Karel Zeman: Fantasy and Technology

I am not a huge fan of CGI.  I certainly has its place, but give me some puppets and a bit of whimsical animation and I’ll be over the moon.  Even when it looks outdated it still holds it’s own a lot better than outdated CGI.  And there is something beautiful about the work that goes into creating puppets animation and elaborate sets and costumes.  However, like the skills used to build the pyramids, some animation and special effects are now a mystery to us.  One such example is the magical combination of live action, animation and puppetry used by Czechoslovakian director Karel Zeman.  The secrets of his craft are so fascinating that they are now the focus of a documentary Film Adventurer Karel Zeman.  In this documentary film students attempt to remake three of the most famous of Zeman’s scenes.  Zeman’s fascination with Jules Verne highlights his own desire for adventure and exploration in the world of film making and special effects.  His choices of subject are brave and perfect for the experimentation of his field.  Never one to back down from a challenge, Zeman accepted a bet to create an animation using glass, resulting in the film Inspirace 1948.
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Gustav Dore’s illustrations of Baron Muchausen

Out of all his films it was The Fabulous Baron Munchausen that most caught my imagination.  Even the story behind the story is fascinating.  Baron Munchausen was in fact a real person who told really tall tales.  Mostly based on his true exploits during the Russo-Turkish War but outrageously exaggerated.  He was not deliberately trying to deceive anyone with his stories, rather he wanted to “ ridicule the disposition for the marvelous which he observed in some of his acquaintances.”  The real Baron Munchausen then inspired Rudolf Erich Raspe to create a fictionalised Baron, originally published anonymously.

Like Chinese whispers the story of Baron Munchausen was passed down, first from his own mouth, then through Rudolf Erich Raspe, and then to be passed on through different translations, illustrations and finally film adaptations.  Out of the many artists who took on the task of illustrating the Baron, it was Gustav Dore who influenced Karel Zeman’s own interpretation of the stories.  The film uses animated and ‘real’ backdrops in the same black and white line drawing style of Gustav Dore, with live action actors playing the roles of the characters.  This combination of real, animated, created, wondrous special effects and romping storyline makes for a film that stands the test of time.

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The film begins on the moon where we get another taste of Zeman’s love of Jules Verne as an astronaut from Earth arrives on the moon only to discover the characters of From Earth to the Moon and the Baron.  They presume he is in fact a man from the moon, and the Baron offers to take him to Earth to show him around.  Here begins a series of adventures, from speaking the unintelligible ‘language of diplomacy’, to rescuing damsels in distress, fighting in a war, and eventually being shot back into space to once more land on the moon.  Zeman’s  adaptation plays up the discord and harmony of science and technology, and whimsical fantasy.  The Baron stands as a symbol of fantasy, and the astronaut, known as Tonik in the Czech version, as a symbol for technology.

This discord and harmony finds voice not just through the symbolic characters, but also through Karel Zeman’s film making artistry.  Fantastical imagination and drawing combines with technological special effects to create a film which creates a rich and wonderful world for the viewer.  Karel Zeman was a true artist of special effect and film making, and his work will stand as proof that technology and fantasy must work together to create beautiful special effects, and beautiful films.

Karel Zeman, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, 1962.

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Henri’s Journey to the End of the Night

I like to think that I am an adventurous eater, I will try most things, but that is not to say that I am not fussy and that there is nothing that can put me off.  When offered a delicacy I feel I am often a little nervous, after all many so called delicacies can be hard to stomach.  Caviar, chicken’s feet and snails just to name a few.  But I always feel the need to try them, surely there is a reason these foods are so highly revered?

Journey to the End of the Night is one such delicacy.  As you crunch through it you go through periods when you feel like maybe you can see why it gets so much praise, it’s witty, clever, entertaining, and yet the aftertaste leaves something to be desired.  The anti-hero is a racist, misogynist, and all round unpleasant bastard.  There are certain times when you think he might be redeemable, but he always manages to dash your hopes.  Unlike other anti-heroes who somehow remain loveable, Ferdinand fails to do so, except perhaps that there is a little bit of him in all of us.  After all the novel is called Journey to the End of the Night, and so it is a journey further and further into immorality.

