The value of hope

We had a conversation in Power Boothe‘s theory class about whether or not art has value. Someone asked, does a blank canvas have value? The art students though that it did not. It’s just wood, they said, scraps of cloth. Everyone agreed that there was work put in to cut the wood and weave the cloth and construct the canvas—it costs money to buy a prepared canvas—but it had no functional value, no use value, and so was worthless. (Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction defines use value versus cult value in passing, as does Adolph Loos’s tyrannical essay, Ornament and Crime.) I disagreed. The blank canvas has incredible value in its potential—to be art. What’s more, the blank canvas is the hope of art, a gesture towards the power and transcendence of human creativity. It’s the emotional bell weather of our society. Here is the potential for beauty, for greatness, it says, for novelty, for personal expression—despite all odds. Despite the crushing weight of the world and our own doubts, here is the chance to escape, into art. What could be more valuable?

Faces on buildings

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There’s something special about faces on buildings. I don’t mean advertising billboards—even when painted on, billboards are too slick to have the same affect. Faces on buildings stare out at you like a totemic god, a tiny shrine writ large. I spotted this first face in the Greektown neighborhood of downtown Detroit. It’s wry and literary-looking.

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This face, a portrait of Ann Frank, is more commanding. It’s visually stark in large blocks of black and white. For me the image is a representation of the holocaust, causing no emotion that the face of a cheerful little girl would usually stir. Her name is not written there, just the words, “Believe in People” on the top right. It’s a compelling portrait, especially at this size. This is painted behind the Yale School of Art in on Crown Street. I hope it stays up for a while. Was it someone’s final project?

A block away are a series of blank buildings, large facades with no windows or doors, no human scale. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to paint faces here? The side of this Walgreens pharma-superstore dropped in a sea of parking (with a strangely short parking structure next door) would be a perfect candidate. Perhaps something similar to Jaume Plensa’s portrait fountain in Chicago’s Millenium Park, with the faces of local New Haven residents. It would be like Felice Varini’s Square with Four Circles on the garage downtown. Here’s my mock up for your review.

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Collecting

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I had breakfast with photographer and Yale architecture student Susan Surface today. I saw her presentation at Architecture for Humanity’s PechaKucha fundraiser for Japan in New Haven a few weeks back. Susan is an amateur (professional?) bull rider as well as a full time grad student. She’s been transforming the pain of being bucked off a bull into an art project. After a rodeo event, Susan documents her bruises in delicately posed self-portraits that are colorful and alluring yet alarming (I like alarming). I was enthralled by her photos, both these self-portraits and the images she’s taken of the bull-riding community, not to mention by the guts this woman has! How many young women do you know that ride bulls? (And she probably weighs about 100 pounds.) Having successfully guessed her email address, I decided to ask her if any of her portraits were for sale, and now I’m about to collect two of her photographs. It’s pretty neat-o.

Nelisiwe Xaba

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Nelisiwe Xaba
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Nelisiwe Xaba performing “Plasticization” at SUD 2013, part of doual’art in Douala, Cameroon.
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Visiting an exhibition of documentary photographs of the 1976 Soweto uprisings and the 1960 Sharpeville massacre

We are lucky if in the course of our everyday lives we come across images as inspiring as those of the work of Nelisiwe Xaba. While looking for journals about nomads in the periodicals room of the reference library, I came across Art South Africa magazine, which featured an article about Xaba, a dancer and performance artist in Soweto. I recently traveled to South Africa for the first time. Never in my life have I been more aware of my race than while walking the streets of Johannesburg, even more so than when, in Taiwan, I was the only white person in sight. (The most unnerving thing about Taiwan, and the rest of Asia, is not being able to read the signs.) South Africa is unique. It may surprise you to learn that it’s the most racially diverse nation on earth, with thriving Indian and Malay populations mixed among native Africans and whites. In that way it is not unlike Brazil. Yet while vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2002, I was the least aware of my race as I’ve ever been, so profoundly comfortable did everyone seem together on the beach. (My Brazilian friend Flavia, who was also my guide, told me that in other parts of the city, however, it’s not the same.) In such moments—on the beach in Brail, on the street in Johannesburg or even Cape Town—the unspoken rules governing space and the separation between groups within one’s own culture (for me, the United States) are revealed for the obtuse, falsely constructed monsters that they are. I came home from South Africa sad at our lack of progress regarding integration and equality since Reconstruction. South Africa, of course, is on a whole other level. Xaba has something to say about it.

