Joseph Cornell

It’s hard to know where to begin, reviewing this Joseph Cornell exhibition. There are so many themes, ideas, and fascinating paradoxes running through his work. Cornell’s objects and assemblages – recalling sixteenth-century Wunderkammer (Cabinets of Curiosity) – are endlessly surprising, curious and intriguing.

Initially there’s that flea market feeling; what you experience among antiques and bric-a-brac, the gazing over ephemera. But soon you start to glimpse the depth and grasp of Cornell’s art.

In Cornell’s world we traverse eras, from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Italy to New York City in the 20th century. We see moonscapes and spectral nights. We marvel over exotic birds and ballerinas. We are captivated by the imagination, and the imagination is captured, and framed, in cases and cabinets.

Cornell is the archetype of an urban solitary, a flaneur of the 20th century. Despite his poor upbringing, living most of his life with his mother and disabled brother in a clapboard house in Flushing, Queens, he was able to satisfy his immense curiosity by visiting the public library, museums, bookstores and junk shops – places that could be visited by anyone. In these places he escaped. Then later he would return, to the kitchen of his house, to ply together his poetic fantasies, his visions of wonder.

And what visions they are. Early on in the exhibition we get a measure of Cornell’s early surrealist aesthetic, his perfectionism, and the attention to minutae. In Soap Bubble Set (1941), we see a box with a black background. There is a pipe, with wooden stem and ceramic white chamber blowing “bubbles” – a cluster of glass discs – within which are x-ray images of white shells. It is intricate, startling and suggestive, evoking transience; momentary and deep time framed together.

JC PharmacyLater we see Pharmacy (1943), a glass cabinet that resembles other works from the exhibition in sharing the same grid form. Cornell’s piece was referenced by Damien Hirst in his enormous Pharmacy installation produced fifty years later. Hirst used his piece to question belief in science over art. But whereas Hirst’s installation is clinical, presenting lots of clean shelves of medicine packets, Cornell’s little case contains misty glass bottles, which enclose crêpe and tissue cuttings, translucent crystals, a paper butterfly wing, golden paint, copper and sulphate. Unlike Hirst’s piece, which speaks blandly to a single abstract idea, there’s an intrinsic appeal, a tangible and personal quality to Cornell’s work.

Cornell reveled in the idea of discovery and travel. Works contain old 19th century maps and cut up pages of Baedeker, the Victorians’ guide book of choice. Cornell stunned Marcel Duchamp with his knowledge of Paris’ streets, despite never having visited the city. His box Naples (1942) uses a sepia photograph of a Neapolitan street as its backdrop with a local wine glass, shell and tag labeled ‘Naples’ dangling suggestively within the glass.

Cornell’s Habitat Group for a Shooting Gallery (1943) reveals the artist’s passion for parrots.JC Shooting Gallery There’s a taxonomic aspect to
this box, as the colourful birds are numbered.  Yet the birds and the bare backdrop are splodged with paint drops. These were designed to represent bullets and blood. Deeply troubled by the war, the piece suggests how our Enlightenment ideals of discovery and learning were messed up by the idiocy of war.

JC Towards BlueTowards the end of the show we see his memorial box for Emily Dickinson, Toward the Blue Peninsula (1953). It was inspired by the Amhurst bedroom where the American wrote her poetry. Cornell’s box is all white, partly caged, with a window looking onto a blue sky. It’s a sympathetic metaphor for Dickinson’s life. Both Dickinson and Cornell were introverted artists who travelled little. Both, however, were fervent believers in the world outside.

One of the last pieces that struck me was Hölderlin Object (1944-46) in which a small wooden box encases a book set beneath a sheet of blue glass. The book is wrapped in what appears as cobalt blue velvet, tied up with a lighter blue string. Embedded in the box’s lid is a large blue oak leaf, a traditional symbol of power, majesty and the German nation. It is a symbolic homage to the great German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. The blue glass brings a mysterious otherworldly quality to the work, a sense of what Hölderlin would have called Sehnsucht, or longing.

