Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Cloudgate, Chicago - Sunday
Hard to tell if this image is lovely or terrifying, isn't it? It has symmetry, which is pleasing, but also quite the abyss (and folds before the abyss) which can be terrifying (yes, calling Georgia O'Keeffe and Freud here).  The color is also pretty confusing: patches of dead gray and swaths of light.  Welcome to Cloudgate, and Chicago, and the discoveries of a week-end in the big city. Cloudgate (are all public sculptures doomed to this fate?) is better known by its nickname, The Bean, because it curves like an enormous, perfect bean to optically frame the Chicago skyline (see the link above for pictures).  I've always loved the piece, but this week-end, it became a place to think through the capacity for matter to alter perception. Ever since the D.C. conference, I've been kind of here and there at the same time (with thoughts leaning much more to there), so it felt good to leave "here" behind and go "there" some more (the kids, of course, are "everywhere").  Cloudgate is an enormous allegory for the idea that objects shape our world much more than we (think we) shape theirs. It puts into play the fragility and manipulability of our perception of the world around us: how easily, and gleefully, we are led to see things differently by a frame that shifts before us, moves with our bodies, seems to respond to our presence - think of a walk in a forest, of entering cathedral doors, of being guided by a garden. I think that more of us than we know are willing to give over our illusions of agency to objects (those who resist might be confusing agency with consciousness - am I claiming that rocks and cathedrals (made of rocks), and flowers have consciousness? no, although I would question the sure boundary of human consciousness. Am I claiming that they have agency? absolutely - what is a day unguided by objects? no, really).  So here is Cloudgate, with its 168 panels of stainless steel, at 1-2000 pounds each (heavy, heavy object), and its ability to make the Chicago skyline dance before you, a plaything of your movements. It took polishing the welds of the omphalos (the belly-button of the world turns out to be in Chicago!) to give us that smooth surface of endless possibilities, perceptual and metaphysical.  Huzzah, Anish Kapoor, brilliant manipulator of form, color, shape: primal aspects of objects.  I may start everything with him - I've just found out that I received a University grant to develop a new course on medieval environmentalism - better term, I realize, is eco-criticism: how ecology is framed, by what systems and gestures, images and texts.  As ever, medieval doesn't have all the questions (I will not be counseling that we return to the system of the Four Humors in order to be better macrocosmically linked with the environment), but I like the questions that it asks (rocks move, nature talks, things morph, boundaries (of consciousness and body especially) aren't set).  It's a Student-Faculty Summer Research Grant, so summer looks great (funny thing: one of the categories I want to research is the representation of nature in India (Alexander romances write of two harvest seasons, an abundant and ever-giving nature) and there Mac will be for three weeks this summer! Maybe he can bring back some of the emeralds and rubies that burst unbidden from the soil there. 

But on to our titular concern: the humble puddingwife. We spent almost 3 days in Chicago: first afternoon: the Robie House (Oliver and his buds visited rooms and secret places mentioned in the cool book); second day: the Art Institute (and a phenomenal show that is a separate post); and third day: Shedd Aquarium.  I've been to my share of aquaria (total kid pleasers), but I never tire of them: there's always something wondrously new, something unheard of - a new name, new species, new hybrid form (I really do see Linnaeus's naming project as a turning point in human-nature relations: look at the way it attempts to tame something as grotesquely wonderful as the frogfish?).  This time it was the puddingwife that utterly seized our imagination.  Oliver found her, or at least her name, and we all just stopped and, I don't know, were taken with the name.  We'd narrativized the alewife (I always pictured an overworked, flustered fish trying to clean up the drunken debauchery of her client fish) - but what's the narrative to be for the puddingwife?  And who names these fish?  I have a chemistry colleague I'm working closely with on the "Art and Truth" ArtsFest for this fall and we talk frequently now about the visual, emotional and even moral narratives of scientific representation (there are good molecules, and there are bad molecules, oh yes). So the puddingwife - is she lax, soft, kind of done with it all? or is she a source of comfort, sensing others' needs and meeting them with something warm and butterscotchy?  Puddingwife, we love you.

The kids helping each other out!
There were some beautiful little moments at the Shedd, like this one when the kids spontaneously lined up to help each other put on penguin outfits in the penguin playscape.  Kids will manipulate an environment faster than anyone else (and yes, there's something to think on in that objects in children's worlds have tremendous agency, not to mention consciousness), and so watching these guys dress the penguin part was fun.  They all three broke the rules, though, and were gently but firmly reminded by the penguin playscape master that "Penguins don't know how to climb rocks."  To which Oliver asked me (after, chastened) "So why are those penguins called "rockhoppers"?). 

Iris and the jellyfish
I'll end with an exuberant Iris before her favorite life form: the jellyfish.  Number one thing that fascinates her: they have no brain. That just "blows my mind" she says.  And so spring break begins: I have the next two days to write to my heart's content, thanks to Mac, and so will begin.

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