of sinister-looking stray dogs roaming the streets of Thessaloniki, a rusted balustrade and a British-style, separate-taps basin in my seedy hotel room. I recall a sea promenade in the village of Neos Marmaras, Halkidiki, where I saw a shooting star one evening and at once sat down to write a love letter to a certain R.; I also recall a soft-cotton navy-blue hat I bought in the village, subsequently lost and have been looking for ever since.

1 – E.M. Forster: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy, ‘The Athenaeum’, April 1919; reprinted in Modernism, Edinburgh University Press, 1998
2 and 3 – transl. by E. Keeley / P. Sherrard
4 – transl. by Aliki Barnstone

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Staying Interactive: Post Scriptum

Posted on Wednesday, November 09, 2011, under

As a fitting and timely post-scriptum to my previous post, this story came out in The Guardian last week, concerning a certain art gallery cleaner who thought a sculpture of a German artist Martin Kippenberger needed a bit of good old scrubbing:

“The work, called When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling (Wenn's anfängt durch die Decke zu tropfen), comprised a rubber trough placed underneath a rickety wooden tower made from slats. Inside the trough, Kippenberger had spread a layer of paint representing dried rainwater. He thought it was art: the cleaner saw it as a challenge, and set about making the bucket look like new.” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/nov/03/overzealous-cleaner-ruins-artwork]

A very similar thing happened in 1986 to a ‘grease stain’ by Joseph Beuys, famous for his environmental pieces; to a plastic bag in 2004 at Tate Britain, a work by Gustav Metzger; to Damien Hirst’s beer bottles and coffee cups in 2001. In 1961 Piero Manzoni of the Conceptual Art movement, however, managed to flog his ‘art’ – tins containing the artist’s excrement – before an anxious cleaner could get too close. Incidentally, two of the tins were auctioned for €124,000 in 2007 and £97,250 in 2008 respectively. As to the contents of the tins, it seems they indeed contain crap – art as crap, crap as art, crap art: “Manzoni's girlfriend Nanda Vigo, who helped him produce the cans, claimed the contents really were faeces. Vigo's assertion is disputed by Manzoni's brother and sister, but some cans have leaked and confirmed they are indeed faeces — though whether human or animal has not been verified. An art dealer from the Gallery Blu in Milan claims to have detected a faecal odour emanating from a can.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artist’s_Shit]
One can only imagine what Nanda's 'help' actually consisted of.

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Staying Interactive

Posted on Sunday, October 30, 2011, under , , ,

Ever since Duchamp threw the bottle rack and the urinal in our faces ready-made objects never looked the same again – for better or for worse. He was most likely thinking along the lines of ‘If it’s signed and you can’t piss in it, it’s got to be art’1, and that’s all very well. Still, groundbreaking ideas like Duchamp’s work only so far. It doesn’t mean that if you or I, in Duchamp’s words, ‘took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object'2, it would ever make it to a gallery, let alone be considered art. I can’t simply place my old sock or a burnt frying pan on the pavement and put up a flashing green sign in front of it. No, that would not work because the aura of the artist, and even more the aura of an exhibition space remain and will always be the determining factors. Then there are further, no less important questions like: what if the objects we consider art are in fact not? Why, for instance, Tracy Emin’s unmade Bed is art and my unmade bed isn’t? Why is, or why should, my bed be more, or less, displaced than hers? Recently a friend of mine overheard two people in a gallery commenting at great length on the significance of a baby pram which stood on the floor amongst other various objet d’art, and while they were establishing the pram’s fine points of interconnectedness a mother came back with her baby and walked off with the pram, leaving our experts dumbfounded. Duchamp:
People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we took ourselves very seriously (…) A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing. If Americans would simply remember their own sense of humour instead of listening to the critics, modern art will come into its own.3
Duchamp furthered his readymades in the 1920s when he used glass plates to build motorized optical machines as experiments in optical illusion. Rotary Glass Plates (1920), composed of five glass plates painted in black and white, invites the viewer to become an active participant in the art by turning on the optical machine then observing it from one meter away. From that distance the rotating device would create an illusion of continuous concentric circles all on the same plane. Marcel didn’t consider these as ‘art’ per se as he was merely interested in the inconsistencies of the human eye, i.e. the fact that the eye retains an image for a fraction of a second after it has disappeared. Nevertheless, his mechanical contraptions from the 1920s were the true forerunners of what we now label ‘interactive art’. Incidentally, Duchamp’s experiments are apparently considered to stand for ‘pre-historic screensavers’4, anticipating the free-associative, kaleidoscopic moving images on our computer screens some seventy years later – remember After Dark, Ribbons, Flying in Space etc.? Similarly, Duchamp’s ‘Optical Disks’ and ‘Disks Bearing Spirals’ directly led to the first ‘3D’ film ever shot – Anémic Cinéma (1926).  This six-minute film has alternating shots of moving spirals which at times create a 3D effect, and shots of texts mounted on rotating disks which the viewers read from the outside inwards. The text sets are in French and – being French and Duchamp’s – carry a potent erotic subtext, which, again, requires the viewer’s interpretation.

