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Usually Ferrebeekeeper writes about crowns, but today, as a special treat to celebrate the end of February (which is also Black History month), we are going to write about a throne instead…and this is not just any throne! It is also my favorite visionary art installation [as an aside, I believe it would help to contextualize the problematic nature of monarchy if we called all thrones “visionary art installations”–and it wouldn’t even really be inaccurate]. Anyway, above is the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, by American outsider artist James Hampton which is currently held at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington DC. Created between 1950 and 1964, the enormous work consists of 180 individual objects hand-crafted out of broken furniture and everyday found objects which were gilded with aluminum and gold foil.

Hampton’s tale is as American as possible, while somehow simultaneously as outsider as possible too. He was born in South Carolina in 1909, the son of a Baptist preacher with the same name. His father, James Hampton Senior was a traveling Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, but he was also a grifter and a ex-convict with a history of time in the chain gang. He abandoned his family and vanished away into the William Faulkner style goings-on of the south during the tumultuous decades of the teens, twenties, and thirties leaving his 4 children and wife to scrape by as well as possible.

After this hard-scrabble upbringing, young James Hampton moved to Washington D.C. where he was a short-order cook during the Depression and was then drafted into The United States Army Air Force during Word War II. He served repairing airstrips in Guam for which he received a Bronze Star. In Guam he also first began building visionary devotional shrines. After the war he moved back to Washington and obtained a job as a janitor at the General Service Administration, where he worked until his death of stomach cancer in 1964. We would probably not remember him at all, except, when he died, his landlord approached his sister about what to do with the contents of the garage which Hampton used as a workspace/devotional area. Hampton had largely kept his artwork hidden from even his tiny circle of friends and family (perhaps he did not even regard it as artwork per se). Only after his death did it come to the world’s attention, along with St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation a religious book which he mostly wrote in a private (and untranslated) tongue.

Hampton’s Christianity was non-sectarian (enough of his writing is in English to inform us that he wisely believed that the doctrinal schisms which characterize organized Christianity detract from the sacred unity of God) and highly mystical. I first saw the throne on a High School Field Trip in the nineties, when its awesome otherworldly glory and strangeness was enough to silence a whole class of 16 year olds (an achievement accomplished by few other cultural masterpieces in the nation’s capital). Its glistening cat-eyes and complex Baroque shapes are characteristic of American dime stores and carnivals of the early 20th century…and yet they also very much of Africa, Polynesia, and the Holy Land as well.

You will have to examine the shrine of your own–as with some of the finest religious art of South East Asia or the Middle Ages, its splendor and complexity initially baffle the eye. However, it is based on Saint John’s New Testament description of the silver and gold throne of God on Judgement Day (Revelations 4). This description includes mention of Christian elders wearing sacred crowns, and these crowns are very much a part of the larger installation, so even if you are lost in the material complexities of James Hampton’s personal devotion, at least there is highly recognizable iconography for the rulers of Earth…and for this blog’s readers too!

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Well, there is more bad news for world democracy today, as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine in what appears to be a classic expansionist landgrab (but which Putin apologists have been trying to whitewash with every color of falsehood available). It comes as a legitimate shock to the international community (and to me), even though, for weeks America’s president and intelligence community have been loudly warning about exactly this thing happening in exactly this way! I thought Putin was attempting to distract attention away from his troubles in Central Asia by shaking the Crimean tree as hard as he could (and maybe also see if the Ukrainian plum would just tumble into his lap). That was wrong: Putin has obviously brought an axe to chop the tree down. All of his actions for the past half-decade (at least) suddenly make perfect sense as a series of steps to destroy and annex Ukraine…and to prevent the nations of the world from doing anything about it. Not only does this provide Putin with a coveted breadbasket, it could mortally damage his greatest geopolitical rival, the United States of America by showing we are hopelessly weak, divided, isolated, and self-deluded.

