Monday, June 29, 2009

The Prince is Dead, Long Live the Prince

Michael Jackson is dead.

I am quietly, surprisingly, sad.

The Jackson 5 made pop-y, danceable music, breaking out of the music ghetto that bound artists to genres and audiences. Living in Canada I heard in their music the sounds of African Americans taking their rightful place in mainstream culture. They were cute, scrubbed boys, representing the up side to the social strife taking place in the US to our south.

Of course it was not easy for the break-through. The Jackson 5's contemporaries, the devout Mormon Osmonds, represented the mythic side of America, the side that today still thinks in polarized racial terms, even in the face of a mixed-race President. Generations of kids around the globe were entranced by Michael Jackson, and he set the stage for other artists of color to hit the big time.

But there was a price Michael Jackson paid for his incredible, shape-changing work.

A few years ago I curated a show called "Celebrity," which began as a discussion about celebrities who make art work. Once I dug into the research and realized that that would be an awful show (and I am not going to curate a show to mock amateurs), I turned instead to exploring the relationship of the fan to the unknowable star. I included work by Todd Gray, an LA-based artist who was Jackson's photographer from 1979-1984. Todd was allowed to keep copyright, something that would never happen now, and the pictures are from before the Jackson identity train ran off the tracks.

I wanted to include Todd's images of Michael Jackson in "Celebrity" because he was an emblem of the self-mutilation performed by celebrities in service of their fans, or to create some image known only to Jackson himself.

Jackson was unparalleled in his influence, breaking through racial and cultural barriers through his being and lyrics. But I just reviewed Jackson's video for "Black / White" from 1991, where women meld into men, blacks meld into Asians into whites...where it seems the message of equality is tinged with a hint of Jackson's continued erasure of his own cultural identity. Did living inside celebrity his whole life allow him to believe his dreams of reinvention, or was his idea of self simply perverted beyond recognition? But this is America, and he could do what he wanted with his money, fan expectations be damned.

I've been singing "ABC" in falsetto the past few days, much to Kevin's chagrin. Any normal singing voice makes the angelic sounds of Michael Jackson even more remarkable. But I never bought any of the music--I still don't collect music, I had no player when "Thriller" came out, and a few years ago, when I wanted to download some songs, none of the play list was available on itunes. The music lives only in my head, with snippets of memories alongside the notes.

I won't call Michael Jackson "King"--that label is taken, and recalls the bloated social body of Elvis's America in the 1950s. Jackson moved beyond the notion of America as King. Instead he induced many races of kids from around the globe to play with him. And while Jackson died at 50, which is old to some, he retained the endless potential of a Prince waiting for his rightful throne.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Art, art everywhere...

above: exterior and interior shots, Konsortium installation, The Suburban, Oak Park

I accompanied Kevin to a photo shoot in Oak Park yesterday (we would have seen the new Art Institute addition but it was Taste of Chicago and neither of us is interested in that insanity, sorry Megan, Danny & Sabina!)

After his shoot we stopped by The Suburban, an independent project space run by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, old friends from my Milwaukee days. The Suburban is a jewel of an independent space, located in two backyard spaces--a cinder block box and an expanded garage / studio space (thanks to support from Luc Tuymans).

interior of The Suburban with great collection

The Suburban smartly mixes it up with experimental projects by artists in the region, such as Joseph Grigely, Jeanne Dunning, Kay Rosen and David Robbins, national artists like Andrea Bowers and Tony Feher and international luminaries like Ceal Floyer and N55.

installation Henrik Plenge Jacobson

To see the variety of shows staged at The Suburban you can order a copy of "The Suburban, The Early Years 1999-2003" or look for their up-coming book surveying of a decade of projects.

My personal favorite? Meg Duguid t.p.'d the exterior of The Suburban with 300 rolls of toilet paper stolen from the Art Institute of Chicago. I bet the neighbors hated it.