Q: You are very interested in the politics of the body.

XABA: Yes, of the female black body. The Black Consciousness movement existed because there was racism. So if I didn’t perform a lot in Europe, and only in Soweto, it wouldn’t be a question… If your work mainly gets seen in Europe it is important to acknowledge that consciously. Who is consuming what you are doing?

Art South Africa, December 2009, v8.2

The Black Consciousness movement began in the 1970’s, based on the writings of Steve Biko. (Denzel Washington played Biko in the movie Cry Freedom.) I bought a small compilation of Biko’s essays in Cape Town called, No Fear Expressed. (ISBN No: 0-9802591-2-6) The title is a phrase he used in an interview which encapsulates much of his message. The complete sentence is, “To understand me correctly you have to say that there were no fears expressed.” As someone for whom fear has often been an obstacle, Biko’s words spoke to me: “We must remove from our vocabulary completely the concept of fear.”[1] “Is it this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa…How can people be prepared to put up a resistance against their overall oppression if in their individual situations, they cannot insist on the observance of their manhood?”[2] Biko was tortured and killed by the government for violating his house arrest. I have since thought of this great intellectual as one of my personal heros.

Biko and Xaba both politicize the body as a landscape of struggle. They remind us that it is important always to be aware of the nature of one’s own identity as consumed by others. The final image in the triptych above is a photograph taken in Regina Mundi church in Soweto. In the summer of 1976, police fired on unarmed, retreating students during protests in the townships. The bullet holes in the church’s ceiling remain as irrefutable evidence that the bullets themselves were not made of rubber, as the police later testified, but were decidedly lethal. The church balcony now displays a collection of photographs marking the events of that summer. You can see my reflection in the glass of this particular photo depicting one of the many horrors which occurred as the apartheid system fell apart. We cannot escape ourselves, and so must instead recognize our own identity as perceived by others. Xaba’s work reminds us to consider this key part of the creative process.

[1] Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity,” 1973.
[2] I Write What I Like, Frank Talk. “Fear — An Important Determinant in South African Politics.” 1971.

Good Times

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The incoming architecture graduate students at the University of Hartford were treated to a day in New York City on August 26th. I led this third annual tour of the city’s cultural institutions, joined by 17 students and 3 other faculty from the department. This tour was similar to the previous two, though I attempt to make variations with each iteration. Our itinerary included the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Center for Architecture. We ended the day at Saigon Grill on University Place, having worked up a healthy appetite.

The images above are of the installation by the Starn brothers on the Met rooftop titled “Big Bambú.” I tried to see it earlier in the summer but was turned away due to rain, so I was really excited to finally visit the growing structure-as-art looming 50 feet above the roof. You can walk along the pathway built into the structure with special, get-up-at-7am-to-wait-in-line tickets, so long as you meet certain criteria (over 4’10”, under 400 lbs) including not being drunk. The only irony there is that alcohol is readily bought and sold on the Met rooftop. Big Bambú is really fantastic, and working on it has to be the best summer job ever. It’s not built the way an architect or engineer would build it—it’s not efficient. Rather, it’s highly fetishized, with extra bits of string hanging down from all the lashings, footings rendered useless by continued construction that leaves them dangling a half-inch above the ground, reams of cloth tied up to provide shade to the mountain-climbers-turned-builders, and wrapped objects likes stones embedded into the bamboo network. It is awesome. And it’s only up until October 31st, so go see it.

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The first year grads will be working on an addition to the Whitney Museum, the one Renzo Piano tried to do directly adjacent to Breuer’s building, but the neighborhood said “no” too many times. Continue reading Good Times