Duchamp Inspired

Yesterday, I posted about my visit to the Hirshhorn museum’s exhibit of Marcel Duchamp. I was inspired by his surrealistic/experimental approach to creating art. Here are the results that came out of that inspiration…

Photo of the Washington Monument flipped upside down and the top of the Monument is touching the top of the US Capitol building.

On the same overcast day as my visit to the Hirshhorn, I saw the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument and wanted to see how they would look touching, top to top. The image makes me think of an alternate world. Some people might already consider the Capitol as an alternate world.

The Mona Lisa painting with my drawings on her of headphones, a mask over her nose and mouth, and a rose tattoo on her wrist.

Duchamp added a mustache and little chin beard to a postcard of the Mona Lisa. I added headphones, mask, and rose tattoo to give her more of a modern look.

A photo in which three shadows have been made into silhouettes, and these shapes are filled with an image of streaking white and yellow light.

I filled shadows of my daughters and me with a photo of blurred Christmas lights.

The exterior wall of a building with a grid of windows. Some of the windows have been filled with other photos, including a Ferris wheel, beach, stack of stones, and cherry blossom.

A wall of reflected memories.

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp as an elderly man, a still image from a film by Andy Warhol.
Still from Andy Warhol’s Screen Test film of Duchamp

The Hirshhorn Museum hosted an exhibit on Marcel Duchamp before Covid-19 hit, and during the lockdown I hoped the exhibit would still be there when the museum re-opened. Thankfully, it did and it did.

With gratitude, I recently went to the museum for the exhibit, Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection. It granted my wish to see unusual works that provoked me into asking questions … what makes art “art”? … would the answer to that be different for every person you ask?

Examples: if someone bought a urinal, turned it upside down, called it Fountain, and signed it “R. Mutt 1917,” would you consider that art — or a joke? And what if someone bought a postcard of the Mona Lisa, drew a mustache and chin beard on the famous lady, and called it L.H.O.O.Q., would that be art or a joke?

Marcel Duchamp created/transformed both of those works. According to Wikipedia, Duchamp…

“rejected the work of many of his fellow artists (such as Henri Matisse) as ‘retinal’ art, intended only to please the eye. Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” — Wikipedia

I admired how Duchamp experimented, such as with Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 to capture a figure’s movement within a still image. Often he seemed to have a sense of humor, as with Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?

Various art movements — including Dada and Surrealism — tried to claim Duchamp among their ranks, but he avoided being formally attached to any particular movement. Seemed like an artist who wanted to go where his curiosity led him, and that wasn’t attached to a certain style.

Here are some photos I took of the museum and the exhibit…

The Hirshhorn's outer circle covered in scaffolding for repairs.
The museum’s outer circle bristles with scaffolding. 
The Hirshhorn's inner circle with an Exit and a Welcome sign. A view of the inner circle, taken from through a window covered in a screen.
Two views of the museum’s inner circle: Exit/Welcome signs and from inside, through a screen.
Mona Lisa with a mustache, a hat rack suspended from the ceiling, and a twisting spiral.
L.H.O.O.Q., 1919. Hat Rack, 1917. Rotoreliefs (Optical Disks), 1926.
A chess board on a table with a transparent top.
Duchamp was passionate about chess.
My drawing of an android placed on the portrait wall.
I added my drawing (Man Made Into Android) to the other contributions by museum visitors on the portrait wall.
Duchamp quote: I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.

Quote from Duchamp:
“I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”

Book Review: ‘The World of Null-A’

Cover of The World of Null-A, with the illustration of a head partially covered in shadow. In the background are drawings of a man and woman, as well as rocket ships and very tall trees.

The World of Null-A by A. E. van Vogt

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. The set up for the book is large … The blurb on Amazon includes the bold sentence: “The entire careers of Philip K. Dick, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Charles Harness, and Philip Jose Farmer were created or influenced by The World of Null-A, and so it is required reading for anyone who wishes to know the canon of SF classics.”

Talk about lifting your expectations.

I enjoy Philip K. Dick’s (PKD) stories, and I can see the influence of A. E. van Voght’s book on PKD’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” That story was made into the movie Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, adding more action to stretch the story (which makes sense if you’ve got Arnold in the driver’s seat).

Back to The World of Null-A … I liked how the story started, with Gilbert Gosseyn about to join the games of the Machine, an immense structure comprised of 25,000 “electronic brains.” Winners of the games get to take a trip to Venus, which in this book is a forest planet. And if you do well in the games, you are chosen to be among the leaders on Earth.

