Roméo Castellucci’s opera of Wagner’s Parsifal, first performed at La Monnaie | De Munt in Brussels, January 2011; restaged in at Teatro Comunale di Bologna in January, 2014. I assisted in choreographing and performed in the bondage scene in Act 2.
From the airy natural light of the Oldmasters Museum, it was along, down, around, down some more, turn some corners, past some more art, ricochet off the gates of the Chagall exhibition, more stairs. Sort of how the Gründerzeit of the Zeughaus unfolds into the 21st century of I. M. Pei’s Deutsches Historisches Museum extension. Or something like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Lots of angles. Kinda dim also. Dim with blobs of light. Or occasionally shards of natural light, in whose line delicate paintings were placed rendering them unviewable from the usual position art is viewed from.
Yes, I’m on my regular hate paragraph about shithouse lighting in museums. I actually noticed it when Medieval POC reblogged one of the works from Oldmasters Museum and I was horrified at how shoddy it looked, especially as I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to unshoddify it. The orb of blue glare was strong in the upper parts of too many works in Brussels. But Henri Evenepoel’s De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida which suffered from the ridiculous, “Let’s place a work that’s generally quite muted and dark, with figures who have dark skin, where all the details are in variations of dark tones, let’s place this work, covered with a pane of glass, in the one place on the entire floor where direct, natural exterior light will bounce off it and into the viewer’s eyes.” Did no one stop to think, “Nah, crap idea”? Obviously not. I photographed it from around a 45º angle to the left, underexposed it hugely, and photoshopped the crap out of it.
Ooievaars by Louis Dubois was also in a dim, obscure location. I guess it looked something like this. It was one of my favourites, brooding, eerie, entirely untrustworthy. I don’t think anyone meeting a gang of fowl like that would come out the other side of the swamp intact.
There were a lot—in fact probably one of the two main themes in the museum—of paintings of poverty, poor migrant workers, farmers, exhausted labourers at work or stumbling to and from the factories, single women working alone in ill-lit rooms. Léon Frederic’s triptych De krijtverkopers was one of the strongest, muted colours, lack of contrast, general hopelessness, the expression of the girl in the centre of the middle panel looking out directly at the viewer is incalculably grim.
The other main theme: women alone in similar situations, or in ateliers, or straight portraits. Maybe it was where my attention went. James Ensor’s Een coloriste, Portret van Marguerite Khnopff by Fernand Knopff, Henri Fantin-Latour’s De tekenles in het atelier. If anything marked fin-de-siècle art besides mysticism and romanticism, it’s this acutely political work.
Speaking of mysticism, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ De bruidsstoet van Psyche struck me as the endgame of whiteness in European art. Go back through the museum and there’s works of orientalism in various forms; go back through the history of art and people who aren’t excruciatingly white are regular occurrences. This Pre-Raphaelite piece though pushes skin colour to a particular, uniform monotony (something I do see in the movement’s inspiration, Italian Quattrocento). They’re all exactly the same light tone, all also besides their hair colour have identical faces. I wanted to include it here because it spoke to me so clearly of this complete erasure, and the European fantasy of the pure white woman.
Just after, an utter treat for me: a whole corridor devoted to opera in Brussels, starting with and dominated by Wagner and Parsifal. The staging from Act II, Klingsor’s enchanted castle where the Flowermaidens attempt to seduce Parsifal, where Kundry emerges to face him. This scenography for the Belgian Première, all hot reds, oranges, yellows, looks completely modern, also for the empty blackness of the door, almost a signifier of Amfortas’ wound. Next to this, a commemorative book with Wagner’s profile on the frontispiece. Then the restaurant menu, Parsifal mounted on a horse, Klingsor’s cloud-wrapped castle hanging in the distance. And two large bronze coins, one with the Holy Grail, the other with the dancing Flowermaidens. On the wall behind all this, posters for the premiere, and for other Wagner operas staged in La Monnaie De Munt.
Three other paintings: Théo Van Rysselberghe’s Arabische fantasia. Dumb name for awesome painting. The right half mostly empty sand, a man with a long rifle riding a chestnut horse with white facial blaze. He’s in orange robes and light yellow turban, pulling the horse in, his rifle smoking, mouth open, eyes looking left and down. Behind him a mounted quintet in white all brandishing similar rifles. The thin border on the right is populated with a standing crowd of which two boys stand out. The triangle on the left is full with riders watching the scene, on horses with vermillion harnesses. One in white leans back, his bare arm supporting his weight on his horse’s grey back. Behind him, another rider in grey-blue robes looks out into the viewer’s eyes. Behind all, a white walled city blocks the horizon in a low line, above that, intense blue sky. The painting is from the artist’s second trip to Morocco in 1883/4. All the riders and audience are North African, arabic, muslim.
