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Arts and Sciences

Last week was the end of DOXA fest here in Vancouver and, while I’d planned on putting up a little post about it while it was still on, I happily spent all my spare time casting shadows in the flickering light of the projectors at the Cinematheque and the Vancity Theatre watching intensely beautiful and, sometimes scientifically themed documentaries.

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In the well-planned variety of films chosen this year, I saw men driven mad by probable government agents feeding them stories of aliens so as to distract them from the stealth bomber testing they’d observed, a wordless scenes of a life and death in a rural Brazilian village, doom metal from the apocalyptic landscape of post-financial-crisis Las Vegas, and astronomers peering up from the Atacama desert in to the past life of stars while old ladies searched the sand with small shovels for the bones of their loved ones taken from them during the ‘disappearances’ common under Pinochet’s rule.

The theme of the festival – secrets and lies – ran through all these films. But something else surfaced from within the stories of the people and the places on screen. Something linking science to art. Through the science most of us are exposed to today, we know so much about the way the world works. Whether it be tourism, astrophotography, animal husbandry, or government atrocities, there’s a reality that can be studied and documented.

What I felt was being captured in the festival – the art of it – was the showcase of how individual’s emotions fit into the documentable reality, and, more importantly, how they sometimes don’t. The resulting pictures are of sorrow, longing, and misplaced happiness and how people fit their own emotional lives into the reality of the world.

Not too long ago I saw another kind of artistic capture of something from the world of science in the photography of Rose-Lynn Fisher and especially in her studies of human tears. I won’t copy the images here, but her site has a series of pictures which capture the differences of tears between persons and between feelings. I was especially struck by an image called “Tears of change” where a large, squared rather solid-looking crystal is surrounded by a sea of shattered wavy ripples. Each image is unique and I’m sure connected to the person’s thoughts and feelings at the time the tears were shed.

So now I wonder if this is the role of the artist – to capture the emotional life of a being’s living reality. How much of this reality is based in our surroundings, our situation? How much of that situation does the artist need to show in order to help the viewer understand the emotion? The documentary format is, of course, the ideal platform for the kind of presentation that provides that context.

In the images of tears, we have to wonder about the person’s situation based on the title of each image. This is powerful too – in order to identify the situation that could have caused the tears, we look inward to an experience of our own we could conjure. Something our reality has included that made us cry similar tears.

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Summer, according to my phone.

Recently, I was asked what thing about people bothered me the most – as in, did I have an irrational fear of the elderly or an instant dislike of people who perpetually told you the gritty details of their health problems. It was one of those things that you can only talk about with close friends, but we all have ‘peves’ with each other and it makes for pretty good fun to identify the minimally terrible and often hilarious things about your friends that you so enjoy.

One of the things we didn’t bring up was over-use of cell phones that seems to have become socially acceptable. It’s a practice of mine that I don’t use my phone when I’m talking to, sitting with, or generally in the same area as someone I know. Right next to hand written letters, I think people sharing time with each other is one of the greatest things about friendship and family. These days, so many conversations between two or more humans is perpetually stopped or distracted by looks into pockets or screen-based chats. Hopefully this is a trend that will die out as we realize how rude we are being to each other. Not trying to sound like a bossy old lady, but one can only hope.

In the meantime, I must admit that I remain undecided about the addition of phone cameras into our lives. While I’m certainly no professional, I have appreciated photography since I was given access to my dad’s old 35mm Cannon with detachable lenses when I was eight or maybe twelve. Seeing the working mechanisms of a little dark place that made printed copies of things that otherwise exist only in memory made me want to take pictures, study photographer’s styles and techniques, and generally appreciate thoughtful and interesting documentation of the world.

Perhaps mistakenly, I often don’t carry a camera these days because I can rely on my phone to take snapshots. This brings me back round to the over-use issue and, like I said, I actually don’t know where I stand on this. Yesterday, I purposefully didn’t bring a camera or my phone to the release of a hand full of Harbor Seals that I had helped care for as a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Center. This was the annual volunteer-led release where the people who have helped feed and clean and grow and heal get to carry cages down to the water and release now-healthy seals. The beach is usually cluttered with friends and family and yesterday was no exception. The dry beach where we were was pretty shallow and everyone was standing as close as they could almost piled on top of each other. Amidst the crowded bodies, all arm were up and out; everyone was ready with their phone cameras.

