Note: Sigmund Freud, ‘A note upon the Mystic Writing Pad’ (1925)
Do popular songs aim low? According to the French wikipedia, Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ was a hit in 1959. It is a poem about a ‘ticket puncher’ in Mairie des Lilas (a railway station in Paris) who talks very quickly about punching holes in tickets all day and about someone making a final hole for him, where he won’t have to listen to talk about holes any more.
(The original music video—with English subtitles—is also on YouTube, but the audio track is not clear.) “The main road,” which the persona of the poem says he hopes to leave, is actually, in the French lyric, “la grand’route” or ‘the great highway’—surely a reference to the road we all take to the grave.
The song is a poetic and political act of empathy, and of a kind that has become rare in the sanitised marketplace of popular songs. And it is the poetry that saves it from being only political ideology and lifts it into the realm of art.
Gainsbourg died in 1991, having established himself as one of the world’s most influential popular composers and performers.
If Bertolt Brecht’s poems are to be believed, Brecht at least once had a dream about an enormous talking potato. Brecht’s poems say very interesting and very specific things.
One of Brecht’s very famous poems is ‘Years ago when I’, written in the 1930s, and published in English by Methuen in the 1976 collection «Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913–1956». It opens with the lines:
Years ago when I was studying the ways of the Chicago Wheat Exchange
I suddenly grasped how they managed the whole world’s wheat there
And yet I did not grasp it either and lowered the book
I knew at once: you’ve run
Into bad trouble.
Brecht makes a harsh moral judgement of the men of the exchange: “These people, I saw, lived by the harm / Which they did, not by the good.”
The place he referred to in this poem was, insofar as I have been able to determine, the Chicago Board of Trade, established in 1848. In 2007 the Board of Trade in Chicago merged with the Mercantile Exchange to form the CME Group.
In 2009, Rick Santelli, an editor of a business news network in the USA, famously delivered an extraordinary ‘rant’, from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in which he accused the Barack Obama administration of “promoting bad behavior” through its attempts to avoid foreclosures on the mortgages of nine million homeowners with the ‘Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan’. He said that people who had obtained bad mortgages were “losers” and that the foreclosed properties should be available for purchase by people who “carry the water” rather than “drink the water”. He mentioned the possibility of a Chicago Tea Party. Out of this confused nonsense the modern Tea Party movement was born.
Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University and received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has appeared in New American Paintings, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, Beautiful Decay, 580 Split, and is included in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of Ramin’s work opened at the Duplex Gallery in Oregon on 2 June 2016.
Williams: I was in the Louvre probably decades before you, and before the space in which the ‘Mona Lisa’ is hung was renovated. Nothing important about the experience appears to have changed. There were no ‘smartphones’ then, but there were lots of cameras. A large group of people, which seemed to be moving as a pack from room to room, ignored every other picture in the Denon wing. Your painting, ‘Mona Lisa IRL’, does a number of interesting things with this scene, which must now be familiar to most tourists who visit Paris. To my mind, the most important thing you do is confidently announce that paintings are as good or better than photographs at contemplating our now surreal relationship with images and art. The virtual ‘Mona Lisa’, one we might see on the Louvre website, is somehow more real than the ‘Mona Lisa’ in real life.
Ramin: Yeah, I think that’s interesting—the idea of the ‘Virtual Mona Lisa’ vs. Mona Lisa ‘IRL’. She’s more famous as a replicated digital or printed image than as an actual painting. When I got into the room, I kinda stopped caring about the painting itself. In that moment, I was able to check it off my tourist list of things to see. I didn’t get very close and could honestly barely make out that it was the ‘Mona Lisa’, except for the huge crowd around her. It mattered to me more to be experiencing the way in which people experience her rather than getting close to the actual painting and observing the brush strokes, colors used, composition, size, etc. I studied all of that in school but all that knowledge didn’t mean a thing when I got into that room. It was then that I realised I wanted my next body of work to be about crowds of people observing famous pieces of art. It’s interesting to me that some people find the need to check certain famous pieces off of a list—as in the Louvre brochure—while others spend minutes or sometimes hours studying the same piece. It’s like this at concerts, too, and other cultural institutions and happenings. Something about hype and fame—the bragging rights involved—that really draws people, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Then again, who am I to judge how people should and should not experience something?
