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Tonight is the last night of Carnival…tomorrow is Ash Wednesday which begins the ritual austerities of Lent (which means spring is now truly on the way).  I grew up reading eye-popping tales set in Venice during Carnival (or in Medieval France, or New Orleans, or Rio de Janeiro), yet somehow I always miss out on carnival’s over-the-top pageantry and mad frolics.  I blame this on my Methodist upbringing: Protestants conceive of Lent very differently than Catholics! (even fallen Methodists) but maybe I should blame the weird schedule. I am sure there are carnival festivities going on somewhere in Brooklyn right now, but, come on, it is Tuesday night.  I just got home from work: there is no time to put on 50,000 beads and learn a samba routine.

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\Anyway, to capture this strange mixture of temptation, wariness, sin, redemption, and multi-color ultra-spectacle (and as a call-back to yesterday’s rainbow serpent post), I have decided to post pictures of some snake themed carnival floats from around the world/internet.

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The snake is obviously an important carnival animal, and I can see no other interpretation of the reptile other than in its Biblical role as a representative of temptation and sin (which are obviously themselves major components of carnival).  Perhaps the snake’s ribbon morphology is a secondary component (since this is a great shape for floats).  It is worth noting though the the West African religions which syncretized with Christianity to create the vodou faiths of the New World are very snake oriented.  One of the most august Vodou loas is the great fertility/father figure Dumballah, who is represented as a great serene river serpent.  I wonder if  he might be an influence on some of these displays.

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PuppetsUp Parade 2013

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Hopefully these ARE carnival snakes.  As I was looking for them, I kept finding Chinese “Year of the Snake” floats and Saint Patrick’s Day “Get these snakes out of Ireland” snakes (to say nothing of Hindu cobras and Australian snakes of some unknown provenance).  Maybe parade-goers simply love snakes because all parades kind of are snakes at some level.  Or perhaps there is a deeper cultural connection which eludes me on Tuesday night and must be looked into further in snake-themed posts of the future.  In the meantime Happy Shrove Tuesday!  Go eat some colorful cake and start getting ready for a new season!

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Ok…there is one last rat post for our musophobic friends to suffer through, and, after that, they can peacefully enjoy the rest of the year (ummm….of the rat).  Yesterday, during the Superbowl there was a delirious moment of joy, when I thought my post today would be truly timely and appropriate, since I saw that the Kansas City Chiefs mascot was a giant rat! (presumably since whatever appalling Chief Wahoo-style mascot they used to have got ushered into sudden retirement before the franchise hit the national stage).  Alas, it turns out that KC Wolf (pictured above) is actually a wolf.  I don’t know how I got the wrong idea about his identity.  It does bring us to the issue of rat mascots though.

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Scabby the Rat (different sizes for different strikes!)

I assumed that despite the fear and alarm engendered by rats there would be some prominent sports franchises and events that adopted the rat as a mascot (since rats are universally known, if not necessarily universally loved.  Alas, how wrong I was–the biggest rat mascot I could find (both in terms of popularity and literally in terms of size) was “Scabby the Rat” an inflatable labor union prop who comes out whenever a picket line goes up.   The other rats, in a big anonymous amalgamated lump are below.

I don’t think any of them are particularly famous.  One or two might even properly be mouse mascots (in which case we could have put Mickey in here and finally gotten famous through the time-honored American rite of being sued by Disney).  They are fun to look at though and they invite reflections on the downright strangeness of mascots.

