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Your childhood dream is fairly ludicrous clip-art!

My last post, which combined art, gardening, and Gothic architecture has made me reflect back on a treasured albeit megalomaniacal childhood fantasy.  When I grew up I wanted to live in my own beautiful castle. I was really into spooky-yet-cozy adventure stories, and the idea of living in a perfect little fortress world filled with hidden passages, charming secrets, and fairy-tale delights was irresistible.

But that was a wish from childhood: the adult world is a desperate maze filled with scams, baffling spreadsheets, impossible rules,and ersatz crap…which brings us to the subject of today’s post! The desire to have a beautiful fairytale castle for a home is hardly unique to my childhood self. Lots of people have that fantasy, however, there are only so many actual medieval keeps, schlösschen(s?), and castellets to go around. We are even running out of derelict Queen Anne villas. Plus the comforts and conveniences of real medieval castles are not in accordance with modern tastes. But, if New York has taught me anything, it is that for every dream house there is an unscrupulous developer ready to make a terrible mockery of that dream in order to get rich.

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Every man, a king!

Welcome to Burj Al Babas in Turkey! Of the many, many Potemkin villages and empty cities which have sprouted up around the world in the last decade, this is surely one of the most peculiar to behold. The town was planned and built by “Sarot Group” to appeal to affluent foreign investors who dreamed of living in castles when they were little. The project began in 2014 and was meant as a way to capitalize underused land in the distant Asia Minor suburbs of Istanbul. Each micro-castle was going to include swimming pools and jacuzzis heated by the water of local hot springs.  The target buyers were affluent middle easterners who could maybe even be lured into Turkish citizenship.

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What? They couldn’t include identical unicorns?

 

Unfortunately, the market for fake castles has been overmatched by the market for real autocrats. Turkey is sliding further and further into a dangerous spiral of dictatorship, economic malfeasance, and corruption. As the lira collapses the inflation rate has risen to 25%. Additionally, the oil-rich middle eastern who are the imagined buyers of these properties have been facing their own monetary struggles in a world awash with cheap oil.

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And notice the exquisite landscaping of dark gray mud, dead weeds, and rubble!

Perhaps the saddest thing is that, even in these glum pictures of cookie-cutter despair, some aspect of the original fantasy is still recognizable. If you had one of these things on a forest mountaintop in West Virginia or Dalmatia, it might still be a beautiful home  (although they look suspiciously apt to melt when it rains). Yet, stuck next to each other like dozens of gawky cosplayers dressed as the same superhero, the dream breaks apart and the seamy aspects of the modern real-estate scheming are laid bare.  I wonder what will eventually happen to Burj Al Babas, the city of dreams.  Will it become like Columbia Maryland, where nobody even notices that they are living in somebody else’s fantasy, or will archaeologists of the future unearth its particleboard and concrete ruins with a sad frown and a sigh?

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In 1899 Wang Yirong, director of the Imperial Academy, noticed that Chinese pharmacists were selling dragon bones with strange mystical characters written on them (according to a fairly believable account, he was suffering from malaria and the ancient bones were prescribed to him as a quack remedy for his illness).   This began an investigation which ended with the discovery of an archaeological site near Anyang, just north of the Yellow River in modern Henan province.  The site is now known as Yinxu (literally “the ruins of Yin”) the capital of the Shang dynasty.  The Shang dynasty (ca.1600 to 1046 BC) was the first known Chinese dynasty to be supported by any historical or archaeological evidence (although there are stories an earlier dynasty, the Xie Dynasty, the Xie is believed to be a myth or a dream).  The City of Yin flourished from 1300 to 1046 BC.  It was a place of palaces, foundries, workshops, tombs, walls, and wonders. There are reasons to believe that, during its heyday it was the greatest city the world has thus far seen.

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We will talk more about Yinxu in later posts, but for right now let’s get back to those mysterious dragon bones or, as they are now called, “oracle bones.”  Oracle Bones were animal bones (mostly turtle shells & ox scapulaes) which were used by used by ancient Chinese shamans to predict the future. Querants would ask their questions which were then carved onto the bones.  The diviner would apply a hot metal rod to the bone which would cause it to crack apart.  Then the shaman would interpret the future through the cracks in the bone.

