Saturday, October 24, 2009

Japonisme for the modern home

Came across this in a second-hand shop in central Christchurch today: the kind of dismal shop filled with stacked mattresses and plastic chairs and old metal TV trolleys, advertising 'Social Welfare Quotes' on a hand-lettered poster near the door. Of course, it wasn't for sale, this sort of thing never is: which is probably just as well, as I suspect there's no house that's really quite big enough for an eight-foot-tall plaster statue of a cute Japanese girl. Especially ours. Wish it was, though.

Mind you, if I was allowed to have my head with the acquisition of all the objets trouve I have a hankering for, our place would end up looking even more like something from Spinal Tap than it already does, rather than Kahn's My Architect, as I might otherwise hope. (Fat chance of that, though. My dreams of stylish high modernist minimalism are continually thwarted not only by the children's accumulations of plastic stuff -- there are days when our lounge carpet looks like the plastic soup of the Western Pacific Ocean, or a fairly haphazard installation by Tony Cragg -- but by my own popular-culture-inflected squirrel-like nature. Oh well. Sayonara.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Smells like mean spirit

Images via BitRebels

Like many New Zealanders, I am a habitual champion of the underdog. I can't help myself. I'm all for the gingery Shane Cameron over the sleek racehorse Tuaminator, Dame Malvina over Dame Kiri, Ronald Hugh Morrieson over Frank Sargeson: Colin McCahon over every other international modernist master. I'm always looking for the transcendent moment of brilliance in the face of impossible odds. Add to this national proclivity a personal cultural heritage emanating from London's East End, whence a couple of branches of my family pulled themselves out of the Thames's primeval sludge several generations ago, and in any fight I'm naturally attuned to look for the balance of power. Who's the force to be reckoned with, I'll wonder? Who's got the stuff? Who's slipped lead weights into their gloves? Where's the smart money going? And then I'll cheer for the weedy one putting up his dukes, for the slightly porky one on his make-or-break comeback special, for the one who seems almost impossibly behind the run of play but might be able to pull it off, for the one just getting out there and bravely having a go, despite the odds. (I'll have my money safely down on the other one, of course. The actual winner.)

This penchant for under-doggery may well not be peculiar to New Zealanders; I expect it's a cultural trait to be found in most small, slightly crap countries. It's a strange form of humbuggery and moral superiority rolled into one. While collectively we might be losers, there's something about the culture that breeds individual champions, innovative rough-hewn geniuses armed only with a piece of No.8 wire or a pair of sturdy legs. Or so we wish to believe. Given the impossible odds in such unequal competitions as we specialise, a loss is unremarkable and to be expected; but a win from behind is something truly to savour, something distinctive and memorable which helps to form personal and national identity. Edmund Hillary was perhaps the ultimate underdog, a beekeeper from New Zealand who bestrode the roof of the world. Given our tiny population, any time our sports teams win at pretty much anything at all it's a triumph of the underdog. Katherine Mansfield, Frances Hodgkins, D'Arcy Cresswell*: plucky colonial underdogs, one and all. And we all walked a bit taller when Colin McCahon and Laurence Aberhart showed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That was good. That was earnt.

But something I've been thinking a bit about recently is the critical importance of correctly identifying the underdog. Sometimes I've got it wrong, and have cheered for a weedy villain, or an arrogant fool. The underdog category can be quite mutable, and depend utterly on one's personal perspective. For example, having known several art critics personally, and watched them having to cross the road sharpish in order to avoid a smack to the chops by an irate subject of their criticism, I tend to think of them as underdogs, but that's not how an artist may think of them. The artist may well have quite a different view of the critic as a wannabe jackbooted overlord which is quite at variance to the way he or she (actually, it's almost always he) might see himself: a humble worker in the art mines, sweating over copy at 10 cents a word, fighting the good fight for quality and saying what needs to be said. Underpaid, brave, plucky, and only very occasionally funded by Creative New Zealand.

