I am generous with adverbs both in writing and speaking. If I write an adjective I am hard put to resist adding an adverb, or even two, to modify it, as when I write how this insistently habitual idiosyncrasy gives my writing its readily recognizable style. . . see? Not just heavy but massively heavy, not just sad but devastatingly sad, not just attractive but wildly attractive, and so forth.
Friday, January 20, 2017
Blackbird is not black; it’s brown. Blackberry is red when it is green. So, my green salad is not green. My standard salad has greenleaf lettuce, cucumber slices, carrots julienned, mushrooms sliced, and black olives (if I have them), and some bright cherry tomatoes. The palette of colors pleases the eye, and it also whets the palate. A boiled egg? Methinks too many colors spoil the palette.
Some fifteen or sixteen years ago, I wanted to get a tattoo. Really badly, in fact.
A few years before retiring from teaching, in late 1990s, I began to see students with tattoos, which were already fashionable among young women around that time. I was envious and, all of a sudden, I had to have one myself.
Until then, tattoo was something very alien to me. In old Japan, as in some other cultures, tattoo was a punitive mark applied to criminals. They were also professionally adopted by workmen in certain trades, particularly those who take risks— firemen, for example, who climb tall ladders and defied burning roofs, carpenters, who walk on a slender beams high up on the wooden scaffold, and fishermen — and members of the yakuza, the organized gang. For them, tattoo expressed bravura. They were also popular among the women of the demimonde. Their tattoos, which often covered a large area, even the entire body below the neck as well as arms and thighs, are elaborate in design. I saw Maoris in New Zealand wearing facial tattoos, also an expression of defiance. The modern fashion in the West, associated with hippies, expressed an antisocial attitude. So, the tattoo appealed to the rebel in me, the dare like the bungee jumping, the trapeze, piloting a small plane, skydiving, the striptease, the head shave, and the extremely dark skin from tanning in the sun, all of which I found very tempting to try. But with tattoo I was also drawn to its permanence, that it is basically indelible and irreversible. I also rationalized that branding the body permanently for personal identification of my dead body was a neat idea.
One day, driving near the college, I glimpsed a tattoo shop and stopped to check out; I looked at the design book and checked out the prices, and walked out saying I’d be back. I had no definite ideas as yet what kind of design I wanted and which part of the body I wanted have it. A few years passed before I decided that it is pointless to have a tattoo in a concealed part of the body, like the abdomen, the buttock, or the inner thigh, which will be seen only by an intimate — a lover, a spouse, or a bedmate; on the other hand, I didn’t want it blatantly displayed like the back of the neck as some women do or lower on the arm, most common among men. I decided I wanted my tattoo high up on the arm near the round of the shoulder or a little toward the back, which will come in view when I go sleeveless in summer. That was also the area where I still had enough flesh at the time to resist the pain I expected the process would give. As for the design, I had in mind a small flower — a pink, a violet, or a primrose — something discreet. As soon as I started living in New York, in 2001, I investigated the tattoo parlors and kept in my wallet a small list of them. My resolution was firm, my determination unshakable; and yet I was slow to action, and years went by.
Last year I was still toying with the idea and chose a Sanskrit script for the rooster, my Asian zodiac sign; I liked it as a more personal design to mark my body. I found it on the internet, reduced it to an appropriately modest size, and printed it out. But since then, my ardor for a tattoo suddenly waned. For one my shoulders, I suddenly realized, became bony in these ten years leaving little padding on them to take a tattoo without excessive pain. I also realized that the idea of carrying a mark on the body to identify it at the time of death lost its significance when I remembered that I will have myself cremated and the precious tattoo, after all, will vanish into thin air.
I really wanted to have a tattoo, passionately; but I never got to get one, except in wishful thinking. Tattoo toodle-oo.
それまでは、刺青とは無縁でした。ほかの古い文化にあるのと同じように、日本でも彫り物と云えば、懲罰として囚人に施されものです。それ以外には、職人連中、殊に危険をおかす職業に関わる人達、いわゆる鳶職人 – 高い梯子に上って鳶で屋根をこわす江戸時代の火消し、木材の足場の横木を歩く大工、それに漁師など – それから「やくざ」の一同。この人達に取っては、刺青は度胸とか威勢とかを表したものだったのでしょう。その他には、売春に関係した人達が刺青をしたものです。職人の刺青は屢々背中いっぱい、或は腕から腿まで満たした豪奢なものです。ニュージーランドのマオリ族は顔に刺青をしますけど、これも挑戦を意味したものです。近代のアメリカ、欧州の流行は、ヒッピーの始めたもので、やはり社会に対する反抗の表現でした。そう云う訳で、あたしにとっての刺青の魅力は天性の反逆心だろうと思います。つまり、バンジージャンプ、サーカスの空中ブランコ、スカイダイビング、一人乗りの飛行操縦、ストリッパー、くりくり坊主、日焼けして真っ黒になった肌、こう云った長年試してみたいと思っていたものに通じます。でも刺青にあるもう一つの興味は、大体取り消せない、戻せられないと云う永久性。加えて、体の一分に永久なマークを付けていれば死体となって発見されたときの身元確認に便利なのも好いアイデアかと思いました。
Party bird I am not. I enjoy being among a group of friends; but in a social gathering of strangers getting acquainted for the first time and engaging in small talks with people you are most unlikely to meet again, I always get an urge to flee.
