Art


Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.

(This review is a little pointless because the exhibition closes tomorrow).

Yesterday I visited the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills to see the Universe and Art exhibition. This exhibition attempts to show the relationship between artists’ and scientists’ attempts to explain the cosmos and the human relationship with the stars. It incorporates artistic visions of the cosmic order, scientific explanations of space over time, and artistic interpretations of science, from many different cultural perspectives. To do this it displays a wide array of art, items, scientific objects, film and video art. These objects have been drawn from many different cultures – Indian, Asian, Europe and the Americas – over several thousand years, with a particular emphasis on Japanese material from the past and the present. They include mandalas from India and Japan, star charts from China and Japan, and early stories about space from Japan and Europe. It also includes film, photos and objects from the space programs of several nations, science fiction art and stories inspired by these programs, and visual art that either glorifies or critiques or reinterprets them. Some highlights that I particularly enjoyed are listed below.

The meteoric iron katana

Blade of coolness +5

Blade of coolness +5

What can I say? Apparently Okayoshi Kunimune made two swords from meteoric iron, which took three weeks to craft and required several trips to the local shrine for prayer. One of these is on display, and it is quite impressive. It has all the fine lines of a classically-forged katana, but the metal is kind of darker and less shiny, more sinister-looking. Also the scabbard has “Meteor sword” written on it, which just says it all really. This blade was forged the old-fashioned way in 1898, which was after the samurai era, but was forged in the traditional way, which means that it has that slight rippling pattern in the metal around the blade. Viewed end on it looks wicked sharp. The photo I took is just a snap and overstates how dark the blade is, but I do think it is darker than a normal blade (I haven’t seen many of these artifact blades so I don’t know how dark an original samurai blade is). One of these blades ended up in the possession of the Taisho Emperor, which means that he was decked out in a sword made from a meteorite. I think that makes this a kind of unique artifact and it genuinely is very cool, just sits their heavy with its own sense of foreboding awesomeness. Everyone was impressed by this sword.

Bjorn Dahlem’s Black Hole (M-Spheres)

Space!

Space!

This installation is large and imposing and when viewed in detail kind of naff – it’s just a bunch of fluorescent lights stuck onto some wood – but viewed from afar with that kind of disfocused gaze that you have to take with certain kinds of art it suddenly becomes much more imposing and abstract. In the centre is supposed to be a black hole, with what I guess are galaxies or some kind of star tracks circling around it. A single sphere of black metal somewhere in the middle is, I guess, the black hole that it all is meant to be built around. It’s surprisingly cool (though the windows at the far end of the room give a view of Tokyo from the 52nd floor of this building and are kind of more awesome in their own way). It doesn’t move or anything, unlike …

The God Machine

It watches and waits ...

It watches and waits …

This monstrosity is set up in its own room, and is basically just a series of robust metal arms circling slowly in rings of different size and speed, with brilliant lights on the arms. The lights themselves move in simple planar orbits but the whole structure is set at an angle to the floor surrounded by walls of white, and the motions of the shadows of the arms on the wall are complex, occasionally threatening, and frustratingly close to predictable. The size, clarity, depth and position of the shadows changes as the arms complete their loops, and depending on the direction you look you see a very different system of shadows interacting. A single spike sticking up from the floor casts a complex pattern of shifting triple shadows on the floor. The whole thing is a simple set of ordered moving parts, but it carries this sense of immensity and brooding threat that makes it really cool. I think it’s by Wolfgang Tillmans, who contributed a few beautiful images as well. His website gives a sense of some of his other art, which is quite striking.

The great books

Original history

Original history

The exhibition also featured first editions of Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and the first works of Copernicus and Kepler. Kepler and Copernicus’s books are open at centre pages so you can see the quality of their work, while the Principia is open to the frontispiece.

On the shoulders of giants ...

On the shoulders of giants …

I studied physics in my undergraduate years, and then statistics, and so for me even just the frontispiece of Newton’s original work (shown above) carries an enormous weight and power – this is truly a book of vast importance in the history of science, and to stand in front of a work that is so close to the original hand of one of science’s greatest and most influential minds is really a great privilege. This book is over 300 years old, heavy and worn with the weight of history, and everything in my career and everything I love about the science I do is built on what is in its thick and fragile pages. So it was really great to stand looking at that frontispiece and revel in the significance of of those three words: Naturalis Principia Mathematica. I imagine if one were an evolutionary biologist one would get the same feeling from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which was also on display, but for me as someone trained in physics this book is a great treasure and it was the first (and I guess, the last) time I will be in the presence of this original piece of history.

