Monday, October 31, 2011

Luso-American Literature

Saudade: More than longing. More than yearning.” So are the words of Katherine Vaz, one of the contributors to the recently released book, Luso-American Literature: Writing by Portuguese-Speaking Authors in North America (Rutgers Press). The comprehensive anthology of Portuguese, Brazilian and Cape Verdean literature is in itself an attempt to voice and explain the indefinable sentiment of “saudade” that is so particular to the Portuguese language.

The anthology focuses on the authors’ experience (both famous and obscure) living abroad in the United States. Though the writers come from various countries, they have a common longing for the Portuguese language. Robert Henry Moser and Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta, the editors of the book, write in their highly engaging introduction that language is above all what ties the Luso-American community together, however undefined and scattered it may be.

Several of the writers in the collection play with and question the very notion of language: is it language that shapes us? In Monteiro Lobato’s fictional memoir, “America,” we witness a discussion on language between an American, Mr. Slang, and a Brazilian, the narrator. The Brazilian is baffled by the American obsession with excess, expressed in the invention of the unit “million.” Mr. Slang mocks the unit of Brazilian money – “real” – for it is in fact “unreal, imponderable.” The Brazilian doesn’t care about measures, unlike the American who “must have unprecedented measures.” So the text continues along this line, where disagreements arise out of differences in diction. However, as the two try to defend their respective ways of life, they both conclude that in the end “it’s just tradition.” The language we use to think and explain ourselves has been inherited, and sometimes it simply loses any logic.

In being thrown into a new language, these writers are faced with defining themselves within a new culture. Some of the writers never identify with Americans, accepting their estrangement and sometimes jokingly pointing out cultural differences. Other writers don’t address their displacement but insinuate “saudade” as they fixate on highly sensory and culturally specific memories.

But does one necessarily acquire a new identity when one moves to a new country? And if so, is it a gain or a loss? Many writers insinuate that it is both, and that a change in one’s self comes with adaptation. The riveting poet, Jorge de Sena, describes in his poem, Notions About Linguistics, how the body adapts to a new nationality as the mouth and tongue is forced to learn new rhythms. The Portuguese poet Thomas J. Braga, though he writes in English, at times, he cannot completely let go of Portuguese. He holds on to certain words or phrases as his poems run through memories in sensory lists, as if he were desperately searching for the source from which he came from.

Some writers try to emerge into the American culture by changing their names (Carlo Pedro becomes Charles Peters) or by embracing the American dream. In the informative historical sections of Luso-American Literature, they explain that the Portuguese came to the States in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to expand their horizons and to search for economic opportunity. Later, Brazilians escaped the dictatorship and the Cape Verdeans came on whaling ships as they searched for a better lifestyle.

Luso-American Literature is a pleasure to read not only for its diverse and intelligent selection of literature but also for its educational component. The book wishes to inform, perhaps primarily an America audience, of the Luso-American community that has lived and created in America over two centuries.

Though the Cape Verdean literature section was not as strongly represented as the Brazilian and Portuguese, it ended the book on a powerful note with The Old Sailor by Kurt José Ayau. A Cape Verdean man tells the story of how he lives a double life – one in Cape Verde and one in America. The chance to have two families and two ways of living, now that is the dream. But the sea is his true home – the mother, the place that does not lie anywhere in particular. Sometimes it is liberating to be in a place that you do not belong to or do not need to belong to: a place that mediates between spaces of belonging.

Click here to see a discussion on the book on Manhattan Connection

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop: A Morning

It’s early, the sun couldn’t have been up for more than an hour, and Lota is already up. It is a relatively clear day; Elizabeth can see only a few clouds bobbing by her window. Sometimes, when it’s very cloudy, because the house is so far up in the mountains, the glass gets fogged with gray.

“Good morning,” Lota lays herself on the bed, by Elizabeth, over the sheets. She wears her bathrobe and smells of perfume and toothpaste. Awaking together is part of their joint morning ritual.

Lota runs her palm down Elizabeth’s hair in a motherly gesture. Elizabeth bats her eyes, adjusting to the light and shapes around her (Petrópolis is still a novelty) and smiles at Lota with some wordless sweet thought.

“Come down to breakfast when you’re ready. I’ll wait for you, but first I have to go check on Manuelzinho and the vegetables.” Manuelzinho has been helping with the gardening ever since the house was finished being built. Manuelzinho drives Lota crazy. He isn’t productive, and when he tries to be, something goes wrong.

Elizabeth likes to observe Manuelzinho, as she does now, while eating her breakfast. Elizabeth and Lota eat together outside in the garden. It is June and it is getting cooler. Elizabeth insists that Lota sit on the end of the table that looks to the house, and not to the garden (where she could obsessively oversee her workers). She knows that Lota wouldn’t eat her breakfast otherwise.

They eat jaboticaba jam and homemade butter on bread. Elizabeth made the jam herself after becoming acquainted with the purplish round fruit that has been growing on nearby trees. Elizabeth loves to cook and she is looking forward to preparing the lunch menu, which she and Lota try to write out on a day-to-day basis.

“What is he doing?” Lota asks nervously. She’s referring to Manuelzinho. She notices that Elizabeth has been watching him.