Being an underdog is not the same as being the probable loser or just not very good at whatever you're doing. It takes a certain kind of indominitable spirit as well, a kind of dogged goodwill towards one's opponents, even -- perhaps especially -- when one is being trampled in the mud. Discussing this post with the big guy last night, he put it thus: NZ's cricket team, The Black Caps, are not plucky underdogs, even though they almost always lose, because they are an arrogant bunch of swines and as such, are not worth cheering for. To be an underdog worthy of the name, one needs humility, a sense of humour, and a show of public respect towards one's opponents. Arrogance, or mean-spiritedness, is an instant disqualifier from glorious underdog status.

I've often thought that the artworld, pound for pound, has more than its fair share of mean-spirited people. (I hasten to add that I'm not talking about artists here, very few of whom could be described in this way.) I've put this characteristically snappy arts personality down to the fact that a) there are a lot of very intelligent people attracted to working in the arts; and b) there is not a lot of financial recompense for their work. The result: dogs fighting over scraps. As a status-based industry, gossip and slander inevitably become its everyday currency: the artworld, perhaps surprisingly, is no place for the faint-hearted and not really a very comfortable home for the underdog. But I think this is probably true of various other worlds too, including -- possibly particularly including -- academia.

One of the rules I adopted when I started blogging -- apart from the classic never drinking and blogging -- is no mean-spiritedness. (It's similar to the one I assumed when I stopped working in the public sector: only do business with someone you like.) Many's the blog post I've started writing and had to delete, thinking, no, actually that's just mean. Funny, perhaps, but unkind. I've commented a few times lately on art review site EyeCONTACT when I think John Hurrell is being a bit unfair or hasn't given the subject proper credit for something they've attempted: but actually I only bother doing this because I know Hurrell to be a fundamentally good-hearted person, if a tiger for an argument. If I thought he was just being mean-spirited I wouldn't go near it. (But as the big guy said to me, if the underdog gets too yappy, sometimes a quick kick to the flank will sort things out nicely.)

I'm far too soft-hearted to be an art critic; even as a book reviewer critiquing truly terrible books I've tried to scrape up something nice to say for the sake of balance, knowing how hard it is simply to get a project up. And how comparatively easy it is for someone else to score unkind points off it. Of course, I will take considerable pleasure in being rude about it privately later; and I am occasionally horribly (and rather hypocritically) partial to the meanness of others. Vis: my recent obsession (via the excellent Artandmylife) with the entirely mean-spirited blog Regretsy, which takes the very worst and most ill-advised hand-made items from the crafting site Etsy and reposts them with appropriate comments. Here you can window shop for pendants in the shape of your own vulva; gigantic reusable sanitary pads with pictures of sexy vampires; ponchos for chickens (can also be a wrist cuff); hand-knitted tampon covers made from recycled wool for your key chain; or mispelled lines from Proust written in gold pen on an old pair of jeans made into a hideous skirt. And the art: the art on Regretsy is a thing of great wonder and aching ribs.

A painting by Heather Buchanan via Regretsy. Actually, I really like this painting.

By laughing at Regretsy I am of course, swimming against the tide of my own cultural heritage: the hapless crafters who are the subject of the blog's derision are most definitely underdogs. But it is extremely funny.

Of course, one might legitimately argue that reducing social relations to a knockdown contest between the underdog and the favourite is ridiculously simplistic. And in the case of Dargaville Museum vs. Reading the Maps, you'd be right. On a recent visit to the Museum, blogger Scott Hamilton was appalled at the incorrect attribution and inappropriate display of a carved pou. In particular, he took exception to the label which suggested that the pou belonged to an ancient pre-Maori 'Waitaha' civilisation, commenting that he was dismayed that 'pseudo-history has gained a foothold in one of New Zealand's larger provincial museums'. He wrote a series of sternly-worded emails to the museum critiquing their treatment and attribution of the pou, which he also posted on the Reading the Maps blog. Many prominent and scholarly people left comments on the blog in support of Hamilton's actions, and wrote their own complaints to the museum. Dargaville Museum then replied to Hamilton, explaining the circumstances which led to the carving being attributed in this manner, and saying that they had subsequently removed the label and were planning to seek help regarding the attribution from National Services Te Paerangi Te Papa.

