Literate Art

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Spanish artist Jaume Plensa created El Alma del Ebro, above, for a 2008 exposition in Zaragoza on water and sustainable development. (The Ebro River passes through the city.) Visitors can pass in and out of the 11-meter seated figure, but no one has discovered a meaning in the letters that compose it.

lehmann print

Argentine artist Pablo Lehmann cuts words out of (and into) paper and fabric — he spent two years fashioning an entire apartment out of his favorite philosophy books. Reading and Interpretation VIII, above, is a photographic print of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths” into which Lehmann has cut his own text — a meditation on “the concept of ‘text.'”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Buenos Aires native Marta Minujin built a seven-story “Tower of Babel” on a public street to celebrate the city’s designation as a “world book capital.” The tower, 82 feet tall, was made of 30,000 books donated by readers, libraries, and 50 embassies. They were given away to the public after the exhibition.

Ukrania

While working at a tedious job in the summer of 1963, Jerry Gretzinger began drawing a map of an imaginary city. He added to the map fitfully for 20 years, put it aside, and then took it up again when his grandson found it in his attic. He’s now been mapping the area around “Ukrania” for more than 30 years, working an average of 20 minutes a day.

The activity is not entirely in his own hands. He draws from a special deck of cards to determine the focus of each day’s work. A given card might tell him to add a new paint color, to shuffle the deck, or to add a new “void,” a region of blankness that obliterates part of the map and incubates a new world of its own. The Ukranians can fend off the void only with a retaining wall, which they are constantly constructing. But whether they can save themselves from oblivion not even Gretzinger knows. “That’s why I keep going,” he says.

The current map covers about 1,500 square feet, representing an area of 14,400 square miles. Here’s a zoomable version.

Different Strokes

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In 1964, Swedish journalist Åke Axelsson paid a zookeeper to give a brush and paint to a 4-year-old chimpanzee named Peter. Then he chose the best of Peter’s paintings and exhibited them at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, saying they were the work of a previously unknown French artist named Pierre Brassau.

Critic Rolf Anderberg of the Göteborgs-Posten wrote, “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”

After Axelsson revealed the hoax, Anderberg maintained that Peter’s work was “still the best painting in the exhibition.”

A Pitched Battle

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In The Book of the Harp (2005), John Marson mentions a musical oddity — in 1932, a committee devoted to equal temperament was so incensed at the Royal Schools of Music that it hauled them before London’s Central Criminal Court for obtaining money under false pretenses. From The Music Lover magazine, April 30, 1932:

There is a touch of knight errantry about the action of Lennox Atkins F.R.C.O., hon. sec. of the Equal Temperament Committee, in applying at Bow Street for process against the Associated Board of Examiners in Music on the grounds that they were not qualified to know whether the music was being played in tune or not, and that therefore their diplomas were valueless. It certainly savours of the ‘ingenious gentleman’ of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. The temperament question seems to have upon those who take it up an effect similar to that which temperament produces in a prima donna. They become, to say the least, unreasonable. Happily Mr Fry, the magistrate, decided that this was not a matter for a criminal court, so that Sir John B. McEwan and Sir Hugh Allen are not to be shot at dawn, as was at first feared.

McEwan headed the Royal Academy of Music and Allen the Royal College of Music at the time. I find a bit more in the Musical Times, June 1, 1932:

Candidates were allowed to pass off the tuner’s scale as their own, and to obtain certificates to which, the E.T.C. claimed, they were not in equity entitled. Every sound produced was the tuner’s and not the candidate’s. Famous examiners, such as the late Sir Frederick Bridge, had wrongly passed thousands of candidates in keyed instrument examinations. From the point of view of the E.T.C., the candidates were not really examined at all.

The magistrate added that if it was thought that the examiners’ knowledge was insufficient then civil proceedings might be undertaken.

“We have only once before heard of the Equal Temperament Committee — a long while ago — and we were, and are still, vague as to its aims,” noted the Musical Times. “We had imagined it to be a learned Society that met from time to time to exchange light and airy chat about ratios, partials, mesotonics, and other temperamental details. But it seems that it is a body with a Mission, though we are not clear what that Mission is. Judging from the Bow Street evidence, the Committee’s aim is to make ‘Every Musician His Own Tuner’ — which seems rather rough on real tuners.”