“Oh, nothing,” Elizabeth replies, which isn’t entirely a lie. Manuelzinho has been seemingly admiring a banana tree for the past good many minutes. The bananas are green still and hang tightly packed together. Manuelzinho has been stroking them, one by one, as if the warmth of his hands would help them to ripe. He inspects the bunch from all sides, carefully analyzing how it is attached to its tree. Elizabeth appreciates Manuelzinho’s curiosity towards natural beauty, and she likes his straw hat that he himself painted green.

Lota loses patience and turns around. “Manuelzinho! Você está fazendo exatamente o que?” Lota gets up from the table without finishing her breakfast. Manuelzinho isn’t as bad as the cook, Elizabeth thinks. Elizabeth does more cooking than she does, for the cook spends most of her time painting on the garden rocks. She is an artist (and talented enough, according to Elizabeth), and perhaps so is Manuelzinho, which explains why menial labor is unmanageably boring to them.

Elizabeth listens to Lota and Manuelzinho bicker. She understands Portuguese now but still struggles speaking. She is embarrassed by her accent and prefers Lota to do the talking.

Elizabeth’s hands are getting cold. Though none of the residents agree, Petrópolis can get quite cold, especially high up in the mountains. Lota had a fireplace built for the house. But when the fire was lit just last week the whole place was invaded with smoke. The builders didn’t understand the concept of a chimney and thought it better to cover the chimney hole to prevent rain from coming in. Lota was furious.

Elizabeth decides to go check for mail. She looks forward to this moment, of checking who has written her from home. Sometimes, when Elizabeth wants to distract her thoughts, she writes up imaginary letters in her head.

The mail hasn’t arrived. Elizabeth makes her way to her studio but pauses along the way to grab some bananas from the kitchen to feed Sammy. Uncle Sam is Elizabeth’s pet toucan, given to her by a mountain neighbor for her birthday. Sammy eats up to ten bananas a day. Elizabeth and Sammy are very fond of one another.

Lota has designed Elizabeth’s studio facing a small waterfall. She built in a pond so that the waterfall cascades into it, making loud and fat droplets. There are many new sounds that Elizabeth is becoming accustomed to in Brazil – the birds, the Portuguese, the thicker rain. The music, too. She finds that she prefers samba, though, to bossa nova.

Elizabeth likes living here, at the Samambaia house. Here she finds that provincial kind of lifestyle that she feels comfortable in. She takes the Selected Poems by Marianne Moore and begins to rub the pages between her fingers. Elizabeth admires Marianne and the good advice she gives, even if it does border on the preachy side at times. They are good friends now (it has been a few years since Marianne gave Elizabeth the permission to call her by her first name). Elizabeth will read one of Marianne’s poems to Lota tonight, though she is unsure which. Every night they read to one another, and take turns depending on the language. Reading in Portuguese isn’t the easiest task for Elizabeth, but it is still much easier than speaking.

Writing, for Elizabeth, can be slow. She has to take her time. She walks outside and sits by a coffee plant, by the waterfall. Later this afternoon Lota will be having visitors. The Samambaia house has become a destination, an object of curiosity. Elizabeth is not in the mood for having visitors. Sometimes she struggles socializing with Lota’s friends. Many people assume that because Elizabeth is a writer she would like to talk about literature all the time. But really she’d rather talk about the details in one’s day, what one saw and ate and wore. She’d even choose to talk about art over literature.

Elizabeth suggests, never dictates. She observes the world unassumingly. Lota has a louder personality. She makes the big statements. She commands over life.

As Elizabeth sits in the biting-green foliage beneath a cold-blue sky, she appears quite plain, even solitary. She is of a different shade, of another language. She does not participate, but she sees.

She looks around her, searching for inspiration. She talks to herself, as she sometimes does. She sees a beija-flor, a hummingbird, flickering above a flower, and asks:

“How do you put that creature into words? How do you put that head?”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gambito Delivers in Hungry and Vivid Words

Sarah Gambito’s compelling and energetic book of poems, Delivered, has the audacious tendency to – as articulated in her poem ‘The Tip of the Angel’ – “[ask] questions we don’t like” (50). These questions often vehemently confront relationships, immigration, religion and family dynamics. While her subject matter may vary, Gambito’s sharp and expressive voice is constant throughout. It is a tense voice, constantly shuffling between a struggling tone and an assertive one. This conflict, in turn, illuminates the paramount theme in her work of human vulnerability, of the desperate longing to overcome pain.

Almost always, the “I” is the victim in the poems. Over time, the reader develops an attachment with and understanding towards this “I,” the main speaker. This relationship is made possible because of Gambito’s artfully communicative and persuasive writing. For example, in some poems thoughts are repeatedly interrupted by periods, such as in ‘A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone’: “Reserved and ever patient. I sprang to my defense. I was better than you. I wanted it more.” (30). By breaking up the phrase, and forcing the reader to pause, every segment is given value, which in turn heightens the emotion. It likewise gives rise to a quick rhythm, which complements the assertive tone and correlates to the way we speak.

