These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.
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J. Hoberman on Cast Away, Village Voice, Dec. 20-26, 2000.
It's perversely appropriate that the holiday season would be marked by not one but two evocations of overwhelming solitude. Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away is an updated Robinson Crusoe in which Tom Hanks plays an excitable Federal Express manager who has just become engaged to America's sweetheart Helen Hunt when he is stranded alone on an uninhabited South Pacific atoll after his company cargo plane goes down in a Christmas Day storm.
Zemeckis's facility at F/X management is a given and the plane's crack-up is impressively visceral—the climax of Titanic compressed into 10 harrowing minutes of plunging vessels and flaming seas. Nor does the pummeling stop once Hanks is washed up on the white-sand beach of his personal Club Med. Island life is a baffling, bloody ordeal complicated by unsmashable coconuts and the bad tooth throbbing in the survivor's head like a time bomb. While Robinson Crusoe was a paean to the practical middle-class virtues that allowed its industrious hero (and the nation he represents) to re-create civilization out of nothingness, Cast Away is a far less triumphalist peek into the nothingness at the heart of civilization.
Fortunately, a few indestructible FedEx boxes wash ashore—one containing an apparently useless volleyball that, as soon as Hanks paints a face on its surface, becomes his combined pal, pet, and pagan idol. In another bit of product placement, Hanks calls the ball by its trade name: Wilson. Although Cast Away is very much Hanks's extreme everyman solo, his inanimate Man Friday deserves recognition as one of the year's best supporting actors. At the very least, Wilson gives the star a pretext for the movie's most emotionally wrenching scene. Alone with this absurd self-projection, Hanks spends four years on his island before building a getaway raft. The shot in which he looks back at his verdant prison, having arduously paddled free into the open ocean, is pure science fiction: He's blasted out into space, accompanied by his sidekick, Wilson.
The raft sequence has intimations of 2001 that don't stop even after Hanks returns to civilization (on a plane of total solitude) to hear how the "FedEx family" lost five of its "sons" and endures a bad-beyond-belief meeting with his dentist. I was amazed at the depth of alienation with which Zemeckis infused these scenes. But as if frightened at having conjured up the least compromising, bleakest vision of the human condition in any Hollywood A-picture since Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Zemeckis casts it away with pumped-up affirmation. God moves in mysterious ways. It's a wonderful life after all.
In like skin
By Juliet Herd, The Australian, 21dec02
RON Mueck is surveying his vast self-portrait, enigmatically entitled Mask II, and finding all manner of fault with it. "I just see all the things that don't look like me," the hyper-realist Australian-born sculptor says mournfully. "The nose is way too short, the face and ears should be longer and there should be more spots."
To the casual observer, the colossal sleeping head – almost 1.2m from chin to brow – could not be more realistic or less kind to its subject, with its rough stubble, nostril and ear hairs, pores and pimples. The slack, slightly open mouth offers a glimpse of teeth, gums and even saliva. Yet Mueck remains far from convinced.
"I feel older than he looks," he insists. "If anything, he doesn't look old or tired enough; he's far too peaceful." The artist may see himself as middle-aged and deeply lined but, in the flesh as opposed to fibreglass resin, he's a youthful 44 with a lean, sensitive face and brutally short haircut.
Since Mueck first burst on to the young British art scene five years ago when his naked, half life-size sculpture of his father, Dead Dad, was one of the hits of the Royal Academy's controversial Sensation exhibition, he has acquired a reputation for being excruciatingly media-shy. Although his natural wariness gives him an air of mystery, an asset in such a highly competitive, image-driven business, it quickly becomes apparent that his shyness is genuine.
He rarely submits to interviews and is coaxed into doing this one only on the pretext of having a brief chat, which turns into an extended discourse on the never-before-seen works he is showing from this month in his first Australian exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. His discomfort, though, is apparent when the photographer arrives and for a few anxious moments it seems he might bolt from the Anthony d'Offay gallery in central London, where he has been honoured with two solo shows in the past. A compromise is reached: Mueck will continue packing his pieces for shipment to Australia while the photographer snaps away.
