Ai Weiwei

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I had heard of Ai Weiwei and had seen his art in photos, but my first direct experience with his work was here in Málaga where we currently have his Zodiac Heads on exhibition. I mentioned to a friend that I would be going to London this past weekend, and he recommended the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art.

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“Tree,” installation by Ai Weiwei in Royal Academy of Art courtyard. The tree structures are composed of dead trees collected on the mountains of southern China. “These artificial constructions have been interpreted as a commentary on the way in which geographically and culturally diverse peoples have been brought together to form ‘One China’ […]”
It is immediately evident why Ai Weiwei is such a tremendously popular contemporary artist, especially in the West. His political message is irresistible to us. He is disgusted by and reacts to the superficiality, materialism, prudishness, and conformity of the newly-rich communists in China who only aspire to driving their Mercedes-Benz and wearing their couture. He has suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Beijing police as a result of his brave efforts to document and make public the corruption and outrages against human rights always present in China. But it’s not just the politics. The enormous scale of his works is appealing, as is the big personality that infuses them. His playful sense of humor is palpable. He flipped-off the White House. What more can you ask for?

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Grapes. 27 wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty.

I think it’s too bad that many people shy away from contemporary art. They say they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. I went to a contemporary art exhibition with my adolescent son in Málaga a couple months ago. It was great because he is at the perfect stage in which he was slightly uncomfortable because he feels that these works are supposed to be telling him something and he doesn’t know what, and yet open and curious enough to ask questions and independent enough to look for his own answers before finding them on the smart phone. This is the ideal attitude to bring to a contemporary art exhibition. Discomfort mingled with curiosity will take you a long way.

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Ai Weiwei’s art is very accessible anyway. Not to say it isn’t forceful in its impact, or that it lacks complexity. I had spent the previous day at Stoicon, the Stoic Week Event, surrounded by logic. I love Stoicism and I am grateful for the philosophers, past and present, who have helped me in my quest to live a larger, more meaningful life. But where I feel at home is in an art museum, a concert, or in the street dancing. I value how Stoicism helps me to center myself in my principles and focus on what really matters to me and brings meaning to my life: my relationship with myself, with the people I care about, and with art. Art is where I find the contradictions and tensions, power and beauty, that make life interesting and whole. Logic is great as long as it is accompanied by lots of creative passion, frequent laughter, and connection to my body. Art is a reminder that sometimes things aren’t orderly or logical, but they are right and true and just as they should be. (Or not.)

There was one large room of the exhibit in which I could not laugh. In the end I couldn’t even stay in there to see “Straight,” Weiwei’s response to the Sichuan earthquake in which more than five thousands children were killed when their shoddily-built schools collapsed. There are photos, films with footage from the aftermath, two enormous walls covered with the names of the victims, and 150 tons of steel-reinforced bars used in the construction of the schools that Weiwei purchased and had painstakingly straightened.

“Straight” Ai Weiwei’s response to the Sichuan earthquake

I saw about 30 seconds of the footage and a few photos. I turned around and saw the names covering those enormous walls, and I lost it. I started crying. I didn’t notice anyone else crying. I tried to pull myself together because I wanted to listen to the audio and look more, but I couldn’t do it. I had to move on to the next room. I returned to the room later and tried again, but no go. In fact, remembering it now as I write makes me cry. I tried to use my Stoic practices to get myself through it but it didn’t work. I couldn’t be there.

Ai Weiwei was very influenced in his New York City years by Marchel Duchamp and Dadaism, who sought to make art about challenging our assumptions. The Dadaists wanted art to be less visually pleasing and more intellectually stimulating. This kind of art appeals to me now. I’m going through this personal evolution right now in which it appears I no longer value “pretty.” I bought a joint ticket to the other big exhibition on at the RAA, Jean-Etienne Liotard, a wonderful and unusual portraitist I’ve always admired.

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Marie Adalaide of France by Jean-Etienne Liotard

Seeing Liotard after Weiwei was a mistake because I felt under-whelmed. I was a bit bored by Liotard’s portraits and he deserves better.

Prettiness bores me. Lately I’m far more drawn to realness and wildness. I find more beauty there, and in individuality. Stylistically I’m feeling inspired by Patti Smith and Iris Apfel.

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I know, nothing alike, but neither are pretty and both are much better than pretty.