Gambito masterfully translates how we speak into writing not only through punctuation but also through the use of contemporary and colloquial language. This is evidenced through cursing or through the incorporation of common expressions and slang. She likewise sometimes addresses the reader directly, reducing any distance between the reader and the words. The reader thus becomes, to some degree, a character in her poems, like the many “he’s,” “she’s,” and “you’s.” Like these entities, the reader is another person that she is desperately trying to communicate with. This is especially evidenced in the close of the poem, ‘Waiting,’ where the speaker pleads the “dear reader”: “Stay again. / Let me try again” (23). The despairing tone insinuates dissatisfaction with the articulation of her words. Indeed, the speaker is always trying to grasp something, whether it is her identity, her opinions on religion or her feelings towards a lover. This desire, though rarely resolved, is frequently expressed through hand and touch imagery.

In ‘What I Saw,’ comfort is found through tangibility: “And I thought all the hunks of peaches of my/ life were coming together. To hold/ in my hand. And have.” (59). The use of “hunks” connotes fullness and weight, and complements the fruitfulness, juiciness and roundness in “peaches.” To have a life that “[comes] together” consists of holding, possessing something plentiful and whole that one would like to gorge. ‘A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone,’ on the other hand, shows the frustration of not being able to grasp and touch (36). Unlike the peach imagery in ‘What I Saw,’ here, we have fractured or disruptive images – “dead toys” and “war” – to resemble someone empty-handed, unfulfilled. Towards the poem’s end, the speaker writes: “I can’t touch your hands. / Let me. Give me.” This phrase highlights a failed attempt to reach, an ultimate absence and loneliness. The curt, juvenile language in “Let me. Give me,” disturbingly reveals the greed and persistence of a child. Gambito’s expressive language and vivid imagery often functions to communicate the two poles of absence and fulfillment.

This pairing of abstract thoughts and emotions with concrete imagery is masterfully executed throughout much of Gambito’s book. Her frequently striking imagery prevents the poems from solely echoing vague emotional statements.

The importance of Gambito’s imagery is evidenced in those poems that lack such descriptions and rest on abstract or non-visual wording. ‘Two Times’ reads as a menial narrative on a dream the speaker had where “everyone” forgot her birthday (25). The reader follows an uninteresting dialogue between a mother and daughter on having a birthday party. Although other poems similarly describe personal moments that may be familiar to the reader, there is an imaginative twist to them through metaphorical imagery. Here, however, once Gambito rests on the spine of her thoughts with no concrete images to enrich them, they fall rather flat. The same can be said of ‘A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone,’ which, like many of her other poems, takes a critical stance on the American way of living (27). Although I may sympathize with the statements made in regard to the consuming, controlling and predictable lifestyle, that is as far as engagement gets here. The poem’s ending – “It continues like this.” – only reiterates the bored, observational tone of the language and the repetitive nature of the ideas. However, this factual wording and tone, when balanced with a fuller and more dynamic language, has its merits. Because much of her subject matter is overtly emotional, this colder and curt voice can prevent the writing from becoming too sentimental.

The layout of Delivered is divided into three parts, where each section is introduced with a quote from a different source. In using these quotes, Gambito pulls her writing out of the bounded book into a wider dialogue. However, she does not resist to subtly and tellingly manipulate the quotes, which she does through bolding certain words. The writer, Gómez-Peña’s quoted passage expresses the discomfort in being an immigrant, and likens crying to a “baby coyote” (45). This bolded image carries all at once vulnerable, childish and animalistic connotations – all of which are prominent in Gambito’s poems, where the speaker has the appetite of a child and the aggressiveness of an animal, often “biting” at things. The quote, like the other two, does not entirely remove us from the poems; rather, it takes us out just enough to make us reflect outside of the book’s personal and specific realm.

Gambito’s poetry is dense with imagery and tense with emotion, which can powerfully overwhelm the reader with its painful pangs and vivid moments. Though Gambito can repeat themes and specific images, they do not feel overused. Rather, Gambito is endowed with the ability to make her language appear fresh every time. Indeed, Delivered convinces us that only through this elasticity and complexity of language can such a vigorous and distinct world be felt.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The life and death of an object

Behind a glass box in the Arms and Armory wing of the Metropolitan Museum dangles a Saihai, or a signaling baton, from the Edo period. The baton’s handle is a long and thin lacquered wood. From it hang golden paper strips that are about as thick and as long as fettuccine pasta. Together the strips mouth a discrete pedestal that holds the Saihai up. However, the Saihai rather gives the illusion that it floats. Perhaps this is because the handle is propped up, as if an invisible hand were still grasping onto it. Or perhaps it is because of the weightless quality of its golden body.

The Saihai could be mistaken for a flower, blooming off a suspended branch. The cascading strips of gold deflate as they descend like an upside down tulip. Even the shadow it casts is reminiscent of nature – the strips dabble light and dark patches below them like scattered leaves. One imagines a dark opening beneath its petals, where it guards its seeds. The handle is engraved with peony blossoms, a flower remarkable for its large opening that only continues to swell over days.

There is also a musical quality about the Saihai. One imagines the strips as a ballerina’s skirt, propped on a pedestal. Perhaps she turns and sways as the black flute-like instrument above her plays soft music. Indeed there is a single hole pierced within the handle that could struggle out weak notes of song.

But the Saihai is also a quiet place. We do not know what lies beneath this lady’s skirt, this golden curtain. A few strips are curled up at their ends, as a tease. But in the end, the Saihai conceals. Its full signs of life make us wonder what it was once like when it moved, but we cannot know. We watch it float, mutely, as a place of secrets.