What I’m afraid of is that this sort of photography removes us from the moments we are experiencing. There’s no zoom on those things, after all, so we must push our way to the front and sometimes get so close that we loose the perspective of a regular camera man – one where you take the whole scene into account, where the background matters too.

On the way home, I looked though the things I had photographed this summer and found another layer to the argument – I had not remembered several of the events documented with a quick snap, or should I say finger press, of the camera phone. For this, spy-camera-sized and instantly obtainable photo ability, I guess I’ll have to say I’m glad. But I still think we should put phones down more often and really look around, listen to each other, and try to remember the events of our lives. Here are a few that, thanks to having the phone,  I’ll remember from this summer.

My first 'swim' in BC waters. Can you believe it took so long?

My first ‘swim’ in BC waters. Can you believe it took so long?

Weird things downtown.

Weird things downtown.

That afternoon we went to a neat forest on the riverside with some good friends.

That afternoon we went to a neat forest on the riverside with some good friends.

Neon.

Neon.

Wine and sunshine.

Wine and sunshine.

Cute street scenes.

Cute street scenes.

Tomatoes!

Tomatoes!

Jorts!

Jorts!

A day at the pool in Stanley Park.

A day at the pool in Stanley Park.

Visits to a muddy border.

Visits to a muddy border.

A picnic at Green College.

A picnic at Green College.

A paperweight at the Vancouver archives embellished with the humor of an antiquarian.

A paperweight at the Vancouver archives embellished with the humor of an antiquarian.

Finding this map of what Coal Harbor was going to look like once.

Finding this map of what Coal Harbor was going to look like once.

The plan I made for my Green Streets garden.

The plan I made for my Green Streets garden.

The walkway into the Anthropology museum.

Appreciating the walkway into the Anthropology museum.

Finding a view of the fireworks form our bedroom window.

Finding a view of the fireworks form our bedroom window.

Meeting this guy.

Meeting this guy.

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Touch Wood

In Florida, pines are the predominant trees. Specifically Slash Pine, Sand Pine and Scrub Pine in the place where I grew up. These trees have a lot of strength in what’s called ‘heartwood’. This means their centers are tougher than rot and, often, tougher than fire. You’ll see the heartwood of a fallen pine still strong and silvery years after the bark and inner layers have sunk back into the Earth. It’s prized as firewood because it burns slow and steady. While the trees grow skinny and scraggly, the heartwood bends in the winds off the Gulf shaping the trees near the shore into strange, back-bent shapes that make little hide-a-ways and branches good for sitting.  Grown up in planted lines, the heartwood reaches up straight and high and hosts tuffs of needles only at the very top. Walking in planted pines as a little kid I used to think these were tall, and they are for their landscape. Now I live here and I’ve met the likes of Douglas Fir and Giant Red Cedar and it turns out I don’t know so much about tall.

These true west coast giants don’t compare to the trees back home aside from their both having bark and needles and roots. Almost nothing else is recognizable. Standing under a Sequoia is like being invited to look behind the curtain of time and remember the ghosts of the forrest as they were hundreds, even thousands of years ago. They almost breathe they are so large. Around them, the woods are often quiet. The woods are big here and animals are spread out.  No packs of Blue Jays or Cardinals to cheep cheep and, if there are little birds, they flit and fly two hundred feet up above you.

The other difference is that many of the trees here aren’t supported by their heartwood, which is why you can walk into the bellies some of them.  Stanley Park is famous for a photo of Victorian-era people standing on the big old shell of a tree that’s left near Prospect Point. It’s got a triangular opening, like the slit of a a tight skirt, and you can walk right into the tree’s empty innards. The heartwood dies here and rots back into the earth in piles of red sawdust gathered by the outside bark layers holding up giants.

Some of this is grandness is visible at the current sculpture exhibition at VanDusen Botanical Gardens which lasts through the end of September. The exhibit, called Touch Wood, is a collection of wood sculptures by a dozen or so B.C. artists placed in obvious and not-so-obvious places through the garden. Here where the woods are so different from the kind I know and where the trees have had such an important role in the lives of the people here, it’s really a beautiful way to get to know these trees better.

