Wrecking the Museum: Damien Hirst’s Wreck of the Unbelievable

July 15th, 2017Posted by Nancy


I am not an art critic. These days, I feel barely able to throw together a coherent thought about anything. But I had a lot of thoughts, coherent or otherwise, while viewing the huge show by Damien Hirst (or Damien Fucking Hirst, as one of my friends calls him) in Venice. It spans two locations and includes hundreds of pieces (churned out by assistants) supposedly recovered from wreck of a ship lost by the ruler of an imaginary kingdom between the first and second century A.D. Many of the items are covered in barnacles and coral (supposedly)  and the show includes video of divers supposedly recovering the huge statues. Items are displayed as they would be in museums, with scholarly cards outlining the mythology behind a particular statue and grouped displays of helmets, coins, and swords (one of which bears the logo for Seaworld).  According to the reviews, the material labelled as lapis lazuli, malachite, gold, and gems is real, though to my eyes some of it looked like resin castings. But what do I know?

It is undeniably ambitious, clever, funny (look, that’s really a Transformer covered in barnacles) and beautifully executed. I’m glad I saw it.

But part way though, I began to be profoundly uncomfortable.

I grew up going on family trips to the Royal Museum of Ontario and museum-going is a big part of our travel agenda. I can remember the sheer, giddy wonder of the Treasures of Tutankhamen show at the Art Gallery of Ontario years ago and the quiet, rundown beauty of the museum in Alexandria. I wanted to be an archeologist when I was young and I’ve always been fascinated by ancient cultures. And yes, maybe after you’ve seen one gold coin, you’ve seen them all, and all those rows of them in the museum might was well be gold-wrapped chocolate for all the difference they make. And yes, some of the conventions of displaying the artifacts of the past are strange and stuffy. And yes, our ability to understand exactly what these things meant to their creators and users is heavily filtered through our own view of the world.

All that is true – but I still felt the wrongness like a physical pain when all the bodies and faces in the Hirst show looked undeniably modern (Kate Moss and Pharrell are models for some pieces).  I felt vaguely insulted when the text wittered on about the meaning of this sphinx or that monster. Perhaps that was the point.  Perhaps it upset me because the suggestion that something that has mattered to me is in fact just as unreal as Hirst’s creations.

And yet. And yet. I remember the exquisite alabaster ointment jar with a carved lion on the lid that I saw at that long ago Tutankhamen exhibit.  I stood transfixed by it, circled its case, pressing as close as I could, trying to linger there while the crowd pushed me on. I had a poster of it on the wall of my bedroom for years.  It was just a little thing, so much less dramatic than the mask and the jewels. I think of the sculpted face of Nefrititi, not the famous one, but the one of unadorned stone, made when she was older and sadder and unbearably beautiful.  I think of all the jars and pots and coins and little sculptures of gods I’ve seen or walked past and how they had once upon a time been held in someone’s hand or set on someone’s table or placed in someone’s home altar. Or maybe they were just made to go into someone’s tomb, to bring them comfort in the afterlife.  Whatever the case, they are all real.

Hirst’s sculptures aren’t. And somehow, that makes all the difference to me.

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I ate, I drank, I looked at art, I went to Italy

June 16th, 2017Posted by Nancy

We spent two lovely weeks in Italy in May.  This time it was one week in Venice for the Biennale plus a few days in Lucca and in Florence.  Because we’d hit all the big sights last time, we were able to take things at a more leisurely pace, which involved a lot of long lunches.  I pretended to think about writing and tried to be open to inspiration but mostly I just ate, drank and enjoyed myself. So sue me.

And here are the pictures to prove it.

We stayed in a lovely apartment at the far eastern end of Venice, so in addition to a quiet neighbourhood, a park, and two quite nice restaurants, we also had a stunning view of sunset over Venice.

We went to Murano and Burano islands and had the good fortune to stumble on the Venissa Vineyard, which contained two restaurants. We promptly ditched our previous plans for the first of the aforementioned two hour lunches on their patio. Fabulous food and I immediately became addicted to Sarde in Saor (sardines) and Venetian baccala (dried cod soaked in milk and turned into a spread). I ate both of them every chance I had.

