Decimation Nation

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

In which I discuss mad Methodists, monomaniacal Mormons, and tattooed Mohave Indians on the expressway to Manifest Destiny (and my research for The Blue Tattoo). Violent Encounters (U. of Oklahoma Press) includes interviews with nine authors about major massacres like Sand Creek and Mountain Meadows along with lesser known incidents like the 1871 Camp Grant massacre in Arizona, in which Anglo-Americans teamed up with Mexican Americans and Tohono O’odham Indians to slaughter over a hundred Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches—mostly women and children.

From the introduction by the authors: “Violent Encounters allows the reader to reconceive what it means to conceptualize a historical event, the ways in which history is used to as a political tool, and the need for the incorporation of multiple viewpoints when reconstructing past events.”

Hopper Happens

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

Since Edward Hopper was famous for his interiors, the images of his women projected on the windows of his childhood home in Nyack, N.Y. last week had an eerily voyeuristic resonance. They’re the work of Kristina Burns, an artist in residence at the Edward Hopper House Art Center, who has organized a festival called Hopper Happens, to coincide with the show Edward Hopper, Prelude:The Nyack Years.The latter (also at the Hopper House) will include pieces the artist painted in Nyack, some of which have never been shown. Here’s his Nyack bedroom (1905-6):

From May to July, Hopper Happens will feature installations by local artists and set designers; paintings, poetry, and film inspired by or reminiscent of the artist; Hopper themed Flash Mob Fridays; and an online bulletin board where locals can post photos of Hopperesque buildings, streetscapes or houses, which is easy, since they’re all over this town:

If you stroll of few blocks north of The Hopper House on Broadway, you’ll see Helen Hayes’ former home, Pretty Penny (which Hopper painted); go south and see the house where Carson McCullers lived for nearly half a century (here she is the day Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Isak Dinesen came to lunch); and, farther south on Piermont Avenue: the childhood home of Joseph Cornell.

Committed to Print: Literary Tattoos

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

When I wrote a mini history of literary tattoos for The Believer, I explored images dreamed up by writers from Melville to Elmore Leonard. The authors of The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos for Bookworms Worldwide present just the opposite: literary passages (and a few author portraits) on skin. They also deliver one of the better book trailers of late (a refreshing departure from the gimmicky, low content schlock floating around Youtube), and their web site confirms this trend is flourishing.

But to be fair, they’re a little late to the game: In 2007, Jen Grantham began posting literary tattoos (spanning Dickens, Bukowski, and Dr. Seuss), with commentary, on her (now defunct) blog Contrariwise: Literary Tattoos, and Ina Saltz’ Body Type books feature literary excerpts as well.

If The Word Made Flesh is any gauge, men’s words make better flesh:only about ten percent of the literary tattoos in it were inspired by women (and Vonnegut’s “So it goes” is a chart topper in this subculture wherever you track it). But throw in Shelley Jackson, who has inked 553 people with individual words from her 2095-word short story, “Skin” (a kind of on-demand, direct-to-wearer publishing project) and the scales tip back again.

Scar Power

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Shortly after I finished writing this essay about the symbolism of scars, I wiped out on my bike and ended up with five stitches in my chin—and a brand new scar. I mentioned it to the ER surgeon as he scraped the asphalt from the wound and sewed it up. “You should have written about winning the lottery,” he said. The next day, I emailed the editor assigned to my piece and told her about the coincidence. Then I Googled her, never having worked with her before. “Magazine Editor Wins $100,000 Instant Top Prize,” the headline read. She’d won the lottery. What does it all mean?

YouTube Play’s Perception Problem

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

YouTube is the extrovert’s playground, so it’s no surprise that the Guggenheim’s inaugural Youtube Play Biennial netted so many technophiles broadcasting their wizardry. More than half of the 25 winners employed animation or cinematographic sleights of hand, too often in the service of low concept gimmickry. (Just one harnesses the unique participatory potential of this platform: Perry Bard’s “Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake” is a stunning piece of user-generated art).

By contrast, in “Luis,” Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León and Niles Atallah offer intimacy. Using stop-motion animation, they present a weird little world inhabited by an angry child who camouflages himself as animal. In a raspy whisper, Luis explains his inexplicable–and catastrophic–separation from his friend, Lucia: when this emotional bond breaks, his house falls apart, the walls dissolve, and he’s exposed to menacing creatures of the night.  In a white heat of fury, he takes a long breath and blows the evil force from his home, hissing, “I’ll kill you, asshole, son of a bitch, you fucking idiot.” Magically, order is restored: his ravaged house rights itself, the camera dollies back, and a sheer curtain closes on the stage set of Luis’ exorcism. Conjuring children’s stories like Where the Wild Things Are and The Three Little Pigs, the video–using a set made of charcoal and cardboard, flowers and found objects–captures the raw fear and primal power of childhood rage.

