art, China, development, environment

Phantom Landscapes: Wherein China’s built environment overtakes the natural one

A few years ago, the China Environmental Protection Foundation worked with advertising firm J Walter Thompson’s Shanghai office on an anti-pollution campaign featuring the work of Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang. Certainly the message here is as relevant today as it was in 2009.

(Click to enlarge)

A couple of the images appear to be from a series Yang calls Phantom Landscape II. While the work here takes off from the old shan shui style of landscape painting (shan means mountain, shui water), I believe these are digital creations. In any case, shan shui is one of the most evocative styles around, and Yang’s take on it is a lot of fun to look at. You can see more at his website.

Below: From a completely different series, A Bowl of Taipei 1
Image of mountains in a bowl by Yang Yongliang.

art, history, movies, music, race

Steamboat Willie


“Steamboat Willie” was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. [First distributed in theaters, not first produced —Ed.] It premiered November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. It was also the first cartoon to have synchronized sound.

If you watch the whole thing, which I had never done until last year, you’ll see it’s also a catalog of animal abuse that would not pass muster today.

screenshot of mickey mouse pressing his shoe on the back of a cat's neck

Since I mention abuse: About halfway through, the song “Turkey in the Straw” starts playing. I never gave much though to the single verse of lyrics that my brother and I learned for this song as kids. (I also never learned that version asking if your ears hang low.) A quick look at Wikipedia suggests that they were from a variation sung by George Gobel on television in the ’50s. Ours went a little like this:

Oh, I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg,
So I poured hot water up and down her leg,
Oh, the little chicken hollered and the little chicken begged,
And that darn little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

Ouch! Poor little chicken.

1918 sheet music cover portraying a fashionable african-american man called the zip coonLike folk music in general, this song has undergone all kinds of tweaking and transformations. In fact, one of the earliest versions had the unfortunate title “Zip Coon,” a minstrelsy reference to an African-American who was sharply dressed, urban, and free. Or, to use another more subtly charged word that is still around: uppity.

Maybe that earlier song variation could makes sense in the Steamboat Willie context, given the criticism of Mickey Mouse as minstrel.

Fortunately, we were spared the blatant racial mockery when we learned our lyrics. Though if you want to insist on some social subtext, I suppose there was some gender silliness: the hard-boiled-egg-laying chicken’s sex was variable in our singing. Sometimes we poured hot water up and down his leg.


David Levine

A great talent whom I’d meant to write more about sooner. He died today. I knew his work through the New York Review of Books, for which he’d been drawing for nearly 50 years. Some of my favorites of his include:

He drew with an appealing wit and detail. The circumstances of the job meant that it was not only the literary or political or scientific superstars who got the Levine treatment, but lesser known academics, writers and philosophers. The obituaries take note of his cutting commentary on politics, notably Lyndon Johnson, Henry Kissinger, and Vietnam. And they’re right on, as was Levine. But I always just liked how his drawings looked.

A wealth of illustrations are on the New York Review of Books site.

Photo of kite photography at Crissy Field.
art, cool

Trip the Kite Fantastic

It’s fun to take pictures from high up. A few years ago, a friend working as a wedding planner let me roam around the top floor of the Bank of America building as she set up someone’s wedding ceremony. These were the best sustained views of San Francisco I’ve ever had.


In the picture above, you can see hundreds of boats clustered on the Bay. They were out watching the annual Blue Angels airshow. Whenever the jets buzzed past the tower, the wedding party, killing time until the ceremony, would rush to the windows.

a view to the north

It was around this time, I think, that I stumbled across the work of Cris Benton on Flickr. I didn’t know who he was or how, exactly, he did it, but he was taking great aerial photos. Over the years, I discovered that he is a professor of architecture at Berkeley. (Even later on, I’d find out that one of my closest friends actually worked for him at the school.) But I kept coming back to Benton’s photography, and his multidisciplinary Hidden Ecologies project.