Then two by Henri Evenepoel, De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida (the horribly lit one), and next to it, Sinaasappelmarkt te Blida, both from the artist’s time in Algeria in 1898.They’re substantially different to Arabische fantasia, brushwork less detailed, blocks of moving colour Fauvist rather than realism and light of Rysselberghe. Thematically also they’re more intimate, smaller, a corner in a market alley, the market itself, but mostly obscured by the figures in the foreground.
Completely opposite this these three works are three by Guillaume Vogels, all dour, grey, winter Belgium realism, skeletal, leafless trees, snow, light only through clouds and low on the horizon, everything a formless, inexact mash. I loved these also, as unique as the harsh light and colour of North Africa.
Lastly, Xavier Mellery’s La danse. I’m not sure what to make of it, it’s kinda ugly, the solid gold background, the female dancers somewhere between dark-skinned and in shadow, but not quite either, moving and jumping yet not quite either, for such a scene of movement it’s annoyingly concrete and unmoving.
And 293 images later (plus another score with Hans and in the theatre) that’s the end of four museums on a weekend in Brussels.
It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Last time I was performing in Parsifal, Laurence Dreyfus’ Wagner and the Erotic Impulse had just been published and was my and Dasniya’s reading during the rehearsals and performance. This time around in Bologna, I’d hoped to bring along William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, part of Oxford University Press’ series Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation. I waited, hoping it would arrive before our flight. It didn’t. So it was one of the stack of books I collected on my return (and for my profligacy have now banned myself from St George’s until at least April 2nd). I began reading it while ploughing through Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal, and got seriously stuck into it earlier in the week.
Much work (of which I also have to write) has kept me from blog, and I’m not going to write a massive exegesis on this, nonetheless, it’s a seriously well-written and researched work (aside from saying on p91 that the Flower Maidens are singing “Komm! holder Knabe!” in Act 1; that’d be Act 2, just before we begin to seriously plot our Act 3 pizza), which I would appreciate more if I remembered how to read music, knew my intervals, and all the rest.
Kinderman writes at length on Kundry, partly because Wagner himself did, and partly because as much as the work follows Parsifal, it also follows her. He writes that certain parts of her character and what happen to her can be seen as a crypto-anti-semiticism, or shaping her as either Jewish herself or a stand-in for Jewishness as it was represented in the late-19th century. I’d planned to write something on Kundry during Parsifal; it’s not going to happen, but perhaps to say, I was following a reading trail across various blogs, and came to Black Knights, Green Knights, Knights of Color All A-Round: Race and the Round Table, which is well-worth reading, not the least for a summary of how Mediaeval European and Arthurian knights were far from the white, Aryan nationalism they were pressed into service for by the time of Wagner.
This morning I was reading once more about Stephen Hawking’s misinterpreted statement on the existence of black holes, which led to a blog I’d not read before. My great loss. I’ve since spent several hours catching up, and Backreaction is definitely my new favourite blog for all things physics, astro~, quantum~ or otherwise. And philosophy!
The higher the density, the slower the speed of light. At half the critical density, the speed of light reaches zero – this means points become causally disconnected. But things become even more interesting when the density becomes larger than half the critical density and increases towards the critical density. In this range the speed of light becomes an imaginary number and its square becomes negative. This means that time stops existing and turns into space. Physicists say space-time becomes Euclidean.
“… time stops existing and turns into space.”
Parsifal: Ich schreite kaum, – doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit.
I barely step, – yet believe myself come far.
Gurnemanz: Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
You see, my son, time here becomes space.
A matinee is a strange performance to finish a season on.
I thought to take some photos of the theatre, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, where we’ve been the last month; particularly the piazza where the theatre is placed on the north-west-ish side. Saturday, following the wet greyness of Friday was oppositely calm, warm, and a vault of blue. The theatre looked spectacular.
There was another photo I wanted. The first time taking the elevator to the Salle Ballo, thinking it was high up and therefore on the top floor, I ended up in the roof space above the grid, with a small window looking out across the city, through the towers to Santuario della Madonna di San Luca, a view scarcely bettered by any other high point in the city, and one only for those fortunate enough to be lost in the theatre.
We warmed up for the last time, Bonnie, Dasniya, Pericles, and I, pinning on wigs, slathering white body paint, tying up ropes, and then, once again, it was finished.
One final evening in that beautiful city, and today fleeing across the directions of the compass: Bonnie southwards, Pericles east, and Dasniya and I splitting the difference between North, her to Zürich and me to Berlin.
Rain, rain, rain, cold. A perfect day for wandering in the bush. If I had a rain jacket. The last free day in Bologna, and I’d decided some days ago I wanted to get out of the city and see the countryside a little, preferably somewhere in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines which fall on the south-east side of the Via Emilia and Bologna. One place that looked especially attractive was the Riserva Naturale Contrafforte Pliocenico, sadly a long journey by bus, but excitingly close in a car. Which we pile into with Bonnie and Giovanni and the family a bit after midday.