Scott Hamilton's point of view, of course, is entirely correct. Reputable scholars concur there was no technologically advanced pre-Maori civilisation: there's no evidence for it whatsoever, and it's a notion which only exists in the mind of conspiracy theorists, and, as Hamilton suggests, pseudo-historians. Hamilton was right to point out this egregious error of judgment to the museum: what's out there for perusal in the public sector should conform with the accepted historical facts of the contemporary world. But somehow in the midst of all this I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for Dargaville Museum, which is a place run by volunteers and whose collections are largely based on the donations of generous private individuals. In such circumstances, a little bit of the whacky factor is inevitable (and indeed, is sometimes to be encouraged, or those museums wouldn't exist in the first place). In taking on Dargaville Museum, it wasn't Denis Dutton or Theodore Dalrymple giving the massive monolith of Te Papa a serve after its opening: the power in this fight seemed to be largely with Scott Hamilton, though I utterly respect him for standing up for an important principle. But after reading his emails (Whack! Whack! More information has come to my attention! Whack!) it felt a little bit like fish in a barrel to me. Dargaville Museum, though clearly in the wrong in its promotion of dubious pseudo-history in relation to this exhibit, seemed for a weak moment or two like the underdog, a bantam-weight fighter bloodied and out for the count under the sheer force of heavyweight blows landed by Hamilton.

While they may have had the unexpected effect of engendering a momentary sympathy (in me, at least) for the beleaguered museum, Scott Hamilton's emails represent a quite brilliant expose of a not-uncommon situation for small provincial museums. He makes some significant points about scholarship and the display of artefacts from a living culture which deserve to be widely heard. In the face of such a barrage, Dargaville Museum has done a sensible thing by turning to Te Papa's National Services for help. And here National Services could be a great deal of use to small museums by showing them how to distinguish between reputable scholarship and pseudo-history: strikes me that Scott Hamilton would be a great guest lecturer for such a workshop. I'd like to see this one resolved not by a smackdown but in a sit-down.

*Actually, D'Arcy Cresswell might be disqualified from true underdoggery on grounds of terminal arrogance. But he was very funny.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

'I will be Captain Underpants. OK?'

The recent school holidays have given me a new appreciation of the sheer anthropology that is involved in being the mother of a son. This was clearly illustrated to me by a couple of playdates which the small guy had over the past fortnight. The first was with his best friend, and I overheard a conversation between them which went much like this.

'Boogers? What are boogers?'
'They're bogies. Bogies. YOU know.'
'Heh heh heh.' Etc.

Then a little girl from down the road came to play. They know each other well, and are great friends, but the socialisation of nearly a year at school is making its mark. It was almost impossible for them to find a computer game they both wanted to play. The small guy's friend said that she didn't like Ben 10 Alien Force at all. 'Yuck! All that fighting!' She suggested the Power Puff Girls, to which the small guy said 'What? The Power Puff Girls? Do you want to make me vomit? Or have a heart attack?'

After canvassing whether his friend was familiar with 'the sort of magic where the magician cuts someone in half' ('We'd need a very big box,' he said thoughtfully), they sat down happily to watch the mercifully gender-issues-free Tom and Jerry Show. At one point the small guy broke wind and giggled, looking to his friend for appreciation. But she just folded her arms, pursed her lips and shook her head sorrowfully. And thus gender roles are set for life.

Today: a transcription of the most ambitious Captain Underpants adventure yet in the ongoing series by the small guy. No babies here, and no girls either.

Captain Underpants and the Treasure of the Pea Brain Pirates Poo
PS. No babies in this book.

Chapter One: 'Oh no!'

George saw a ship. 'Let's go on it,' he said.
'Oh no!' said George. 'We are far from home.'
'Har har! We got you!' said the pea-brain pirates.
'Aha! I know you two,' said one of the pirates. It was Mr Krapp.
'I will take you to the island,' he said. 'Yes, an island with treasure.'
'OK. We will go,' said Harold.
'Good. Let's go.'
'This is good,' said George.
'I've got the map,' said George.
'We are at the island,' said Harold. 'JUMP!'
'This is the place,' said George. 'The map says to dig here.'
'OK, dig.'
'Aha! The chest! Good.'
'OK, look inside... it is a poo!'
'That is dumb,' said George.
'No it is not,' said the chest.

