Multitudes

14 February 2010

Lord of the Birds, Graciela Iturbide (1984), via.

I’ve always loved the little-used collective nouns that English accumulates — your shrewdness of apes, your exaltation of larks; clattering of jackdaws & mumuration of starlings. Just to list them is to become intoxicated by the accumulation. (We forget, of course, that even the commonest ones, flights & flocks & schools & herds & gaggles & troops, look odd from the outside, in translation, obscure groupings.) The most esoteric & the loveliest attach themselves to birds, & so when I think of nouns of multitude I remember Graciela Iturbide, whose photographs I saw at an exhibition at the Getty in ’08 — looking for them now, I can’t find the two I liked best, one of a cloud of birds suddenly frightened from a tree, hundreds of them surrounding it like a halo, & the other of a veternarian’s arm holding a pelican (I think?), backlit into shadow in front of an x-ray of its bones, the two inverted mirrors of each other, the bones white on black, the bird black on white.

Over Christmas I read John Crowley’s Ægypt & wrote down in my commonplace book a little moment on p. 254: ‘“exalted” as Axel said, by wine.’ What if, as with nouns of multitude — parliament of owls, siege of bitterns — there were verbs of intoxication? Exalted by wine, melancholied by gin, belched by lager, peated by scotch, embittered by ale. Extemporized by brandy . . .

Surely you can think of some better ones.

Carnivale in Bilbao, as I’ve said, brass bands in the streets, light rain, txiquiteros singing through glasses of crianza, the whole city in costume from the children to adults, groups, multitudes, in theme, disguised collectively. I’ve seen gingerbread men, firefighters, fields of strawberries, snowmen, professionals of every occupation, an entire army of playing cards armed with spears attacking a float manned by the Queen of Hearts in drag. And still, it should be said — this is nothing compared to Venice, to Cadiz. Halloween is the palest shadow.

Matter of time

28 January 2010

The Matter of Time (Richard Serra), now at the
Guggenheim in Bilbao, scanned from a postcard a visiting
friend bought for me in the giftshop.

_

The Guggenheim is the first thing I thought of when I thought of Bilbao. Before I knew anything else about the city, I had a vague mental image of a silver, billowing, sail-like building, blurred green hills behind, something near water. This is particularly ironic because the Guggenheim is, really, still a new building, and because it really doesn’t belong to Bilbao or to the Basques at all. Nonetheless, as a single piece of architecture it’s done more to reshape the city than anything since the steel industry. (Bilbao is Birmingham is Pittsburgh is Glasgow; they’re refranchising the Gugi’s starchitecture to Abu Dhabi).

Funny: it photographs well, but it doesn’t look like much from the street. It faces away from where anybody lives or works; it’s best viewed from a bridge, or the hills overlooking the city, or like a paddle-boat. You occasionally catch glimpses of it, if you’re out that way, down a side alley: an anonymous wall of tarnished silver. It doesn’t loom over the city or mark the skyline—it’s not even central, it’s shunted off to the other end of the Abando, way across the 19th-century extension and as far away from the Casco Viejo’s dank & twisting medieval cobbles as you can get. It’s best viewed, and most dramatic, from the river, which used to be where the docks and the factories and the steelyards were and now is a kind of postindustrial parkway.

At any rate. I’ve seen Serra’s Matter of Time twice since coming here; it’s probably the best reason to visit the Guggenheim (overpriced compared to the Museo de Bellas Artes, which has a bigger collection & is free on Wednesdays). Photographs of it are kind of beside the point—lacking better words, I’ll just reprint here what I wrote in my notebook while sitting in the center of one of those loops of steel:

Richard Serra’s labyrinth: a nautilus, high rust-colored walls, sloped steel, narrowing & widening. An endless feeling, walking through, something about the angles producing a self-renewing feeling of anticipation, of expectation — almost there . . . . A constant sense of being about to arrive, that something decisive is approaching. Deceptively simple.

Appropriate for Bilbao, which has been forging steel since the 6th c.

Being inside the pieces warps your sense of space. You loose yourself. The walls bulge and recede in equal measure. You are made to feel endlessness, momentum, sudden absence of light. Sounds become distant. Someone whistles, a thousand miles away. Far-off footfalls.

The snake [center] is darker than the others, gradients of light near the lip. Stamp your food and the echoes are inhuman. The walls ring like gongs. One spiral feels like it is collapsing, the walls changing color, and you lean to avoid the fall.

A week or so later, Serra came up —one of those moments where what you read all seems to be interrelated— in a Believer interview with Dave Hickey. (About all of these Believer references: I don’t have internet at home. One day, I opened every free online article in the Believer in a tabbed browser so that I’d have something in English to read at night before I go to bed. This is the result.)

DH: Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree. Actually, Bruce Nauman is pretty funny. Everybody pretends that he’s not, but clown torture is pretty funny! You know? And, uh, I think Peter Saul is funny, he’s very witty, and I think Ellsworth Kelly is not funny but he’s witty, and Ed Ruscha is extremely funny and extremely witty, you know?

SH: I love Serra but he’s not funny.

DH: No, well, but Richard’s smart. And he’s an artist. He can’t talk without drawing. He’s the real fucking thing. Not nice.

SH: Not nice. No, he doesn’t seem so nice. [Laughs]

DH: But Richard’s really fun to go look at art with, because he will look at anything, and he likes to look at art, and when you see him you don’t sit around. He says, “Let’s go look at art,” so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.

More photographs — the dumbest way to experience Serra ever — on my tumblr. Tomorrow, I want to take this quotation & think about what seriousness as an infectious form of stupidity might mean.