I am single and while I am interested in having a relationship, I feel completely and utterly bored by men who are attracted to me mostly because they think I’m pretty. I know I should feel flattered and grateful by this attention, but… I’m not. And I suppose that makes me bitchy or what was it one guy called me not long ago? Arrogant. I am sorry I appear that way, but I simply can not get jazzed about guys who are only interested in prettiness. I can just hear my kick-ass grandmother responding to this attitude of mine with something like: “Well, Lindsay, you won’t be pretty for much longer, so there’s a blessing!” Yessah.

I’m not sure how I got from Ai Weiwei to here, but I do know I share this sentiment with him, at least today:tsn0hcb8ww2ykektmmt8

And I love his bicycle chandelier!

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new moon elegance

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What it is that brings you the deepest joy? What motivates and inspires you? What gives you a sense of rightness and satisfaction? What is essential?

The answers to these questions inevitably indicate something about your values. Your values reflect what you most care about. Your values are not your morals, ethics, or principles, though it could be that you have a value of acting ethically, for example. Living a life in accordance with your values is what brings you fulfillment in life. It may not always feel pleasurable or make you constantly happy like popping a pill, but living your values gives you satisfaction, meaning, and joy.

Yesterday I wrote about my Lady is a Tramp value, which is largely about freedom. The freedom from other people’s expectations and the freedom to fully enjoy life on my own terms without being cool, apologizing, or conforming. When I think of the words “Lady is a Tramp,” all of that immediately comes to mind, but I also feel it in my body, deep inside. In this way I’ve made this little cluster of values tangible. It has much more power and impact than if I just think of the words “freedom” or “unconventionality,” etc.

A leader in my coaching class told us that he calls one of his values the “elegance of the new moon.” For him the image of the new moon represents a certain kind of under-appreciated beauty. Everyone admires the full moon, but no one talks about the new moon with its barely-there sliver of light, promising and hopeful. That really struck me, and I realized that I share that same value. Or at least, the image of the new moon evokes values for me, too. A kind of over-looked beauty that has its quiet, minimalist elegance. A beauty of fresh beginnings that come on gradually and require a careful attention and patience to fully appreciate. Simplicity. “New moon” says all of that to me.

Here are two more of my embodied values:

I value luxury, but not the luxury of a sleek, expensive car or a designer-made dress. I value the luxury of slipping newly-shaven legs between freshly-washed, line-dried sheets. I value the luxury of sitting on my terrace with a book and an herbal tea. A homemade hair mask of honey, egg, and argan oil. A bud vase with a few wild flowers. These several-times-per-day moments of quiet connection with beauty and my senses make life meaningful and lovely.

I value forget-lunch passion. Yesterday I was so wrapped up in my writing that by 3:30 I still hadn’t had lunch. When I’m so interested in what I’m doing that I forget to eat, it must be passion because I love to eat! While exploring my values in coaching class, a fellow student told me, “I can see that passion is the motor of your life.” Passion touches everything that I most care about. I can see it in my relationships when I stay up all night talking with friends. I see it in my appreciation for music and dance. I feel it when I visit museums.

Why does it matter what your values are? Why even think about it? Why not just live your life and let things flow? Just as there are people born with perfect pitch, I’m sure there are people who are born with the ability to live a life in constant and perfect accordance with their values without even thinking of it. However, most of us have to practice to become good at living our values. And in a world where the media constantly bombards us with its values, many of us don’t have our own values clearly defined.

How do you determine what your values are? With the examples I’ve given, I’m sure you’ve already come up with a few of your own. If you dare, ask your friends or family members: What would you say my values are? This exercise could provide useful information about what your values really are, but also ways that you may be acting or spending your time that don’t reflect your true values. Someone could tell you that you seem to value being traditional and conformist, for example, and you are surprised because that’s not at all the idea you have of yourself.

