No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side under a smooth slab of granite.

Then, all day long, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

Billy Collins

U. S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003

Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

During an interview focusing upon our perceptions of the dead, Collins touched upon his portrayal of death in the poem No Time:

“The underlying theme of Western poetry is mortality. The theme of carpe diem asks us to seize the day because we have only a limited number of them. To see life through the lens of death is to approach the condition of gratitude for the gift, or simply the fact, of our existence. And as Wallace Stevens said, Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers….

We visit graves because they give the illusion that the person is somewhere, in some place. But like a mandala, the gravestoneitself is a focusing device. The treatment of the dead as if they were still alive is ancient. The Egyptians would entomb you with your favorite food, flowers, even pets (poor dears). In that way, maybe we are all in some form of hopeful denial.”

No Time: Seeing Life Through the Lens of Death

Animation by: Jeff Scher

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Bombastic Dementia: Straight Out of Idiotland

Bombastic Dementia: Straight Out of Idiotland

Bombastic Dementia: Straight Out of Idiotland

Animation by: Gary Leib

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The Danish Poet’s Pilgrimage Through the Uncertainty of Life

The Danish Poet’s Pilgrimage Through the Uncertainty of Life

The Danish Poet: Questions about the Meaning of Life

The Danish Poet won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. The film follows the pilgrimage of a poet named Kaspar who has lost his talent for inspired creativity. In his desperate search for help, he travels to Norway to meet a famous writer. As the Danish poet’s journey to recover his sense of inspiration unfolds, he has to deal with bad weather, an angry dog, a fair damsel, a careless postman, hungry goats, a broken heart and other seemingly unconnected circumstances.

Although the tale of The Danish Poet proceeds with a sense of unexpected humor, it is also an allegory for deeper questions about the meaning of one’s life. If we look to the past for meaning, can we really gain such an understanding by tracing the little, seemingly trivial things in the particular chain of events in our lives back to our earliest years? Or, on the other hand, is existence and the course of our lives simply a matter of coincidence.

Learning to Become Prepared to be Unprepared

There is, of course, an alternative perspective about attempting to achieve some understanding about the meaning and course of our lives. If we focus on the present, rather than upon the past, we are faced with acknowledging that human choice always involves choosing one particular course of action while abandoning others, some of which may have turned out to be in some respects equally, or even more preferable. Furthermore, our choice of a particular course of action is always complicated by the unknowingness or ultimate uncertainty about where the path or paths not taken actually might have led.

While life’s ambiguity ultimately is irreducible, learning to embrace the ambiguous and uncertain nature of our lives can vitalize and enrich our experiences of surprise. In other words, focusing upon the present can expand our capacities to become engaged in depth with the ongoing, day-to-day events in our lives.

This in turn calls for us learn how to become prepared to be unprepared for new experiences.

The Danish Poet: On Becoming Prepared to be Unprepared

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Spin Cycle: The Magic of Wonder Bread

Jeff Koons: Wonder Bread

I recently posted an article about Jeff Scher’s experimental short film Still Loaf with Guitar. Spin Cycle is a companion piece; both are earlier films in the series of works illustrating his long-term creative fascination with the illusion of motion via animation. Exploiting the visually symbolic nature of white bread, Scher created a panorama of color and optical effects in both of the films.

Comprised of 78 paintings on paper, Spin Cycle features a single slice of Wonder Bread rotating in limbo. As the film advances, Scher adds layers of paint and collage to the individual frames and then re-photographs them. The result is a film that blooms with the successive additions of color and texture until the image evolves into a dense and challenging cinematic experience.

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Spin Cycle: The Magic of Wonder Bread

Animation by: Jeff Scher

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The Old Gray Lady Has Moved: She’s Still a Victorian Dowager

The grand old 18-story Neo-Gothic structure on 43rd Street, home to The New York Times for nearly a century, had many sentimental charms. Its complex warren of reporters’ desks and piles of old, yellowing newspapers were reminiscent of a hallowed tradition, but it also had become increasingly tawdry, down-at-the-heels and conspicuously old-fashioned. The new 52-story Times building between 40th and 41st Streets, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, is a towering modern composition of glass and steel all gussied up in a veil of ceramic rods.

Thirty years ago, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers designed the Pompidou Center in Paris, which announced a new wave of high-tech architecture and culminated a decade later in Norman Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. Since then, Foster has moved away from high-tech, as is displayed in his sleek Hearst Building, just up Eighth Avenue from The New York Times building.

Piano has moved away from high-tech architectural design also, and his 2006 addition to the Morgan Library in New York City characterizes his current low-key approach. However, in the New York Times Building, Piano has returned to his Pompidou Center roots; not exposed pipes and ducts, which were always clearly impractical, but rather with dramatic structural details that boldly proclaim, “This is how I am made.”

