Tag Archives: art

Starry Starry Night

Ten Thousand

Roo Borson, Ten Thousand
Image: Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone

In celebration of Earth Hour, 2008.

Visit Red Star Café for Earth Hour blogging.

And Have You Changed Your Life?

The Swan, Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, The Swan

An intense and joyful observer of the natural world, Mary Oliver is often compared to Whitman and Thoreau. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts: shore birds, water snakes, the phases of the moon and humpback whales. Oliver has been called “a patroller of wetlands in the same way that Thoreau was an inspector of snowstorms” and “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.”

Image: Mikhail Vrubel, Swan Princess, 1900. Oil on canvas.

Balance: Art and Nature

Environmental art is a catch phrase that includes land art, earth-sensitive art and artists working with natural materials. Land art is a phenomenon of the ’60s and ’70s, with artists like Robert Smithson who made his Spiral Jetty in Great Salt Lake, Utah, one of those grandiose environmentally insensitive works that transformed the landscape.

Earth-sensitive art is smaller in scale, integrating an assemblage or sculpture in a natural setting, and there is art made with natural materials, which is usually exposed indoors.

~~ John Grande

Art and NatureArt critic John Grande writes about environmental art in his book, Balance: Art and Nature

Believing that artistic expression can and does play an important role in changing the way we perceive our relation to the world we live in, art critic John Grande takes an in-depth look at the work of some very unusual environmental artists in the United States, Canada, and -Europe.

Grande contends that the egocentricity of modern western society and its infatuation with technology and consumerism have increasingly separated us from the natural world. That separation has an impact on the way our art is conceived, formed, marketed and even displayed. Grande proposes that art return to being more “ecocentric,” reminding us that we are derivative and essentially dependent on natural processes. “In developing a nature-specific dialogue that is interactive, rooted in actual experience in a given place and time, and giving these elements an equal voice in the creative process,” he writes, “we are ultimately respecting our integral connectedness to the environment.” Holding such a vision, we will come to see that “nature is the art of which we are a part.”

John GrandeTo develop a dialogue more in touch with nature, Grande argues that artists should favour their specific culture and the diversity of the ecological communities in which they live rather than the homogenizing pressures of internationalism. He asserts that contemporary artists’ preoccupation with international “market recognition,” often reinforced by museums and funders, promotes a “product standardization” that takes precedence over any desire to represent one’s own culture and bioregion. In such a horizontal milieu, artists and their works consequently become easily interchangeable. The attendant appropriation of Third World, tribal and extranational art styles not only mirrors acts of economic expropriation but also often ensures the commercial success of the collusive artists. Such appropriation barely pauses to appreciate the source culture’s context and meaning.

As an alternative, Grande proposes that we celebrate the cultural diversity naturally intrinsic to each ecological community or bioregion. Such a preference would nourish the artistic expression of the cultural symbolism and spiritual values unique to that region. It would enhance an intuitive dialogue with nature in the creation of art, encouraging a healthier relationship with the local environment.

John Grande website

I think, a lot of art has as much to do with fashion and the look of things as it has to do with a kind of search for breakthroughs or a higher meaning. In a way we almost have an over-production situation where art is fine and society is in bad shape. It is one of my main concerns right now, The programs are working. Artists are producing. But the actual society is breaking down in many ways as a collectivity and becoming sort of digitalized. We have become digitalized producers and consumers.

Nature is the house that supports us all. We sometimes forget that. The same thing can be said for the world of art. What really nourishes art, more than ideas, is the physical world, and it is the main sustaining feature of any kind of aesthetic, even so-called immaterial ones.

Interview with Mike MacDonald

Interview with John Grande at Green Museum

EcoArt Network

Tiger Swallowtail

Art critic, writer, lecturer and interviewer, John Grande’s reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, Sculpture, Art Papers, British Journal of Photo-graphy, Espace Sculpture, Public Art Review, Vie des Arts, Art On Paper, Circa & Canadian Forum. He is also the author of Balance: Art and Nature (a newly expanded edition by Black Rose Books in, 2004), Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998), Jouer avec le feu: Armand Vaillancourt: Sculpteur engagé (Lanctot, 2001), and his most recent book, Dialogues in Diversity: Marginal to Mainstream published in Italy in 2007 by Pari Publishing.

The Inner Child of William Steig

In the exhibition catalog: From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig, at the Jewish Museum, the artist’s daughter, Maggie Steig, recalls a game her father used to play with her: “What would you rather be?