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The characters written on the oracle bones are the earliest known Chinese characters, and thus it is during the Shang that written history begins in China.  We have elaborate genealogies of the Shang Dynasty (and we know what sort of questions the rulers and the elite asked of their augurs).  The oracle bone script is certainly more pictographic in nature than “modern” Chinese script (which is coincidentally quite ancient) however it was already stylized and sophisticated–able to convey the full range of the Chinese language.  Considering its enormous complexity there must be earlier precursors, but they are still lost…as are too many of the precious ancient oracle bones.  Imagine how much ancient history was made into vile tasting “medicinal” broth that did nothing at all (just like the scales of the poor pangolins)!   Chinese culture is an ancient marvel, but ancient Chinese medicine is a monstrosity which needs to be stopped!

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My roommate works at King’s Theater, a movie palace in Flatbush, Brooklyn which opened in 1929 and closed in 1977 (neither of those were very good years for New York City).  The theater stood empty for decades as vandals and the weather destroyed the lavish faux-baroque opulence within, yet nobody had the heart to raze the grand edifice and the city wisely held onto the property waiting for the right moment…which finally arrived in the two-thousand-teens when a private organization spent a near 9 figure sum to renovate the palace to its glory (albeit as a real theater now, rather than a lavish movie house).  All sorts of strange mid-tier international acts have poured through since and I always look forward to hearing from my roommate about David Blaine (who vomited live frogs all over the place), the Hip-Hop Nutcracker, the Snoop Dogg morality play “Redemption of a Dogg” etc. etc.

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Anyway, last Monday was the office party, and he graciously invited me to look around inside the theater (I am familiar with the façade, pictured at the top of the post, but I never checked out live boxing or the Allman Brothers, and thus never passed the main door).   The theater was even more grand inside than outside (as you can see by the house photos immediately above), and walking around on the stage and looking at the stage machinery behind the curtain was a huge thrill.

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One of the miniature sagas of the long decline and unexpected resurrection of the theater is the story of the house organ (although sadly, it does not have the same happy ending).  The original organ was a  Robert Morton company super organ known as “the Wonder Morton” which was played to the delight of the house between shows and during silent films.   The organ was taken down in 1974–with good intentions for later installation at a working theater—but alas, the pieces were lost, except for the console which went to a private home.  When the theater was restored, the console returned from exile (although sadly with electronic guts).  I took pictures of the Wonder Morton console because it fits one of my artistic/musical obsessions: vanished music that plays only in the imagination.

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I love the lyres of classical Greek art, and the pigs playing bagpipes in ruined medieval abbeys and the vanished symphonic orchestras of ancient Rome, not just because of their visual dynamism, but because looking at them evokes a whole lost world.  The sad disengaged cockpit/console of the Wonder Morton touched these same levers in my heart.  Staring at it, I could almost hear the bygone music.  Plus, just look at the names of the settings!   I can almost hear the golden beauty of the chrysoglott, the pastoral serenity of the subharp, or the awesome majesty of tuba mirabilis.

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Ah…the days that are no more.  I will be sure to include some more silent symphony posts about musical instruments which we can never hear–although, come to think of it–I hear there is a theater in Jersey that has one of these organs in working condition….

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The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was a glorious golden age of China when trade brought enormous prosperity to China and cosmopolitan city culture flourished.  This exquisite wine cup came from the Tang capital, Chang’an, around 750 AD (the chalice was excavated in the city of Xi’an–which is Chang’an’s modern name–in 1957). According to the census of 742 AD,  Chang’an had 1,960,188 people living in the metropolitan area (which included smaller suburban cities within the larger city).  Such numbers make Chang’an the largest metropolis of its day (the other contenders would have been Baghdad and Constantinople, which were both about half the size).