In one respect, I realize, this is a curious thing. Seeing that I don’t mind standing out in my eccentricity, I should feel comfortable being a focus of attention no less than anyone at a party to an extent is. Reflecting on the matter, however, I realize that I was always shy as a child and, even after I learned to act sociable, I am still by nature averse to mingling. On further reflection, I also realize that the two sides of my personality are, in fact, in perfect unison; both the innate shyness and the desire to be conspicuous arise from my penchant to stand apart and remain an outsider. I’m no loner, however. While a party, presumptively of people of shared interests, estranges me, I am at home in one-on-one associations.
The International House Berkeley is a venerable institution. While attending the UC Berkeley I always felt ill at ease there, seeing that it was where students from diverse cultures abroad, categorized as “foreign students”; they were corralled together into one place as though they formed a natural group although what they shared in common was that they were all outsiders. For me, being a member of a group of outsiders denied being outside as an individual. My inclination was to be a foreigner independently, not among foreigners — in short, to be seen as an individual, not typecast.
This explains my firm belief that until we learn to identify one another as individuals rather than as types, whatever the category, race, religion, even gender; until we stop seeing each other as either black or white and recognize that we are all between black and white, racism will not cease to exist.
“Untitled” as the title of a painting irks me so. What? “Untitled, is it? But isn’t this a title?” This is a contradiction akin to the Cretan Liar paradox. We find on a page of certain official documents a warning, announcing prominently: “This page was intentionally left blank.” Oh, sure, except for this notice which makes the page no longer blank.
Worse than “Untitled” is the title “Untitled” followed by a phrase in parentheses, such as “Untitled (Mother’s Garden in May)” or “Untitled (Flight/Fright).” This is a double contradiction, saying that the painting is untitled but not really. The painter is muttering to herself or himself: “Well, yeah, I don’t know, like, I don’t have a title but it’s kinda like something in my mind, you know, I’m not quite sure what, yeah, but heck here it is, um, make of it what you will.”
As a title “Untitled” could mean “still untitled,” that is, not yet titled. In that case. “Work in Progress” is more accurate as in a portion of a novel sent in to a journal for publication. No publisher, however, will accept a manuscript titled “Untitled,” nor a play so titled will ever be put on stage. Imagine a marquee “New York Premiere Albee’s latest play ‘Untitled’”. Musical compositions without a narrative theme came to be identified by the instrument/s and key signature: Violin Concerto in A-minor, String Quartet No. 4 in G-major., etc.
Historical paintings, that is, narrative paintings -- religious, mythological, or historical -- as those in the Renaissance, did not require titles since the subject depicted was obvious to the viewer: St. Catherine, St. Jerome in his Study, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Danae, Fall of Phaeton, Diana and Actaeon, etc. In the 17th century in Holland, when marketing of art came into being, titling became useful, especially with the proliferation of non-narrative subjects -- portrait, landscape, still life, and genre (scenes from everyday life). Thus, we find identifications like “River Landscape with a Ferry,” “A Gypsy Girl,” “Still Life with Eels,” “Ontbijt (Breakfast),” etc. Titling became a necessity in preparing inventories after the death of the artist. Subjects outside the established genres were unwieldy. Watteau’s reception entry he submitted in 1717 for admission to the Academy was called “La fête galante” when exhibited, as it didn’t fit any existing subject category; it was neither history nor mythology, nor genre. The exact subject is still debated: Embarkation for Cythera or Departure from Cythera. With the rising practice of artists inventing a new subject for each painting, together with the new tradition of public exhibition of art, titling paintings became a necessity and a norm.