”Would you rather be a tree (sturdy, long-lived, a home for birds) or a flower (a short but exciting life, carried in weddings, pressed into books by princesses)?

What would you rather be, Maggie’s father would also ask, “a knee or an elbow?” Or more adventurously: “A pinch of pus or a pile of puke? A scab or a wart?”

Children may know William Steig as the creator of Shrek, but their grandparents can trace the ornery green ogre’s roots through a body of children’s books, New Yorker cartoons and drawings dating back to the Depression.

The child of immigrants, Steig was fortunate to come of age at an auspicious time for cartoonists. An entire industry of penny weeklies was devoted to boosting morale during the Depression and World War II. He was 23 when he began contributing to The New Yorker in 1930, and the magazine continued to publish his drawings, including several covers, until his death in 2003, at 95.

Brimming with scenes of domestic discord and references to Jewish immigrant life in the tenements, Mr. Steig’s early cartoons and drawings were a radical departure from the upper-crust dinner-party gags of previous New Yorker cartoons.

William SteigSteig also made a body of work exploring psychological states, some of which were collected in About People: A Book of Symbolic Drawings (1939). He produced deft images that were considered too serious for The New Yorker of the time, distilling amorphous mental conditions into precisely drawn caricatures. In Melancholia (1939) a woman lies on her belly in a child’s wooden cradle, too large for its enclosure, leaning on her crossed arms, bleakly staring into the distance. Our Marriage Will Be Different (1947) proclaims a cartoon showing a couple heading offstage after a song-and-dance-number; we know the show will be over. Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s editor then, called these works “too personal and not funny enough,” but they caught on with devotees of psychoanalysis.

The novelist Henry Miller put it best, in a letter to Steig that is on display at the museum: “You give a sort of geography of the emotional reactions of man, his tiny little globe built around a microscopic ego.”

Steig’s overwhelming sense of isolation found a more resonant expression in a remarkable series of children’s books he started to produce in the late 1960s. Most have become classics, with grown-up ethical and philosophical dilemmas couched in the antics of lovable farm animals. In these works Steig’s sensitive, wavering line finds a parallel in his expressive writing.

William SteigThe street life of friends inspired his early series of Small Fry cartoons, in which snowball fights, sibling rivalry and fantasies of glory turned cartooning into a form of emotional documentation: here is how children play, tease, laugh, dream.

The children’s books became a way for Steig to combine and reconcile these ideas and sentiments. Animals are the main characters because they are literally fabulous, condensations of personal traits, elemental even to a child. When we read that Doctor De Soto “outfoxed the fox,” we know exactly what that means and why the dentist-mouse was right to mistrust the animal. Such villainy is part of the natural order.

Exaggeration often makes these tales most affecting. The more bizarre the artifice and the more ornate the language, the more potent they become. A ring of power? That’s the stuff of fiction and fantasy. But a talking bone! Who could have imagined such a thing? And what powers might it possess? “I didn’t know you could do magic!” Pearl the Pig breathlessly tells the bone after it rescues her, as if there had been no previous sign in the bone’s use of German, its imitation of trumpets, or in the sounds of its sneezes.

And of course the magic and the villainy are often both close to home, found in pebbles, bones and home-brewed potions, in ordinary animals and simple yearnings.

William Steig

We are never fully sure of that adult world, except that it will have both trees and flowers, elbows and knees, scabs and warts. And unpredictable pleasures. Pearl the Pig, restored from the clutches of the fox by the magic bone, brings the bone home and the “two chatterboxes” are often whispering or singing together. The bone joins her family.

“And they all had music whenever they wanted it,” Steig concludes, “and sometimes even when they didn’t.”

New York Times review

William Steig at the Jewish Museum

Ashes and Snow

“In exploring the shared language and poetic sensibilities of all animals, I am working towards rediscovering the common ground that once existed when people lived in harmony with animals. The images depict a world that is without beginning or end, here or there, past or present.”
—Gregory Colbert, Creator of Ashes and Snow

Ashes and Snow

Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow is an ongoing project that weaves together photographic works, 35mm films, art installations and a novel in letters. Included in the exhibit are over 50 large-scale photographic artworks, a 60-minute film, and two 9-minute film haikus. There is also a series of fine handbound books, printed on imported papers. With profound patience and an unswerving commitment to the expressive and artistic nature of animals, he has captured extraordinary interactions between humans and animals.

His 21st-century bestiary includes more than 40 totemic species from around the world. Since he began creating his singular work of Ashes and Snow, Colbert has mounted more than 30 expeditions to locations such as India, Egypt, Burma, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Kenya, Antarctica, the Azores, and Borneo.