It is in this moment of silence that we realize that the Saihai no longer lives. It is as a dead thing that one venerates, from a distance, for its impressive life. The signs along its body remind us that it is now a fixed and frozen object. The strips’ creases have stiffened and bent permanently. Parts of the gold have now turned black. A divine light bathes the Saihai’s head, anointing it as if it has already parted for death.

The Saihai is an object full of contradictions: it tells us of all its signs of life, though silently; it appears weightless and flexible yet hard and static. To try to imagine a fierce military commander agitating these strips about for a signal of attack is difficult. We have met our object in its immaculate stage; it seems that it has not been touched for centuries. Anything that would alter its frozen form would come as a disturbance, as a violation of its perfection. As we come to associate it with its function of attack we realize that our flower, lady, and musical instrument in the end stand for blood.

A flash of lightening strikes the glass and for a moment the Saihai disappears behind the white light. It is the flash from one of the one thousand cameras snapping photographs in the Metropolitan Museum. We are reminded of the glass and the people that reflect on it. The dark, enclosed room makes not only the objects more prominent but also the spectators themselves. People swim across the glass as ghosts passing through.

As one watches oneself through the glass, one is reminded of the relationship of viewer and object. The glass, too, is an object to behold as it tells us that what we see is precious. At death, the Saihai left its function as a weapon to become an ancient jewel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A bit like a mango

Papai cuts the mango into little squares

Like teeth and bricks and turtles’ backs. He’d like to

Suck the juice off his fingers but doesn’t.

Water moves the yellow fibers off his hands,

The fibers that he’d rather have sucked like noodles.

My sister naps on the couch, she is

Soft, white, a little blushed. Puffy at the cheeks

And mouth. A white peach, curled and settled

In a bowl for a still life.

Mamãe and I eat the mango squares at the kitchen counter.

Mamãe says the mango’s too ripe.

It’s always too ripe. She says something

And laughs up some sugar,

Her big front teeth like the bricks and turtles’ backs

We eat.

Papai eats standing. My sister’s eyes flutter,

Her waking lips butter

With a lick followed by

An unraveling of arms, of roots.

She’s sweet and awoken and always ready

To eat.

My skin has a bit of green,

And now, in the summer, a flush of red.

The louder voice, the eyes that curl

With a smile, the words –

That are bright and unclear,

That are difficult to see but easy to taste –

All suggest I’m blown with yellow.

A bit like mango, a bite like me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop, Squatter's Children

Squatter's Children

by Elizabeth Bishop

On the unbreathing sides of hills
they play, a specklike girl and boy,
alone, but near a specklike house.
The sun's suspended eye
blinks casually, and then they wade
gigantic waves of light and shade.
A dancing yellow spot, a pup,
attends them. Clouds are piling up;

a storm piles up behind the house.
The children play at digging holes.
The ground is hard; they try to use
one of their father's tools,
a mattock with a broken haft
the two of them can scarcely lift.
It drops and clangs. Their laughter spreads
effulgence in the thunderheads,

weak flashes of inquiry
direct as is the puppy's bark.
But to their little, soluble,
unwarrantable ark,
apparently the rain's reply
consists of echolalia,
and Mother's voice, ugly as sin,
keeps calling to them to come in.

Children, the threshold of the storm
has slid beneath your muddy shoes;
wet and beguiled, you stand among
the mansions you may choose
out of a bigger house than yours,
whose lawfulness endures.
Its soggy documents retain
your rights in rooms of falling rain.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Squatter’s Children, is one in a series of poems that Bishop wrote whilst living in Brazil. Bishop often looked at her world closely and in small parts at a time. In Bishop’s collection of poems devoted to Brazil (compiled in Questions of Travel), she is consistently aware that her eyes are that of a foreigner, yet she is never afraid to see. At times, Bishop shows that it is through looking at the world closely that we understand it. Other times, she shows the strikingly opposite: even if we attempt to see it all, we can still remain estranged and confused. In the case of some of the Brazil poems, this unsettling truth is a commentary on harsh social realities related to poverty.

In Squatter’s Children, Bishop takes a scene and elegantly breaks it apart, showing that it is only after you see each part dissected that you realize that all parts are inseparable. Bishop starts off the poem by taking us “On the unbreathing sides of hills,” the hills of the favelas in Rio. We are somewhere “unbreathing” – without life, suffocated, and still. A sun gazes onto a girl and boy with a “suspended eye.” The setting speaks to the unbreathing quality of the hill: the suspension of the sun connotes a sense of fixedness, and the children, who are in turn “alone,” are trapped in the sun’s motionless gaze.

This set triangle, however, is soon to be broken. The sun seems to take in large breaths as it sheds “gigantic waves of light and shade.” Other elements begin to quickly appear, reappear and disappear, also like the very rhythm of breath. But is this movement relieving? Clouds pile up into a storm: they move closer together, a movement that altogether blocks and caves in closer to the boy and girl. The children, too, begin to move as they “play at digging holes.” But the openings they attempt to make in the ground are impeded – the ground is too “hard.” A similar sense of restraint is felt when they can “scarcely lift” the tools they use.

Up until the end of the second stanza, there is no mention of sound. We move from quiet stillness to quiet movement. We watch in silence. Bishop introduces sound as she did with movement: it happens like a cascading effect, one movement or sound bumping into and intensifying the next.

