Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year - Light Show at SFMOMA

Yesterday, I saw an amazing light show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) - an installation by Jim Campbell:
This new installation by acclaimed San Francisco-based artist Jim Campbell explodes the moving image into three dimensions, illuminating the Haas Atrium with a flickering grid of light that is part sculpture, part cinematic screen. Thousands of computer-controlled LED spheres create the illusion of fleeting shadowlike figures that dissolve and resolve as one moves around and beneath the suspended, chandelierlike matrix. Exploded Views investigates the nuances of perception through a series of four different films, changing every two months, the first of which is a collaboration with Alonzo King's LINES Ballet.

They were beautiful to behold from downstairs when the projected images did not really make sense from that angle.  Once one climbed on the staircase and saw it from the landing, the images became really fantastic.  It was perfect for the holiday season and I share pictures and videos with my friends, wishing everyone a happy new year:

Exploded Views 2011 - Jim Campbell - 2,880 LED Lights and Custom Electronics  _ 9667 - Copy

Exploded Views 2011 - Jim Campbell - 2,880 LED Lights and Custom Electronics  _ 9478 - Copy

Exploded Views 2011 - Jim Campbell - 2,880 LED Lights and Custom Electronics  _ 9482 - Copy

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Trees at Night

The year 2011 is near its inevitable end and it's always a bit sad to bid farewell to the old year and hopeful and anxious for the new year.

A group photos I took in my deck of trees at night perfectly illustrated that kind of emotion:

Trees at Night _ 9262

Trees at Night _ 9263

Trees at Night _ 9264

Trees at Night _ 9266

Trees at Night _ 9267

Trees at Night _ 9268

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!

I wish everyone happy holidays and a merry Christmas, by sharing some warm pictures of evening lights:

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembering Mao's Death

The death of the dictator of North Korea Kim Jong-Il triggered a wave of show of grief in that isolated country.  To many informed, Kim Jong-Il was a ruthless and heartless ruler who brought his people to calamities after calamities.  Yet, his people mourned his passing.

I suspect that their sorrow demonstrated in the pictures above is largely genuine.  It's not like they are stupid but they are deceived.

The power of propaganda and brain-wash cannot be underestimated.

The pictures above reminded me what happened in China, when their Chairman Mao Zedong died in September 1976.

Many people cried as if the world came to an end and as if they indeed had lost a most caring father, despite the fact that Mao's long reign had been very destructive and oppressive, which could only be topped by the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  Some historical pictures showed how Chinese people showed their collective grief.


I was very young and just started my school. The overwhelming showing off grieve by the adults made a great impression on me, with mixture of fear and joy.  It was the kind joy when a calamity we had often prayed for, say before an unprepared final exam, miraculously materialized.

However, I knew that such joy was not to be revealed.  At the time, I was not aware of the evilness of Mao therefore didn't harbor any hatred against him yet.

On the national mourning day, we were herded to some room lying between our make-shift classroom, rented in residential area by local government due to lacking classrooms in schools, and my home for a memorial service.  The grim atmosphere in the dark room again was impressive and if anyone in my class cried, I suspect it was mostly due to fear or hallucination.  But I didn't witness any because we had to bow our heads and look at our feet.  Or others' feet.  I heard a rumor that a girl spat on her cloth shoes to make them wet as if soaked by tears.  I suspected that this was just malicious gossip, but couldn't dismiss it with absolute confidence.  We first-graders were capable of playing many tricks to score over others, in order to wangle some praises from our teachers.

When I returned home, I rested in the hallway before I entered our flat, to ensure that any trace of schadenfreude smile be erased from my face.  Before I finished hiding my glee, my mother suddenly came out of our flat and startled me.  I must looked unnatural due to my inexperience and not having mastered the requisite art of deception.  She insisted on interpreting my abashment as the result of my being caught weeping out of grief and felt embarrassed by that and heaped upon me with extravagant praises which I tried to evade in vain.  She would not or refused to understand my explanation.  Perhaps, her version would have put her mind at better ease?

Anyway, during those days, kids had a little bit more leverage to do whatever we pleased.  Besides, after we'd witnessed how adults howling like wounded animals in the most ungainly ways, their collective authorities eroded quite a bit.

Sometimes, it was even comical.

The last picture above showed that all the mourners had a black band on their left arms - a sign for mourning in then China.  If the deceased were a woman, the band should be worn on the right arms by her mourners.

