Days of Bonding at the Boston MFA.

CHINA: Han Dynasty, Tomb Gate, 1st c. CE

I spent two days taking my students through the Boston MFA earlier this month. We started with Ancient China and then worked our way through Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and the Islamic world. We spent about an hour in the Ancient Chinese galleries talking about funerary art ranging from the Bronze Age through the apex of Confucianism and the entry of Buddhism from India.  

Some of the students seemed a little distracted (and maybe I was too), because The Clock was playing in a theater right next to where we were gathered. Waiting politely until our discussion was complete, someone yelped out, "can we please see what this clock thing is?" and since I am borderline obsessed with it myself, we went in. They couldn't tell that I was nearly bursting with happiness at the chance to share it with them.

And of course, this is what comes up during our five minutes in there. Billy Bob Thornton colorfully lamenting the official onslaught of Christmas in Bad Santa. 

Bad Santa

Really, can you blame him? Ok, I should say, I love both this guy and this movie. Watching Bad Santa used to be one of our annual Christmas traditions.
Ah, well. It made for a nice contrast to the silent and ancient art that we spent the day looking at.

This trip marked a shift in the classroom community (for one thing, getting them out of the dark classroom worked wonders). As we looked at so many of the objects and cultures we'd been getting to know back at Colby-Sawyer, I could see my students getting excited. They knew something about these things and it was so much fun having spontaneous conversations about the things we recognized. I loved those two days (I was a little worried that the second day wouldn't compare to the first, but it totally did) and I'm glad that I didn't give up when it seemed like I wasn't going to be able to make the trip happen. Seeing these things together enhanced our connection, the class as a whole and me, their animator of information. What a gratifying experience to hear the student's exclamations when they spotted something, sometimes they would see something before me and would run around asking where I was so that they could proudly point it out.

Some highlights:

CHINA: Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, Sui Dynasty,  580 CE
ANCIENT EGYPT: Menkaure, 2490 BCE
ANCIENT EGYPT: Akhenaten, 1349 BCE
EGYPT: Fayum (Greco-Roman period), Egpyt, 1st c. CE
Encaustic wax portrait on sarcophagus
ANCIENT NEAR EAST: Assyrian Winged Deity featuring Cuneiform: the oldest text!
ETRUSCAN: Sarcophagi, c. 350 BCE
I can't wait to do it again next semester!


Udo Kier! Madonna, But Really Melancholia.

Melencolia I, Albrecht Dürer, Engraving, 1514.
Dürer makes a comment on the superhuman artistic genius and the ephemerality of life.

Last night Orsi and I submitted ourselves to Melancholia, Lars von Trier's latest effort. The beginning reminded me of Matthew Barney, an artist that I don't particularly stomach well. Von Trier's slow motion tableaux were enchanting, to be sure, but the monumental scale and fantastical setting brought me back to my experience with the Cremaster Cycle, one of the only films that I have walked out on. Even during the first few minutes of Melancholia my anxiety levels were shooting up, that music (Wagner's Tristan und Isolde)! I wondered if I would have to make a fool of myself by running away from the oppressive sensory overload that was building and building. But then it skipped ahead to a long reception scene, though this inspired another kind of stress. Orsi and I agreed later that the frenetic, swiping camera work was nausea inducing: audience assault. Effective though, in setting the tone.

I won't say that I liked this film, but I didn't hate it either. I might categorize it as another challenging experience that is certainly a work of art, but not one that necessarily provokes contemplation beyond style. After fulfilling my pre-requisites by enduring Antichrist publicly in a movie theater last year, I suppose I'm inured and even expectant of a full body impact. In contrast to the startling scenes in Antichrist, Melancholia doesn't show graphic violence. During Antichrist I had to hide my eyes several times, even though the rest of the audience (slightly tipsy and inappropriately boisterous) seemed to be there to see the bits of sex and paid little attention to anything else.

Melancholia stylishly shows first the destruction of relationships and people and finally threatens all of us watching, with this looming apocalypse. The closing act seemed intent to annihilate the entire audience. Someone (not me!) has been reading too much Arthur Schopenhauer: fatalistic philosophy. Schopenhauer was a pessimistic German guy who basically said, life isn't worth it, just kill yourself. His philosophy seems to have been inspired by the tenets of Buddhism, especially the concept that desire of any kind leads only to suffering. Disentangling yourself from desire is the only way to achieve spiritual freedom. Since he was so pessimistic, his solution to this (though he did not himself commit the act), was to end the only life you have the right to end. It is his opinion that

"Suicide may also be regarded as an experiment — a question which man puts to Nature, trying to force her to an answer. The question is this: What change will death produce in a man’s existence and in his insight into the nature of things? It is a clumsy experiment to make; for it involves the destruction of the very consciousness which puts the question and awaits the answer.(from Studies on Pessimism, AS)

But, details. The way those luscious textiles draped over the leading ladies Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Charlotte Rampling, was making me twitch with excitement. It was a treat watching them onscreen, especially frolicking in the Scandinavian woods. Oh magical birch trees! I also liked: the spectacular art library and the fleeting images used to support the state of things in the film. This Flemish painting was featured among others.

Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, 1565. Bruegel presents his winter landscape as the main subject. The figures, to the left and with their backs turned toward us, offer no indication of personal feelings.

Some of my favorite characters included the father, whom Orsi tells me is from the Harry Potter movies. I didn't even recognize him, but John Hurt adds a certain charismatic warmth as Justine's Stupid Dad. I also loved seeing Udo Kier as the wedding planner. I was first introduced to him through Madonna, in this classic video for Deeper and Deeper (from Erotica, 1992).

Of course Kier was already a star, having worked most notably with Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Fassbinder, and Dario Argento (Suspiria!). I want to know more people like Udo Kier. He is absolutely incredible. Is he even real?

Blood For Dracula, 1974.

And so, Melancholia: The whole does not equal the sum of its parts. I didn't mind too much though because we decamped to Hungry Mother for some marvelous conversation, drinks and dessert. Butterscotch Pot de Creme with White Pepper and Popcorn Brittle, if you want to know. It was the perfect accompaniment and antidote. 

I find myself thinking more about others things I saw recently. First, Breaking Bad. A television show about a man who enhances his dreary day job as a Chemistry teacher with a dangerous foray into the profitable art of cooking Meth- with a failed student. One strange thought that I had: what if a former student of mine became an art thief? Weird. Also: I highly recommend Terri (2011), written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Quiet and understated, it left me wanting more and with plenty of questions. Alex had some interesting things to say about it.


Ancient Chinese Vessels (Boston MFA Visit Tomorrow)!

After struggling through red tape for a full week (please, please let my students leave the state with me and see amazing works of art), finally, the trips have been secured! Major coup. For the next two days I will be showing my students the MFA's collection of art from Ancient China as part of our discussion on early religious practices, and later Daoism and Confucianism during the Han Dynasty. 

Two of my favorite things are these Bronze Age ritual vessels used to hold wine. The vessels were filled and placed in tombs as offerings for the deceased ancestors. Reverence for the dead was and still is very important (make them happy and you will find good fortune or at least escape the wrath of unhappy spirits).

The first vessel was made during the Shang Dynasty in the 11th century BCE. The second is from the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty replaced the earlier Shang Dynasty by force, but absorbed many of their artistic conventions. Both feature taotie, the supernatural zoomorphic decorative reliefs of man-eating monsters with a head but no body. These were depicted on ritual bronzes to guard tombs from evil spirits

It was during the (Eastern) Zhou Dynasty that many great philosophers arose, such as 6th century BCE contemporaries Laozi and Confucius. Their philosophies would not be practiced or expressed in art until much later.