Sounds fire off with the “drops and clangs” of the children’s tools that cause the children to laugh, in unison with the “thunderheads” of the storm. The laughter becomes the storm as it “spreads effulgence” and strikes “weak flashes of inquiry,” which are in turn described as “direct as is the puppy’s bark.” The laughter, the storm and the pup together harmonize in a direct but weak sound.

The laughter carries light up into the clouds asking a wordless question. It shoots up and descends like an “unwarrantable ark” – as clear and visible as the rise and fall of an ark, however fleeting and weak. It dives back down with no answer, disappearing into the depths of the ground.

Bishop’s description of this cacophony of sounds is paradoxical: it is strong and clear yet weak and momentary. It is through capturing the precise qualities and strong impact of weakness that makes us understand what it is to be weak.

The rain pours out what the storm has swallowed and incorporated – the children, the bark, and the sun – and answers the “flashes of inquiry” with an echo, or rather an “echolalia” (a word choice that beautifully mimics the loopy sounds of rain). There is in fact no reply. There are only the sounds of what is already there, and we are left with the voice of the Mother, which is in turn as “ugly as sin.” But is it the children’s mother calling them back inside? Or is it the grander Mother Nature? This voice nonetheless serves as a sort of rupture: it breaks through this cycle that has taken place between the sun, the children, the clouds and the rain. The Mother separates them and draws the children back to where they belong.

But there is no dry haven for the children to escape to. The storm has already seeped into them and “slid beneath [their] muddy shoes.” Their homes are seemingly falling apart, as they only have “rights in rooms of falling rain.” The alliteration in this last line lends the sense of something tumbling and constant, like the fall of the rain and the unchanging reality of these children.

We begin the poem in a dry and still place and end in one that is wet and falling apart. The children are absorbed into their surroundings: their movements, sounds and very existence are constrained to the lifeless sides of the unbreathing hill.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Talk to Me (with words?)

SMSlinghot, 2009

Graffiti Taxonomy

I recently paid a visit to MOMA’s current exhibition, Talk To Me: Design and Communication between People and Objects, which is a showing of new (and wacky) object design. This exhibit will prove to you that your personal possessions are not only boring, but also even more lifeless than you may have previously thought.

Several of the artists imbue life in their objects with words, where sometimes the objects speak for themselves (a talking chair, for instance) and where other times the objects give voice to us.

There were two pieces in particular where words were such a force that they themselves became the “objects.” SMSlingshot, a collaborative piece among four German artists, is a wooden slingshot that shoots giant laser beam messages onto buildings. The user types a message into its keypad and then slingshots his/her message into a neon splash on the wall.

The SMSlingshot piece harkens to Evan Roth’s Laser Beam project, where users used a giant laser pen and could draw and write directly onto buildings on an overwhelming scale. Roth, the co-founder of Graffiti Research Lab, is also exhibited at the MOMA. The piece, Graffiti Taxonomy New York/Paris, re-creates the variations on the letter “S” used in graffiti in New York and Paris. The variations are so vast and drastic that the letter itself becomes an object that has been appropriated and altered according to each personality.

Both pieces give voice to graffiti. SMSlingshot is a triumph in graffiti in that it allows people to get away with drawing on walls, because it isn’t permanent. Its main goal, however, is to empower people by giving them the chance to splatter a personal statement onto the public landscape. Graffiti Taxonomy looks at another aspect of graffiti – the art and personal trace of the human.

A lot of social-oriented graffiti (which is what these MOMA artists support) takes after the belief of the British graffiti king, Banksy, that graffiti isn’t about the author, but about the statement s/he makes. However, both SMSlingshot and Graffiti Taxonomy speak to the contradiction that though graffiti uses an authorless language, the presence of the author – and the constraints s/he had to break through – is what gives this language meaning.

In fact, Evan Roth and his team go to great measures to acknowledge and support the artists behind graffiti. In The EyeWriter project, software allows artists who are paralyzed to draw with their eyes. It no longer matters if the graffiti gets out there on the walls. Graffiti is important to them as artists, and they draw on screens from their homes.

The way we think of graffiti is a relatively modern concept, which came about with the birth of spray cans and largely started off as subway art. But graffiti, as an idea, and not necessarily a movement, has existed for millennia.

The artwork on the walls of the Chauvet caves comes to mind after having just recently watched Werner Herzdog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. There we are revealed an astonishing series of drawings of mostly animals. But I would like to bring our attention to a wall covered in reddish handprints. According to one of the archaeologists on the case, one can tell by the prints that the artist’s hand had a crooked pinky. Because of this quirky detail, we can identify the artist throughout the caves, where one finds more of his handprints. Though it is impossible to know the intentions behind these prints, it is nonetheless evidence of the desire to leave the trace of the self in a landscape.

Another instance that comes to mind is in one of the chateaux in the Loire Valley, chateau Chenonceau, where I recently visited while studying abroad in France. On one of the walls of its chapel, one finds graffiti dating to around 1500 (which says something or other about God in old English). The graffiti is protected by a layer of glass, suggesting that it has now become a work of value to be preserved. Considering that graffiti is today illegal and is constantly sought out after to be erased, it is interesting that old graffiti is treated differently, almost reverently.