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There is however one culturally significant rat, whom I want to call out in this mascot post.  Technically he is not a mascot, but instead a vahana–one of the animal mounts/vehicles ridden by the Hindu gods.  Each of the ranking devas has their own particular animal they ride: Indra has an elephant; Brahma has a swan; fierce Durga rides a tiger; while Parvati rides a lion.  However, in a complete reversal of the western myth, Ganesha, the beautiful and beloved elephant-headed god of wisdom, art, and science rides upon the greater Indian bandicoot rat ((Bandicota indica).  It is open to interpretation why Ganesha chose such an unusual and incongruous beast as his loyal accessory.  Some scholars have suggested that the rat symbolizes Ganesha’s ability to overcome all obstacles, while others have opined that the rat represents Ganesha’s ability to master challenges of the physical world (like rat-induced famine).  Some gurus say that Ganesha’s vahana is more symbolic and represents the great deity’s ability to master thoughts which proliferate in crazy ways like rats in the dark.  Based on our last post, though I wonder if it might evoke Ganesha’s renowned compassion and open-mindedness.  Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy compassion and open-mindedness  throughout this rat year.  I feel like we might all need it! Om and Happy New Year, one last time.

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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YEAR OF THE RAT, MID 19TH CENTURY, SURIMONO, COLOUR

One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

When I was a teenager I became fascinated by the art of Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).  Daumier is now famous for his sensitive pictures of day-to-day life for marginal people in French society, however, during his lifetime, he was known as a caustic social critic who created biting caricatures of the corrupt politicians who flourished during the chaotic yet reactionary period of French politics which followed Napoleon. During his life, Daumier witnessed the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon restoration, the July monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, and the Third Republic.  For some reason he was cynical about the motives and abilities of the French political class.

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The Legislative Belly (Honore Daumier, 1834) lithograph

Here is one of his satirical masterpieces, “The Legislative Belly” a lithograph from 1834, which depicts the members of the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Deputies was an elected assembly, but only those who paid hefty taxes were eligible to vote, so exceedingly rich merchants and bankers chose the Deputies from among their own ranks. The title at the bottom reads “aspect of the ministerial benches of the improvised chamber of 1834.”

Looking up the individual deputies reveals that Daumier has pictured the deputies mostly as they actually looked.  These caricatures would have been easily recognizable to anyone following French politics in the year 1834:  Daumier did not melt or distort these features all that much…and yet the cumulative effect is horrifying.  The deputies look like monsters.  They have the appearance of doddering inbreds, vultures, cannibals, and fools.  The deputies drew Daumier’s wrath for their reactionary policies which enormously favored the wealthy and for their fractious and pettifogging habits when in session.

If Louis Philippe’s legislators were anything like they looked to be (and history sadly indicates that they were), it is astonishing that the July Monarchy lasted until 1848 when it was swept away by revolution.  Still there are many lessons about politics to be gleaned from this lithograph…and from reactionary French politics of the 19th century! One of these lessons is that even extremely non-representational legislative bodies are subject to popular opinion…eventually.

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It is the Yuletide and Ferrebeekeeper is relaxing away from the infernal computer…but it wouldn’t be right to leave the site unattended without a Christmas post, so here is a picture of me cooking an organic chicken so that my friend will come over and eat Mei Fun on Christmas (it turns out that the chicken was merely a free-range, vegetarian chicken which was untreated with steroids and antibiotics (which I don’t think they even give to chickens anyway), so we’ll see if she even participates in this holiday feast).  However, of greater interest than this gory (albeit festive) kitchen scene, below please find a picture of my sacred tree of life.  Not only is it hung with all manner of different animals from throughout the history of life, there is a very special midwinter animal contemplating its effulgent splendor!

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I got home a bit later than I planned…and there is still dinner to be cooked and sculptures to be crafted, but, just so that we don’t have a day with no content, here is a stupid animal meme which I crafted for the impeachment hearings.

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It’s just a joke of course: quolls are marsupial carnivores, they are hardly the sort of debased predators who would blackmail eastern European countries into shameful acts by pointedly withholding cash assistance.

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Is this thing…a garbage can?

