Agnes Denes: Sculptures of the Mind, 1976

I discovered Agnes Denes yesterday when images of her 2 acre wheat farm in Lower Manhattan circa 1982 were making the rounds as part of the remembrances of 9/11.

Sculptures of the Mind was published for an exhibition of works by Denes at University of Akron in October 1976 in an edition of 1,000 unsigned and 250 signed copies.

Parts of her artist statement are chilling to read 40+ years later, like “unless human values are reassessed, the quality of life (even life itself) is in danger (population growth, diminishing human resources, environmental crises, dehumanization, mind control and the use of fear)”

Other parts spoke more directly to things I’m interested in:

  • “my basic interests can be defined as time, truth and communication”
  • “my art is a process using contradictions, opposing forces and paradoxes inherent in our existence”


Whale Nation

Heathcote Williams’ poem celebrating whales was one of the sources of text in John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) but I didn’t hold that against the poem. (Most of the texts referenced in Akomfrah’s video installation—e.g. Moby-Dick, To The Lighthouse—seemed a sort of lip service that was supposed to grant the work intellectual rigor by association.)

This 1988 poem is presented swimming in a pod of photos of whales and dolphins, then jammed up against a dusty compendium of notes and amendments about whales—of course from Moby-Dick, from which it gets this idea of Extracts, but also from Fichtelius and Sjolander’s 1973 Intelligence in Whales, Dolphins, and Humans (most often referenced it seems), Montaigne, Pliny the Elder, etc. Aristotle’s quote: “The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants.” (trans D’Arcy Thomson 1910).

The poem was informed by the facts presented in the end section, which by themselves are impressive. Apparently whales can call to each other over the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean by emitting sound at a depth where two sound-reflecting layers are close to each other. The photos are not terrific, and fair warning there are several beastly ones of captured and flayed bodies.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

Amazing book by Tamara Shopsin, daughter of the legendary NYC chef/philosopher Kenny Shopsin who died a few weeks ago. I watched the 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies to understand more about this lovable eccentric but I think Tamara’s book adds all sorts of melty layers to his essence. It’s almost a love letter to her dad and his utterly unique friend Willy. Stories about Willy seem almost too good to be true, but I believe them. Like how in the 1960s he was looking up World Wide Photo (a photo-assignment agency) in the phone book but mistakenly swapped Wide World instead of World Wide. Then he bought that mistaken name in the phone book, put his number there, and would field erroneous calls for the real agency, buying images from the real one and selling them at a higher price to the rubes who dialed him instead.

Kenny originally had a store instead of a restaurant, open between 7am and 8pm, but he gave sets of keys to his regular customers so they could help themselves 24 hours a day, just writing down what they took. “The city may have been more dangerous, but it was a less hostile place. Everyone knew each other. The rent stabilization laws were hard for landlords to beat, so people weren’t forced to move out. They lived on the block forever. And that forever built a neighborhood.”

Vivid and heartbreaking descriptions of a New York that is fast disintegrating if not already gone.

Bonus: discovering the Donnell Library’s basement with the NYPL Reserve Film and Video Collection, a curated archive of “educational, avant-garde, political, industrial, out-of-print, rare, foreign, local, and historic films.” It shut down in 2008 when the NYPL sold the building, but the film collection lives on in the Library for the Performing Arts.

Red Clocks

It’s been a long time since I’ve opened a book and devoured it one sitting, cancelling all other plans for the evening. Leni Zumas (another LZ!) knocked my wool socks off with this well written and closely woven tale of various women in a rainy Oregon coastal town. Each has a distinct voice pointing out her own perspective: the high school teacher who’s writing a biography of a female polar explorer who had to publish her (the explorer’s) work under a colleague’s name in the 1870s—this biographer is also seeking fertility drugs and making a last desperate grab at becoming a single mother since the window for non-marrieds to adopt children is closing; the witch Gin Percival, who helps various women shed their pregnancies now that abortion is also illegal; Gin’s daughter Mattie who was given up for adoption and who now comes seeking Gin’s help with her own unplanned pregnancy (the biographer Ro takes her to a place in Portland after Mattie gets turned back at the Canadian border); and Susan, the wife of a high school French teacher who wants out of her marriage and who has two kids to look after. Of her kids, “they are yipping and pipping… they are rolling and polling and slapping and papping, rompling with little fists and heels on the bald carpet.” From this book I also learned that supermarket bread is made with human hair dissolved in acid as part of a dough conditioner for industrial processing. Yum!

Terrific writing, pacing, storytelling, characters.

On Reading Ruskin (Prefaces to La Bible D’Amiens and Sesame et les Lys)

Proust was influenced by Ruskin early in his writing career, as seen in these prefaces to the two translations Proust did of Ruskin’s work, La Bible d’Amiens in 1900 and Sésame et les Lys in 1906, including the long prefaces and extended notes that are included in this. My favorite, of course, is his preface to Sesame and Lilies, On Reading. This is the essay in which he called the moments of unity between reader and writer “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.”

Books “are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished….” Proust loosely quotes Descartes in that “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated men of past centuries who have been their authors.” Fetishistic respect for books is dangerous, maybe even unhealthy, and the “taste for books grows with intelligence.” He points out Schopenhauer as an example of a mind “whose vitality bears lightly the most enormous reading, each new idea being immediately reduced to its share of reality, to the living portion it contains.”