I would argue that the illegal branding on graffiti today has helped to inspire and define it as an art form. Its language is prohibited and restrained, and because of that it often carries a bold sense of purpose, an underlying sentiment of angst. Moreover, the way it interacts with its “canvas” – the environment – is the effect of a rupture: it has to invade the space and call unusual attention to itself in order to be seen (arguably more so than the way a sculpture or painting inhabits a gallery space or museum).

On the one hand, graffiti today isn’t so different from the past – we have displayed over a long stretch of time the desire to create art and express oneself into the environment, into public view. On the other hand, the language of graffiti has evolved with the language of our time. The words themselves have taken on new aesthetics – taking after technology (laser beams) and creating individualized alphabets in an effort to establish oneself in an anonymous artistic field. Graffiti today is a conscious art form, a counter-cultural movement, and in so doing it has created its own alphabet, dictionary and semiotic understanding of words.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

To a kiss

There is this large tree outside my window.

Fat, with leaves, it breathes compulsively

Like a beating lung.

The leaves they flap from light to dark,

In the folds in my stomach and the ball of my eye.

The moon is tipped tonight,

A little drunk, a shade too yellow. It appears especially

Distant. My head knocked back, like a fallen thing to the ground,

Too far thrown that I couldn’t possible make it back up.

A petal perhaps, no smaller or thinner or less perfumed.

It seems this tree comes closer; it’ll lean into the window,

Using its leafy hands against the white-chipped-frame

To pull itself in for a small shuffle of leaves,

For a soft blow of wind just close enough to my face

For a kiss.

Monday, August 29, 2011

david hockney: inside his reality

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972)

Pearblossom Highway (1986)

Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio (1980)

A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967)

A Bigger Splash (1967)

California Art Collector (1964)

Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape (1962)

David Hockney has always been a hyperactive artist, exploring the potentials of painting, drawing, and photography. However, within his seemingly ever-changing body of work, persists a desire to capture reality, and not in a necessarily naturalistic manner. Geldzahler has said that “he [Hockney] has become increasingly fascinated by exactly how things look.”[1] Hockney has also claimed, “People who look hardest in the end will be good artists.”[2] I will discuss a few of the many ways in which Hockey has manifested this desire, with a particular emphasis on his paintings. Firstly, in a significant portion of his work, there is a tendency to extract and dissect as much visual information as he can from an image or scene. As has been noted by Clothier and acknowledged by Hockney himself, there is in his work a prevalent cubist approach to break up single images into multi-faceted ones. It is also important to observe that much of his work centers on human experiences. Hockney, in his frequent multi-perspective approach, presents challenging interpretations of reality; at the same time, the approachable subject matter and his clever use of space are user-friendly, inviting the viewer into the picture plane, inspiring them to look at reality from a fresh outlook.

Hockney has frequently criticized photography, claiming that “it’s a view that’s too mechanical, too devoid of life.”[3] Indeed, Hockney’s intention is to convey a sense of life in movement. He wants us to be in the picture, to feel around and inside the space of his work. In order to do so, there can be no firm edges or single perspectives. We do not live in narrow, boxed-up planes; we always have space to move in and are constantly observing the world from various angles. This is why Hockney claims to “break” or “alter” the edges of the picture plane and tends to employ multiple perspectives within a single image.[4]

These qualities are prevalent in one of his earlier paintings, from 1962, Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape. It conveys a strong sense of movement that prevents the scene from becoming contained or restrained by edges. Streaks of pale blue brush past the bodies, suggesting speed while stretching off their skin in the process. Our eye imagines a continuation to this journey, a destination beyond the edges of the plane. The colorful waves that make up the mountains are cut off mid-wave, lending the illusion of a continuous flow. The word ‘Paris’ with an arrow pointing outside to the left of the picture plane likewise signals that there is a path and a place that has already been left. The unusual use of perspective also expands the spectator’s viewpoint. The people depicted are at once outside and inside the car: their bodies are not fully covered by the car’s exterior. However, one of the figures handles a wheel that by contrast is clearly inside the car. The figure in the back also desperately grabs the figure in front of him, as if he was about to fly off - but are they not inside the car? This ambiguity of location in space continues with the rendering of the house and trees. Though both are placed in close proximity to the human figures on the picture plane, their scales are completely nonsensical: the house is practically the same size as the human figures. Perhaps Hockney wants to indicate that the house is far from the figures; but, at the same time, the shadows that wrap around the house in a ghostly manner are the same transparent blacks and reds that cover the car. The foreground and background at once separate and merge. Finally, we observe the house from a bird’s eye perspective, while we see the human figures and the car from the side. We are not confined to one view. Indeed, our perception expands the harder we look. The process of looking at this painting is like looking at something in real life: what we see changes from one moment to the next.

This close dialogue with reality is made further possible by the large scale of the works, which allows us to scan and relate to the images on a near-human scale, to enter and become part of it. The scale also requires us to spend time scanning the image and to sense the passage of time within the depicted moment. Hockney claims that the perception of time prevents a work from becoming static and lifeless. To him, time is always present in a painting “because a hand moving across it means time is involved.”[5] Thus the act of painting mimics a moment in real life: it is built in physical stages. There are various ways to feel time within his work: the appreciation that each image within one plane was born at a different moment in time; the presence of movement; and finally, the connection of the depicted moment to life itself. Hockney has claimed that his work is autobiographical, that all of his images were extracted from human experiences.[6] Thereby, the images themselves have once existed in a specific moment in time.

