The perfectly imperfect thing

Of all possible virtues, the finest is the perfection of imperfection. The title Rhinoceros Horn Fan refers to a case in the Blue Cliff Record, a famous collection of Zen koans, in which a master and his attendant have a conversation:
One day Yanguan called to his attendant, "Bring me the rhinoceros horn fan."

The attendant said, "The fan is broken."

Yanguan said, "Then bring me the rhinoceros!"

Friday, October 31, 2008

American politics, race, and reality

Never mind for the moment the uncritical acceptance into discourse the concept of race as anything other than an invidious, divisive term in place of genuine recognition of ethnicity, language and culture.

Americans in a few hours will be choosing between a articulate, inspirational, and talented black man, and a not very successful product of the US military industrial complex.

With all the talk about the possible influence of the Bradley Effect, I propose that a countervailing force at work is the Patton Effect. Once in the voting booth, folks who would never have considered doing so will vote for the black guy. Why?

"... When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers ... AMERICANS LOVE A WINNER AND WILL NOT TOLERATE A LOSER. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in Hell for a man who lost and laughed."

- George S. Patton, 31 May 1944

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Beethoven était tellement sourd que, toute sa vie, il a cru qu'il faisait de la peinture

[attributed to François Cavanna]

Beethoven was so deaf that, his whole life, he thought he was a painter.

I really wish someone would explain to me why French people think this is funny. I speak French fairly well, with a good grasp of grammar, excellent phonetics, and am fairly well read. But I know folks who think this is uproariously funny, and it just makes me yawn. Maybe I am just revealing too much reverence for LVB.

Friday, October 10, 2008

カエデ - momiji - maple

I found this on my morning walk to the French Hotel Café.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Success is going from failure to failure with great enthusiasm

The above quotation is attributed to Winston Churchill, but to my mind it expresses Yanguan's point of view quite well.

Rhinoceros horn is known as black ivory, and was once used to fashion ornate objects for the emperor of China or for the very wealthy. A fan made of rhinoceros horn must have been a precious gift from a royal patron, an object of special significance.

What is Yanguan asking for, anyway -- either when he asks for the fan, or the rhinoceros? And what does the attendant mean when he says that the fan is broken?

The Chinese Zen tradition reveres the ability to discuss such matters without giving away any family secrets (i.e., without openly discussing the core of the matter). I don't think there's any danger of me doing any serious harm, so I'll say a few things about this.

What happens when you discover that the most precious of things is irrevocably, irretrievably, and irreparably broken? You might not recognize this as a promising condition, but Yanguan seems to be saying it is. So promising, in fact, that instead of sympathy, he offers a challenge. Note that this isn't perfectly aligned with the trite cliché that suggests we make lemonade when confronted with an abundance of lemons. There's a single nail left holding the board in place, and Yanguan is pulling it out.

It's almost giving away too much just to ask: what is the relationship between the fan and the rhinoceros?

One of my favorite teachers of all time is Yúnmén Wényǎn (雲門文偃), whose dharma name means Gate of the Clouds. There's a story about this curmudgeon that resonates with the rhinoceros.
A monk asked Yunmen, "What happens when the leaves have fallen and the tree is bare?"

Yunmen replied, "The body of the tree is revealed in the golden wind."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

SNAP TO GRID (Sierchio Exposed)

Here are the three images I've entered in the SNAP TO GRID competition at the LA Center for Digital Arts. I'd hate to get stuck in the digital ghetto, but there has been some really good work at this exhibit for the last four years.

This is one of the very earliest in this series, and is somehow iconic for me. I tried to make it clear that this is "straight" photography, but people still ask if it's photoshopped. Nope.

Most people see an eye, and some think this is a Hubble Telescope product. This may be my favorite image.

I have a square version of something like this, but I really like the light lavender streaks against a mustard and black background. I find it very sweet, and very different from most of the work.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Flame of Cognition

The Flame of Recognition is a well known Aperture Monograph honoring the work of Edward Weston. Weston was one of the modernist photographers who reacted strongly against pictorialism, which sought to legitimize photography as a fine art, but did so by emulating the effects of painting and printmaking of the time. The modernists attempted to depict scenes as realistically as permitted by the medium, and (at least rhetorically, if not materially) renounced manipulation.
Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.
- The f/64 Group, ca. 1932
Weston's contact prints in 4x5 or 8x10 of bell peppers, female nudes, shells, sand dunes, and even toilets, have a stark beauty and implicit theology of immanence that calls to mind Blake's Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Mundane objects (not that the nudes are mundane) reveal and contain the beauty of all things. The kingdom of heaven is within you, says Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas, says Edward Weston, in his photographs.

I chose The Flame of Cognition as homage to Weston (and Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard van Dyke, Brett Weston, et al.), but also as a point of departure. I hope in this body of work to present images that are challenging, interesting, moving, and even pretty, while frustrating the habit of the viewer to recognize an object represented as a photograph.

I took many years for me to learn to attend to how I felt when standing before a work. Even now, I cannot say that I really "like" the music of John Coltrane, or the paintings of Jackson Pollock. But I feel amazingly good listening to Coltrane, especially if I don't listen too hard. And if I can let myself relax and dilate, I find that Pollock's paintings do the same for me.

My first working title for the work was Embracing the Blur, because the images were captured under conditions which frustrated all attempts to produce images that had some reasonable depth of focus, and were free from motion blur. There really wasn't enough light to work without a tripod, and a tripod would have been very disruptive in the space, which was small but public. When I finally gave up and embraced the blur, deciding on long, hand-held exposures, intentionally moving the camera in a linear or radial fashion, I enjoyed the play of light and color. Some of the images were immediately compelling, and others made me return for further attempts. I even bought an expensive full-frame, VR (vibration reduction) lens for my Nikon digital SLR - still clinging a bit to my original project. And still there was not enough light for handheld pictures, at least not if I hoped for clarity. And so I once again embraced confusion and gave up clarity. It started getting fun. Over the course of three months I made a total of four photo excursions to shoot the material.

One of the things I've observed is that people really differ in which images they respond to, which they favor over others. I'd love to know if there's a particular image that moves you, and what you think of it and how it makes you feel. And even what if reminds you of, though I am not qualified in the Rorschach protocol, and think it's a load of bollocks. ;-)

- M