Archives: October 2017

MISTAKEN | STATE OF MIND

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A new piece by Mary Ruefle in Granta Magazine:

About this time I began to suspect I was never named; people called me Mary because it was convenient, or because they had heard others call me Mary, I was in the beginning named after someone else who was named Mary but I was neither this person nor the one they called Mary after her, I was nameless, and in this state I perpetually wandered among fruit and flowers and foliage, among vines and overhanging rock and untamed animals, none of whom I could name, none of whom knew my name, nor, if they did, could they speak it. I read once that the Amazon was called the Green Hell, and if that is a name, I take it, if only as a substitute for my unknown name, which not even my parents knew when they named me Mary, after a woman who scrubbed her kitchen floor on her hands and knees, once a week, with a stiff brush. She was kind to me and I loved her, and since her death I have dreamt of her many times, either searching for her or speaking to her, but never once in my dreams have I called her Mary, which, I suspect, is not her name, or if it once was, is no longer. 

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Sculpting Space: Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner

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Osman Can Yerebakan reviews the current exhibition of Ruth Asawa’s works at David Zwirner New York for BOMB Magazine

In contrast to her tumultuous biography, Asawa’s art contains a reclusive serenity, shrouding a life spent with struggle due to race and identity. California-born Asawa and her siblings grew up in a Japanese immigrant household that was devastated by a six-year separation from their father as the result of his internment along with many other Japanese Americans during World War II. Asawa herself was interned for a year in California and Arkansas. She later attended Milwaukee State Teachers College in order to realize her dream of becoming an art teacher, an attempt hindered by the systematic aversion for employing teachers of Japanese descent. A visit to Mexico to study art played a key role in the formation of her illustrious career. There, Cuban-born industrial designer Clara Porset introduced her to Black Mountain College, where Asawa eventually worked with Josef Albers, immersing herself in a modernist avant-garde that challenged the artistic norms of the time. For the twenty-year old artist, innovation manifested itself in wire, an everyday, humble material that rarely went beyond utilitarian purpose. In Asawa’s hands, lines of thin copper, brass, or iron transformed into harmony.

The premiere of Asawa’s grand oeuvre at David Zwirner does not disappoint. A generous selection of her wire sculptures suspend from the ceiling often slightly above eye level—just enough to let the viewer absorb their meticulous details and celestial presence. Visually, they separate into two categories: circular and vertical. However, at times Asawa blurs the distinction with upright pieces comprised of multiple spheres. In order to plunge into Asawa’s mystical universe, close inspection is essential. Her intricate braids of wire—a material associated with masculine and industrial labor as opposed to yarn’s pigeonholed femininity—float in the air as effortlessly as bubbles. The in-between aesthetic of knitted wire renders them ghostly, yet salient. The sculptures’ unobtrusive postures allow for transparency and fluidity, and they permeate space similar to a puff of smoke.

“Life is like a line: there is a beginning and there is an end,” explains Jonathan Laib, Director at David Zwirner, in his catalogue essay for Christie’s 2015 exhibition, Ruth Asawa: Line by Line, “and Asawa has shown us another truth, another illustrated concept; the idea that there is no beginning or end, that there is a continuation.” Ceaseless wire compositions—nearly all labeled Untitled with extensively descriptive subtitles—defy logic and labor, stunning the viewer with their unassumingly organic forms that in reality are the product of arduous repetition. Particular sculptures convey resonance with the human silhouette through their voluptuous curves and contours that seamlessly bend inward, as Asawa triumphs over her uncluttered medium, merging ardor with the ethereality of tightly woven wire.

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Underground in Raqqa

FILE PHOTO:Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa

Patrick Cockburn on the siege of Raqqa for the London Review of Books:

Shortly before the siege of Raqqa began in June, Islamic State officials arrested Hammad al-Sajer for skipping afternoon prayers. Hammad, who is 29, made a living from his motorbike: he carried people and packages, charging less than the local taxis. IS had arrested him a number of times before – mostly for smoking cigarettes, which were banned under IS rule – but he had always been released after paying a fine or being lashed. Attendance at prayers was compulsory and he had missed the Asr, the afternoon prayer, because a passenger had made him wait while he went into his house to get money for his fare after a trip to Raqqa’s old city. Hammad expected to be fined or lashed, but this time he was sentenced to a month in prison. Except it turned out not to be prison. On his first morning, ‘militants blindfolded us and took us in a vehicle to a place that seemed to be inside the city because it took no more than ten minutes to get there.’

