Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Irish Guys Are Smiling

Tipu's Tiger, 18th c. India
Let's draw this first half of this Beast of a Semester to a close with some surreal slippage into the absurd.  First and foremost, Happy absurd Saint Patrick's Day, one of Oliver's favorite holidays.  Last year in Pontivy we found an Irish shop (Brittany being one of the six Celtic nations after all) that proffered forth a singing leprechaun whose voice mechanism made it sounds as though it was singing "When Irish Guys are Smiling" (instead of the traditional take of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling").  I can't tell you why I find Iris Guys Smiling infinitely more charming than Irish Eyes doing so, but oh boy do I ever.

Speaking of musical boxes inserted in playthings (segue of a lifetime!), I draw your attention to Tipu's Tiger above - a life-size sculpture of a tiger pinning a British East India Company soldier down and sinking its teeth into the man's neck. (Actually, Irish Guys might well be smiling at this scene, having themselves endured the abuses of British colonialism.) It was owned by Tipu Sultan until 1799 when, in the course of the fourth (yes, fourth) Anglo-Mysore War, pitting his kingdom of Mysore against not the British government, but the British East Company, Tipu perished and all of this possessions were seized. Passed over by the Prize Committee (which divided up the booty of these types of conquests), Tipu's Tiger came to rest in the East India Company's museum in London (it is today in the Victoria and Albert Museum). It is the featured object in a chapter of the book by Richard David, The Lives of Indian Images, which is spectacular in its detail (you learn a million cool things).  The tiger contains within its body a small pipe organ, playable on beautiful ivory keys - if you hit the right combination of notes you can make the tiger roar, and the man groan.

Tipu's Tiger, 18th c. India
But it gets even better.  Aside from being an enormously productive image to discuss in the post-colonial methodology section of the Art History Senior Seminar I'm teaching, Tipu's Tiger fascinates for its astounding re-inventions.  First, consider its original manufacture: a complex political allegory (the tiger was Tipu's personal emblem/symbol)? something to make the Sultan smile (when you play the organ, the East India Company soldier's arm waves a pathetic and helpless beat up and down in rhythm)? (To add to the complexity: there's evidence that the musical mechanism may have been made by a Frenchmen in the Sultan's employ - apparently there were many French craftsmen in his employ).  Then, its capture and display: its rejection by the Prize Committee (who went for jewels or statuary, the more traditional "stuff" of value), and its simultaneous, instant, and enduring popularity with crowds at the East India Museum in London.  Now, there is an even more surreal scenario to consider, for, yes. Tipu's Tiger has become an iPhone App.  !!!!!  I don't know what I love more, that you get to see the East India Company soldier beat time to a reedy version of "God Save the Queen" (thereby displacing the Sex Pistols' as my favorite), or that you can rotate the entire sculpture around 360degrees at the touch of your index finger (the length of the actual sculpture is about 7'!).  Or that you can play your own tunes by touching the ivory keys of the organ.  There's deep poignancy here, too - for this object that survived the ravages of British colonialism and went on to become dear somehow to a British public - and now is (what?) elevated through this absurd, intensely satisfying technology. I'm trying to decide if this is kitschy, and my indecision lets me know it's not.  It's cool somehow - it furthers the object's function and yes, there's something thrilling that it can do so in our living room, as my little pre-spring break gift to Mac.  In reading the V&A website's mini-essay (there's a link at the bottom of the V&A page to a 30-minute video!) on the piece (which, granted, was written in 1976, but updated in 2006 after all), you also find out that while we may be post-colonial, we are by no means post-Oriental: it's a piece which is described as still having a magical draw and pull over its audience.  The Orientalized call of objects is what I'll be working on over Spring Break in preparation for the Big Lecture - ooo, I absolutely can't wait to revel in the impossible stack of books I have lined up for next week. Before that happens, we drive to Chicago this week-end to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House through the lens of a tour designed around one of Oliver's favorite books, The Wright Three, and also to see what promises to be a phenomenal show of (deep, excited in-take of breath) French Renaissance Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Before that happens I have to design a midterm for the love of God) That the vessel (oh let's just call it a reliquary!) for Anne de Bretagne's heart is the star image of the show only makes me more excited. We'd seen it at the Musée Dobré in Nantes, and now will revisit it again in (of all places) Chicago - how she travels. Of all the reasons to love Anne of Brittany, that she accepted that her body be buried in Paris with her husband, but that her heart be returned to Brittany in this vessel, is a really good one... With any luck, the Chicago River will still be sporting the green dye that the mayor pours into it each year for Saint Patrick's Day. And maybe some Iris guys will be smiling.

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