Viva Arte Viva! was the slogan of this year’s Venice Biennale and we spend three solid days checking out the two Biennale locations and the other art spread all over the city.

From the Russian Pavilion

Witches from the Mexican Pavilion

All of my good pictures from our day in Cinque Terre (two miles to hike, two and half hours to do it, 100 flights climbed according to my fitness app, another two hour lunch) refuse to load, so here is some street art from outside our apartment in Florence.

And the last word goes to a broody Dante and his pigeon-beseiged eagle pal.

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I’ve got nuthin’

April 22nd, 2017Posted by Nancy

My “to do” list says “Blog post this week”.  It says that every two weeks (or three, if I push it off).  But I’ve got nothing. So here’s a song, by the wonderful Barry Andrews of Shriekback, from his solo piano album Haunted Box of Switches, Vol 1 & 2.   Sue me.

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Exercising the Mental Muscles: Part III A sharp-edged gust of wind

April 2nd, 2017Posted by Nancy

SPEAK, DON’T SPEAK V.  Hereafter follows the first-person version of IV.

A sharp-edged gust of wind threatened to snatch my hat from my hand and send it cartwheeling down the beach. I was out of practice at this, it seemed. My skirts were too long, my coat too thin, my hat nothing more than a useless encumbrance, and I had left her gloves in my tent. If Antonia had been here, the gloves would not have been forgotten. The thought did not make me feel any better.I had been too long in the city and now I could not be trusted to remember my gloves without a maid to remind me.

I considered attempting a discreet return to my tent to collect them, but the path of loose grit and pebbles that zigzagged up the cliff effectively prevented that convenience. I had no choice but to hold my hat in one hand and tuck the other into the sleeve of my coat, alternating which was which when the exposed skin grew too cold. My joints ached, just as my mother’s had in her old age. My knuckles had begun to swell, as hers had, and I disliked looking at them, and at the thin crepe of the skin on my back of my hands. Magic could ease the discomfort and that lovely rose-scented ointment from Laduree could smooth the skin but they would never been enough to stop either the arthritis inherited from my mother or the inevitable aging that made me mortal.

At least I had possessed the foresight to tie my hair back into a tight braid, so that I was spared the indignity of having to spend my time keeping it from my face.

Erzabet, whether deliberately or not, had not bothered. Her hair was a dark banner in the wind but if she noticed it, as she crouched by the sea’s edge, she gave no sign of it, just has she gave no sign of discomfort at the occasional wave that rushed up and round her, for all the water that lifted her skirts must have been bone-chilling. She had been there, almost motionless, for long enough for me to begin to worry. The sight of the black-clad figure against the grey stony beach, the heave and break of the grey waves, and the lowered grey clouds did not inspire confidence.

Montreson, I decided, had been worrying all along, if his relentless pacing were any indication. He had been forced to hold his hat as well, revealing iron-grey hair that matched his coat. And the beach, and the waves, and the sky, as if this all were a matter of sympathetic magic.
“Are you certain she can do it, Montreson?” I asked. “Even diPreti would have found such a spell a challenge at her age.”
He shrugged, a faint motion, as he turned and began his even pacing once again.

“Then perhaps you might stop pacing.” I sounded waspish, which annoyed me, because I had not intended it. “You are making me nervous. You are possibly making her nervous – though I am not certain she has anything as human as nerves in her.” We both looked towards the woman on the beach. “If she fails, I trust there is still time for the navy to deal with the matter in the old-fashioned way. Or the army, should their ship reach the shore.”

“Perhaps. “ Montreson, still moving, glanced back up at the escarpment above them, as if expecting to see ranks of soldiers assembled there, watching us. “It is by no means certain, though the Admiral has assured me there is a contingency. She is not going to fail, my lady Roussilon.”