Building the Times

Photography by: Annie Leibovitz

Piano’s Times Building: An Architectural Review

The Historic Times Building: Views of the Past

The New York Times: Old and New

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Barack Obama Edged by Clinton in New Hampshire

On Thursday, Barack Obama swept to a stunning victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Initially, Senator Obama (Ill.) had jumped to a double-digit lead in the polls over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire two days ago, suggesting that there had been a large boost in support for Obama since he won the Iowa caucuses. However, in a dramatic turnaround on Tuesday night, Clinton narrowly defeated Obama in the New Hampshire primary by a margin of 39% to 36%.

Nevertheless, Obama pronounced himself “still fired up and ready to go” after the second-place finish in New Hampshire. “You know, a few weeks ago no one imagined that we’d have accomplished what we did here tonight in New Hampshire,” he told his supporters. “For most of this campaign, we were far behind. We always knew our climb would be steep. But, in record numbers, you came out and you spoke up for change. And with your voices and your votes you made it clear that at this moment in this election there is something happening in America.” He congratulated Clinton on a hard-fought victory and asked the crowd to give her a round of applause. “All the candidates in this race have good ideas and all are patriots who serve this country honorably,” Obama said.

Four years ago, when the ballots were cast in New Hampshire’s presidential primary, hardly anyone in the United States knew the name Barack Obama. This time, bidding to become the first African-American president, he was in the thick of a fight with the most famous name in Democratic politics. Obama had hoped that his victory in Iowa would create a bandwagon that would take him through to the nomination. But Tuesday night’s results caught his campaign off guard. That was hard to tell from the cheers that went up when he and his wife, Michelle, walked into the room to loud chants of “Obama, Obama.”

They approached the platform holding hands. Both applauded and waved to the crowd, then hugged and kissed briefly. “We know the battle ahead may be long. But always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change,” Obama said.

Now, on to South Carolina, where Obama is leading Clinton in the polls, 42% to 30%.

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Obama’s Concession Speech: Yes, We Can!

Barack Obama: One Voice

Senator Barack Obama: One Voice

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I Be Queer. Let That Not Disturb You.

Let Me Borrow That Top


I-Be Area

(Caution: Saucy Language)

When the choice between dallying in front of a video projector or hitting a half-dozen other galleries is increasingly a cinch, the jolting energy, nerve, and intricacy of twenty-four-year-old Ryan Trecartin’s work in the medium comes as no small shock. A lifelong interest in indie rock, goth, psychedelia and other hot topics don’t discriminate his practice from that of other artists of his generation. But everything aesthetic about his videos do: From the baroque screenplays that polish flippant teen slang into cascading soliloquies to the dueling fascinations with profound loneliness and extremely affected behavior to the swarming, jumbled, yet precisely composed shots that pack each frame to the rafters with visual stimuli-displays a near obliviousness to what’s going on in his field, whether it be the clichés of current video art or the signature styles of past experimental films. Trecartin shares a fancy for full-frontal gayness and a love of extravagance with the movie directors his work most immediately brings to mind: Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and early John Waters.

Trecartin was “discovered” when a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art showed visiting artist Sue De Beer a piece of crazy video he’d found on the dating/networking website Upon her return to New York, De Beer told writer and former New Museum curator Rachel Greene about her find. With only the artist’s first name to go on, they searched Friendster’s database until they found Trecartin’s profile, then wrote him to ask if he would send them a copy of the video in its entirety, a forty-one-minute work titled A Family Finds Entertainment (2004).

Floored by what she saw, Greene began showing the video to enthusiastic artists, curators, and gallerists. Several months and much buzz later, Trecartin’s first solo show opened at the Los Angeles gallery QED. The Getty Research Institute, an institution not exactly known for supporting young, unproven artists, commissioned a new work and AFFE, the video that started it all, appeared in the Whitney Biennial.

All these details aside, Trecartin is not your classic outsider. Raised in rural Ohio, he designed costumes and stage sets in high school before picking up his first camera at the Rhode Island School of Design. While at RISD, he made a number of short films, including Yo, A Romantic Comedy (2001) a messy, hypergay exercise in genre, and the heartfelt, bratty Valentines Day Girl (2001) and helped form a multidisciplinary art collective called Experimental People. After graduating in 2004, he moved to New Orleans with the group, whose members were among the huge cast appearing in AFFE. Then Hurricane Katrina destroyed Trecartin’s elaborately painted, decorated home (featured prominently in the video) and with it virtually all of the nondigital artwork he’d ever made. Following a period of drifting and homelessness, Trecartin now lives and makes art in Los Angeles, thanks to the support of an admiring collector.

