Archive for February, 2011

What I really fear is time. That’s the devil: whipping us on when we’d rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won’t hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video The Clock was acclaimed as one of the cultural highlights of 2010 when it was shown in London, so I was very excited when it came to New York.

In fact, I was so excited that I broke two of my rules – I woke up early at the weekend and I was prepared to queue. In fact, I  waited for nearly three hours to get into the gallery on a February morning that was so cold that it started to snow. But I have to say The Clock was so fantastic that I would do it all over again.

Marclay has trawled through thousands of films and TV programmes to find scenes that reflect the passage of time and spliced them together so they unfold in real time over 24 hours – 1.15 in the afternoon in the video matched the actual time in New York.

It’s hard to explain the hypnotic effect of the video as you watch the time pieces on the screen. You are aware that something dramatic will happen on each hour, or half-an-hour, or quarter-of-an-hour, but at the same time, as in real life, you are aware that time is unstoppable and the bigger picture will continue to flow on regardless of the ripples created by these individual events.

The BBC News had a piece on the video which gives some idea of the experience. I only watched The Clock for a few hours one Saturday afternoon but would have loved to seen the whole 24 hours.

The New York Times had the same feeling:

Time is a kind of music, music is a kind of time, and Marclay — who’s worked with music for much of his career, as a turntablist, conceptual artist and filmmaker — seems to understand this implicitly. A 24-hour video composed of nothing but people all over the world, in many languages and from the beginning of moving images to now, tied to time, resenting it, making friends with it, sweating it or ignoring it or dying from it, becomes the mother of all jams.

The screen action in each viewing, for me, ran along the same rhythms: the clock’s rhythm and Marclay’s sequencing rhythm. And, in some sense, the heartbeat. It becomes a movie about mortality; it becomes a movie about staying alive.

The Economist met with Marclay towards the end of the two years it took him to edit his masterpiece – which puts my three-hour wait into perspective. Just as his video puts time, and life, into perspective.

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As the people of the Middle East continued to provide inspiration to the rest of the world this week, there have been some fascinating pieces on Dr Gene Sharp, the foremost expert on non-violent revolution, whose books have inspired numerous protest movements:

– one by Ruaridh Arrow, whose documentary Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution, will be released this spring.  Sharp says:

As soon as you choose to fight with violence you’re choosing to fight against your opponents best weapons and you have to be smarter than that.”

The power of non-violent resistance (The Atlantic) ;

Shy US intellectual created playbook used in a revolution (New York Times) ;

– on a similiar theme , a profile of the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, an organisation run by young Serbs who cut their teeth in the student uprising against Slobodan Milosevic and have been exporting their expertise to other countries (Foreign Policy);

Why do protests bring down regimes (The Monkey Cage) ;

– novelist Ian McEwan‘s wonderful acceptance speech on winning the Jerusalem prize (The Guardian) :

There are some similarities between a novel and a city. A novel, of course, is not merely a book, a physical object of pages and covers, but a particular kind of mental space, a place of exploration, of investigation into human nature. Likewise, a city is not only an agglomeration of buildings and streets. It is also a mental space, a field of dreams and contention. Within both entities, people, individuals, imaginary or real, struggle for their “right to self-realisation”. Let me repeat – the novel as a literary form was born out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, Israeli or Palestinian, or from any other background, whose mind the novel cannot lovingly reconstruct. The novel is instinctively democratic. I hope that the authorities in Jerusalem – a twin capital, one day, I hope – will look to the future of its children and the conflicts that potentially could engulf them, end the settlements and encroachments and aspire creatively to the open, respectful, plural condition of the novel.

Have a good weekend.

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The Renaissance Popes, Gerard Noel

Pope Julius II has rightly gained fame as the patron of Michelangelo;  but hereby hangs a tale. He persuaded the young sculptor to abandon his stonemason’s craft and mercilessly goaded him into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Julius had a keen appreciation of artistic genius – or, as he put it, ‘the humours of such men of genius.’ This did not prevent him from working Michelangelo like a dog, and starving him of funds. When Michelangelo quit Rome in a rage, swearing he would leave his work uncompleted, a horrified Florentine official admonished him: “You have behaved towards the Pope in a way the King of France himself would not have ventured upon. There must be an end of this. We are not going to be dragged into a war and risk the whole state for you. Go back to Rome.”