Best she not, I thought, but had recovered enough wit not to say. Best for all of us. Mercifully, Montreson stopped his motion and we stood in silence, watching Erzabet. Her arms moved, her hands fanning out into the waves and then digging down into the pebbles tumbled by the retreating water. I heard something, though whether it is a cry or a bird or the wind I could not tell.

At the water’s edge, Erzabet rose and turned to pick her way across the beach. I could read nothing her face, as it was veiled and unveiled by the wind-blown hair. She is going to make us ask, I thought, because it makes her feel powerful. Uncharitably, I wished I could ignore her, force her to speak first, but that was petty and the reason we were here was not.

Montreson spared me the gesture and stepped forward. “Is it done?”

Erzabet only smiled and moved past us without another look, heading for the slanting path up the cliff. Her wet skirts dragged lines of her passage into the loose, gritty sand. She lifted them for a moment as she started to climb, then dropped them. I watched her go, her head high, her dark seaweed hair swirling around her, and shivered.

After a moment, Montreson held out his arm, a gesture of automatic courtliness. It reminded me of who I was. “We must take it from that smile that it is,” I said, accepting it. “Now, Comte, perhaps we can find a warm tent and nice glass of brandy.”

He smiled and I wondered if he believed me, if he too could no more see below the glossy surface of my cultured accent and perfected charm than I had been able to see what lay behind Erzabet’s smile.

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The Vampire Tapestry in a Gorgeous New Edition

March 18th, 2017Posted by Nancy

Suzy McKee Charnas’ novel The Vampire Tapestry was a formative influence on The Night Inside, though I could certainly never equal the cool, elegant, and fine-honed prose she brought to bear on this brilliant depiction of the vampire as alien creature making its way among humans that were both its prey and an irresistible source of fascination.

I was incredibly honoured when Charnas agreed to write the introduction to the ebook editions of The Night Inside and Blood & Chrysanthemums and thrilled when Centipede Press asked me to return the favour for their limited-edition hardcover reprint.  My copy just arrived and it’s gorgeous.  It features not only the novel but an additional short story and Charnas’ entertaining tale of trying to turn the book into a play.

Centipede Press produces collectors editions of genre classics, many of them hard to find now, and their books routinely sell out.   So if you love vampire novels and beautiful books, get yours while they last.

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Exercising the Mental Muscles, Part II: She was out of practice at this

March 3rd, 2017Posted by Nancy

 

Continuing the variations on a theme exercises I did from Wonderbook.  I’m sparing you the “dialogue only” version, which did not really work, and the combined “description only/dialogue only” version, which was not much better. Today’s version is third person and ended up being past tense vs. present. I think I might need to make Roussilon a more major character than I’d originally intended.

SPEAK, DON’T SPEAK Exercise Part IV

She was out of practice at this, Roussilon thought, as another sharp-edged gust of wind threatened to snatch her hat from her hand and send it cartwheeling down the beach. Her skirts were too long, her coat too thin, her hat nothing more than a useless encumbrance, and she had left her gloves in her tent. If Antonia had been there, the gloves would not have been forgotten.

She had been too long in the city and now she could not be trusted to remember her gloves without a maid to remind her.

The path of loose grit and pebbles that zigzagged up the cliff effectively prevented a discreet return to the tent to collect them. She had no choice but to hold her hat in one hand and tuck the other into the sleeve of her somber burgundy coat, alternating which was which went the exposed skin grew too cold. There was an ache in her joints that she misliked, just as she tried to avoid looking that the knobs her knuckles were becoming. An inheritance from her mother she had hoped to avoid and that magic could only ease but not prevent.

At least she had possessed the foresight to tie her hair back into a tight braid, so she was spared the indignity of having to spend her time keeping it from her face.

Erzabet, whether deliberately or not, had not bothered. Her hair was a dark banner in the wind but if she noticed it, as she crouched by the sea’s edge, she gave no sign of it, just has she gave no sign of discomfort at the occasional wave that rushed up and round her, for all the water that lifted her skirts must have been bone-chilling. She had been there, almost motionless, for long enough for Roussilon to begin to worry. The sight of the black-clad figure against the grey stony beach, the heave and break of the grey waves, and the lowered grey clouds did not inspire confidence.

