I am a critic and aspiring artist. I live on Flatbush Avenue and haunt the Brooklyn Library. I love architecture and the Seven Wonders of the World. I want to go to Dubai and live in the ruins of the Burj... [more]
I am a critic and aspiring artist. I live on Flatbush Avenue and haunt the Brooklyn Library. I love architecture and the Seven Wonders of the World. I want to go to Dubai and live in the ruins of the Burj Al-Arab after society falls.
On most days, the division between well-adjusted norms and conspiracy theorists is pretty clear. The normals don't dwell on the North American Union or the eerie "face" formed by craters on Mars. Whether or not they accept the official explanations, they don't devote much time to the unexplained. Their obsessive counterparts huddle in Lone Gunmen-style hideouts, rewatching Zeitgeist(don't click that link unless you have an hour and lot of credulity to spare) and commenting on the Vigilant Citizen's latest Rihanna/Freemason expose (definitely click that one!). Being a lot closer to the latter type than the former, I am pleased when things happen that are too weird for even the norms to ignore. The thousands of dead blackbirds that rained down on Arkansas this week were mysterious enough to get sensible people wondering, however briefly, whether the world they inhabit is not merely a shimmering facade, behind which invisible forces move and collide.
Animals--or unexpected objects--have fallen from the sky at various times throughout history. Rains of fish, frogs, and birds have been reported periodically over the past few centuries. The animals are often alive, although some freeze to death while they're up in the air. These showers understandably shock those who experience them, especially in the terrifying case of a rain of spiders in Argentina, in 2007, or the "tangled clumps of worms" that fell the same year in Louisiana. This has never been satisfactorily explained, although in most cases it seems to be a weather phenomenon: violent winds or waterstorms pick up the unfortunate animals and dump them elsewhere. In the case of the spider rain, most people hypothesized that a tornado dropped the creatures. This does not explain why large groups of a single type of animal are dropped though, without any plant matter or debris. In 1876, residents of Kentucky reported that large pieces of beef fell from a perfectly clear sky.
The latest instance of this phenomenon is undeniably ominous: the birds blackened the ground at midnight on New Year's Eve, on the brink of a new decade. The corpses show no sign of disease, but had suffered internal bleeding, which could have been caused by loud noises from pyrotechnics or hitting something hard. The incident occurred in the middle of the night, but blackbirds normally fly only by day. A few days before, 85,000 fish were found dead in the Arkansas river. Even stranger, a second, smaller rain of dead birds fell in Louisiana yesterday. They showed no signs of damage, and included starlings as well as blackbirds.
Most people will surely accept that the birds were disoriented by fireworks and died when they hit the ground. I doubt that even Reverend Fred Phelps himself really believes, as he claimed, that Arkansas gays are responsible for this evil omen. But I hope that a few people will be so shaken by the surreal sight of dead birds falling from the sky that they understand the deep suspicion and awe of the visible world that i feel every day.
An extremely suspicious story is circulating that a movie studio orchestrated the macabre precipitation to promote a remake of The Birds, but the planes dropped the birds over Arkansas instead of California. This sounds totally phony: the movie doesn't come out until 2013, and that's probably illegal, and it doesn't even make sense to use dead birds to promote a movie about live, homicidal birds. It makes even less sense, though, to take credit for a failed prank you didn't really pull. Maybe the movie exec is so afraid of the unknown that he would rather offer an absurd explanation than face the mystery and spiral into a netherworld of cattle mutilation and numerology.
As if Saadiyat Island weren’t enough, the United Arab Emirates have another island of cultural extravagance in the works: Isla Moda, a fashion wonderland off the coast of Dubai, will boast couture boutiques, private fashion shows, and those staples of overblown development projects, luxury hotels and villas. Which will surely fill up as fast as the office space in the Burj Khalifa. Karl Lagerfeld was all set to design the manmade island, but something tipped him off to the surprising fact that this may not be the best time for a project devoted to unbridled consumption. Huh. It probably would have sunk back into the sea as soon as they finished it anyway.
Regardless of the idiocy of “Isla Moda,” the renderings are pretty great. I think at this point, announcements of new projects in Dubai are just an in-joke. No one actually entertained the notion of building this Jurassic Park geode-mall, did they?
Of course not. They’re just having a little fun. Someone learned CAD and wanted to show off.
They could always buy the gold to plate this mall from the gold ATM in Abu Dhabi, although relying on Abu Dhabi for anything else would be awkward.
Karl Lagerfeld was smart to get out! This is ridiculous!
Without their cash flow, the masterminds of Dubai have become outsider artists, toiling away in obscurity on fantasy lands that are prove nothing but their eccentricity, just like Achilles Rizzoli.
“To lose all that is familiar-the destruction of one’s environment..is the threat of a loss to one’s collective identity.”
-Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory
No city is safe from the scourge of sensational pastiche and grimly uniform luxury towers, even the sacred center of Islam. According to the New York Times, The Saudi government has begun an ambitious plan to redevelop Mecca along the lines of hedonistic Gulf fantasies like Dubai. The centerpiece of the project, bizarrely enough, is a towering replica of Big Ben near the Grand Mosque, capped by a crescent spire, and housing the requisite mall and hotel. The Mosque itself is slated for expansion as well. The government claims that new construction is necessary to accommodate the three million who make the pilgrimage every year, but the profit motive is barely disguised.
The clock tower under construction
An opportunistically fundamental interpretation of Islam sanctions the destruction of historic areas to clear space for highrises. Historical events after the time of Muhammad are seen as corrupt, so there’s no taboo on bulldozing remnants of the city’s past. Of courses, what springs up in their place will hardly be admirable from a Muslim standpoint either; catering to the super-rich contradicts the Islamic ideal of egalitarianism. The planned apartment towers threaten the Grand Mosque visually and socially. The buildings will block views of surrounding mountains, many of which are also sacred sites, as well as encouraging wealthy visitors to isolate themselves from the crowds below. Ostentatious luxury and class striation mock the concept of the hajj as a time set apart from worldly concerns. And, as in so many cities, gentrification will drive working class locals out of the center.
Pastiche fantasy architecture is a simple means of attracting tourists’ attention and cash, from obvious examples like Las Vegas and Dubai to the Nashville Parthenon. The gated-community tendency of the rich to spacially sequester themselves is also dishearteningly common. It’s easier to forgive (or guiltily admire) this type of development when it springs up out of nowhere. Dubai can be appreciated as an oddity because it grew out of a tiny town, a nearly blank canvas. Whatever its other faults, nothing was bulldozed to make room for the Burj Al-Arab. But when it’s inflicted on a city with emotional and spiritual import for millions of people, it is a cruel act of iconoclasm.
The clock tower looms by night
Building a massive replica of Big Ben proves the government’s cold-blooded disregard for the significance of the site. It is insultingly irrelevant to the Mosque, as if picked at random from a list of famous monuments and grafted onto the heart of the city. It exhibits all the symptoms of desperate architectural pandering: height, mimicry, and devoted to shopping. This kind of nonsense is expected in cities that were built on soulless capitalism, but it is intolerable in a dignified setting.
I never gave much thought to minimalism until this year. My art history education went straight from Pollock to identity-politics postmodernism, and I had no point of reference for the movement. If someone had asked what I thought of minimalism, I probably would have replied that I hated it, as the word brought to mind monochromatic canvases and white blocks indistinguishable from the plinths that hold what I considered “real” art. I assumed it was all about rules, austerity, and high-minded ideology. In short, I stereotyped minimalism as anti-fun and grueling to view.
As is probably obvious, I was very narrow minded about art for a long time. This was mostly due to stubborn traditionalism—painting was art, installation was a bunch of crap in a room—but some of my naïve irritation was justified. I still don’t understand the audacity it takes to declare a canvas painted flat white a finished work of art, and most of the work I see in galleries enrages me with its heavy-handed gaucherie. However! Thanks to the insistence of a dear friend, and a drive through west Texas, I discovered an abiding love for minimalism and, consequently, a more optimistic view of art in general.
A few weeks ago my friend convinced me that a visit to the Dia Foundation in upstate New York was worth the exorbitant price of a train ticket, and we set out into the bucolic Hudson Valley. I had seen a show of California minimalist art in Chelsea a few months before, and I expected to have a similarly spa-like experience at Dia: relaxing lights, saturated colors, and comfortingly simple forms. Our day trip to Dia left me not soothed but exultant and energized. There are many wonderful pieces there: Michael Heizer’s dizzying bottomless pits, On Kawara’s hypnotic date paintings, and Imi Knoebel's mysterious, inviting studio.
Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West
On Kawara, Date Paintings
Imi Knoebel, Raum 19
Donald Judd’s presence at Dia consists of a series of fifteen rectangular boxes partially painted red and green, a series of similar boxes hung on the wall, and a phenomenologically tricky sculpture that must be seen in person. The perfectly flush edges and bold colors of the plywood boxes are pleasing, but it is their variation that compels. Slightly different designs, all confined by the same exterior dimensions, draw the viewer into an insular logic. They are not comprehensive, because not every variation is present, and the ones that are do not follow a particular line of spatial inquiry. The viewer can only assume that Judd is adhering a list of guidelines rather than random impulse. The piece is maddening and tantalizing because it responds to a system the viewer cannot apprehend. The rules that governed its creation make the piece playful and intellectually engaging, and the boxes have a solid, monolithic presence that belies their cheap material.