Stay tuned for The Suburban's newest venture, the Poor Farm Exhibition space (above) in rural Wisconsin. That this building is a remnant of governmental action in face of rising homelessness (and preventing indentured servitude in light of bankruptcies during the Depression) radiates real meaning at this time of our own financial collapse.

There was an article in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that bemoaned that the mid-west was no longer producing great inventions. I think the size of the Poor Farm Exhibition space will allow artists a great platform for the artistic R & D that we'll need to grapple with our transformed futures.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Far Away and Home

bookcover in airport in Helsinki, Finland

I love to travel, it's exhausting and exhilarating. When I travel, the past becomes enormously present, and my future becomes a little bit clearer. You lose yourself, but you find yourself in the oddest places possible.

I laughed out loud when I saw the book cover above. This is only one of the many ways people misspell my name, and it recalled the dozens of times a man has sung a few bars of the song "Hello Mary Lou" to me. I just wished I could read Finnish! My crisp Helsinki present was more mellifluous with tunes from the past.

Below are some other random time / space signs from the past few months:

My sister Helen sent me this picture of early 1960s Calgary (our birthplace) recently. At my various schools (Christopher Robin, Milton Williams, Henry Wise Wood) I understood that I must engage with the outside world.

We took French starting in kindergarten (and that skill came in handy when I gave lectures in French in Morocco a few years ago, it's amazing what I remembered and what you don't learn in grade 2, like "inflatable"). I distinctly remember writing my paper on the Appian Way in grade 6. I also remember my news clipping archive on the F.L.Q. (Front de liberation du Quebec), whose kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte was our Vietnam.

My favorite school activity was my morning group with Mr. Kemper, our social studies teacher, who talked about Africa, showing us slides of his travel. This began my dream of living in / traveling to Africa, pink flamingos included. I understood from my teachers that travel would show us that humans are alike beneath the extreme differences of social and political histories. Travel would be both comforting and challenging to our notions of the formation of self.

Pood: I took this picture in the KUMU Museum in Tallinn, Estonia, during my recent trip. This reminds me of when my friend Diane and I went to Italy together (she got a group together to rent a villa outside Florence for two weeks, my first real vacation in years!) and we arrived in Amsterdam's Schiphol airport (one of my favorites) on our way to Milan. In a haze we were looking for coffee when we noticed, on an elevator sign, that "winkel" is the Dutch word for shopping. The whole two weeks was filled with winkeling, winkeling recaps and winkeling awards for best buys (one of our group bought four pairs of shoes in one day), and we still use the word winkel to recall that fun-filled, if rather soggy, few weeks. Although "pood" could have been the next "winkel" it somehow seemed...a little too scatalogical, but the Estonians have a great word anyway.

Saguaro in Helsinki: And of course, this neon sign is about my present (nearby was a sleazy bar called Phenix). The saguaro is only part of what makes the Sonoran desert so beautiful and green, but in the context of a bar (I saw another neon saguaro bar sign in Beirut last year), I suspect it is the pointy, phallic quality that is most desired. If these are gay bars then the signage is a witty take on the cliche of the macho American West. If Phoenix is exporting these signs because of environmental restrictions in the U.S., then these are a sign of our exporting our waste. In any case, I will always be reminded of these neon lights when driving down my hot Phoenix streets.

With the global financial collapse we'll see how much travel will change. Airlines are cutting back flights, costs will go up, and if you think it was hard to use bonus miles for flights in the past, just wait. We'll likely be finding more of the world at home.

Below is a picture of the garden I'm making with Kevin's Mom Lu (with his occasional help when he can't avoid it) at her home in Milwaukee. The garden has changed and grown tremendously since we first started a few years ago, we're running out of room (less grass, more flowers and food!) Although we have focused on indigenous perennials (coneflower, liatris) we also have some spectacular things (poppies, bearded iris) from other parts of the globe. We can dream of the travel these plants have made through time while feeding them with mulch and Miracle Gro.

The faraway is always nearby. Staying at home doesn't mean you can avoid being a global citizen.

photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The American West

White House ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona

Kevin and I went up to Canyon de Chelly last weekend, a dream of mine since I took a history of photography class from Tom Southall at the University of Kansas many moons ago.

