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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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Long time readers know that Ferrebeekeeper has a keen (albeit understated) interest in mascots.  They are the heraldic beasts of our corporate times…and, like the present, they represent a peculiar synthesis of what is endearing, banal, zany, and oppressive all wrapped up together.  The royalty of the mascot world are Olympics mascots, although admittedly they come from hardscrabble roots and they don’t reign for long (I am sorry I was only two years old when Schneeman came and went at Innsbruck—but maybe we can get in the wayback machine and visit that goofy goofy snowman one of these days).  A couple of years ago we blogged about Soohorang the overly-simplified white tiger of Korea, and it was a pleasure to see this bland beast spring into action.  What with all of the excitement back in February though, I failed to show you a peak at the future.

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As you have probably guessed, this is a long-winded way of introducing the 2020 Olympics mascots.  The 2020 summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo, Japan, the epicenter of the land of mascots.  Japan has learned a thing or two since they brought us Sento-kun, Nara’s disquieting deer-child of magic and ridicule.  For 2020 the designers looked deep into the web and brought us some of the things the internet loves best: cats and nerdy futuristic technology.

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Here are the mascots of 2020.  They are so new they do not yet have names, but I really like them.  The blue tomcat in the suit from that Tom Petty video is the Olympics mascot, and the pink kitty with the retro-future cape and the red eyes is the Paralympics mascot (by the way, congratulations to all of the proud strong athletes of the 2018 Paralympics).

I really like these Tokyo mascots: they are just the right amount of futuristic.  Thank goodness we are not replaying the whole Wenlock and Mandeville fiasco. Just looking at these spacecats makes happy eighties synthesizer noises go off inside my head.  The cats look really friendly and they have clean bold lines (without being too scaled back like poor Soohoorang, who barely exists because of the unholy collaboration of digital designers and management committees).  In fact, these guys look like somebody with some pencils might have sketched them out before reaching for Illustrator.  I also like the white, navy, and magenta color combination.  It seems like they came from a clean contest instead of one that Vladimir Putin tampered with.  Speaking of which, that post was from 2014: how come we didn’t learn anything then?

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But back to the future mascots… With their hover suits and feline arrogance, there is an element of the Great Gazoo in both these cats (for young people, the Gazoo was a patronizing gnome from space or the future or something who was always tormenting Fred and Barney during the final post shark-jump seasons of the Flintstones). Additionally, there is a lot of Pokemon and Neopets in these cats.  Here are the finalists from which the two winners were selected.

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It seems like the Japanese really love cats, and I am right there on the same page with them.  White cats wearing spacesuits are particular favorites since we had a family of white cats when I was growing up (although I don’t remember if they wore spacesuits or not).  My grandparents had a white cat named Pharaoh who was one of the real characters of my youth.  Pharaoh’s sister Lily was one of my favorite cats too and she would sleep on my feet sometimes and purr in my arms when I was 9, although she died far too young, killed by a cruel and indifferent motorist (as will happen to all of us unless they hurry up with robot cars). Oh…I made myself sad. Fortunately these mascot cats will not be let outside before 2020 (plus they are deathless cartoons) and I am excited to learn their crazy names and backstory.  Most of all I am excited to see them in Olympics action: 2020 can NOT come soon enough (if you know what I mean).  We can put all sorts of disreputable stuffed head branding dummies in the past.

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My iris is blooming today. I have blogged about it in the past (it’s a dark violet iris named “Night Ruler”), but it is so beautiful. It reminds me of how much I like irises (for the one week or less when they bloom).

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In celebration, I went to an amazing iris catalog online and looked up some other irises to fantasize what else I would plant if I had more sunny space in the garden. The online iris shop was amazing: each iris was more beautiful than the last and I soon became besotted with ruffles of magenta, black, caramel, icterine, and blue. Yet the best aspect of the whole endeavor were the beautiful madcap names. It turns out that weird computer algorithms cannot keep pace in any way with the visionary poets who name irises.
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A single random sweep gives us names such as “Vizier”, “Daughter of Stars”, “P.T. Barnum”, “Vigilante”, “Halo Everybody”, and “Sordid Lives.” These are not random names either—each of the irises has a moral quality which makes the reason they are named instantly recognizable. “Mango Queen” (above)looks like a female sovereign made entirely of mango flesh. “Sordid Lives” (below) is a big flouncy, heady mixture of plum, ivory, and stained brown. “Beach Dance” looks like an 80s movie I saw on cable once.
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My overall favorite (in case you have your credit card out and have decided to show your love of this blog in rhizome form) is a big German Iris named “Beefy” (at bottom) which looks like a bleeding hunk of rare roast beef in the form of an exquisite flounder. There are aesthetic marvels of beauty, horror, and wonder out there in the garden my friends. Let me know which ones are your favorites!
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It has been far too long since we have featured a mascot themed post.  Chicken week (which honors the year of the fire rooster) is an ideal time for such a celebration.  Ferrebeekeeper has already featured my favorite chicken-themed business (the amazing South Chicago chicken franchise “Harold’s Chicken”) but there are plenty of other famous chickens out there.

