Archive for August, 2008

A(nother) Great Leap Forward?

Posted in Architecture, Music & Dance, People & Places, Pop Culture Miscellany with tags , , , , on August 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

photo ©Emilio Naranja

Like much of the world, I was riveted to the television for 3 1/2 hours last night as the opening ceremonies of the Olympics unfolded. The cynic in me noted the overt propagandistic nature and shear economic cost of the evening. But the artist in me experienced moments of undeniable viewing ecstasy—the lighted batons of 2,008 drummers moving in unison in the dark; the undulating rectangle of character blocks; the tai-chi masters, whose movement from above resembled a swarm of bees; and the pièce—those “lighted dot” suits, flashing together at one point like a giant neon arrow. “This way China!”  It was an evening of Peking opera, Cirque de Soleil, and Jackie Chan all rolled up together. 

As one commentator remarked near the end: “they should retire the trophy for opening ceremonies.” Indeed, I am hard pressed to think how Vancouver or London, next on the list of host cities, will come up with programs that top not only the shock and awe technology on display last night but the colorful, graceful, well-choreographed, and often quite sobering symbolic elements of the program created by Zhang Yimou (pr: john-ee-moe). Nor should they perhaps: the extravaganza was rumored to have cost the government as much as $300 million. 

Not too long into the program, I developed a real fondness for its backdrop, the Bird’s Nest stadium.   We San Franciscans now have automatic affinity with Beijing through our two Herzog and de Meuron buildings; we’re the little guy city in a worldwide club of bigger venues (London, Munich, Beijing) and that’s good for an often-parochial city like ours. Our own de Young Museum is one of the few joyous exceptions in a skyline full of repetitively dull versions of the modernist glass box motif.  I completely understand why the Chinese have latched on so quickly to the Bird’s Nest as their 21st century icon. Nicolai Ouroussoff covers the details of this topic much better than I could in his article this morning in the NY Times. Additionally, Gordon Raynor of the UK Telegraph focuses on the symbolism of the structure very nicely in his 8/7 post “Guide to the Birds Nest.” 

Certainly director Zhang Yimou deserves huge kudos for conceiving and pulling off a spectacular show that had to have included thousands of logistical nightmares. (For starters, think about fashioning and fitting 15,000 costumes.) Obviously, he didn’t do it by himself; the international “concept” team included Steven Spielberg and choreographer Zhang Jigang. But in the end, it was his show. I’m not conversant enough with Zhang Yimou’s films (Judou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) to offer meaningful commentary in that vein about last night’s extravaganza, so I’ve listed some other linkages below. Suffice it to say, he’s a master of visual symbolism.

In the final analysis, though, what better symbol of 21st century China than the army of human performers that were required to execute Zhang’s vision?  Not just marching mind you, but dancing, twirling and running, all in lock-step precision. These perfectly-harnessed masses were a sobering and disquieting reminder of the inherent force of a nation with 1.3 billion people at its disposal.   

In a telling moment, when asked about the huge number of people involved, Zhang is reported to have smiled demurely and said: “Well why not? We have them.”   

And that might just be the real point of last night’s entertainment. 

 Need more?

For those of you who missed the program (or just want to see it again), play the “Opening Ceremony: Sites & Sounds”  at NBC

Zhang Yimou and State Aesthetics

Interview with Zhang

“Marriage” —Look Down!:IWP, SF#6

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on August 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: 08/08/08

Time: 8:48 am

Location: Duboce & Guerrero, NE pavement

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”: The SF Chronicle carried a story this week about the 16,000 or so couples in Beijing rushing to get married today, 08/08/08 being a highly-auspicious number in China. Apparently, there were more than a few who were even trying to squeeze in a little extra good fortune by scheduling their marriage vows at 8:08 am. It’s also the reason the Olympic officials planned the opening ceremonies for today; I suppose they were hoping to offset all the “bad luck” surrounding the upcoming games—appalling pollution, for starters.  

I happened upon this piece of wisdom on the pavement while on my way to a meeting this morning and a carpe diem moment materialized. Although the shot is 40 minutes late to cash in on the super Vegas jackpot, I’m hoping that at least hitting the 8-8-8- trifecta will bring some luck my way.   If that happens, I promise to pass along a little to you, dear reader!

