Ai Weiwei: Political Art

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According to Bertolt Brecht, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

We could not know we were headed into Ai Weiwei’s brain from the lifeboats hanging from the Palazzo Strozzi. We knew, of course, the rubber boats represented the plight of refugees. We knew of Ai Weiwei’s reputation as a dissident, as a prisoner, as a spokesperson for justice and against corruption and censorship.

However, we were overcome with his grief, rage, and  agitation as we were delivered into his hippocampus. We recognized its horseshoe shape and how the monumental installations we encountered there helped him–and us–to process history and emotion.

In the second piece, Snake Bag, he sewed 360 backpacks to represent 360 children killed at a school when an earthquake in China’s Sichuan province killed approximately 90,000 people; as visible in the companion video that shows the recovery of the inadequate rebar, the massive destruction was due to the government cutting corners on construction.

In another series, we see Ai Weiwei’s left middle finger extended to the White House, the Eiffel Tower, Hong Kong, Tiananmen Square, and the Mona Lisa, among others; these pieces are title A Study in Perspective. His perspective is clear. He even has wallpaper that also has patterns of middle fingers.

An ivory porcelain plot of flowers is centered in the middle of one of the rooms. These flowers represent his rebellion against censorship, surveillance, and control. He further addresses restrictions he faced by recreating the surveillance cameras (in marble), handcuffs (in wood), and hangers (from his imprisonment, in wood).

Film, selfies, pamphlets, 32 Qing Dynasty stools assembled into a circle, 3200 porcelain crabs, Lego portraits of Dante Alighieri and Galileo Galilei and three self-portraits (also in Legos) further intensify the multimedia experience.

I am inspired by this tour of Ai Weiwei’s brain and heart. I am reminded that, especially in the face of oppression and restriction, we must use all of the resources we have at hand to fight for what is right. Art can be mirror, hammer, souvenir, warning, flare, lighthouse, tank, lifeboat…

 

The Mask of Evil

by Bertolt Brecht

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,

The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe

The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating

What a strain it is to be evil.

  • Ai Weiwei’s installations and representations function as Brecht’s “mask of evil.” What does your character/speaker have or make to remind her of “what a strain it is to be evil?”

 

Dublin Castle at Christmas

It is week ten of the semester, and we are on the brink of spring. This is the point in the term where the speed picks up, and what felt like racewalking suddenly turns into a jog to Spring Break and then a frantic sprint to the end.

This weekend I am scanning photos of Christmas as though the length of time is as vast as the distance from here to Dublin. I am grateful for having timed my visit to encounter a castle elaborately decorated for Christmas, for the generous sun shining on the labyrinth and gardens, for the the luxury of history and the venue of a gallery to learn more of Ireland’s bombings and terrorism. I am grateful for the joy and safety I enjoy even at the end of a long winter.

Indeed it has been a long winter full of hard lessons and interesting work. I just have to  pause to remember where I am going and where I have been. Speaking of week ten, the creative writing students are blogging.

Daily Bread 400: https://dailybread400.wordpress.com/

Blissful Binge: https://blissfulbinge.wordpress.com/

Passions of 8: https://passionsof8.wordpress.com/

World of Actions & Reactions: https://creativeblogforclass.wordpress.com/

All Things Dreamy: https://allthingsdreamyblog.wordpress.com/

Please follow them, like them, and tell your friends about these diligent and creative writers.

Looking for writing inspiration, take a look at: http://awesomewritingprompts.tumblr.com/

 

 

Book of Kells

Visit the Kells online at: http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MS58_003v

We were grateful it is not high tourist season as we headed to the Trinity College Library  to see the illuminated New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that are known as the Book of Kells.

We learned about the venerated manuscript’s ink and the colors (lilac, pink, verdigris, indigo, and red and yellow ochre) and the collaboration between writer and artist, what symbols we were seeing in the leaves of vellum, that vellum is calfskin, that the book faced several rounds of warfare and survived.

I looked and looked for a piece of writing to capture the sense of this adventure. I finally found “Scriptorium” by Melissa Range:

Before the stepwork and the fretwork,
before the first wet spiral leaves the brush,
before the plucking of the geese’s quills,
before the breaking of a thousand leads…

(Read more at: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/scriptorium)

We leaned over the glass case, wishing we had retained more training in Latin, wishing we had brought a magnifying glass, remembering there was a line of people patiently (or not-so-patiently) waiting behind us. We hastily admired the shine of the colors; we tersely studied the Celtic knots; we speedily marveled at how the pagan and religious interconnect on these pages. I could not resist hurriedly scanning for peacocks (symbols of Christ), fish (symbols of Christ), snakes (symbols of Christ’s rebirth), and eagles (symbols of John and Christ’s ascension to heaven) in the intricate pages displayed.

The next thing we knew we were headed out of the gallery and upstairs into a library reminiscent of Hogwarts’s on the floor above the sacred texts. We felt as if we’d just taken in a museum of information; we were as exhausted as we were acutely aware there is much more to learn.