Personally I am all for audience interaction: the viewer becoming part of the view, the visitor becoming part of an exhibit. Recently I visited, and became a willing part of, an installation at Kyoto Art Centre (for those of you who live in Kyoto, this is a converted primary school – well worth a visit if only for its Meiji era corridors and classrooms with creaky floorboards) whereby the audience participated by moving body parts and thus creating weird sounds and noises. My ‘performance’ was (un)luckily captured on camera

A few lines I wrote after the experience: 

after Tadasu Takamine’s ‘Japan Syndrome, The Other Side of the Ball’

I get myself duped, and voluntarily so.
Room One sports a screen
flanked by smaller screens. I stand
on a dotted line, in front a sensor,
limbs twitching undulating
into sound-shrapnel of reckless din –
a New Millennium Theremin.

Room Two across the courtyard
sports a screen, invariably blurry.
On it not a thing moves
till a stranger enters Room One
flapping her limbs about
like a more amiable fool.
Got ourselves duped, and happily so.

1 – R. Appignanesi: Introducing Postmodernism, Icon Books, 1999, p.35.
2 – 'The Richard Mutt Case', The Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p.5.
3 – Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp. A Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. p. 226
4 – http://transmissiondifficulties.vancouverartinthesixties.com/images/ScreenSaver.pdf

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On the Big Island

Posted on Saturday, October 01, 2011, under ,


By the coastal road
the large trees barely stand
wrapped and stifled
by the orange cobwebs
of Pele’s hair.
Like handsome Ohi’a
the trees look helpless
forever transfigured
by the outrageous
air plant from abroad.

I listen to tree frogs’
ko-kee, ko-kee
in darkness. Like me
they are guests,
albeit permanent.
I am a man possessed,
trying hard to pinpoint
the song’s source,
detect its distant
insular dialect.

Spanish moss is an epiphyte which absorbs nutrients (especially calcium) and water from the air and rainfall. Spanish moss is colloquially known as "air plant". Spanish moss was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century, and became a popular ornamental and lei plant. Recently it is occasionally called "Pele's hair" after Pele the Hawaiian goddess. The term "Pele's hair" usually refers to a type of filamentous volcanic glass.

When Coqui tree frogs accidentally arrived in Hawaii with shipments of plants from Florida or Puerto Rico, the response was ballistic. The mayor of Hawaii declared a state of emergency. Scientists feared the sky was falling, and that the coquis, which eat lots of insects, would decimate the insect population to the point of starving all other insectivorous creatures. The sound of the frogs, a two-toned "ko-KEE", was described as a "shrill shriek" guaranteed to keep everyone awake at night, run down property values, and drive away tourists.