Throughout Cornell’s work we sense nostalgia, “the light of other days”, as he called it. As the world war raged and a standardizing Fordism exploded across America, Cornell yearned for elsewhere – for the dancer Tamara Toumanova, for the grace of historical figures, for flights unto the stars, for moonlit nights. His art was escapist, child-like, humble. Out of the great tragedies of the last century, he created a world that saw wondrous beauty in small things, and for that he was essentially optimistic.

The Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy, “Wanderlust”, ran from 4 July – 27 September 2015.

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Womad

As someone who lives in Rome, where the sun shines most days and people usually wear clothes that look fine, and they eat good food with wines that complement each other, I had moments at Womad music festival where I thought to myself ‘If your average Italian was to find themselves here, they really would think the English are an eccentric bunch!’

On a blustery Saturday afternoon, in the “World of Well-Being” area, I saw a sixty-something year-old grey-haired woman wearing a hemp, rainbow-coloured elves hat. She was walking past a Tibetan yurt, which was installed next to another tent which contained devices that seemed to stretch people, by hanging them from their feet. This was supposed to be relaxing.

On a freezing Sunday morning, after three hours of continuous rain, I saw a woman in her thirties, trudging barefoot, ankle-deep, in a huge pool of muddy water. This pond had emerged next to a large L-shaped line of green portaloos. She was navigating through, holding her Birkenstocks in one hand. Her face was disgusted, contorted against the diagonal drizzle. She looked utterly miserable. What on earth are they thinking, the Italian might ask?

My answer would be the music. WOMAD has always had among the most talented musicians, producers and singers on earth coming its way.  This year was no exception. Hip-hop legends De La Soul had crowds nodding to their funky beats. South Sudanese duo Acholi Machon made gentle political statements at the wooded Ecotricity stage. Tiken Jah Fakoly performed with his usual gusto and guts – singing about the injustice of a world where Africans cannot enter European countries but Europeans can travel and live anywhere they want in Africa. The Music of William Onyeabor, the headline act, had everyone dancing and smiling to their electronic soul and disco vibes.

Rain or shine, WOMAD is consistently the most diverse music festival in Britain. Everything else – the mung bean soups and shiatsu healing centres –  is secondary.

Womad music festival takes place every July in Charlton Park, Malmesbury.

Baroque in Rome

Review of the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla

As someone who has lived in Rome on and off over the past seven years, I found this exhibition on the Baroque in Rome particularly enjoyable. It helped me gain a greater understanding of this city whose history is so woven into the surfaces of its streets and squares, the facades of its buildings and their interiors.

The sculpture, paintings and architecture of the 17th century form some of Rome’s most characteristic sights. The Piazza Navona, for example, was transformed during this time. The Palazzo Pamphilj, the Church of Sant’Agnese and the Fountain of the Four Rivers, comprising the piazza’s most dramatic architecture, were all either completely re-designed or constructed at the height of the Baroque period. All are found within the same photo taken by millions of tourists each year.

My reference to photography is deliberate. These tourists are unwittingly perpetuating a practice that was heavily pursued through works of Reni, da Cortona, Rubens and Bernini: the dramatic potential of capturing the moment. This was one of the key ideas of the Baroque movement.

File:Guido Reni - Atalanta and Hippomenes - WGA19271.jpg

The drama of the moment is paramount throughout the exhibition at the Palazzo Cipolla. In the first room we stand before energetic scenes such as Guido Reni’s Atlanta and Hippomenes, floundering mid-race, yet frozen in time. Reni depicts the image with extraordinary grace: the protagonists’ skin and shadows are softly rendered yet prominent against the dark backdrop. Through the angles of their limbs, the artist cleverly carries the viewer’s eye in an arc across the canvas.

But above all we see biblical stories reflected dramatically through the Baroque art on display. Da Cortona’s Angels Scaling the Foreheads of the Children of Israel, for example, is viewed from the surface of the sea, at night, a confused sight of angels flying above the boats that contain the children of Israel, marking crosses upon the desperate passengers’ foreheads. The painting represents a vision of the Apocalypse, with the division of risen souls on the Day of Judgment. The chaotic scene is illuminated by a glowing crucifix held aloft by an angel.

Another sensational moment is captured by the Bolognese sculptor Alessandro Algardi with his bronze statuette, Saint Michael Overcoming the Devil. Saint Michael, sporting feathered wings, stands over the Devil. His right arm is raised. His left holds a chain fixed to a manacle that clasps the arm of the devil that is in flames beneath, writhing, mouth and eyes open, frantic.