Nomadic MuseumLocated in the world’s only “nomadic” museum – built temporarily and specially for Ashes and Snow out of 148 abandoned shipping containers – this installation features Colbert’s massive, sepia-toned portraits on handmade Japanese paper, some up to 10 feet in length, of humans interacting with animals like elephants, cheetahs, and manatees.

Colbert originally conceived of the idea for a sustainable travelling museum in 1999. He envisioned a sustainable structure that could easily be assembled in ports of call around the world, providing a transitory environment for Ashes and Snow on its global journey.

Nomadic MuseumThe show first opened at the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, in 2002 and is charted to travel the globe with no final destination. The Nomadic Museum, the travelling home of Ashes and Snow, debuted in New York (March to June 2005) and then travelled to Santa Monica (January to May 2006), and Tokyo (March to June 2007). The show is mounted in Mexico City in January 2008.

The title Ashes and Snow suggests beauty and renewal, while also referring to the literary component of the exhibition—a fictional account of a man who, over the course of a yearlong journey, composes 365 letters to his wife. The source of the title is revealed in the 365th letter. Colbert’s photographs and one-hour film loosely reference the traveller’s encounters and experiences described in the letters.

Ashes and Snow

These mixed media photographic works marry umber and sepia tones in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper. The artworks, each approximately five feet by eight feet, are mounted without explanatory text so as to encourage an open-ended interaction with the images.

Colbert wants to remove the artificial barriers between man and animals, returning to an Eden-like point in time when the world was supposedly “one”. By presenting each image as a “poetic filmstudy” he’s trying to communicate the idea that nature doesn’t have a “style” but a “voice”.

Ashes and Snow

Ashes and Snow has no final destination, and the nomadic museum will continue to travel to points around the globe, each exhibit being simply a “port of call”.

Ashes and Snow

View the books online.

The following excerpt is entitled Feather to Fire, and is narrated in three languages by Laurence Fishburne (English), Ken Watanabe (Japanese), and Enrique Rocha (Spanish).

Laika: The Dog That Touched the Stars

Laika“Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
~~ Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, 1998

There was really a dog named Laika, and she touched the stars 50 years ago. Laika was the abandoned Russian puppy who was destined to become Earth’s first space traveler.

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union made headlines and history when they launched Sputnik II into orbit around the earth. The satellite had a passenger: a brown and white mutt named Laika.

Nick Abadzis brings her story to life in a haunting and bittersweet graphic novel, Laika, published by First Second Books. In 200 pages, he manages to portray the Russian attitude toward space conquest at the time, the grueling schedule that the scientists were forced to follow, and the heartbreaking decisions that the trainers of the dogs in the program had to make.

Laika began her life as the unwanted offspring of a highborn lady’s dog. Given to a boy as an “attitude change,” she wais locked up and abused before being thrown away. A series of events led Kudryuvka (Laika’s original name) to Yelena Dubrovsky, the trainer with the Russian space program. Both Yelena and Dr. Gazenko began to understand the sacrifice that both the dogs and the people involved in the space program were asked to make during the Space Race between Russia and the US.

Laika in her cageThe graphic novel opens with scenes of the frozen Russian gulag and a man named Korolev. Eighteen years later, he is the Chief Designer of Sputnik. Buoyed by the success of the successful launch, Prime Minister Khrushchev demands that his space program launch a second orbital vehicle within a single month…this time, with a living creature on board.

Laika, one of many dogs at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, has been trained for flight travel. She bonds immediately with her caretaker Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky and endears herself to the other scientists as well. No dog is better suited for space travel, and Laika is slated to make a trip from which she will never return.

Laika in Sputnik

Laika dies five hours after she is launched on Sputnik II. Unlike later missions, no provision was made to ensure her safe return.

LaikaThe historical facts of Laika’s life and the characters that surround her were exhaustively researched. There’s Sergei Korolev, the head of the program, whom we meet as he is walking out of one of Stalin’s gulags, whence he had been banished in the great purges, and who becomes a driven monster, forever scarred by Siberia. There’s Yelena Dubrovksy, the space medicine program’s animal handler, who has a preternatural ability to connect with the space-dogs, but who is also a scientist and Party member who is clear-eyed in confronting their eventual fate.