Hammad and the other prisoners, all of them local men, were taken to an empty house. In one of the rooms there was a hole in the floor. Rough steps led down about sixty feet before the tunnel flattened out into a corridor, which was connected to a labyrinth of other tunnels. A fellow prisoner, Adnan, told Hammad that IS had started work on what was effectively a subterranean network a year and a half earlier. In other words, construction began in 2015, after IS’s spectacular run of victories ended and it started its long retreat in the face of Kurdish offensives backed by coalition firepower. To escape the aerial bombardment, IS decided to disappear underground, digging immense tunnel complexes underneath its two biggest urban centres, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, to help it defend itself when the final assaults came.

Few people in Raqqa knew the extent of the excavations going on beneath their feet – not even Hammad, who rode his motorbike around the city every day. The entrances were always in districts from which local inhabitants had fled or been evicted. ‘When we got into the tunnels we were amazed,’ Hammad remembers. ‘It was as if an entire city had been built underground.’ IS must have needed an army of workers to build it – but then there were large numbers of prisoners and jobless labourers to draw on. The prisoners were told as little as possible about what they were doing: anyone who asked a lot of questions was punished. Hammad saw rooms with reinforced concrete walls and ceilings, and what looked like boxes of ammunition piled up on the floor. When he asked about the boxes, he says, one of the guards ‘hit me on my back with a piece of cable and said: “Don’t poke your nose into things. This is not your business. Do your job and keep quiet.”’ The foreign fighters on duty were silent and unapproachable, but some of the guards were locals and occasionally talked to the diggers during the ten-hour working day. ‘Sometimes they joked with us because they were bored and tired,’ he says. One day he asked one of them what all this hard work was for. ‘This great construction will help the lions of the caliphate to escape,’ he said (the ‘lions’ were the IS emirs and commanders). ‘They have a message to deliver to people and they should not die too soon.’

IS officials used prisoners to work on the tunnels when they could, but they also hired labourers. One of these was Khalaf Ali. When IS seized the city in 2014, he was selling cigarettes in the street. ‘I was picked up by some militants who took me to a commander,’ he says. ‘They did not take me to prison, but they confiscated my boxes of cigarettes and said that if I sold cigarettes again, they would put me in prison and I would get thirty lashes.’ He started spending his days in a local square with other unemployed men; they would wait for a car or truck to stop and offer them odd jobs – moving furniture, mending broken doors or windows. In April 2016, Khalaf was sitting in the square with the others when an IS security man said he wanted to talk to them. At first they were nervous, but the official said they could have work if they registered their names at an IS office. When they showed up at 7 a.m. the following day, they were told they had to agree to certain conditions: ‘We must not talk about what we were doing in public as it was one of the caliphate’s secrets and, if we violated this condition, they would kill us as traitors.’ They were blindfolded and driven a short distance to an empty house, where the blindfolds were removed. It wasn’t the house Hammad had first been taken to: here, there were no stairs, just a sloping tunnel about 150 feet long, which took them around sixty feet underground.

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Experimental Zones

Charlie Fox for frieze
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Charlie Fox reviews ‘Basquiat: Boom For Real’: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first UK retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre

Back in 1982, the critic Rene Ricard discerned that Basquiat’s ‘earlier paintings were a logical extension of what you could do with a city wall’. His canvases are experimental zones where he explores the picture as an exploding galaxy of information (Pegasus, 1987) and the portrait as some digressive freak-out: Five Fish Species, 1983, dedicated to William Burroughs, is littered with factoids, quotations and dates drawn from the master’s dark biography. They operate like fields of strangely musical noise: words repeating, odd mixtures of art brut or antique material in duet, favourite themes (fame, death, cities, economics) resurrected or ripped apart. Skunks, leeches, Titian, boxing matches, dogs, Straight, No Chaser (1965) by Thelonious Monk, notebook scrawls about ‘the germs on a spoon behind the oven’: Basquiat turns his brain inside-out in encyclopaedic fashion. This data is also a wormhole of personal code and allusion: severed ears, the word ‘tar’, a feast of snakes hinting at poisons in his system and creeps trying to win his fortune. Sometimes he finds sucker-punch eloquence in drawing little more than a bone or tooth.