A lie detector surprises our main character by saying he is not Gilbert Gosseyn, then adds that no knowledge exists in his mind about his true identity. So who is this guy? Through the rest of the book, the character is still called Gilbert Gosseyn as he searches for clues to his hidden identity.

The plot expands to include a cast of characters who are interested in Gosseyn, some of them thinking he has a role to play in an invasion from an empire that wants to take over Earth and Venus. Gosseyn jumps a couple times between those planets in his hunt for his true background. 

“Null-A” means “non-Aristotelian logic.” Some people in the book have had Null-A training and are supposedly able to think more rigorously and more nimbly than others.

A story around the novel is interesting … 

Back in 1945, author Damon Knight heavily criticized the book. Then, jumping to 1974, he offered context that softened his earlier criticism and gave a reason why some readers scratch their heads about odd jumps in van Vogt’s plots:

“Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.” Source: Wikipedia

I’m good with “dream consistency” — it’s part of why I enjoy Haruki Murakami’s stories. As for confusion: PKD’s plots also can be confusing at times, but they keep my interest. World of Null-A didn’t do that so well.

Scott Bradfield has an informative video about Null-A on YouTube. A broader discussion of van Vogt and this book is found in Dr. Gregory B. Sadler’s YouTube channel. He and a group chat about them as part of his “Worlds of Speculative Fiction: Philosophy, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.”

Suspense of Ellipses

Three dots in a queue,
as if waiting for a turn
to gaze into the white abyss
of the page or screen.

What will emerge from
the depths of that milken sea?
Friendly or raging faces?
A hand to grab my throat,
or one to give me a high five?
A digital guide to take me
into the world of bytes,
or a digital moper complaining
about working hard from
the many requests of users like me?

Our imaginations can rush
into wild visions,
from realistic to impossible
(or nearly so).

Like when you’re strolling
in a new strange bustling city,
and despite your smartphone
smartly showing you
the map of streets,
it can’t show you what walks
(or slithers stomps creeps)
on those streets,
so as you turn the corner
at each intersection,
you could
stand face to face

copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Book Review: ‘Three Moments of an Explosion’

Front cover of the book. Red lines extend from the title Three Moments of an Explosion

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville

I’ve heard — and said — “weird” used to describe something in a negative sense. As a put-down. But there’s a flip side, where “weird” can be a descriptor for oddities that cause fascination.

Miéville has crafted a collection of oddities, in a sort of Ripley’s Believe or Not museum. A selection of what you’ll find on display in his book: players of card games are sometimes dealt unusual cards in “The Dowager of Bees,” icebergs float and crash above London in “Polynia,” a sack with animals that was a medieval torture device comes back to haunt in “Säcken,” oil rigs walk out of the ocean and onto land in “Covehithe,” and a medical student discovers scrimshaw on the bones of a cadaver in “The Design.” 

That’s just 5 stories of the 28 in this book. Other strangeness awaits.

This was my first read of Miéville’s works, and I enjoyed the bulk of the stories. They are presented as glimpses of scenes, so the strangeness is portioned out to you. Gaps between the scenes allow for the reader’s imagination to reach beyond the words. And I appreciated that. It lends to the mysteries of the stories, so they remain a bit mysterious. Floodlights are not pointed at them, to bring them fully in the open.

Some of the stories fell flat for me. Three are set up to explain trailers (for fictional movies, I suppose) — the stories proceed through time segments and tell what is happening. So we get a timeline of the trailers. Clever to use a different format for these stories, but I didn’t find them entertaining. Same with “Rules” — it felt more like notes of an idea than a story.

Still, there are some exhibits in Ripley’s Believe or Not that capture your eye and interest more than others. I found my visit to Three Moments of an Explosion well worth the time. If you’re a fan of stories by Jorge Louis Borges, Donald Barthelme, and Karen Russell, you would probably enjoy the trip as well.

Album Cover

“Are you sure it’s your band?” she asked.

“C’mon, Mom, it’s really us.”

“But you can’t see any of your faces on the album cover!”

“That was an… um… artistic choice,” Brandon said. “Our music is atmospheric, so we thought the cover art should be like that, too. Kinda blurry.”

“OK, honey,” she said. “That’s nice. I’m glad you moved on from that ruckus you boys used to play in the garage. That stuff gave me headaches.”

“We played punk rock, Mom. Headaches go with the territory.”

copyright © 2021 Dave Williams