On the other hand, quite often in his paintings, as in his Los Angeles series, life is completely still. However, their very stillness makes us look at them even harder, as they create their own reality. Just as in Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, where Hockney aimed to value motion and perspective, in several of his still images he places every object with equal importance on a frozen plane. Hockney offers alternative ways of seeing, playing with perpetual and simultaneous motion and utter stillness.

In California Art Collector, one imagines that Hockney was at first looking at a larger scene, then selected certain elements from it and compressed them all into an apparently still new plane. The female figure seems to be under an awning outdoors; however, she sits on a living room chair that is placed on carpeting. Is she outside, or are we looking into an interior? A rainbow invades this space as a supportive architectural element. There is likewise a white form on the back wall that resembles a small cloud. This overlapping of scenes engenders a sense of displacement and simultaneity, and thus a degree of movement. Indeed, to Hockney, what lends the most movement and life to a picture is not necessarily what the subject is doing, but rather how the shapes and objects interact with the space. In his book The Way I See It, Hockney claims he does not like to excessively use horizontal shapes in his work for it engenders too much visual stillness (52). California Art Collector and other works from the same period (the early sixties) may appear entirely still at first glance, but they are not altogether static. They possess those essential elements previously discussed – large scale, a lack of confining edges, odd perspectives, and a profusion of shapes – all of which prevent the images from becoming entirely tight and frozen, giving them room to breathe.

The subject matter likewise grounds the work in reality since it consistently stresses the human experience. Even in those scenes with no human figures, the human presence is often implied through the setting or the work’s title. In A Bigger Splash, the solitary chair, the pool board, and the splash point to the event that a person has just jumped into the pool. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled, somebody obviously turned the sprinkler on; it is a domestic task, emphasized by the depiction of a house in the background. Even in some of his landscapes, such as Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio, not only does the title refer to a destination, Hockney’s own ‘studio,’ but also the mountains themselves are punctured with roads and structures. In some areas of the painting there even appears to be some ambiguity as to what is a structure and what is nature: in the bottom left there is a level plane that resembles a flattened house with windows. Thus, Hockney’s work is about interactions among people or about their interaction with the environment.

Importantly, the human perspective itself is a central theme. In Hockney’s photomontages, as spectators we are led to question and merge three ways of seeing: what we see through our own eyes, the photographic perspective, and Hockney’s unusual composition. In Pearblossom Highway, Hockney has expanded the perception of the highway by breaking the image up into squares that are in turn rotated, zoomed and overlapped. He thus breaks the flatness and one-point perspective of photography by creating a new reality that is much closer to the actual perception of the human eye – we are at once hovering from one place to another and absorbing the whole. As Clothier puts it, Hockney’s photomontages are “a truer layering of space and time.”

In Hockney’s works we are not merely spectators. We always interact with them, even when we feel, as Melia has stressed, like “voyeurs,” such as in his paintings of nude boys emerging from the pool, or in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), where one of the figures is immersed under water while the other stares with downcast eyes in an absorbed manner. Thus the figures instigate reactions from us as if we were situated in a real scene. Hockney has said, “we do not look at the world from a distance, we are in it.”[7] By pushing the limits of perspective and including us in his multiple points of view, Hockney ensures that, as spectators, we are there, in his images.

[1] Hockney, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.9)

[2] Hockney, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.130)

[3] Clothier, Peter. Hockney (p.130)

[4] Hockney, David. That’s the Way I see It (p.103)

[5] Hockney, David. That’s the Way I see It (p.104)

[6] Hockeny, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.9)

[7] Hockney, David That’s the Way I See It (p.102)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hirst Pulls a Trigger

Damien Hirst’s diamond-covered skull, For the Love of God, is at once grotesque and beautiful, superficial and meaningful. However, before elaborating on these curious contradictions, it is paramount to stress Hirst’s ultimate goal with this piece; as he puts it, “I want people to see it and be astounded. I want them to gasp.” He relishes in the shock factor and aims to make a scene. Importantly, what astounds most of the viewers is the preposterous sum of money involved in the making and selling of the skull. The monetary aspect of the work becomes its main “raison d’être”. Thus, any meaningful interpretation of the piece is obscured amidst the commercial commotion, insinuating that the artwork itself is, lamentably, less impressive than its cost.

One could contend that the commercial aspect is significant and should rightly be the chief interest of the piece. It does, after all, explicitly illustrate the capitalist age we live in. Hirst spent an overwhelming sum on something seemingly trivial, as many others do in private. Only he did it boldly, shamelessly, and loudly. The audience’s response, in itself, reveals a consumerist society. We look at a skull, covered in 8,601 diamonds, and what primarily resonates is the cost. Although the skull functions primarily as a symbol and embracement of the capitalist art market, it possesses mocking- though not necessarily condemning- undertones towards consumerist society.

