I’m working on a new book cover project for Twisted Spoon— this one is a story called Miruna, A Tale by the Romanian author Bogdan Suceavă. It’s a lovely text that reminds me of the ‘magical realism’ genre in its better moments: a manner of storytelling in which very strange things are made commonplace, and mundane things made strange.
Since I haven’t done one of these visual posts in a while, I thought I’d show some the images that I’ve come across while doing research for this project, along with some totally random finds thrown in just for variety’s sake…
It happens that, right at the time I’m visiting San Francisco, the Berkeley Art Museum is hosting the first major exhibition in fifty years on the work of mockduck favorite Kurt Schwitters— master collagist, all-around loon.
Belying his tendency to dress like a banker, Schwitters was one of the great eccentrics of the early modernist period, running a one-man design movement he called Merz (named after the tail end of a sign reading Kommerz visible through his apartment window) throughout a life spent on the run, in exile from Nazi Germany. Schwitters’ main legacy is his apeshit use of collage, gluing together random found objects that somehow form an intensely introspective, personal viewing experience:
I went to the exhibition with old friend Alastair Johnston (shown here playing Thelonious Monk in Monk costume). We peered through the collages and noted old tram tickets, chocolate and tobacco wrappers (suggestive of a less-than-healty diet) and elements of what seemed to be a dissected croquet set. I was fascinated to discover that the smallest collages seemed to carry the most power: the impact of the larger ones seemed to dissipate slightly as one’s eye tracked around them; the smaller ones, meanwhile, had this boggling degree of carefully-wrought detail that seemed to squirm under one’s gaze.
As much as I enjoyed the collages, the 500 pound gorilla of the show was lurking in the basement, where the curators had sought to rebuild Schwitters’ infamous Merzbau. The Merzbau was a fantastic installation that Schwitters began piecing together in the apartment house owed by his father (although the two were closely connected, the Dadaists allegedly refused to extend membership to Schwitters on account of his bourgeoise lineage)— collage applied to interior design:
The Merzbau eventually overran the confines of Schwitters’ flat and — as legend has it — prompted him to get the upstairs neighbors evicted so he could knock out the ceiling and continue building his masterpiece. Naturally, the entire artifice got left behind when he fled Germany for Norway in 1937. (Alastair pointed out to me that probably many of the freestanding small sculptural pieces shown in the main exhibition space were just pieces that Schwitters couldn’t bear to leave behind and snapped off the Merzbau and stuffed in his suitcase or something). Later in his life, Schwitters started a second Merzbau in Norway (burnt down) and then a Merzbarn in England (unfinished at the time of his death).
The exhibition curators have attempted to recreate the Merzbau from archival photographs and the descriptions of Schwitters’ surviving son. There was a distracting clicking on and off of lights (attempting to show you what it looked like in day vs. night), but otherwise, the recreation seemed as faithful to the original as one can possibly hope for. There were maddening details, like a stairway that seemed to round a corner and abruptly end— no one could tell what the artists’ intention was here (plus a student intern guard barked at you if you attempted to crane your neck around the corner to find out).
If Merzbaus aren’t really your thing, and you’re more into sound poetry, you can check out Schwitters’ bizarre foray into nonsense recitation, the Ursonate:
After the exhibition, I did one my favorite stock Bay Area activities, the old Hike Up The Berkeley Fire Trail. This was a standby of mine when I would occasionally wake up on a Sunday overwhelmed with a feeling of tiredness towards the Mission. In triumphant vacation form this time, I managed to find a bench with a spectacular view at the very top of the hill range and promptly fall asleeep on it.
I’ve never really found a friend who shares my toleration of Berkeley, but I could happily see just throwing every other aspect of my personality overboard and settling into a classic, cliche-riddled existence as Stereotypical Healthy Old Guy In Berkeley. Golden retriever, front yard, jogging— the works. It’s not like I actively see my life heading in this direction; more like I’d strongly consider diverting it from whatever that direction is if this was the reward. It would be difficult to shut off the critical faculties of one’s brain to swallow all the Berkeley malarky that you’d have to listen to all the time… but if you could master that one trick, you’d be all set in other regards.
The intention was to write something that’s enjoyable if you’re a fan of the music, interesting if you’re not a fan, and validating if you hate the music. Accordingly, my favorite twitter comment so far was when somebody wrote, “This looked totally obtuse to me at first, but then I realized it’s actually well-executed.” High praise indeed!
On Tuesday, I took a train to Prague to personally chaperone my final proposal for the Jewish Museum identity redesign to the museum administrators. My proposal did not win. In fact, I got the phone call from the museum’s PR department while I was still on the train back to Berlin the next day.
I don’t know much about the selection process other than that there was a committee of 17 doing the voting on five proposals, and that one of the other four was apparently selected (I’ll be curious to see what this looks like when it’s formally announced in a few months, presumably). In any case, it was an honor to partake in such an interesting project, and I’m happy with the proposal I came up with…
Oh yeah: the Rock-A-Mambo exhibition opening party happened last Thursday. I’ve just been too busy to write one red word about it… but now that I finally have photos from the event, I barely have to!
Details of the exhibition are written up here. Thanks to Tina Simonova for snapping the pictures. She did such a good job that it actually looks like a legitimate exhibition space. In fact, it’s a still-being-renovated wing of Prague College that had no electricity until an hour before the show opened. Glad tidings!
(That’s me on the far left, anxiously buzzing around and prodding everyone to remember to have a fun time.)
My latest time-consuming shenanigan has been to organize a show of student work for an exhibition called Rock-A-Mambo. The work comes out of an assignment called ‘Culture & Cliché’ that I gave to eight successive semesters of bewildered students for my Ideas Generation class. Basically, students are tasked with designing a CD cover (although I’m not sure that some of the younger ones even know what a ‘compact disc’ is these days) for 17 tracks of weird/rare/cool Congolese mambo, from this nearly-forgotten period of music history in the late 50s/early 60s when musicians in central Africa were super into Cuban dance rhythms.
The point of this musical selection isn’t to be willfully obscure. OK, maybe it’s partly that. But it’s also about the fact that the music is so out-of-left-field that students have to do tons of research to unpack the backstory behind the music. And, because it’s a strange urbanized hybrid of African and Latin forms, the usual trusty clichés of ‘barefoot village kid beating on congo drum as giraffe lopes by’ don’t cut it here.
As to expected, there are always a few students each semester who are always stymied by the nature of the assignment. But many more have produced fantastically varied, well-informed, creative responses to the assignment. So, I’m having a show with an opening party on Thursday. Good times.
I originally learned about the genre from our friend Alastair— check out the music below. Above is a poster I made for the exhibition, with an unauthorized assist from Malick Sidibé.
My current attempt to redesign the visual identity for the ZMP (Jewish Museum of Prague) is the kind of project that involves a lot of trolling around the internet disguised as ‘research’. Here are some compelling images I’ve turned up along the way. Obviously, most of these have no discernible connection to Judaism or museums whatsoever… but, hey, that’s the digressive nature of the internet for you. You don’t like it, go to France and get on minitel.
Here are some spreads from a book I’ve been working on that’s going to print in next week or two. It’s an update of an existing book for CTP, the same industrial developer for whom I did the giant ‘Yearbook‘ project in 2009. My talented collaborator Dr. T has been rendering the 3D models in Google Sketchup and exporting to Illustrator files– hence, some really giant honking vector files that take forever to open and move around.
Two other things:
1. I’m invoking a new rule governing the blog roll: if you haven’t updated your blog in 300 days or more, I’m kicking you out and replacing you with someone new. Therefore: ModularLab, you’re out– sorry. Daisy, you’re in.