The same contrary energies are at play through his raid on art history. Basquiat figured out early that painting could be a patricidal game. (Hoban’s book seethes with his alternate bad feelings towards and eagerness to please his father.) For Untitled (World Trade Towers) (1981), he stages what he calls elsewhere ‘a flashback to his childhood files’ – revisiting the moment when he was hit by a car, aged seven – in the spirit of Cy Twombly with amphetamine psychosis. But for a few gobbets of blood-red gore, the scene is all scary monochrome: electrified Roman numerals mix with wonky alphabets and blurred shadows. Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) maims juicy parts of the genius’s back catalogue, turning the head of Vitruvian Man (1490) into a blast of static. Homage deforms into parody: wicked jokes at the expense of dead elders.

The raw facts of being the rare black kid within the white art world are also at play in his rambunctious attitude to the canon. (One creepy tidbit sees him alter a headshot of Warhol, creating Drella in blackface.) He provided acid commentary on the art world’s crook economics and ominous exclusions from the beginning. Site-specific riddles, Basquiat’s Samo graffiti comes from the same wish to unsettle or seduce the bougie crowd. A room of Henry Flynt photographs track him like a character from downtown folklore, half secret agent, half ghost, the cryptic one-liners appearing between cracked windowpanes and filthy paving slabs, words faint as ectoplasm: ‘Samo as a result of overexposure’. (Is the critic Greg Tate correct that everybody should hear ‘sambo’ stashed inside ‘Samo’, short for ‘same old shit’?) Like Warhol, Basquiat was always conscious of art’s proximity to prank. He scribbles factoids about his big daddy predecessors on brown paper for Untitled (Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Duchamp, Pollock) (1986–87), knowing his hand transforms mere art historical rehash into treasure. It indicates his typical wily self-consciousness about his status as a commodity – Basquiat garlanded his work with copyright symbols – but also his fixation on art history and whatever afterlife it assures.

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Ralph Ellison’s Tragicomic Soul

Alejandro Nava for Lit Hub
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In an essay for Lit Hub, Alejandro Nava uses the rhythmic balance of tragedy and comedy in Ralph Ellison’s works to elucidate his concept of ‘soul’:

Although there is an extraordinary, Gatsby-like capacity for hope exhibited in Ralph Ellison’s work, optimism is certainly the wrong word for it. In fact, Ellison’s version is propped up by the flying buttresses of both tragedy and comedy. It swings wildly between the two, like the swinging rhythms of jazz in Stanley Crouch’s eloquent description:

‘What I refer to is the expression of sorrow or melancholy in a melodic line that is contrasted by a jaunty or exuberant rhythm, that combination of grace and intensity we know as swing. In jazz, sorrow rhythmically transforms itself into joy, which is perhaps the point of the music: joy earned or arrived at through performance, through creation.’

In identifying these oscillations of sorrow and exuberance in jazz, Crouch taps into what Ellison named “soul.” Crouch essentially parses and explains Ellison’s grammar of soul, noting the way a high-spirited rhythm can transform a melancholic line into a stirring and uplifting performance.

Here and elsewhere, Crouch takes cues from Ellison on when and how to add tragic and comic elements in the right proportions. An excessive focus on one element could ruin the rhythm. If tragic lessons are erased from memory, we end up with banal and artificial sounds, like elevator music, a ditty for advertising, or the most trifling forms of pop music; at the same time, without the comic sense we will be left with cheerless and drab sounds, music that turns the living soul into stone and causes it to sink and drown in gloom. For the soul to grow to its fullest temple-like potential, Ellison required elements of each: the comic sense would be a leavening grace to lighten the gravity of suffering, allowing the American soul to rise to its fullest potential. With both ingredients in the right balance, soul is attained, a kind of multigrain bread of life.

Ellison defined soul as such: “It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul.’ An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.” As we can see here, Ellison’s concept of soul is born from the conjunction of tragedy and comedy; it skates and slides between the two like the careening legs of James Brown, carrying us from the Apollo Theater to the church, from barrelhouses to the bedroom. In the process—one of the many lessons of the resilient history of black music in America—it displays, even flaunts, an existential toughness and ability to survive no matter the troubles it sees. It’s no wonder that Ellison speaks of an “apprenticeship” when educating us on soul: “Here it is more meaningful to speak, not of courses of study, of grades and degrees, but of apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, of rebirth.”