One way to determine your values is to ask yourself what annoys the hell out of you. What is it that just bugs you so bad? What makes you indignant? When I asked myself this, I immediately thought of the lunch program at my children’s school. Buying the school lunch is compulsory. Students are NOT ALLOWED to take their own lunch or go home for lunch. The reason given for this is that the school wants to ensure that the children are getting proper nutrition for their long day of learning. The problem is, the school lunch is dreadful. It’s not made on site. It’s brought in by a catering service and reheated, so the texture is unappealing. My kids will barely touch it, so when they get home from school they are ravenous. We pay A LOT for this stupid school lunch they won’t even eat. The campus and buildings for this school are probably the most expensive and technically cutting-edge in the region, so I was confused as to why they couldn’t provide a proper cafeteria. I found out that the owner of the catering service is the school director’s cousin. Ok, now it all makes sense and it makes me SO FRIGGING MAD. I could not be more indignant, and the covering up of this nepotism with the enraging lie that they are forcing me to pay for this nasty lunch FOR MY CHILDREN’S NUTRITIONAL GOOD… I can not even.

Now I am hopping mad. What values of mine are being offended here? Tell me in the comments. And what are your values? I’m curious!

more seeing

William Blake was an English poet, painter, print maker, and visionary of the Romantic period. He has influenced and inspired the work of such artists as William Butler Yeats, composers Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and counter-culture poets and songwriters of the 1960s like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison. Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, considers Blake a major influence in his own philosophy and work. Most online bios of Blake note that though he was considered mad in his time for his unusual ideas, now he is lauded as a magnificent luminary and genius. As in, those people back then just thought he was crazy but now we, a more enlightened people, recognize and appreciate him for what he was.

I don’t stand in judgement of who is crazy and who isn’t, but I’m willing to bet that most of these Blake fans, if they had the opportunity to have lunch with him today, for example, would come away thinking the man’s got a screw loose. William Blake started seeing visions at age 8 and continued to see visions very frequently, almost daily, throughout his life. He claimed to converse on a regular basis with angels and demons. How does that sit with you?

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Blake saw the above “ghost of a flea” during a seance one night. Blake claimed the flea told him, “fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.” In Blake’s time, a belief in the supernatural was not considered as idiosyncratic as it is now, so I wonder if he was considered mad more for his religious and political views.

When I was fifteen or sixteen I found in our bookshelves a copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs. I found it mesmerizing and shocking. At that time I was obsessed with feminism and social justice, so I quickly picked up on those themes in his work. But as a believing Mormon, I found his religious ideas confusing and some of his artwork extremely unsettling.

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The Ancient of Days (Urizen surveying and measuring the world he has just created)
Ancient (Urizen surveying and measuring the world he has just created)

His artwork was so powerful and arresting I couldn’t stop looking at it, but I didn’t understand it. About ten years later I bought a copy of Blake’s Poetry and Designs and I continued looking at the images and reading the poetry, thought I don’t know that I came much closer to understanding it. I didn’t know whether I liked it or not, but I had to have it. Unfortunately I left the book back in the US when I moved to Spain.

A few days ago researching creative vision brought me back to William Blake, and I wish I had the book with me. I’ve spent the past three days with whatever I can find of him online. I could write many more posts about all things Blake, but for now, this. What he thought about seeing. He sent the following lines to a friend in a letter:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God uskeep
From Single vision and Newtonssleep!

Let’s start with single vision, the dreaded Newtonssleep. Blake was not an Isaac Newton fan, and single vision represented the purely rational, logical, scientific way of seeing. Blake dreaded this literal view of the world, divorced of all emotion, empathy, and intuition. Twofold vision would include both reason and emotion, and an ability to contextualize and imagine. At the threefold level you have access to poetic, creative inspiration at Beulah, a place in Blake’s mythology “where Contrarieties are equally True.” It’s the subconscious. It’s where Blake goes Jungian. (In Beulah, it seems, the sexes “blissfully converse in shameless selflessness.” Sign me up!) Fourfold vision is mystical bliss. Ecstasy. Revelation. Visions.

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 For Blake the purpose of reason is to give form to imagination. Allowing contrary truths to coexist without one repressing the other is the ideal explored in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He believed the paradoxes of human existence should be allowed and in fact it is from these paradoxes that creative energy springs. 

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and
Repulsion, reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are
necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call
Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.
Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.”

Harvey Birenbaum wrote of Blake’s Songs of Innocence: “The tensions of the world resolve here, appropriately–not in rest, however, but in play, a fluency of energy in absolute delight,” “…thus the meaning of life itself is not a philosophical problem but the function of a process or activity–properly a dramatic or a mythic problem.”