Speaking of which, if the United States of America were properly united, this would never have happened. Unfortunately though, Republicans have devoutly simpered over Putin ever since he bankrolled their beloved leader, the criminal fraudster Donald Trump (whose supine obeisance to Vladimir Putin has been a much-remarked upon central feature of his political and business persona). Since far-right Republicans support Putin and openly back his darkest plans to crush our nation and transform it into a broken client state of Putin’s empire (with themselves installed as life rulers), we have a real problem. What is to be done?

Looking back to a bygone era, I believe poor Grandpa would have some keen insights into how to handle this international crisis. Most of them would boil down to a simple & proven formula: slather money, weapons, and support on Putin’s enemies. Russia is filled with restive provinces like Chechnya which are longing to escape and surrounded by anxious new republics like Kyrgyzstan which are terrified of the giant criminal empire next door. If everyone who hates Putin in all of these places were indulged with fancy handouts and shiny new arms, Putin’s world would be much worse. No time for Ukrainian adventures when you are fighting half-a-dozen Chechnya-type conflicts! (does anyone recall how dirty and destructive that war was?) Also, other Russian client states like Syria, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Cyprus, Egypt (sigh), and…Saudi Arabia (!) need to be isolated or courted as appropriate–even if dealing with such recidivist nations rubs American progressives the wrong way.

Putin is in a shakier position than he seems. Former Russian leaders have been rather less reliant than Putin on the absolute support of Russia’s shadowy oligarchs, who now lead lives of unimaginable opulence and international privilege. America and our allies control the world financial system. Strip the oligarchs of their ill-gotten money (squirreled away in banks and assets around the world) and take away their ability to travel the world as they please. Perhaps Putin could stand to worry about national division and traitorous back-stabbers too.

A third part of an international anti-Putin strategy involves winning the People’s Republic of China back from Putin’s malign influence. China surely recognizes that their successful, prosperous, and extremely-populated nation shares a 4133 kilometer border with a mostly-empty rogue state, which is now going around attacking its neighbors. Yet suddenly China looks like it is taking orders from Russia and acting as its toady (and it looks that way for a very good reason). In the meantime, their own markets have plunged and their vital fuel and gas supplies have become ever-so-much more expensive. Xi JinPing is an unreconstructed despot of ancient stamp and always will be. Yet he and China have ever so much more to lose than the nihilistic decaying petrostate which surrounds China. Undoubtedly Xi knows it, but hopes to lie back in the tall grass while Russia’s craziness takes America down a notch or two.

The main international strategy of Donald Trump (undoubtedly given him by his master, Putin) was to insult, belittle, and bully China in every way and to begin a series of mutually harmful trade wars. Perhaps America could undo some of that harm by buttering up China, ending the sanctions, and offering it some things it wants. This might sound unlikely, but Richard Nixon successfully did exactly that…and during a deep freeze in the cold war!

Finally, we need to clean house back at home. Republicans fell completely for a Russian counterintelligence/extortion operation. Don’t worry Republicans, it happens to everyone! Just clap the Trumps in irons and exile some self-proclaimed pro-Russian traitors like Tucker Carlson, J.D. Vance, and Candace Owen from the party (you might find you are happier without them, too). All of the other Republican traitors who have supported Trump and Putin over their own country could whitewash themselves and claim to return to being the party which stands for strong defense and an American-led international order. Clever political operators could probably delude the deplorables that this whole whole “Russia taking over America by taking over the Republican Party” business was Biden’s fault all along (in fact, some of them are trying to do just that according to this AP article from today). Fine. If what is required to unite and protect the nation is pretending that Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Mitch McConnell are not the grotesque fascists, cowards, kleptocrats, and traitors which they obviously are, then I am sure we can all grit our teeth and do so. Here. I, personally will lead the way: Tom Cotton is not (always) a ghastly weasel who calls for gunning down American citizens while he lies about being an army ranger. He is a patriot and I respect his ability to stand up to Russian aggression which he demonstrates by supporting President Biden and castigating the Russian puppet Donald Trump. See how easy that was [grit griiiiiiiiiind]

If we act quickly and cleverly in a united way, Russia could be terribly wounded and Putin could be swept away, however, if Republicans keep insisting that representative democracy is the true scourge and moneyed Russian oligarchs are our proper masters, Putin could well win everything. How can we get them to see that destroying the nation for personal political aggrandizement is not the right answer?