Williams: Digital photography has become the standard method of certifying experience in a way that seems more reliable and objective than memory… until the drive fails or your cloud is hacked. Your paintings of subjects inside the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are also about the spectacle of art and the hype surrounding it. To experience this as a tourist or art lover is one thing, but artists experience the spectacle and hype of the art world in a different way, as I suspect you are finding now you have several exhibitions of your own coming up.
Ramin: Hype is a very real and intimidating phenomenon, especially now with the advent of social media. As young as I am (thirty-four), I still remember the days without computers, cell phones, internet, etc. Word of mouth and the printed word were the only way to get information out there. Now, there are so many ways—so many websites, blogs, apps, etc.—I can’t keep up, nor do I want to. The popular way to virtually socialise changes constantly. A week out from the opening of my solo exhibition ‘Jet Lag’, at Duplex Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and I find myself full of anxiety over whether or not I sent press releases to the right people. Who are the ‘right’ people? Even a few years ago, it was so much clearer. All I’ve been seeing this week is an ocean of faceless art blogs and Instagram accounts. I find myself feeling very much like I did in the congested museums of Paris—alone in a crowded room, and very overwhelmed. This is all part of the process, of course. The art making is the easy part for an artist. It’s everything else that is so difficult.
Williams: The recent gallery paintings are unusual in your body of work because they have not edited out the architecture and environment of the subjects. In much of your other work, for example ‘Ben and Travis Find a Tube’ [Watercolor on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2015], the setting is missing and only the subject and action is left. Something that may have started out being a photograph or a memory, or both, ends up being a pictorial distillation. Can you tell me something about your editorial process, about how you decide what gets left in and what gets cut out, about how you decide what your real subject matter is?
Ramin: I’ve always been a very focused person. I have a tendency to focus so much on one thing that I miss all the details surrounding the thing. Most of my work over the past five years has been intentionally editing out the background or surroundings of the figures—mostly because I, myself, only really cared about the subjects and their actions. The rest seemed superfluous. I wanted the viewers to see what I was seeing, which was the interaction and relationships between the figures, and nothing else. My newest body of work is about something a little different—still about people, their interactions with each other, but also their interaction with the unique space that constitutes a museum. There’s so much weight to a museum—historically, of course, but also architecturally. It’s contextually important for me to include this unique environment in the paintings. I didn’t want to introduce backgrounds again until I knew for sure it provided something important and relevant to the works’ content.
Williams: Some of your other projects, from 2011 and 2012—the installations ‘Mask Booth’ and ‘Try it on’—appear to invite or challenge people to try on something that in Australia we call a ‘balaclava’. It makes everyone look like a criminal, or like they’re on a polar expedition. What is this about?
Ramin: When I was in graduate school, I took up the mask, or balaclava, as a multi-layered, politically-charged symbol representing various identities. I used this metaphor as a way to discuss hidden identities, subcontexts, in each of our personalities. By putting on the mask, one takes on a new and very different identity. The body of work relating to masks centered around private vs. public personas and the existence of this doubling in everyone. This theme can be extended to include social media personas and public branding as well. At the time, 2011–2012, the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area was ramping up, the punk band Pussy Riot was very active politically and the film ‘Spring Breakers’ had come out. When I began the mask series, these cultural icons weren’t present, but by the time I was in the midst of the series they were. A form of the collective unconscious, I suppose. It seemed like the balaclava was on everyone’s minds, so it felt like a very relevant representation of that moment, especially following the 2008 recession and being an election year here in the U.S.
Williams: Yes, and by the time this zeitgeist filters through to your watercolor and pencil drawings, something else has happened. The hidden, masked self is perfectly domesticated and comfortable on the sofa. ‘Three aliases’ [Colored Pencil on Paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2011] is both funny and disturbing.
Artists have to be concerned about what other people think. At one end of the spectrum it’s ‘Will they like my work?’, and at the other it’s ‘Will they understand what it means?’ Are you a worrier? Are you on the side of authenticity or on the side of sincerity?
Ramin: I am absolutely a worrier! —In all aspects of my life. At this point in my career I care very much about what people think and how the work will be received. I want it to be accessible to everyone but I also want it to function on a higher level, where artists, critics, historians, etc., can gather more information from the work. I don’t want to choose sides. I want it all, really. Doesn’t everyone?
