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After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

Mermaid by Franz von Stuck

To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

Every year, at or around the summer solstice, Coney Island hosts a festival honoring Poseidon and the oceans…and sea maidens of course (hence this week’s theme). This year’s Mermaid Parade is tomorrow and I have been busy building a flounder float to show my esteem for the watery realms of Planet Earth. I’m sorry I was so busy on it that I didn’t get a chance to write my sirenian post…but don’t worry we’ll get back to dugongs and sea cows soon…

But for now here is the “Great Flounder” parade float. Here are some pictures of me building the giant novelty fish.

One side features a pulchritudinous mermaid waving her tail (since the leitmotif of the parade compelled me to include the titular mythical being). The other side is functional…sort of. There is an oracular wheel with all of the signs of the zodiac. A querant can learn their heavenly destiny (or the zodiac sign of their future mate or something) by merely spinning the wheel.

I have a costume and everything and I really hope that if you are in New York City you can swing by the parade tomorrow, but for right now I have failed to rent a box truck and I need to push my creation from central Brooklyn down to the ocean. Wish me luck and may Lord Poseidon smile upon you and all your ventures.

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Loteria is a bingo-style game of Latin America (although it descends from an Italian game of the 15th century).  A designated frontperson pulls cards from a deck and calls the images out to players with boards/cards marked with the same images. The players are trying to get markers on four squares in a row to win a prize.  The card-reader often talks in riddles or humorous rhymes to present the cards–which are appealingly heterogeneous.

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As with many other card games through the ages, loteria cards are also used as a mechanism for divination.  This brings us to today’s subject: “la sirena” the mermaid card in the lottery game. La sirena is represented as a classical mermaid—a beautiful nude woman with a green fish tale in lieu of legs.  As you might imagine, the siren can mean many things when she crops up in divinatory readings—representing all sorts of distaff beauty and beguiling opportunities–but the main message is the one which is read in the boilerplate riddle associated with the cards:

Con los cantos de sirena, no te vayas a marear.

A (bad) translation might be “Don’t let the songs of the siren disorient you.”  In Spanish “sirena” is synonymous with dangerous beguilement: the bewitching song and the sea-maiden are one and the same.  The mermaid’s tempting beauty disguises a dangerous situation or is, at best, an illusion. This is a standard truism of the prediction business: It is indeed wise to look carefully at all aspects of an apparently desirable opportunity.  This is especially true in our mercantile world which has become a rigged marketplace.  Anyone looking at the internet will know that every worm online has a hook in it.

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Yet look at the siren: she is the standout knockout of the loteria cards.  Additionally, she has a mythological gravitas which the flowerpot, the boot, and the saucepan (other loteria cards) sorely lack.  Surely her otherworldly beauty (and the beauty of her ocean habitat) have a worth which transcends a sententious admonition about temptation. It is true that mermaids are fantasy, but that doesn’t mean the longing they represent isn’t a puissant force.

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Such thoughts also bring us to the dangerous misogyny inherent in mermaid concepts.  In classical art and literature, beautiful sea maidens are most often an allegory for the trouble which lust brings men into. This seems unfair to mermaids who should be free to be who they are without being chastened as temptresses.  Perhaps the real message of the mermaid is in her fundamental irreconcilable juxtaposition—she is a being who is one thing above and another thing below—a hybrid entity who lives in two incompatible worlds.  That sounds like most people torn by the conflict of pursuing our own dreams and being forced by wage capital to help other people work on awful alien dreams which mean nothing to us.  Perhaps we should spare some sympathy for the mermaid.  That doesn’t mean we should let pretty flippers blind us to the perils of the ocean.  Maybe when we look into her lovely features we shouldn’t see a trap, we should see a mirror–ourselves in an impossible predicament we have always been in.

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I was going to showcase a mermaid painting from the glorious 19th century–a golden age of exquisite oil painting (when the technique of the masters combined with stupendous wealth and the camera made visual refernces available for the first time without yet stealing the show), but then I looked up at the wall and noticed I have my own mermaid painting–it just isn’t finished yet.  So I am afraid the 19th century masters will have to rest on their laurels until another day…and I am also afraid you will have to use your imagination to fill in some of the unfinished details of this work in progress.  This is one of the last of my torus-themed paintings, and you can see the great flounder lurking beneath it, preparing to take over as the central leitmotif of this era of my art.   The torus is made of a coil of strange purple cells (or rope) which is surmounted by an alien lotus blossom.  On the left a classic mermaid sings meltingly of the splendor of the seas, while on the right a trio of sinister dark carnival “mermaids” race towards the enigmatic central shape.  All around them the ocean blooms with life–mollusks and crabs desport themselves as a made-up roosterfish swims by and a moray looks on in wonder. Yet humankind is also present.  The lost lure with its beguilement and hooks hints at our trickery, although a masked diver suggests we are not inured to the lure of the dep in our own right.  Tune in later to see how it looks when it is done!

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For the first time in a long time, Ferrebeekeeper is presenting a theme week. This is mermaid week! We will explore the mythology and meaning of fish-people (a theme which occurs again and again throughout world culture). And there is a special treat waiting at the end of the week, when I reveal the project I have been working on for quite a while. I wonder if you can guess what creative project could I possibly be up to involving fish?

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We will get back to the exquisite long-haired beauties with perfect figures and beautiful green tails later this week, but let’s start out with the Ningyo, the poignant & disquieting Japanese “mermaid”.  The mythical Ningyo is indeed described as a sort of fish-person; but they were far more fish than person with a piscine body covered in jewel-bright scales.  They had a strange bestial human head, almost more like a monkey’s face and a quiet beautiful voice like a lilting songbird or a flute.