We’ve been to the Garden a few times since this exhibit opened, but the other night we arrived just in time to catch that lovely twilight hour just before they closed. Summer’s end is near, visible not only in the cooling of the air around us each evening, but also in the reduced hours many of Vancouver’s attractions are about to envoke. In these few snapshots of carvings made from big, empty trees taken on one of the last late evenings for VanDusen this year will be one of a few different ways I’ll say farewell to another summer in a land of empty trees.

Nine Sentinels by Brent Comber

Nine Sentinels by Brent Comber. In this sculpture, you can stand where the heartwood should be.

Shattered Sphere also by Brent Comber

Shattered Sphere also by Brent Comber

Ghost Salmon by Paul Burke

Ghost Salmon by Paul Burke

close up of the Nine Sentinels

close up of the Nine Sentinels

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Museum of Anthropology

On a recent trip to the UBC area we made a little stop at the Museum of Anthropology to check out the visiting installation of art from Arabic artists. This is Vancouver’s first major exhibit of modern work from places like Iran and Turkey and we were curious to have a look. The exhibit, called Safar/Voyage (“voyage” being the word safar translated from Persian) and encompasses views on the world as seen through the eyes of modern middle easterners.

The exhibit is on now through mid September.

The exhibit is on now through mid September.

The works display an interaction with themes of tradition, border crossing, a sense of belonging, living with violence, and a search for identity. The pieces have clear messages hidden both within the physical forms of the art and also within the context of the visual elements.

What I found perhaps most interesting about the exhibit is that it includes so many different kinds of media. There are paintings, brass sculpture, video installations, photography, neon, and even a hand-woven carpet. I found the dramatic clash of media helped to tell the story of people seeking, journeying, finding, or, perhaps, not finding. I saw strength as well as sadness in most of the pieces – pride despite victimization, courage despite hopelessness.

Photos weren’t permitted but you can see some of the exhibit’s pieces online. A neat feature, but there’s reason enough to visit MOA just to interact with and appreciate the scale of the large instalation pieces or to spend a few moments with the photography and paintings.

MOA also offers access to an amazing collection of cultural relics from all over the world. The central rooms display thousands of artifacts from clothing to tools to visual art and furniture in glass cases (allowing you to see the front, back and sides of the pieces). There are also drawers full of additional pieces in cabinets throughout these Multiversity Galleries. It feels a bit like you have been granted access to the museum’s behind-the-scenes catalog — a browsing system available there steers you to specific interests or you can just wander through shelves of masks, pottery, hair adornments and other objects by region or time period.

I always like looking into the restoration rooms that are restricted but offer a nice view into the world of preservation anyway.

Restoration, preservation.

Restoration, preservation.

A healthy collection of art and objects collected from in and around British Columbia is always on display as well as an incredible goruping of European ceramics. I am always intrigued to visit the totems in the Great Hall and, especially in the lovely May weather we’ve been having, sit outside near the Hida houses.

Tour guides will talk about the history of original settelers here and a little about the ethical issues that arise in the display of First Nations carvings and ceremonial artifacts. Not knowing very much of the cultural history of this area myself, I always try to tag along a tour for at least part of my visit and hear what I can. To see the impressive size and skill of the carvings begs for an understanding of where they once stood and what they were meant for. The glass and concrete of their current museum home seems at odds with the naturalness of the shapes. It also seems, for all it’s modern stregnth, unable to contain the spirit of the works even now.

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Maybe just a visitor in the museum’s Great Hall.

 

 

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Bathtub Scholar – “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books”

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“The Universal History of the Destruction of Books” by F. Baez is, simply, as sad as it sounds like it’s going to be. Written more like an encyclopedia than a typical pop history title, the author takes us painfully through the years listing instances of fear mongering, political maneuvering, back stabbing, deceit, religious tyranny, unfortunate accidents, and plain human foolishness that makes up the history of the lost written word.

Each instance is given but a cold retelling of events; the author’s lack of emotion in some instances reads like a coping mechanism developed after researching such a dark subject.

