Void Fuller than Matter

The ethereal character of Oriental art is not simply an aesthetic taste: it has a spiritual dimension. In Buddhism, every object or being is part of the cosmic whole, connected by an omnipresent energy that resides as much in physical things as in the empty space around them (Ma in Japanese) and in the silence. The invisible and the secrets space and silence contain hold more truth than the limited reality we can see, touch or hear.

Hence, Oriental landscape paintings are far from empty to the Buddhist viewer. The mountains and trees are not the focus of the picture; the apparent void between them is. The lightly silhouetted elements are only meant to outline the infinite surrounding space, this universal energy that wraps all things – the Ma – as the focus of meditation towards Enlightenment.

The still and vaporous landscapes of the East evoke the contemplation of Truth and Reality beyond the material, unlike the comparatively heavy, cluttered paintings of the West, which, by contrast, seem so devoid of spiritual meaning.

Landscape by Watanabe Shiko, 1683-1755

Photo: brooklynmuseum.org

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French is so Last Century!

A new bill was discussed at the French Assembly yesterday proposing to allow classes in universities to be taught in English to encourage foreign students to come and study in the Hexagone. The proposal is causing no small stir, with some claiming that such a law would turn the French language into an “ordinary language, or worse, a dead language” (Bernard Pivot).

The Constitution stipulates that, in the name of equality and access to the same education for all, education must be provided in French only. For the same reason, local minority languages have never been recognised by the State.

There are long-standing fears amongst the more conservative French nationals concerning the longevity of the Francophonie (French-speaking culture). Just like the British seem never to have recovered from the loss of their great empire, with some still sulking on the fence about Europe (to the amusement and/or annoyance of the rest of the Union as well as part of the British population itself), many French still cling on to the memory of the long-gone days when the ability to speak their language was considered a sign of refinement and erudition in many cultures across Europe and beyond (to the amusement and/or annoyance of rest of the French population).

In light of the polemic and in support of the proposal, the newspaper Libération published on Tuesday a front page entirely in English, advising in its article, “Let’s stop behaving like the last representatives of a Gaulish village under siege”.

If this new law is passed, i.e. not considered anti-constitutional, will it create a precedent for Breton, Alsatian, Basque and other languages to gain recognition at long last?

Asterix & ObelixCartoon by Uderzo

Awesome or Gruesome?

In philosophy, literature or the arts broadly speaking, death has always been a source of irresistible awe, fascination and mystery. In early 19th-century Britain, the taste for the Sublime and the Gothic Revival were all the rage and the alternative 1980s music stage saw another darkly inspired generation in the New Romantics and the so-called Goths. Whatever the fashion of the day, the Gothic spirit haunts us as much as death looms.

The gruesome has its place in the world of aesthetics. We stare at the strange, however disturbing, trying to make sense of what is in front of us and what is happening inside of us. It calls our attention, poking at some uncomfortable, taboo instinct connecting us to a basic, feral reality. Art portrays – and communicates – emotions first and foremost, not necessarily – and certainly not exclusively – pleasant or possibly decorative visual qualities. In Gauguin’s words, “Le laid peut être beau, le joli, jamais.” (The ugly can be beautiful, the pretty cannot.)

Gothic art doesn’t temper the wind to the shorn lamb. For all its vanity, it bluntly reminds us that we may not be as sophisticated or civilised as we like to think. Nor are we immune to death and decay, regardless of what medical science tries to prove (through animal testing and other gruesome forms of experiments on other creatures) or what straw the ego of those who crave eternal fame clutches at.

While some spend their life fighting or denying the inevitable, many also choose to face the greatest of human fears and embrace the intrigue and macabre beauty of the unknown.

(Centre Pompidou in Paris is hosting an exhibition on Mike Kelley until 5th August 2013.)

Photos: newarteditions.com, thefoxisblack.com, bombsite.com, willardswormholes.com, onlyhdwallpapers.com, wall.alphacoders.com

European Melting Pot Fun

Europe’s motto, “united in diversity”, is reflected not least by its 23 official languages and over 50 spoken languages if we include all regional languages, and the mix of cultures and exchange of vocabulary from one language to the others. But how much do you know about our European neighbours, the origin of some everyday words, food and other aspects of culture that have been adopted across borders?

Here is a little quiz… (You can do this quiz in another language by choosing any of the official European language from the top of the page.)

Happy Europe Day! (9th May)

26 European flags

photo: www.massey.ac.nz

Idiomatic Britishness

If you compile a list of idiomatic expressions from a given language and organise it by recurring themes, you will soon discover (or have confirmation of) some national obsessions. Here are a few British examples.

What a storm in a teacup! If making such a drama is his cup of tea, tea and sympathy are as useful as a chocolate teapot. I wouldn’t get involved in any of this for all the tea in China.

They make such an odd couple… He always complains of being under the weather and his perspective always seems to be that it never rains but it pours. When invited to a party, either he takes a rain check or he has to rain on everyone’s parade if present. She, however, is always as right as rain and happy to join the fun, come rain or shine.

One minute he’s stumped about this sticky wicket and the next he acts off his own bat without anyone knowing what he’s up to. This has now put the project on the back foot. It’s just not cricket, is it!