Montreson, she decided, had been worrying all along, if his relentless pacing were any indication. He had been forced to hold his hat as well, revealing iron-grey hair that matched his coat. And the beach, and the waves, and the sky, Roussilon thought. As if this all were a matter of sympathetic magic.

“Are you certain she can do it, Montreson?” she asked. “Even diPreti would have found such a spell a challenge at her age.”

He shrugged, a faint motion, as he turned and began his even pacing once again.

“Then perhaps you might stop pacing.” She sounded waspish, which she disliked, because she had not intended it. “You are making me nervous. You are possibly making her nervous – though I am not certain she has anything as human as nerves in her.” They both looked towards the woman on the beach. “If she fails, I trust there is still time for the navy to deal with the matter in the old-fashioned way. Or the army, should their ship reach the shore.”

“Perhaps. “ Montreson, still moving, glanced back up at the escarpment above them, as if expecting to see ranks of soldiers assembled there. “It is by no means certain, though the Admiral has assured me there is a contingency. She is not going to fail, my lady Roussilon.”

Best she not, Roussilon thought, but did not say. Best for all of us. Mercifully, Montreson stopped his motion and they stood in silence, watching Erzabet. Her arms moved, her hands fanning out into the waves and then digging down into the pebbles tumbled by the retreating water. Roussilon heard something, though whether it was a cry or a bird or the wind she could not tell.

At the water’s edge, Erzabet rose and turned to pick her way across the beach towards them. Her face, veiled and unveiled by the wind-blown hair, was unreadable. Well? Roussilon thought but Montreson stepped forward before she could speak.

“Is it done?”

Erzabet only smiled and moved past them without another look, heading for the slanting path up the cliff. Her wet skirts dragged lines of her passage into the loose, gritty sand. She lifted them for a moment as she starts to climb, then dropped them. Roussilon watched her go, her head high, her dark seaweed hair swirling around her, and shivered.

After a moment, Montreson held out his arm, a gesture of automatic courtliness. It reminded her of who she was. “We must take it from that smile that it is,” she said, accepting it. “Now, Comte, perhaps we can find a warm tent and nice glass of brandy.”

He smiled and she wondered if he believed her, if he too could no more see below the glossy surface of her cultured accent and perfected charm than she had been able to see what lay behind Erzabet’s smile.

 

 

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Exercising the mental muscles. Part I: The Shore is Grey

February 19th, 2017Posted by Nancy


 

I’ve been less productive than hoped since Christmas (work, events, general laziness to blame) but I did revisit some of the exercises I did from Wonderbook by jeff Vandermeer.  The last one was quite challenging, as it involved rewriting a scene multiple times (some of which I admit to having skipped from lack of interest).  Because I generally have very little to post here, I thought – aha! – I’ll post the exercise.

The first step was to write a scene between two characters with no dialogue and with only description to convey what is happening between them.  I cheated a bit by having them observing a third character but she never speaks. This version automatically assumed the present tense and I quite liked parts of it. I’ll be the first to confess that it did bog down in the unheard dialogue section.  What did I learn?  Well, I already knew that I have a ridiculous love of writing descriptions of weather and nature.  My favorite words reappear.  But I learned some things about the woman with the hat that I had known before and that was very useful.

The photo here is actually Lake Minnewanka, near Banff.  It was taken by my husband on his iphone in colour and has no filters. This is really what it looked like. It’s not exactly the landscape for the scene that follows but it seemed appropriate.

SPEAK, DON’T SPEAK Exercise Part I

The shore is grey. There is no sand on the wide beach, only stones. The cliffs beyond it rise fifty feet high, grey shale and winter-whitened lichen. Here and there, a weathered tree clings to a split in the stone, but they too are grey with salt and struggle. A path winds its way in switchbacks down the side of the cliff. There are footprints in the loose grit and gouges were a foot has slipped.

The dark, rolling waves of the sea mirror the slate-coloured clouds that billow and belly above them. They break on half-hidden rocks and hit the pebbled beach with a rush and a hiss. Somewhere beyond the clouds, the sun is sloping downwards, southward in the sky, but no hint of light breaks through.

