Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Museum


I got a hold of a documentary called "Waste Land" that was supposed to be good and socially relevant and blah, blah, blah. Vik Muniz grew up a very lower middle class child in Brazil only to work his way out to New York as a successful artist. Once someone like that can buy all the things he can buy his life loses direction and suddenly he wants to "give back". That's a real red flag for me. I've seen socialized guilt scrubbing too many times not to be suspicious.

In terms of volume, Jardim Gramacho in Rio De Janeiro receives more garbage than any other place in the world. Vik decided he wanted to paint portraits of the catadores (garbage pickers). These unfortunate souls pick through tons of waste to find recyclable material they then sell on to make a living. They are not employees but rather scavengers living at the mercy of guards and the re-sellers. Vik wanted to see how art may change their lives.

Well, fuck, you can make a million portraits of fast food workers and nothing will change for the better. Like I said, it's social guilt scrubbing by those who feel they cannot turn on the system that has finally made them comfortable. To those who've never been in need I'm sure this sounds highly nuanced and probably imagined. But it's very real and at the very core of our societal existence. "How would art change their lives?" Give me a break!


Scavenging has never appealed to me but I understand the appeal to those for whom it works. Our man Vik had a bit of trepidation heading to the landfill for many reasons - not the least of which was sanitary. His other very justifiable concern was the reaction he might receive as an outsider heading into a community of souls who'd been pushed outside of the normal bounds of society. Not too hard to imagine a hostile reception.

But his concerns turned out to be unjustified. As often happens in times of great distress, people pull together with the forced reality of knowing they sink or swim as one. There was laughter amid the shame just as there was treasure in the trash. To the outside world their stories could sound incredibly horrific, especially when a young girl told of puking when she came across a dead baby. But when she was telling it one only sees her humanity and not the horror.

Vik made his trip with an open mind and in so doing scrapped his original idea for painted portraits and instead wanted to incorporate the recyclables into photographic prints of the catadores. And that is where things got interesting.

Working in a large studio, the recyclables and dirt were arranged on a giant floor canvass with a camera overhead. The arrangement was a huge undertaking and the catadores whose portraits were being made came in to help, making these self-portraits to a degree (all proceeds went to the catadores' community as well as film award money from the film). And in this one simple magical act, lives were changed - changed forever and ever.


Spending time in an artist's studio, feeling the joy of creation, finding meaning in life was both beautiful and tragic for the participating catadores. "I don't want to go back," says one with tears in her eyes. Having tasted sour milk all your life, one more sip doesn't matter. But once having tasted sweet milk it makes going back to the sour brew twice as bitter. They'd had a taste of life and like anyone wanted more. They work among trash but they no longer considered themselves trash.

One woman explained she'd been hiding her landfill work for years from her family. After working with Vik on her portrait she told them all the truth. "The shame was gone." Taio, the shy leader of his self-made catadore's co-op, was nearly in tears at the beginning of the (three year) film telling how he'd struggled against constant naysayers telling him that organizing the catadores was a waste of time and nothing would change. "But I refused to listen and instead believed in myself," he explained with his head not looking directly at the camera.

A huge story in this film is the blossoming of Taio. An avid book reader of tomes he finds in the trash, he was sparked by a bathtub he found to recreate David's famous "The Death Of Marat", which I thought was both brilliant and hilarious. But the question hanging over everyone in this new found euphoria was how much life should be shared to the catadores, how much "mind fucking" was prudent by Vik and his producers? In this is a very real danger.


It's an old trick by the-powers-that-be that when someone protests against you, give the leader a taste of the apple. Longer you live the good life the harder it is to go back. Then with a simple threat of yanking that apple back you can get that bribed soul to do pretty much anything you want, a lifestyle addiction so to speak. Though completely inadvertent and unplanned, Vik was in danger of making life impossible to continue as is for the catadores involved with him.

The seven portraits once finished were scheduled to be auctioned in London. Vik decided there was no turning back and brought Taio along to witness the auction firsthand. His Marat imitation sold for $50,000. Afterwards, backstage, he was bawling helplessly, dreams beyond his wildest imagination having come true (be prepared to cry watching this). The transformative effect on the others was equally beautiful.

Their human dignity they could no longer hide. When the prints were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art each the of the participants was on hand shining like the sun as they were interviewed by the press. Later, you could see the light in their eyes telling of the changes in their lives, no longer settling for things they did not want. Taio, now wholly self-confident with interviews lined up one after the other, spoke of his new fear of needing to "keep my ego in check."