The motivation for titling a painting “Untitled” is understandable and justifiable. Titling a painting implies that it has a subject -- literary, poetic, or thematic. It describes the work summarily, or, at least, provides a key to its meaning. The idea of titling a work “Untitled” is to eliminate narrative connotations and force the viewer to look at the work and read its theme and meaning in the painting itself. Pursuing abstraction, Kandinsky resorted to musical analogy in his titles: “Composition No. 5,” like the opus number in music. Some later non-figurative painters, just gave numbers, like, “Number 15” (Rothko), colors, like “Russet (Morris Louis), ” or the source of abstraction, like “Cathedral” (Hofmann), though others continued to give literary titles, like “Lucifer” (Pollock) and “Empress of India” (Stella). If the painter feels strongly that the work should not be titled, she or he should call the work “Painting” rather than “Untitled.”
The one time I was made keenly aware of the perfect rightness of the title “Untitled” was at the exhibition of the works of Agnes Martin’s paintings, which she consistently and most deliberately titled “Untitled.” From one painting to the next, identical in size and subtle in difference, at a glance they look alike; it is only on intense inspection the strong presence of each, which gives each work its unmistakably identity, impresses the viewer and makes it unforgettable. Each painting identifies its visual reality that no lengthy description, not to speak of a title of any kind, can ever communicate profitably; it is revealed only in concentrated and prolonged and seeing. Not all non-figurative paintings share this concrete optical quality.
Then, more recently, at the exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s photographs, I was equally impressed by her “Untitled” titling of her series “Untitled Film Stills.” Her self-portraits as fictional but plausible film characters might be identified as types, like “tired housewife.” “young hitchhiker.” “sex kitten,” or whatever, but any title with a literary or cinematic reference only detracts from the specific identify of each feigned character, its immediacy (even though distanced as a screen image, simulation as it may be). This observations holds, too, for Sherman’s later photographs of “society women, “centerfolds,” and “historical characters.” Moreover, any specific title is not only redundant but falsifying since the reality of her photographed images is double-layered: one of her self-representation in different guises and the other of the character she is donning. Her photographs simultaneously draws our attention to the persona as a person and the persona as a mask In later works, in fact, she makes her prosthetic applications deliberately visible to distinguish the two layers of representation. Strictly figurative, unlike Agnes Martin’s paintings, Sherman’s photographs are strong by virtue of their unmitigated specificity.
In these examples, the title “Untitled” means “No other title was adequate” and not “No title was conceived,” that is to say, concrete rather than abstract.
Too often, I still contend, paintings of vague or blurred identity are lazily left “Untitled”, and they vex me.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Study on Effort performed at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn by Bobbi Jene Smith, a dancer out of The Batsheba, and violinist Keir GoGwilt, does not actively try to entertain. As the ingenious title insists, it tries to involve the audience to experience immersively the reality of the hard work that making any art is, in this case dance and music. Failing to understand this premise, the audience may be misled to read the dancer’s nudity as a titillation.
The opening sequence immediately realizes the theme of effort as the nude dancer makes slow, tortured movements, accompanied by the drone of James Tenney on the violin as its player makes an equally slow ambulation around the periphery of the low stage surrounded by the audience on three sides. The spectator/listener is invited to follow the work with as much effort as the nude body which lays bare all the strained muscles and the violin which tireless repeats barely changing phrases over and over.
This overture is followed by four sections which are variations on the theme, four contrasting exercises, some frantically fast and energized, others slow again as in the act of hauling sandbags. The musical selections marking the sections are distinctly contrasted; they include an Improvisation by GoGwilt himself and Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Partita No.1. The dance and the music mesh effectively by mutually reinforcing the theme, now in counterpoint and now in unison. Smith’s effort receives magnification from the violin, and the music, which by itself would be absorbed by the listener more passively, becomes muscular in combination with the dance’s physicality and forces itself on as hard work; and the audience in its effort becomes active participants in the making of this effortful art, at once visually and aurally. The change in the character of art from section to section gave us a welcome respite for performers and the audience alike.
The audience at the Invisible Dog was too large and diminished the impact the performance would have given amidst a smaller audience, preferably on two sides of the stage prompting a more concentrated focus on the happening.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
A good story, read on the pages, does not necessarily make a good storytelling. I am always prompted to think this after attending a play by Connor McPherson, as I did most recently The Shining City at the Irish Rep.
When we read a story, we might read it aloud to ourselves; but reading is usually done silently by sight. When we read a story to someone else, even to a child at bedtime, or perhaps especially when we read to a child, we do so expressively by modulating the voice and articulating the pauses, and this way we capture the interest and attention of the listener every step of the way, allowing no moment for the listening mind to wander or even wonder. We don’t want to miss a single word and we don’t have time to think about what is being said while listening. This is good storytelling. A story well told addresses individual listeners and engages them. A story as a written text exposes but does not address an individual; it addresses a generalized audience. Lectures do that, as do essays; we are allowed to reflect as we listen, to pause and ponder while listening, to wonder and wander.
