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Statue of Decebalus (completed 2004, carved stone)

Statue of Decebalus (completed 2004, carved stone)

It’s possible that I made a few economic missteps over the years (although, judging by the news, I am not the only one) and, as a consequence, I won’t be spending this August traveling the world. However, even if I am literally trapped in angry sweltering New York, my mind is free to roam the rugged Carpathians and take in the robust forested splendor of Romania. This land was long known as Transylvania (the “crossing forest”) and the modern world has not changed the wooded character of the land. I started to do some research online and in my virtual travels I was stunned to come upon this colossal stone head carved in the living rock of Dacia. This is a carving of Decebalus a king who ruled from 87 AD – 106 AD. Decebalus was a client king of Rome, one of the many annoying and interesting minor sovereigns whom the empire propped up around its borders to act as buffers. Much of Roman history concerns their perennial struggles with these vexatious vassals and the history of Decebalus is no different. Indeed he ended up being the last king of Dacia. His cleverness and pride went too far and Rome crushed him like a bug and absorbed Dacia.

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This statue however is presumably meant to evoke Decebalus’ pride and independence (not his defeat and suicide). The head is 40 meters tall (120 feet)—it may be the largest monumental head in Europe. It was crafted by a team of 12 sculptors over 10 years at the behest of an eccentric Romanian businessman, Constantin Drăgan (1917-2008). The statue was completed in 2004 and stares balefully out over the Danube. I love Decebalus’ stony features—which seem little different from an actual rock. I am also predictably impressed at the way the natural rock looks like a crown. Dragan had some curious nationalistic misconceptions about Dacia’s place in history, and it seems this great head was meant to explain/popularize some of the millionaire’s ideas.  As often happens with art, the actual work is more ambiguous and interesting…hinting at both greatness and ruin.

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Still Life with Mystery Serum (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Mystery Serum (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!  Last week’s post about Kelly green did not seem like enough to celebrate that vivid and timely hue, so here is a little still life painting I made long ago back when I was painting small collections of household objects.  The symbolic import of the painting is unclear, but, thanks to its color palette, it certainly has a Saint Patrick’s Day feel. Protestant orange is condensed into a small glowing sphere—an orange star? A gumball? An eye?  Two electric fuses of brass and muted green sit nearby.  The majority of the composition is dedicated to a silk handkerchief filled with horrors and delights.  Upon the glowing green field, a golden ring glistens evocatively next to a small bottle of some unknown elixir or extract.  But beware: beside these ambiguous treasures a tiny orange scorpion lurks–waiting for the unwary hand. To me the composition has always seemed like what a person would find inside a leprechaun’s pockets if one were foolish enough to look there. Or maybe these are purchases from a derelict gumball machine which someone kept pumping quarters into in fading hopes of getting something better…

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When I was growing up, my family went to the feed store one spring to buy something (farm equipment? wire, grain? rakes? cowbells? I just don’t remember).  The store had a big pen filled with “Easter bunnies” for low, low prices, and thanks to their endearing cuteness, my sister and I had to have one. My long-suffering parents were deeply reluctant, but in the end they agreed, provided the bunnies stayed in hutches outside.  We went home with two adorably cute little rabbits (and a bunch of wire for building pens).  It was the beginning of a very painful lesson about the ambiguous nature of domestication. Rabbit-lovers may want to stop reading.  In fact everyone may want to stop reading.  Not all animal stories have happy endings.

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

French Lop Domestic Rabbit

European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) were raised in large walled colonies in ancient Rome (like snails!) but they were not properly domesticated for the farm until the middle ages.  Wikipedia half-heartedly quotes a date of “600” (presumably 600 AD).  Goats, pigs, and cows were domesticated about ten thousand years ago—long before the first cities rose—so the rabbit is a newcomer to farming life.  Not until the eighteenth (or maybe nineteenth) century do we have any records of rabbits as pets.