Ok, these evil clowns are sort of getting to me (and we have a lot more territory to cover before Halloween) so let’s take a little breather with some clown mascots!  Now this brings us to a classic problem which lies at the heart of the uneasy love/fear/contempt relationship we have with clowns.  Clowns wear make-up, prosthetics and masks (assuming they aren’t just a picture of a crazy face–like some of these characters). These exaggerated new features blur or occlude the very subtle facial muscles which we primates are laser-focused on in order that we can tell if a grinning stranger is a new ally or a murderous lunatic.  If the orbicularis oris is occluded with paint–or cast in imperishable plastic!–is hard to tell if a clown is evil or wretched or…happy, I guess.

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Clarabell the Clown was Howdy Doody’s mute partner and the definitive TV clown of the generation before mine

All of this is a long way of introducing some old familiar clown mascots while asking that you examine them with a fresh eye.  When seen anew, some of these guys look a lot more disturbing then I recall–not to mention the fact that they are almost all trying to sell greasy sugary food, weird costumes, or dangerous carnival rides!  You can really see how people become afraid of clowns…or capitalism.  But don’t worry, this is a safe space and this big-shoed saunter down memory lane is all in good fun.

 

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Ronald McDonald was the face of McDonalds when I was growing up, and he can still be found around the 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants worlwide…but I feel like they have been moving him towards a more ceremonial role and shilling deep-fried fast food by other means

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Is Jack Box of Jack in the Box even technically a clown?

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Oh wow! It’s Osaka’s Famous Clown Mascot, Kuidaore Taro!

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Bozo was a figure from the first days of television–he was franchised but each station had their own version!

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Dammit, Mr. Softee, get out of here, you are clearly an ice-cream.

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The Grinning Face of Steeplechase is still an emblem of Coney Island

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GET. KRINKLES. AWAY. NOW.

 

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Emmett Kelly as famous depression-era clown, Weary Willie

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I just don’t know…

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The Trademark Jester of Mardi Gras!

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To say nothing of vintage pinball!

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The Vintage Fanta Jester

Well that was a refreshing break, I guess.  It does illustrate the point that clowns–even the most anodyne ones meant to sell pop and hamburgers–are pretty unknowable and stand right in the middle of the uncanny valley.  Yet they are inexpensive corporate spokespeople and they have a way of hanging on in our memories, if only for nostalgia’s sake.

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OMG! It’s Sweet Tooth from “Twisted Metal”! Did we ever unlock him? Robbie? Nick? Anybody?

 

tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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Great Flounder

The Great Flounder Float at the start of the 2019 Mermaid Parade

I’m sorry about last week’s paucity of blog posts.  I was busy building a float for the 2019 Mermaid Parade at Coney Island! This annual festival to Poseidon occurs on a Saturday close to the Summer solstice and is the scene of enormous creative extravagance and burlesque merriment…all in the name of ocean appreciation, of course.  Last year I attended with a rolling flatfish float, and although that was a hard day, it was also a noteworthy success.

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Mermaid Parade 2018

Alas, parades are like Hollywood blockbuster movies…sequels require even bigger and better special effects (and it is easier to get things wrong).  Last year’s float worked and people really enjoyed the spinning wheel of horoscope signs, but it was nearly impossible to transport.  After an unhappy run-in with the front door, my roommate and I ended up death marching the thing to Coney island (which is about 7 miles away) at 2:00 AM the day before the parade.  Thus, for this year’s Mermaid Parade, I decided to build a magnificent 6.5 meter (21 foot) flounder puppet out of fabric which I could roll up and transport with ease! Genius! We could handle the flounder high above our heads with 3 meter (10 foot) wooden poles and their would be no difficulties like last year.

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A quick trip to the trimmings district provided me with hundreds of iridescent ultrasequins to use as scales. Then it was just a matter of hours and hours and hours with the scissors and the hot glue gun (coincidentally, I don’t think I have fingerprints anymore).  I bullied some hapless friends into attending the parade with me and another one of my friends, the great Lebanese artist Lara Nasser took these pictures (you should check out her brilliant but disquieting art which contextualizes the uneasy nexus of religion, politics, and gender in contemporary Beirut).