As an apprenticeship and initiation by fire, soul cannot be achieved in a scholastic manner; it requires the kind of verve, daring, courage, resilience, and shrewdness shown by the main character in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Though the protagonist is a scholarship recipient, his real education occurs outside the walls of the university, in the course of the numerous “battles royal” and contests of nerve that mark his life. He ends up living in an underground room—he speaks of being “clubbed into the cellar,” in point of fact—and must find his voice and perspective in this confined basement.

The narrative begs for allegorical elaboration. Whether one is driven into the underground like this young man or ingested by a whale like Jonah, Ellison implies that being black in America automatically puts one in the darkest dungeons of life, so that the gestation of soul will have to occur in Sheol-like spaces, in the face of death. Thus, there is a sepulchral or mausoleum-like quality to the cellar that Ellison’s invisible protagonist must enter and endure before he can be reborn, as if he were a seed that must fall and sink into the earth before germinating and blooming. (Early Christian baptisteries were shaped like mausoleums with this exact logic in mind.)

Besides possessing this phoenix-like ability to raise black lives from the ashes, Ellison’s concept of soul also casts a dark shadow over the American psyche. By speaking from the American underground, Ellison adds a blues-like color and prophetic edge to his concept of soul; it is a force of dissent against vain and jingoistic versions of American greatness. Ellison’s “soul” is not unlike biblical understandings—vital spirit, life force, or essential self—but he clearly adds the particular shibboleths of black history and culture to the religious account. Consistent with many romantic portraits, “soul” is accordingly a vital spirit and life force but now applied to African American traditions, a symbol of the “spirit of a race,” to quote José Vasconcelos (1882–1959).

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Poetry and Work: Some Thoughts on Paterson

JT Welsch for Honest Ulsterman
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JT Welsch considers the relationship between poetry and ‘work’ in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson:

If poetry’s status as work is worth asserting, it needs to go beyond semantics and subjective difficulty into more practical considerations of how the making of poems is valued (in various senses) alongside other kinds of labour. To this end, Paterson nudges the question of whether poetry is work towards a more interesting one about what kind of work it might be. In more and less subtle ways, Jarmusch gives us a chance to weigh poem-making against, on one hand, more material types of ‘creative’ work, and on the other, the waged work of Paterson’s bus driving job. The structure and editing foreground a sustained comparison of the former. While Paterson writes ‘at work’, his wife Laura makes things at home: sewing or painting curtains, making or refashioning clothes, redecorating their house, learning to play the guitar, or baking cupcakes for the local farmers market. Immediately, we’re confronted with the historically lopsided status and often strongly gendered division of work that takes place in the public or private sphere.

For the philosopher Hannah Arendt, this apparently ancient division of public and private is partly linked to the raising of intellectual labour over manual labour (or what we now call white- and blue-collar work) in classical Greek society. In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt singles out ‘poetry, whose material is language’ as ‘perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it’ – in other words, as almost purely intellectual labour. Leaving effort aside, this gives us the option of evaluating the work of poetry in terms of its material (or immaterial) nature. In The Craftsman (2009), however, the American philosopher Richard Sennett diverges from his Arendt (his former teacher), in his insistence on the merging of mental and manual labour in the work he venerates as ‘craft’. ‘Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking,’ Sennett insists. In this way, craft and its products represent ‘the intimate connection between the hand and head.’

But Sennett himself also acknowledges the unequal status of different crafts, linking to Arendt’s distinction between public and private realms in his defence for the male focus of The Craftsman. ‘Most domestic crafts and craftsmen seem different in characterthan labor now outside the home,’ he writes (with my emphasis). ‘We do not think of parenting, for instance, as a craft in the same sense that we think of plumbing or programming, even though becoming a good parent requires a high degree of learned skill.’ In Sennett’s historical account, this is simply the way it is. The preface of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft – also published in 2009, and in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands – apologises likewise that ‘it so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men.’

