A dose of perspective

Things are getting pretty real.

Next week is my last week of college classes. The week after is my last finals week. That weekend is graduation.

It’s a terrifying time, definitely putting the last four years of my life into perspective — a perspective that is about to totally change.

So when I was scrolling through my Instagram feed today, I wasn’t surprised that I got stuck on Nuno Assis.

Assis is an architect living in Macau — one of China’s administrative region — who I found on one of those “12 people you should follow on Instagram” lists I turn to whenever I get annoyed with yet another picture of a well-lit cocktail from a subpar restaurant. I liked his work immediately, enjoying how he plays with geometry and scale. But today, I stumbled upon his image of a sky in Seac Pai Van, Macau, and was taken aback.

Nuno Assis

It’s a simple picture, showing high-rise buildings demarcating the sky with jagged edges. The pale blue mass above is trapped, reigned in by these man-made creations.

The image itself is gorgeous. Assis composed the shot perfectly, taking full advantage of the geometry of the situation. The snapshot takes the mundane and gives it life and interest. I am a firm believer in the importance of perspective in photography, and Assis plays with it masterfully.

Today, the image was exactly what I needed. My future seems like the blue expanse of the sky: unknown and unbounded. The possibilities are exciting and also frightening. But for now, I have a path. I have an internship for the summer and an idea of what I want to do after. These plans are giving me the security I need, structuring my journey much like the high rises in Assis’ image give structure to the otherwise limitless sky.

His other pictures are similarly geometric, often placing people in the midst of grand architecture that leaves them dwarfed. He never goes for the obvious, always drawing the viewer’s attention to a detail he or she probably never considered.

Looking up at the sky is a tricky task. Sometimes, it can be entirely overwhelming. It’s so obviously significant compared to our fragile, tiny selves. But then, the sky contains everything possible, anything we can or will be. It blankets our every move, protecting us from what lies beyond.

On the brink of perhaps the greatest change in my life so far, looking up at the sky as Assis found it gives me comfort. I don’t know quite what I’m looking for, but it’s out there somewhere. All I have to do is find it.

Women hiding in plain sight

I guess I’m on a little bit of a photo-project kick lately. I keep finding thought-provoking photographs online that thankfully distract me from opening yet another Facebook tab. Maybe this is growing up?

Today, I stumbled upon a beautiful series by Hossein Fatemi for The New York Times. As is typical for the paper’s Sunday Exposures, “Veiled Truths” is gorgeously photographed and smartly designed.  It depicts Iranian women through the fabric of a hijab, a head scarf that some Islamic groups require women to wear in the presence of men.

At first, I was struck by the beauty. The link opened on a full-screen image of an impeccably made-up woman in a hijab behind a film of red. The piece’s title cuts across her neck in a slash of bold white, seemingly separating her from the outside world. Her defiant expression is far from helpless — more like detached.

"Veiled Truths"

She and the women who follow look like dreams, caught behind a film of tradition and expectations. By showing them behind hijabs, Fatemi makes the statement that these women are rendered unreachable by mere pieces of fabric. Interestingly, most of the hijabs match the women’s makeup or outfits, depicting the garb as an extension of themselves. They are not complete without it.

Of course, some of the women choose to wear hijabs because of their beliefs. However, the other women are forced to live lives clouded by their government’s views.

"Veiled Truths"The text explains the project was inspired by Fatemi’s friend who was held by police in Tehran because she wasn’t wearing a hijab, which is required in the country. She told him he shouldn’t just take war photographs but should show what life in modern Iran is really like. Though Fatemi explains that Iran’s new, more moderate president has said that women should be encouraged by education to follow clothing policies, women still face police action for their defiance.

Fatemi uses powerful imagery to show the reality of these women’s lives. He uses the fabric of the hijab to represent the governmental control that denies the women of Iran the right to choose to whom they reveal themselves. I have read about hijabs many times over the years, but this series really drove home the experience for me. The title says it all: These women’s true selves are a mystery, shrouded behind a collection of thread.

Capturing humanity in the passing of time

What happens after we’re gone?

It’s a question that plagues generation after generation. Humans have always been concerned about the legacy we’re leaving behind. Will we be remembered for more than global warming? Will our contributions matter to anyone but our relatives? Will the people we respect miss our presence?

It’s hard to know, but photographer Romain Veillon makes a beautiful stab at it.

"Sands of Time" by Romain Veillon

The artist spent a week in a town called Kolmanskop in the Namibian desert. Now abandoned, the village was once home to German diamond miners who settled in the area in 1908. The article that led me to Veillon’s work explains that settlers said diamonds were so easy to find, they sparkled in the sand at night. The town grew and along with it, the accouterment of settlement: a bowling alley, a casino, an ice factory. The town hospital was home to Africa’s first x-ray machine, which Veillon says was used mostly to make sure miners weren’t swallowing their findings.