Benton makes his own radio-controlled camera rigs and then hoists them into the air with kite-power. I wrote about Benton’s work in the latest issue of California magazine, in a story titled “A View from Above.” That’s him in action in the photo at the top of his post.

That picture was taken at Crissy Field last Easter Sunday, a popular spot for windsurfers (and kite-flyers) because the wind blows so powerfully through the Golden Gate. The kite at this moment is still relatively low, compared to the altitude he’d reach a few minutes later. But it gives a good sense of what he’s doing. I drew this up to help illustrate:


Over the next 40 minutes or so, dozens of people stopped to watch. Eventually, so many came by to ask questions that I was answering on his behalf as he worked to keep the kite under control. (He later told me that when someone stops to ask what he’s doing, he’ll explain and then ask them to stick around and act as a docent, handling all the gawkers who inevitably follow).

Benton’s been doing this for about 15 years, but kite photography has been around for a lot longer. One of the most compelling historical images of San Francisco was taken soon after the 1906 earthquake, and it was taken using kites. The photographer George Lawrence fashioned his Lawrence Captive Airship from a train of kites and a huge camera (I’ve heard something like 50 pounds, with a negative suitable for 18×48-inch prints). He took what I think of as the iconic picture of San Francisco in ruins — from 2,000 feet up.


Benton’s an incredibly sharp guy, a great interview and a lot of fun. If you’re curious about kite photography or how to get into it, check out his Notes on Kite Aerial Photography. It’s a few years old, but the message boards continue to be a active, a lively set of discussions and a good resource for anyone looking for tips or guidance from the kite aerial photography community. His work put him on the cover of the first issue of Make magazine, and if you have eight minutes or so, I urge you to watch Make Television’s video of him doing his thing:

Story: The View From Above
Issue: May/June 2009

art, money

Following up on the Bad Case of the Mondays; or, the Golden Spike.

On Tuesday, I wrote about the financial mess on Wall Street, and pointed out that the gold-medal-winning US women’s soccer team rang the closing bell on Monday. “There’s no investment like gold,” I wrote.

Gold! I should have put my money where my blog is. Wednesday, the price of gold rose more in value that day than it had on any other, ever, according to the AP.

To give you a sense of the increase, here’s a chart of gold futures from the Financial Times.

gold prices spiked on Wednesday

Not bad. So we’ve got more winners this week, in addition to the soccer team and Damien Hirst: people who owned gold before Wednesday. Good for them.

And as for Hirst, whom I also mentioned in that Tuesday post, the total for his two-day auction came to $199 million. And maybe his work is as reliable an investment as gold (remember the Golden Calf). Don’t know what might bring the value of his work down, other than a massive realignment of perspective. That Hirst doesn’t even make some of his own pieces apparently hasn’t hurt the prices. According to the Economist, Hirst has a set of workshops that sound like a cross between Willy Wonka’s factory and Dafen, China. This probably just helps add to the mystique:

In London Mr Hirst presides over two large industrial units producing the butterfly-wing pictures and his photo-realist paintings. In the Gloucestershire countryside he leases two wartime aircraft hangers for the manufacture of the spot paintings, the spin works and the formaldehyde tanks. He also has a large workshop and an exhibition studio. More than 180 people work for him, creating Damien Hirsts. Two specialists oversee the formaldehyde unit, which on a visit in July contained four dead ponies, a wild boar, an upended cow and, in good “Godfather” style, a horse’s head in a plastic bag.

In the workshop three women were talking about the “Hedgehog”, a device attached to a Hoover. It is a small plastic tube with 20 holes cut into it in which are inserted cut-down cigarettes, some ringed with lipstick. Switch on the Hoover and, hey presto, instant cigarette butts for lot 134 (top estimate, £300,000). In another workshop, three fabricators were painting precisely measured round circles at regular intervals on a white background. These are the famed spot paintings that Mr Hirst says were inspired by playing snooker. The fabricators choose which colour each spot is to be, and use ordinary household paint to apply the shades. The butterfly pictures are made by fabricators who are given the dimensions needed, but are otherwise left to themselves to choose the colours and designs they want. Having given his final approval—sometimes, one fabricator says, only by looking at a photograph—Mr Hirst signs and dates the back of the work.