A Yastik for My Divan

Posted in Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2008 by Liz Hager

Silk Velvet Yastik, probably 17th c., though identified as 7thc (typo?), (photo courtesy Sadberk Hanim Museum, Istanbul)

The great migration of Turkic tribes from north-east Siberia into Central Asia began in the 6th c. AD and continued for centuries. The Seljuk tribe dominated beginning in the 11th century; at the peak of its influence, the Seljuk empire stretched from the Western shores of Turkey to the Punjab. Among other things, the Turkic peoples brought weaving and embroidery traditions with them into the conquered lands. Though only a few of Seljuk textiles have survived, their weaving traditions have lived on in the textiles of their successors. 

The Seljuk Empire was eventually subsumed by the Oshmans (Ottomans), an upstart tribe with ambitions.     In 1326 after a seige of nearly seven years, Orhan I, the second Beg (chief) of the Ottomans, captured the Byzantium city of Bursa and made it the capital of his expanding empire.  Given Bursa’s strategic location on the southern coast of the Sea of Marmar, this victory ultimately paved the way to the greatest prize, Constantinople. That fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans advanced rapidly over additional territories, until they controlled a vast swath of land, which stretched west into Europe, east to China and south to Morocco and Yemen.  The Ottoman Empire remained intact for nearly 600 years, until the Versailles Treaty of 1919 distroyed it.

Beyond its role in the march of empires, Bursa is important for another reason—silk. The Chinese were able to kept the method of silk production secret for centuries, but the vast trade network that was the Silk Route facilitated the smuggling of the secret west to the Byzantine Empire.  By the time of its conquest by the Ottomans, Bursa had long been a Byzantium center of sericulture, due to a climate favorable to the cultivation of mulberry trees (the leaves of which the silkworm must feed).  By the 14th century, it had become a principal market for world silk and its workshops handled not only the manufacture of silk for domestic Ottoman use, but also added value to silk products flowing from Persia to Europe, by way of the Italian cities of Genoa, Florence and Venice. By 1502 records reveal that Bursa had over 1,000 looms.The period between 1550-1650 was the heyday of Bursa’s economic activity; Sulieman was responsible for expansion of the fine and decorative arts at court and Bursa provided most of the textiles. Contemporary inventories list 91 types of fabric made there, although the city’s artisans were predominantly known for their lampas (woven cloths with ornamental designs) twill, seraser and velvet. Which brings me to the piece above. 

Combing silk threads from cocoons at rug factory near Ephesus, Turkey (photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

There was no attribution, but a good guess would be that it was made in Bursa.  

Depending on whom you consult, velvet weaving originated in Egypt, China, Kashmir or Italy.  Velvet derives its sumptuous sheen from a special weaving technique, in which a second weft (the horizontal thread) is looped over a rod and then cut with special tool, causing the fibers to stand horizontal to the cloth. Until the Industrial Revolution created economical production, velvet was the exclusive domain of the court and aristocracy. Further, due to its high natural sheen, silk was the material of choice in making velvet until after the Renaissance. It’s not hard to imagine how silk velvet would be an essential item in every sultan’s palace, for its opulence splendidly conveys the wealth of the court.  For seating, Turks have always favored the long low mattress-like seat called a divan (which derives from the Turkish word for government council, itself borrowed from the Persian for “book of accounts”).  Yastiks are the front side of the cushions used to bolster one’s back while sitting on a divan.

The yastik above sports an ogival pattern of stylized carnations. In comparison with other Ottoman and Italian velvets, this particular example of the diamond shape ogee (ogive) pattern is quite simple, and it strikes me that the weaver knew those big carnations could stand on their own without embellishment. Their stylized form evokes hand-held fans, a subtle reference to the leisures of court, perhaps?  In the cells at the top and bottom of the yastik is the stylized tulip motif, a perennial favorite of the Ottomans (probably because tulips originated in Turkey). Though I enjoy the intricacies of the more elaborate yastik designs—there’s palpable joy in tracing the interlocking lines of the patterns—I find the flat, regimented and bold character of this design quite majestic.

I’d like a yastik just like it for my divan, please. 

Want more?


“The Silk Road”: overview on silk making process

Christie’s—Ottoman Velvet


Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

“No Standing”—Look Down!: IWP, SF#5

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , , on August 5, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: August 4, 2008

Time: 10:13pm

Location: Arcade Section 149 walkway,  ATT Park 

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  A pedestrian warning or ubiquitous command of crowd control is rendered noteworthy by its placement at the end of the first base line along the habitual trajectory of Barry Bonds’ homers.  Barry’s no longer with the Giants, but his spirit lives on from the pavement.