The exhibition had other contributions from the scientists of that era, including an excerpt from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus that described the movement of the planets (his handwriting is incredibly beautiful, every letter a work of art), armillary spheres and beautiful navigational tools made in intricate and beautiful detail out of brass, and a replica of Gallileo’s original telescope (also, his Sedereus Nuncius and his sketches of the moon, that he made with that incredibly primitive telescope). It’s really humbling to stand in the presence of so many of the original moments of modern science, and to think that almost everything we do now depends on the work these men put into these humble books, or that once people had to find their way to Tokyo using nothing more than one of those brass navigational instruments. It’s quite incredible to see them and realize just how primitive it all was – these scientists really were fumbling around the universe, making guesses on the basis of almost nothing, when you think about what we can do today. And almost everything we can do today depends on their fumbling efforts … So it was quite amazing to see all this stuff in one exhibition, and also to see some of the wild, amusing and speculative ways in which artists of that time and since have speculated on the implications of those scientific endeavours. It’s also obvious when you see that early work that there is no barrier between science and art – those scientists were technicians but they approached their work with a religious zeal and an obvious sense of aesthetics, a joy in the beauty of maths and physics as well as in the discovery of the unknown. For all the challenges of that era, for these men it must have been a very exciting time to be alive.

The Crows and the Insects in Amber

Some of the video installations weren’t so great but there were two amazing works. The first was a high resolution high magnification video exploration of a piece of amber with insects trapped inside it. Set to eery backing music, it moved through the amber filming different parts of it in such a way that it produces spacescapes and scenes like starscapes, nebulae or distant galaxies. In between these strange galactic visuals it zoomed in or out on the insects themselves, so that they loomed in the camera like Cthulhoid monsters, alien horrors, or strange planetary landscapes. This installation was probably 4-5 minutes long (or at least the part I saw was) but it was a fascinating way to turn a piece of something ancient, terrestrial and tiny into something vast, timeless and cosmic. A brilliant idea.

The second was a video work by teamlab, Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision–Light in Space. For this you enter a large dark room and stand in a specific spot in the centre of the room, then the entire room begins to shift and move as the video covers all the walls, floor and ceiling. From your central spot you watch crows take flight and then you chase them along the lines of their flight, and then they burst over you and disappear and suddenly you’re chasing new ones. I don’ t know why crows, I don’t know why we’re chasing them, but it’s really good. It’s a kind of mixture of video game and interactive exhibit, I guess, but all through a movie. It probably wasn’t entirely suited to this exhibition – it could easily be the open sky rather than space that these crows are flying through – but it was still a splendid experience.

This exhibition finishes tomorrow so there is not really any point in recommending that you, dear reader(s), rush on down to see it, but at least now you know what you missed. This was a really interesting attempt to combine two fields of human endeavour that are often seen as at odds with each other or unconnected, and it did a really good job both of merging the two and also of introducing me to some genuinely cool modern artists working in this field. It also serves as a good reminder of how space exploration, from its earliest beginnings, has been not just an engineering and physics endeavour, but an artistic effort that expresses something about what it means to be human and what our position is in the cosmos. As we watch new and modern efforts to explore our solar system – and, possibly, to colonize it – it’s worth remembering that they are always about more than just science, which makes them simultaneously both a luxurious waste of money, and an essential attempt to understand the core of what it is to be human. I hope in the future other museums and art galleries will attempt a similar exhibition to this, so people outside of Japan can share this unique insight into how art and science have worked together over thousands of years to bring humans closer to the stars, both physically and spiritually.

jerome

On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.

 

Only what you see man, only what you see

Only what you see man, only what you see

Today a friend took me, without explanation, to see Sophie Calle’s The Unsold (売り残し) at Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza. I don’t often attend art shows – let alone modern art installations – and I almost never visit Ginza, so this was a real novelty for me, but despite my initial misgivings it was definitely worth it. Here is my review.