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Now, people who have jobs as actuaries, account supervisors, and crooked economists do not recognize this, but when you make actual things, there are always unexpected problems.  I should have built some prototype giant puppets, or at least watched old footage of carnival in Brazil.   Although I did some test runs and reinforced the fish with some struts made of rigid plastic tubing (cough, chopped-up hula hoops), the great flounder float had a tendency to droop when there was not a stiff wind.  When there was a stiff wind, the mighty halibut was more than capable of manhandling the puny humans trying to move it around the Coney Island environment.

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The giant tablecloth was weirdly translucent, yet it was heavier than expected as well, as were the 10 foot poles.   In the disorganized scrum to line up we kept getting stiff armed by groups of majorettes and half-naked flamingos.

Then, as the parade started in earnest, so did the wind and we were suddenly wrestling a giant sky halibut.  It must have looked like a sad episode of “America’s Stupidest Catch” as we reeled around Surf Avenue trying not to get knocked down.  The fish gods were angry!

Although we tried valiantly to contain this situation, the float was stronger than the three of us.  The glistening flatfish snapped the two outermost poles and then angrily bludgeoned the woebegone attendants with its fins as the audience watched with good-natured drunken derision.  We tried to carry the flounder horizontally (like the tablecloth it originally was), but soon there were recriminations, counter proposals, and a decision to withdraw.  Arguably this was the right decision, but we were trapped in a 2 mile chute bounded by steel barricades.  There was no escape except a long sprint of shame with the now unworkable fish sadly dangling behind us.

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This stung at the time, but, in retrospect, who cares about a good competent performance? This is America in 2019 and what we love most here and now is a hot mess!  Parades are about spectacle anyway.

So, um, does anybody want to come with me next year? I am not sure how I can top being beaten up by a 21 foot long flatfish in front of 50,000 people but we will think of something (although this particular group of friends may not be into additional parades).  There is no way to know what will happen in 2020 (not without some sort of all-knowing oracle, anyway), but I have a feeling it is a year which will feature plenty of new melt-downs and unintentional floundering.

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Happy April Fish Day!  The French manifestation of April Fool’s is much nicer than the rather horrid Anglo-Saxon version.  There is still room for farcical fun, as friends try to affix colorful paper fish to each other’s backs (although, admittedly, wearing a pretty fish is no substitute for being badly frightened or lightly injured in an American prank).

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Anyway, I was thinking about these fish, and it gave me an idea for camouflaged sculptures that blend in with the surroundings.  One of the secret strengths of the flatfish (which have become an artistic fixation of mine lately) is that they are capable of changing color to blend in with their habitat.  Unfortunately, this is usually a muddy seabed, which never really allows turbot, sole, plaice, and such like flatfish to explore their frivolous fashion side. With this in mind I set about building a flounder mold to make some “crouching turbot…hidden flounder” sculptures.  Unfortunately I only managed to craft a handful of prototypes, and I was unable to position them to maximum photographic advantage in the concrete jungles of early Anthropocene Brooklyn (yet). However we can get to that later.  Check out these streetfish I made for April Fish Day!

 

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I couldn’t find anything made of shiny steel to put that last one on top of, but fortunately my friend and erstwhile roommate Jennifer was wearing some fashionable silver footwear to help the poor fish feel at home!

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This is just the beginning of this project and we’ll see some more exotic streetflounder in the near future (as soon as I find some more disposable containers for mixing plaster) but in the meantime, happy April Fish Day!  Let us revel in the beauty of spring! Additionally, this is the ninth anniversary of the founding of Ferrebeekeeper, an event steeped in mysterious lore. Celebrate the happy occasion by dropping me a line or telling me what you would like to see more of!  I, personally would like more comments, and, to that end, I promise I will be better about responding quickly and cogently.  Thanks again for everything.  My readers are the best!

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