The pure un-distilled nihilism of this dish leaves a sour and unpleasant taste in your mouth.  And yet don’t let me put you off, it is still worth a taste.  Perhaps it is like culinary machoism, like extremely hot chilli, we feel proud that we survived, exhilarated.  But I am afraid that I prefer this novel nibbled a little at a time so as not to become overwhelmed with it’s pungent bitterness, and so that the tart and biting humour can shine through.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Journey to the End of the Night, 1932.

A Day at the Fair

The Melbourne Art Book Fair is the perfect melding of the old and the new, the famous and the soon to be, global and local and the corporate and the independent.  Here zines sit side by side with monographs of well known artists, publications are created right before your eyes, and ideas are shared across time and space.

Running along side the book stalls is a series of talks, workshops and book signings which makes this way more than just a commercial event.  Often the people selling you the books are the people who made them, whether the publishers or the artists themselves, and it’s wonderful to hear the back stories of the publications direct from the source.

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There has definitely been a movement towards supporting independent publishers, and the Melbourne Art Book Fair is evident of that.  In a world where the competition for major publishers is so tough, it’s little wonder that people are getting out there and publishing their own work.

There are some truly beautiful books on display but for me the main drawcard is the Zines. Zines are such a fantastic example of the democratisation of art, they are an inexpensive, often ephemeral, object which is easily distributed.  With their growth in popularity many are blurring the lines between the Zine and the more traditional artist’s book, the level of quality is rising, and they are often made in a numbered edition or are made one of a kind through the use of painting or drawing in addition to printing.

The Melbourne Art Book Fair is a wonderful way to truly become involved in, and support, contemporary art in Melbourne.  Just getting to talk to the artists alone would be enough reason to go, but it’s even better that you can bring a little part of it home to keep forever.

The Melbourne Art Book Fair
NGV International
Friday 29 April – Sunday 1 May 2016

 

 

 

Life is a party and parties aren’t meant to last

For such a public figure, Prince lived a very private life.  And his death too has been private.  It was a shock to the world, and still the events leading to his death remain unannounced.  And yet with any great musician the mourning has been very public.

My knowledge of Prince has as a general rule been purely his music.  Unlike other musicians where I enjoy watching their music videos, there is no easy way to do this.  He is not on You Tube or Spotify. In a battle for artists rights Prince demanded all his videos be taken down, and refused to be on I Tunes because they wouldn’t pay him in advance.  It’s a strong message but sadly one that may lead to obscurity.  It begs the question, how can we have our cake and eat it too?  We want free music, easily accessible, but we also want to support the artists who made it so they can continue to do so into the future.

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Through my desire to mourn this great artist of our times I turned to film, Purple Rain to be exact.  Purple Rain is Prince at his best.  It stands in the grand tradition of teenaged rebellion and rock and roll films such as The Wild OneRebel Without a Cause and Streets of Fire (if you haven’t seen this one, please do, you’ll thank me later), combining it’s tale of redemption with show stopping performances by not only Prince, but also Time, Dez Dickerson and the Modernaires, and Apollonia.

Yes it’s kind of disturbing that it hardly treats women better than The Wild One, made almost exactly 30 years earlier.  In fact their well dressed, motorcycle riding, rebellious heroes who get the girl with little more than a glance and a few snide remarks have rather a lot in common.  Prince’s character, ‘the Kid’, however broadens his narrow view of women throughout the film, leading to the climax when he writes the lyrics to Purple Rain, a song written by the two female members of his band.

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Purple Rain is hardly an inventive story, it’s dripping with 80s cheese and yet Prince is so charismatic, the music is incredible, and the sets and costumes are so spot on that you can’t help but enjoy it.  A great film cannot be judged on inventiveness alone, great films are the ones that capture your imagination, excite all your senses and stay in your memory.

So as we say goodbye to one of the greats of musical history, I hope the future of music, and the internet, is such that he will not simply vanish from our collective memory.  Perhaps one day his dreams will come true, we will find a way to consolidate our desire to have free access to music with fair pay for artists.  Prince’s life was a party, and as he said, parties aren’t meant to last.  But the best parties are remembered forever.

Measure it in inches: Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei

Warhol and Ai Weiwei: a match made in curatorship heaven. Not only was this pairing always going to be a big crowd pleaser, but it is also a rare chance to write history.  Although the cynic in me can imagine the dollar signs in the eyes of the curators when they began planning the exhibition (something Warhol would certainly approve of) but I can also appreciate the importance of such an exhibition art historically.