In one P.E. class in the following days, we were drilled repeated to turn left or right because some of my classmates had trouble in following the commands of "Left Turn" and "Right Turn".  Some of us were not quite able to tell left from right.  To make things simple, our P.E. teacher told us that it were our left arms wearing the black band, therefore, we ought to turn towards that direction when he called out "Left Turn".

Even so, one boy still turned to his right on such command.  Our P.E. teacher was furious and almost struck the poor boy before he realized that the boy was wearing his black band on his right arm.

I don't remember the name and the face of that poor boy.  But he must be a poor one.  I remember that most of us have beautiful shining new black band made of some nice, wrinkle-free material while his was a miserable looking one, trimmed out of an old pair of trousers or jacket.  Surely his parents did not purchase black cloth for the band despite the fact that all residents were given extra rations for cloth that month and for that we despised him and laughed at his mistake most heartily.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Photorealistic Caravaggio

My friends are often surpised to learn that Caravaggio has never been my most favorite artist -
indeed, I like him very much, but never truly in love with his paintings - despite the fact that he had many qualities to recommand him, such as the heightened theatricality and emotional charge, the provocative poses of the youths, his bold coloration, and the sleek beauty of the fabrics, fruits and other objects - all of which were solidly in the realm of my admiration.

Therefore, my attitude towards Caravaggio baffled even myself till recently.

I'm reading an art book, the Arts of Man, by Eric Newton, which traced the art development though styles and movements.

On page 170, it commented a painting by Caravaggio, "St. Matthew and the Angel", c. 1600:
It was probably painted in 1600.  The Mannerism of late 16th Century was coming to an end. The baroque style that was to succeed it a few years later had not yet established itself.  Caravaggio was a born rebel and his startling realism, which not only presented staints as peasants, with the faces and gestures of peasants, but portrayed them in the harsh cold light that we loosely call "pohotgraphic", at once shocked the conventional but soon delighted the adventurous.

Once his innovations were understood they spread like wildfire both to Holland, where a group of painters centered on the Utrecht imitated his choice of types and his sytem of dramatic lighting, and to Spain, where the yound Velasquez even outdid him in realistic intensity. There was a brief period during which it almost looked as though the new realism might become the accepted style of painting throughout Europe.  But in the end the photographic vision of Caravaggio was superseded by the exuberance of Rubans and the profundity of Rembrandt.  Velasquez, himself, eventually abandoned the harsh cold shadows of Caravaggio and worked out a new system.  In his portrait of Queen Mariana, it is evident that the influence of Caravaggio has at last been shaken off.

These paragraphs pointed out the reason behind my somewhat resistance towards Caravaggio.  To me, despite the obvious reasons to recommend Caravaggio, I found his somewhat plastic photorealism a little bit off putting.  However, what Caravaggio produced was far more interesting and engaging than the utlra-photorealistic paintings popular as a movement that began in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which based on using the camera and photographs to gather information and then from this information creating a painting that appears photographic.  One has to ask what the point is to recreate something as real as that.  Without an re-interpretation, this clinical photorealism is slavish and cold-hearted.

I am also very relieved that the photorealism forged by Caravaggio didn't not dominate the art scene for long.  He was a unique artist and his style suited him perfectly but in the lesser hands, that kind of photorealism could become very boring soon.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Boule de Suif" and "The Flowers of War" - on Sacrificing the Prostitutes for the "Greater Good"

A blockbuster movie came out of China, The Flowers of War, which just was nominated for a Golden Globe best foreign film award, compelled me to compare it to another artwork on the sacrificing of prostitute(s) for the "greater good".

It was a very BIG movie, based on the horrifying events of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, adapted from the novel The 13 Women of Nanjing by Yan Geling which tells the story of thirteen prostitutes who stepped in for female university students who were to be taken as "escorts" for the invading Japanese Imperial troops during the period when nearly 20,000 women and girls were raped and killed.  The production cost was reported to be close to US$100 million.

Noble story.  However, the advance promotional images, trailers and the premiere gala pictures made one suspect that this self-sacrificing story was told in a way with an almost sadistic glee, with the renown director Yimou Zhang demonstrated his unbelievable ability to turn any kind of human suffering and tragedy into a sumptuous visual banquet.