But it also calls into question the scope and purpose of the Guggenheim’s YouTube biennial. “Luis” has already garnered six awards at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad, and by YouTube’s own standards (where views are votes), it’s a winner (with over 100,000 views). Unlike the Vimeo Awards (also inaugurated in October), which are organized by genre and allow only original content, Play pits “Luis” against slick commercial entries, documentaries, and an unruly host of other forms by pros and amateurs. Is the Guggenheim mistaking a hosting site for an art form?

Gashlycrumb Trendies

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Attendance is up 15% this year at the Edward Gorey House on Cape Cod, according to director Rick Jones, and perhaps not coincidentally, Gorey tattoos are on the rise. Following the example of famous local Siobhan Magnus, who sports a Gashlycrumb Tinies tat, people are wearing all sorts of Goreyalia, from individual Tinies to The Doubtful Guest. Because of his intricate shading, fine lines, and high contrast style, Gorey’s work is difficult to replicate on skin. Magnus’ is too hazy for my taste, but here’s a worthy one:

Taking Sexy Back

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

It’s nice that The National Older Women’s League called bullshit on Alan Simpson in light of his “milk cow” comment debacle last week, but I wish OWL had been available to rescue Older Woman Betty White on Emmy night. Simpson’s consciousness will never be raised, but there’s still hope for t.v. audiences who think batty old biddy jokes are howlarious.

Because the short shelf life of actresses is directly linked to sex appeal, when they stop being sexy, they start being funny—for not being sexy. Thus White’s goofy dance routine and stilted “sexual chemistry” exchange with Madman John Hamm, followed by her shower scene with Hugh Jackman, former sexiest man alive.

Never mind that 88 year-old White was a pioneering woman in television in the ’50s (after hosting her own radio show in the ’40s). Or that she’s been winning Emmys for half a century. She’s old. And for women, that’s all it takes to get a laff. You can even win an Emmy for it–if you don’t mind that the joke’s on you. As Julia Cheiffetz asked on Huffpo yesterday: Is it really that funny to see an old lady express sexual desire and say ‘”fuck’ on prime time television?”

Happy Birthday, Lucy Stone

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Mona Hatoum, “Over My Dead Body”

Call me a Lucy Stoner. I didn’t take my husband’s surname when we married, which seems perfectly unremarkable–except that it’s not: a century and a half after Stone became the first American woman to keep her name in marriage, only about 10% of brides do the same, according to the Lucy Stone League. And The Boston Globe says the practice is in decline. Stone is probably rolling over in her maiden name-marked grave.

The Lucy Stone League opposes conjugal name-changing on the grounds that it’s “a powerful instance of sex discrimination which has a major effect on women.” I doubt it’s that consequential. But Stone herself offered a more fundamental reason: “My name is my identity and must not be lost.” It is just a name–until you’ve lived with it for a few decades and it accrues history and symbolism on top of family (and ethnic) pride.

“A woman should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers,” Stone reasonably asserted. After she registered in a Dayton hotel under “Stone” instead of “Blackwell” in 1856, the Dayton Journal sneered, “We don’t offer ‘Mrs. Lucy’ our hat because she probably has one of her own, to match her breeches! Women’s rights forsooth! Where, we should like to know, are Mr. Blackwell’s rights?”

Bound Object

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

A permanent installation by the Prague-based artist Matej Kren stands as a challenge to Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction, last week, that books will be obsolete within five years. The piece, called “Passage,” recalls Walter Benjamin’s sublime essay, “Unpacking My Library,” about buying, borrowing and inheriting books. In the closing paragraph, Benjamin regards his several thousand-volume library, observing that “…for a collector… ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

Americanitus: Diagnosis for the People

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Proust suffered from it. Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman took “rest cures” for it. And though it’s been retired from The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, we all surely have a touch of it: Americanitus (or “neurasthenia”), a nervous condition triggered by the stresses of modern life (which, said Freud, also caused flatulence).

San Francisco artist Alison Pebworth has launched a cross-country research project called “Beautiful Possibility” in which she explores contemporary manifestations of Americanitus by interviewing people about what ails them and why. Her historical research focuses on the intersection between European and Native American history and how it shapes American identity today. Pebworth’s wry, postmodern, and stunning circus-style tour banners combine folk, historical and political icons (including Olive Oatman, who, she says, elicits more questions than anyone in the series).  One of my favorites, “Claim Your Demons,” shows Dick Cheney hunkered down in a basket next to the Sauk Indian chief Black Hawk (to her credit, Pebworth forces you to figure out why Black Hawk was once considered a demon of Cheneyesque proportions).

Pebworth’s multimedia road show is interactive on many levels: she’s out there taking the pulse of the nation now; you can browse around to see where the northern leg of her tour is taking her here, learn what happened at previous stops here, or take her Americanitus survey here. Better yet, track her down and tell her how you’re feeling. Next stop: Aberdeen, SD.