Monday, 28 January 2013

Gloomy Weather

Weather constantly affects our mood. It is as if we were the creatures of the ocean, drifted by the unpredictable ebbs and flows and with the convergent water as the sky that overhung us. We are the ill-fated ones who are cooped up beneath the hemisphere. Some wily magician, with his sleight of hand, conjures up natural happenings that we ever abiding by.

Our volatile moods seem the only conscious beings that know how to rebel. We sulk as our moods are dampened by the gloomy weather. All elements war within our bodies and we expose the emotions on our facades: a ruddy redness that encircles our cheeks, like a feverish child entrapped in his fitful dreams. I, however, feel relatively lucid when days are overcast. With no sunlight that blinks my eyes I can stare unflinchingly towards the infinity. And no fogs can blur our image. We are like the characters in the old movies who manage miraculously to poke through piles of dense blue smoke.

Blue is not merely a common word to describe our interminable phase of melancholia. Days are the gloomiest when the sky is blue- not the bright-blueness that seems drenched by sunbeams, but one infused with the miserable black and grey. American-born, British-based artist James McNeill Whistler’s gloomy day is accompanied by music, that of a nocturne- the music of the night, the music of the harmony. All objects seem to be reduced to their dark silhouettes when fog and haze gather. They all become the phantoms that drift aimlessly about the sea, desperate to find an anchorage. Like a typical Impressionist landscape painting, colours fleet as if driven by wind. The dark colours do not make an oppressive throng. The painting depicts the sky before which is beset by the gathering clouds. Little lights of yellow dance upon the placid water- they are like the fairies that flit through the thick of a forest.

One cannot talk about landscape paintings without mentioning J.M.W. Turner, whose volcanic eruptions series bestow on me an impression of how the acme of love might be taken form. Moonlight, A Study at Millbank (1797) is not technically a depiction of gloomy weather, but it does set a similarly forlorn tone. The colour of the sky almost mingles with that of the seashore, smudged with muds and grits. It is just before dawn and the setting moon reasserts itself as a burning mirror. Lonely and painstakingly the incensed moon struggles against its involuntary descent to exert its last force. But it somehow fails to illumine all.

Once you muster up optimism, you conquer all negativities. Strollers in Gustave Caillebotte’ Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) seem hardly affected by an occasional downpour. See how the cobble street glistens when brimmed with raindrops! The rain cleanses rather than spoiling the image of this charming city. Another noteworthy fact of this painting is how the painter takes a slightly off-kilter focus- almost like a chance snapshot of photography. Notice how neither the building nor the lamp post is at the centre of the painting. The severity of harmony and symmetry that was once the insistence of tradition is now utterly dismantled.

Is it all pure coincidence that most “gloomy weather” paintings seem to disregard the conventions and matters that a great artist is supposed to take into considerations? Once our eyes are disturbed by the vagueness of fogs or rain, we have no other means but to consult the more fanciful things, principally the imaginations or the illusions. That sums up what I said previously of a relatively lucid mind when days are overcast. A butterfly might be caught within a mist, its presence barely perceptible. You only see a fleeting red slides across your eyes and inevitably you start harking back to those days when, in a self-same manner, you lost the sight of that beautiful something.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Returning Home

                    *Clarence John Laughlin, Imagination (1944)*

It almost feels like a sweet dream- I walk back to where I grew up and had spent a large chunk of my youth until last year; leaves rustle when I walk past, this gentle din is coupled with a faint, almost inaudible echo that can be heard growingly amplified when I am nearing the destination. The source of the echo is unknown, for the ground of where I’m standing is more or less reduced to a boundless land of desolation, and not a single soul can be seen wandering about. During the course of my journey the interminable lines of trees beside the road are my sole companion. The trees look exactly the same as I perceived them when I was young- they are the tall, gangly ghosts that are shrouded in their morbid gloom. These ghosts also walk, too, as I can feel them hounding in the wake of my footsteps, always without a sound, without a silhouette. And thus I hasten my pace.

