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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!
This artist needs no introduction. Gustave Doré was the preeminent illustrator of the 19th century. Although he became rich and successful, he was a workaholic, who took joy in his work rather than riches. He never married and lived with his mother until he died unexpectedly of a brief severe illness.
Doré illustrated everything from the Bible, to Nursery Rhymes, to Dante (one of my friends decided to become an artist upon looking at Doré’s version of Dante’s hell). Likewise he provided images for the great poetry and novels of his time. We could write a whole novel about Doré’s life (well we could if it wasn’t entirely spent sitting at a drafting table creating astonishing visual wonderment), but let’s concentrate instead on three especially dark images from his great oeuvre. First, at the top is an image of the end of the crusades. Every paladin and holy knight lies dead in a colossal heap. Collectively they grasp a great cross with their dead limbs as a glowing dove surrounded by a ring of stars ascends upward from the carnage. It is a powerful image of religious war–made all the more sinister by Doré’s apparent approval (and by the fact that it looks oddly like an allegory of the present state of the EU.
Next we come to a picture from European fairy tales: a traveler bedecked in sumptuous raiment stands surrounded on all sides by writhing corpses trapped inside their caskets by bars. The coffins rise high above the lone man in an apparently endless architecture of death. Strange tricky spirits dance at the edges of his sight as he takes in his ghastly location. This is clearly an image of…I…uh…I have no idea…what the hell sort of nightmare fairy tale is this? How did Doré think of this stuff?
Here finally, from Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, is an image of Death himself leading forth the horsemen of the apocalypse and the dark angels. This disturbing posse is descending from the sky to harrow the world of all living things and usher in a static and eternal era of divine singularity (which is the upsetting and unexpected end to a book about a kindly young rabbi who teaches people to be compassionate). Look at Death’s proud cold mien, which alone is composed and immutable in a desperate jagged composition of moving wings, scrabbling claws, ragged clouds, and blades of every sort.
Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction. As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops. His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein. His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims. These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed. Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.
After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958. In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).
Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again. Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead. Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.
My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon. The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.
Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism. He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).
Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity. I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below. In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder. Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers. There is plenty more dark art coming
My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well). One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict. This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind. In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city: the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns. The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings. It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops. On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.
If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom. Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots. This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of. It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth. However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher. The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.
Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels. The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series). This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).
We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars). Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway. Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs). That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way. If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).
I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities). I want to write a lot more about cities. The Anthropocene is upon us. More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.
Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.
Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis. We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.
OK, some days, after a long day at work, I am a bit uninspired, but you know who never runs out of endless inventiveness? Nature! So today, as a run up for next week’s Halloween week of creepy art, here is a gallery of natural expressionism—nudibranch mollusks—some of the most vibrant and exquisitely colored animals in all of the world (you can look at an earlier Ferrebeekeeper gallery of nudibranchs here).
Now poisonous strange sea slugs are pretty creepy and seasonally appropriate, but to keep this filler post truly Halloween appropriate I have selected all orange, and black, or orange & black slugs (with maybe a fab or purple and white and green here and there). Behold the glory:
Aren’t they beautiful! Sometimes I wish I was a toxic gastropod that looked like Liberace and lived in a tropical sea…but alas, like so many of nature’s greatest works, they are vanishing as the oceans change.
OK, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, my idea for today’s blog post did not work out. I was going to write about Gothic mascots—a perfectly serviceable mashup of two favorite Ferrebeekeeper tags—but, when I got home from work and started researching gothic mascots the pickings turned out to be exceedingly slim—a Simpsons gag (the Montreal vampire), a bunch of troubling Lolita cartoons, and those godawful “Capital One” barbarians who are trying to sell you some sort of credit card (are they even Visigoths? Is “Capital One” even really a real credit card?). Apparently nobody wants any sort of gothic mascots except for predatory lenders.
Oh no!–what if Capital One destroys my credit rating for making fun of them? [collapses laughing]
So I ended up looking with increasing desperation at past mascots for anything of any interest and this line of inquiry lead me back to that Simpson’s joke about the Montreal vampire. Montreal is a francophone city—beautiful and evocative—yet prone to making choices which are different from the market-driven choices of other places. What was the mascot of the 1976 Montreal Olympics? And, Bingo! suddenly I had today’s blog post.
This is Amik the beaver. Amik means beaver in Algonquin—so this character (which looks like it was designed by somebody who just spilled an entire bottle of India ink) is really named “Beaver the beaver.” Anik appears with a red stripe with the Montreal Games logo on it or sometimes with a pre (?) pride rainbow strip.
I am making fun of poor Anik because I don’t think beavers lack faces. Nor are they the unsettling pure black of absolute oblivion. Maybe I found my Gothic mascot after all—in the most unlikely of places—Montreal, 1976! I will write a better post tomorrow. In the meantime enjoy the strange juxtaposition of nihilism and naivete which was seventies design.