Warhol is an artist firmly cemented in the canon.  He was a tipping point, a pivotal artist in the transition between Modern and Contemporary Art, a revolutionary and an influence for many artists who followed in his wake.  Put simply he is a god.

Ai Weiwei is a Hero.  Part god, part mortal he walks among us.  We can meet him, take a selfie with him, follow him on Instagram, he has not yet joined the Gods in Olympus.  By placing Warhol and Weiwei together, by comparing them, highlighting their similarities, holding them on an equal playing field the curators are sending a very clear message, Ai Weiwei is ready to make his accent into the canon.

For an exhibition with two names in the title it is interesting that most people ask, “have you been to see the Weiwei exhibition yet?”  Certainly during the weeks leading up to the opening, Weiwei’s presence in Melbourne, and the Lego controversy helped to put Weiwei firmly in the social consciousness.  With his adept use of social media, Weiwei can reach huge audiences in such a way that Warhol could only have dreamed of within his lifetime.

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I must confess that despite my own bias towards Warhol, it is Weiwei’s stunning installation Blossom, 2015, a breathtaking bed of pure white porcelain flowers, that is the stand out for me.  This work is not only visually stunning, but encompasses many of the elements of the exhibition.  It is political, a memorial to those who fight for freedom and human rights.  It comments on and questions art and its worth in society through the use of porcelain.  It connects to people, elicits a reaction which is democratic in its immediacy and universality.  It highlights his similarities and differences to Warhol. Plus it looks great in a selfie.

The immediacy and arguably impersonal nature of social media would certainly have had immense appeal for Warhol.  It is as though all his predictions for the future have come true.  Through advertising, magazines, television and film, Warhol saw how easily this could escalate to the point where everyone could have their 15 minutes of fame.  Only these days we don’t measure fame in inches as Warhol once did, instead we measure it in likes.  Not only is fame now within the grasp of anyone, art and fame can be truly democratic.  When we press “like” on Facebook, follow a blog, walk down a alleyway covered with street art, we are participating in the democratisation of a symbol which was once placed on a pedestal far out of reach.  Yes Warhol is a God, but he is in the fashion of a Greek God, flawed, human, within our grasp.  We see ourselves reflected in him.  He is our mirror. And, perhaps ironically, it is his very ability to lift art down from it’s pedestal that raised him up to such a height.

Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014 (installation detail, Alcatraz Hospital)

Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014 (installation detail, Alcatraz Hospital); photo: Jan Stürmann, courtesy FOR-SITE Foundation

Ai Weiwei is practicing in a world post-Warhol, the face of the world, and of our communications with each other has changed dramatically since the advent of the internet, and like Warhol, Weiwei knows exactly how to take advantage of this.  Questioning and referencing everything, he connects our present with the past, both politically and artistically.  In one work he will question the value of art by smashing a “priceless” vase, in another he creates a music video with all the trappings.  Warhol also drew on all of the avenues available to reach his audience.  Through music, film, magazines and advertising as well as through the gallery space, he accessed a wide and varied breadth of people.  And through this connected with them.  From street hustlers to art historians Warhol influenced, shocked, excited and awed.  And so Weiwei does today.

It is the aim of this exhibition to hold up Warhol and Weiwei to the light and compare them.  Scrutinising them it turns them both carefully in its hands, examines their similarities and differences, and declares them equals.  Crowd pleaser this may be, but it’s true worth lies in it’s ability to link these two artists in history.  But in this day and age, it is for us to make the final judgement.  And Warhol and Weiwei wouldn’t want it any other way.

Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei
National Gallery of Victoria
11 December 2015 – 24 April 2016

Time Takes a Cigarette…

I have already written a lot about Bowie,  and yet now that I have processed this as actually reality I feel the need to say goodbye, after all he had the goodness to say goodbye to us.

What I heard a lot after Bowie passed away was “I am sad because he still had so much potential.”  Which is amazing really.  That’s something you say about someone who passes away aged 27 with a white lighter in their back pocket, not someone who is 69, has had a full and wonderful life as not just as an artist but as a husband and father, friend and icon. Black Star might not be Ziggy Stardust, or Berlin, but it’s certainly better than your grandpapa could do, and perhaps something he could enjoy.

