Sunday, 14 November 2010

RCA Secret 2010

Event: RCA Secret 2010
Location: Royal College of Art

The RCA Secret Postcard event is an annual art exhibition that shows and sells postcards made by famous artists and personalities, as well as students from the Royal College of Art. It is billed as a 'secret' event because 'the postcards are displayed anonymously and are signed on the reverse, so that the artist remains a secret until after the cards are purchased and their signature is revealed on the back.'

I read that Yoko Ono contributed artwork to this event, so I decided to check it out just now ... it was fun at first, going through walls and walls of tiny artworks, but after a while, it got a bit overwhelming. Not having any labels on the postcards actually made it a lot more of a difficult task to analyse and judge what was 'good' and what was not. Museums usually help you along because you trust that someone with the right expertise curated the show and put together artworks that mean something together or would provoke and guide your thoughts towards a theme or an idea. But with this random collection of 2800 postcards, who knew which postcard was a 'great' piece of art or not?

It was kind of fun to guess which one was created by a famous person. I couldn't find a single one that screamed Yoko Ono, which made me wonder if the artists played along by not creating any of their usual signature styles. Other famous celebrities who made contributions were: Stella McCartney, Will Alsop (architect), Manolo Blahnik, Quentin Blake, Mike Leigh ... there was also an Emma Watson, but is she the famous Harry Potter-franchise figure or not?

Anyway, after a bit of guessing, it became dull since the answers won't be revealed until the following week. I then focussed on ones that I found pretty or interesting. I tended to like black/white drawings and informal doodles ...

This was familiar - was it done by a Wallace & Gromit artist? And I liked the postcard at the top - very idiosyncratic and cute. Reminded me of the Moomin cartoons.

I liked this postcard the most. Not sure why. The details. The use of space in the small confined rectangle. Reminded me of times when I would climb to the top of a cathedral tower and look down at the square below.

It is worth a visit, though I wouldn't recommend staying there for long. And if you have 45 pounds or more to spare, you can try to buy a postcard next weekend.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Alberto Manguel: All Men Are Liars

Event: Foyles & ACALASP Festival of Ibero American Literature: Alberto Manguel in conversation with Maya Jaggi
Location: Foyles, London

All men are liars, but you can't take that statement as the absolute truth. As Alberto Manguel says, inside the cover of the book, you can read the whole phrase from Psalms: 'I say in haste, all men are liars...'

It is not in haste, however, that I say I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening listening to Alberto speak with Maya. I felt so alive leaving the event, mainly because I love metafictional discussions, and though Alberto never used that word, he is all about metafiction. After all, he is the disciple of Borges
... but I'm sure Manguel was tired of discussing his relationship with Borges, so likewise, I'll talk about him last.

here to start, really? I first learned about Manguel when my father brought home a copy of this; he extolled about how trail-blazing Manguel was in being one of the first academics to write about the history of the act of reading. Nobody really paid serious attention to the phenomenon of reading as a cultural act until Manguel stepped into the scene. Well anyway, like the good daughter that I was, I didn't touch the book until it was assigned in an undergraduate course on Readers and Readership. It is an amazing book, very well-researched, and it makes you navel-gaze and examine yourself as a reader.

Anyway, the interviewer Maya Jaggi introduced him with a quote: 'Alberto Manguel is to reading what Casanova is to sex'. Ha. But I can confirm, he can make you get literally excited over books! He read aloud his latest novel, All
Men Are Liars, and the novel sounded very intriguing indeed. He wrote it in Spanish even though he originally wanted to write it in English (he is Argentinian-Canadian, but his first language is English). He said that earlier on, he wanted to set the story in Canada, but found that Canadians are too nice (ha!) and had to move the story to Spain.

The metafictional bit is that in the story, he includes himself as a character, but he is the first to admit that Alberto Manguel the character 'is an asshole'. An audience member asked why he wanted to write himself into the book if he doesn't identify with the character much. His response reminded me of his earlier book ... in that he explained the act of telling a story is age old, harking back to cavemen sitting around campfires. People would enter into an unspoken agreement that whatever you say happened to you is to be taken as the truth, and that the listener will strive to believe you in the duration of your oral narrative. More than that, he says he believes that fiction/literature is the way to the truth. Though it hove
rs between lies and truths, 'literature has the last word ... I always trust in literature', but it takes time for books to be written. It takes time for events to settle down, for a writer to capture the sign of the times, time to train the readers to accept the stories and enjoy them and think about them. As he said, Joyce wasn't an instant bestseller. It took a lot of years to 'educate' readers to appreciate, say, Ulysses. (He then goes on to criticise the Anglo-publishing industry's obsession with churning out bestsellers instead of well-written novels...)

All Men Are Liars is a genre book of sorts, in the style of detective novels, as it presents different versions of the same character or event. Manguel points out that actually this style is not new. It is very old: you can also find it in the Gospels. How true! I never thought of it that way, that reading the Gospels is kinda like reading a detective novel where you try to piece the 'truth' of an event together (in the case of the Gospels, it is to piece together what really happened to Jesus, figuring out how reliable the different accounts are, etc).

lberto goes on to talk about spies and informers ... how he is obsessed with how one can access the 'truth' about someone, or something ... when everyone can have different interpretations to the same person/event. He explained that this is because he was brought up in a good school in Buenos Aires, and he had an amazing teacher who opened up his mind to reading, and taught him that books can do wonders to your way of thinking ... but after he escaped from the years of the Dirty Wars (and lived in 'exile' ...) he found out that this very same teacher turned into an informer during the dictatorship period. He would report on his students' behaviours and was complicit in torture. How does one reconcile the two faces of the same man? Manguel says that he can do so through literature.