When a surly Michelangelo finally reappeared in Rome, a prelate tried to save him from the Pope’s wrath by pleading “Your Holiness should not be so hard on this Michelangelo; he is a man who has never been taught good manners, these artists do not know how to behave, they understand nothing but their art.” Julius rounded on the prelate in fury, declaring that it was he who had no manners. From then on the arguments between Julius and Michelangelo were no less vehement, yet characterised by mutual respect. Julius would abandon all papal dignity to clamber up dusty ladders and crawl over grimy scaffolding so that he could confer with Michelangelo at the ‘coal face.’ The pair of them would stand together for hours, critically inspecting the frescoes that this ‘man of genius’ was creating. Five hundred years later, we owe a huge debt to both of them.

Five hundred years later, the Vatican has created a digital tour of the Sistine Chapel so you can see the magnitude of this debt for yourselves:

Sistine Chapel

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At 12:51 p.m. today, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island, near the country’s second-largest city, Christchurch. It is an aftershock of a massive, deeper earthquake that hit New Zealand last September, and has already caused more damage, injuries, and fatalities than the earlier quake.

A series of devastating photographs:

Alan Taylor – In Focus – The Atlantic.

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Some of my favourite pieces from last week:

– all the protestors in the Middle East fighting for freedom should be inspired by this poem – Cairo by Manash Bhattacharjee. One verse:


Your cries brought the
sky down at Tahrir Square,
the Pharaoh shook
in his dreams,

-some great photos of all the uprisings (Wall Street Journal) ;

– novelist Ali al-Muqri on the protests in Yemen (New York Times) ;

Perry Link on China’s view of the Middle East revolutions (New York Review of Books) ;

A Suez moment ? (Paul Mason)

– away from the Middle East, Ken Jennings, on being one of the two human players who competed against IBM’s “Watson” supercomputer:

Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged (Slate)

Dr Maya Angelou, when awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week:

See the future as your career, as your job. This is not a rehearsal. This is your life.

– a reminder of a great Robert Kennedy speech :

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things….Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile (ThinkProgress)

So have a good weekend (an extra long one in the US) and enjoy your life.

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“Pictures must be miraculous” – Mark Rothko in 1947

I am lucky enough to live just a few blocks from MOMA so I get the chance to visit shows more than once and spend time with paintings that I love.

The  first few times I went to see Abstract Expressionist New York I couldn’t get past the rooms of Rothkos and Pollocks where you are surrounded on all sides by their paintings. The feeling you get is summed up by Hedda Sterne, the only woman in the famous 1951 Life magazine cover of the Abstract Expressionist painters, The Irascibles :

Leonardo drew things to explain them to himself…. That’s an essential quality of any work of art, the authenticity of the need for understanding. I once told Barney [Newman] a story which he wanted to adopt as the motto for the Abstract Expressionists: A little girl is drawing and her mother asks her what are you drawing? And she says, “I’m drawing God.” And the mother says, “How can you draw god when you don’t know what he is?” And she says, “That’s why I draw him.” (The New York Review of Books)

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Wonder goal

Phil McNulty, BBC

78 minutes into the Manchester derby Rooney cast aside a season of relative under-achievement and occasional animosity with a strike that had a fitting home in the self-styled “Theatre Of Dreams”

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There are very few times in your life when you know you are watching events that will change the world but today was one of those days. For those of us lucky enough to take our liberties for granted, you couldn’t help but have tears in yours eyes listening to people who tasted freedom for the first time. And not only did they feel free, but they knew they had achieved it through their own strength, patience and dignity.

As always President Obama made a pitch-perfect speech after a historic event:

This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the eye to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more. And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history, echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, there’s something in the soul that cries out for freedom.

Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 as the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency had an opinion piece in The New York Times this morning ahead of today’s unforgettable events:

The rebirth of Egypt represents the hope of a new era in which Arab society, Muslim culture and the Middle East are no longer viewed through the lens of war and radicalism, but as contributors to the forward march of humanity, modernized by advanced science and technology, enriched by our diversity of art and culture and united by shared universal values. We have nothing to fear but the shadow of a repressive past.