Into the Valley of Death

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by Liz Hager


Timothy O'Sullivan—Field where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg

Timothy O’Sullivan, “Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg,” 1863, albumen photograph bound into Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Some claim that the photographs attributed (and in many cases mis-attributed) to Matthew Brady are the reason the Civil War is more popular than the Revolutionary War in the American imagination. In fact, nearly 150 years later, the in situ portraits of weary-looking officers, the shots of battlefield formations, and the unvarnished records of the post-battle carnage still bring the immediacy of that war to us in a way that illustration techniques cannot.   Although many consider Brady to be the first “photo-journalist,” he wasn’t actually the first to photograph war. That distinction belongs to Roger Fenton (1819-1869), British chronicler of the Crimean War. During his short 11-year career as a photographer, Fenton photographed all kinds of subjects—portraits, landscapes, the monuments of ancient civilizations. However, it is the collection of 350 “salt-paper” photographs, taken during a brief 3-month period in and around the encampments at Balaklava, for which Fenton is best remembered.

Roger Fenton, Into the Shadow of the Valley of Death,1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). Note the cannonballs strewn in the road. This is one of two prints of the same scene—one with, one without cannonballs. Apparently, the one without was taken first. Fenton wouldn’t be the last war photographer to doctor a scene.

By the time Fenton arrived in camp in the spring of 1855, the infamous slaughter of the British cavalry brigades had already been immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his “The Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Still, the Crimean conflict was in full swing and one imagines that Fenton had ample opportunity to record the action of battle and consequences wrought by the war. What kept him from reporting on this angle of the war?

Despite technical advances made in the wake of Louis Daguerre‘s introduction of his eponymous plate-process, by 1855, plein air photography was still no trivial matter. Transporting heavy equipment required large teams of porters. Fenton himself set sail to the Crimea with more than 30 crates of materials, as well as a portable tinker’s cart, which he used as a portable darkroom. Additionally, chemicals in the service of photography were fickle and could prove particularly ruinous in the wilderness.  (John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Grand Canyon expedition comes to mind.) Certainly Fenton would have had good technical reasons not to go out in the field. But Brady and others were using the same cumbersome equipment a half a decade later. Perhaps Brady was just a more fearless character, a man who had less qualms about the dangers of setting up shop on the battlefield. Popular legend has it that he got so close to the action at the First Battle of Bull Run he was almost captured. Even Brady, though, backed off the battlefield later in the war, sending assistants like Timothy O’Sullivan to do that more dangerous work.

Roger Fenton, Major Halford, 5th Dragoon Guards, 1855, salt-paper photograph (courtesy Library of Congress). A cavalryman not unlike those of the 4th Dragoon Guards, who met death during the infamous charge into “the Valley of Death.”

Gross military incompetence was a hallmark of the Crimean War. As a result, many thousands of soldiers died, perhaps unnecessarily. Additionally, it was the first war to make tactical use of trenches and blind artillery fire, and troops must have found themselves in horrific situations similar to those of WW1. Although the military deployed rifles with increased range, soldiers could still expect to find themselves in close conflict with the enemy. As tank technology was still to be invented, the cavalry was the primary arm of the forward thrust of military action. Fenton’s photographs depict war as if it were a gentlemanly, Victorian-era game; soldiers seem to be preparing for a dress parade.  One cavalryman after another with his steed strikes a contrived and noble pose, though surely even most experienced among them must have been struggling with mind-numbing terror, well aware that a fate similar to that of the “light brigades” might well await each of them.

It turns out that Fenton, as well as his subjects, was a pawn in the Great Game.  The photographer was sent to the Crimea by the British Government, anxious to shore up perceptions of the very unpopular war. He arrived at the military camps under the strictest of orders —”No dead bodies.”

Does the omission of the darker side of war make Fenton any less a war photographer?   Stay tuned.

Wider Connections

Roger Fenton at the Library of Congress

Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimean War

John Wesley Powell photographs

“Wild Stallion”—Look Down!: IWP, SF#4

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , , on August 2, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: August 2, 2008

Time: 2:09pm

Location: Church, Corner of Market, SW sidewalk

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  A wild stallion at the entrance to MUNI. Commentary from a satisfied rider, perhaps, or just another cowboy on the loose.

“Prison Mess”—Look Down!:IWP, SF#3

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Graffiti, Liz Hager with tags , on August 1, 2008 by Liz Hager

©2008 Liz Hager

Date: August 1, 2008

Time: 11:34am

Location: Mess Hall Floor, Main Cellblock, Alcatraz

“Indispensable Wisdom on the Pavement”:  I know, technically not graffiti. But if floors could talk, what a story this piece would tell. It shows every floor finish over the years of the prison’s operation, from rough concrete to smooth concrete to tiles to red and finally black linoleum. To boot, It’s better than some abstract paintings.

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