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Energy Efficiency & Darwinism

Yes, the British are officially at the bottom of the list of energy-saving nations. The ramifications are that the journalists and broadcasters are trying to find out what to do to save energy. One Mancunian has told the Radio Manchester that he uses a torch to go from one room to another. While it’s very unlikely that many people will follow in his footsteps, most Mancunians are trying to save energy by boiling only so much water as they need to brew a nice cuppa.

In Russia (in case if you don’t know) – in Moscow, at the least – we have regular central heating from mid-autumn until mid-spring, none in summer, with a mandatory switch-off of hot water for a month in summer (for any necessary check-ups or overhauling of water supply system). So, yes, if you want to have a bath then you’ve got this beautfiul opportunity of visiting your friends on the other side of your huge capital city, providing they’re staying at home and don’t mind letting you share their bathroom. Alternatively, all you’ve got to do is to boil water, mix it with cold water to make it warm, and to keep yourself clean without leaving your abode. If this looks barbaric or too original to you, so does an English bath to me.

Anyway, thanks to having been living in such princely conditions for 20-odd years, I’ve been affectionately called a “Jamaican” by many Englishmen because I can very easily feel cold when most people are bathing in sweat. [OK, I am uttering things, of course]. As you can guess, therefore, I’m not the energy-efficient person. I require the heating being turned on in winter, and I do love chimneys [I love them all the year round, actually, I find them very romantic, but of course I don’t turn a chimney on in summer – I am not Jamaican, after all].

Like I said, however, I have acclimatised here, and I was wondering how I might feel if my plans work out and I go to visit my parents in Moscow, say, in February? It tends to be bitterly cold in February, so I’m just trying to figure out, how I’m going to feel there after three English winters. To be honest, however, I think I’ll be skiing in glee. :-))

[And just to give you an idea of what I’ve been missing the most for all three years that I’ve lived in England, here are two photos taken around the Moscow State University, where I studied. I found them somewhere on the web, so thanks to the photographer, if they suddenly find their images on my blog].

Finally – I don’t know why I’m including this link in this post, with my energy efficiency capabilities and habits in life I would hardly stand the natural selection – the complete work of Charles Darwin are now available online. And as you navigate the site, just take a notice of how many people have visited it since its opening on 19 October 2006. So… viva Darwin, I guess.

Nobel Prize in Literature

This year’s Laureate in Literature is to be announced on Thursday October 12, at 11 am GMT (1 pm CET). You can watch the live internet broadcast here.

And today I was woken up in the most unusual way, by thunderbolt. The strike was very violent and loud, but I don’t know if anything was actually destroyed. That was in Manchester. And in the Lake District our intrepid photographer Tony Richards, who’s been documenting the beauties of the Lakes for several years by now, took this photograph:

© Tony Richards, www.lakelandcam.co.uk

“Too late to be ‘frightened’ by it, I just wondered at the power of Mother Nature!!!”, Tony wrote on his website. In my turn, after listening to my local thunderbolt, I was too wide awake to fall back to sleep.

What Do You Think an Artist Is?

Is pain-inflicting, self-mutilating “art” worthy of such name? Can we not sympathise with another person until we literally wear his shoes and physically experience his sufferings?

Update (29 July 2009):

Almost three years on, this has become one of the most popular posts on Los Cuadernos blog. And in the first half of 2009 I saw one site and one video that presented individuals performing self-mutilating acts for art’s sake. First, a pair of twin brothers exchanged arms: one brother’s arm was cut off from his body and reattached to his twin’s body. Thus one man remained with only one arm, while another ended up with three. And the video below taken from TrendHunter explores artistic self-mutilation further, with ten jaw-dropping examples of what is considered art.

Far from decrying anything you see in the video, I will, however, reiterate the point I made in the original post: why, after all wars and losses, do people still need to “practise” pain and mutilation, as if viewing the images of the dead and disabled people is not enough to understand what pain and death is? Three years on, I think I know the answer.

Humanity is fascinated by Death because, like Love and Pain, this is an eternal secret. It is a mystery. Camus said that suicide is the only true philosophical problem, but since the result of a suicide is death, it means that death itself may be the only true philosophical problem. Philosophy, since its origins, has been preoccupied with making sense of Life and of Man as a living being; but much rarely has it delved into the mystery of Death, and this may be its biggest challenge and hurdle.

It is human therefore that everything morbid fascinates, intrigues, and perplexes us. (Zizek comes to mind: people are forever concerned with what they cannot change). Memento mori. Danse macabre. The theme of Death and the Maiden in art (e.g., Hans Baldung, 1517 (right)). Venus at the Mirror as the parable of the fleeting beauty and deplorable life… the list can be continued, and all it will serve to do is to prove to us how truly interested artists are in what philosophy isn’t so eager to discuss. And in this regard it is probably only normal that there are people who use their own bodies to understand the mystery of pain or the secret of being on the brink of dying. In order to live on, art must be experimental, even if it has to experiment with itself.

