31 May 2004

Random Thoughts from a Weekend Away

Though I very much wanted to be at WisCon, I couldn't get out there because I had to be at graduation at the school where I work. After the ceremonies on Saturday I zipped down to Massachusetts and the Paradise City Arts Festival, where my aunt, a brilliant weaver, was exhibiting. There was plenty of extraordinary work at the show (and some real kitsch, too, alas), but I wasn't feeling particularly wealthy, so I only bought a bit of pottery (by Jules Polk -- I'm very partial to soda fired pots).

Heading home today, we stopped at Mass MoCA, a museum I had long wanted to see, because it is built from old mill buildings and warehouses, and specializes in large installations. I liked Ann Hamilton's "Corpus", at least the main room of it: a large open space where pieces of onionskin paper fall from the ceiling to the floor and bullhorn-like speakers rise up and down, projecting the sound of voices intoning words. It was a surprisingly peaceful installation, with the emptiness of the space, the beauty of the falling paper, the drone of the voices, the light through the many windows filtered red ... all lonely, purposeless, and yet somehow light and even funny. The other work at the museum didn't do much for me, although I liked aspects of Matthew Ritchie's "Proposition Player", a work which seeks to explore the idea of information overload. The specific pieces of art are, themselves, interesting to look at, but the attempt to convey ideas about information, history, cosmology, and whatever else was, at least for me, a complete failure. The ambition is admirable, but it lacks real depth of thought.

The problem of contemporary artists exploring ideas is one that I return to every time I visit a museum of contemporary art, because many artists who have gained enough fame to have an exhibition in such a museum seem determined to convey ideas about life, the universe, and everything; but whenever I stop to think about their ideas and how their artwork expresses and delves into those ideas, I end up getting frustrated because it all seems so terribly cliche, banal, and superficial. For instance, the worst exhibit I saw at MoCA, "The Interventionists: Art in the Social Sphere", was an empty and predictable exhibit, yet another example of earnest artists trying to change the world through art, but doing little more than diddling with their own sense of righteousness. Committed and progressive they may be; sophisticated philosophers and sociologists they are not, and so the work seemed at best mawkish, at worst flagrantly stupid and probably harmful to whatever cause the artists were attempting to support. If they'd taken the money they got to create whatever they created and instead donated it to a charity, they would have helped far more people.

Thus, an experience of two worlds: an upscale arts and crafts fair, and a museum of contemporary art. Very different worlds, indeed, and neither entirely satisfactory. (I had a much more aesthetically pleasing experience walking through galleries in SoHo and Chelsea on a trip to New York back in December.) The Paradise City fair made me wish more craftspeople would try to stretch their media and their conceptions of what their media can accomplish, while Mass MoCA made me wish more academically-sanctioned contemporary artists would stop trying to speak for all humanity and just unleash their imaginations and passions.

I had enough free time during the trip to read Lies, Inc. by Philip K. Dick, a recently re-released edition of The Unteleported Man with about 40,000 words of material Dick wanted added to the original novella (the publishing history is complex). I had not read the book either in its earlier form or the current one, and, given that it was cobbled together at different times both by Dick and his executors, I didn't set my expectations high. The best that can be said for the book is that it isn't entirely painful to read, though it is befuddling. The first two chapters are by far the best, and had me laughing out loud as the protagonist, Raphael ben Applebaum, has the consciousness of a rat inadvertently beamed into his head -- a classic PhilDickian moment, showcasing his great ability to mix humor and horror and convey it through unyieldingly matter-of-fact prose. Some other good concepts in the book might have been effective had they been more thoughtfully and less haphazardly executed, particularly a book-within-the-book that Dick added in the later material, but in the end Lies, Inc. feels less like a novel than like a book filled with various aborted attempts at a novel, with few of the attempts being particularly compelling.

And now I'm home ... with lots of email to answer....

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