Chocolate teapotPhoto: teapotsteapotsteapots.blogspot.co.uk

The Answer to “Who Am I?”

Up to the late 19th century, a person’s identity was defined by external factors such as their family background, gender and job. Then psychoanalysis turned the “who am I?” question inwards, changing our self-perception from a mere piece that must fit in the social jigsaw to a unique being with buried secrets. The new search for the subconscious inspired artists of the early 20th century to explore spontaneity as a new technique, leading to the wildest forms of abstraction that the world had seen to date and which cannot be surpassed in their radical break from the past.

Gone were the days of objective representation. The Surrealists embraced Freud’s theory, experimenting with automatic writing, painting and drawing (Masson, Miró), then in turn inspired the Action Painters (Pollock, Kline and de Kooning) and Tachists (Soulages, Mathieu). Creating was now all about the direct manifestation of the subconscious pouring out on to the canvas – to the amazement or contempt of viewers to this day.

Although the lack of structure and coherence of such works may not appeal to all, early 20th-century abstraction has undeniably and irreversibly broken the restrictive barriers of the conventional and predictable while celebrating freedom and individuality wholeheartedly.

Photos: musee-lam.fr, atlantidezine.itsurrealismfall2012

Wordless Harmony

In 2008, 17-year-old Zuhal Sultan initiated the creation of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq in spite of the Iraqi war and language barriers. The NYOI now gathers Kurdish, Arabic and English speakers, most of whom only speak their own language.

While the orchestra uses interpreters, there are still times when the members need to communicate directly. Since words only account for 5% of communication, the young musicians have honed other skills to understand their peers, observing their body language, paying careful attention to voices and pitches and of course listening acutely to each other’s instruments. Training relies heavily on the students learning the core music vocabulary, then getting by through gestures, pointing and singing.

Many Kurds and Arabs within the group are now learning Arabic and Kurdish respectively as a result, when they had hardly any experience of each other before.

The success of the NYOI in bringing young talents together against all odds proves that sometimes all you need is a willingness to communicate.

Photos: nationalarchives.gov.uk, vimeo.com

Beautifying the Mundane

Any intricately decorated item produced more than a century ago is likely to be relegated to a museum as an object of curiosity, however mundane its actual nature. Whereas nowadays the ornamental is seen as superfluous and sentimental, manufacturers and designers used to give their products a decorative dimension, bringing subtle beauty to people’s everyday life, with a sense of worth and dignity emanating from every object.

The 20th century’s utilitarian approach, reinforced by a disposable mentality, swept away the act of creating, banishing those little treasures from our daily lives, as though modernity demanded that we be insensitive to beauty.  The cold, cheap but not so cheerful, style of mass production culminated with a taste for the industrial, with designers anticipating the year 2000 with a sci-fi obsession, sterilising our homes and urban landscapes with ubiquitous slabs of grey stone, stainless steel and almost Gigeresque atmospheres.

This trend has since softened in favour of warmer materials and colours, although the ornamental has not quite re-entered our day-to-day surroundings yet. If we can dismiss the impression of frivolity often attributed to decorated objects, we can start to appreciate again an old form of applied art that has the power to brighten up our dull modern existence.

Photos: nationalgeographic.com, home.earthlink.net, kittyandmedesigns.blogspot.co.uk, antiquetrader.com, jansantiques.com

Hope or no Hope?

It is somewhat surprising, if not confusing, that Cape Despair in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Quebec be called Cape of Hope in French. Is it due to different experiences with a twist of irony, or to a mistranslation perhaps?

Breton explorer Jacques Cartier named the cape Cap d’Espoir (Cape of Hope), but the apparent similarity between the French “d’espoir” and English “despair” led to some confusion, with the result that the same spot is now called the opposite in English to what Cartier meant.

Cape Despair in French would be Cap Désespoir.

Cap d'Espoir lighthouse

Photo: Stéphane Gauthier

From Infinity to Infinity

From the ornamental to the spiritual, and from the smallest organic structure on Earth to the Milky Way and beyond, the spiral is the most enduring and widespread pattern ever designed by humans and the powers that be alike.

Swirling ad infinitum between the tiniest point and the confines of the universe, the spiral encompasses both the greatest and the smallest and may symbolise the creative force behind the universe and all forms of life (Taoism), the infinite cycle of time (Celtic tradition) or the vortex of destruction or transformation (many painters since the early 19th century).

It is noteworthy that the visionary power that the spiral has always inspired precedes the microscopes and telescopes that have enabled us to find it all around us in more recent centuries, as if our vision of the cosmos was guided by some spiritual instinct. Indeed, true to its symbolic status, this never-ending pattern has been found in numerous (all?) civilisations regardless of time or geography, from as far back as the Palaeolithic (see photo of carved antlers in a previous post) to today, even if only as a mere ornamental form. There is something universal about the spiral that we never seem to tire of.

If the spiral is the leitmotiv of human imagination, it is also the leitmotiv of Creation, thus perpetuating its own myth until the end of time.

Photos: nasa.gov, chezledilettante.blogspot.co.uk, taiwantoday.tw, ditzydruid.com, gelaskins.com, commons.wikimedia.org