When I entered the gallery my first glance revealed an installation of everyday objects, including two dresses, that to my jaundiced and cynical eye immediately resembled Tracey Emin’s execrable bed-type stuff, and I was immediately disappointed. However, right at the door there is an introductory explanation (in Japanese and English) of the premise of the work, which changed my mind. Basically, three artists set up a flea market in the grounds of Yasukuni Jinja. They laid out their wares on three squares of cloth, as shown in the picture. One (I don’t recall which) sold worthless every day items, to each of which was attached a story that actually happened (i.e. a real story) with some relationship to the item but in which the item itself was not directly involved (so e.g. the typewriter on sale is not necessarily the typewriter from the story). Another sold a mixture of semi-antiques (cutely mis-spelled as “semi-antics” in this exhibition) and ordinary items, to which were attached completely fake stories with apparent emotional content[1]. The third sold actual antiques, and one of his original photos. For example one person was selling a completely normal bra for about 25,000 yen, and another person was selling a picture of a psycho-analyst (freud?) for 38,000 yen. One of the antiques was an ancient ceramic hot water bottle, and the picture was a pretty cool sea/sky thing. Each artist catalogued what they sold and the amount of money they sold it for – which was surprisingly large. Apparently an American tour guide passed by as this sale was going on and told his charges “there is nothing here, ignore it.” (Cute). The explanation finishes with the simple, curt phrase “These are the unsold.” So the exhibition consists of the material that was not sold.

This exhibition consists of three pieces of cloth on which the remaining items are laid out, attached to each of which is a tag with the price and the story. Behind each installation, on the wall, is a photo of the original setup, so you can see what was sold. On the opposite wall are the tags for the sold items, with their corresponding story. These tags have no information about the item to which they correspond, so you have to wander across to the original picture and guess. The stories are really interesting and believable, though whether they are actually true or not I have no clue. Investigating on wikipedia I discovered that the Eiffel tower story is true, and just as unbelievable as it sounds – Sophie Calle certainly knows how to do crazy things (I can’t remember if the item attached to this story was sold or not).

I’m an uncultured barbarian, so I have no idea what this installation was trying to tell me about whatever, but I thought it was really cool. Trying to understand why people bought these ludicrously overpriced objects because of their vague stories, or didn’t buy some object even though its story was cool, was an exercise in intruding into someone else’s private life. The stories themselves were fascinating, disconnected monologues, none of which I believed (but some of which I have subsequently learnt are real!) I can’t speak for the Japanese but the English used in the broader narrative descriptions – what the exhibition is about, how the artists met – is clear, sparse and strong. The structure of the main introductory sign and its finishing statement, “These are the Unsold” is particularly powerful, and suits the style of the exhibition. It’s a simple idea done well, and it holds your attention. Why did the passersby leave the charred bedspring and buy the useless typewriter? This, I cannot fathom. I wouldn’t buy the red bucket some guy pissed in, but why would someone else buy the bottle. Also the story of the horn is acutely sad and the horn is quite cheap, but apparently un-sellable. What does that mean?

I didn’t know anything about Sophie Calle before this exhibition, but reading her Wikipedia page I get the impression that she is a powerful, prodigious and generally unethical talent. My friend has also seen the exhibit Take Care of Yourself, which as the quoted reviewer says seems to be both shallow and deeply engaging. Her attempt to get blind people to define beauty sounds like it has the potential to be very powerful (I don’t draw any conclusions!) and the work where she gets a guy to shadow her and then presents pictures of herself sounds really interesting. Invading others’ privacy, not so much. How come medical researchers have to get ethics approval, but French artistes can pursue some guy across the world, or hijack a stolen diary for money?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, I’d never heard of Sophie Calle before today and I think her work is a genuinely interesting and challenging example of modern art at its finest. I don’t know what she’s trying to say with this exhibition and I can’t really say what I think of it, but it’s really cool. It would be better if she followed it up with some kind of article in a peer-reviewed journal giving her conclusion about what the purchases and non-purchases mean, instead of leaving it to an ignorant rube like me to try and understand, and if she had found a way to summarize what was bought and wasn’t (e.g. rankings with stories, or a website where you can see all the objects with what was bought and what wasn’t, and its story) then the exhibition would have been even cooler. But despite these missed opportunities this exhibition is very cool, and in general I have to say Sophie Calle’s work seems pretty interesting. I hope more of her stuff comes to Japan, and I recommend visiting it if you are in Japan, or keeping an eye out for her work if you are not.