Ironically, this same coqui frog is the national animal of Puerto Rico, its native land. In fact, Puerto Ricans love this frog and its chirping sound so much that it is honoured in local folklore. People describe the nighttime sound of the coqui as soothing and necessary for sleep, and Puerto Rican travellers often bring recordings of coquis with them when away from home to help them sleep. [http://www.hawaiiancoqui.org/]

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Back in the Day

Posted on Saturday, August 27, 2011, under

Back in the day they built scores of Socio-Realistic, khaki-grey, blocks in Belgrade. One such, dubbed televizor, for its windows the shape of a TV screen, stood out as an aesthetic curio. The four-storey block our family lived in was of yellow-grey tint, flanked by trees and us kids playing footy in communal parks.
Back in the day people tended to keep their front door unlocked. A neighbour would knock and step in for chitchat, followed by Turkish coffee cup reading. If a doorbell buzzed, it was either a/ a postman b/ a Gypsy asking for alms or c/ a neighbour returning a hairdryer. Crime was as rare as quail eggs. Instead there were graffiti upon the walls normally in black or creamy white, commemorating love or spite: M. LOVES H.; M. IS MORON.

In padlocked cellars we kept fishing rods, sledges, muckboots, sauerkraut barrels — why padlocked was anyone’s guess. All slept behind wooden bars, like captives forgotten most of the year.
In our block’s cellar this green powdery stuff sat in one corner, a note above it read: ‘Rat Poison, Keep Away’. Tanya once told me she’d seen the little beasts. But I think she made it up just to keep the conversation alive. We would sometimes sit and chat, Tanya and me, at the building entry on the chilly flight of stairs. Our bums were constantly cold. The hall lights would switch off automatically: once they did, we’d switch to a whisper, hoping the light wouldn’t come back on to break our tall enamoured shadows. After Tanya and I bade goodnight I’d leap three steps at a time in pitch dark up to the second floor, knock excitedly. Mum would squint as I stepped into the light.

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Back from Hols

Posted on Sunday, August 21, 2011, under

Back from a three-week holiday in Serbia and Turkey. After a two-day-three-aeroplane journey I am so knackered my senses ignore a foul stench coming from the toilet drain. The walls have absorbed the Japanese summer humidity. On the balcony a cicada, dead on its back. After three days I am still battling a numbing jetlag/stomachache. First night I sleep 14 hours. Second night a deer walks into my dream. I think it is female. She has big chestnut eyes, is standing on top of a flat mushroom-shaped glacier sniffing my bruised hands. I was most likely on the run (recently read Stevenson’s Kidnapped, there is a scene in which David Belfour and Alan Breck are hiding from redcoats on top a flat rock). I wake up mid-dream which happens to be middle of the night, cannot sleep afterwards. Third night I manage to clock 7 hours.

The holidays, by the way, were great. The highlights were visits to Ephesus and Pamukkale about which I tend to write at some point. The whole trip to Europe has been marked, if anything, by unrelated hurts and deaths, especially on television. The recurrences were sporadic, incidental, and perhaps for that reason bore an odd unifying quality. Examples:

In my hotel room TV is on for no apparent reason and Harry Potter’s gothic shadows and hairy spiders only serve to suddenly remind me that I forgot a certain book on the beach: Poe’s famous scarab tale (Did you know that R.L. Stevenson acknowledged Poe’s story’s direct influence on the skeleton in his Treasure Island? Neither did I.)
On CNN Jeff Bridges unravels a ‘theory’ how marriage is one big step towards death (Sure, Jeff).
Riots in Hackney on the Beeb (used to live, eat and love, in Navarino Road).
The dead city of Ephesus.
On the plane from Moscow to Seoul I pick a documentary on Hemingway, who survived a plethora of diseases, from anthrax to dysentery to pneumonia (check out this incredible list of Hemingway’s hurts: http://www.hoffstrizz.com/2010/03/a-list-of-hurts-and-diseases-suffered-by-ernest-hemingway.html), two plane crashes, encounters with bulls, sharks and lions, but not his own shotgun (I recall Norman Lewis strongly hinting at Hemingway’s ultimate inability to cope with deterioration of his bodily functions).
Ah, and that cicada on its back.