Chapter Two: Click!

Click! It snapped its lock. Uh-oh ... Captain Underpants!
'I will save you,' he said.
Bam bam bam.

Chapter Three: Let's Go!

'OK, let's go home,' said George. 'Aha, today was fun for me.'
They were home at last.
'Do you want to play a game?' said Harold.
'We will play Captain Underpants, OK?' said Harold. 'I will be Captain Underpants.'
Bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam bam.

Chapter Four: Yes!

Ring ring!
'Yes?' said George.
'It is here.'
'What,' he said, 'not the newspaper?'
'We are in the newspaper! Oh no!' Harold said. 'RUN!'
'Just run, OK?'
So they did.

The End.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Because I am a tosser

When graphic designers mock up a page for a client, they drop in dummy text as a placeholder to show how the published version will look. The old stand-by placeholder text is the very dull Lorem Ipsum, a Latin passage from Cicero which has been used by designers and compositors since moveable type was invented in the 15th century. ("There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain . . .").

The other day via graphic designer Tina Roth Eisenberg (Swiss-Miss), I came across a site which offers designers considerably more choice than Lorem Ipsum. If you're partial to a bit of anguished Germanic surrealism, you can drop some 'Kafka' into your dummy publication ('One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin'): or if, like me, you're an unspeakable tosser, you can go straight for the full 'Werther' ('I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now.')

I really, really like the idea of this Dummy Text Generator as a tool for designers (and if they had a 'Proust', a 'Carver' or a 'McCarthy' I'd be in heaven), although in a way the concept is more likely to appeal to the client -- who is presumably usually the one with the literary pretensions -- than the designer. ('Graphic designers never read the text they're working on,' said a friend once to me, and he should have known, as he was a very experienced one.) On the other hand, having Goethe or Kafka keeping the page warm for one's own immortal words could be somewhat off-putting for the nervous literary client: it sets the bar pretty high, and could well cause writer's block and a log-jam in the production process, something not encouraged by graphic designers.

My feeling is that both 'Kafka' and 'Werther' should probably be used with caution, being primarily suitable as dummy type either for rhino-hided winners of major literary prizes or the anonymous authors of the Innovations catalogue (I'm imagining the positioning of a paragraph beginning 'For a long time I used to go to bed early' beside a photograph of the device you can pee in while driving long distances); for anything in between, sticking to the tried-and-true Lorem Ipsum might well be safer.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In an octopus's garden

Some artists -- Bill Hammond, et al, Henry Darger, and so on -- are famously reticent about their work, and there's nothing wrong with that. But equally, I always admire an artist who's happy to front. Here's the latest in the small guy's epics of crime and punishment.

"The grumpy jellyfish is stinging the shark up the bum. Pretty much everyone’s grumpy, except the octopus, who’s happy. He’s trying to get the electric eel with his tentacles, and here he’s grabbing the shark, whose eyeball has popped out of its socket. Down the bottom a turtle is asleep, and some eyeballs are following the shark. This diver is happy because he’s found a dead crab. There’s an undersea restaurant called Soy Boogers. Two pirates on a pirate ship are making a turtle walk the plank. And up the top a happy jellyfish is stinging the electric eel up the bum."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Advice to writers

Penthouse: You got a lot of heat from publishers at first, didn't you? Was it your style or your content that most editors found hard to swallow?

Smith: They objected to both. They said I had sick attitudes for a woman. I'd get letters, "We find your thinking and ideas and your morals very immature. Write back when you mature." I was twenty-six, for Chrissake! They were looking for the usual jive-ass poetry, I guess. But now they're all knockin' at my door with bags of money. Fuck 'em.

From 'a baby wolf with neon bones', Patti Smith's interview with Nick Tosches, Penthouse, April 1976. (Possibly the best interview ever published.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I AM ... disappointed

Colin McCahon, I Am, 1954, image via Art New Zealand.