Baroque artists were encouraged to captivate their audiences. They were expected to capture all the drama of the Christian narrative in order to draw crowds into the churches that fell under the papal domain. Politics demanded it. Luther’s damning theological critique of Catholicism provoked the Council of Trent, which led to the Counter Reformation. Consequently, art had to persuade: it invoked drama, magnificence and the intense spiritual expression of Caravaggio.

Together, this movement created what the art historian Robert Hughes has described as “the last great universal language of spirituality”. This language can be clearly understood at the Palazzo Cipolla exhibition.

Catholic Herald

The Tyranny of Experts

“It is time at last for the debate that never happened to happen. It is time at last for the silence on unequal rights for rich and poor to end. It is time at last for all men and women to be equally free.” Thus ends The Tyranny of Experts, William Easterley’s latest insightful book about international development.

Since the early 20th century, and after World War II, argues Easterley, the architects and managers of international aid – governments and “experts” – have unanimously favoured an apolitical approach to development that attempts to achieve economic growth through centralized, technocratic means.

Through this “blank slate” vision of development these “experts” have neglected the rights of poor people. As a result, they have actually undermined poor people’s prospects for greater material wealth over the long term. Easterley suggests that the racist colonial belief in poor people’s inability to think for themselves is sustained through mainstream development practice today.

The Tyranny of Experts draws heavily on the ideas of 20th century Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. One of Hayek’s most popular books, The Road to Serfdom, challenged the wisdom of top-down central planning. Easterley takes his cue, arguing that development should be achieved via what Hayek described as “spontaneous order” rather than the “conscious design” favoured by Hayek’s contemporary, Gunnar Myrdal, and successive generations of development economists.

Easterley invokes Adam Smith’s notion of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to illustrate how individuals seek opportunities within complex systems when incentives exist. Easterley wants the “experts” to focus more on creating these incentives by pushing for poor people to be granted their political and economic rights. These rights are intrinsically good, he argues, plus they help individuals pursue the market opportunities that will ultimately lead to national growth. He uses the phenomenal success of South Korean car giant, Hyundai, founded by Chung Ju Yung, to make his point.

Unfortunately, the latter half of the book is problematic. Easterley uses too many threads of research simultaneously, including a continuous reference to the history of Greene Street, New York, as a weakly conceived example of how “spontaneous solutions” triumph over central planning.

Though it loses some coherence, The Tyranny of Experts nonetheless compels us to re-examine the purpose and methods of international aid.

Bullfighting

 

bullfight

Ten days ago I watched a ‘bullfight’ in Jerez. We were there during the Feria. At the time, it was hard to process the experience of watching a bull slowly killed by a small group of men on a sandy floor.

The crowd are elegant. They wear suits and ties and elegant floral dresses. Those who sit in the sun have fans. People drink sherry out of small glasses. They applaud when the bull comes lumbering out.

It charges out of the gate. The first thing one notices is how much muscle it possesses. The whole body is rippling; the haunches creased with muscle that wobbles over his back. You notice its size. Most of the them are more compact, lower to the ground, than you’d expect. But they move fast. And stupidly. They have no expression. Dumb, is the word. They look around confused. They reach the edge of the circular ground. A man with a pink cape gets the bull’s attention. It moves towards him with trite gusto.

The ease  with which the man moves away from the bull makes one pity the bull immediately. We’re smiling at our superiority from the start. The picadors emerge. They weaken the bull. The armoured man on the protected horse emerges. He plunges a spear into the bull for ten seconds. He twists the spear in deep. The bull now is severely weakened. No longer does he run with gusto. He’s breathing deeply. His stomach contracts and expands greatly with each deep breath.

The picadors spring balletically towards it and plant decorated pins onto the arch of the bull’s neck. Blood seeps down his neck. The toredor spins the bull around him, to the joy of the crowd. The bull’s stomach is now wrenching fast.

Eventually he plunges a sword deep into a spot on the bull’s neck. I assume it carries through to the bull’s heart. If he misses the spot, the bulls stays alive. When this happens the crowd whistle. They do not approve of this. It is unfair to the bull! It is bad sportsmanship.