Mask II, a new version of the first, glowering Mask self-portrait, will also be making the journey. Making its debut here is the tiny swaddled baby lying on a white plinth on the floor, its head resting on a pillow. The baby, inspired by photos of eastern European infants tightly wrapped in brown blankets and tied with string like little parcels, is part of a body of work created during Mueck's two-year term as artist-in-residence at London's National Gallery.
Other new sculptures include a striking 2.7m tall pregnant woman, eyes downcast, arms crossed above her head and stomach protruding to almost grotesque proportions; a naked man in a salvaged scout's boat, and a small crouching boy in a pair of shorts looking at a mirror. It is a tiny replica of Mueck's gigantic 4.5m Boy sculpture for London's Millennium Dome, which took eight painstaking months to execute and involved intricate work such as individually sanding the acrylic fibre hair to a tapered end for eyebrows and eyelashes. The shorts on both boys were made by Mueck's wife, Cas, a film screenwriter and former costume designer.
His National Gallery brief was to produce sculptures that were "in some way inspired by or connected to the collection". "I didn't want to do anything specific to a particular painting but the mother-and-child theme was one that was widely covered," explains Mueck, who is the father of two teenage daughters. The most graphic rendering of this is his newborn baby nestling, umbilical chord still attached, on its startled mother's stomach.
He has been rather grandly compared with masters such as Vermeer and Hilliard and, according to Newsweek critic Peter Plagens, Mueck can be credited with "redefining realism [by getting] verisimilitude, variation of scale and some kind of psychological insight into realistic sculpture".
"Oh, they can say what they like; it's very flattering and ridiculous," the former Jim Henson puppeteer demurs, giving an embarrassed laugh. "I'm not trying to tell anybody anything. I'm just surprised that a lump of fibreglass can elicit an emotional response."
He's not without detractors, of course, who dismiss him as a "one-hit wonder" and "model maker" in the tradition of Madame Tussaud. And he's not the only sculptor to specialise in super-realism – there's George Segal, John de Andrea and Duane Hanson, whose life-size American tourist figures are often confused with the real thing.
But as Mueck concedes: "A lot of those other sculptors deal less with the emotional side than the physical and, somehow, I don't know why, I do a bit of both." It's the vulnerability of his figures combined with the technical brilliance that elicits such a strong response.
Although he says his figures merely "evolve during sculpting" and it "seems like a fluke when I get it right", Mueck's empathy with the battling human spirit probably owes much to his fairly lonely, self-contained childhood in Melbourne. "I was really self-conscious as a teenager, I wanted to be invisible," he once said.
The son of toymakers – his father made wood carvings and his mother built a cottage industry making rag dolls – he started producing his own Sesame Street-inspired puppets from an early age. After failing to get into art school, he worked as a Myer window-dresser for three years before joining children's television show Shirl's Neighbourhood, where he made and operated puppet animals as a virtual one-man, self-taught band.
Mueck moved to London 20 years ago to work for the Henson empire, first as part of the Sesame Street and Muppet Show puppeteer team, then on the fantasy films Dreamchild and Labyrinth. He established a lucrative career making models for advertisements before influential art collector Charles Saatchi saw a Pinocchio figure he'd sculpted for his mother-in-law, renowned British painter Paula Rego, and promptly commissioned him to make four pieces – one of which was Dead Dad.
"I didn't try to get out of advertising – Charles Saatchi lured me out of it," says Mueck, disclaiming any ambition to become a serious sculptor. "I enjoyed advertising but I used to make things as an antidote to the 2-D advertising models."
Now firmly established, albeit reluctantly, as a YBA (young British artist) with his works featured in museums, national galleries and private collections around the world, Mueck is surprisingly nervous about exhibiting for the first time in his homeland. "I don't even want to think about it," he shudders of his first visit in five years. "I feel like I'm entering another world entirely – I don't know the Australian art scene."