I am fascinated by the idea that we don’t create meaning in our lives by buying into a certain belief system imposed from outside ourselves, like formal religion and science, but rather through our way of seeing, of experiencing and enjoying creative energy. I agree with Philip Pullman, who says, “Single vision is deadly. Those who exalt reason over every other faculty, who condemn those who don’t respond to life with logic but allow themselves to be swayed by emotion, or who maintain that other ways of seeing (the imaginative, the poetic, etc) are fine in their place but the scientific is the only true one, find this position ridiculous. But no symphony, no painting, no poem, no art at all was ever reasoned into existence […]”

On my to-read list are:

698081Blake, Jung & the Collective Unconscious: The Conflict Between Reason & Imagination by June Singer

Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake by Northrop Frye

self-criticism and rumination

 

I don't know why I picked this particular painting for this post. Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.
I don’t know why I picked this particular painting for this post. There is a cow, and cows ruminate, right? Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’―and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again―in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This mind set that Dostoyevsky describes so accurately is indeed torturous. It’s self torture. I’ve been there, as have most people. Over-analysis of your faults, comparing yourself to others, social anxiety, self doubt, and self criticism are all symptoms of a personal identity crisis and/or feelings of low self worth. An identity crisis can come along at any point in your life and at any age. It’s when you doubt who you are, what you stand for, and where you fit in. Any life event that shakes up your status quo can trigger an identity crisis. If you are experiencing an identity crisis it means that you are growing out of your previous identity and it’s time to redefine and recreate who you are. It’s time for an upgrade! No matter what brought on the identity crisis, it’s an excellent opportunity for personal growth.

However, though ultimately a good thing, an identity crisis may initially bring on the sort of negative thought patters that Dostoyevsky so keenly describes in the above quote. Before you can proceed with the deeply rewarding work of redefining yourself and finding just where it is you fit in, you need to get off that wheel! Here’s how.

1. Eliminate or severely limit self-help books and anything else that has you focusing on your weaknesses. Avoid like the plague those articles entitled the likes of, “56 Toxic Things About You that are RUINING Your Life FOREVER.” Maybe in casting about for some way, any way, of digging yourself out of this identity crisis pit, you landed upon the idea that if you can only fix yourself you will fit in, people will like you, and everything will be ok again. But no, that’s not going to work and here’s why: This is not a good time to take on massive self-improvement projects because right now you are feeling so vulnerable, all of your weaknesses are going to seem magnified way out of proportion to what they really are.

2. Stop self-criticism and start self compassion NOW. Constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state. Practicing self compassion has the opposite effect, lowering cortisol and releasing oxytocin and opiates. Self-compassion is accepting and loving yourself as the imperfect person you are. It’s treating yourself just as you would treat a good friend. You might find these guided meditations and self-compassion exercises helpful.

3. Stop ruminating. Rumination is obsessive analyzing and thinking about negative past events or current situations that you can’t change. For example, if you have just ended a relationship, it’s constantly replaying the events that led up to the break up and obsessing about what you might have done differently to save the relationship. Or fixating on what a terrible person your ex is and planning how to get revenge. The best revenge is a life beautifully lived, but you’re not going to get there with these kinds of thoughts.

What I personally found most helpful in halting rumination was learning to let go of the things I don’t control. I realized how fruitless it was to worry and stress about the past, people’s opinions of me, my health, and any myriad of things that could go wrong. I created mantras that I repeated to myself throughout the day any time I felt tempted to think about those things. In less than two weeks I saw a remarkable difference in my thought patters and after a month, I found that I didn’t need to repeat my mantras as often anymore because I was starting to believe in a deep down way that I have absolutely no business worrying about what I do not control

Other effective ways to stop rumination are:

  • Scheduling a set time to worry every day, maybe 20-30 minutes. That way every time you get a negative, worrying thought you can think to yourself, “Ok, I’ll save that to think about during my worry time.” Then it doesn’t become a permanent mind set, and yet you aren’t trying to suppress negative thoughts or feelings, which can cause other problems.
  • Write about it. I found that writing provided a more constructive and positive way to deal with my issues than keeping it all in my head. Writing helped me make more sense of everything that was happening to me. In many cases, I found that once I wrote about a problem I was experiencing, I no longer felt the need to keep thinking about it. I was ready to move on.
  • Focus on the here and now. Let me ask you something. If you had the option to either go about in the world freely or lock yourself in dank, smelly basement, which would you choose? When you are ruminating, you are not living in the moment. You are living in the equivalent of a dank, smelly basement. Get out of there! Practice mindfulness by giving your full attention to the lovely, simple pleasures of daily existence.