For the most part Abadzis maintains a simplified cartoon style. At moments of great importance, however, he renders the figure of Laika more three-dimensional. As Laika sits in the red light of her capsule, mere moments before takeoff, she becomes highly realistic. Sometimes scenes are black and white, like stills from a movie. Other times they are two page spreads that drill home the wonder or the horror of a given moment. And in dreams, the lines that make up a panel grow soft and colourful.

Abadzis talks to Jeff Vandermeer at Amazon.com about making the graphic novel:

I’d known it was a good story since I was about six years old. It had always been at the back of my mind as a story to tell. In 2002, new information came to light about the Sputnik II mission and specifically Laika’s death. That was the spark. Why a graphic novel? Well, comics are my language. It’s the medium that I’m most familiar and comfortable…so it was first choice.

I had no idea there were so few Soviet engineers and scientists involved in the nascent space program — not to trivialize their incredible achievement but, in many senses, they just winged it, borne along in great part by Korolev’s force of will and political manoeuvering. Also it was interesting to find out how much the Soviet scientists cared for their cosmodogs. Events conspired to make Laika a sacrificial passenger on board Sputnik II, but they really did honour their canine cosmonauts. There’s even a statue of Laika in Moscow. Perhaps this book will go some small way to re-establishing her position in history: whatever the circumstances, and whether you agree with what they did or not, she was the first earthling in orbit around this planet.

I could have done with another hundred pages. But I’d taken a bit of time to write and thumbnail it and when that stage was finished, the publisher and I realized that the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launches was fast approaching. When I first pitched the idea to Mark Siegel at First Second, neither of us realized that it was so close. It felt like we needed to be a part of that, so I drew it extremely fast–two hundred pages in a little over eight months. It’s an understatement to say that it was extremely hard work. What got left out was a longer explication of Laika’s origins; the scenes with Mikhail, her first owner were much longer…. Originally, I did have an idea of doing three books: Laika would be the first, Gagarin the second, and a full-on comic strip biography of Korolev would be the final part that would bind together events seen in the first two. Maybe one day.

I suppose it would have been easy to make it another overly saccharine dead-dog story but that wouldn’t have been true either to my taste or to the socio-political system and culture I was attempting to portray. Laika — the real Laika — was a cute dog, as photographs attest. I didn’t want to anthropomorphize her, at least not to the extent that she was spouting speech and thought balloons like Tintin’s Snowy. It’d be disingenuous to suggest that, in dealing with a true story that involves dogs and their owners (even if they happen to be scientists in a Soviet cosmodog program), there wouldn’t be a bit of emotion. There’s plenty (and I hope the reader feels it). But there’s also the harsh reality of the time, the place and the confluence of events that put Laika into space.

When Comrade Yelena visits Laika for one last time she can hear the dog saying her name with every bark, even when Yelena is too far away to hear them. She dreams that Laika is calling out to her for help.

No one can walk away from this book untouched.

Laika’s final transmission

Excerpt at First Second Books

Review at Readaboutcomics

Interview with Abadzis at Comics Reporter

Aaron George Bailey’s Laika website

BBC News: What Happened to Laika

Interviews at BBC News: The World

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret

The lighting is bordello red, but the librarians insist that their X-rated exhibition is serious.

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret, which opened at the National Library in Paris last month, offers a peek at its secret archive of erotic art, putting on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, even calling cards and cardboard pop-ups.

Croix Rouge metro station

Visitors to the library can listen to a modern-day recording of an 18th-century “dialogue” during sex and watch a six-minute excerpt from a grainy black-and-white silent pornography film made in 1921.

The handwritten manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Les Infortunes de la Vertu (The Misfortunes of Virtue) is under glass here, as are 17th-century French engravings of “erotic postures”; English “flagellation novels” exported to France in the late 19th century; Japanese prints; Man Ray photographs; and a police report from 1900 that compiles the addresses of Paris’s houses of prostitution and what they charged.

To avoid complaints that a publicly supported institution is corrupting the country’s youth, no one under 16 is admitted.

“In an era where sexual images are a product for popular consumption, the library has decided to lift the veil on this world of imagination and fantasy,” Bruno Racine, the library director, said in an interview. “The library is a very serious institution, and the project was done with gravity. But we also perhaps are different from what you think — and there is humor here too.”

The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell. Many pieces have been consigned there over the years by the police for safeguarding, perhaps, and posterity.

The exhibition (and its 464-page catalog) comes at a time when France is struggling with a variety of societal issues: the limits of privacy for its public figures, censorship and the definition of good taste. A one-day scholarly conference at the library about the exhibition included a debate on the meaning of modern-day censorship. Library curators acknowledge that public morality is shifting.