Williams: Maybe. The path we take to get to where we are seems less important at the start than when you get to near the end. That’s the difference between being thirty-four and fifty-eight.
We’ve touched on how technology now mediates how we experience art. This means that art is made by people who have seen more art than ever before. What have you been looking at recently? What have you discovered?
Ramin: The last art I went to see was at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and California College of the Arts (CCA) MFA thesis exhibitions. They are the annual displays of graduate students’ work. I love checking out the work of emerging artists coming out of graduate art programs. A lot of the work is missing steps but some is extraordinary. There’s such a refreshing feeling to young (in career, not necessarily age) artists’ work: the best of the showings can be invigorating and inspiring, like Laura Rokas and Robin Crofut-Brittingham. The worst is still really intriguing because it’s candid in its failure: no censorship, just letting it all hang out. I appreciate that on a lot of levels. That’s what graduate school is for… Experimentation and failure: something that should be encouraged more in post-graduate work and, honestly, in our daily lives.
Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
Williams: Victoria, it has been about ten years since ARTNATOMY. It is a beautiful and practical tool for students, artists and illustrators. Has it been doing well, and getting the attention it deserves?
Contreras Flores: Yes, ARTNATOMY will celebrate its ten-year anniversary in September . I’m preparing a celebration! My little virtual pedagogical toy fulfilled and exceeded all my expectations: it is still selling an offline version, although it remains free online for students. It has also led to derivative commissioned works, interesting collaborations and international contacts and friends. It has exceeded the user target I predicted and the application is avowed useful not only by artists but by psychologists, neurologists, plastic surgeons, coaches—even criminologists. It has received international awards, been featured in magazines and cited in books and academic papers. I could not be more satisfied. For it to be a more popular site and tool I would have to overcome my laziness for business and social media marketing. But I have other interests, too.
Williams: You refer often in your correspondence, sometimes by way of apology, to what you call your ‘dilettante-ism’. To be an amateur is not such a bad thing. But you have made it your style to be a professional non-specialist, a dabbler who is also a discoverer of new things. I can see an advantage in this, if a way must be found to pay the bills. It also means, does it not, that some of the brief artistic commitments do not work out the way you planned?
Contreras Flores: Let’s see… First, I distrust works that ‘need explanations’. I produce objects, works, music that do not belong to the realm of language. They can simply thrill you or not, make you feel, identify with them, or not. When a work comes to us, we do not mind the author. I am much worse than my best works and I should not matter.
I understand, since I am also a spectator, other people have an interest in the person behind the art. When I have to introduce myself, to define myself, to be honest, I can only do it from the dilettante-ism which is neither more nor less than the result of my curious nature and my heterogeneous interests. I tend to emphasise—not in a cynical way—I work hard and humbly in learning everything I try. I’m a professional player. I accept me as ‘numerous’ and enjoy it. In this way, I think people understand why my production is so diverse.
This makes me an outsider within the art market. It is a sign of the times because ‘experts’ frown on unskilled labor, but I am sure that culture is the antithesis of specialisation. In any case, in me, this is not a theoretical starting point, not an a priori, but the result that I work by passion and curiosity: there is never much planned and the result always surprises me, and in a positive way.
None of my inventions, it is true, manage alone to pay the bills. I have to accept commissioned work such as programming, or teaching. There are other costs, too: being free of children, luxury and property. I prefer to live this way to dedicate my life and efforts to make a business from my creations. I do not serve as a businessman. I did not choose that profession. I could, perhaps, get better economic results devoting all my efforts to a single thing … but only by being as bored and as sad as if I were working in a bank or living in a jail forged with my own hands.
Williams: … “Mientras voy, y vengo, por el camino me entretengo” [“I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy”] is the phrase you have mentioned. It seems like a good philosophy, and one way to prepare for any surprise from the Nietzschean demon.
Your interest in putting new technology to work in artistic projects appears to have led to the creation of some beautiful necklaces. They are made with 3D-printing, I think. The project combines the decorative, the literary, and a little eroticism.
