Assorted Astonishments

Here we have a grab bag of artsy bits and bobs for your mid-week delectation. First up, if you live in New York, you should hurry along to the loveliest space in the city, Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, to check out this galloping wonder:

Dancing, noise-making horses in Vanderbilt Hall! Artist Nick Cave (this guy, not this one) creates soundsuits, full-body costumes that make music when you wriggle about. His first soundsuits were made out of twigs:

Soundsuits-Twigs

And then he moved on to space costumes and furry friends:

Soundsuits-Space Soundsuits-Hair

Here’s Cave talking about how the soundsuits came to be:

These look so joyous and silly, and are quite possibly the best thing you could encounter on your lunch-break stroll through Grand Central. Be sure to take a friend, or befriend a stranger, so you can trade secrets (or proposals) at the whispering gallery in front of the Oyster Bar.

Next up: the Northern Lights. Karl Ove Knausgaard has written a short and lovely essay to accompany Simon Norfolk’s photo series, “The Magical Realism of Norwegian Nights”:

Northern LightsOh, that Arctic light, how concisely it delineates the world, with what unprecedented clarity: the sharp, rugged mountains against the clear blue sky, the green of the slopes, the small boats chugging in or out of the harbor, and onboard, the huge codfish from the depths, with their grayish-white skin and yellow eyes staring vacantly, or on the drying racks, where they hung by the thousands, slowly shriveling for later shipment to the southern lands. Everything was as sharp as a knife.

We love Knausgaard, and Simon Norfolk is well worth checking out, too. He’s best known for his eerie photographs of war zones and supercomputers: in this interview, he describes war photography as documenting “the military sublime.”

simon norfolk

And finally, from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (a book my father has read six times, and can quote from at length, which is what makes Christmas dinner such a special occasion in our household), a few words on the astonishing atom:

Atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so anatomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis.)

Crying in Art Galleries

Once upon a time, in an art gallery full of foolish installations, I mistook a box on the wall containing a fire hose for some kind of interactive artsy doodad. I opened the box, an alarm went off, and a security guard appeared before me. He looked nervous. He told me that a disgruntled patron had recently hosed down one of the installations—modern art has that effect on some people—and now the fire hose box was alarmed and I was being alarming. “But I thought it was art!” I cried. “It’s a hose,” he said, and he escorted me from the room. I sat on a bench in the lobby and laughed and laughed until tears ran down my face and an old man sat down beside me and asked if I was okay. “Why are you crying?” he said. BECAUSE IT’S A HOSE.

Charles BurchfieldThe second time I cried in an art gallery, it was at the Whitney in 2010, and I was with my roommates. We’d gone to see something else—three young men dressed like vagrants, playing harps and shouting, maybe?—and after we’d had enough of that, we wandered through the rooms until we came across Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield.

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was a quiet family man who spent much of his life in upstate New York. He painted watercolor landscapes, and he wrote in his journal, compulsively cataloging slants of light and mounds of snow, family card games and encounters with crows. In the gallery, the paintings and journal excerpts were displayed side by side, setting out for us an entire life.

The Insect Chorus

In youth, there is bravado, the promise of a great weirdness to come. And there is the beginning of Burchfield’s lifelong fascination with synesthesia, an obsession with painting sound as image—giving color and form to the chirps of crickets, the clanging of a train passing in the night, the howl of a dog in a distant yard.

The East Wind

On way to work. A great swooping wind out of the southwest. The tree tops roar against the cold gray sky; the clouds spit down a few wild flakes of snow now and then. Trees look blackly at the ground and the peaks and corners of the bleak houses are razor-sharp. I walk along exultantly with my chest out. All things are possible now. I felt like throwing a gauntlet into the face of the whole world; let me, like a winter wind, sweep all of the debris of the centuries away, I—alone—unaided!

In the middle years, there is comfort, complacency. Burchfield supported his family during the Depression by designing wallpaper and churning out conventionally pretty paintings of small town America—what one critic called “Edward Hopper on a dull November day.” He made his watercolors look like oil paintings; Life magazine named him one of America’s ten greatest painters.

Ice Glare

I think that I am standing on the brink of an abyss of stagnant mire—or are my feet already sunken? The old serious attitude toward life seems gone—Life is easy—I am fat & healthy—my job flatters & pleases me—it presents no hardships—

And then—the final years. Dissatisfaction; allusions to a psychological crisis. The years before are seen as a diversion, a squandering of obsession. In his later works, Burchfield returns to his early canvases and repurposes them, turning them into huge, hallucinatory paintings full of swirling strokes, exaggerated shapes, and an expressionistic light, a holy migraine shimmer. They perform a kind of trick, these paintings, translating an intensely private, mystical vision into shared experience: Edward Hopper painting scenes from Collective Unconscious Town. It’s a frightening place.

Sultry Moon

Song of the Telepgraph Pole

Spring in February: patches of melted snow on sidewalks reflecting the heavenly blue of the sky-cavern above, the snow on both sides of the walk honey-combed slantingly by the brilliant sun. The cawing of crows has taken on a new significance.

Growing stale is not so much in forgetting ideas but in losing the youthful vigour to consider them worth dying for—

A life set out on a few white walls: it made me cry. Endless snowfall, a thousand swirling birds. A cozy Christmas scene with the family. The sun painted as some blank horror that can never be looked at directly. You lose yourself in the middle of life—a dark wood, the path obscured, etc.—and when you find your way again, your youthful passions are like strangers to you. What was it you once cared about so much? The sound of a train passing in the night? A landscape that buzzes with the black hum of wires on a pole? The project is never completed.