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This year, I want to talk more about Chang’an and about some of history’s other great super-cities.  They tell us about the roots of contemporary urban culture (more than half of the world’s people today live in a city) and they maybe afford us a peak at the great cities of the future.  For now though let us just savor the details of this solid gold goblet.  Look at the birds and the design elements which come from coastal China and Central Asia! Cities ideally combine the best aspects of different groups of people and different cultures. MY home city, New York City certainly does that, on its good days, when it is not squeezing people to death for nickels.  Speaking of home, this chalice is currently in New York, at the incomparable Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Enjoy the goldsmith’s birds and the flowers–we will be back in Tang-era Chang’an for a real look around a few posts from now.  And if, like me, you live in a city, start looking at it with a fresh critical eye.  Cities are an even bigger part of the future than of the past, and we are going to need to make them better.  Golden cups are not the only place where an idealized natural world of handmade beauty belongs…

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For the last month-and-a-half, New York City has been besotted by a new sweetheart.  “Who is this gorgeous heart throb?”, you ask.  Is it some otherworldly super-model, a sexy head of state (of a different nation, obvs.), or a cultural hero with a new philosophy to recontextualize everything?  Ummm…maybe?  We don’t know as much about our new crush as we might since, um, he is a duck.

The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is a perching duck from East Asia (Japan, Korea, China, and maybe that creepy part of Russia above China).   Longtime Ferrebeekeeper readers will know that it has an important place in Chinese symbolism.   Due to the strange and disquieting mirror-verse symmetry we have with China, there is a very similar North American species of duck, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) which lives in the eastern half of North America from Canada down to Mexico.  The two sorts of ducks are the only species within the genus Aix.  The East Asian duck is perhaps a bit fancier.

This particular mandarin duck, who has been christened “Mandarin Patinkin” (in an awkward homage to a noted thespian) is thus not a native, but not from a wholly dissimilar ecosystem either.  He appeared in Central Park in early October. The duck has a brown band on his leg, so presumably he escaped from such rich Westchester bird lover’s aviary or from a farm specializing in non-native waterfowl.   He is a gifted flyer and when he is not preening before adoring throngs in Central Park, he flies off for some quiet time across the Hudson in New Jersey.

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I love birds! Just witness the drama of LG (who is doing quite well, by the way, although his goose spouse was injured by a wild animal).  Also, mandarin ducks are self-evidently lovely. Yet I am a bit perplexed by the extent to which the City has gone ape over this one renegade duck.  Here is a link to Gothamist articles following the bird in minute detail with paparazzi-like stalkerish obsession.  Holy Toledo Mud Hen! If you need celebrity dirt about this duck and his big city life, it is all there!

Yet, although this duck obsession is a bit odd, I feel that is a good thing.  Contemporary society is TOO addicted to celebrities. Most of these “stars” are meddling narcissists who spend all of their time building a by-the-numbers personal mythology and then sabotaging ancient reptilian religious pathways in the human brain in order to beguile the weak-minded to obsess over them (maybe this description will bring other New York “celebrities” to mind).  Perhaps some good old-fashioned bird watching will help us deconstruct some of this dangerous idolatry, but if not, at least we have spent our time paying attention to a cool duck instead of some goofy rapper or Kardashian or Andy Warhol wannabe.

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Also I will keep you posted if the duck has any torrid flings, money troubles, or runs over a bystander.

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I was sent out of the office to deliver some financial papers in midtown the other day, and, as I came back, I spotted this amazing autumn garden featuring a magnificent Yayoi Kusama statue of a pumpkin covered with polka dots.  It really spoke to me in the gloomy gray day and it made me realize that we need to write about Kusama, who has been a mainstay of Japanese art since the sixties, (although she has a biography and artist-creation story which stretches back to before World War II).  Kusama took up residence in the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in the mid 70’s and she has lived there ever since, even though she is a wealthy international art celebrity. She makes no secrets of her emotional troubles–but she has surmounted them through polka dots and gourds. Kusama is often quoted as saying: “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

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The unexpected appearance of her work out in the real world brightened up my November outlook and I hope it will cheer you up too (here is a link to actual details written in the insufferable language of real-estate developers).  Additionally this particular manifestation is seasonally appropriate and needs to be put up before autumn fades away and winter begins.  However don’t be anxious, we will be sure to return to Yayoi Kusama’s work and talk about colors and polka dots when winter’s monotony is too much to bear.