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WordPress has stopped giving me the ability to caption things effectively (if there are any passing site admins could you guys look into this) so I am going to just open up the floodgates and set out a flock of weird chicken men.

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This open post has the disadvantage of opening up a world of sheer craziness with no effective explanations (as if this had an explanation anyway) but it has the advantage of letting us contemplate just how strange and multitudinous our culture of cartoon images, corporate shills, and brands really is.

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Look at all of these dead eyed roosters and sad felt cockerels!  This is the first thing that has made me feel the most remote stirrings of job satisfaction since the new year.  It may be bad but at least I am not this guy.

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Then and again, all of the chicken mascots indicate that chickens are popular and get noticed.  And, judging by the news, there is no force in the social world which outshines attention.

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Maybe the rooster is a more fitting symbol for society than I initially thought.  They say you are what you eat, and we mostly eat chicken.  Let’s hope that just means we are truculent attention-seeking braggarts and not that we are yellow!

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Uh…not that there is anything wrong with the color.

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My art theme this year has been flatfish, and I have made quite a lot of them.  I think the results are very strong, but the slightly ludicrous subject leaves me at a disadvantage when I am trying to explain my work via the unforgiving medium of tweet or elevator pitch.  Nothing vexes a group of high-fashion socialites quite like blurting out “I mostly paint elaborate symbolic flatfish!” The most obvious quick explanation is to make a joke about how I have been floundering (which is certainly true in many ways), however there is a lot more to this favorite subject than that.

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The Pleuronectiformes (flatfish) are indeed flat–like paintings and drawings–which makes them an ideal medium for compositions.  They are a favorite prey for humankind–which perfectly suits my theme of hooks, lures, traps, and beguilements (which seem to be taking over ever more in human society as we proliferate and jockey for resources).  Flatfish also provides an immediate environmental theme–for they are quickly being fished into extinction (like almost all of the ray-finned fishes).  Yet flatfish are no innocents.  Like many large fish, these animals are all highly sophisticated predators. In order to succeed they make use of their own subterfuges.  Flatfish blend in. They can literally change colors like chameleons.  I sort of think of them as the middle class of the biome, squeezed between the little shrimpkins, copepods, and minnows they gobble up and the rapacious pelicans, dolphins, humans and suchlike superpredators who in turn hunt them with beaked hooks, sonar, and cruel nets.

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Above all, flatfish are asymmetric–which means I can draw both of their expressive eyes without being forced to contemplate a lot of elaborate piscine bending.  Their asymmetry also makes them stand out among all of the vertebrates. The universe has twisted them at adolescence–but it has given them an indefinable topological advantage as well.  Also look at their little irregular paisley eyes.

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Of course Meg Miller thinks I have gone crazy, and perhaps she is right.  But after a while staring in the windows, “outsider artist” is the only card left to play.  You never know, I could still leap out of the substrate and start gobbling shrimp any day now.  Kindly check out my flatfish on Instagram and write me about your thoughts on the subject.  Flounders are sad, but they are comical too (which is unusual in visual art) so everyone has an opinion.  Please let me know how these flatfish make you feel!

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In the middle of the 14th century China was convulsed with famine, plagues, drought, and peasant revolts.  The central government was made up of Mongol outsiders who were both unable and unwilling to do much about the horrors going on throughout the vast land.  Into this maelstrom stepped a penniless apprentice monk, Zhu Yuanzhang.  Within 16 years he made the most remarkable personal ascension in human history, rising by his own hand from beggar to officer, to warlord, to prince, to Emperor of all China.  He threw the Mongols from the country and founded the Ming Dynasty, arguably China’s greatest.   Zhu Yuanzhang took the reign name of Hongwu.  He is one of history’s most perplexing and divisive figures.  Indeed I have personally had great trouble with the Hongwu Emperor, which I will recount later on—I have a story which is about this guy…and about my writing and about our time.

The Hongwu Emperor was not a handsome fellow!

The Hongwu Emperor was not a handsome fellow!

But that is for later.  This is Halloween week—and our horrifying theme is flaying!  Zhu Yuanzhang’s story of rising to the throne is a Disney style tale. But alas it does not end with his coronation. When Hongwu had crushed every rival and consolidated the land under his rule, some bad things started to happen.  After defeating every real enemy, the Hongwu emperor started to see enemies who weren’t actually there among the ranks of his loyal friends and subjects. He had started life as an illiterate peasant and he imagined that the scholars were laughing at him.  He had known terrible privation and so he thought his ministers were stealing from him.  The Hongwu emperor believed that every person should be an extension of his will, and he saw people doing things he did not care for and acting in ways which were off-putting or alarming to him. He fell into the habit of micromanaging—a terrible fault for a manager.  He also fell into the habit of killing everyone around him and purging their families and retainers from existence (although my management handbook doesn’t actually list this as a leadership flaw—which tells you something about the problems inherent in human understanding of hierarchy).