 

 

 

fn1: I may be mis-remembering the exact nature of what these items were, but I hope you get the general gist.

Galadriel goes to market

Galadriel goes to market

One of the English loan-words that Japanese people misuse slightly in a really cute way is gorgeous (ゴージャス). In Japanese gorgeous refers not to something really nice, but to something that is overdone or just a bit too much – not necessarily unappealing or unattractive, but just a bit too much. I’ve heard the word applied to appearance, food and even writing (e.g. scientific writing should not be gorgeous). It’s often associated with the stylistic choices of young women of a certain social class, and also with hostesses. It’s not necessarily a marker of class or taste, and not deployed in a particularly judgmental way, but it suggests a certain immaturity or inelegance in taste, something that’s acceptable in young women but not for example something one would respect in an adult[1].

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies is the cinematic showcase for this word. It’s too long, the battle scenes especially are unnecessarily embellished, and the heroism is over the top and over-frequent. Almost every moment of it is also great fun. These battle scenes are the kind of battles where you can imagine seven impossible maneouvres before breakfast, where enormous and terrifying trolls are killed with a single knife stroke, and where a war pig can be more terrifying than a giant. There are even sand worms! As battles go it’s a tour de force, the entire movie is basically one long series of battles, with maybe two brief pauses to discuss the importance of family and tasteless jewellery. The centerpiece battles – between the Uruk Hai and the dwarven heroes – are masterfully done and very enjoyable, but they’re so over the top as to be ridiculous. They’re also good examples of exactly what gorgeous means: for example, Legolas’s prancing up the collapsing tower is precisely how I imagine an elf to be able to move against the laws of nature, it’s the right thing to be in this kind of movie, but it is dropped into the middle of such a long-running series of epic-level feats that instead of being stunning and impressive, it’s just another blister of impossibilities on the back of your retina.

In this regard the movie can be contrasted very effectively with other works from the same series. The final battle between the fellowship and the Uruk Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, is a masterclass in how to turn a classic role-playing battle into believable cinema. It depicts a group of high-level characters at the peak of their power pulling themselves out of what is basically a lethal ambush by overwhelming numbers, with minimal losses. They do things we know are physically impossible, but they aren’t so far from impossible that we are lifted out of the feeling of the battle by them, and they aren’t so fast-flowing that they become overwhelming in their fantasticality. That battle is heroic fantasy at its finest, patently unrealistic but completely believable in the context of the world, and really engaging. The battles in the Battle of Five Armies are so full of over-the-top heroics and impossibilities that they become less an exercise in story-telling and heroic fantasy and more of an exercise in braggadocio by everyone involved. Yes, I want to see my fantasy heroes do impossible things; I want to see victories against overwhelming odds; I want to know that these people are not normal, not like me, doing things I can’t do. I don’t want this experience to be transformed into marveling at the ingenuity of the movie’s creator’s rather than its characters.

Just as a young hostess’s style can be so gorgeous that it becomes a self-evident performance of beauty rather than beauty itself, so this movie has turned heroic fantasy into a performance of itself, rather than a performance for its fans.

And don’t get me mistaken, I am a fan. The Hobbit is not a particularly interesting or enjoyable book, and Peter Jackson had pretty thin gruel to work with in making this part of the epic; he also had to please a group of tantrum-prone true-believers with an immature and shallow approach to the work. Given how dark and grim the later Lord of the Rings movies turned, he also had to find a way to leaven the silly boys-own-adventure style of the main plot with some kind of nod to the growing shadows. By choosing to work in the unwritten parts of the original story – Gandalf’s exploration of Mirkwood and the battle with the necromancer, for example – I think he has made the story more engrossing and enjoyable. He has also managed to present us with a breathtaking and splendid vision of Middle Earth, carved out of New Zealand, that has been more or less consistent across six diverse movies, and has stuck very closely to the aesthetic vision of Tolkien’s main visual interpreters. He managed to lift the dwarves from their shallow representation in the book and Snow White-style triviality in popular culture into serious, adult figures without falling on the cheap Jewish or Scottish stereotypes that often get attached to them, and for this all Tolkien fans should be eternally grateful. The dwarves are excellent, and as dwarves should be – dour, hard working, tough, narrow-minded and loyal. They look like adults and adventurers, and unlike Gimli (or Dwain in this movie) they don’t get turned into comedy sideshows. The Hobbit would have been an utter disaster if it had been made by someone trying to be loyal to the original book and the needs of the fans, it would have been a single stupid movie involving 12 characterless technicolor idiots and a dude in a pointy hat, cocking up everything they do.