Egypt’s Euphoria (The Economist) :

The surge of overwhelming bliss that has overtaken Egyptians is the rare beautitude of democratic will. The hot blush of liberation, a dazzled sense of infinite possibility swelling millions of happy breasts is a precious thing of terrible, unfathomable beauty, and it won’t come to these people again.

The Tweet is Mightier than the Sword (commentarymagazine.com) ;

In pictures (BBC) ;

A Letter from Cairo (Chicago Sun-Times) ;

This is Who Egyptians Are (The New York Review of Books) and they are pretty amazing.

Have a good weekend in a new world.

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This is a question I have been asking myself since I had to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as part of my book club and was reminded of by a recent article in The New Yorker.

Initially I was excited to see what all the fuss was about and why it had sold millions of copies. However that soon faded as I waded through the clunky writing (although to be fair I have only read the translation).

All the descriptions are well-worn clichés, “they had a connection as addictive as heroin”, and the book is full of mundane passages giving an unnecessary breakdown of how Mikael Blomkvist spends each minute of each day  :

“Instead on Monday he took the bus into Hedestad and spent the afternoon walking into town, visiting the library, and drinking coffee to see The Lord of the Rings, which he had never before had time to see. “

And Blomkvist, the “hero”, is really annoying. He is the only financial journalist I know who can go away for as long as he wants, not tell his editors what he is writing about and who has an unlimited budget.  But the most annoying thing about him is that every woman he meets, young and old, throw themselves at him without Blomkvist having to lift a finger.

The book doesn’t take off until he meets computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a “heroine” who can calmly assess whether to use a gun, knife, bomb or poison against her guardian. She explains Salander’s Principles:

“One of them is that a bastard is always a bastard, and if I can hurt a bastard by digging up shit about him, then he deserves it.”

Larsson does a good job of creating sympathy for Salander despite constantly telling, instead of showing, the reader about “her lack of emotional involvement” by highlighting her intelligence, her loyalty to the few people who have shown her any kindness and her adherence to her own moral code:

“There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.”

After finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I hadn’t intended to complete the trilogy but a friend urged me to continue to find out what happened to Salander in the “Great Evil”.

The banal dialogue and characterisation didn’t get any better but my friend was right in that the plot gets tighter and veers off in unexpected directions.  I read on because the last two books focus more on Slander than Blomkvist.  She becomes the rebel battling corruption in the highest reaches of the Swedish government, at great cost to herself, and that is ultimately a winning formula.

The best reason for the trilogy’s success is probably found in The Girl with Dragon Tattoo itself – in its description of Blomkvist’s book :

It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.

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“We know that in the early Bronze Age very few people would get older than about 25 years. Most children would not get older than 5. Many, many women would die in childbirth, and a few would get very old, and these very old people might have had a very special status in the society.

It’s actually difficult to know whether our concept of children applies to this society, where you very quickly became a grown-up member of the community, even if you were only 10 years old, because of the average age of the communities that they lived in. That would mean that most people around them were teenagers, there were very few old people in this kind of society.

What this of course challenges, is our perceptions of age and responsibility. In many societies in the past, a teenager could be a parent, a full adult, a leader.”

Archaeologist Marie-Louise Sorensen, A History of the World in 100 Objects

These words sprang to mind when I went to see the remake of True Grit by the Coen brothers.

The lead character is Mattie Ross, a 14-year girl who heads off into Indian territory with two lawmen to hunt down her father’s killer. This seems believable in the Wild West of the 1870s but something you cannot imagine today  as her mother would probably be jailed for letting Mattie leave the house on her own.

I haven’t seen the original  but really enjoyed this movie which has the Coen trademarks of great performances – especially from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld who plays the teenage Mattie and Matt Damon as the vain and pompous Texas ranger La Boeuf – quirky characters,  unusual dialogue and one scene of graphic violence during which I had to hide my head in my hands.

These are all bought together by some stunning photography from cinematographer Roger Deakins – some snatches of which can be glimpsed in the trailer:

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