Just sign here, and we’ll take care of the rest.

anticipation, art, money

Winners and Losers: A bad case of the Mondays for some; others, not so much

Rough day in the markets today. We saw it coming last night (we’ve seen it coming). Choose your loser.

But it ended on a high note, right? The champion U.S. Olympics Women’s Soccer Team was on hand to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. So there were a few winners on Wall Street today. There’s no investment like gold.

women's soccer team at stock exchange

Image via NYSE.

By the way, the opening bell was rung at the NYSE and remotely from Central Park by executives from Starwood and Sheraton. Apparently, they declared today to be GOOD (Get Out of the Office Day). Also, free wi-fi in Sheep Meadow, thanks to them.

Another big winner: Damien Hirst.

Seems appropriate for today. His pieces have incorporated death, drugs, and (financial) excess, with media running toward the prohibitively expensive, like that diamond skull, For the Love of God. Wonder how many of his collectors made their money using the complicated financial gymnastics that threaten to destabilize global markets.

And today Hirst bypassed the usual dealers and went straight to Sotheby’s. It seems as if he sensed his market might be drying up and he cashed out before it was too late. The sale raised $127.2 million–and there’s one more day to go in the sale, called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.” The most expensive piece was a preserved young bull, with golden hooves, golden horns, and a gold disc above its head that sold for more than $18 million. The Golden Calf. Sounds about right.

art, movies

The Abenteuer of Prince Achmed

I recently saw a scene from a film called The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), accompanied by original score, on an arts channel a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a short clip of what I saw, with a new score by the Khoury Trio. Achmed has escaped to China with the princess. The villain is, of course, in pursuit.

The film was made by a German artist named Lotte Reiniger. It is the oldest animated feature in existence (even older films, created by an Argentine animator, are reportedly lost). The images are silhouettes of cardboard and thin lead sheeting; the look is reminiscent of Asian shadow puppetry.

Reiniger finished the film with her husband in 1926. As leftists, the pair fled Germany as the Nazis rose to power and bounced around Europe in the 1930s before settling in London for the rest of their lives.

There are a few Reiniger works from the 1950s on YouTube, fairy tales she animated for BBC. Jack and the Beanstalk, for example:

But they don’t quite have the audacity of a scene like Prince Achmed visiting a harem.

art, history, ideas, language, life, poetry, talent, unfortunate

Enormous Changes, Last Minute: About Grace Paley

Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.

Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.

I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.

I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?

She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.

I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?

And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”

She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.

I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.

She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.


Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.


“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

anticipation, art, cool

I Want One: The Sultan’s Elephant

One of my Flickr contacts is a talented photographer named Simon Crubellier. I like his photos very much. They possess a certain elegance, such as this haunting, lovely photo of Canary Wharf. And there must be something to the kind of person whose interests would run to “urban paranoia and dereliction,” part of the description of Precinct 13, the Flickr group he founded. (He is the Inspector.) With his Canons, many of his pictures have what I like to think of as a “London rinse,” in which the colors of his subjects pop as if just washed and scrubbed. Some photographers, including myself, talk about the light in San Francisco, but it looks as if you can do right by the London light, too.

Need another example? How about La Petite Géante, pictured here. She was part of a performance given in London by France’s Royal de Luxe theatre troupe this weekend. You can read up on this on an informative LiveJournal entry here (read the comments, too), and you can see some interesting video of her in action here.

She was accompanied by the Sultan’s Elephant, photographed by Crubellier as it lumbered through the streets of London on Sunday. In the caption of one of his photos, Crubellier writes of the 11-meter (30 ft) tall mechanical creature, “I want one.” I couldn’t agree more.

All photos courtesy of Simon Crubellier.