President Nicolas Sarkozy himself is blurring the lines of public permissibility. His decision to revel in, rather than hide, his love affair with Carla Bruni, a model-turned-pop-singer, is, he said at a news conference last week, a break with the past and a sign that “France is moving forward.”

However, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist defeated by Mr. Sarkozy in last May’s presidential election, is calling for more decorum and discretion in public life. “Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen to turn private events in his life into public events, like Louis XIV: You have the king’s breakfast, the king’s lunch, the king’s bedtime, the king’s mistresses,” she said in a radio interview on Monday.

Even Simone de Beauvoir’s backside is not off limits from exposure and analysis these days. The decision by the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur two weeks ago to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of that feminist literary figure with a nude photo of her (taken from the back in 1952) has been sharply criticized and just as sharply defended.

Florence Montreynaud, a historian and feminist author who runs an anti-sexism organization, protested the photo by offering the magazine’s director, Jean Daniel, a choice: apologize or bare his own bottom. She also said the magazine should publish the bare buttocks of Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s long-time partner.

The fact that the cellulite on Beauvoir’s thighs and buttocks was airbrushed away added to the indignity. The media columnist for the newspaper Libération, Daniel Schneidermann, wrote: “The photo has even been retouched — the buttocks of Beauvoir — with makeup, to make them lose some kilos, some rolls of fat and to take off 10 years.”

The Paris metro system constructed a teaser for the show on its No. 10 line. Commuters passing by the closed Croix Rouge station get the most fleeting of glimpses of erotic engravings lighted up in shocking pink and partly hidden behind fluttering black curtain strips.

The newspaper Le Monde has run ads for the show (with a shocking-pink X) on its front page. The literary review Le Magazine Littéraire devoted its December cover to the subject, with scholarly essays on sex and aging, the last taboo of pedophilia and whether excessive public display of sex has made it boring.

Still, with France’s tough laws against pornography and one of the most aggressive law-enforcement campaigns against child pornography in Europe, the library has taken care to avoid falling afoul of the law. . . .

New York Times, January 16, 2008

The Deliverance of Dancing Bears


After a lifetime of brutal treatment, including walking on burning embers, Bulgaria’s last three dancing bears will get to rest their paws at a mountain sanctuary, in an apparent end to the centuries-old performance tradition in the Balkans. Activists today purchased the freedom of Mima, 8, Misho, 19, and Svetla, 17.

Bulgaria is believed to have been the last country in the Balkans where dancing bears still performed, even though the practice was outlawed in 1993, when there were 20 to 30 such bears in the country.

The three bears will join another 20 brown bears on Mount Rila at a 12-hectare sanctuary for former dancing bears about 180 kilometres south of Sofia.

“Our aim is to make their life more bearable in their remaining years,” Ioana Tomescu of the Austria-based Four Paws Foundation, which created the sanctuary, told The Associated Press.

Throughout the Balkans, families, mostly among the Roma community, have long earned a living through performing bears. But the techniques to train them led the practice to be banned, and animal rights activists have moved to find the bears new homes.

Because dancing bears are illegal, authorities could simply have taken Mima, Misho and Svetla away from their owners in the eastern village of Getsovo.

Instead, the Four Paws Foundation decided to pay for their freedom by giving their owners small grants to set up new businesses. It did not reveal how much was paid. In return, the owners signed declarations pledging never to take up the bear dancing business again.

The Deliverance of Dancing Bears,
by Elizabeth Stanley

ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Awards and 1995 Australian Picture Book of the Year winner, this thought-provoking story presents the plight of the dancing bears of Turkey and Greece. The author tells the story of a captive bear whose dreams of freedom sustain her, even while being forced to perform in a Turkish marketplace by a cruel and angry keeper. During the quiet hours when she is confined to her cage, the bear imagines a different life in which she is free to wander through mountain streams and sleep lazily with her cubs. It is a kind-hearted peasant who liberates the bear and who reminds all of those watching of an important moral lesson about dignity and life.

Stanley saw her first “dancing bear” in 1979 in Athens and decided then to write a book to challenge the assumption that men could cruelly use wild animals to make money. In 1992 she took her written text to Turkey to take photos and to make sketches for the artwork. In the same year The World Society for the Protection of Animals effected the release and the return to the wild of all chained bears in Turkey. Today there are no dancing bears in Greece or Turkey. Today, it is the last Bulgarian dancing bears who have been freed.

But a recent WSPA report has revealed that the trade in dancing bears is still alive and well in India.