From the sea, if one rode those waves, the beach would look like a stage, set for some grim northern tragedy. There is only one spot of colour in all that grey; the somber burgundy of the long coat worn by the woman standing at the base of the wall of shale. She had worn a hat of matching hue but the wind threatened to send it cartwheeling down the beach so now she holds it in her hands. If there were a setting sun to touch it, her hair would shine auburn. Beneath the lowered sky, it looks merely dark, pulled tightly back from her face. The face itself is smooth, like the sea-tumbled rocks, but it is not a young woman’s face. Her hands, ungloved, are not a young woman’s hands. There is a beginning of thickening in the bones of the knuckles and when she tightens her grip on the hat, the fine bones move beneath skin the texture of crepe.

Her gaze is seaward, towards the young woman who crouches near the water’s edge. Her clothes are dark, her unbound hair a flag in the wind from the water.  Her bare hands rest on the stones and once in while her fingers dig into the mass of them, turning and tumbling them.  When the waves are strong, the water rushes up and around her, turning her long skirts darker as they lift away from her ankles. It must be bone-chilling, that water, but she gives no sign of it. Her eyes are closed, her face lifted and tilted, as if she is listening to something very faint and far away. Her lips move, once in a while, on words that are not clear.

Beside the woman in burgundy, a man paces, measured steps back and forth across the rocks. Like his companion, he carries his broad-brimmed black hat, revealing iron-grey hair tossed by the wind. His coat is the same hue, though there is the flash of white from the lace at his wrists when he lifts his hand to brush away a tangle of hair from his eyes.  His face is narrow and sharp, from high forehead to neatly trimmed beard. He watches the woman on the shore, though once in a while he glances up towards the cliff-top, as if expecting to see something there.

The woman touches the sharp line of her hair where it meets her forehead. She looks at the man as he begins another turn and speaks. His brows lift a little and his shoulders shift in the faintest of shrugs as he replies.

As she speaks again, he pauses in his motion, and they both look towards the woman on the beach.  Words die for a moment; a frown folds her smooth forehead. There is something tentative in her voice then.

His answer is short and he resumes his pacing, staring down at his boots for a moment before glancing back up at the escarpment above him. Whatever he expects to see is not visible, for he looks away again. He glances at his companion and says something, the equivocal shrug returning.

On the beach, the young woman bends her head and the wind winds her hair like a veil over her face. Her hands are in the numbing water, fanned out as she can grasp the waves and hold them there. As she watches, the woman in burgundy pulls her coat tighter and shifts her weight. The man in black stops pacing.

A sound comes from the figure at the water’s edge but it caught by the wind before the observers can tell if it is a cry of triumph or despair. She rises in a column of black and turns to pick hers way back across the jumbled beach towards them. Her hair flows and flashes across her face but she does to try to push it back.

As she nears the waiting pair, the man steps forward and speaks. She nods and smiles and walks past them without another look, to begin the walk up the slanting path. Her wet skirts drag the lines of her passing the loose grit. She lifts them up for a moment then lets them drop, her head high, her hair swirling around her head like seaweed.

After a moment, the man sighs and holds out his arm. The older woman accepts it and then takes a breath visible in the lift of her shoulders. She says something softly and he tilts his head to hear her then shakes his head with another sigh. They climb the path, following the lines in the sand.

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Picture this, Part III

January 25th, 2017Posted by Nancy

The hardest character to find a decent picture for has been Leontine.  After hunting around for a while, I finally decided to go back to my first inspiration, which was a little girl in Fillippo Lippi’s “The Coronation of the Virgin”.  And lo and behold, Signor Lippi had a few other lovely paintings, one of which yielded the image above.  It’s not quite perfect but it’s not a bad image for a woman who excels at math, becomes an alchemist and the Royal Magician, and then … but that would be telling.

Below is the original instruction, which comes from one of the most gorgeous paintings I’ve ever seen.