If he'd stayed in Australia, he's not sure he would have been exhibiting on quite the same scale – his Dome Boy featured as the centrepiece at the 2001 Venice Biennale – but believes he would have been sculpting, whether it was "children's toys or garden gnomes".
"I don't know why I'm doing it but I don't know what else I'd be doing," says Mueck. "I'm not driven by art, it's just all I can do."
Ron Mueck Sculpture, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, ends March 2, 2003.
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
ARCHITECTURE REVIEW; A Moon Palace for the Hollywood Dream
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
LOS ANGELES -- Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a French curve in a city of T squares. The T squares are loving it madly. Why shouldn't they? Disney Hall was designed for them. It's a home for everyone who's ever felt like a French curve in a T square world.
Designed by Frank Gehry, the $274 million hall opens on Oct. 23. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic's charismatic young music director, will conduct ''The Rite of Spring.'' Wrong season, right rite: Disney Hall is a riotous rebirth. Not just for downtown Los Angeles, where the building is situated, and not just for the whole sprawling mixed-up La-La. What is being reborn is the idea of the urban center as a democratic institution: a place where voices can be heard.
Disney Hall has at least a dual personality and moods enough to spare. On the outside it is a moon palace, a buoyant composition of silvery reflected light. Inside, the light shifts to gold.
Sitting atop the downtown Bunker Hill district, Disney Hall is the most gallant building you are ever likely to see. And it will be opening its doors to everyone who has fought for the chance to be generous, to others and to themselves.
From some approaches Disney Hall first appears as a luminous crescent hovering between skyscrapers. The light playing off its surface is uncanny, though we have often been in its presence. It is the light of the silver screen and of the round reflectors used on photo and video locations: the light of the Hollywood dream.
Now imagine a moon apple: a hollow sphere of lunar light. Somebody hands you a knife and says, ''Cut!'' How many shapes can you make? Peel a ribbon. Carve out squares of curving surfaces, concave and convex. Change the dimensions. Turn some slices inside out. Tweak. Stretch. When you're done, compose the pieces into a flowering cabbage. Then into a cabbage rose. Rearrange. Magnify. Reproduce the contours with large panels of stainless steel etched to a soft matte finish. Jump in and soar.
The technique is Cubist. No seamless image reveals the whole. Disney Hall must be assembled within the mind piece by piece as you approach and walk around it. A Surrealist ethos also suffuses the design: the imagineering impulse of Disney as well as of Magritte. Pumpkin into carriage, cabbage into concert hall, bippidi-bobbidi-boo.
Though the forms are abstract, fleeting images can be glimpsed in them. Drive-in movie screens. The curving edge of a bass cello. A ship's prow. Sails. The Rust Belt before the rust. If you're unwilling to mix your metaphors, you've come to the wrong place.
These elusive, mutable images heighten the perception that a metamorphosis is in process. And they convey the idea that change is as much the product of the viewer's imagination as it is of a designers.
A wall of glass is recessed beneath the steel flower on the Grand Avenue side of the building. The hall is entered here, through doors that can be lifted to create a nearly seamless continuity between inside and out. Even from outside, you can see that the interior design shifts to a different key. Stylized trees, recalling Gothic buttresses, can be glimpsed through the glass. The squared-off trunks and branches are clad with naturally finished Douglas fir, as are most of the interior surfaces. The warm wood reads as a modern version of gold.
Serpentine lobbies surround the auditorium, which is set diagonally to the building site. The adjustment is initially disorienting, but you won't get lost if you let your intuition lead the way. That is the way to go anyhow inside Disney Hall. Ahead lies a gathering of hunches: let's try it this way. No, maybe this way. Make up your mind! I don't want to.
The design of the auditorium started out Hans Scharoun's way. Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonic Hall (1963), gave Mr. Gehry and Mr. Salonen the idea of presenting the orchestra in the round. The elimination of the proscenium arch fuses musicians and listeners into a single spatial event.