4. Surround yourself with the right friends. Avoid people who are constantly critical. Even if they are not directing the criticism at you, they could be infecting you with their negativity and even provoking rumination and self-criticism. If in social situations you start to feel like the above Dostoyevsky quote is describing you, here is a sure-fire quick fix. Stop talking, stop trying to impress people, and start listening. It will require a lot of attention and it won’t be easy at first, but it’s worth it. Listen to people. Repeat back to them what you think they are trying to say to make sure you understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand. Forget about yourself for a while and listen. You may be surprised at the results. I know I was.

Mr. Turner

MR-TURNER_STILL-05I think it’s one of the best biopics I’ve seen in a long time. It was understated. I appreciated that I wasn’t hit over the head with explanations for why Turner was how he was. He was merely presented with all of his massive contradictions for us to take him or leave him, just as he presented his paintings to the Academy, to be taken or left as is.

Today I listened to the Fresh Air interview with Timothy Spall, the actor who portrays J.M.W. Turner in the movie Mr. Turner. Terry Gross asks Spall if he thinks Turner was “somewhere on the Autism spectrum” because the artist was “completely lacking in social skills,” was obsessed with his work, at times sexually exploited his housekeeper, and did not show love or affection to his adult daughters. I was amazed that Gross perceived Spall’s portrayal of Turner as someone who could possibly be on the autism spectrum! While the man obviously struggled with expressing his emotions in words, we are talking about one of the greatest Romantic artists. Romanticism was all about expressing emotion and it is impossible to look at one of Turner’s landscapes without being bowled over by it. I thought Spall’s performance portrayed a man with a great deal of powerful and deep emotion beneath the surface. Turner was implosive, as Spall said, though he pointed out various scenes in the movie where Turner’s strong feelings were obvious. Turner also had a close and loving relationship with a woman in his later life. The fact that he sexually exploited his housekeeper, who was in love with him, does not mean that he was incapable of love. Nor does it mean, as Spall pointed out, that there was not some element of love in that relationship. This is evident in a scene between them when the housekeeper remarks that she may as well not change the sheets because he so seldom sleeps at his house anymore. You can see in Turner’s reaction that does understand social cues and that he empathizes with her. He tells her nothing of Mrs. Booth because he knows it would hurt her.

So have we reached the point where we have to diagnose everyone who is obsessed with their work and doesn’t talk glibly about their feelings as being “on the spectrum?”

Spall’s performance was masterful. He never ceased to be fascinating to watch and listen to, even with all the grunting and growling. (Actually, I think we should bring grunting back.) As unpleasant as Spall made Turner at times, I think he also made him lovable. Sometimes he was downright adorable, like when he sings along with “Dido’s Lament.” I was interested to learn that Spall took fine art lessons for over two years to prepare for the roll. From his Fresh Air interview he seems amusing and smart. I smiled at his definitions of the Sublime and Romantic movements in art as not having to do with describing a piece of cheesecake or “if you’re lucky, a weekend in Paris,” respectively. I was touched by the affection he expressed for his friend, who died the day before the interview.

Every scene in the movie was gorgeous and appealing to the senses. It made my fingers ache with desire to touch things, like that lovely yellow paint the elder Mr. Turner was mixing. If I were to make a movie, I hope it would be highly tactile.

Cannes 2014: Mr Turner

While I was in London last month I went to the Tate Britain’s Late Turner–Painting Set Free exhibition, focusing on the work the painter did after age 60, when everyone thought he was going senile. It’s sad how we judge older people. Now, seventy years later, we can look back and say that Turner was not senile, he was just moving toward modernism. He was being more hip than the youngsters who dismissed him. I don’t care for some of his paintings, but I don’t blame that on the painter being old.

Some of  the paintings I really loved, like “Peace, Burial at Sea:” 

Who knows why “The Fighting Temeriare,” once voted as the painting best-loved by the British people, was not at the exhibition. Turner painted it at age 64. There is a marvelous scene in Mr. Turner based on that painting.