So, can art make a difference and change lives? You're goddam right it can! With the hundreds of thousands raised, a truck, a library, a learning center and other capital needs were met. But more importantly was a community finding itself and gaining self-respect. From a simple idea and a seemingly naive question sprouted a volcano of change no one ever imagined. There's certainly something to be learned here.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Piano In The Sky With Diamonds

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Trees3 The sublimely serene Kimbell before construction started.

It's been four years in the making. When one is altering a masterpiece like Louis I. Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, one treads both lightly and heavily: lightly when touching the harmony of the existing building ("Better to build three or four masterpieces than three or four hundred buildings," said legendary architect I.M. Pei of his peer Kahn) and heavily in the gravitas required when creating the new dynamic.

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I was stunned in the mid nineties when I visited the Kimbell and was forced to walk through the administration hallways to view its permanent collection. But, oh, what a collection! So I was not surprised when I saw a proposal for expanding the building - which was swiftly shot down from around the art world. No touching of Kahn's original vision was to be allowed.

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Several years later came a new proposal. A new, original design as a complement, to create a dialogue between old and new. Thus was born the Piano Pavilion, 65 yards west of the Kahn building. Named for its architect Renzo Piano, it's a lighter, more breezy and translucent affair than the seemingly bottomless wells of depth of Kahn's design. Like a film sequel, Piano seemed to realize his work would rest on the Kimbell's already laid foundation and that without said foundation would lose much of its meaning.



These photos are from 2011:

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Although much of what was built was underground - including a new parking garage - it is the sky I see emphasized in the Pavilion's profile. It's entrance faces the Kimbell's entrance while the rear part of the building is integrated into sloping hills with cutouts peeking out both north and south. Most won't make this connection but it reminds me of the dugout homes of the pioneers built on the flat plains of the Texas panhandle. It was a somewhat cloudy day when I came to visit and that seemed to suit the Pavilion just fine.

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The inside carries the same theme of using natural light to display artwork as the Kimbell. A few technological innovations have been added, though, to give more control over how the light is let in.

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Through the passageway and down the stairs is a stunning theater for which I will find the flimsiest of an excuse to experience firsthand. One senses the quality of design in every aspect and that the cursory glance I took barely scratches the surface.

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But I also wanted to see her at night, wondering how she might blossom without the lovely blue sky.

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And blossom she did. The Kimbell/Piano dialogue becomes a playground at night. Again, my cursory visit seemed much too short and I felt like spending night after night here as if I were in one of the Kimbell's own paintings. I plan to explore this new harmonic and savor the new dynamic here in the exploding museum district of Fort Worth, one of the most vibrant spots in the metroplex if not the state.

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Click here to view the entire photo set

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Revelation: A Samurai's Tale


My name is Mitsubishi Jiro*. I doubt anyone will ever find my name in many history books of this great warring era of the late 1500's. Though my family are famous merchants in the Settsu province along the trading seaport, I left them when I achieved manhood. I do not have a head for figures, or planning, or any desire for the counting of coins day after day. They sent me to be educated but I failed. I was the black sheep of the family, an outcast who brought shame.

I don't know the words to tell you what a burden that was. I would have died to be different and not be a black stain on our family name. I prayed at night for the gods to make me smarter and not be this heavy load to my parents. Instead, I only sunk deeper and I knew I must run away to serve my family best. This broke my heart and I wondered deeply at the cruelty of life. I only wished to serve but my dearest request was denied.

I remember that day I first started out on the road north. I felt vaguely guilty for it but when I looked up at the clouds and the sky I thought to myself, "These are my true friends." They welcomed me and I rejoiced wondering why I had never noticed them before. I was so inspired I wrote my first  - and last - poem:

Dreaming clouds drift by
Mountain roads climbing the sky;
Days that never die.


Even I don't know what it means but I liked it seeing the hope rising inside me. I had only a whisper of a plan having heard of a famed warlord named Oda. He struck me as being "the one", the man of greatest understanding in the land. I had only my instincts to go on but something on that day told me I was at long last on the right path. All the leaves and grasses were full of gentle promise!

The Owari province was not far by land but was a world away from the merchant's life I had known. I felt their sense of purpose; these men walked in a different stride. Even the villagers had an extra spark, telling me with wide eyes how they'd helped fool the enemy at their Lord's command as part of his greatest victory. I'd heard bits and pieces of the story before but now I knew it was true. This man Oda had defeated an army ten times his own using his brains and his guts. If I could serve him I'd finally be of some worth.