A good play is thrilling when it is a good storytelling, when it speaks to us individually rather than collectively. Saying this, I don’t mean that the actors in a play break the fourth wall and address the audience, as Brecht did; the effect, then, is distanciation rather than captivation. A play achieves the latter, when it is akin to good storytelling in its continuity and modulation. These are certainly in the domain of the director’s art of pacing. But some plays display them already in their written text. We are then more liable to be smoothly drawn into the world of the narrative much like the experience we remember from our childhood as we listened to a good bedtime story. When we say that Irish playwrights are good storytellers and write good plays, we become aware of the oral tradition of storytelling in Ireland. In the age before printing, stories were only told in vocal recitation and remembered as an auditory experience by those who later told the same stories. As I insistently claim, a poem should be read aloud for full effect, even though admittedly it can be a visual text to be experienced visually and mentally.
Viewing on YouTube video the repertory of the Buglisi Dance Company in preparation for attending its latest performance, I realized that I hardly remembered them even though I saw them previously, two or three times. This was four years ago. More recently, after attending Mozart’s Idomeneo, I thought I had never seen it before; but checking my record I discovered that I had seen it four times already in a decade. Sometimes, what I didn’t remember, I rationalize, was forgotten because it was forgettable. On the bright side, however, poor memory retention in old age is a boon because what might be a tiresome old hat of experience turns out to be all new and fresh.
Friday, January 13, 2017
Thursday, January 12, 2017
I attended Missy Mazzoli's opera Breaking the Waves
last night at the NYU Skirball Center. It was outstanding. Everything about it was top notch: the music, the libretto, the set, the direction, the singers.
The set, designed by Adam Rigg was a jumble of crisscrossing planks that filled a half of the stage, but it served ingeniously now as a promontory overlooking the sea, now as the oil rig, now as a hospital room; and the screen projections for different loci were very effective, too, especially the scene of the accident at the rig and the black smears that gradually filled the screens in the later scenes of the heroine’s behavioral degradation. The chorus, sometimes in black as churchmen, moved and sang menacingly, and their quick change to act the men at the rig and later as sex predators was also impressive; and the chorus members, highly individualized, registered as memorable characters. James Darrah’s direction expertly blocked and paced the singers up and down the rickety planks. The libretto by Royce Vavrek, written in short phrases and, often repeated, were clear and easily heard. Most of all, Mazzoli’s music was hauntingly expressive of intense and often complex emotions, dramatic at every turn. The singers were all good, John Moore as Jan, certainly, but most of all the soprano Keira Duffy sang the difficult role beautifully; her total nudity, still shocking to some, may foretell a future, as Joyce's prose, once criminalized, no longer disturbs anyone today.
The film by Lars von Trier tells a horrendous story about Bess, a strictly spiritual woman, who falls in love with Jan, an oilman; when he returns from an accident, totally paralyzed, she accuses herself and puts in action Jan’s order to go and have sex elsewhere, our of sheer increasing sense of guilt. Mazzoli’s opera clarified the drama and powerfully conveyed the devastating effect on the two lovers rendered by the hypocritical church and the accident at the off-shore oil rig and ultimately the ironically twisted theme of Omnia vincit Amor
. As some critics claimed, this was certainly the best contemporary opera I had seen this year.
Two years ago, I heard Mazzoli’s works in the Composer Portraits series at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. The program included the aria “His Name is John” from Breaking the Waves. She was briefly interviewed during the program and shone in her articulate intelligence. But the work of hers that I found especially impressive was “Death Valley Junction” from 2010, which depicted the place of that name on the border between Nevada and California, inhabited by three people, a home to eccentric Marta Beckett, “the woman who resurrected and repaired the crumbling opera house in the late 1960s and performed one-woman shows there every week until her retirement in 2012 at age 87. ”
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
On 31 December, as I thought about the New Year’s Day, I became keenly aware of the artificiality of conceiving time numerically. There is no boundary marking the shift from the last day of this year to the first day of the next unless you watch the fall of the ball at Times Square in New York or open a new calendar. After all, a day follows another, as one minute another for that matter, seamlessly like the water of the river one never crosses twice, to paraphrase Heraclitus. Like birds and beasts and plants I am keenly aware of seasonal changes but not of calendar counts. Tomorrow is another day, as we say. Then, it occurred to me that this statement is double-edged. It could mean, optimistically, that there is still another day after all, which could be or might be better than today. On the other hand, it can be taken pessimistically that days come and go and tomorrow is yet just another day, no better and no worse than today. For me, every new day is something to look forward to.