... and this leads naturally to his comment on Borges. Maya asked Alberto if he cares to speak about his relationship with Borges, the father of all modern literature. Manguel seemed slightly weary of the topic, but he was a good sport and gave what the audience wanted. After all, he met Borges as a teenager, and read aloud to him (Borges was near-blind). It was amazing hearing from someone who had first degree contact with Borges. Anyway, Manguel explained that whatever you want to write, Borges would have already written it.

Borges pointed out things that no one else had verbalised before until he did: that, for example, context matters a lot. That writing Don Quixote word for word now would create a totally different text to the Don Quixote written in Cervantes' time (as seen in 'Pierre Menard'). I know it's obvious now that context can be a very important thing to the interpretation and reception of a text, but actually it is quite a new phenomenon in the history of cultural criticism. That is, until Borges came along.

And the most amazing of all ideas, the reason why I love Borges so much: it is the fact that in real life, things can be quite black and white, but in literature, liminality and paradoxes occur. Manguel says: 'dogma gives you answers, but literature gives you questions'. How can you reconcile different types of truths? How can you believe Betty's version of something over Don's, for example? Maybe they are both correct? Literature can make you want to question deeply about things that you accept as truths .. make you dream about an alternate reality where impossible things can become possible. It then can motivate you to want to turn these impossible things into real things in real life (in other words, literature can incite change, politically and psychologically). Anyway, Manguel's example of how Borges illustrated this concept is through his reading of Dante's Inferno. If you have studied the Inferno in class, you would know that every Dante scholar loves to argue about the grotesque episode of Ugolino: since Dante doesn't say explicitly, scholars would argue over whether Ugolino's presented as having eaten his children or not. Ugolino was a real person in history, and so, Borges pointed out: in real life, either Ugolino ate his children or he did not. But in literature, he ate his children and he did not.

You probably think I'm sounding like a literary lunatic, but really, the most beautiful ability in the world is to hold two disparate, opposite thoughts at once, and not find that problematic. If you agree with me, then you will enjoy reading 'The Garden of Forking Paths'. I challenge you to read it and not have your mind blown away by Borges' short story.

I just realised I digressed into Borges. Oops. Alberto Manguel is an amazing individual! It was a wonderful hour of discussion, which reminds me: I will read his new novel, once I finish the pile of unread books in my room ...

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Architecture: A Very Short Introduction

Title: Architecture: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Andrew Ballantyne (OUP)

This short little book has an idiosyncratic way of presenting architecture. Throughout the text, Ballantyne tries to explain that he's writing a very euro-centric view of architecture, but why is this not stated right at the start? The title or the blurb could give a better indication of this.

The IFC (inside front cover) text begins with:
'The balance of posterity and practicality in architecture throughout history, and its cultural relevance ... are skillfully examined in this Very Short Introduction.'
That's incorrect! Ballantyne does not cover architecture 'throughout history'; he only covers Western history, and not even that, just key sections of the history that he feels are important. He doesn't mention Renaissance buildings or Art Deco buildings, which was quite significant in 20th century architecture. But he does write a lot about the Art Nouveau style, which I think is less important in the history of Architecture. I make complaints about misleading book titles frequently ... but I really believe it's a legitimate complaint. It is very presumptuous and arrogant to claim to write the history of anything, and then not actually covering everything.

Another reason why this book is eccentric is that the writer doesn't cover the history of architecture in a chronological way, and not even really by theme, but by whatever he wants to go on about, like how we can find continuity in 'modern' and antiquated buildings by looking at interesting buildings like the Chiswick House.

Chiswick House?! Rather random. Granted, it is in the Palladian style, but if you're going to pick 20 buildings to talk about in your grand narrative, you really wouldn't pick Chiswick House! What a myopic take.

Ballantyne purports that 'canonic buildings' shouldn't be seen as having timeless value, that buildings are not intrinsically good or bad but that culture instills meaning into the buildings. So the Parthenon is not amazing in itself, but that throughout history, each generation prescribes meaning to the Parthenon so that we will find something in it as being 'amazing'. All of this sounds wonderfully post-structuralist (if post-structuralism is defined as the necessity to study both the object itself as well as the systems of knowledge that produced that object), but 90% of the buildings he mentions in this book are classically canonic - the Egyptian pyramids, Roman temples, Parthenon, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc.

So at rare times, he digresses onto random structures like Chiswick House, but generally, though he tries to explain why, for example, the pyramids are so highly regarded then as well as now, he writes mainly from the basis that if you don't agree that the pyramids are one of the wonders of the world, then you are an uneducated lunatic.

Not to give you the wrong impression, I did enjoy reading this book. It was a quick read, and I learned something new: the Seagram Building in New York is the first 'modern commercial building' ever. It looks very unimpressive nowadays and no tourist would visit it because of the very fact that every commercial building now imitates it. So that's kinda cool. (Note: I was told that I'm an idiot for not knowing the significance of the Seagram Building before ... oops).

Also, another interesting point Ballantyne discusses is how people are still motivated to travel around the world to see architecture, when armchair travelling is so readily available. What makes one want to go to Egypt to see the 'real' pyramids, if you've already been inundated with the images of the pyramids throughout your life? Or the Sydney Opera House, for that matter? Why visit Australia then? It is the sense of being familiar yet unfamiliar, real yet unreal. In terms of where this perspective sits, I guess it's a bit Derrida here and a bit Baudrillard there.

I'm currently re-reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl, but following that I'm hoping to get a copy of McEwan's Solar.