The Ningyo was reputedly quite delicious and anyone who ate one would experience tremendous longevity…but there was a price. Eating the creature would result in terrible storms and dire misfortune.  Additionally eating a magical sentient creature carried…spiritual risks which are hard to quantify but certainly sound detrimental to the immortal soul.

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One story about a Ningyo, starts with a humble fisherman from the Wakasa Province (the seafaring “land of seafood” for the Chūbu region of Honshū). He caught a fish with a human face, the likes of which he had never seen and he butchered and prepared the creature as a special banquet for his closest friends and neighbors.  Yet one of the guests peaked into the kitchen and saw the doleful eyes of the ningyo’s severed head and warned the other diners not to partake.  One woman hid her portion in her furoshiki, and forgot about it.  Later, her daughter was hungry and obtained the forgotten fish-morsel and gobbled it up.  The woman expected catastrophe, but nothing happened and the whole sorry incident was forgotten…

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Except…the little girl grew into womanhood and married and had a family.  The people around her lived their lives and, in the course of time, grew old and got sick and died, but she maintained her youth and kept on living and living and living. Everywhere she went the people she cared for grew old and died to the rhythm of human life, but she stood outside watching like a child watching mayflies.  She became a lonely religious recluse and eventually, after the better part of a millennium, she returned to the ruined, forgotten port of her childhood and took her own life, unable to bear existing in a world that she stood so far outside of.

The idea of the Ningyo asks uncomfortable question about our relationship with the natural world. Do we consume other beings for our own selfish amelioration or must we do so to survive? The fairytale above also asks painful questions about some of our most treasured fantasies.  Would extraordinarily long life be a blessing or would it be a curse?  Best of all (but hardest of all) it asks us to look again…at our relationship with the natural world and at our timeframe bias which prohibits us from seeing some of the things that are really happening (since our perspective is too brief).

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Actually I feel like fish already actually have bestial human faces and are precious in mysterious ways.  Yet we eat them anyway…in ever greater abundance… to the extent that almost all the fish are becoming scarce. Humankind is destroying the ocean, the cradle of life and all-sustaining backstop to every ecosystem. We are doing this, like the fisherman in the tale through a terrifying mixture of ignorance, hunger, and the attempt to impress other people. The Japanese (who have astonishing technological savvy, profound generosity, and enormous erudition) eat whales and dolphins with a special spiteful relish.  Is this then our fate, to gobble up our miraculous fellow beings and then live on and on in a world stripped of vitality and meaning?  Every thoughtful person I meet, worries that it is so.

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Then too there is the other half to the Ningyo myth (unadressed in the myth I told above… that abusing them would lead to storms, inundation, and catastrophe.  It is not hard to see parallels in contemporary society.  It isn’t only eschatologists, astrophysicists, and ecologists who note the changing temperatures and cannot find analogies in the strange and diverse climate history of our world. Humans live longer and longer (outside of America, I mean) yet the storms grow worse and worse.  Have we already eaten the Ningyo?

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Snake weather vane, maker unidentified, ca. 1825-1850.

More than usual the future seems uncertain.  The most cunning augurs and oracles can not see whether economic turmoil in Europe and turmoil in the Middle East will capsize the world economy.  The Pax Americana still holds but China’s rise promises a less stable, less happy balance of world power. The world’s climate is changing.  Technology is evolving in unknown directions.

To mark this uncertainty, I am dedicating today’s post to the quintessential symbol of all things shifting and mercurial–the weathervane (a choice which seems even more appropriate in the year when Mitt Romney is running for president).  A weathervane is an instrument dedicated to determining the direction the wind is blowing from.  As the wind changes, an arrow attached to a metal sail shifts to point in the direction the breeze originates.  These devices had a very practical function in the days before up-to-the-minute worldwide meteorological observations and projections were available: they continue to be popular as architectural flourishes.

Sea serpent weathervane (c. 1850) Paint on wood with iron

Sometimes I fantasize about what sort of weathervane I would put on the cupola of my imaginary mansion or at the apex of the folly tower of my non-existent formal garden.  A quick search of the internet reveals that many of my favorite topics are favorite subjects of weathervanes.  Catfish, turkeys, snakes, crowns, and mollusks are favorite subjects for metal sculptors to work in iron or copper.  So are mammals (represented here by whales and deer), farm creatures (goats and turkeys), and trees. Even gods of the underworld make an appearance–in the form of the devil who points to the wind with his pitchfork

A turkey gobbler weathervane from Blackforge weathervanes

Wild turkey with gilded wings weathervane by West Coast Weathervanes

A wild turkey weathervane and a curious wild turkey (amazing photo by Glen Ivey)

An antique copper goat weathervane from last century

Blue Devil weathervane from Duke campus

Magnificent snail weathervane by West Coast Weathervanes

Squid weathervane!

Oyster shell weathervane by Edwin B. Waskiewicz

Two themes at once–a weathervane portraying banana slugs holding up a crown

Pine tree weathervane from Mailbox Shoppe

A catfish weathervane by Copper Top Weathervanes & Cuppolas

A catfish weathervane by Weathervanes of Maine

A catfish weathervane at the National Metal Museum

For the sake of space I left out all sorts of beautiful marlins, swordfish, dolphins, capricorns, poseidons, sea horses, sharks, and clipper ships, however I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few buxom mermaids and sirens (and with the reminder to all fellow New Yorkers that the 30th annual mermaid parade is happening tomorrow at Coney Island.  Why not take a break from the vagaries of watching the weather and worrying about the uncertain future by participating in a festival in honor of Poseidon and the world’s oceans!

Mermaid weathervane by Barry Norling

Mermaid weathervane by Lakeside Ornamental

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