According to summaries I read from the reviews and garnered from trailers, there was an entertaining grand entrance of those prostitutes who were supposedly fleeing from terrifying soldiers - in elegant, glamorous tight-fitting gowns, with perfectly permed hair, impractical high-heels and glossy, shining lips to match.  Didn't they know that by dressing that way, they were courting trouble?  They looked like coming to a resort for a relaxing vacation.  Were they really so brainless?  Apparently, all these were calculated to create an even more entertaining scene - a cat fight between these "loose" women and uptight, prepubescent catholic school female students. 

Then a love affair between an American outsider and the leading prostitute.  They talked about love, not just out of ordinary behavior when cornered in an impossible position.  No, they were taking about true love.

Then, the loving shots of those perfect bodies being exposed inch by inch when the prostitutes took off their colorful gowns, in order to change into the students' plain ones.

From the summary, it seemed a claustrophobic and intimate story, begging to be told in an austere and contained way.  Instead, Zhang served us a full course meal, in technicolor, with canvas as big as that of the proscenium stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  There were many virtuosic shots of the war to make you want to cheer for the technical known-how, and many more gorgeous and flashy shots of feminine beauty to entice the audience to drool.

One of the reviewers from Variety said thus:
Zhang entertainingly tracks the tensions among this strange gathering of individuals, even staging a near-catfight between the indignant students and their diva-like guests. But the infighting comes to an end when Japanese troops invade the church and, not realizing there are courtesans hiding in the vicinity, try to force themselves on the students -- a sickening scene marked by the girls' screams and the sounds of clothing being ripped, all whipped into a frenzy of terror by d.p. Zhao Xiaoding's handheld camera. Yet the attackers are momentarily held at bay when Miller, in a moment of moral courage worthy of Karl Malden in "On the Waterfront," finds a way to stop their assault.

The sequence grips even as its stylistic heavy-handedness elicits a wince, something that could be said of the picture as a whole. Scene by scene, "The Flowers of War" is an erratic and ungainly piece of storytelling, full of melodramatic twists and grotesque visual excesses (a bullet pierces first a stained-glass window and then a girl's neck), which are nonetheless delivered with startling conviction. Zhang has no interest in sparing the viewer's sensitivity, and his willingness to push past the limits of good taste is what paradoxically lends his film a curious integrity."
Review posted on Slant Magazine stated that:
When Japanese soldiers invade the sanctity of a Catholic church in occupied Nanking, they demand the presence of the prepubescent students at an official function, one which, given an early scene of Japanese infantrymen attempting to brutally violate these very girls, will certainly involve rape and likely lead to their deaths.

Also camping out at the church is John (Christian Bale), an American mortician turned surrogate priest, and a dozen prostitutes who've come to seek sanctuary. With the hookers hidden away from sight, that benevolent group hits on the idea of pulling the old switcheroo, dressing themselves as the students and going willingly to their doom in the girls' place. There's some debate as to the moral efficacy of the maneuver, some pathos milked from John's inevitable romantic attachment to one of the prostitutes, and from the equivalencies the film draws between the young girls and their older counterparts, both of whom were subjected to childhood-defeating stresses at a young age. But mostly, the decision is one readily accepted by both the film and its characters without too much handwringing and the film's heavily educed final act simply milks unnecessary tension in the endless preparations for the final horrible moment.
 Lastly, said this about the movie:
As with other films by Yimou, principally "Raise the Red Lantern" (a powerful lord with three wives puts a red lantern outside the home of the spouse he will honor that night, leading to vigorous competition among the women), cinematography is so gorgeous that you can't be blamed for thinking that plot and performance take second and third place. In "The Flowers of War," photographer Zhao Xioding, shooting on location in Nanking, puts to shame all cheapskate producers who rely on digital photography at the expense of film, with all the lushness that only celluloid can evoke. The slow motion takes of panes of glass breaking, or bullets piercing the stained glass windows of a cathedral, the composite shots of exquisitely costumes courtesans are easily enough to make your attendance at this film more than worthwhile. Whether the story, given its saccharine patina, its graphic look at the expression "the prostitute with the heart of gold," can begin to match the cinematic looks, is quite another story.
This moving little humanist story was turned into an overwrought melodrama, largely due to Zhang's determination to beat Hollywood at its own game.  He is a visual artist and exhibitor, but not a humanist.  And the biggest problem I was that it seemed a foregone conclusion that the prostitutes ought to be sacrificed to save the more innocent ones.  No question asked.  That upsets me.  The movie apparently didn't dig into the psychology of the characters.  There were just situations and Voyeurism sensation.  The sumptuousness was seriously improper and implausible.