If A Family Finds Entertainment can be reduced to a thumbnail description, this might be it: Trecartin stars as Skippy, a clownish but terrifyingly psychopathic boy who has locked himself in the upstairs bathroom of his family home during a wild party. Ignoring his siblings’ and friends’ pleas that he come out, he paces the little room, cutting himself with a knife and musing opaquely on his existential dilemma in a kind of King Lear-style delirium. Downstairs, the partyers are experiencing wild mood swings and having complex, disassociated conversations (mostly about him) that are constantly interrupted by bursts of visual effects and animated sequences that disorient the cast of characters like so many lightning strikes. Eventually Skippy emerges, borrows money from his creepy, sexually inappropriate parents, and heads outdoors, where he runs into a documentary filmmaker who decides to make a movie about him-but then Skippy is immediately hit by a car and, apparently, killed. Back inside the house, a hyperactive girl named Shin, also played by Trecartin, gets a call on her cell phone with the bad news. She spends twenty or so hysteria-filled minutes trying to focus and construct a sentence linear enough to tell her friends what has happened. When she finally does, a band plays music that seems to magically raise the young man from the dead, and everyone runs outside and sets off fireworks. Then everyone runs back inside before the police show up.

A wonder of Trecartin’s videos is that his approach seems as intuitive and driven by a mad scientist-style tunnel vision as it is rigorous and sophisticated, grounded in his expert editing and inordinate gift for constructing complex avant-garde narratives. For this reason, his movies resist the kind of deconstructive analysis through which one normally manages to strip new, challenging art down to its nuts and bolts. It’s early yet, but the great excitement of Trecartin’s work is that it honestly does seem to have come from out of nowhere.

We’re in a house of many tight, messy rooms. In the suburbs? Cyberspace? Hard to say. Anyway, it’s night. A door bangs open. A girl, who is also a boy, dashes in, talking, talking. Other people are already there, in gaudy attire, dire wigs and makeup like paint on de Koonings. Everyone moves in a jerky, speeded-up, look-at-me way and speaks superfast to one another, to the camera, into a cellphone. Phrases whiz by about cloning, family, same-sex adoption, the art world, the end of the world, identity, blogging, the future. Suddenly indoors turns into outdoors, night into day, and we’re at a picnic, in dappled sunshine, with a baby. Then this all reverses, and we’re indoors again. A goth band is pounding away in the kitchen. The house is under siege. Hysteria. Everyone runs through the walls.

This is a highly impressionistic account of Ryan Trecartin’s sensationally anarchic video I-Be Area, which made its debut in the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Manhattan last fall. The piece caused a stir, in part because most people had never seen anything quite like it before, certainly not in an art gallery. Art video still has a funny reputation, left over from the 1960s, of being a serious medium, made for function rather than pleasure, as opposed to film. Yet I-Be Area was pleasure all the way. It was nonstop visual razzle-dazzle. It drew on every cheap-thrill trick in the digital graphics playbook. More radically, it was the length of a feature film. More radically still, it told a story, one with dozens of characters and multiple subplots, which is what entertainment, not art, is supposed to do, if you assume there’s a hard and fast difference between the two. Mr. Trecartin, apparently, does not assume this.

At present it is shaped by a combination of pop fantasy, ingrained cybersmarts, neo-tribalism and an angst-free take on contemporary life that marks an attention-deficient Internet culture. The relationship of this work to an art world structured on galleries, museums and fairs is, potentially at least, one of detachment. You can experience I-Be Area on a laptop wherever and whenever you want. That may be a reason why few of these new video artists feel the need to live in New York City. They have chosen a medium that is not only flexible and affordable but has a history of embracing experimentation.

I-Be Area is so giddy, so different. But it’s also just plain strange, which is part of the larger appeal of today’s video art. It represents a possible way out of something, out of the renewed tyranny of the precious object, out from under a boutique art market that has amassed grotesque wealth and power while making art itself seem small and utterly dispensable. Mr. Trecartin directs his videos, writes the script, designs the costumes and takes several leading roles. But he also describes his art as a collective project very much shaped by a circle of family and longtime friends. One of these friends, Lizzie Fitch, he lists as a collaborator; she is almost as prominent in the videos as Mr. Trecartin himself.

Finally, as is true with several other artists working in narrative video, Mr. Trecartin’s work is part of a second or possibly third wave in queer identity politics. The big change lies in emphasis. For queer artists of Mr. Trecartin’s generation, cross-dressing, cross-identifying and cross-thinking are part of a state of being, not statements of political position. Like the work of John Waters and Jack Smith, his art is about just saying no to life as we think we have seen it and saying yes to zanier, virtual-utopian possibilities.

Mr. Trecartin is at an outer, experimental edge of video, narrative and time alike, pushing all three further out with every new piece. In a time of accelerated production and marketing, he is making art that runs by a different clock. He is also making art that does things that objects can’t do. And he is, potentially and some cases actually, reaching audiences by a new route. When you have YouTube at your disposal, who needs Chelsea?
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