“No doubt friendship, friendship for individuals, is a frivolous thing, and reading is a friendship. But at least it is a sincere friendship, and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving… In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its first purity. With books, no amiability. These friends, if we spend an evening with them, it is truly because we desire them. In their case, at least, we often leave only with regret.”

So why do writers most often seek the classics for mental solace? Proust thinks it’s “doubtless because contemporary thought, which original writers and artists make accessible and desirable to the public, is to a certain extent so much a part of themselves that a different type of thought entertains them more. It requires, in order form them to proceed to it, more effort, and also gives them more pleasure; we always like to escape a bit from ourselves, to travel, when reading.”

Translated and edited by Jean Autret, William Burford, Phillip J. Wolfe

A Rap on Race

On August 25, 1970, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead met for the first time and spent about an hour getting to know each other. The next night they discussed race and society, the conversation flowing over into the next morning and evening, lasting over seven hours in total. The transcript of that taped conversation is this book, and it is marvelous.

Towards the end Baldwin careens more and more off the rails, with Mead asking him to “Wait a minute” and not agreeing to take on the sins of her ancestors. They also differ significantly on the Israel question (Mead for, Baldwin against). Mead tries to bring up Women’s Lib several times but Baldwin doesn’t seem to want to stick to that line of thought, instead focusing on race and whether history is present or past. Mead brings up going to the Cosmos Club with Ralph Bunche but there were parts he couldn’t get into and parts she couldn’t, but both exclusions were based on prejudice.

Baldwin points out that no one takes responsibility in society, using Germany as an example. He’d get into fights there after saying to them “You mean to tell me that six million Jews were murdered while the entire nation was out to lunch?”

It’s no use predicting what will happen in the future, “it’s what we do this week that matters… Right now, this minute,” said Mead. But it’s eye-opening to read their sentiments on the fright of conservatives, Mead: “They are terribly easy to frighten, and their fear is frightening. Though all fear is frightening, and certainly all groups that are frightened are frightening.” Baldwin: “Because it may be that their fear will precipitate the kind of social chaos which no society can really survive. This fear can result in a kind of convulsion of apathy.” Mead counters that it’s not apathy but rather that people just don’t know what to do about anything. “There is an enormous sense of frustration, and people feel so strongly in this country that you ought to be able to fix at once anything that goes wrong…. Everybody in the country is in a state of frustration about something. I think irritation rather than apathy is much more important here now. Everybody is irritated. Their skin is sort of scratchy.”

Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler

This is a collection of bits from Oursler’s archive of magic and occult. His huge personal archive contains objects about  paranormal, ghosts, pseudoscience, and technology. Oursler (born 1957) is a NYC-based artist and he uses these objects as a visual resource and inspiration. His grandfather figures significantly in the collection; Charles Fulton Oursler was an   author and publisher in addition to being a magician and pals with Harry Houdini. Grandfather Oursler was instrumental in helping to debunk the myth of spiritualism, including interactions with Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in the paranormal. The book features a dazzling array of objects from grandson Oursler’s collection: letters, objects, photos, rare books, etc.

Beside ghosts and UFOs, there’s info on cults and demons and Ouija boards and the moon landing and nudists. Amazing collection and a few good essays at the end by art historians who try to make sense of it all.

Solitude: A Return to the Self

Much good in this 1988 book by psychiatrist Anthony Storr, but slightly marred by some unscientific leaps. But for someone who prefers to spend time alone, this is a goldmine of quotes about solitude if nothing else— some of my favorites are at the end of this post.

Storr’s argument is that society currently places way too much emphasis on having several close personal relationships as the key to happiness, completely disregarding the joy and fulfillment people get from their own work/art. Many of the world’s greatest thinkers didn’t raise families or have close personal ties (e.g. Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein). Overlooking the fact that his focus was entirely on white males, I appreciated the callout that none married and most lived alone for most of their lives. Storr works in several quotes from writers who left us evidence of their happy thinking, like Gibbon’s rejoicing in escaping marriage, thankful to still be “in possession of [his] natural freedom.”

Storr explains something that I’ve been unable to understand about my own life, how happy my superficial relationships make me with various people I see each week, like doormen, librarians, etc. “In the course of daily life, we habitually encounter many people with whom we are not intimate, but who nevertheless contribute to our sense of self. Neighbours, postmen, bank clerks, shop assistants, and many others may all be familiar figures with whom we daily exchange friendly greetings, but are generally persons about whose lives we know very little.” From these people we get “mutual recognition, acknowledgement of each other’s existence, and thus some affirmation, however slight, that each reciprocally contributes something to life’s pattern.” And even more comforting: “many people can and do lead equable and satisfying lives by basing them upon a mixture of work and more superficial relationships.”

Being alone encourages your imagination, but “the price of flexibility, of being released from the tyranny of rigid, inbuilt patterns of behaviour, is that ‘happiness’, in the sense of perfect adaptation to the environment or complete fulfilment of needs, is only briefly experienced.” This achievement of joy is fleeting, and Storr has a previous book where he suggests that dissatisfaction with life, or ‘divine discontent’, is an inescapable part of the human condition.

Some people’s dispositions are more suited to finding the meaning of their life in “interests, beliefs, or patterns of thought” instead of interpersonal relationships.

A few quotes about solitude:

  • “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist.” – Edward Gibbon; History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 5.
  • “No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude.” – De Quincey, from his collected writings
  • “When from our better selves we have too long / Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, / Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, / How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.” – Wordsworth, from The Prelude