Hopefully you enjoyed the 2022 Winter Olympics! Whatever you may have thought about the participants or the hosts (or winter sports in general), I don’t think anybody could complain that the Beijing competitions lacked old-school Olympic drama. Now that I have had a relaxing fortnight of watching the contest (on the sofa, as far from winter as I can get), I will try to blog more regularly! First of all, let’s get to some overlooked news from a few weeks ago.

The good news of the world tends to get overlooked either because it is quotidian, or because it is esoteric/perplexing (with equally incomprehensible ramifications). This news bulletin definitely falls into the latter category! Remember previous posts about the National Ignition Facility, a colossal laser array at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory which is experimenting with alternate methods of initiating nuclear fusion? There has been a update or two since I first wrote about the place a dozen years ago (sigh), but thus far the lab has not produced the desired results. Suddenly, however, events on the ground are moving more swiftly.

The National Ignition Facility attempts to bypass costly and difficult mechanisms to reach nuclear fusion (like, you know, setting off nuclear fission bombs or building magnetic doughnuts the size of Malta) by concentrating a prodigious amount of energy at a tiny nuclear fuel capsule by means of an array of 192 super lasers all aimed at the tiny capsule (you should maybe imagine that this is being explained by someone with chaotic white hair and a German accent). Thus far, progress has been slow and incremental (at best). Four weeks ago, however, the researchers changed the size and shape of the capsule, and they achieved a new milestone on the road to nuclear ignition: a burning plasma, in which the fusion reactions themselves are the primary source of heating in the plasma.

In some ways this was the goal of the National Ignition Facility–to get more energy out of their process than they put into it. However, now that the experiments are starting to truly pay off, scientists will be working even harder to maximize energy output and efficiency and further optimize the encouraging results. Sadly, this potentially world-changing news, has received limited media attention (aside from within the pages of, you know, Nature and Ferrebeekeeper), however, I have a feeling that much more news will be forthcoming from Livermore. Hopefully some of this news will capture the public attention since prodigious energy breakthroughs are exactly what we need to break free of the prison of fossil fuel consumption which world society remains trapped within. We will keep you updated as more information becomes available, but for now, for the first time in a while we can at least fantasize of a world of abundant cheap energy which does not cause environmental devastation.

OK. the fantasizing is over, now go back to watching Russia use oil and gas to kick Germany (and its EU underling partners) around. Oh, maybe keep an eye on the rising global temperature too. Gee whiz, why aren’t we spending more money on ignition research?

Back when I was a toymaker, I used to attend the annual “Toy Fair” trade show in New York’s Javits Center. As you might imagine, the fair was filled not only with fine toys from around the world, but also with weird characters, strange products, peculiar has-been celebrities (Jaimie Farr at booth 1312?), and MASCOTS. A lot of these capering stuffed shills were selling recognizable dolls, plush animals, or action figures, but my favorite was an anonymous and poorly executed bear mascot with a neutral expression, dead eyes, and a bright blue shirt that said “Hong Kong Fun!” For some reason, I could not find a picture of this defunct character (bear-acter?) and so I have approximated the experience with this stock photo (even if it is a bit less anonymous than the original).

Apparently Chinese factory owners were incensed that American manufacturers were (and still are) designing and selling most of the toys made in China. They hoped to eliminate the middle man by manufacturing their own toys and selling straight to American retailers. Hong Kong Fun Bear was a branding tool in this mission. But Hong Kong Fun Bear not only looked janky, he also had a Chinese minder to keep an eye on him. If you tried to talk to Hong Kong Fun Bear, this apparatchik would sternly explain that Hong Kong Fun Bear was prohibited from speaking. Fun! Near the end of the fair, I noticed that Hong Kong Fun Bear had escaped his PRC escort and was outside having a cigarette with his head removed (inside the bear suit was a scrofulous and wan Chinese acrobat with an incredibly sad face).

