Shadow Play

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Artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster find self-portraits in arrangements of domestic trash. Their Dirty White Trash (with Gulls) (1998, right) was contrived from the six months’ rubbish they produced while making it, a sculpture produced by the residue of its own composition.

More shadow art: Shigeo Fukuda, Larry Kagan, Richard Haas.

lead pencil billboard

Somewhat related: Last year travelers from Washington state to Vancouver were surprised to discover this “negative space” billboard by the side of the road. It was created by Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han of Seattle-based art collective Lead Pencil Studio. Most billboards draw the eye away from the environment; this draws the eye to it.

(Thanks, Alex and Bob.)

Small World

Willard Wigan makes tiny art. His sculptures are so small that they’re often presented literally in the eye of a needle; the painstaking work requires him to work late at night, when traffic vibrations are minimal, and to slow his own pulse so he can sculpt between hand tremors.

“It began when I was five years old,” he said. “I started making houses for ants because I thought they needed somewhere to live. Then I made them shoes and hats. It was a fantasy world I escaped to. That’s how my career as a micro-sculptor began.”

His tools include a paintbrush fashioned from a hair from the back of a dead fly. “I have to kill my body,” he told the BBC in 2009. “It’s almost like a dead man working. It takes so much out of you it almost sends you mad. I have passed out doing this work.”

A Heavenly View

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This is startling — in 1500 artist Jacopo de Barbari produced an aerial view of Venice, assembled from six woodcuts on large sheets of paper. The full image fills nearly 4 square meters; it was probably assembled from sightings taken by surveyors in bell towers around the city.

The artist’s meticulous attention to detail is reflected in the flat roof on the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, which was added after a fire in 1489. When the tower was restored in 1514, the woodblocks were updated to reflect the change.

Still Life

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French anatomist Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) blurred the line between science and art by arranging human and animal bodies in fanciful poses. By replacing the eyeballs with glass replicas and injecting a distorting resin into the facial blood vessels, he achieved some remarkably expressive effects — his Fetus Dancing the Jig is best left to the imagination.

Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History preserves a collection of wax models that were used in teaching medicine in the 18th century (below). Modelers might refer to 200 corpses in preparing a single wax figure. “If we succeeded in reproducing in wax all the marvels of our animal machine,” wrote director Felice Fontana, “we would no longer need to conduct dissections, and students, physicians, surgeons and artists would be able to find their desired models in a permanent, odor-free and incorruptible state.” Goethe praised artificial anatomy as “a worthy surrogate that, ideally, substitutes reality by giving it a hand.”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

(From Roberta Panzanelli, ed., Ephemeral Bodies, 2008.)

Words and Music

The German comedian known as Loriot (Vicco von Bülow) used to perform a narrative version of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals with members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, using words to convey music. “His style enters the fairy-tale world the composer has portrayed musically,” writes Siglind Bruhn in Musical Ekphrasis (2000). “He sees and hears the orchestra’s depictions from the inside. Here, the verbal medium happily supplements the little details that might otherwise escape the music listener.” Here’s part of Bruhn’s translation:

A wood-ant, no longer in her prime, taps the giant ant-eater in front of her on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me, I cannot see anything if you keep your hat on,’ Grumpily the ant-eater takes off her headdress, an unwieldy contraption braided from wild asparagus and chicken feathers. ‘Thank you!’ says the ant. Then she lets her eyes wander across the jungle clearing. On the arena seats alone she counts 4791 strangely costumed animals, not to mention the innumerable monkeys and birds that are crowding the overburdened treetops.

Just now there is a stir of anticipation, for the moon is ascending from behind the branches of a mango tree to signal the beginning of the festivity. ‘I think I hear something,’ says a pigeon and she isn’t altogether wrong, for over there near the entrance, in the twigs of a bare oak, sixty-four horned owls take up their instruments. And now the marabou raises his baton, the two squirrels at the pianos lower their paws into the keyboards … and then he enters, with all the members of the royal family: His Majesty, the Lion.

Accompanied by moderate applause the lion has ambled twice around the arena, looking rather bored as he waved to the crowd. Together with his spouse, his three sons, one daughter, five cousins, and an imperfectly colored aunt, he has then taken the seats of honor and closed his eyes. …

The Outer Dark

Gustav Holst created a unique effect for the conclusion of his orchestral suite The Planets. He stipulated that the women’s chorus was “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed,” and that the final bar, performed by chorus alone, was “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.”

Although familiar today, the effect thrilled audiences at the time. In her 1938 biography of her father, Imogen Holst recalls a 1918 performance by the London Symphony Orchestra: “But it was the end of Neptune that was unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter in the distance, until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence.”

(Thanks, Ben.)

The Horse’s Mouth

In 1961, Robert Rauschenberg was invited to participate in a Paris show in which artists were to exhibit a portrait of gallery owner Iris Clert. Rauschenberg sent a telegram:

THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO

Was he right? Perhaps so: Three years later, Parisian performance artist Ben Vautier sat down in a street in Nice holding a placard in his lap. The placard read:

Regardez moi cela suffit je suis art.

That means, “Look at me. That’s all it takes; I’m art.”

The Parsons Code

In 1975 Denys Parsons devised a surprisingly simple way for nonmusicians to record melodies — write an asterisk for the first note, then hum the tune and decide whether each subsequent note goes up (U), down (D), or repeats (R). The first two phrases of “Happy Birthday,” for instance, look like this:

*RUDUDDRUDUD

(“* repeat up down up down down repeat up down up down”)

This is surprisingly effective — Parsons, who spent five years indexing practically every well-known classical theme from the 16th century onward, wrote, “I continue to be astonished that such a simple test, taken to the sixteenth note (or less), should be adequate to distinguish more than 10,000 classical themes.” Can you identify the eight famous classical melodies below?

  1. *RRDURRD
  2. *RUURURDRDRUURURDR
  3. *RUURDDDDRUURDRURUURDDDDRUUDDR
  4. *DUDUDUUUDDUDUDDUD
  5. *DUDDDDDUDDUDUDU
  6. *UDUUDUDUUDUDUUDUDUU
  7. *DUDUDUDURRRRRRRRDUDU
  8. *RRRRRRRUUUDRRRRUURDDD
Click for Answer

Shy

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Pretend that you’ve never seen this before and that it’s an actual living person whose personality you’re trying to read. If you look directly at her face, she seems to hesitate, but if you look near it, say beyond her at the landscape, and try to sense her mood, she smiles at you.

In studying this systematically, Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone found that “if you look at this painting so that your center of gaze falls on the background or her hands, Mona Lisa’s mouth — which is then seen by your peripheral, low-resolution, vision — appears much more cheerful than when you look directly at it, when it is seen by your fine-detail fovea.

“This explains its elusive quality — you literally can’t catch her smile by looking at it. Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears because your central vision does not perceive coarse image components very well. People don’t realize this because most of us are not aware of how we move our eyes around or that our peripheral vision is able to see some things better than our central vision. Mona Lisa smiles until you look at her mouth, and then her smile fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.”

(From her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, 2002.)