Look at the below images I culled online for the points I made.

Movie Poster

Production Photo

Production Photo

Production Photo


Premium promotion


This movie, naturally reminded me of another literature regarding the the sacrifice of prostitutes -- Boule de Suif, the short story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant.  Wikipedia summarized the story as below:
The story is set in the Franco-Prussian War and follows a group of French residents of Rouen, recently occupied by the Prussian army. Sharing the carriage are Boule de Suif (Suet Dumpling Butterball, also translated as Ball-of-Fat), a prostitute whose real name is Elisabeth Rousset; the strict Democrat Cornudet; a shop-owning couple from the petty bourgeoisie, M. and Mme. Loiseau; a wealthy upper-bourgeoisie factory-owner and his wife, M. and Mme. Carré-Lamadon; the Comte and Comtesse of Bréville; and two nuns. Thus, the carriage constitutes a microcosm of French society as a whole.

The occupants initially snub Boule de Suif but their attitudes change when she produces a picnic basket full of lovely food and offers to share its contents with the hungry travellers.

At the village of Tôtes, the carriage stops and the occupants realise they have blundered into Prussian-held territory. A Prussian officer detains the party at the inn indefinitely without telling them why. Over the next two days, the travellers become increasingly impatient, and are finally told by Boule de Suif that they are being detained until she agrees to sleep with the officer. She is repeatedly called before the officer, and always returns in a heightened state of agitation. Initially, the travellers support her and are furious at the officer's arrogance, but their indignation soon disappears as they grow angry at Boule de Suif for not sleeping with the officer so that they can leave. Over the course of the next two days, the travelers use various examples of logic and morality to convince her it is the right thing to do; she finally gives in and sleeps with the officer, who allows them to leave the next morning.

As they continue on their way to Le Havre, these 'representatives of Virtue' ignore Boule de Suif and turn to polite topics of conversation, glancing scathingly at the young woman while refusing to even acknowledge her, and refusing to share their food with her in the same way that she did at the beginning. As the coach travels on into the night, Cornudet starts whistling the Marseillaise while Boule de Suif seethes with rage against the other passengers, and finally weeps for her lost dignity.
To me, Maupassant dug far deeper into human psyche and our conduct, relations in a coded social structure and how the humiliated and persecuted were always applauded to their "voluntary" sacrifice for the "greater good" then condemned for their immorality once the crises for the rich and powerful have been averted.

I'm not condemning the movie "The Flowers of War" on their praising of the prostitutes' sacrifice.  Rather, I'm asking why wouldn't the movie concentrate on saving them instead.

Remembering Václav Havel (5 October 1936 - 18 December 2011)

Amongst the political figures from the second half of the 20th century, one of them truly earned my admiration - the former president of Czechoslovakia then of Czech Republic, Václav Havel (5 October 1936 - 18 December 2011), who died today.

He was a renowned playwright and poet and before the fall of the communist regime, he was a leading voice of dissent and had been imprisoned due to his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77, which brought him international fame as the leader of the opposition in Czechoslovakia.

1989, I was a college student and marginally participated the mass demonstration for democracy and free press in China, and only witnessed the brutal crackdown by the government in mid-year and then with envy, saw the success of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, which led to the end of the communist government and launched Havel into the presidency.

I admired the then Chinese Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, for his refusal to participate in the crackdown with troops, yet, grieved that there was no Chinese Havel to lead the fight for human rights and democracy in my native country.

Many years later, in 2002, after I had become the U.S. citizen, I visited Czech Republic and was by chance, had one of the most amazing experiences in my life.

Prague Spring International Music Festival, 12 May 2002 _ 9197 - Copy_500 We arrived in Prague in the evening and the next day, we visited the imposing Castle - the inspiration for Franz Kafka's eponymous novel.  There were musical performances in the castle, and the musicians would appear in period costumes.  It would be fine and fun but just a tad too precious and touristy.  I made a decision that after the tour of the castle and the cathedral, we ought to go to theMunicipal House to try our luck to buy a pair of tickets for that evening's opening performance of Prague Spring International Music Festival.  It was on May 12, the day of the opening of the festival, also the day of the composer Bedřich Smetana's death, and the program would be Smetana: Má vlast (My Country), an evening-length six movements tone poems. Smetana is considered the founding father of the national music movement and in Má vlast, he combined the symphonic poem form pioneered by  Franz Liszt with the ideals of nationalistic music which were current in the late nineteenth century.  Each poem depicts some aspect of the countryside, history, or legends of Bohemia

Prague Spring International Music Festival, 12 May 2002 _ 9192 - Copy_500When we arrived at Municipal House, a couple hours before the performance, we realized that this would be a grand gala performance and our chance of getting a pair of tickets was practically none but we were extremely luck because someone just returned a pair of tickets to the box office.  After procuring the tickets, we pushed through guests just got off the limousines to have a quick bite for dinner.