Anyway, I tell this story to contextualize the current news from China, where Bing Dwen Dwen the famous and beloved Panda mascot of the 2022 Olympics is mired in controversy (maybe he really does exemplify the 2022 Olympics). According to the South China Morning Post, the beloved mascot appeared on a news program to question a skier and spoke with a deep manly “uncle voice” and a pronounced northeastern Chinese accent. The article (which you should read because it is amazing) describes the unhappy reaction which this breach provoked: “‘People don’t want to know that when they hug Bing Dwen Dwen, they’re holding a strange man,’ [one] outraged person commented.”

Apparently Bing Dwen Dwen is subject to binding contractual agreements between the PRC and the IOC which prohibit him (her? it?) from talking and specify that the character is gender neutral. It sounds like Hong Kong Fun Bear was smarter than the average bear to keep his mouth shut (although, thinking back, I am not sure Hong Kong Fun Bear even had a mouth). All of this is good fun of course and South China Morning Post has already published an article about the delight which Bing Dwen Dwen brings to workers (which also details the Cabbage Patch Kids style shortages of the panda figurines and merchandise). A party spokesperson pointedly noted that there are plenty of figurines of Shuey Rhon Rhon, the unloved lantern mascot of the paralympics.

Here seen standing forlornly in a strange public room

All of this suggests to me that Los Angeles had better start getting its mascot game together before the 2028 Olympics. Pandas drive people into buying frenzies, but if California rolls out a lame star or some kind of grizzled grizzly, South China Morning Post is going to be talking all sorts of trash about us. Just ask Hong Kong Fun Bear.

or Bing Dwen Dwen, if you can separate him from his new army of minders
Wisent (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022) Ink on paper

Happy Saint Valentine’s Day! To my shame I realize that last week I got all caught up in the breathtaking (ly amoral) spectacle of international sport and I failed to put up any new content during these winter doldrums. Therefore, here is my latest ink drawing which features a magnificent European wisent carefully weighing the moral arguments behind various species of monotheism (represented, respectively, by a cardinal from the developing world, a dodgy Mithraic priest in a tree, and a little person blowing a shofar). Although these characters could conceivably offer the noble zubr spiritual solace of one sort or another, my personal opinion is that the wood bison is likely to be most drawn towards some sort of personal animism as championed by the sentient tree, the condor, or the omnipresent flatfish. Kindly note the nightjar hiding by the oil lantern in the left foreground!

The 2022 Winter Olympics have started and Ferrebeekeeper watched the opening ceremony so that you don’t have to! The Beijing-style pageantry and pomp was omnipresent…yet markedly different than in 2008 (when covid, climate-change, and autocracy had not yet taken their toll on Earth’s beleaguered folk). My most dazzling part of the whole affair was the giant flower (above) made of huge green LED rods and a troupe of brilliant, careful dancers working seamlessly together. That was incredible! Do a sea anemone next! I also enjoyed how NBC sporadically cut-away to show Vladimir Putin sitting alone in his VIP dictator box. When the Russian athletes came out he blew kisses. When the Ukraine athletes came out he pretended to be asleep while a dream-bubble featuring him devouring the Ukraine appeared above his head. Then when the camera was not on him, he sneaked off to purloin the gold judo medals (the joke’s on you, strongman, there IS no judo in the winter Olympics). What a show!

After the giant flower made up of people, the show-makers got even more serious about hammering home their political message of Chinese unity. Like Europe, China is made up of many ethnic groups (Hui, Miao, Bai, Manchu, Kam, Yao, Uyghur, Tibetan, Gelao, etc, etc, etc…). All of these people are annealed together under Han leadership. The opening ceremony illustrated this, by presenting actors dressed up like the various ethnicities working together to conquer covid, set up the games, and carry the national flag to the seamless, goose-stepping Chinese military which marched it into place.

