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On Tuesday we wrote about the Red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken. To progress further with this Stendhalian color theme, here is a human-made chicken, crafted by means of artificial selection over the centuries—the Ayam Cemani—the back chickens of Java. These amazing birds are all black. I mean they are really black…so exceedingly black they make Kerry James Marshall weep with aesthetic envy.
Not only do Ayam Cemani chickens have black feathers, black faces, black beaks, and black wattles, their very organs are black. Even their bones are as black as India ink. It would be downright disconcerting… if they didn’t wear it so stylishly.
The birds’ black color is a sort of reverse of albinism—the Ayam Cemani chickens have a surfeit of pigment. This is genetic condition is known as fibromelanosis. For generations and generations farmers have selected it until they have produced this rooster who looks like he stepped into the barnyard from the event horizon of a black hole.
Yet the Ayam Cemani is not completely black…they have red blood and they lay cream colored eggs (although they are unreliable sitters, so without fashionistas looking after the survival of the breed, they might vanish real fast). Speaking of which, why did the Javans collectively make such a crazy striking animal? The internet says that the chickens are used for ceremonial purposes and for meals, but it looks like an amazing work of intergenerational conceptual art to me. If you want you can get some for yourself, but unless you are headed to Java, they are rare and cost thousands of dollars in the United States (if you can find a seller). It looks like it might be money well spent though. These are stunning roosters. Let’s hope the year of the fire rooster is as stylish as they are (but maybe not quite so dark).
Saturday (January 28th, 2017) was Chinese New Year! It’s now year 4714, the year of the fire rooster! Holy smokes, that sounds like an intense animal. Ferrebeekeeper is going to celebrate the spring festival with a whole week devoted to chickens (especially roosters). I write a lot about other animals, but I owe a truly inconceivable debt to chickens, since chicken and rice are my staple foods. Indeed, I eat so many chickens that, I am probably going to get to the afterlife and find hundreds of thousands of angry spirit chickens waiting for me with flame eyes and needle sharp ghost beaks. A week of pro-chicken posts can only help when that day comes.
Tomorrow we will talk about the ancestral wild chickens—the red junglefowl of the subcontinent—and how they became humankind’s favorite bird (if you look at the scale of chicken farming, I think you will agree that no mighty eagle, or super-intelligent pet parrot can compare in our collective esteem). We have some other observations to make about chickens as domestic animals and some rooster anecdotes. A brain-damaged rooster was the animal sidekick in Disney’s latest (amazing) princess film. My parents have an ugly multicolor rooster who is somehow endearing himself to them. Before then though, so I have something on this first workday of, uh, 4714, I would like to present these 4 chicken themed flounders.
The one at the top is a fairly straightforward rooster, greeting the dawn from the back of a turbot which is swimming between classical urns and stars which look like flowers. We will talk more later about the second flounder/chicken hybrid (which not only evokes the lost world of zoomorphs, but also speaks to my roommate’s latest creative/spiritual/magical pursuits (?). This leaves the third flatfish (in glowing green), a clear allegory of the serpent tempting humankind to taste chickens (as various mythical animals and imps excluded from creation look on from beyond the charmed circle).
Finally, there is a contortionist aiming her bow at a target beyond this world as a glowing multicolor cock stares her beadily in the eye. The sable flounder is surrounded by bats in the crepuscular sky as well as an armadillo and a horny toad. We will talk more about chickens tomorrow, but these images should give you plenty to think about as you start off the new year.
One of the smaller moons in the Saturn system is Daphnis, a little 8 km (5 mile) irregular satellite which orbits the gas giant within the outer rings of the planet (although I guess really the famous rings themselves are composed of innumerable “moonlets”). Daphnis, which has the irregular shape of a potato, orbits Saturn in a 42-kilometer (26 mile) wide belt in the rings—the Keeler Gap. The moon is responsible for clearing this narrow track, and it is felt that by studying this interaction we may learn about accretion and the enigmatic happenings of the early solar system (when more things looked like Saturn). Here is a picture from NASA’s Cassini probe which was released yesterday which shows little Daphnis producing waves in the Keeler belt. What a remarkable image! I need to post more Cassini pictures here. They fill the heart with wonder and give us a chance to get off-planet for a little breather.
