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

More Serra

The brilliant and beautiful Rebekah McComb (that was once her name, anyway) pointed out the Mark Simmons interview with Serra that appeared in Coagula. Serra makes my point in his own words.

RS: Look, I'm not precious about my work. If you get it out into the urban field it's going to be used or misused but it'll also probably provide a way of people acknowledging what the aesthetic is about because people have to confront it every day. If you go into a museum you have to enter into a place that's already said "this is art" you have to view it as art. I think when you put it in the public it has to survive on its own and if it's going to be seen as art that's one thing if it's going to be seen as an extension of a graffiti wall or a kid's playground that's another but neither of those offend me in that I think eventually young people will come to understand that this differentiates itself from architecture, it'll become part of things they know in the world and it'll make the possibility of other people doing things that enter the world more accessible.

At first it may startle some people because it's finally off the pedestal, people can walk around it, they can walk into it, they can do what they want with it. And certainly the history of public sculpture has been disastrous but that doesn't mean it ought not to continue and the only way it even has a chance to continue is if the work gets out into the public. If it doesn't there's no chance at all. I would rather have the voice heard even if misused or fucked with than not have a voice at all.

Some of you have seen my maquette of a urinal in Cor-Ten steel, signed "R. Mutt Serra." Thank you, Marcel Duchamp, thank you very much. It has a lovely patina fashioned with water, sodium chloride, urea, uric acid, and mineral salts.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Richard Serra is a Whinging Weenie

Perhaps you noticed the article by Steven Erlanger published May 7, 2008 in the New York Times.

There's a multimedia slide show included, with some interesting shots of one of his pieces (owned by the city of Paris) on display in the garden of the Tuileries. It seems that local kids (mostly) have discovered that the chalky, sandy soil of the Tuileries leaves interesting marks on the rusty barricades (or skateboard ramps?) that make up the piece.

Erlanger relates:
The soles of sneakers and athletic shoes may have their own formal design, but the prints look tacky on the orangey patina of the steel. As much as one may admire the dexterity of those who have put their footprints high up on the sculpture, Mr. Serra is not pleased at the way these particular viewers have chosen to “implicate” themselves and “apprehend the space and the piece.”
Pretty sensitive for a wanna-be tough guy, innit? This whine is coming from an artist who complains that people these days don't experience art, but only the second-hand, derivative, epiphenomena of art — art as represented in newspapers, magazines, JPEGs on the web, etc.
People talk of art and ask: ‘How much does it cost? What’s its pedigree?’ But people don’t go to see the work in place.”

“It’s part of the experience of walking around the space in which the art appears — you implicate yourself in the space, and the experience is in you, not in the frame or on the wall.”
Will the real Richard Serra please stand up? If you intend to make public art, art on a monumental scale, and insist that it be experienced directly — you must allow the public to respond to it as they will. It's not as if people in Paris are putting their feet on an effigy of the Virgin Mother, after all. At least the piece in Cor-Ten steel seems durable enough withstand its youthful and athletic critics. Mr. Serra's ego seems to be constructed more like one of those cute balloon animals by Jeff Koons.

Maybe he should display a sign next to his work that says:
You're looking at it all wrong!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Le génie du berger Giotto naquit plutôt en contemplant les fresques de Cimabue qu'en regardant ses moutons.

Copyright © Michael Sierchio. All Rights Reserved.
With this famously audacious assertion, André Malraux conveys some essential truths about Art and its function as a response to the human condition.
The genius of the shepherd Giotto arose more from contemplating the frescoes of Cimabue than in looking at his sheep.
The standard story is that the artist Cimabue discovered the shepherd boy, Giotto, in a field sketching sheep. Malraux suggests that what made Giotto become an artist is that the totality of experience in standing before Cimabue's frescoes was somehow more moving, determinative, and real than his mundane experience. And while the frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto are iconographic, allegorical, and narrative, Malraux nonetheless leads us to the idea that the power of Art lies not in our ability to recognize in it some other experience, but in the felt experience of the work itself.

Photography is almost always conceived of as representational or, even more naïvely, as a document of real experience. But if the felt experience of viewing an image is paramount, then it may not invariably make sense to ask "what is it a picture of ?" Abstraction is inherent to photography, with some variables under control of the photographer (medium, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, etc.) and some a function of the environment (e.g., natural light). But creating an image that is something other than a record of the visual world requires that the artist exploit abstraction, and move with a purpose.

The image above is an example of my current body of work, an investigation into the use of the digital camera to create images that are not intended to refer to the perception of form in the environment in which they were created. Rather, the resultant image - which cannot itself always be perfectly pre-visualized or pre-cognized - claims legitimacy on its own. I have no interest in manipulating images and transforming them into abstractions using the tools available in the digital darkroom (other than to control contrast and balance color) - I prefer the kind and degree of abstraction available at the time of exposure. These include motion blur, selective focus, selection of subject with a smaller or larger scale than normal, and very long exposure times with a hand-held camera or a moving subject.