Some people’s lives are constantly embroiled in tragedies, regardless of how hard they try to wriggle out of a string of failed hopes. Some, on the other hand, while away their days on the foundation of tragedies, and mostly with fatalistic visions they dream. The girl that left the town years ago dreamed more of an apocalyptic dream. One day with an outburst of wrath proved unappeasable, she left the town shattered behind her like a heroic fighter marching out of his victorious battle. And the trees that swayed like wandering ghosts were the only witnesses of her crime. The trees spoke in a language understood by no others, and they only spoke when caressed by a sudden gust.

The word is covered in dusts and ice when I awake from a dream drenched with sweat, seated on fire. I was back in the dream of returning to my hometown where the land was littered with deaths. I was fascinated for a moment as I witnessed a bone sparkled under the sun. Those carcases were suffused with the glory of time. History crystallized their essence. An overdue consecration the deaths were blessed. The living deaths were the restless creature that looked enviously at the deaths, shivering from an agonizing shrill they painstakingly stifled. The clear visions of my dream were somehow blotted out by a feverish interval. Everything mingled, and soon will be forgotten.

Fear not the crow that caws and the din that drums on every cell of your head. Fear not the fire that burns, quite suddenly and unaccountably which extinguishes myriads sparkles in numerous men’s hearts. Fear not the ghostly trees that walk and little by little your drowned confessions spell out. Fear not the phantasmagoric image your dream carries, for everything in the end flakes away in dust and flame.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Grotesque

When I gaze at the word, its formation of letters renders it an uncanny oddity: “grotesque”- one that comprises a lot of twists-and-turns. One always draws towards the grotesque without reason- perhaps it is how we express our delights of spotting something markedly different amongst the other homogenous hogwash. The commonplace bores us.

Nevertheless, those who make it a purpose before out seeking for the grotesque often find themselves land in with the shams. The real grotesque is not wholly stripped off its normalities. According to Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny,” the uncanny belongs to the ones that bear the most resemblances to your own selves- those are virtually the images you stare into the mirror and find it smiling back at you, a smile that conveys both malice and mystery, a smile that is foreign to your mundane understanding. It is an odd fact that I’ve never got along well with twins and usually I like to scrutinize them piercingly, in hope that any second one of them will yelp like a beast and the other will respond with a scowl of astonishment. Someone has broken the rules.

In light of skewing the image of reality, no one does it more astoundingly as Otto Dix. The German painter loved to wrong-foot his viewers. His portrayals of the upper-class society are unapologetically ugly. In Großstadt Triptychon (1927-28) the revelers seem to be seized by an unnameable disease: they all seem bald (those are more likely wigs than real hair); the heavy make-ups can hardly conceal their looming debility: livid skin, sallow cheeks. Maybe the triptych is merely allegorical, as what most art and literature were during the war period. The party-goers are in a drugged state of reverie- they are either the marionettes we gawk at a puppet show or the actors on stage. There is only a thin line of difference between reality and uncanny when, unexpectedly, the footlights suddenly assault you.

But it was Diane Arbus’ photography that first came into head when researching for this piece. The Identical Twins (1967) is undoubtedly an obvious example but the one that always grips my attention is Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962). The little boy strikes a pose that is only analogous to an offended cockerel: he stands gangly about, hands claw-like, and a strap hangs loose which seems to signal an imminent transformation from human to beast. This photograph is also a vivid demonstration of how “unsettling” reality can be. And again, it also illustrates the power of performance- how one can easily turn grotesque simply by acting.

Things can also seem grotesque even when no deliberate change is made to them and nothing unusual is taken place. Installation art is one of these grotesque forms of art since so many factors can mystify a normal piece of work, be it the setting or the different angles the viewers are perceiving the work. Marcel Duchamp’s is the most prosaic one can ever conceive, if not slightly indecent as an art piece- a porcelain urinal the artist archly named Fountain (1917). Duchamp kept the urinal unadulterated and simply reoriented it 90 degrees from its normal position. Myriads of visions dance before my eyes when I gaze long enough at the urinal, and none of them are even remotely related to it. Imagination often comes in the strangest form.