But the stage has not been lost. The entire room has become a stage. This impression is due in large part to the billowing wood of the hall's ceiling. The billows evoke the swags of an opera house curtain, perpetually going up.
There are 2,265 seats. These are arranged on steeply raked terraces around the semicircular stage. Natural light filters into the hall through skylights concealed at the four corners. This celestial effect is baroque, as is the barely contained commotion of a pipe organ that faces the conductor's podium on the far side of the orchestra. The splayed pipes of this focal point bring to mind the bursting gilded rays of an altar piece by Bernini.
Yasuhisa Toyota and Minoru Nagata are the hall's acoustical engineers. Custom dictates that the architectural design of a new concert hall be reviewed separately from its acoustical performance. Yet after listening to music in the golden hall, I am unable to oblige. A recent rehearsal of Mozart's 32nd Symphony nearly brought on an attack of Stendhal's syndrome, the notoriously romantic state of panic induced by aesthetic ecstasy. Audience, music, architecture were infused by a sensation of unity so profound that time stopped.
Those immune to the power of metaphor sometimes scoff at the idea that Mr. Gehry's architecture is democratic. That idea is affirmed here by the materials, the multiple perspectives the design encourages, and above all by the organization of the seats.
When I saw the models of the final design, I remember thinking that the seats on the top row of the house looked a bit sad. There are only a few, widely spaced: they appear exposed. But when I finally got to sit in one, I felt downright special. Seeing those seats from a distance is also a pleasure, because the people sitting in them register as individuals, just as the musicians do. The audience feels less like a mass, more like a diverse assembly. The hall is full of such reminders that architecture is a philosophy of urban life.
Metamorphosis happens, and not only in Walt Disney's classic films. Cities do it all the time. Los Angeles has done it now. The building pulls together the strands of many individual stories and creates an extraordinarily gallant setting in which they can be screened.
An urban metamorphosis is a victory for the inner life. Charles Garnier understood this when designing the Paris Opera, completed in 1874. The building itself was not the star attraction. The main event was the relationship between the stage and Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann's Paris. Figurative paintings and sculptures, the choice of colors, the progression of theatrical spaces from the boulevard to the proscenium arch: by means of such devices, Garnier translated the vernacular of the streets into an inner, psychological space. The result (to borrow Christopher Curtis Mead's term from his 1991 book on Garnier) was an ''architecture of empathy.'' Artists and audiences were brought together.
Radically different forms can produce startlingly similar effects. Mr. Gehry's design also embodies an empathic approach. Los Angeles has its own vernacular traditions. Above all the city has an ethos, to which Mr. Gehry's buildings have been giving shape for many years.
If you want to make unity out of the city's architecture, you must get in the car and zigzag around town, turning the windshield this way and that, as if it were a lens, piling image next to image like a David Hockney photomontage. En route you will learn everything it takes to apprehend a Cubist building, perhaps even to design one.
You don't need an architecture critic to tell you how beautifully this desert garden is ruled by Surreal juxtaposition. But let me point you toward a fine example of it as an ideal approach to Disney Hall: the fabulous Bunker Hill Steps.
Designed by Lawrence Halprin and completed in 1990, this local landmark ascends 103 steps from the street opposite the downtown Central Library to the top of Bunker Hill. Flanking the grand flight is a set of up and down escalators; down the center, water cascades over rocks.
Because of its height and the baroque curves of its treads, it is often compared to the Spanish Steps in Rome. Usually the comparison is accompanied by snickers. In truth the stairs are a comic piece of infrastructure: the baroque and the mechanized side by side; cold canyon corporate architecture with Mediterranean splash. But thanks to Disney Hall, Halprin's staircase has surpassed the Spanish Steps in cultural substance. The ascent now moves toward an emotional climax. Each skyscraper, plaza and skywalk is a step on the way to one civilizing thought: To speak is human, but to listen is divine.
Published: 10 - 23 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 1