For the Love of God engages with superficial notions of beauty and their ironic relationship to death. To paraphrase a quote, before the making of the skull, in I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, Hirst criticizes humans for excessively caring about their complexions since they are ultimately destined to decompose into skulls. This futile preoccupation with appearance can readily be applied to his piece. The symbol of our death stares straight at us, yet due to the striking diamonds that adorn it, the violent image of death is instantly appeased. The diamonds function as a mask, a farce that embodies the shallowness that Hirst cites earlier- we stride through life embellishing ourselves only to reach our doom. Indeed, as one observes the skull and its unsettling smile, the diamonds shine in all their glory; they deepen into the crevices of the skull’s sockets as if in two eternal chambers, mocking our death, for we will perish, those polished teeth will eventually rot, and the diamonds will live forever.

However, it is important to note that skulls have become an icon in the fashion world and that diamonds are prominent symbols of conspicuous consumerism. Although Hirst claims that he was inspired by Aztec skulls, he evidently borrowed two popular items from mass culture that in turn make the criticism detailed above uphold little effect upon the viewers. Considering that the skull image has been obsessively used in contemporary fashion, we have accordingly become indifferent to its inherent pathos.

For the Love of God manipulates the skull with diamonds like a fashion item, so that it appears more as a commodity and less as an actual human remnant. Ironically, for someone so invested in the theme of death, Hirst employs the one symbol that no longer strikes his audiences with the idea of death. In some of Hirst’s other works he conveys the subject of death more effectively. In the past he has explained, “you have to find that universal trigger. Everyone’s scared of glass, everyone’s scared of sharks. Everyone loves butterflies.”[1] If the skull is to function as a “universal trigger,” it triggers the face of consumerism. But maybe that was his intention, after all.

[1] Hirst, Damien. I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


I've been doing watercolors based on photographs that I've taken of friends and of myself. This is one I did while still living in Paris.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In August

It's the not-seeing through hot eyes.
It's an August large cloud that dries bitter-white,
Heavily, in the cheeks.

If I look only to the sky
I can clear my sight along with it.

My dark woozy shadow scuttles beneath the skin

And splits, thick, from my sugary throat
(The warmth, the silk, and ice-cream)

And lays still, holding onto swollen ankles.

Off I say, off. I enjoy being unforgiving

Because I’m hungry for something


I'm all slippery skin, ballooning eyes,
Murmuring mmmm yellow.

I turn to blank to white. A skeleton

Presses up against me, bony and hard,

Questioning me for what I have done.

It’s the spatter of rain, the old sick

Man outside. It’s the heat

That snakes into me and murmurs

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The British Word concluded : Banksy

British Museum, London

Tate Gallery, London

Of all the artists discussed, the graffiti artist Banksy is the least explicitly personal in his work. His language is not confessional. However, by publicly branding his own “name,” Banksy makes his own identity a monument. Thus there exists that tension seen in the previous artists’ work where the artist claims to be more anonymous and detached from his/her words than s/he actually is.

However different, Banksy’s language is as violently blunt, accusatory and tortured as the other artists in its outcries against social oppression and corruption. In one piece he depicts a man being brutally attacked by police officers. Behind them one reads: “I fought the law and I w…” – the words drip like blood and are cut off right where it would spell ‘won,’ an aesthetic that heightens the suppression, the fight.

Banksy likewise often attacks publicity companies. One of his pieces consists of a starved, poor child surrounded by flies wearing a Burger King paper hat. As Wright puts it, “many of Banksy’s pieces…thumb their noses at authority and urge us not to swallow the usual lines fed us by politicians and big business” (51). Banksy’s work explicitly denounces public authorities that pierce the landscape with their messages, that manipulate our visual associations. Thus, he reveals a consciousness of our semiotic reading as he implies his belief that those “who control sign systems control the construction of reality” (Chandler).

With Banksy, we see again the importance of the aesthetics of the word, of its role as a visual element. His words often resemble that of billboards, public signs, subvertisers and political activists. Thus he draws on public signage, “taking something [that is] accessible to all” (Wright, 52). However, his images supply the viewer with contrary content, as with the Burger King image. Indeed, Banksy has compiled a witty semiotic body of work, where he lends a new “signified” to each “signifier.”

A lot of Banksy’s critique is done in a tongue-in-cheek and ironic language. An ideal example of this is his work targeted towards the pretensions of the art gallery and museum. In the past he has stenciled “Mind the Crap” on the entrance steps of the Tate Modern. He has likewise once put up on the walls of the British museum “a hoax cave painting of a stone age man” with an explication in the style of a museum label (Guardian). He critiques the exhibition culture when he ends his placard with: “The majority [of this art] is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls.” Characteristically British in its satirical language, this piece, like Perry’s, calls into question the limits defined by the art establishment. Banky’s work thus exemplifies the British artistic desire to communicate in plain, direct language that breaks the boundaries defined by social authorities.

Banksy, Grayson Perry, R.B. Kitaj, Tracey Emin and David Hockney thereby all resemble Hogarth in their choice to deliver their personal views through words, which are in turn used to interpret or twist images. Both are in dialogue with one another, the words generally providing the content and the images providing the context. However, importantly, without the context (the images), the words would be largely drained of their meaning. Thus these artists’ work relies on a semiotic reading.

Beginning with Hogarth, there has been a trend in subject matter in British art– authority and social suppression, the self and society. Such subject matter not only endures, but is also intensified in artists’ work today. Over time, as British artists have gained more liberty in their expression, their language has become increasingly forthright and cheeky.