The most popular part of the opening is the parade of nations, when each nation’s athletes enter the stadium wearing appropriate costumes. The fashion winner was…Kazakhstan (sigh), which took a break from pogroms and crackdowns to put together these stunning outfits which look like they came out of a beautiful Central Asian version of “Return of the Jedi”.

The Kazhak Olympic flag-bearers

Americas’ outfits at least looked warm, practical, and tough for a change.

Each nation’s delegation was preceded by a gorgeous Chinese model bearing a snowflake with the country’s name. Snowflakes were the theme of the opening ceremony. After the parade of nations, these nation-snowflakes had further roles to play in the ceremony.

In the west, snowflakes represent individuality (since no two are the same). In America, the pro-totalitarian opponents of liberty have taken to calling their liberal-minded political opponents “snowflakes” to mock the idea that anything different can be special or worthwhile (and also, presumably, to show that those who support democracy are fragile and weak). The whole thing is a stupid and contrived metaphor, which China disturbingly recontextualized by featuring hundreds of identical mass-produced snowflakes (the national “nametags” from the parade of athletes) being held by heterogeneous children from around the world. Through some kind of Chinese artistry, these identical snowflakes were then annealed together into a giant super snowflake–which also looked exactly the same. All of this was against the larger backdrop of identical machine-made snow (without which the winter Olympics could not happen in drought-stricken Beijing).

NBC tried to sprinkle some Hollywood tinsel onto this very Chinese show in the form of a pre-taped segment with professional wrestler and not-exactly-master thespian Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson bloviating about how great America’s Olympic athletes are. Although I fully believe that the Rock knows how challenging it is to keep to a steroid regimen, he does not have anything else to do with the Olympics and his form-fitting shirt-sleeved shirt and obvious LA backdrop made him seem even more jarringly out of place.

The real high point of the show was the appearance of China’s uncrowned emperor, Xi Jinping, in a mask and simple unadorned winter coat. He spoke a word and the sky was filled with dazzling fireworks and the games officially began! As you may be able to tell, I have some reservations about all of this (during the worldwide Democratic crisis, the IOC’s very biddable affections seem to all lie with totalitarians), but that hardly means I’m not going to enjoy the Olympics… Let me know what you think, and we will blog more about what is happening on the ice and on the piste of the world’s most populous capital city!

The year of the tiger continues…and now we are counting down to China’s thrilling authoritarian Olympics, as well! Stay tuned for some incredible live blogging of the opening ceremonies! Will any nation’s winter parade outfit top Benin’s noble bombas from the summer Olympics? We will find out on Friday. Before we get there, though, I wanted to showcase a piece of tiger art from dynastic China. Classical Chinese scroll painting features all sorts of quintessentially Chinese things: exquisite mountain landscape, trees of otherworldly beauty, all sorts of bustling functionaries, lovely temples, ethereal women, and every variety of realistic animals (not to mention dragons out the wazoo), yet there are precious few tigers–at least until we get to 19th and 20th century art. The handful of tigers that are lurking around in ancient Chinese artwork look kind of flat-headed–like the family cat from the Simpsons. To demonstrate this, here is a really good Ming dynasty tiger painted by an unknown artist.

Oh man, that guy looks grumpy and dangerous. Apparently, in 1404, residents of the Shenhou mountains reported seeing an alarming mythical creature–the zouyou– creeping around the mountains and scaring people. The Prince of Zhou led a party of soldiers and hunters out to capture the creature…and they came back with this white tiger, which they presented to the Yongle Emperor (who had a bestiary filled with exotic and auspicious animals). Since the tiger was held in the Emperor’s court, artists got a chance to look at the living animal (which is perhaps why this work seems like such a leap forward from the fantastic tigers of earlier art).

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