But how grotesque it is when, at times, you must abide certain rules to carry out to things you want to do. There are people and places that make the whole world a horrendous custom service in the airports. Every corner you turn you meet the sharpest thorn. But the mavericks carry on, even when they are the loners on their quixotic journeys they sally forth. No one knew before that a fragile butterfly can change weather, and when the new knowledge is finally dawn on them the hurricane is above their heads. And eventually, nothing is grotesque anymore.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

One Lazy Afternoon

I feel exhaustion from time to time when things do not go as smoothly as I presumed them to be, and that exhaustion might be coupled with weariness when in nervous anticipation of something bad afoot. It is principally a physical exhaustion that influences psychological listlessness. In paintings, exhaustion is not merely represented by whirls and swirls- a sensation I often clichely correlate to Hitchcock’s Vertigo- but it can also appear as a transient moment of rapture: when one is exhausted the head grows fuzzy, and gradually the body is levitated. Bearing in my mind now is a picture of a decadent beauty, made wearied by strings of engagements and courtships day and night, eyes constantly bleary and heavy-lidded. Exhaustion turns into sultriness, which is like wisps of smoke lingering in the air.

The Pre-Raphaelite beauty is one that seems invariably indolent and lackadaisical, weighed down by the labour of god-knows-what. One can only probe into the character’s mentality to discover what is really bothering her. In John Everett Millais’ Mariana (1851) it is obvious that worries and woes burden the heroine’s heart so, as made manifest by her positioning before the window, waiting presumably for the homecoming of her enamoured one. But as yet another day of disappoint goes by the impatience and anxiety of Mariana are revealed in her body language: stretching her back fitfully and wilted leaves scattering the room- the sign of long suffering that makes one bored and indifferent to the domestic matters that were once so indispensible. The painting is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the heroine, amidst the excited preparation for her wedding, is cruelly rejected when her dowry is sunk together with a shipwreck. Mariana is not waiting for her beau but witnessing wearily the lost of her fortune and happiness.

If only exhaustion can transform into something more sublime, as mentioned earlier the levitation opens a pathway of communicating with God. It is not exactly exhaustion that Jules Bastien-Lepage, in his painting The Blind Beggar, depicts, but simply a poor blind boy begging for a morsel of food. It could be that the boy was taking his daily respite, seeing that his furry companion beside him is all consumed by slumber. Blindness can thus serve as a disguise which situates in the twilight zone between alertness and unconsciousness. In this case the blind boy is easily passed as a shaman- the one who boasts connection with God but not insentient of the pain and travails of human being.

The earthly beings need hardly to ennoble their indolence as a sublime asset, but some of them do not flinch from indulging themselves in protracted inactivity, lounging everywhere from the beach to the park, where everything is basked in the hazy sun and days are thus uneventfully frittered away. Gustave Courbet, a French realist who created some of the most horrific paintings I’ve ever seen, shows us such bourgeois delight in Les Demoiselles au bord de la Seine (1857). Those ladies in the painting dress rather elaborately. I wonder whether that impatient frown of the one in the back bespeaks her displeasure of having her ritzy get-up hidden under the shades of the thicket instead of admired by a band of suitors. Her friend is obviously more contented with the siesta, her hands caressing the wild plantation, and hogging the attention with her sultry gaze that seems more apt in a sleazy jazz club.

Exhaustion, weariness, indolence, listlessness, ennui… These emotions are like a sky free of clouds and other natural happenings. It is often when gazing at a sky like this- one with infinite clearness and cleanness- that I feel a lurking sense of apprehension. It is like waiting for a flash of thunderbolt that galvanizes every living thing under the firmament and incites the vigour that long lays dormant. And it is when, ultimately, extreme emotions erupt.