A little while ago -- following a remarkably irritating encounter with the Christchurch City Council's booking system for children's swimming lessons which still has me gritting my teeth when I think about it; a system based, I assume, on close observation of railway ticket offices in the Indian subcontinent -- I canvassed opinion about starting a new blog solely for complaining purposes, entitled I Am Disappointed.

The more I thought about it, the more the idea seemed to have legs. And as is my way, grand visions rose like coloured smoke before my eyes. After a while when it gained momentum it wouldn't just be me complaining; I could secure complaints for 'I Am Disappointed' from all over New Zealand, maybe from throughout the Anglophone world. Anyone who wanted to complain about anything could have a forum to do so. Ex-boyfriends, bad architecture, swimming lessons, the frequency of school holidays, the selection process for New Zealand's participation in the Venice Biennale: all disappointments would be grist to the blog's mill. It could be funny. It might be useful. It would be enormous.

Via Twitter, at least, there was general approval of the idea, albeit with suggestions for alternative names. 'You are a disappointment to me', suggested one correspondent; 'What, is that it?' proposed another. The inimitable @styler mentioned that she was herself thinking of "starting a blog called 'I fucked up' but I'd be so busy I'd never have time to fail big in future". And @Hamish_Keith chipped in with 'Fresh Disappointments Delivered Daily', which had me fantasising about a masthead designed by Dick Frizzell.

There would be legal issues, undoubtedly, as some of the complaints might be a bit near the knuckle, but the problems could probably be got around. And I'd have to make sure the complaints were interesting, rather than just whinges or insane rants. And the blog would need a brand: it would need to narrow its focus. It couldn't deal with everyone's complaints about everything, that would break the internet. Perhaps it could specialise in art-related complaints? Thus enabling me to shoot for the big McCahon I AM (disappointed) masthead. Although that would mean I couldn't include my feelings about:

1. Christchurch City Council's antiquated booking system for children's swimming lessons which requires you to turn up in person at 8am on a single school day each term and queue for about 45 minutes (have I mentioned that?)

2. The fact that the gigantic house being built down the road has just had a two-storey barrel arch craned into place as an architectural feature, thus making a frigging mockery of the Christchurch City Council's supposed architectural guidelines for its Special Amenity Areas;

3. The fact that toys in Kinder Surprise eggs almost always come readymade these days rather than being the sort you have to put together (actually, this is one of the small guy's peeves, rather than mine, but it's heartfelt).

Then I realised it would actually be quite a lot of work to read through and vet the submissions, and that it would probably be a bit of a downer being a clearing house for other people's complaints (not unlike being a curator at a public gallery again, in fact). Also, aiming to operate in a territory marked out by the intersection of talkback radio, Hamish Keith's 'Cultural Curmudgeon' column, and the admirable New York-based keep-em-honest blog, How's My Dealing, might not necessarily be the recipe for a quiet life. So I've decided not to do it, after all.

But if I had, this week I'd be considering the forthcoming closure of Te Papa's brilliant research library to the general public. I've used it often over the years, and I've always liked how it's literally open to the public; you can walk right into it, sit down and start reading. You run into Te Papa's curators there, when they're working on something: and if you need help with a reference, in my experience the staff are quick and knowledgable. It's been reported that from November you'll still be able to use the research library on certain afternoons, but only if you make a previous appointment. I'm sure it's a necessary matter of cost-cutting, an internal management choice between this and that and so on, and I do note that they're planning to digitise more of their research collection, but I wish they hadn't chosen to cut the open library access: I liked and admired how the set-up of Te Papa's library announced 'We're open for scholarship. Ours, and yours.' It was a good look.

So, I wish the public swimming pools would digitise their booking systems, it's ridiculous to have to turn up in person as if the internet had never been invented: but I loved the fact you could turn up in person as a member of the public to Te Papa's research library. No doubt the swimming bookings will be online at some point, but I'll bet that it will prove considerably more difficult to reopen Te Papa's library to general public access in the future. It's the sort of thing that, once done, is surprisingly hard to undo.