The ancient Babylonians looked up at the glittering night stars and saw the shapes they knew from nature and from the myths of Mesopotamian civilization: a lion, a maiden, a scale, a scorpion, a centaur archer, a water goat (?), a water bearer, a pair of fish, twins, a ram, a bull, and a solipsistic crab. For thousands of years, these ancient emblems fascinated the imagination and represented the changing influence of the heavens upon humankind throughout the year. Roman astronomers and calendar makers formally enshrined the twelve symbols as a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude: a calendar for the whole year. This zodiac has been with us for a long time. The twelve figures lie at the center of the fun pseudoscience of astrology (which has no rational validity but which is a great way to strike up conversations and analyze the most fascinating subject of our times: the self).
But what if the Babylonians and the Romans got it wrong? There was always some awkward wiggle room in their calculations. Was there a 13th zodiac sign which ancient magi/natural philosophers skipped out of ignorance, fear, or fascination with the number 12? This is the provocative but largely meaningless question posed by NASA in a spectacular announcement of a newly found thirteenth constellation! Well actually they have not so much found this constellation Ophiuchus, as reinstated it in the circle of the night sky as illustrated in the stunning graphic below.
Orpiurchus, “The Snake-bearer” has long been in the heavens—although it is hard to see from northern latitudes–and astrologists and iconographers have flirted with the idea of including him in the classic zodiac (which kind of only works in the northern hemisphere anyway). The snake bearer does have an emotional resonance with Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, AND Judaeo-Christian cultures, all of which have intense snake-themed myths about knowledge, hubris, and humankind’s uneasy place in the cosmos.
ZodiacBooks.com presents us with an overview of the emotional traits of these new snake carriers as, “spirited, magnetic, impulsive, clever, flamboyant, and at times jealous, power-hungry, and temperamental [people born in this sign] want to heal the world of all ills and bring everyone closer together.” Hmm, it sort of sounds like everyone I know except for my crabby Cancer friend. Obviously shoehorning a whole 13th symbol into the calendar has moved everything around, so here are the new dates, if you are afraid you might actually have some other personality than the one you have always had:
Capricorn: January 20-February 16
Aquarius: February 16-March 11
Pisces: March 11-April 18
Aries: April 18-May 13
Taurus: May 13-June 21
Gemini: June 21-July 20
Cancer: July 20-August 10
Leo: August 10-September 16
Virgo: September 16-October 30
Libra: October 30-November 23
Scorpio: November 23-November 29
Ophiuchus: November 29-December 17
Sagittarius: December 17-January 20
Of course a cynical natural scientist might surmise that random patterns of stars (which lie many many light years from each other) have no influence whatsoever on our little lives. NASA, which deals in real science and engineering, but which desperately needs ATTENTION to thrive in our chaotic late-stage democracy says as much on their website. They have essentially slapped a “for novelty purposes only” asterisk on this entire story (AND on astrology). We will see if Orpiurchus becomes a lasting part of the heavens or if he slinks back into dark obscurity like he did in the 1970s (or in this beautiful Rouseeau painting below which has nothing to do with this attention-seeking story). In the meantime, this is a fine opportunity to talk to people about their personalities and their birthdays and about what they want from the world. Whatever his nature, the snake-bearer can thus help us fulfil the true purpose of astrology!
Last week I meant to include an elegiac post to Rosetta, an astonishing space mission, which stretched out over a dozen years and logged 4.9 billion miles of travel. Rosetta was launched way back in 2004. It was originally supposed to rendezvous with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011, but problems with the launch in Guyana caused the probe to miss the launch window for the primary mission. The ESA changed the mission parameters so that the spacecraft ended up exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko instead (this second comet was functionally the same as the first—except for a much more difficult-to-say name). During its journey to the comet, Rosetta also flew by Mars and two asteroids. After flying by Mars in February of 2007, the craft flew by Earth in November of 2007. It caused a miniature panic when astronomers of the Catalina sky survey spotted it and misidentified it as a 20 meter near-Earth asteroid on a possible collision path with Earth!
The spacecraft arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August of 2014 and the most famous…and infamous…part of the mission took place in November of that same year, when Rosetta launched the Philae lander to harpoon itself to the comet. Although Philae (which was named after a Rosetta-like obelisk with the same text in Greek and Egyptian) succeeded in landing and not bouncing off into the void, sadly the little lander came down in a miserable crevasse. Scientists intimately studied pictures of the comet (from Rosetta) until they found the lander in the icy chaos. It was a pretty ghastly scene which reminded me of my sock drawer (if it were dropped from space onto Tungnafellsjökull glacier).
(See it there at bottom right?)
Rosetta’s long and mostly successful mission came to an end last Friday in a truly operatic fashion. Mission controllers chose to use the last vestiges of power to smash the orbiter into the comet! Well, although I am saying “smashed” what actually happened was more like a grandmother walking into a snowbank. The lander was lowered onto the comet at about one mile per hour. Except, despite the fact that Rosetta traveled more than 5 billion miles (“uphill both ways”) it was not designed for landing and its last communication was a photo just above the comet surface. RIP Rosetta, you were one good probe!