Having said so, I’d rather not have this kind of art being performed publicly, let alone covered by the media. With our inclination to build hype around things it would be hard to see the forest for the trees.

Most importantly, I am always somewhat confused when artists, writers in particular, claim that in order to write about something they must know it, experience it first-hand. I’m uttering things, but does that mean that Dostoyevsky would need to kill a couple of old ladies to be able to write Crime and Punishment? And at the same time, speaking of literature, can it not help us gain the life experience that we seek?

It may depend on how we read, of course. Reading is both mental and emotional process. However, what is interesting is that because we most often use words to express ourselves, our entire life is one huge text, and each of us is reading it and making sense of it according to our aptitude and experience. We have to translate this text, either in the language of our experience, or in the foreign language, or in the language of other arts or disciplines.

Can it be therefore that after all the millenia humanity has learnt to do pretty much everything, including the genetic engineering and flying into space, but is still rubbish at such important thing as reading? Reading is understanding. Understanding gives one a key to influence things, to change the world. But what is there at the heart of it? Love, no doubt. For we only care to understand things we care about. And nothing can drive us to care about something as much as Love does. However…

…if we cannot love enough to care to understand, does it not mean that even in our Christian world we have never taken Jesus as an example? Does it not mean that we broke the teaching into citations and took to memorise the words without understanding (sic!) their meaning? It’s been a while since I thought: how odd it is that we are told to love God – but not people. How odd that people love God but distrust their neighbours. Maybe it simply means that people inherently distrust themselves. Maybe it means that they find it easier to trust in the Object that is forever absent and therefore cannot let them down more than it already does, rather than trusting another human being whose money isn’t always where the mouth is. But if Art is born in Love, and the present generation of artists often lacks empathy, does this not explain the rising concerns that contemporary art is devoid of essence?

Original post (2 October, 2006)

Several sayings by Pablo Picasso have already appeared on The LOOK’s front page in the past. I also love this photo of him made by Robert Doisneau. A genuine portrait of the genius.

Another portrait of the genius was made by Jean Dieuzaide, and I’ll leave it for you to guess, whose historic moustache you’re gazing at.

I’ve also found this phrase by Picasso a while ago on the web:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

One may say that Picasso’s viewpoint is somewhat outdated, in that people want to live in the world as peaceful as possible, hence art-as-war is no longer interesting. But there are many kinds of war, and not all are fought with tanks and missiles. There are language wars, religious wars, ‘moral’ wars, media wars, and all use art as a type of warfare. Furthermore, as George Orwell has put it, there are four main reasons to write prose, one of which is ‘political purpose‘ – ‘using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certan direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude‘ (Orwell, G., Why I write).

It would be very hard indeed to disagree with either Picasso or Orwell, and there are modern artists who follow in their footsteps. Perhaps, they don’t get involved in politics very much, but they nonetheless admit that their art exists because of people. One such artist is Dave McKean, who put it this way:

My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world. I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think they are just interesting ways of seeing things, you know, that you have to deal with everyday for fresh, and you see them with different eyes, I think. [read full article based on McKean’s interview].
Finally, however, comes this passage from The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen by Paul Carroll:


Art? A form
of intimate hygiene for
the ghosts we really are.

This brings to my mind a TV programme made by Channel 4, which explored the anti-art, particularly in the form of inflicting pain on oneself as a means of teaching the audience a lesson of empathy. One of my ‘favourite’ moments on the programme was the couple who drank tea with biscuits, while literally “hanging down” from the ceiling on chains, hooks perceing their skin. The idea was to explore their experience of pain and also to expand people’s understanding of pain through such performances.

Having read the entire 120 Days of Sodome by de Sade, I wasn’t scared or repulsed by what I saw on screen, but it made me think. The question I asked myself was this: why in the world where there are so many wars and where the footage of deaths and casualties is already available on the Internet, is it necessary to appeal to people’s empathy by sticking iron hooks in your chest? Far from telling the artists what not to do for their art’s sake, I’m simply wondering about the purpose of such art. If the knowledge of the two World Wars and many other military conflicts doesn’t automatically make people detest the very idea of an offensive war, if the photos of destroyed houses, orphaned children and open wounds don’t change people’s view of loss and pain, then why would seeing two able-bodied adults hanging on chains drinking tea influence people’s idea of pain, or make people more compassionate? I’d imagine that after watching such ‘performance’ people would lose interest in pain altogether. If it’s endurable, then what’s the problem?

Some people with whom I discussed this previously have pointed out that this practice of piercing and inflicting pain is ritual in some countries and cultures. The problem, though, is that the only instance of it on our continent that springs to my mind was flagellantism that had spread in Europe in the 13-14th c. and was later revived as a sexual practice. There is evidently a difference between the culture of piercing in African or Aboriginous societies and this ‘hygienic’ European movement, and as far as I am concerned, this difference is much bigger than someone may think. This ‘civilized’ pain-inflicting art, given its purposes, is – in my opinion – exactly the kind of ‘personal hygiene’ Carroll had written about. An artist, no matter how politically involved, is above all a human being, and when he lacks empathy and cannot relate to other people’s experience, unless he shares it physically, forces to raise questions as to how worthwhile, creative and useful his art is.