His wasn't the only class that described my dreams to me: my class in Greek & Roman art propelled me to Athens one summer, and Marilyn Stockstad's medieval art class drove me to see the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, where I spent one New Year's eve, age 21, at a small b & b, sticking my head out of the round window carved out of the one foot thick walls, looking for the fireworks below.

I found my calling sitting in those darkened art history classes, which are a glorious admixture of politics, history and pretty pictures--what more could you want?

This makes me think about the defunding of arts classes in schools. This punitive action (art is too girly? Not enough chances to monetize / control the market? Questions authority?) suggests that the American compulsion to put value on everything devalues all those kids who want to play, sing, dance, write, shoot and look. And as we know, idle hands are the devil's work--it's critical that we allow kids the widest range of experiences so that they become productive, smart citizens. New industries don't erupt only from the sciences, they come from creative innovators in the arts as well.

(I was so distressed in the late 1980s at the idea that a minority of voices could try to excise arts funding (Culture Wars) from our Social Contract (i.e. taxes) that I called Hans Haacke to see if it was possible to do a survey of arts people, give them a list of tax programs their taxes go towards, and allow them to individually reapportion their tax dollars. While it's a great idea, he said, that's a complex sociological / statistical process that was beyond his capacity. Fair enough. Anyone else who wants to do this, break a leg!)

Back to Canyon de Chelly: Of course my photo history class showed me black & white prints, and the Canyon and its people are in living color. Those early photographs of the American West gave face to the myths of the West, myths that washed over the harsh imperialist realities of Manifest Destiny.

Monument Valley, Navajo Nation, Arizona / Utah

What struck me is how our perceptions of the West have changed since the 1970s. The American Indian Movement drew attention to the treatment of indigenous peoples across this continent (and to oppressed indigenous peoples around the globe as well). Writers as diverse as Rebecca Solnit and Tony Hillerman have given us vivid portraits of the First Nations peoples who numbered between 20 and 35 million at first recorded contact (Columbus, not the Vikings). Historians like Patty Limerick and Lawrence Culver (up-coming book "The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America") are re-writing these myths of the West, allowing us to re-think how we function as a country.

And at this tipping point in our history--economic collapse, environmental degradation, population explosion--this re-evaluation is critical to remaking the American Dream. And I got there via art history.

What a valuable education.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Facebook aesthetics

I am fascinated / horrified by the time I've spent on Facebook lately. Some things I've learned:

My friends list is only a fraction of the people I've met in my life-time, but how to find friends from grade 1? This makes me feel both connected and puts into perspective the earth's current overpopulation. I also feel less isolated in my southwest outpost, but how to generate dialogue that's more important than, say, "I feel shaken today not stirred"?

© Cecil Beaton

Why / how do people choose to represent themselves? Do pictures truly capture a person's being? Is a picture of a celebrity good because we already know the attributes of that persona? Is that picture really how you want to represent yourself to the world?

Some image genres I've noticed on Facebook (I will use stand-ins to not embarass anyone, or myself):

--eyeballs shot from up close (exaggerated demonstration above)
--babies / pets as stand-ins
--glam / mouth wide open (Pretty Woman syndrome)
--related to above: too cool for school
--related to above: groovy hipsters
--what were they thinking? (Jerry Lewis wannabe, see above)
--not sure I want to be here, so maybe you'll see my face, maybe not (fake coy)
--thinking outside the box: giant white lego Jesus, Charles Manson, cartoon characters (lots of Simpsons & South Park), Obama
--suicidal (luckily rather rare)
--creepy--is this deliberate or inadvertent?
--lampshade head
--goat head

Strict use policy:
--include the Pyramids but only if you're from Egypt

And finally, my vote for most graphically intriguing names:

I find looking at Facebook pictures as fascinating as finding friends. Both tell me something about the world we live in, but as an art historian, I've got to have the pictures.