Talking Down

The interactive installation Text Rain (1999), by Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv, invites participants to view themselves on a monitor while letters rain down upon them. “Like rain or snow, the text appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The text responds to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again. The falling text will land on anything darker than a certain threshold, and ‘fall’ whenever that obstacle is removed.”

The letters aren’t random — they form the poem “Talk, You,” from Evan Zimroth’s 1993 book Dead, Dinner, or Naked:

I like talking with you,
simply that: conversing,
a turning-with or -around,
as in your turning around
to face me suddenly …
At your turning, each part
of my body turns to verb.
We are the opposite
of tongue-tied, if there
were such an antonym;
We are synonyms
for limbs’ loosening
of syntax,
and yet turn to nothing:
It’s just talk.

“If a participant accumulates enough letters along their outstretched arms, or along the silhouette of any dark object, they can sometimes catch an entire word, or even a phrase,” the artists note. “‘Reading’ the phrases in the Text Rain installation becomes a physical as well as a cerebral endeavor.”

From Life

Sculptor Marc Quinn chose a unique medium for his 1991 self-portrait Self: The life-sized bust is fashioned from nine pints of the artist’s own blood, collected over a period of weeks, poured into a mold, and frozen. It sits in a transparent cube with its own refrigeration unit.

“I have come across viewers who, on seeing Self for the first time, describe a sensation akin to tingling, a kind of spinal over-excitation, or a curious shudder — that involuntary somatic spasm referred to in common speech by the phrase ‘someone walking on one’s grave,’ writes Cambridge philosopher Peter de Bolla in Art Matters (2001). “And for some these immediate somatic responses may quickly give way to a variety of thoughts associated with formally similar presentations of the human head or face: the death mask, waxwork, funerary sculpture, embalmed body, or anatomical model. When this happens, the frisson of the physical encounter rapidly mutates into a jumble of thoughts as if an impulse — call it a spark of affect — sets in motion a series of reactions that leave their trace in whatever permeable surface they encounter.”

Shop Talk

In 1869, composer Frederic Clay introduced W.S. Gilbert to Arthur Sullivan.

“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan,” said Gilbert, “because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between Mr. Clay and myself. My contention is that when a musician who is master of many instruments has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury (in which there are, as we all know, no diatonic intervals whatever) as upon the more elaborate disdiapason (with the familiar four tetrachords and the redundant note) which (I need not remind you) embraces in its simple consonance all the single, double, and inverted chords.”

This was gobbledegook that Gilbert had simply cooked up; he wanted to see whether it would “pass muster with a musician.”

Sullivan asked him to repeat the question, then politely said he would like to think it over before making a reply. In 1891 Gilbert said, “I believe he is still engaged in hammering it out.”

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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

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 LifeÉcorché_cavalier_Fragonard_Alfort_1_edit1.jpg

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.”
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.)