But would a clan such as this accept a black sheep like me? I was terrified. I was more than terrified. If I'd had anything at all waiting for me back in Settsu I would have run back and accepted my lowly status for life, properly shamed for thinking too much of myself. But even with my defective brain I knew to have life I must risk death. And besides, this new exciting feeling I had begged me to stay - and to dream like the clouds.


My family taught me the only trick I knew. I offered gold coins to become samurai. At first they laughed. But something came over me and I barked back at them not to mock my dream. Finally, they accepted me like a brother and I was placed under the Oda general Shibata Katsuie. Since I had money I was able to outfit myself in the best of armor but when I heard the muttered remark I was not worthy of such fine armor I knew it was true.

I begged for training and maybe because I was so eager everyone jumped to teach me. I had heard of other war clans where the samurai were tricksters and not of the same mind. In Oda's camp everyone thought the same, wanted the same and worked for the same: victory and total rule over Japan. What lofty ambition! And it was during this training I finally found myself, changing me forever. My gift was with the bow and arrow.

I have what they call "the eye and touch". It was like starting out on the road from Settsu all over again, the further I traveled the better I felt. I was winning archery competitions and soon competed against the best of the Oda archers. My great rival was Tekishi and we dueled many times but always in good spirit. I did not mind losing to him but still I worked all the harder to be the best!

I remember thinking: what a hell my life would have been had I turned back! Life was not so cruel after all, but drives you to the place where you should be.


As an archer, Tekishi was also under general Shibata who led all us arrow men. Tekishi told me Shibata had at one time rebelled against our lord Oda, siding with Oda's brother. But our lord did not have him killed he was so impressed with Shibata's loyalty and bravery. Oda, said Tekishi, valued men who could prove themselves. If you would fight for him, he will fight for you. This was my first taste of ambition and I wondered if I would measure up.

I was dying to meet our lord but I must admit I was fearful too. I remembered my initial fears leaving Settsu and yet how well that turned out, and tried to tell myself this too would turn out well. But was my lucky streak coming to an end? I had been granted great fortune so far. How much can a man expect? Was hard to believe I had fully shed my black sheep label. To tell the truth, I knew I had not. Ultimate misfortune may still come my way.

As a reward for my prowess, I was granted guard duty to a high council meeting, our great lord there with all the highest generals. A fire raged in the middle just as their words did. I could not hear specifics but I could their tone - and I could tell when lord Oda spoke. His voice was not so desperate. Sometimes it was mocking and it brought back all the worst fears of the mocking teachers of my boyhood. Bakana! I have asked too much. Everyone knew lord Oda tolerated no fools. Only a matter of time before I was exposed.

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I felt like a thousand ants were crawling over my body. I had to leave at all costs. I needed to find an easier clan, one not so ambitious and expecting of its men. My heart raced like never before, as if I was trapped by an army of scolding schoolteachers. I even had sweat dripping into my eyes in the cool autumn evening. It was then I learned that risking life was infinitely harder than risking death. My only hope was that this lesson would remain a private one as I planned my escape.

But my secret desire betrayed me to the universe. As if out of the same dream that started with the clouds, who pulled back the compound's cloth to face me but the intense eyes of Oda Nobunaga, the greatest warlord in the land.

"I do not recognize you. Who posted you here?"

"Maeda Toshiie," I gulped.

Blessed be the gods but that name satisfied him as he observed me with a face revealing nothing of his thoughts or desires. I had never before - or again - felt so naked. But I realized that's what I wanted: total freedom and to be totally known by the mind I respected most. It was like jumping off a cliff but not falling, pure ecstasy that defies all logic. Then I heard his single word: "Come"

I did not reproach myself as I entered the inner council of these great men. Seeing their faces reflected in the fire one could see notable and wise character etched into their features. I certainly was not - and could never be - one of them but I had our lord's blessing to enter and that felt to me as cause enough to hold up my head. Yes, I wanted this - I wanted this test of fire. So what if I may burn into the night!

I knew I could not lie to that face.

"What is your name?"

"Mitsubishi Jiro Of Settsu, my lord!" A couple of generals smiled at my uncontainable enthusiasm.

"Mitsubishi Jiro Of Settsu, we are in a deadlock. I see by your quiver you are in Katsuie's division. I must join an ally to fight a battle that leaves Chokoji castle vulnerable. If it were to fall it would create an abscess in my domain, delaying my plans by years. Katsuie-san says he can hold this castle even against greater numbers he will face. I need to know: is this true."