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I realized that by devoting yesterday’s post to philosophical musings about the folly and sadness of the First World War, I failed to thank America’s veterans.  Although I am now a few days off-topic, it is never to late to offer tribute to the brave men and women who have served with such distinction in our armed forces.  Fortuitously, I noticed an obscure bronze plaque which is on the wall by the subway exit I take everyday out of the twisted warren of tunnels beneath Grand Central.  It looks like it is a hundred years old (indeed some of the print is hard to read) but its poignant thanks to the subway workers who left New York’s tunnels to go serve in overseas trenches remains undiminished.  It is also a fitting tribute to America’s citizen-soldiers who step between the world of the warrior and the world of the builder.  Check it out next time you are in Grand Central (if you can find it…or anything… and thanks again to everyone who has served in our armed forces or worked for the military.

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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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As a Halloween treat, here is a pen and ink drawing which I made of a great dark fantasy metropolis (which is also a lurking predatory fish).  As you can see, there are three stages to the composition: the cerebral top portion inhabited by angels, gods, and flying marvels; the primal underworld at the bottom (which is filled with wailing souls, dark sacrifice, and insatiable hunger); and, in the middle, a glistening city between the two extremes.  In the sky, Apollo, god of prophecy and the arts, rides his chariot angrily towards a blithe Icarus.  At far right, Death watches the city while, beneath the towers (beyond life?) the inhabitants…or possibly their souls walk through a Tartarus of appetites and chthonic marvels.  I am sorry that it is too small to appreciate (it took me forever to draw all of the little ghost figures and monsters which are under the fish).  The piece speaks to the larger nature of humankind’s collective existence (and our appetites) but I feel the supernatural monsters and crystal landscape with the heavens also speaks to larger possibilities we could aspire to.  I am sorry it is slightly crooked in this shot: this was the best picture I have but it is slightly distorted (until I can get a finer scan made).

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Ghosts do not seem to care about cultural appropriation.  That is one of the many eye-popping crazy lessons of An Bang Cemetery, an up-to-the minute ultra-necropolis in Phu Vang district of Thua Thien Hue province, Vietnam.  The graves in the cemetery are a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Indian, Thai, and American styles.  The monuments reflect religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Đạo Mẫu, Cao Đài, and probably other more esoteric faiths and sects.

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The fishing village of An Bang is on a beautiful white shore in Hue.    In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam caused a diaspora which swept away many of the “boat people” who lived in An Bang.  In the 80s and 90s cash began to flow back into the community from all around the world.

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An Bang Village is not very far from the vaunted imperial tombs of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty which lie along the Perfume River (the ancient imperial tombs are a UNESCO heritage site).  The contemporary villagers took some of their inspiration from the majesty, size, and beauty of the classical imperial graves, but they took the rest of their inspiration from…everywhere.  At first blush the American influence may seem to be lacking…but look at the ostentation, the gaudiness, the competitive one-upmanship among the dead (plus where do you think that International money came from?)

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There is a riot of styles and color and meanings, but yet I am not sure I have ever seen anything more distinctly Vietnamese.  I don’t think there are many sculptural installations anywhere that could compare with the utter Baroque riot of An Bang…and that is to say nothing of the corpses, mourners, phantasms, spirits, and what not!  Most of the intelligent people whom I know believe that there is nothing after death, and cemeteries are pointless.  My rejoinder would be that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Plus just look at this color, art, and form!  Of course Vietnam is a developing country, and it could be argued that this money could be spent better elsewhere, but in America we spent 6.5 billion dollars on the 2016 election (to say nothing of the corporate money that went into buying influence) and look what we wound up with.  Maybe the dead are better off with the money after all. They sure know how to live it up in style at least!

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