What have I’ve learned so far?

Mostly that humans seem to have always lacked recognition and respect for what should be preserved. A change in leadership? Everything from ‘before’ into the flames, if you please. New technology? Well, let’s just copy a few things over and throw out all that other old stuff. Or use them to light the laps (yes, this was the sad fate of many thousands of books).

Perhaps more interesting is the observed power of the written word that seems to permeate every culture, time, religion and political force–the book as a weapon. Since it’s inception, thee written word has been punished with more severity than a common criminal for its association with the ability to change us more than some of our leaders have thought acceptable. The fear is evident in the many instances of fiery ends that our books have faced and I’ve only read through the part on Early Christians.

I’ve been interested by the desire among humans to eat books in order to consume their knowledge that Baez lists. Sometimes done to protect a book, often in history this was seen as way to ‘ingest’ the knowledge contained within in a spiritual way.

Also interesting to read about are the major burnings outside the most commonly known ones (like the Library of Alexandria) including a massive effort to contain Christianity during its juvenile years. Sects like Euchites (proclaimers that the Devil could not be looked upon so harshly since he was, after all, a son of God)  and the Adamites (who wanted humans to return to their original, nude state) threatened to change the shape of the Church so their priests, and perhaps more importantly, their texts were burned.

Amidst the terrible accounts of, say, finding a catalogue of a long-ago-destroyed Ancient Greek library that details hundreds of titles we have simply never seen but now know to have once existed, there are also stories of great courage and beauty. My favorite so far is a story from a Swiss monastery where, in 926, one of the women had a terrible vision and buried the books from the library. A day later an attack came and the library was burned. The woman, Wiborda, lay mutilated and dying on the place where the books were buried. The first woman formally canonized Wiborda is the patron saint of bibliophiles.

I’ll end by quoting a deacon from Spain who was noted as shouting the following as he and his texts came before the flames: “The fire with which you threaten sacred letters will burn you in an act of justice!” As I read more (and save this book safely on my shelf… hopefully) I will certainly be looking for some possibly literal consequences of his curse.

 

 

 

 

 

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civil war

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“Civil War” as seen circa 1990.

When I was about ten I saw a movie about the Donner Party on the PBS show American Experience. A hauntingly narrated story about being lost on a mountain and resorting what you would have though impossible, it was told with photographs and letters. No actors, no special effects. Just shots of beautiful country with the words of people who suffered there read aloud. This, I would learn, was the method of one Ken Burns. He’s made movies about all kinds of things and most people in the States have been put to watch at least some of his work (although it might have been in a history classroom). Living in Canada now, these letters and stories have returned in my imagination. Not only do people here not know who Burns is, they often don’t have tangible understanding of some of my favorite things about good, old ‘MeriKa.

Maybe it was all that public television (read: cannibalism-documentary-viewing) at a young age but I’ve maintained a keen interest in what most will shirk away from (favorite photographer, favorite movie to watch at Christmas, I could go on…). Here the worst thing you’ll hear on the news is, well, I can’t even think of anything that I’ve been really upset by lately. So maybe it’s that. Whatever started it, I now stand by a tradition of watching 1990s “The Civil War” start to finish every year at about this time of year.

Last night I finished episode 5, “The Universe of Battle.” Here’s a clip from the discussion of Gettysburg. By now Grant is leading the charge and progress has been made against the unknowable Lee and the southern Confederates. Sherman has yet to march to the sea and Lincoln’s fate us yet unforeseen.

After three years of this you might think I’d be as good as a war historian, but each time I’m picking up something new. It’s a chronological film, but there’s more than ten hours of it and, just like for the rest of us, hindsight in 1863 was 20/20; seeing the end first helps shape an understanding of the beginning. Plus there’s a good bit of commentary from one my my favorite Americans, Mr. Shelby Foote to whom I will never grow tired of listening.

This is strictly a weekend evening adventure so I’ll have a the rest of the month to go. There is, after all, no need and no good to come from rushing a chance to feel connected to a place you knew and a people you were.

three confederates

Three Confederates. Foote describes them as a picture of the soul of the South. Especially the one on the right with his arms spiritedly tucked into suspenders brazenly posing even after being captured by the Union.

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