It rains. The clouds drop, mist rises. Visibility plunges to a score of metres. More rain and colder. We drive around, decide wandering is largely a muddy, slippery, sodden proposition, and keep in the car along the winding (sideways and up-down) narrow road looking for somewhere to eat. Closed, closed, also closed. Possibly a winter thing. I’d forgotten the name by the time I got home, so pieced together the junctions on the videos out the side window I was making while in the car, and matched them on a map until I came up with Ca’ Shin on the edge of Parco Cavaioni. Also closed. But they opened for us and served a very typical platter of cheese, cured meat, bread, and honey, which we had two of (yes, that good), followed by apple tart and coffee, all local and part of an bio food community, I think.
It’s utterly beautiful up there, hills and escarpments, too steep to be described as rolling, and despite being so close to the city, having a wildness I like very much. I would be very happy to wander these hills on a day like today.
Tuesday before the evening performance, I decide for another museum, this time the Museo Civico Medievale, which I thought could be a good accompaniment to the Museo della Storia di Bologna I visited with Dasniya last week. Again set in a palace, this one being the Renaissance palazzo Ghisilardi, built in the late-15th century and containing one of the city’s towers, Torre dei Conoscenti. It’s very beautiful, with delicate arches; the upper floor ones being half the size of the lower. The museum itself is somewhere between Museo della Storia di Bologna and Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, having the grumpy, stalky attendants with their coats and books thrown on their chairs of the former, and the smart, room-by-room exhibits of the latter.
It also has the not-so-good audio guide of the former, a combination of the same narrator (probably employed for a bulk job on all the museums) suffering from frequent, abrupt finishings mid-exposition, and either cryptically placed numbers beside exhibits or entirely absent. I discovered though, instead of searching for the numbers, I’d just enter the subsequent one and look around until I recognised what was being discussed. In this way, I found myself quite well-educated on around a third of the exhibits otherwise unmarked.
Besides that – and I found myself enjoying it for the perverse anti-social quality – it is a solid and delightful museum on its own, and in combination with Museo della Storia di Bologna gives a comprehensive introduction to the city for someone like me, an outsider with no knowledge.
It caught my attention over the many other museums for the medieval focus, covering roughly a period from 10th to 15th centuries with some overflow prior – a significant period in the city’s history, and much can be understood by examining this span. Curiously, it starts with two rooms that are not exactly this focus; the second though contains collections of from the 15th century including one cabinet full of Chinese and Japanese works. Outside that door are three Jewish gravestones and one Muslim, which were left homeless due to a papal edict.
Getting into the museum proper then, I find unlike almost every European pre-modern museum filled with religious clutter, this one has rooms and rooms celebrating the university, or more precisely the deaths of its professors. A lot of religious stuff too, though I found the beauty of it, both aesthetically and in the craft of construction caused me to put aside atheist tendencies and be overcome by the sublime. Some of these works are deeply poignant; others joyous. It’s not possible for me to devalue them merely because they have a religious theme or content.
Later, there is a small statue of Mercury, and one of Archangel smiting Lucifer – very similar to the one in Madrid. Then I arrive at war.
Into a red room, suits of polished armour, lines of pikes, hatchets, broadswords and rapiers, helmets, chain mail, jousting lances, mauls, shields, flanged maces … one suit was especially impressive, an asymmetric jousting armour with three massive, square bolts and their threads protruding from the chest, and a solid facepiece except for three tiny holes.
Continuing into the room with 15th century guns, and I was about to get kicked out. I think they are Snaphances or something similar, long-barreled, with a highly-decorative stock and ornate firing mechanism. I ran out of time here, being shooed out by the attendants, grumpy as ever. It had taken me around 2 1/2 hours to get through 17 of the 22 rooms, and missing also a proper wander around the palazzo.
I was thinking also about what makes a ‘good’ museum, and why I might not want every museum to be ‘good’. The Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna is not exemplary by current ideas of what a museum should be and do, being as an acquaintance described it, “a museum of a museum”, yet in its inaccessibility, it also provides for something other than a single superficial visit, a tourist itinerary. The museums I’ve seen recently seem to sit precariously on incomplete history, colonialism, kitsch, populism, a meta-narrative of the subject they attend to. At one and the same time, they also are beguiling and disarming in their love of their subject, the concise summary of the work of uncounted people over centuries. Perhaps one of my basic propositions – however critical I might be of a specific museum or museums, or how museums as a whole currently function – is that I do not question whether there should in fact be museums. Museums, books, art, culture, music, dance, idleness, walking, getting lost … without the arts and culture, humanity is in poverty, and for most of us it is only museums that provide direct access to this from our past.