Friday, February 05, 2016

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado: 'The Salt of the Earth' (2014)

Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014) focuses on the life and lens of Brazilian Sebastião Salgado, a total immersion photographer, including major projects, such as the awe-inspiring Instituto Terra reforestation effort, with Lélia Wanick Salgado. 
To deepen and widen the scope of his (or their) major photography projects, Salgado (and companions, from time to time) has traveled to the Ends of the Earth, the Far Corners of the World, from vast areas with no human habitation to locales filled with refugees of famine and war, or workers laboring as if from the dawn of time in mines (as above), from ancient peoples living half-hidden from modern economic systems, to migrants and nomads on the Edge of Tomorrow. 
The Salt of the Earth delivers a stunning blend of documentary film and photography in both color and black and white. Images range from disturbing atrocities (people dead from starvation or massacre) to mystic beauty, from social panorama to natural vista.
Whereas most photographers tend to focus on either natural or social settings, Sebastião Salgado does both, without privileging one kind over the other: to me, this is an optimal way of looking at the world, with very impressive results.

Today's Rune: Fertility.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Islamic Art: The Past and Modern, Take II

Interior, the Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain, June 2015. Here one will find an abundance of beautiful and intricate design, use of space and natural lighting. All of these photos I took (except for the fifth, taken by a kindly Samaritan) with a Nikon Coolpix L830 using only natural light. 
Partially restored bathhouse complex looking up. Again, cool use of natural lighting. 
Interior arches and passageway, rather mysterious and waiting for a story.
Exterior doorway with bolt lock. The doors are fantastic throughout Spain and Portugal. Many have a Mudéjar flavor with arabesque designs, some in wood, some in metal, others in ceramic. 
An entirely different outside section of the Alhambra complex. Mi madre (aka Mom) on left.
Throughout the complex, water is collected, channeled and pooled in various ingenious ways that reinforce the Alhambra's overall aesthetic design. A mesmerizing compound of beauty, solace and pragmatism, from which there is much to emulate. 

For a brief overview of Islamic design, see Nuzhat Kazmi's Islamic Art: The Past and Modern (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2011).

Today's Rune: Growth

Friday, January 29, 2016

Islamic Art: The Past and Modern, Take I

Nuzhat Kazmi's Islamic Art: The Past and Modern (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2011) gives a clear framework for studying Islamic art, with plenty of illustrations. Beautiful synergies, patterns, colors, vibrations, fields, designs and craft are enclosed within. 
The first chapter covers Islamic painting, which is not universal because of an Islamic distaste for icons. The author quotes Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), challenging those who reject paintings: "There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike." He went on to say that painters are vessels of Allah. The above is an example of a painting from Islamic South Asia, circa 1615-1620 (now in the British Museum). Even today, there is a diversity of opinion about paintings within the Islamic world. 

Islamic Art: The Past and Modern does well to show the geographical diffusion of Islamic art, from the Middle East to South and East Asia, from North Africa to Spain and Portugal, and into West and East Africa, as well. There is great diversity even between areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria-Lebanon. 
The development of various types of calligraphy is one of the many great achievements in Islamic art. Here are two examples from the year 1537 of Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing. More examples can be seen of Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the US National Library of Medicine at this link.
Islamic Art: The Past and Modern next proceeds to consider textiles, pottery, ceramics, glass, metal, architecture and the modern world, with an overview of Islamic Dynasties and a glossary of Islamic and Arabic language terms. To be continued. 

Today's Rune: Fertility. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Baldassare Castiglione's 'The Book of the Courtier' (1528), Take II

What else does Baldassare Castiglione say to us now from his perspective of living 500 years in the past? A few snippets for our consideration, from his "Second Book" of The Courtier (1528). 

"Who can hold rest dear, unless he [or she] has first held the hardship of fatigue? Who enjoys food, drink and sleep, unless he [or she] has first endured hunger, thirst and wakefulness?"  (Wordsworth Classics edition, 2000, English translation by Leonard Eckstein Opdycke, page 74).


Why is it that many people, especially as they age, "nearly all praise bygone times and censure the present, inveighing against our acts and ways and everything which they in their youth did not do; affirming too that every good custom and good manner of living, every virtue, in short every thing, is always going from bad to worse?" (Ibidem, p. 71).

There are "those who keep their eyes fixed upon the land as they leave port, and think that their ship is standing still and the shore recedes, although it is the other way [around]." (Ibidem, p. 72).

"Thus they feel . . . despoiled, and they lament and call the present times bad, not perceiving that the change lies in themselves." (Ibidem).

And thus it comes to some to romanticize the past, emotion and time fueling their selective memory and imagination. I suppose this is because we are mortal and that is a hard fact to live by. 

But once taken on, every new day becomes enriched, not impoverished, cherished not tarnished, smiled upon and not frowned upon -- a choice of such perspective. 

Past, present and future bundled together as a whole, beyond traditional "Western" temporality, the stuff of sleep, dreams and hope.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

Baldassare Castiglione's 'The Book of the Courtier' (1528), Take I

Let's take a look at another "distant mirror:"* Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (1528). In it, there are observations that reach back to the ancients and forward to the future-present.

In a lengthy discussion between courtly men and women, some of the men quoted by Castiglione scoff at women's abilities. But "the Magnifico" asks: 

"Do you not believe that there are many [women] to be found who would know how to govern cities and armies as well as men do?" 