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Monsters & Fangs

Posted on Saturday, July 16, 2011, under , ,

A SAVAGE fish described as more terrifying than a piranha is on Queensland’s doorstep and authorities fear it may soon be here. The vicious giant snakehead, which has been the star of a horror movie trilogy, eats everything it comes across and has even been reported to kill people. The monster from south-east Asia has a mouth crammed with fearsome teeth, can “crawl” on land and survive out of water for up to four days.  

This snakefish was caught in England. In an article entitled Killer fish terrifies Britain News.Com (as in Rupert Murdoch) describes that snakefish as “A savage fish that eats everything it comes across, including people. The discovery of the fish is reported to have caused widespread panic among conservationists and anglers. An Environmental Agency source described the snakefish as “the ultimate invasive species”. The source said that if snakefish begin breeding in the area it will be a disaster.  

               The Eight-Forked Serpent (Yamata no Orochi)

‘[…] its eyes were red as the winter cherry, and pine trees and mosses grew on its back, while firs sprouted on each of its heads. As it crawled, it stretched over eight valleys and eight hills, and its belly was always flecked with blood. In seven years this beast had devoured seven maidens, the daughters of a king, and in the eighth year was about to eat up the youngest, named Princess-Comb-Ricefield. The princess was saved by a storm-god who bore the name of Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male. This knight built a circular enclosure of wood with eight gates and eight platforms at each gate. On the platforms he set tubs of sake. The Eight-Forked Serpent came and dipped its head into each of the tubs, gulped down the sake and was soon fast asleep. Then the knight lopped all of the heads, a river of blood springing from the necks. In the serpent’s tail a sword was found…’
                                        from The Book of Imaginary Beings by J.L.Borges (pp. 55-6)

                                  Yamata no Orochi by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912)

It took me couple of minutes to realize all 8 heads are in here! Click on the pic and time yourself.

* (caption taken from http://themurdochempireanditsnestofvipers.blogspot.com)

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Blue Riders

Posted on Thursday, July 07, 2011, under , ,

Last Friday’s visit to Kandinsky retrospective at ‘Hyogo Bijutsukan’, which revolved around his Blue Rider period (1911-14), made me reread extracts from his essay published in the Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), which in turn were reproduced in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (one of the few theory books I shipped from UK to Japan nine years ago).

For the uninitiated, the Blue Rider was a coterie of artists, a movement of sorts, including among others, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Gabriele Münter, August Macke, Jawlensky, Schoenberg. The group published an Almanac and held two exhibitions (WW1 cut the movement short). Kandinsky's writing on the problem of form in The Blue Rider Almanac is considered as one of the first and best defences as well as promotions of abstract art, his ideas quickly catching up especially in the English speaking world. Here are a couple of extracts from the Almanac:

If the reader is able to free himself for a while from his own wishes, his own thoughts, his own feelings and skims through this book, going from a votive picture to Delaunay, from Cezanne to a Russian folk print, from a mask to Picasso, from a glass painting to Kubin, etc., etc., then his soul will experience many vibrations and he will enter into the world of art. Here he will not be bothered by outrageous defects or aggravating errors. Instead he will experience a spiritual plus instead of a minus. 


The artist, whose life is comparable to a child’s in many respects, frequently can reach the inner sound more easily than anyone else. In this respect it is especially interesting to see how the composer Arnold Schönberg paints — simply and confidently. As a rule he is interested only in the inner sound. He omits, without regard, all embellishments and refinements and ‘poorest’ form in his hands becomes the richest (his self-portrait, for example).


In order to ‘understand’ [an abstract] picture the same liberation as in realism is necessary, i.e., here too one must learn to hear the whole world exactly as it is without any representational interpretation. And in such work abstract forms (lines, planes, spots etc.) are not important as such, but only as inner sound, as life.

For Kandinsky it seems colours and sound are one, or at least interchangeable. Schoenberg ‘paints’ with his music, and in turn music permeates abstract art. Kandinsky, himself an accomplished musician — he learned the piano and cello at an early age — claimed that when he saw colour he heard music. He even went as far as associating colour tone with timbre, hue with pitch, and saturation with the volume of sound!