To me this ‘show’ of mercy to the bull seems absurd. The animal never had a chance in the first place. There’s no logic to their thinking. Sure, by hitting the spot you assure a less painful, drawn-out death. But you’re wounding the bull throughout its time in the stadium with the initial spearing and the pins.

The toredor eventually kills the bull. The crowd cheers. The bull lies on its side, tongue dangling. Sometimes its feet twitch as it dies. Horses come in with chains to drag the bull away. The trailing body leaves a smooth wide line over the sand as it is dragged towards the pen. Its feet remain taught. The banality of death.

I almost cried at times during the six fights we watched. The killing of animals was of course shocking in itself. But it would be hypocritical to oppose it while I eat meat, slaughtered in factories.

What is disturbing is we are paying to be entertained by the killing of animals. I looked across to examine the faces of the crowd and felt very alone and somewhat afraid. Like how I could feel sometimes on a dance floor when lots of people are on drugs.

And in a sense, what I was watching was the same. A kind of mass hypnosis. A sense that since others are there, participating, it’s ok. And my fears about human weakness came to the fore. Our hypocrisy. Our stupidity. The apparent ease with which we can legitimise something in numbers. Weakness in numbers.

 

 

 

Globalization And Its Discontents

I have just read Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents (2002).

Stiglitz was the Chief Economist at the World Bank and Chairman of President Clinton’s Council for Economic Advisors. He won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2001.

He has formidable expertise and experience and has succeeded in writing a book about economics that is both readable and compelling.

His basic argument runs that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the international economic institution responsible for supporting countries facing economic crisis, was largely responsible for the failure of globalization in the 1990s.

The IMF, states Stiglitz, continuously adopted an out-dated and dogmatic adherence to market fundamentalism – the belief in letting the free market deliver economic stability and growth. Their policy to achieve this, in East Asia and Russia, was incoherent and went against the basic tenets of Keynesian economics.

The IMF’s failed policy prescriptions included fiscal austerity, high interest rates, rapid trade liberalization, liberalizing capital markets and privatization.The IMF’s institutional “fear of default” also comes in for criticism.

I enjoyed this book though I found the focus a little too narrow; it rarely deviates from its specific critique of the IMF. Surely other players should come into consideration if you intend to address the failings of a phenomenon as broad as globalization? Only the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Government and the World Bank, are addressed in this context.

The “behind the scenes” actions of corporations and foreign governments in influencing policy are ignored. Here Stiglitz misses an important trick. I would also have liked to see more analysis of how poor economic decisions directly affected people in these developing countries; the repercussions of, for example, liberalization policies were often enumerated only very vaguely.

Stiglitz undoubtedly succeeds in revealing the impudence and irresponsibility of the IMF’s interventions in developing countries. But I wonder how else it could operate? The “international bureaucrats” to which he so often refers must work according to very tight timelines. Sometimes these seemingly mundane factors help to explain their lack of flexibility or foresight.

But it’s nevertheless shocking to learn how much the IMF is governed by the narrow interests of the Western financial community, whose investments are recouped via the multi-billion dollar cash injections into these developing economies, while their poor lose their jobs and livelihoods and the middle classes foot the tax bill that ensues.

Stuffed and Starved

I have just finished reading Raj Patel’s ‘Stuffed & Starved’ (1st edition, 2008). In this brilliant polemic, he addresses most of the key factors underpinning the world food system.

Patel argues convincingly that the large food corporations are socially pernicious. His range is of research is really impressive. I also liked the tone he uses; he never speaks from a position of authority. He uses vignettes to paint the bigger picture. He lets others talk. And some of his ideas and insights are so illuminating.

Though Patel  seems to steer clear of any major political or structural analysis. Government policies and the role of global governance institutions, outside of the WTO, are barely addressed.  I got the impression that Patel implies that it is these corporations who are responsible for the ‘starved’; that they are leaving populations destitute. I would have liked a clearer argument on food security here. I think the responsibility for food security lies more with the governments within these countries than foreign corporations. But the role of government lies largely outside of Patel’s narrative.

In any case, this is, as Naomi Klein described it, a “dazzling” book and well worth a read.