The Hongwu emperor purged his oldest friends.  He purged his concubines.  He purged monks and scholars.  He purged merchants and financiers.  He killed lords and commoners, farmers and fighters. Fortunately he was a very gifted micromanager and he managed to make credible agricultural reforms and administer China largely on his own, but there were times when the business of China bogged down because every miniscule decision had to be reviewed by the emperor (and it is better if we don’t talk about his currency reform).  There was also a steep human toll, which became ever more dreadful as the emperor began to devise cruel new ways to kill people for imagined slights. It was almost as though he wanted to punish them for having their own will.

A historical reenactment of a scene from the Hongwu Court

A historical reenactment of a scene from the Hongwu Court

Hongwu was greatly concerned with propriety and morality.  He started to feel that the 5000 serving girls of the Imperial palace were behaving improperly with outsiders so he had them all flayed to death. He then had their skins stuffed with straw, and put on display as a morality lesson (the eunuch gatekeepers of the palace met the same fate).  Chinese scholars argue about this story, which was related by Yu Ben, an officer of Hongwu’s bodyguard who later penned a primary source account of what he had seen, but they reluctantly concede that Yu seems reliable.

Hongwu was able to get away with such acts because the Mongols had largely done away with any aristocracy who could oppose him (and Hongwu himself did away with his other competitors during the civil war…and then with his pogroms).  Additionally his reforms were successful: China became a better place to live in the late 14th century (although maybe not if you were too close to the court).  Yet this dark murderous madness left long shadows over Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was probably the most autocratic of China’s dynasties (which is really saying something) and it consolidated a troubling new extreme of concentrating absolute power in the sole hands of the emperor.  This remains part of Chinese culture:  the Hongwu emperor was a great hero of Mao’s.  In China, you don’t even have the skin you live in, it belongs to the supreme human authority. Indeed, this may always be the case everywhere.  If some angry kingpriest, paranoid emperor, or tyrranical god comes along, a human skin is weak armor against their whims.

Dangit, this is not as fun as writing about the undead–who are, after all, fictional–although it certainly is interesting and thought-provoking in its own way.  But stay with me, there is a reason I chose this topic–a myth I have become fascinated by. Also I promised a special treat on Saturday! Additionally I promise it is not as dark and horrifying as Chinese history (although, admittedly, there isn’t much which is so troubling).

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying.   Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef).  Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark.  The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates.  The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems.  If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing,  Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors.   I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true.  I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems.  Take that, evil starfish!  You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man.  The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug.  I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.

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Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

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Oh, there are all sorts of gardeners! Some people tend sugar plantations or farm huge monocultures of wheat whereas others raise variegated vegetable gardens or grow orchards full of exotic fruit. There are herb gardeners and OCD topiary gardeners. There are knot gardeners, and orchid keepers, and pharmacological botanists with climate controlled greenhouses. I am a flower gardener who also enjoys ornamental trees (a combination which makes for a beautiful but not entirely practical garden), however the strangest gardeners of all must be succulent gardeners who tend surreal writhing beds of mutated globes, obscene barrels, and fat tentacles all covered with thorns and spikes!
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The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

Succulent plants are desert dwellers which store water in specialized internal storage structures (which, because of the nature of water, are usually thickened and fleshy). In order to fend off the animal inhabitants of deserts (who also live on thirst), these plants have evolved all sorts of defenses to protect their internal cisterns. Thus the cacti, aloes, orpines, agaves, spurges, and so forth are covered with wicked siliceous spikes or with rows of tooth-like spines or with stinging alkaline sap (or in some cases are just straight-up deadly poisonous).

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Succulent gardeners revel in this botanical arms race. The best cactus gardens look like the homes of hallucinating sorcerers. Forboding olive towers loom over chartreuse striped tendrils and purple spiky blobs. Snaky limbs bearing obscene fluorescent blooms reach out from a fat orange orange caudex above a world of yellow globes studded with black spines. Just look at these strange landscapes and revel at the combined power of nature’s asceticism and humankind’s sybaritic excess!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

I have assembled a little gallery of these monstrous and beautiful dry gardens, but none of the images rival the real thing. You should jump in your car and head for a nearby botanical garden (even in cold latitudes there are usually desert greenhouses), or, if you are really feeling disenfranchised just head for Los Angeles where the craziest cactus gardens on Earth are right there on some absentee producer’s front lawn.

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

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Berkeley Cactus Garden

Berkeley Cactus Garden

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Our nation is being invaded!  The intruders number in the millions.  They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires.  Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small:  each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches).  In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.

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The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana.  They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!).  Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals.  They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.

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For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics.  Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos.  If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers).  Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario.  These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).

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