When we came back, we automatically went to the nose-bleeding seats but was sent down to a corridor.  We saw people at the far end of the corridor but they didn't not talk to us and only gestured that we could go no further.  Eventually we found our seats, in a box, to the left of the stage.

Prague Spring International Music Festival, 12 May 2002 _ 9196 - Copy_500Just before the performance, some music started and people started to get up so we followed suit and then realized that the president Havel and the First Lady of Czech Republic emerged from that box we tried to crash in.  It was a thrilling moment.  I am not a hero-worshiper but I had deep admiration for Havel - for his tireless fight for human rights, for his wisdom and his integrity.  He was not typical politician and he relied on his humanism to guide his country towards a better future.

Czech people love their music and Smetana's music spoke eloquently of the characteristics of the land and its inhabitants.  The performance of the soulful and stirring music was absolutely electrifying and the presence of the Havels definitely etched this concert into my memory.

Prague Spring International Music Festival, 12 May 2002 _ 9196 - Copy_Details_500

Prague Spring International Music Festival, 12 May 2002 _ 9200 - Copy_500

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Winter Morning Moon

One morning, shortly after the full moon eclipse, I was startled by the clarity of the moon against the deep blue winter morning sky.

The moon invoked a feeling which was both cosmic and intimate, as even the primitives would have felt hundred of thousands years ago, when they took a break of daily chores and started to contemplate:

Early Morning Moon _ 9091

Early Morning Moon _ 9089

Early Morning Moon _ 9094

Early Morning Moon _ 9087

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Silke Otto-Knapp at Berkeley Art Museum

Last week, I stopped by the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) briefly and was delighted to see the special exhibit "Silke Otto-Knapp: A light in the moon / MATRIX 239" (September 30, 2011 - January 15, 2012).

The website of Berkeley Art Museum stated that:
With layered washes of similarly hued watercolors, the canvases of London-based German artist Silke Otto-Knapp seem at first monochromatic, but slight changes in light or a viewer’s position reveal figures or landscapes. Conflating the mediums of painting and performance, Otto-Knapp draws from the vocabulary of abstraction to renew our engagement in the act of seeing.

Otto-Knapp's images were extremely haunting and had a delicate beauty, even the somewhat awkward postures of the human figures hypnotized me with their inevitability and "naturalness", like the chromatic music by Bellini or Wagner.  Understated yet with myriad layers of meanings.  Never melodramatic.

Stage, 2009, Silke Otto-Knapp, Berkeley Art Museum _ 8648

Silke Otto-Knapp, Berkeley Art Museum _ 8650

Silke Otto-Knapp, Berkeley Art Museum _ 8649

Silke Otto-Knapp, Berkeley Art Museum _ 8651

There was another special exhibit, 1991: The Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath Photographs by Richard Misrach, resonated with more urgency with local residents who just witnessed a fire destroying a four-story 1916 building, including all the 39 apartments and two very popular restaurants, on the iconic but economically struggling Telegraph Avenue. 

The BAM website said this about the exhibit:
In October 1991, immediately following a catastrophic firestorm that struck the Oakland and Berkeley hills, renowned Bay Area photographer Richard Misrach ventured into the fire zone armed with his eight-by-ten-inch view camera. Working alone amidst the ruins, he roamed devastated neighborhoods, recording stark vistas and intimate details of destroyed homes. The resulting images are distinguished by Misrach’s masterful framing of his subjects: the compositions are dramatic without being sensational and incisively reveal a world transformed.

Indeed, the eerie and alien landscape showed the devastation without being unduly sensational and that was a very impressive achievement:

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Berkeley Art Museum _ 8652

Again, I savored the industrial, muscular looking building as much as I could because due to seismic reason, this building would cease to serve as the museum in a not so distant future.

Berkeley Art Museum - 8653 - HDR 500

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Berkeley Art Museum Interior _ 8658 HDR 500

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