Donald Judd, Untitled
In a way my assumptions were correct: minimalism is about rules, but this is its most charming quality. Much of the minimalist work at Dia, and Judd’s boxes in particular, reminded me of the game Set. For those unfamiliar, Set is a card game based on four variations: shape (diamond, squiggle, pill), color (red, green, purple), texture (solid, striped, empty), and quantity (one, two, three). Each possible combination of variations appears once in the deck. Nine cards are laid out, and players must identify sets of three that share either all or none of the variations. To an observer, a game of Set is a rapid fire battle following no discernible logic. It is difficult to grasp the rhythm of game, but once you do, it’s addictive and gratifying. Judd’s work is like stumbling across the aftermath of a colossal game of Set played by extraterrestrial visitors. Rather than constricting, the structured variation of his practice affords the viewer great pleasure.
A game of Set, with example sets
I saw a perfected example of this principle at Judd’s desert utopia, the Chinati Foundation, in Marfa, Texas. Chinati’s collection falls short of Dia’s (partly due to an excessive allocation of space to the junkyard clichés of John Chamberlain), but the setting can’t be beat. Similarly varied boxes, this time larger and made of polished aluminum, hold court in a massive artillery shed and reflect the dusty palette and enormous grasshoppers of the Texan desert. The enlarged scale intensifies the sense of discovering a game board long forgotten by greater beings. Viewers wander tentatively between the gleaming blocks, like explorers in an extraterrestrial archaeological site. The mysterious lights that regularly appear in the sky over Marfa encourage such reveries.
Donald Judd, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum
Very convincing photographic evidence of the mysterious Marfa lights
Minimalism at its finest is not at all simple: it’s a logic game, a test of variations, but what elevates it above dry didacticism is its pointlessness. It’s a balance between aesthetics and problem solving, completely bizarre when juxtaposed with a natural setting. The system is so deliberate it must have a purpose, but like the game of Set, it’s impossible to justify to someone who doesn’t immediately take a shine to it. Viewing Judd’s work, I felt simultaneously mindless and intellectual, like I was using my brain in a new way. Like the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was rendered speechless by an immaculate, mysterious form that seemed both ancient and futuristic.
Without the mighty efforts and bitter tears of the Israelites, it's hard to imagine how an ancient society could move and shape massive stones into enduring monuments. Stonehenge is one of the most puzzling ancient sites: theories about its construction range from the mythic (Merlin asked a giant to transport it from Ireland (leaving the question open as to how it was built in Ireland); the devil did it), to the extraterrestrial (perhaps the same aliens responsible for the Great Pyramids and the Anasazi lines), to the natural (glaciers!), but all agree that tremendous man-power would be needed to recreate the process without mechanical aid; the stones themselves came from Wales, so they were transported a great distance as well as upended and arranged. Wally Wallington, a Michigan construction worker, claims to have figured out how the feat was executed, and is building a Stonehenge-like site to prove it.
I'm not convinced that a tiny stone fulcrum could moved stone from Wales to England, over rough terrain, but his process of standing blocks on end is quite plausible. What strikes me about Wallington's project is the perfect convergence of outsider art-like drive and the perpetual magnetism of ancient monuments. The determination of the lone obsessive, moving blocks in his back yard, is as impressive as the efforts of the Druids (or Merlin's giant, aliens, etc.) dragging those stones the first time, although Wall-henge is greeted with bemused affection rather than awe-struck reverence. I hope Wallington's monument fascinates future civilizations as much as Stonehenge does us; it will stand as an enigmatic testament to the proud American tradition of eccentric hobbyists creating magnificent structures out of odds an ends, in their spare time.
Stonehenge seems to hold a particularly magnetic appeal for people who share Wallington's sensibility and work ethic: replicas of questionable taste and accuracy pop up all over the world, including Carhenge, Strawhenge, Phonehenge, Fridgehenge, and, shedding all vestiges of dignity, Twinkiehenge. Some, like the latter, are flippant and tacky, but many were built by genuine weirdos who clearly respected the gravity of the original.
I think Foamhenge is surprisingly pretty
Carhenge has a certain surreal charm as well
Perhaps closest to Wallington's iteration of the site is Stonehenge II, a replica built by two cowboys outside Hunt, Texas. In 1989, Doug Hill gave his friend Al Sheppard a slab of limestone left over from a project. Sheppard stood it upright in his yard, and the two began constructing a ring of arches and monoliths to complement it. They fabricated stone lookalikes from steel, plaster, and concrete. Later, they built a pair of Easter Island heads nearby.
Trying to get at the heart of the Stonehenge obsession reminds of an essay called "Confessions in Stone", from Chuck Palahniuk's collection Stranger than Fiction. Readers who wearied of Palahniuk's schtick after slogging through tripe like Invisible Monsters should give this book a chance: he shines as an insightful observer of others' strange proclivities rather than a celebrator of his own. The essay profiles a number of men who built their own castles in the Pacific Northwest, and it explores the attraction to massive stone creations that feel tied to history, even if the act of building them severs these ties. Palahniuk appreciates the way these guys throw themselves into a totally absurd, romantic goal, often at great personal and financial cost. I think he'd recognize the same irrational nobility in Wally Wallington. You can read it on Google books; it starts on page 61.