  • The Book of Kells reminded me of Visual Journaling and the power of drafting using visual art as well as words. Here is an example: http://improving-slowly.tumblr.com/post/150287161654/some-of-my-favourite-pages-from-the-summer, and, of course Frida Kahlo’s journal: https://sketchesandjottings.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/fridas-diary-her-tortured-art-journal/.

Carousel

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Piazza della Republica, Florence

Of course, carouse is at the heart of the word “carousel.” And, we do not deny we were utterly intoxicated by the lively accordion tunes from the carousel; by the buzz of activity on the square, including musicians and strolling lovers; by the joy of the last few merry-go-round riders; by the cold that made us aware that we needed to keep moving and that the graceful herd of twenty buckskins and creamy palominos, elegant as ballerinas, enchanting as unicorns, had dazzled us so that we were practically frozen in their presence. We could not resist envisioning ourselves resting in the two golden carriages covered in blankets or, dare we think it, furs; warm.

Something inside us that hadn’t twinkled in a long time was stirred, and we, delighted that star was still there, were ready to wander back into real life, into being middle-aged tourists.

  • There are many carousel inspired pieces out there in the world. Zachary Schomburg gives us the sense of being inside a carousel, of being pinned to the wall and then made disoriented by the spinning in his “The Carousel” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/carousel. And, take a look at Laura Kasischke’s poem, “Recall the Carousel” at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/recall-carousel. Her piece is a frightening reminiscence of the threats facing children. The poem takes a sharp turn into the dreadful as she writes: “The carousel? Do you recall? As if/ we were our own young parents suffering again/after so many hundreds of hours of bliss.” Suffering seems to be understatement in the face of horrors she evokes. What happens when you step onto/into the carousel stage?

Epiphany

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On the twelfth day of Christmas, we spotted a living manger complete with babe, goats, and a cow on the steps of the Duomo.

Then, festive Florence delivered a parade to celebrate Epiphany: several trios of Wise Men; a few triumvirates of Kings delivering gold, frankincense, and myrrh; a spectacle of shepherds; a procession of good ladies and men and horses and falcons and flags and goodwill. But where were the angels?

We were standing at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio and were so close to the revelers we could nearly touch them. This was particularly electrifying as we witnessed the flag wavers’ exhibition and could feel the whip and whoosh of the banners as well as the cavalcade of horses.

From Christmas Carol

–Sara Teasdale

The kings they came from out the south,

All dressed in ermine fine;

They bore Him gold and chrysoprase,

And gifts of precious wine.

 

The shepherds came from out the north,

Their coats were brown and old;

They brought Him little new-born lambs—

They had not any gold.

Take a look at the rest of the poem at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/57831

I grew up in a household where we packed away the Christmas season’s shiny baubles and synthetic spruce by the New Year. However, it suddenly made sense that one ought to delay these chores. All it took was for me to witness the entire city still decorated on January 6th,  to recognize this as the last day of Christmas. Yes, of course, we need pageantry for those bearing gifts throughout Twelvetide. Yes, we should not be so hasty in wrapping up the season.

  • Some believe that one should receive a present every day of the twelve days (as the song suggests). These believers insist that the offerings have the power to represent an aspiration for each month of the new year. What dozen tokens will you furnish for a lover, a child, or a parent?  What is the corresponding wish?

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This Little Piggy and Other Superstitions

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Fontana del Porcellino pavilion with projections on the cement

In Florence, there is a bronze boar.

Rumor has it, if you rub the piggy’s proboscis, you are certain to return to the fair city.

Another superstition particular to this porcine effigy involves putting a coin into the piglet’s mouth; as it falls into the grate, you can make a wish.

Some believe that rubbing the hog’s snout will bring a male son.

Because of the threat of fertility, I was uncertain whether I should rub for the promise of a return. In fact, I waited until the last day of our visit to finally approach the swine statue.

I am intrigued by superstitions. Here are five ways of looking at Florence through superstition:

  1. A neighbor will warn you not to bother knocking on wood. Instead, touch iron (or one’s own testicles, or one’s own breasts, if female).
  2. The wild taxi driver will ardently suggest you watch out for black cats. Even while driving, pull over and wait, however long it takes, for another driver to cross these felines’ paths.
  3. An intoxicated man at a bar might insist that posing the pinkie and index finger like devil horns can: 1. Defend against the evil eye. 2. Curse an enemy. 3. Signify infidelity. (You will not know how to translate his meaning when he uses this sign minutes later.)
  4. In a tall building, you are likely to learn the Italian seventeen is like the American thirteen: unlucky.
  5. A waiter is certain to inform you in certain terms that thirteen is lucky, unless you sit down to a table with twelve other people (as in the Last Supper); then one of the diners is certain to betray you. (The Real Housewives of Anywhere should take this into consideration.

Consider the following lines from the beginning of Malcolm Glass’s poem “Superstitions:”

I write these words on the twenty-seventh

page of my notebook, ensuring my words

safe passage and ready readers. In my lapel

I wear bloodroot to ward away broken

mirrors and my image splintered on tile.