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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!

great Flounder Logo Final

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Here is a contemporary sculpture by a modern Chinese artist.  This is Pigeon’s House, by Cui Jie, a Shanghai-born artist who now lives in Beijing.  The work is an ugly amalgam of dull architectural styles: Bauhaus, Russian Futurism (which spawned countless identical state-sponsored heaps), Retro-futurism, and “International.”  It measures 4. 5 meters in height (15 feet) and is manufactured of metal.  Despite the unwholesome mélange of second-tier architectural styles, there is an appealing dynamism to the sculpture: lively metal pigeons metamorphose out of the skyline and take to the sky.

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The most common of styles give birth to the most common of birds, yet somehow there is a suggestion of freedom and dignity to just surviving and enduring in the great supercities which are increasingly the home for humankind.  Like the 21st century art world, these cities may seem to be homogenous, tedious, and so competitive as to prevent any creativity whatsoever.  Yet if one looks more closely one realizes that they are a living habitat…and even a sort of ecosystem…if only for prosaic animals and middling aspirations.  The work’s setting–a verdant field in rural England–further emphasizes the nature of sprawling urban habitats.

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Ahh mascots…It has been too long since we peaked into the strange representational world of symbolic characters.  A mascot is meant to bring good luck…and what could be luckier than a pigeon (which, after all, live virtually everywhere and tend to be in robust health).  When it comes to living in a city, no mascot (except maybe the rat or Joan Rivers) could be more appropriate.  Therefore here is a little gallery of pigeon mascots.  Sadly Samsung has not mastered iridescent monitor technology so you will have to use your imagination to add the glossy feathers and cooing.

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This one is by Jamie Sale, who will design a mascot for you if you find him on the internet and properly incentivize him (look the pigeon is drawing mascots!)

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I don’t know if it counts, but here is a stunning Louis Lejeune Hood Ornament.

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Some of these guys look a little bit like they came from a really dirty episode of “Family Guy”or maybe escaped from mascot jail… but urban birds are a bit gritty so perhaps that is as it should be.  At least they gloriously encapsulate pigeon pride

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or not…

The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

Behold a dreadful strangling monster!  This entity cannot be easily killed by conventional means and it reproduces both by asexually spawning duplicates of itself (at first attached to the parent by runners) and by releasing tens of thousands of wind-born flying pods.  When these pods land on something they take root and start to grow—even if it is another tree or a roof or a bit of concrete.  This monster comes from the primeval forests of China, indeed it is mentioned in the most ancient Chinese texts, but today it has spread everywhere.  It eats toxins and is not affected by most pollutants or even by high doses of toxic metals. It produces a poison which kills plants. If you live in a major city there is probably more than one outside your door right now!

Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven (photo by Cheryl Moorehead)

Thanks to the title at the top of the page, perspicacious readers will probably already have guessed that the monster I am writing about is Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven.  This is one of the most successful invasive species out there.  People unfamiliar with the plant are probably chortling at my rhetoric, whereas people who do know this tree, especially gardeners, are most likely making murderous gestures and exclaiming wild oaths.  The tree reproduces like crazy and it grows with seemingly supernatural speed.  Anyone who has tried to garden anywhere near a tree of heaven has spent a great deal of their time pulling up saplings or sawing them down only to see them rise again and again like the fearsome horde of hellspawn which they are.  When chopped down the tree grows back with redoubled vigor and produces suckers (basal shoots which grow from the roots and produce independent trees).  The tree of heaven may not be a massive clonal colony like Pando, but fighting the suckers and the seedlings and their many offshoots makes it seem like a single malevolent entity. And it is everywhere—when you see a tree growing on top of an abandoned building or sprouting improbably from sheer concrete, it is most likely the tree of heaven.

So Many Seeds!

The tree was not always despised. Eighteenth century European gardeners (under the spell of Chinese gardens and all things Chinese) were beguiled by its swift growth and elegant looks.  They brought the tree to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784, but, as soon as the tree was planted, the honeymoon ended.  In formal gardens Ailanthus trees tendency to sucker and set seed became very apparent as did the abominable smell of the male trees which produce a urine-like stench to attract unsavory pollinating insects (European botanists should probably have translated the Chinese name before planting: 臭椿 literally means malodorous tree). The tree’s prettiness though undeniable is not as great as that of other Chinese invasive trees like the lovely Empress tree (which is not nearly as aggressive or malodorous).

Samia cynthia--the Ailanthus Moth (note the lack of a mouth--saturniid moths do not feed in their final adult stage)

Aesthetic concerns were not the sole motivating factor which caused European gardeners to import the fearsome tree.  Although the finest silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori, which feeds only on the mulberry tree, a more durable and coarse silk can be produced from the cocoons of the ailanthus moth  (Samia Cynthia) which, of course, eats ailanthus leaves. Ailanthus silk is distinctly inferior to true silk in that it does not readily take dyes, but it is durable and pretty in its own right.  Unfortunately it proved to be too labor-intensive for western production. Ailanthus moths, the huge saturniid moths, which produce these cocoons also went rogue and are now spreading across North America and Europe in tandem with the trees.

The discerning reader may have apprehended that I am no fan of the tree of heaven.  Even literary allusions to the ailanthus are problematic (it is the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about alcoholism, poverty, cheating, and misery in early twentieth century immigrant life). However, having said that, Ailanthus altissima demands respect as a supremely effective life form.  It is probably the fastest growing tree in North America and is able to grow 2 meters (6 feet) in a year (as I know from cutting down 15 foot tall suckers in my tiny garden). Additionally the tree produces a chemical, ailanthone, which inhibits or prevents the germination of other seeds and is toxic to other trees.  Ailanthus altissima can live in locations that are dry, salty, or toxic and can survive on water as acidic as tomato juice. For these reasons as well as its staggering number of wind-born twirling seeds it can be found in industrial or urban wastelands where nothing else grows.  It is impossible not to feel a bit of awe for a 50 to 90 foot tall weed.

Ailanthus Trees Growing in a City

Not only is the tree is an opportunist which can live by itself in places too dry or poisonous for other trees but its incredible rate of growth allow it to compete with other deciduous trees by quickly growing into unoccupied canopy space (although adult forest trees in healthy woods can probably out-compete it in the long run).  The tree of heaven pays a price for its quick growth and heavy suckering.  Its life is short and specimens rarely live past 50 years.  However one individual tree is not the problem—if you have one tree you already have many.  Like the Lernaean Hydra, the tree of heaven is a exponentially increasing monster, but something so tough must have a use.  Perhaps a future generation of space colonists living in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s fantasy will spend their time wrinkling their noses and wandering why anyone chose to plant such a thing.

A photo from my nearest train station in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

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