Furthermore, The Hobbit is a rare example of a movie that manages to make a dragon a central part of it without cocking it up monumentally, which every other movie except Dragonslayer and Reign of Fire has managed to do. Smaug is an evil, cunning, wily and deeply sinister monster of terrifying power, and as soon as he is let loose on Dale you can see why armies of dwarves would fall before one of these things. His supreme arrogance, coupled with his incredible power and complete disregard for mortals and their feeble efforts, is a joy to behold. This is how a dragon should be! But even here we see Jackson falling for the gorgeous: the simple tale of Smaug’s death gets padded out with an unnecessary piece of sentimentality and impossibility, and a spot of slightly out of place (but nonetheless enjoyable) humour. Nothing in this movie just jumps, or just climbs, or just dies. Not even Smaug.

Still, I didn’t sign up for the last instalment in this epic so I could see a handful of orcs get their arses kicked by some woodland sprites and a few technicolor stereotypes in a backwoods scrap. I signed up for a monumental battle between the noble forces of good and the deepest evil ever conceived, and that’s what I got – in spades. The Orc leaders and Uruk Hai champions were awesome, the dwarven and elven battle scenes were spectacular, the troll stormtroopers impressive and exciting (though like every other stormtrooper, remarkably easy to kill …), the desperation of the human defenders grim and hopeless. This is a two-plus hour rollercoaster of well-deserved death and slaughter, and though you will at times find yourself thinking “what were they thinking?” and marvelling more at the movie-makers’ ingenuity than the actual traits of the people on the screen, you’ll still love every minute of it.

But it is too gorgeous.

fn1: Remembering that in modern Japan the word “adult” is increasingly coming to mean a person over 30, and there is even a growing fashion trend for otona (大人) that is specifically aimed at offering classy but still pretty and sexy clothes to women aged in their 30s and 40s. This style is largely the opposite of gorgeous.

Rebellion Pastiche!

Rebellion Pastiche!

Many years ago now I lived in Newtown, Sydney, and the areas surrounding it (Stanmore, Marrickville, etc), all of which have a recent history as the home of a large number of Aboriginal people and a bit of a hotbed of street activism (far left and far right), largely probably due to their proximity to the University of Sydney, some large inner city areas of Aboriginal housing, and some industrial areas. Marrickville, where I also lived, has a long tradition of Greek, Italian and then Vietnamese migration, and the whole area is a wide swathe of light industrial zoning with a long and proud history of unionism. As part of the post-60s wave of Aboriginal rights and green activism a large number of murals were painted in various areas of the inner west. From the train line between Redfern and Newtown passengers used to be able to see a rendering of the Black Panther Olympic salute, entitled “Three proud men”; and on the road to Stanmore there was a really creepy old guy perving on a girl on a tricycle. But the most famous mural is the “I have a dream” mural, pictured above, which was painted on the side of a terraced house in the very centre of the main commercial road, King Street, very close to the station. This mural combines a picture of Martin Luther King, his most famous phrase, the earth with Australia red in the centre, and the Aboriginal flag (the black and red squares with the gold disc in the middle). It’s a bit tacky but also a proud reminder of Indigenous struggle, painted there by a local couple many years ago. In my opinion the Aboriginal flag is a really powerful symbol, and should be used as Australia’s official flag in place of the Southern Cross[1], which is nowhere near as cool, and this mural combines that strong image of Australia with a couple of international ideas about liberation and freedom. I’m not entirely in favour of importing American ideals of freedom and struggle to other countries, but I hope my reader(s) can see the intent and appreciate its strength.