No one was laughing or smiling as I looked around. My mind was in a state of unbelievability. Maybe this was a dream within a dream. Whatever I said, I could see this men would truly listen. These same men I knew to be the center of our country's destiny, the center of my universe. For better or worse, time had come to come clean. No more hope of hiding.

"I have no brain for strategy, my lord! My knowledge is in my arrow. Please forgive me!"

I waited for death but death did not come. My lord broke into a wide smile and started to laugh. The generals too joined in the laughter. But I did not feel I was being laughed at. In my hour of revelation I was saved, never the black sheep again! I felt a thousand boulders lifting from my shoulders.

"Did you hear that? We can all learn from an honest man. My mind is made up. Katsuie, you shall defend Chokoji castle and woe be to the fools who lay siege!"


My lord and the generals were all very happy. I was happy too! Never had I felt so free! My ideas of life and death reversed. I want to keep exploring this path! What had I stumbled onto? Was I to somehow to play a role among the wisest men in the nation? I was standing on the mountaintop and I could see forever. I had to say something before I burst.

"My lord, we will not fail! We will not fail you ever!"

It must have sounded like a child's promise but I could not hold back my heart. Then I heard my worst fear: that same chastising voice of the teachers who hated me so for not learning my books. Like an arrow I could not escape it landed directly in my heart, draining my lifeblood and leaving my carcass to be devoured by dogs. Ah well, at least I had known triumph for a moment before death.

"You fool!" snarled a general's voice. "Don't you know our lord is mocking you?"

But like a man raised out of quicksand, I heard my lord retort in great anger.

"[Akechi] Mitsuhide, you fool! I never mock an honest man. Honesty is the highest form of intelligence."

In my soul, on my honor and on my life, I swore from that moment on I would serve my lord with every fiber of my being without hesitation or regret. I had been reborn, my dedication complete. Never had such words been spoken of me. I never even dreamed them possible. I'd found my true home and family among the Oda. That night in my tent I shed moonlight tears, caring not any who saw. I knew my way onward now.


CODA: There are many more tales of the adventures I had with lord Oda as part of his personal guard. The same honesty he brought out in me he brought out in all his troops. With that edge we felt no one could defeat us and believing that made us what we were. I cannot imagine a better time to be alive, the dreaming clouds following me wherever I went. Till the very end I remained with my lord Oda, just I had wished - and vowed.

But the name Akechi Mitsuhide would rear its ugly head once more to live in forever infamy. I hated that man from that night forward and if I had killed him on the spot as I had wished, the course of history would have changed for the better - much, much better.

[*Japanese names are listed with the surname first. Many merchant families later incorporated to become the Japanese companies we know today, including the Mitsubishi family.]


Monday, February 10, 2014

Eating Out (No More)


Don't come here expecting good news. There's never any good news. Sometimes in the yin and yang there may be an occasional uptick but the overall direction is still down. Life, is just shit. When fear strikes you and in sheer desperation you start buying into the fallacy of a "fair deal" and that somehow hard work will pay off and the gods will have mercy on you, karmic retribution knocks you right on your ass for even thinking of social justice.

See above video of the humiliating ass kicking I got from a passing snow plow as I lumber my way to work in all my freezing misery. And these were my exact thoughts at the time as God unleashed Her fury upon me. Again, it's the yin/yang thing. In my yin phase, I'm suffering myself to be "mainstreamed" (maim-streamed) by working a crap job for a while until the living death of it drives me out. Sooner or later I always buy into false hope, praying this this time the job god won't be so cruel. It was that flickering illusion of hope that caused me to get literally knocked on my ass.

The surveillance camera got me thinking of another downward (frown-ward) trend: my petty theft days are gone now. I won't say I'm proud of them but I won't feel guilty either. Judge me as you please (and at your peril). Homeless people learn a territory like an Indian would his land. It's just part of survival and I found four restaurants (two close together, other two far apart) where I could pilfer a fine meal. One has to be discreet and not greedy but time spent in backdoor alleys can pay off if one is observant.


Don't forget the parsley.

I guess the drive for "normalization" is so strong one strives for it even in the most absurd and hopeless of conditions. Normal people eat out at nice places - I want to too! But I can't come in the front door and do it in open daylight, having to settle for sneaking my meals on the sly. That way I can still pretend I'm leading a normal life even if all around me is in ruins. Life is no better when you admit its shittiness, so why not have a little faux dignity?