Lord Gaspar had just quipped: 

"Since you have given women letters and . . . magnanimity and temperance, I only marvel that you would not also have them govern cities, make laws, and lead armies, and let the men stay at home to cook and spin." 

(Third Book, Wordsworth Classics edition, 2000, English translation by Leonard Eckstein Opdycke, page 170).
A mere 500 years later, we discuss the same matters, which are particularly relevant now in the USA. Indeed, one of the major candidates running for president during this year's national election season is, for the first time in the USA, a woman. Too, combat positions have just recently been opened to women in the US armed forces. "The Magnifico" would be pleased, having spoken thus in 1507.

What say ye readers in the 21st century? Should men "stay at home to cook and spin?" 

*Nod to Barbara Tuchman.

Today's Rune: Initiation. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Vladimir Mayakovsky: 'My Discovery of America' (1926)

In the words of Mickey Newberry, "I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in" (1967): a periodic delving into times gone by. Drop in anywhere and look around: what's different? What's the same? 

For today's time travel experience, let's consider Vladimir Mayakovsky's My Discovery of America, first published in Russian in 1926 (English translation by Neil Cornwell, 2005). Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a lively Soviet Futurist poet at the time of his 1925 shoestring excursion to Cuba, Mexico and the United States. He traveled mostly by ship and rail (whereas today, one would more likely make the same journey by jet and car). Being a Futurist, he was particularly observant about technology, its impact and possibility. Being a Soviet, he was attuned to class warfare, conditions, and attitudes. A few snippets will give some of his flavor.

He notes of the three classes of passengers aboard the steamship Espagne: "The first class puke up wherever they like; the second -- down on the third class; and the third -- over themselves" (page 6). A vestige of this sentiment can be found  today aboard airplanes, usually divided among but two classes of passengers.

In wandering around the US from poetry reading to poetry reading, Mayakkovsky in 1925 picks up on a segment of American rhetoric that he finds humorous: "There isn't a country that spits out as much moralistic, lofty, idealistic, sanctimonious rubbish as the United States does" (page 68). Comments made by Ted Cruz last night -- in 2016 -- remind us that such hayseed rhetoric still persists.

He sees Havana, Mexico City, parts of Texas, Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago, but his descriptions of Manhattan are the most detailed. This part still rings true, beyond Mayakovsky's astonishment of the widespread use of electric traffic lights (a new development for most of the world in 1925):

During the afternoon work commute in Manhattan, "you can see thousands of cars, racing in six or eight lanes in either direction . . . Every two minutes, the green signal lights up on the traffic lights, so as to let through those tearing out from the side streets . . . Fifty minutes is needed at this time of day for a journey that in the morning would take a quarter of an hour, and pedestrians have to stand and wait . . . deprived of any hope of immediate crossing . . . (page 51). 

There's much more, but there's a taste of it. Traffic hasn't changed a mite in the way it manifests, ninety years later. Mayakovsky is dead, however (suicide at age 36); the Soviet Union came and went. Now we have Putin's Russia, Obama's USA and the internet. Lose some, win some. The human condition remains about the same, I suppose, only with a lot more people scampering around, some livelier than others.   

Today's Rune: Signals. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Portable Rabelais: Carnivàle

Pieter Brueghel de Oude: Strijd tussen Carnaval en Vasten, 1559
Finally, I've read most of of the works of François Rabelais (ca. 1480s-1553), primarily four novels that he composed in the 1500s. At turns poetic, philosophical, surreal, outlandish, ribald and bawdy, Rabelais has had a significant impact on various writers over the centuries. In recent times, think John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980), Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969), Thomas Pynchon, and, flipping the gender card, Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale (1985). In this case, it's worthwhile to go back to the source. 
Rabelais, living in a time like ours of seemingly random warfare and pillage, has a lot to say -- by way of description and dark satire -- about humanity's penchant for such activities. From "The Cake-Peddlars' War," for example, in Book First: Gargantua (1534), a snippet of Samuel Putnam's translation:

"And so, without any military order, their ranks in confusion, they took the field, despoiling and laying waste everything that came in their way, sparing neither poor nor rich, neither sacred nor profane. They drove off oxen, cows, bulls, calves, heifers, lambs, sheep, nanny-goats and billy-goats, hens, capons, pullets, goslings, ganders, geese, hogs, sows, and pigs. They knocked down the nuts, picked the vines clean, carried off the hedges, and shook all the fruit from the trees . . . It was, in short, an indescribable havoc that they wrought. . ." (page 144 of The Portable Rabeleis, Viking, 1946).  
After the appearance of a flying pig that thrice shouts "Carnivàle!," Rabelais takes us on strange new voyages. 

Eventually, by ship, Gargantua's son Pantagruel comes upon a realm of thawing words.

"And with this, he cast down upion the deck whole handfuls of frozen words, and they were like striped candy of various colors. We saw there throaty words, quartz-green words, azure words, sable-colored words, golden words, which, when they had been heated a little between our hands, melted away like snow; and we could really hear them, but we could not understand them, for they were in a 'barbarous' tongue . . ." (Book Fourth: Pantagruel, p. 620). 

Rabelais' vocabulary is rich and colorful, and just to keep readers on their toes, he frequently employs naughty euphemisms and "double sens" phrasing (double-entendre), such as: "she was having her buttocks drummed somewhere else . . ."  And, from "The Remarks of the Drunkards:" "Crown her till she's cardinal-red on top . . ."  "Breton fashion, bottoms up!" Indeed, there's rarely a dull moment in Rabelais' Carnivàle world.  

Today's Rune: Possessions.