Anyway, back when I lived in Newtown this mural was starting to decay, the paint was starting to crumble, but worst of all a lot of posters were beginning to appear, mostly on the bottom left of the red part of the flag but also in the golden disc. Rather embarrassingly, most of these posters were either for far left political groups, or for illegal raves (“doofs”) that would regularly spring up in the inner west and which were also largely associated with the far left/green movement. This was in the 1990s, before the Reconciliation movement had really taken off, probably 10-12 years before the apology, and a lot of the far left hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that Aboriginal reconciliation and land rights were becoming a really important part of the political landscape – Aboriginal activism generally was seen as strongly connected to the Labour party and the Democrats, and viewed with suspicion by the far left. This might explain their willingness to put up posters on such an iconic mural (the far right couldn’t, because they had either died of heroin overdoses, been sent to prison, or been driven out of the inner city by unionist violence). My friends and I weren’t happy with this though, because as the posters accumulated and damaged the paint, and the mural got scrappier, the incentive to post more posters and slowly destroy it was growing – like litter or broken windows, the damage was encouraging more damage. So one sunny Saturday morning we got up early, grabbed a ladder, some paintbrushes and a few scrapers and some paint, and set about restoring it. We didn’t organize it with any official organs because no one was officially in charge of this mural – we just rocked up and started cleaning it. The version you can see above is probably from about 10 years after we did this, because it is still clean and in the bottom left corner you can see my contribution to the project. That corner was where most of the posters were stuck, and after I scraped them off and we repainted it I wrote this in my bad freehand:

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

My tiny piece of history, badly drawn

I took this photo of my contribution in 2006, probably 8-9 years after I painted it, just before I left for Japan, and at this time no one had posted any bills anywhere on the mural – you can see on the wall to the side that they are using nearby wall space for a thick layer of posters, but they aren’t putting them on the mural itself. Sadly, this situation no longer pertains today, another 8 years after I took that picture. The Marrickville facebook page has a link to the picture which in March this year had comments saying that someone needs to put the “Don’t poster here” order back on. Someone must have painted over it after I left the country, and now the posters are returning. However, after many years, the mural has finally received some official respect, and the Marrickville Council have decided to Heritage List it, which means that they are now officially responsible for maintaining and protecting it. I hope this means that the posters will be removed and no new ones added. Maybe they’ll even repaint it with a better and more consistent colour palette than my friends and I used …

This was my sole real contribution to the urban community of Newtown. My friends and I got pissed at the mess, went up there and (I guess!) risked a graffiti charge in broad daylight on a sunny Saturday to repair the damage. While we worked lots of people came up to thank us and express their approval (I think one person wandered across the road to buy us a coffee or a drink or something), and I guess the police must have cruised by at some point and done nothing. Everyone seemed to treat our efforts as if they were as natural as the presence of this unclaimed and unprotected mural in the heart of the little shopping area. It was like everyone accepted it and respected it, but everyone thought it was everyone else’s responsibility. Maybe that unfocused view of its place in Newtown is part of the reason that people were able to damage it without any trouble being raised – because everyone just assumed someone else knew who was responsible for its upkeep. But in truth no one was, and our action was the only time I know of in the entire time I lived in the area that anyone took responsibility for it. And it worked! That little two sentence demand I wrote there on the wall kept the entire mural clean and free of damage for 10 years, and my guess is that if someone hadn’t painted over it the mural would still be free of damage today. Now that it is Heritage listed I guess it will get a little plaque and a bit of care and respect, and my bodgy handwritten warning won’t be needed anymore. It will be forgotten soon enough, but I am proud of my little tiny effort in preserving an emblem of a struggle that, over the time I lived in Australia, really began to assert itself and push itself into the mainstream. I hope people will remember the long slow path to acceptance of Aboriginal rights in Australia when they look at that mural, and I like to think that my tiny contribution went a little way towards preserving that mural long enough for it to make the heritage list. Hardly a radical or brave act, it’s true, but I’m proud of my little tiny contribution to one of the most important political movements in Australian history.

fn1: It actually has official flag status, but is not usually used as such.

Riemann surface or Babylon 5 monster? Only a genius can tell ...