I colored a flounder drawing I made last Halloween with watercolor and colored pencils. This is “The Sole and the Souls” (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016, Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper). It features a sole covered with parti-colored fungi swimming through a Roman cemetery of late antiquity. I think those might be Charun’s snakes in the sky (and his servitor dragging the gladiator into the darkness).
The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well. It makes you wonder about 2017.
However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites. Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well). You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.
Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.
Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).
Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets). His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.
Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison. His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.
Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).
Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust. His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.
Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American. His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).
Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016). Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out. Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.
John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut. A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.
Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.
Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion). I have trouble with some of these concepts. After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.
and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.
Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year. I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations! As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above). This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way). Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year. For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.
I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard. Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful. I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.
Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia). Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks. Indeed, there might be another metaphor here. We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.
Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb. The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it. I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017. I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you. Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.
Here is a marble vase crafted by unknown Roman master artisans in the latter half of the 2nd century A.D. Two beautiful sinuous snakes coil around the edges of a sumptuous ogee shaped body. The snakes’ bodies form the handles for the vase which is covered in lovely double “S” curves (as is the lid which is surmounted by a finial). There are no inscriptions on the vase, so it is unclear if it was a funerary vessel, but the shape was a characteristic one for cremated remains. Likewise, snakes had a religious significance in classical society. They were regarded as sacred to the gods below the Earth. These serpents certainly have knowing expressions appropriate for chthonic intermediaries who know the secrets of the underworld. However snakes have always looked like that to me. Can you imagine carving this…out of stone…by hand? I am pretty good with my hands, but the idea of all these perfect matched curves is beyond me. Whoever this vase was originally meant for, it is now a monument to the master makers who lived nearly two thousand years ago. It is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right here in New York–hopefully it will there sit on an elegant plinth while adoring crowds coo at it for another 2,000 years…yet the future has a disturbing way of eluding our hopes.
One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society. In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era. Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.
Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items. At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.
The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm. Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.
Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops. The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society. The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros. Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…
Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things. In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.
Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful. Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?
Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much. But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?
Happy Halloween! This year, I have been working on a new series of artworks centered on flatfish. I suppose flatfish have supplanted toruses as the primary focus of my art. People seem to like flounder better than donuts (the asymmetric fish have more personality…or at least they have faces), however the universe is not shaped like a flatfish (according to current models), so it raises the question of what the flounder means symbolically. Flatfish are regarded as a delicious prey animal by humans, however they are excellent predators in their own right: they are sort of the middle-class of the oceans. Like the middle class, the pleurectiformes are experts at blending in, and they change their color and pattern to match their circumstances. Today’s circumstances, however, are not merely muddy sand flats—the whole world is filled with wild eclectic ambiguity which is hard for anyone to follow (much less a bottom-dwelling fish). My full flounder series thus explore the larger human and natural ecosystems of the late Holocene and early Anthropocene world. Each one lives in a little predatory microcosm where it is hunting and hunted.
The bizarre asymmetry of the flatfish also appeals to me. Since my artwork seemingly concerns topology, this may be significant—although a classical knot theorist would blithely observe that a flatfish is homeomorphic with a torus (assuming one regards the digestive tract as a continuous tube). At any rate it is currently Halloween and the flounder need to blend in with the monsters, goblins, witches, and mummies of the scary season! I made three black and white pen and ink flounders to use as Halloween coloring pages. These are supposed to print out at 8.5 inches x 11 inches, but who knows how wordpress will format them for your device? Let me know if you want me to send you a JPEG.
The top flounder is a classical Halloween artwork of haunted houses bats, witches, pumpkins, and mummies. In the center, mortality and the devil grasp for the human soul. The mood of the second artwork is more elusive and elegiac: dark fungi grow upon the sole as an underling hauls a dead gladiator away in the depths. Serpent monsters fill up the sky and our lady of the flowers blesses a corpse. The final pen and ink drawing is unfinished (so you can add your own monster) but it centers around a haunted jack-in-the-box and a ruined windmill. A bog monster, scarecrow and lady ghost haunt the doomed landscape.
I also threw in three little colored Halloween flounder at the bottom–as a teaser for my Instagram page. You should check it out for your daily flounder (free of commentary and text, as is increasingly the way of our digital age). I hope you enjoy these colorful treats and have a wonderful holiday!