Contreras Flores: They were created playing, by mixing things I love: reading, calligraphy, typography, arabesque, and ajouré. I suppose I am not immune to the fact that my birthland mixes seven centuries of Muslim heritage with Spanish baroque. I design working on paper, getting a single, quick piece that must be legible. After that, I order the laser-cut from a supplier, and finally I hand-mount it. This is one of those inventions for those I would love to find a producer. I am interested in the field of jewellery because it mixes again l’objet d’art and applied art and allows sculpture in small sizes, experimenting very freely with materials and shapes.
I hope I will not be lost in translation but I am flattered to be related to ‘the smiling and playful’ Nietzsche. He aims and encourages us to be free from time-calculation—the furthest thing from a megalomaniac—facing our ephemeral insignificance should help us to live more freely, more calmly, and to enjoy more. In this way, too, I am just an ‘amateur’ who will die learning. So, I am glad if you find some eroticism—another of the simple good things of life—in my necklaces, which I could not prescind from formal exuberance to transmit their passionate messages.
The phrase ‘I go, and come back, by the way I enjoy’ has a good dose of black humor, by reducing life—‘el camino’—to a short, and not very serious, trip. This idea is also in the Spanish reflexive verb ‘entretenerse’, which is more like ‘to amuse oneself’.
Nietzsche is a key philosopher for me. It is interesting you mention him though we have never spoken about him before. People sometimes refer to Nietzsche as a severe, permanently angry, megalomaniac. Very different from the Nietzsche I know. I am flattered if you associate, at some point, some of my statements with the Nietzsche of ‘gaia scienza’: ‘superman’ is an ideal of courage to face life, which is facing death; active thinking, not-condescending. A ‘logos’ strengthened in the consciousness of its insignificance, should manifest itself in a rigorous ethical demand, auto-immune to self-deception and, paradoxically, liberate us from false responsibilities and illegitimate ambitions. This makes life light, encouraging us to live in a more lucid, more laughing, and more vital way…
I will say that the human is my only theme and my inexhaustible source. The senses are instruments of knowledge for me (in Spanish, ‘sentido’, can mean ‘sense’, ‘felt’ or ‘meaning’ ) and I’m glad if you perceive any kind of sensuality in my work.
Williams: Yes, there is something about the choice of quotations, and the writers, that invites that interpretation. There is also the simple fact that in order to read the text of the necklaces it is necessary to gaze at the bare neck of the wearer. Imagining this moment invites erotic interpretation.
When you wrote to me of ‘the brief trip by which we amuse ourselves,’ I was reading The Gay Science. The allegory of the demon is a striking idea. I wonder why it is not taught in schools. (It may be because it is a dangerous idea; and perhaps because we now have a complicated relationship with the character that Nietzsche has become in our imaginations.) I am thinking of ‘eternal recurrence’, now, not in terms of its meaning to our isolated selves but as either rebuke or praise of the way we treat other people. Am I prepared for the violence, judgments, and wrongs committed against others to be endured, by them, over and over again?
In Australia it seems a majority of the voting population supports harsh measures—I would say inhumane measures—to prevent asylum-seekers reaching our shores.
Contreras Flores: Valencia is a wide-open mediterranean sea town, but there are no boats of people arriving on the beach. The refugee situation remains ‘someone else’s problem’, in Valencia as for most of Europe. I could not be more ashamed by our politicians—applying inhuman laws on our behalf, fomenting fear and nationalist discourses that only conceal ignorance and fear of ‘the other’ and the unknown. As a political subject—as we all are—I try to ‘Think globally, act locally’, I am involved in civil associations, and personally try to fight with my humble weapons, which are just pencils and thinking. It is always insufficient.
Williams: What are you working on now, Victoria?
Contreras Flores: I have been focused on music, learning amazing software that allows me to record and produce my own music with an acceptable quality. In the realm of soundtracks and music for shorts films I collaborate in projects by talented people and continue to mix all the disciplines I am interested in—films, literature, images, and music.
Contreras Flores’s necklaces can be bought directly online from her website, where there is also a short list of retailers, information about her experiments with 3D-printers, and other design objects for sale.
Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …
Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”
Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.
Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.
Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.
Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.
It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.
Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.”
I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.
What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.
Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.
With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…
Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.
The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)
The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.
Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.
Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.
To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.
Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.
Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.
Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?
I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.
Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.
Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.
I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.
At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.
The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.