But with World War I came a decrease in diamond prices, and by 1954, Kolmanskop was abandoned.

Veillon’s series of photographs, titled “Les sables du temps” (“The Sands of Time”), shows the reality of the town as it now stands: A collection of buildings filling slowly with sand. Once brightly painted rooms are now peeling walls boxing in mountains of desert.

The results are hauntingly beautiful, dreamlike even. The play of light on the sand is almost welcoming, but it’s clear that humans are no longer welcome.

These works demonstrate that the fleeting constructions of man are no match for the quiet strength of nature. Though humanity has tried to impose its will in this quiet corner of Namibia, the earth — which has infinite time — simply outlasted the settlers and took back control.

At first, I thought the images were a little disheartening, a reminder that no matter how hard we try, we ultimately fade into irrelevance.

"Sands of Time" by Romain Veillon

Then, I went to Veillon’s website. He explains that to him, the photographs capture the inevitable passing of time. The fact that one day there will be nothing reminds us of the importance of enjoying life right now.

Maybe we won’t be remembered. Maybe our contributions won’t mean much. Maybe the people we respect will slowly forget us. But right now, we’re here, and Veillon’s photographs urge us to make the most of it.

Meet me halfway

As much as I hate to admit it, I rarely take on projects that aren’t assigned to me. I always intend to break the Mod Podge out of the craft closet or teach myself how to code a brilliant website, but I never end up making something until I need a last-minute gift, and I didn’t start learning how HTML works until I enrolled in a class. For some reason, I need that voice of authority to bully me into putting my half-formed dreams into action.

This week, my friend sent me the perfect get-yourself-in-gear YouTube channel. I’m not a huge video watcher, though I can sure get sucked into cat antics when responsibilities roll around, but with a name like “The Art Assignment,” I thought I’d give it a shot.

The show is a weekly PBS production that revolves around curator Sarah Green and author John Green introducing different American artists who propose a project for viewers to complete. It’s a great concept, giving those of us who desperately want to be artistic a way to join the dialogue. In the first episode, the Greens bring Douglas Paulson and Christopher Robbins (not of “Winnie the Pooh” fame) to talk about meeting in the middle.

Robbins is a proponent of international growth and has built structures all over the globe. Paulson tends toward collaboration, finding people passionate about design projects like creating a city for kittens. The two met when Robbins started reaching out to artists who were “using art for an excuse to have an adventure.” One day, Paulson got one of Robbins’ emails and responded with a proposition that the two meet halfway. Robbins, being devious, said the two should meet literally halfway — Paulson was in Serbia, and he was in Copenhagen. To his surprise, Paulson was in, and the men agreed to meet at the exact middle point: the center of a lake in the Czech Republic. They set some rules, and all communication stopped until the men found one another.

That’s the assignment they propose to the viewer: Find someone, draw a line between you, and meet in the middle.

John Green steps in, wondering how this can be considered art, which leads Sarah Green on a discussion about art that doesn’t end in a tangible object. She points to a quote by Roy Ascott, a British cyber artist: “Stop thinking about art works as objects and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” The project forces participants to turn a place that’s taken for granted into an adventure and, by extension, an artistic experience.

It all reminded me of a class I took a couple years back in a relatively new art movement called relational aesthetics. It’s all about human interaction as art, begging the age-old question of whether putting something in a gallery setting suddenly makes it worthy of the label. The prime example in the class was a show where an artist set up a spread of Chinese food in a gallery and invited people to eat. That was the artwork. Trying to explain the concept to people not in my class always got a little dicey, but I found it fascinating. If art is meant to capture the human experience, then why can’t the experience itself be art?

So, as the show ends with Paulson and Robbins cracking open a beer on the rooftop that’s the halfway point between their stateside homes, I felt the itch of wanderlust. Anyone in? I’ll meet you halfway.

What is art? Man Ray’s ‘Gift’

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"
Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” / Photo from greynotgrey.com

Way up there in the list of artistic concepts that have traumatized, appalled and downright confused the general population is Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Duchamp was a surrealist if there ever was one, creating somewhere in the space between dreams and reality. His readymades were found objects that were often placed in the gallery, separated from their original context and marked with a signature. He argued that by placing these objects in a gallery setting, they were now art. It was the ultimate in sassy, challenging the notion that art objects had to be grand, meaningful works that have received the seal of approval from those in the know. Perhaps the most famous is his “Fountain” from 1917. He hung a porcelain urinal the wrong way, signed it “R. Mutt 1917” and drove the art world crazy.