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Bowie died with dignity. It’s hard to die with dignity when your whole life is lived in the public eye and people are still bringing up things you did when you were 25. You don’t have the right to remain silent.  Anything you say can and will be used against you.   Not to mention trying to be innovative and original with a swathe of great albums hanging over your head like a guillotine ready to chop your new record into smithereens.

Bowie-Mangkunegaran-002.img_assist_custom-640x358I honestly don’t think I have experienced the passing of anyone in my lifetime who has died with such grace but also such fireworks.  The outpouring of grief, and of celebration has been mammoth. He died quietly and privately, as a fellow human being not as a rock-and roll suicide.  And yet he said the greatest goodbye.

 

No Longer Just Kids

I feel very close to Patti Smith.  She has shared with me the most intimate details of her life, her upbringing, her struggle as a young woman discovering art, life and love, and the inner workings of her mind through her writing and music.  I grew up with her as I bounced around my bedroom to Because the Night and Free Money. Together we shared a beautiful moment, her daughter performing live at Carnegie Hall in New York where Patti was moved to tears.  We share many of the same tastes and obsessions, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolfe, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and  the films of Akira Kurosawa.  And we have the type of friendship where I can absolutely trust her judgement when she recommends films, television shows and books to me.

As a woman who is so honest and open, I was at first surprised by the reservation of her new book M Train.  Here is a Patti who is getting older, her children have grown up, her husband tragically passed away.  She seems withdrawn, more solitary, and prone to moments of lethargy and almost depression.  She spends her days going to cafes, writing, reading and binge watching Swedish detective TV series.  Another thing Patti and I have in common, a propensity to turn to the flickering screen to numb a broken heart.  And yet she is still the Patti I know and love, her humour, passion and her unwavering pursuit of beauty, meaning and rapture is truly inspiring, whether she is hunting it in nature, art, or in her own work.

Her travels are like pilgrimages, to Mexico to visit the home of Frida Kahlo, to Japan to visit the graves of some of her favourite directors and authors.  She does not speak about making music, only about writing.  And so her music is writing really, it is poetry with a backing track.  A very good backing track.   Imagining this book to pick up where Just Kids left off, we find that instead Patti speaks little of her marriage and her experience of bring up her children, this period of her life is left private.  She does however describe her incredible and enduring love of her husband, some of their pilgrimages they took together, and little tid- bits about their lives together.  This is still very much an open wound.  Unlike with Robert who she writes about with the distance of time, able to tell the tale of their love with poetry.  Patti and Robert had an incredible bond, one that went beyond their relationship as lovers, to that of lifelong friends and collaborators.  And yet here we are talking about something even beyond that.  Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith is an underlying vein throughout the book, even when he is not mentioned we feel his loss through Patti.

Just Kids I instantly connected with.  Here was a woman who was going through the same things I was, growing up, finding her feet on her own, dealing with poverty and with the constant pervading desire to create.  She romanticises the semi-nomadic lifestyle of moving from home to home, splashing out on little luxuries such as corn dogs, and selling shell necklaces to get by.  She is the typical struggling artist who acts as an inspiration for us all, truly abiding by the myth of the almost holy status of poverty as an impetus for great art.

And so the summer I read Just Kids I spent my days combing the beaches of Tasmania for shells with perfectly formed holes, ripe for the transformation into necklaces.  And then I set out on my own road to poverty, moving into a three bedroom weatherboard 40s house in Melbourne with a massive overgrown garden which our cat stalked through like a tiger, a crumbling asbestos shed, and at one point 7 other inhabitants.  I still have fond memories of that house which now no longer exists, swallowed by the ever invading modern town houses squashed together so that you can practically reach out the window and hold the hand of your neighbour.  It was a house that was constantly alive with music, art and the occasional wilful act of destruction.  Here we could be ‘Just Kids’.

I look forward to re-reading M Train when I am older, when I too have experienced great loss and passing of time.   Her life now is not romanticised as her youth was.  And yet that I guess is reality.  There is a vitality and vibrancy to the ambitions and struggles of youth, part of growing older is dealing with the loss of that.  Yet Patti has not given that up, she is still constantly discovering new things. Still hunting, still following her burning desire to write, to create, and to follow her dreams (sometimes quite literally). Yes this is the same Patti, and overall the book has a positive message: it is possible to embrace aging gracefully, with both the passion of youth and the wisdom of years passed.

Patti Smith, M Train, 2015.