A prisoner may sulk or cheer but the iron bars remain the same.

One restaurant was really old and burned down. Its replacement is impossible to breach. Two others went camera crazy (Did they notice my steady dribble? Is there a wanted poster of me somewhere?) The last one changed hands and, frankly, picky eater that I am there's really nothing on their menu I want anymore (at least not at the associated risk). So no more crumbs for Harry, no more vicarious living, just memories of meals had (and many more missed).

I guess it's better to have the illusion gone, to face up to the bottomless bleakness and harbor no fa├žade of normalcy thinking I'm on a path of life. The impulse is still there, though, much to my eternal shame. I've wondered what it would be like to eat at one of those places legitimately. Would I be able to look the waiter in the eye? Would I fear a "That's him!" cry coming from the kitchen at any moment? What if I were invited to go, could I say yes and how would I explain I'd rather not? How ridiculous can one man's life get?


Saturday, February 08, 2014

You Gotta Have Hope!


"Lucky" Louie isn't really lucky. In fact, he's unlucky by most measures. In other words, if you find someone called "Lucky" at a shelter, you can rest assured he was tagged with that moniker by some sarcastic asshole (*cough*). Lottery tickets are the fools' gold of the hopeless. It's completely unbearable to the human mind to be buried alive so no matter how ridiculous, a rationale for hope must be found.

"Ah, I see you're a director. Jimmy our busboy is a director!" When the Kevin Bacon character in the satire "The Big Picture" is down on his luck and is forced to apply for a waiter's job, that quote is the owner's reaction after reading his application. It's a David Copperfield-in-the-factory nightmare that is endured by most lost souls. And, yes, Lucky Louie also yearns to be a director, a dream as far away as the ends of the universe (and I say that with the best of motives).

Most people want to reduce life to a science with nice convenient answers (which just goes to show anything can be turned into a religion). But a career in the arts is not the same as some slide rule engineering job. So with the double whammy of being an emotional cripple as well as not having the practice or technical skills to be a director, Louie is pretty much toast. To keep his mind from collapsing in on him he harbors lottery tickets - lottery tickets which he never checks!

"Don't look and you'll never see bad news!"

Louie certainly isn't alone in his lottery lust but he's taken it to a whole new level. Bitterly stung by continually losing he stopped checking to see if he had won or not - that way he still had hope through willful ignorance. Once he got the money he'd be free of doing "the labors of others" and be able to pursue his lost dreams. Of course, that overlooks his own internal obstacles he must overcome but with this hopeless fantasy lie Louie's in no danger of ever having to face or admit those inadequacies. He gets to keep his treasured role as hapless victim alive while still proclaiming to fight for his dreams.

I don't know why God had to throw the world to the devil. Life certainly is hard enough all by itself.

I bring this up because when you live in a world of pain one cannot long suppress one's true desires. And sure enough one of the usual suspects raided Louie's lottery stash and found that, yes, all 26 of them were losers (outside of one two dollar prize). As expected, Louie exploded at this news, angrily slinging accusations of sabotage and betrayal. But like I said, when there's so much pain around, the idea of popping someone's bubble is just too hard to resist. Welcome back to the world, Louie.

Of course, the real saboteurs and betrayers are the shameless cheerleaders of hope dope, giving sanction to addiction and a fierce attack on anyone who dare speak truth. "You can do it, Louie. Keep buying those tickets. Believe in yourself! You can buy the stairway to heaven." What fiendish devils they are, slyly slipping in their knives and daggers with a public smile and a private scowl. Assassins are everywhere, urging you on to your own personal Jonestown massacre while giving you their full and fanatical "support".


Then I heard a remark on TV about how politicians are in the business of peddling hope and I started connecting it all together. I found that terrifying assessment to be spot on. No matter how false or farfetched, hope dope is sold on a daily basis, Kool-Aid drinking by the gallon. I see purple Kool-Aid drinkers chastise green Kool-Aid drinkers who chastise yellow Kool-Aid drinkers. We all have our own piece of truth - and our own blind spots, the birthplace of all religions.

So what is your poison? Is your false hope in President Jesus? Or the false hope the right one will change us from being greedy? Or the false hope a greedy people have a future? Or the false of hope of not communicating with your mate? Or the false hope of you're just one scam away from hitting it big? Ah, the things we do for love! One thing is for certain, whatever lie it is you tell yourself - known or unknown - it will be used against you, ten times out of ten.