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The rabbits we obtained from the feed store were certainly not raised as pets but as stock (the fact that they were sold at the feed store was a real clue). We already had cats and dogs and birds inside, so the rabbits had to live in wire pens with little straw lined nesting boxes.  For a while the bunnies were sort of stuck in a limbo between being pets and being livestock, but, as people who have real pet rabbits can tell you, rabbits don’t really love being held and they have an ambiguous relationship with children. They are also gifted escape artists and extremely devoted to producing more rabbits.  We had some litters of baby bunnies (did you know that stressed out rabbits eat their young? You do now) and we also had some rabbits that went renegade.  We tried to catch the escapees at first and we did catch some (even domestic rabbits can run like the wind) but ultimately we resigned ourselves to the fact that a certain number of rabbits would go “Watership Down” and never return.  Eventually something must have got them: the highway, the foxes, the hawks, the coyotes, the bobcats, the owls, the weasels—who knows?

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So in the end we wound up with hutches filled with rabbits that had to be fed and watered and tended to.  In the summer they would occasionally die of unknown causes (heat, stress, disease?).  I have extremely unpleasant memories of putting on rubber gloves and carrying a stiffened decomposing rabbit covered with flies over the hill to dig a shallow grave.

You can probably see where this is all heading. On a farm filled with delightful & personable animals like dogs, cats, ponies, and turkeys, the rabbits did not cut it as pets.  The cards had been hopelessly stacked against them from the beginning.  And so eventually they became rabbits for the pot.  It turned out that slaughtering rabbits was a task which I was shamefully unequal to as a child.  Jim Bowie might have slapped me around until I toughened up and became a frontiersman but my dad just sighed heavily and did the butchering himself (sorry Dad, I’ll take care of it next time).  Thereafter we found that the Amish neighbors were happy to slaughter rabbits in exchange for a share.  Rabbit fur really is soft and warm and we had a bizarre mud room filled with tanned pelts (although I am not sure what we ever did with them).  Rabbit meat is particularly delightful (especially with creamy sauce) and we had lots of savory rabbit curries, which are even better than they sound.

rabbit stew

rabbit stew

So what is the point of this story?  I am sure it will not endure me to other animal lovers (although I beg you all to stay with me–I am an animal lover too).  Maybe it is a simple story about domestication.  I like meat, but I have not forgotten where it comes from (and I can understand the point of view of vegetarians–but it isn’t my point of view).

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

The Dead Christ with Angels (Édouard Manet, 1864, oil on canvas)

Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings.  The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet.  At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest.  The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness.  This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened.  The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us.  Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not.  Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened?  Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy?  Are the angels resurrecting him?  Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting:  when is this happening?  This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop).   Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity?  It certainly seems like it!  In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning.  An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts.  Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.

Many of the stories and myths of Taoism center on the eight immortals, a group of ancient entities who mastered powerful magic to such an extent that they transcended mortality and rose to a state of near divinity.  Zhang Guo Lao, the eccentric elderly potions master, is one of the eight immortals (and we have seen what an odd figure he is), but some of the others are even more peculiar.  Probably the strangest member of the group is Lan Caihe, whose age and precise origin are unknown. In fact, the gender of Lan Caihe is unknown: S/he is sometimes depicted as a young girl or a cross-dressing boy or a strange genderless old person.

Lan Caihe is the patron saint of florists and minstrels (or maybe I should say “singing courtesans” since the musical lifestyle in classical China often bore some relation to the pleasure trade). His/her sacred emblem is the flower basket, a bamboo or wicker container born on a hoe-like handle filled with up with sacred flowers, herbs, and plants.  Lan Caihe is also sometimes shown holding castanets, playing a flute, or riding a crane.  Ambiguity and the reversal of expectations are trademarks of this immortal as is the power of unheeded prophecy.  In addition to not having a fixed gender, Lan Caihe dons heavy winter clothes in summer but strips down to a flimsy barely-there shift to sleep in snowbanks in the winter. Sometime s/he is portrayed within a melting snowbank transforming into steam from quasi-divine magic.

While some of the eight immortals have lengthy or complicated creation stories (involving magic items or a lifetime of study) Lan Caihe’s apotheosis to immortality was quick and random. While playing music, drinking heavily, and otherwise entertaining at a bar, Lan Caihe got up to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he/she flew up to heaven on a crane letting a single shoe fall down (in some versions of the tale various other dubious garments joined the shoe).  Despite having immense power and magic (and immortality), Lan Caihe is frequently portrayed dressed in a frayed blue dress and only one shoe, consorting with the lowest classes of society.  I can think of few figures from any mythology more evocative of the socially constructed nature of identity than this gender-ambiguous immortal.

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