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Picture this, Part II

January 6th, 2017Posted by Nancy

Being the second in my series of inspiration pictures for the WIP.

I found the first of these images on my Beautiful Bizarre Magazine instagram feed, which is a constant source of incredible art that could serve as inspiration for dozens of stories (were I the sort of person who could have that many ideas).  It’s actually from a photo shoot for Vogue magazine, done by an Icelandic photographer named Anna Osk Erlingsdottir.  This picture led me to her site, which is full of equally lovely things.

Both of these are reference photos for Erzabet, one of the triumvarite of women who drive the new book.  In the course of the story she’s a child in a small fishing village, an accused witch, a Royal Magician, and …. well, you know how the next bit goes. That would be telling.

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In Heavy Rotation

December 19th, 2016Posted by Nancy

I first heard Dessa (aka Dessa Darling, aka Margaret Wander) listening to one of Welcome to Nightvale’s live podcasts. She and Paper Tiger performed “Call off Your Ghost” and I thought, well, that’s pretty cool, I should find out more. So I did, and discovered that Dessa is a singer, composer, songwriter, rapper, and spoken word artist from Minneapolis. I listened to a few songs online and then acquired both of her albums.  I listened to them over and over on my ipod on the way to work and back.  I listened to them while I did yoga in the basement. I don’t think I listened to anything else for a month. I still go through Dessa phases.

Why do I love her work so much?

It’s not just the music, though I love the melodies and the interesting sounds she finds and uses. It’s not just the confidence that comes through in so many of her songs, though we live in a culture that’s not used to woman being assertive about their art and ambition.  The rap influence is probably at play here (she has a song called “The Bullpen” explicitly about being a woman in that world) but her expression of it is unique.  I think that’s why these songs made me uncomfortable, because I’m not nearly as confident as the woman in songs like “Fighting Fish”, in which she states: “I wanna try, I wanna take risks/I don’t wanna walk, rather swing and miss/I’m not above apologies but I don’t ask permission/I got a lot of imperfections but I don’t count my ambition in them”.   This seems to me like a profoundly female statement of ambition: she’ll aim high, but she’ll apologize if she needs to, because who needs another jerk on the stage. She has no interest in being bound by conventions of genre.  She’s rapped, sung, arranged music for a choir, and collaborated on classical compositions.

 

I love her because she loves words, which I suppose is what you’d expect from an artist who started as a poet and has a degree in philosopy. She loves wordplay, literary allusion, consonance, alliteration, upending cliches, and all the other tricks that writers use. Most of all, she seems to love story  (it’s no surprise that she writes both fiction and non-fiction prose).  Most of her songs contain a strong thread of narrative that drags my own imagination into the words and summons up histories and futures for her characters.  She sings about a difficult musical genius (“The Chaconne“), about watching a lover descend into mental illness (“Annabelle“), about admitting to the betrayals that destroyed a friendship (“Dear Marie“), and about offering advice to a relative caught up in something criminal (“Alibi“).  Even her love songs are richer and darker than the run-of-the-mill romantic fodder in popular music.

Best of all, for me many of her songs have an edge of the fantastic. I have no idea how intentional any of it is, but all my fantasy-honed buttons get pushed by songs like “Skeleton Key” (I come from over the horizon, every dozen years/go home, tell of my arrival, Skeleton Key’s here/….I’ve found work and welcome everywhere I’ve been/cause everyone’s got someplace they want to be let in) and the apocalyptic dreamscape of “The Beekeeper“(In the shadow of the mountain/we work when work abounds/and we wear out all our prayers/when the work runs out).

If those songs are fantasy, then “The Lamb” contains an undercurrent of horror. It’s a song about caring for an aging relative (father? brother? uncle?) guilty of an unspecified childhood abuse towards the narrator. The lyrics move between acceptance of the call of blood (but blood is blood/and what’s done is done/yeah, blood is blood/and it’s burden is a beast) and the desire for vengeance, or at least power (you’ve got a way with words/you got a way with murder/now our roles reverse/and your table’s turning).  Gets me every time.

 

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