Deriving from the readymade is a work we just talked about in my history of photography class: “Gift” by Man Ray. Bringing this up is making me realize I have no idea what this sculpture had to do with photography and how it fit into that day’s lesson, but I suppose that’s a concern for my grade on the midterm and not this post.

Man Ray's "Gift"
Man Ray’s “Gift” (1921) / Photo from moma.org

The sculpture consists of an everyday iron with 14 brass tacks glued down the center. Apparently, Man Ray made the piece the afternoon before one of his shows opened in 1921, leaving it unlisted in the catalogue. It’s typical of his work, which used unusual juxtapositions to comment on social issues — see “Le Violin d’Ingres.”

But the simplicity of “Gift” has stayed with me. Man Ray took something functional and rendered it unusable. It’s now an impossible object. Since it doesn’t serve any practical purpose, it has to be art. With this, he refutes the concept of high art as the only kind of art in a definitive way.

Beyond the obvious juxtaposition of two objects with very different uses is the name Man Ray has given the work. This is the sort of gift a spouse has to sleep on the couch for giving. But deeper than that, the work can also be seen as a comment on middle-class values. An iron is firmly the domain of a woman, who is told to derive satisfaction and contentment from running the home. She should be gentle and kind, dutifully doing her tasks. By adding the tacks, Man Ray shows the frustrations of these standards. Women at the time were entrapped by the very role they were supposed to cherish, which is reflected in the violent spikes protruding from the iron.

Of course, I’m not sure Man Ray had these feminist ideals. Regardless, the plight of women was probably not his main crusade. But art is blissfully open to interpretation, and for the modern woman, “Gift” certainly makes some interesting comments about the usefulness of the roles forced upon women for so long. So to Man Ray, I say thanks. You’ve gifted me a work I can’t get out of my head. Touche, sir.

Color me surprised

“Boston Massacre” by Larry Rivers, 1970 (Photo from legendaryauctions.com)

The Boston Massacre was many things: violent, extreme, inciting, maybe even a little blown out of proportion. What doesn’t come to mind when thinking about the Boston Massacre – or really any massacre, for that matter – is the word colorful. When a whole lot of death is involved, color isn’t people’s first concern.  And the hues that do come to mind are not too cheerful: a lovely snow white tinged with blood red and mud brown.

When I turned the corner of the Harn – the museum I interned at last year – for the first time in months, I was sucked in by the bold screenprints splashed across the wall under the words “Boston Massacre.” There were greens and pinks and blues, all neon everything. Color layered on color topped with guns. Every figure, with sketch marks left for all to see, was proudly equipped with a weapon. Some leisurely held their firearms to the side, some led the way with their bayonets in the air, and others left me staring straight down the barrel.

It was a jarring juxtaposition – the cheery colors and the cold cruelty of the soldiers. The technique screamed Warhol, and I was taken aback that I had never seen the pieces before, fairly certain I had, at one point or another, gotten my hands on most things the man had made in his lifetime.

Turns out that the artist responsible was Larry Rivers. Somehow, combing galleries and museums and the dark recesses of the Internet for contemporary art had never led me in his direction. Still, it only took glancing at his work and the year to realize he’d been quite the inspiration to my beloved Warhol, which a little research confirmed.

Rivers was a mid-20th century painter stuck somewhere between abstract expressionism and the beginnings of pop. His pieces throw together the historic and the modern. The last Civil War veteran is captured in bold, abstracted planes of color. Men in old-fashioned Dutch attire are juxtaposed with a Dutch Masters cigar box. In much of his work, the colors are far more muted than in his Boston Massacre series. But somehow, Rivers knew. For the Boston Massacre, the bold colors make sense.

“Boston Massacre” by Larry Rivers, 1970 (Photo from: liveauctioneers.com)

The bright backgrounds contrast with simple drawings of men and guns to demonstrate the intensity of the event. Most of the men are featureless, mere shapes with splotches of color and a few lines to indicate their form. They’re not important. What’s relevant is the graphic result of the arguably minimal event. These five dead men made a huge impact, and by surrounding them with neon colors, Rivers shows the bold effects they had on the formation of America, despite their anonymity.

It’s times like this that keep me hooked on museums. On a random Wednesday, I wandered into a place I thought I knew every inch of and left madly in love. There’s nothing quite like it, I thought, scribbling “Larry Rivers” on my palm with the guestbook pen. I then promptly shoved my hand deep into my blazer as I walked out into the bipolar Florida air, the reminder of a new collection of works to explore pulsing in my pocket.