When Paterson premiered at the Cannes festival last year, Jarmusch recalls some ‘feminist French journalist’ accusing him of making ‘a throwback to ‘50s domesticity, et cetera, with this character of Laura.’ He finds this ‘a little shallow,’ however, and is ready with a long reply, which ends with him exclaiming ‘I’m a feminist!’ (Elsewhere, he tempers it to ‘I consider myself a feminist, in a way.’) To the French journalist and others questioning the film’s undeniably regressive gender roles, he explains: ‘Laura lives how she wants; she does what she wants. She’s entrepreneurial, even if it’s in a domestic set-up like selling cupcakes. She wants to maybe be musical – she’s very artistic in décor – so to say that she is not liberated, if one were to say that, then I wonder how these people think of all the working-class women in the world that are washing their families’ clothes or making food.’ When Jarmusch tells a female interviewer that ‘domesticity is a fact of how social structure works,’ he isn’t far from Sennett’s matter-of-factness regarding the difference in character of that work. Yet, his defence of Laura’s ‘entrepreneurial’ set-up also points to an essential difference between the two main characters’ approach to their respective crafts.

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Prozac Culture

Brian Dillon for Granta
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Brian Dillon on the cultural history of Prozac

 What did a lost boy like me know about Prozac? Even two decades ago, the drug had been everywhere for years, though I didn’t know a soul who was actually on it. To appreciate how ubiquitous the image and idea of Prozac were by the middle of the decade, just google the magazine, book and newspaper covers – they appear scattered with green-and-white capsules which have sometimes artfully split in two and spilled their powder. There is scarcely a more 90s visual cue or cliché; it was already on the cover of New York magazine in December 1989: ‘Bye-Bye Blues: A New Wonder Drug for Depression’. Consider Newsweek in March 1990: above a desert landscape, a huge capsule floats among clouds like a benign UFO, bearing towards mankind its cargo of placid cheer. I had read the UK equivalents of these articles: Sunday-supplement profiles in which Prozac was treated like a celebrity, and the celebrities taking it were just incidental players. Journalists spoke of the neurotransmitter serotonin, on which the drug was said to act, as if the stuff had been staring science and society in the face all along. (Prozac was, is, one of several selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Serotonin is known to be involved in regulating digestion, appetite, sleep, mood and cognition; but the precise biological effect on mood disorders of altering its action or its levels is still quite unknown.) Everybody now spoke as though at last, after decades of shock therapy, debilitating or addicting drug treatment and a stigma that psychoanalysis had done little to dispel, the late twentieth century had simply discovered a cure for depression.

We learned, my generation, to accept and then righteously defend the idea that depression derived from a ‘chemical imbalance’. This seemed like good news for the depressed: a group that would at some point include, we were informed, fully one tenth of the population. What we had not been told was the prehistory of Prozac, which complicates the dominant story at the height of 90s boosterism. The drug, fluoxetine, was developed around 1970 as a treatment for obesity and high blood pressure, but it did little or nothing for either. It did, however, seem to have an effect at the anxious end of moderate depression, and so eventually it was repurposed as an antidepressant and branded as Prozac. Interbrand, the company tasked with giving the drug its public name and face, had previously worked for Sony, Microsoft, Nikon and Nintendo. Its launch in 1987 had demanded (the magazine stories never said) some redefinition of depression itself. Prozac did not work at the catatonic extreme of bone-deep and often lethal melancholia, and so in the process of its preparation for the market a milder category, ‘atypical depression’, was emphasized in the literature directed at clinicians. Malaise, anxiety, lassitude, fatigue, a generalized lack of ambition and verve – these too were symptoms of depression, and in fact might point to the illness quite as reliably as despair, withdrawal and a desire to die.

Media stories about Prozac tended to focus on those patients who hadn’t thought they were depressed, whose vague sense of disquiet or disappointment had so far passed as glum normality. Some blurring at the edges of the definition of depression meant legions of the high-functioning unhappy could benefit from the new drugs. This was the import of Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, published in 1993: the drugs could make you better than well. Kramer’s book was the source for some of the feeling that the new wave of antidepressants might turn us into other people, people whom we might not want to be. This was the crude set of questions now posed: if Prozac and the other SSRIs did away with ordinary unease, what was left of you per se? What else might evanesce along with sadness? Realism? Profundity? Scepticism? Irony? The milder, more productive kinds of melancholy? The very need to think or write or make art? Added to all of this before long were reports of suicides among patients on Prozac. And a feeling that even if the media-conjured extremes – psychic cure-all versus thalidomide-scale disaster – were false, there was something not exactly sane about the spread of a Prozac culture.

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Fitz Carraldo Editions