Steps Back

For what it’s worth, here’s a dance from the 1780s:

  1. Glissade round (first part of tune).
  2. Double shuffle down, do.
  3. Heel and toe back, finish with back shuffle.
  4. Cut the buckle down, finish the shuffle.
  5. Side shuffle right and left, finishing with beats.
  6. Pigeon wing going round.
  7. Heel and toe haul in back.
  8. Steady toes down.
  9. Changes back, finish with back shuffle and beats.
  10. Wave step down.
  11. Heel and toe shuffle obliquely back.
  12. Whirligig, with beats down.
  13. Sissone and entrechats back.
  14. Running forward on the heels.
  15. Double Scotch step, with a heel Brand in Plase. [sic]
  16. Single Scotch step back.
  17. Parried toes round, or feet in and out.
  18. The Cooper shuffle right and left back.
  19. Grasshopper step down.
  20. Terre-a-terre [sic] or beating on toes back.
  21. Jockey crotch down.
  22. Traverse round, with hornpipe glissade.

It’s “A Sailor Hornpipe — Old Style,” by John Durang, George Washington’s favorite dancer. Durang taught it to his son Charles, who reproduced it in a study of theatrical dancing published in 1855, which is how it comes down to us.

The terminology is influenced by French ballet, but already it incorporates innovations such as “shuffles”; in time the hornpipe would evolve into modern tap dancing. In Tap Roots, Mark Knowles writes, “It is believed that the ‘whirligig, with beats down’ is similar to a renversé turn such as the kind later done by the tap dancing film star Eleanor Powell.”

(From Julian Mates, The American Musical Stage Before 1800, 1962.)

Small Business

Klaus Kemp is the sole modern practitioner of a lost Victorian art form — arranging diatoms into tiny, dazzling patterns, like microscopic stained-glass windows.

Diatoms are single-celled algae that live in shells of glasslike silica. There are hundreds of thousands of varieties, ranging in size from 5 to 50 thousandths of a millimeter. In the latter part of the 19th century, professional microscopists arranged them into patterns for wealthy clients, but how they did this is unknown — they took their secrets with them. Kemp spent eight years perfecting his own technique, which involves arranging the shapes meticulously in a film of glue over a period of several days.

“As a youngster of 16 I had a great passion for natural history and came across a collection of sample tubes of diatoms from the Victorian era,” he told Wired. “I was immediately struck by the beauty and symmetry of diatoms. The symmetry and sculpturing on an organism that one cannot see with the naked eye astonished me, and after 60 years of following this passion I can still get excited from the next sample I receive or collect.”

Making Fun

Minutes from a New Yorker editorial meeting to consider the week’s cartoon submissions, Feb. 5, 1935:

PRICE, Gar.: Man and two small boys in picture gallery; man has stopped before nude painting. One of the small boys is saying to the other, ‘There’s something about it gets the old man every time.’

Not right type of people; should be smart people.

SHERMUND: Scene in beauty parlor; masseuse is massaging the back of a woman’s neck and saying, ‘You’re one of the lucky few who have a normal skin, Madame.’

Make better drawing; this too unpleasant.

DUNN: Couple looking at grandmother in next room mixing herself a whiskey and soda. ‘Just because it’s Mother’s Day she thinks the lid is off.’

Better whiskey bottle.

The Tuesday afternoon cartoon meeting had been a fixture in the editorial routine since the magazine’s inception. Editor Harold Ross would point out each drawing’s weaknesses with knitting needles while art department administrator Daise Terry took notes. The resulting feedback ranged from hopelessly vague (“Make funnier”) to absurdly specific (“Mr. Ross is troubled by the fact that a man wouldn’t use a sledge hammer in the house, and thinks the scene had better be in the back yard with the doll placed on a large stone”).

Among the cartoonists whom this infuriated was James Thurber, who wrote to Terry in resubmitting a rejected drawing in 1937, “If this drawing is not funny, and is not a swell drawing, I shall engage to eat it, and with it all of Price’s fantasies that just miss, all of Taylor’s S. Klein women, and all eleven versions of every drawing Day does of two men in a restaurant. I will also eat every drawing of a man and a woman on a raft, every drawing of a man and a native woman on a desert island, and every drawing of two thin women in big-backed chairs. … I will also eat every drawing of a small animal talking to its parents, and every drawing of two large animals talking about their young.” Terry’s response is not recorded.

(From Ben Yagoda, About Town, 2000.)