Riemann surface or Babylon 5 monster? Only a genius can tell …

Today Maryam Mirzakhani, aged 37, became the first woman ever awarded the Fields prize for mathematics, a prize that is sometimes described as the “Nobel prize of maths.” She was awarded the prize for her work on “Riemann Surfaces and their moduli spaces,” which you can look up in wikipedia but good luck with that. Riemann surfaces are a kind of manifold, which is a space that globally has a complex structure that cannot be easily described mathematically but that reduces locally to a Euclidean space. A good way to think about manifolds is as the problem of ironing your shirt. Globally, your shirt has a twisted and contorted structure which means you can’t conceive of it as a flat surface suitable for ironing; but you can fold out small sections of it into a simple plane, and iron those sections. Manifold theory is essential for higher work in physics, since quantum mechanical topology is not straightforward. The wikipedia page has some nice examples of Riemann surfaces for basic functions plotted in the complex plane (that is, a plane with complex numbers). The example for the square root function shows an application of the theory of Riemann surfaces (I think): you can plot the real part of the square root on the vertical axis, and then obtain the surface for the complex part by a simple 180 degree rotation. For the average mortal, obtaining a result like that will probably make your eyes bleed. For Dr. Mirzakhani I guess it’s breakfast reading.

Dr. Mirzakhani first came to love mathematics in Iran, where she completed high school and undergraduate studies. I find it very interesting that the first woman to win the Field’s prize was educated in a nation that we westerners consider to be very sexist, and furthermore that she comes from a middle-income country. There are nearly a billion people living in high-income, supposedly comparatively gender-equal nations, but the first female Fields prize winner comes from a middle-income country with a bad record on women’s rights. I think this is indicative of two things: first of all, Iran’s strong support of science; and secondly, the west’s overbearingly sexist attitude towards maths and science. While we in the west like to pride ourselves on the equality of the sexes, it is my opinion that attitudes towards femininity and science in the west are still very backward, and there are major cultural and institutional factors that push women away from fields that they are perfectly capable of performing well in. We also see this in the world of gaming and nerd pursuits, where women are vastly under-represented. This problem does not exist in Asia, where women are encouraged to take up scientific and nerdy pursuits. Certainly in Japan, there is no question about whether a woman could or should do mathematics – it is to be encouraged and admired, and many forms of mathematics that we in the west would consider to be “advanced” or “optional” parts of education (and therefore, through institutional and cultural pressure, tend to select men to learn) are considered an essential and basic part of a woman’s education in Japan. I see this as an Asia-wide phenomenon, and I suspect that it is true of Iran as well that women are considered capable of mathematical achievement. In this aspect of gender equality, I think the west has a long way to go.

Dr. Mirzakhani is also a sterling example of another aspect of maths education that I consider important, and that I have written about before on this blog: it depends very strongly on the attitude of your teachers, and especially on their ability to get students engaged in mathematics and to keep them trained. Dr. Mirzakhani was not originally interested in mathematics, but had her interest fired by a brother’s stories and a teacher’s encouragement. She also was not initially very good at mathematics, but stuck at it, saying:

I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers

It takes time and encouragement to develop mathematical skills, and teachers who ignore the slower students because they assume they lack “talent,” or who discourage certain groups or people from taking up this field, are both denying their society the chance to deepen and broaden the level of cultural knowledge of an essential discipline, and also are denying the possibility of access to a beautiful and inspirational world of thought, simply on the basis of their own prejudices. Dr. Mirzakhani obviously benefited from a series of teachers who like to inspire interest and support effort, and don’t judge their students’ potential on the basis of poor early development or gender. The world needs more teachers like those who encouraged Dr. Mirzakhani. Dr. Mirzakhani herself commented on barriers to entering and staying in mathematics earlier this year, suggesting that they are not being lowered:

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

Hopefully this award will be another small step to breaking down some of those social barriers, and encouraging more women into mathematics.

The Guardian article on Dr. Mirzakhani also contains a very nice and powerful quote from another Fields prize winner, Manjul Bhargava:

The mathematics that has been the most applicable and important to society over the years has been the mathematics that scientists found while searching for beauty; and eventually all beautiful and elegant mathematics tends to find applications

I think the importance of beauty and aesthetic sense in driving discoveries in mathematics and physics is often understated, but when you listen to mathematicians and physicists talk it is clear that it is a really important part of how they conceive of problems and solutions. There is an unexpected and deep relationship between our sense of symmetry and beauty, and the deep truths of the natural world. This is also the reason that people who understand mathematics find it so compelling and almost mystical in its beauty, and why I think it is not just an issue of shrunken talent pools when some groups of people are prevented from fully enjoying this field – they are being held back from being part of something truly profound. It’s good to see that whatever barriers still exist for women entering mathematics in Iran or the west, Dr. Mirzakhani was able to overcome them and join this small group of people peering into the deep mysteries of our universe.

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