And don’t quote Wilde’s ‘all art is quite useless‘. Unknowingly, in this witticism Wilde precluded Sartre who would say that culture doesn’t save or justify anyone – but that it is the mirror in which humanity sees itself. Considering that the Wildean phrase comes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, culture or art as the mirror symbolically connects Wilde and Sartre. Perhaps it is good if humanity finally notices that it spends more time destructing and inflicting pain instead of learning to love. But will it finally start doing something about it?

The Last Year Snow Was Falling

This post is dedicated to the Russian animator and cartoonist, Igor Kovalyov, who’s just received yet another award at the International Animation Festival in Hiroshima, Japan. The cartoon is called ‘Milk’ (‘Milch’ across the web) and has already been distinguished at the festivals in Ottawa in 2005 and at the Animafest in Zagreb in 2006.

Igor has got a website, www.igorkovalyov.com, that enlists the main works since he’s begun to shoot his features. Imdb.com (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0468335/) obviously provides ratings for those works, of which I’ve seen ‘Andrei Svislotskiy’ (1992) and ‘Hen, His Wife’ (1990).

BUT – Igor has also worked as an art director on production of the two VERY popular Russian cartoons, ‘A Plasticine Crow’ (1981) and ‘The Last Year Snow Was Falling’ (1983). I didn’t manage to find any decent stills from ‘Crow’, but I found a few from ‘Snow’.

‘The Last Year Snow Was Falling’ is about a Man, who lives in the village and was sent by his wife to the woods to find a New Year tree. The film is highly rated because it is, simply put, hilarious. Cinematography, given the fact that this is a plasticine movie, also adds to its appeal, and in short, this has been one of the favourite Russian cartoons for years. And I never realised I was only three when it was released.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this film is little known outside Russia, as its humour sometimes is rooted in the peculiarities of Russian grammar or pronunciation, which would be impossible to communicate in another language. Nevertheless, I translated a few phrases, and see if you can make sense.

For example, who is queueing up here to be a tzar? Nobody? I’ll be the first then!
Кто тут, к примеру, в цари крайний? Никого?! Так я первый буду!..

Who wants a hare, freshly caught?
Кому заяц свежепойманный?

Even when I’m tight, I’m doing so with all sincerity.
А хотя бы я и жадничаю, зато от чистого сердца.

And a couple of still, as I promised

J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres

The beauty of Prevert’s saying J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres is sadly lost in the English translation… but perhaps Man Ray’s famous Kiss rayograph renders the meaning

J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres.
I prefer your lips to my books.

This is one of my favourite phrases by Jacques Prevert. Not only is it beautifully romantic, it also presents a nice example of what sometimes is lost in the process of translation.

The play on words is obviously lost, which you can notice, even if you don’t know French. The melody of the phrase is also distorted in English translation. ‘Lips’ and ‘books’ are two short and brisk, muted words, while ‘prefer your’ doesn’t capture the music of ‘jaime mieux’. I have no idea how this phrase was translated into English or other languages, and if a translator managed to recreate any effect of this phrase. I can only imagine it being communicated to some extent in Italian, through ‘labbra’ and ‘libri’, respectively.

Other posts in Jacques Prevert and Archives.

Update 2020: On another note, Man Ray’s famous rayograph The Kiss, produced in 1922, is vaguely related to the theme of Prevert’s saying. Being an artistic enquiry into a photographer’s private life, The Kiss may be seen as reinterpreting the quote the following way: j’aime mieux tes lèvres que mes lumières (I prefer your lips to my light). In both cases, be it a book or lighting, the authors clearly state that Love means more than Art.

Man Ray, The Kiss. Rayograph (1922): another interpretation of loving lips more than the artistic medium

In the beginning….

What to write in your first blog post may baffle the author. As a writer, I wanted to compare publishing a post instantly to labourig over a piece of paper.

As I was thinking of what to write in the very first post in this first blog of mine, I suddenly realised that you’re probably more compelled to produce something when you stare at the screen rather than when you’re falling short of breaking a pencil because nothing ‘worthwhile’ comes to mind. I guess in my case it had to do with the nature of the blog: once you finish typing  and click “Publish”, your musings will appear in the space where they can be read virtually by anybody, from a college student through a BBC broadcaster to a pensioner. I don’t know yet if the understanding of this may put any pressure on what and how you write. One thing I know for sure: when I was publishing articles online or ‘making’ a website with AOL Homepages, I didn’t have this feeling of being obliged to write something as quickly as possible. In part, I felt so because I wanted to begin to publish other stuff, but in part it was because an empty blog – my blog – looked terrible, so I needed to fill it with something, to write that notorious first blog post… and what could be a better filler than an introduction? 
Read other posts in Blogs and Social Media category.
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