Kandinsky incorporated musicality early on in his pointillistic works, employing mottled dots and blobs of colour. One such work was on display at Hyogo Gallery: Russian Beauty in a Landscape (1905), through which, in Kandinsky’s own words, he tried to ‘express the musical spirit of Russia’. These referential qualities, as we know, are gone once Kandinsky embraces abstraction: the later paintings are left to their own, self-referential, vibratory devices (or the lack of them). I stayed with one such painting — Composition VII — for some time and the experience was rewarding as I was able to draw out a host of ‘small pleasures’ from the lines and shapes dancing, floating, hovering, rebounding or blending into each other.

But no matter how invigorating Kandinsky’s abstract work may be, I think one should be always on guard against the overinterpretation, careful not to ‘overstay’ a painting’s welcome. One of the pleasures of abstract painting, after all, is that you can always come back to it and detect musical intricacies anew. Actually, I’ll be totally honest here: the main reason I went to the exhibition (it took me good two hours by train in one direction) was to see Paul Klee’s painting Cacti (1912). Or let’s put it this way: if it hadn’t been for Klee I doubt I would have gone. Yes, it is all to do with my fixation with the plant, with the fact it was painted by my current painting hero, and of course with the title of this blog.

I was immediately attracted to Klee’s cactussen for their subdued colours, the picture unusually dark for such prickly, palpable species, as if saying ‘don’t waste time on me, I am obviously not that special’. Yet the more I looked at the painting the more I got convinced there was more to it than just the sinister-looking pots — who can tell for sure what those teeth-like projections inside the middle pot are? And where is the blinking cactus in that one?! Isn’t it altogether missing? It made me feel a bit disconcerted at the time. Days later I came across this anecdote which, I felt, almost vindicated my previous ignorance. In 1895 Kandinsky saw Monet’s Haystacks at Giverny, after which experience he later stated: "It was from the catalogue I learned this was a haystack. I was upset I had not recognized it. I also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an imprecise fashion. Dimly I was aware too that the object did not appear in the picture..." (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/kandinsky/).

I was also happy to see a number of paintings by Kandinsky’s friends from the Blue Rider group — Münter, Macke, Jawlensky. One that struck me in particular was Gabriele Münter’s Jawlensky, Werefkin (1908-9), in which she paints the couple in a leisurely yet rather enigmatic pose while resting upon the green hillside. One is never completely sure as to the nature of their current sentiment — whether they are in love, or upset with each other, plain indifferent, whatever. The blank faces and plain flowers may add to the feeling of tranquillity, but for me the absence of facial features only raises the emotional stakes in this kind of painting. And then there is that ominous-looking yellow bolt that splits the sky…

My tour ended some 90 minutes and three gallery rooms later, still enough to tire me out as I hardly could stand on my two feet. I ended up buying a Kandinsky A4 folder, a B2 Blue Rider poster (which now hangs in my room), and a ‘3D Stereo Viewer’. Kandinsky would have been proud. Well, I came across this telling anecdote related to the old man Kandinsky’s worsening eyesight (and some would say worsening art).

The year was 1944. Kandinsky had died on December 3rd of that year after coping with failing health since early March. By the summer his eyes had become almost permanently half-closed. After his death his widow Nina explained that he possessed the rare talent of being able to represent in his mind the world of his paintings with their colours and their forms, exactly as he later set them down on canvas. It has been suggested that these forms, their myriads of rings swimming across the surface of the work, were the effects of phosphenes that can be impressed on the eyeball when the eyes are closed. Towards the end of his life Kandinsky would have been painting what he was seeing with his eyes closed. That might suggest that he lost his grip on reality to some extent, but Nina says not.

‘I shut my eyes in order to see’, said Gauguin. Finally, do have a look at this cool kinetic Kandinsky. Who knows, this is how the man himself might have seen it with the help of those phosphenes.

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