On happiness, and pleasure in failure

From Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect. Also, a new identity brings you into contact with new people and new experiences, which are also sources of happiness.

On enjoying your failures:

Pushing myself, I knew, would be a source of discomfort. It's a Secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy. When I thought about why I was sometimes reluctant to push myself, I realized that it was because I was afraid of failure--but in order to have more success, I needed to be willing to accept more failure. I remembered the words of Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

To counteract this fear, I told myself, "I enjoy the fun of failure." It's fun to fail, I kept repeating. It's part of being ambitious; it's part of being creative. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

Taryn Simon, exploring bloodlines and stories that bind us, through photos

 

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in midtown Manhattan, we were near collapse after a morning exploring the Upper West Side and Central Park, then shopping around midtown. Then we went to the Modern Museum of Art. I felt it essential to visit at least one of the major, internationally-renowned museums New York City has to offer, even while we were resisting the traditional tourist visit to the City.

Taryn Simon, artist and photographer, has a knack for amazing titles. Her current show: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I-XVIII. At some point as we neared delirium, we wandered into the photography section of the museum, tucked on one of the expansive floors, and found Taryn Simon's stunning exhibition of photographs. To be honest, the named intrigued me first, as names and titles nearly always do. A great name is the fastest way to get me interested. (I read Angela's Ashes in sixth grade--I know, right?--because I desperately wanted to know who Angela was, and what was her relation to the little grungy boy on the cover; no other reason.)

We found ourselves surrounded by austere faces, portraits of men, women, rabbits, sitting each by themselves, amid a series of people (and sometimes things) who are somehow related, whose lives and stories intersect by some grand or small event. There was something about "bloodlines," as after looking deeper at the panels and photographs, I was confused about the organization of the show and its larger meaning. I left intrigued deeply, wanting to spend more time pondering this series, these "chapters," later, but not wanting to buy the $125 exhibition book--which was the show in its entirety, amazing.

Hours later, I am in the hotel room taking a much-needed rest, and flipping through a Time magazine I'd brought with, when there is this bold headline: "There Will Be Bloodlines: Taryn Simon untangles the ties that bind."

I kid you not, I got goosebumps. If I had looked at this magazine a day earlier, I might have overlooked this name, skimmed the article at best. Here was this woman, and her explanation of this newest project, which was four years in the making, and took her to twenty-five countries.

Now I have a proper explanation of the project's theme and meaning:

The organizing principle for this project is what she calls bloodlines: all the living descendants, plus any living forebears, of a single man or woman who sets a story in motion.

And the reasoning, the messy ties and stories and variable havoc that occurs within these "bloodlines" is where her project becomes truly fascinating. It echoes what I see and know deeply: that family lines, genetics, and genealogy have little to do with  the way our lives turn out, have almost nothing to do with the events that shape our individual lives in the present.A simple concept, really; and this explains why the tribal man with ten wives, dozens of children, and many dozen grandchildren appears in a massive sequence. And also, why there is a man missing from his own story--a blank canvas appears instead; he was executed for war crimes after the end of WWII and Nazi Germany, but descendants appear after his spot, along with more missing people, via their empty canvases, as well as pieces of clothing that act in lieu of a person, who preferred not to share his or her face in association with this man. Meaning becomes clear.

Simone depicts bloodlines as flowing charts of small portraits--like a living periodic table of the elements. What resonates is the persistence, and finally the insufficiency, of ancestry and kinship as systems for making sense of unruly destinies. To show that blood lineage can be an extremely loopy line, she sought out unlikely subjects; one is a Lebanese man who claims to be reincarnated, so he pops up more than once in his own family history. "I was always looking for a surreal twist," she says, "something that would lead to a collapse of logic."

All the same, even the most outlandish chapters have their universal element. As Simon put it, "We're all the living dead, pieces of what came before." What she means is that we all carry the DNA of our forebears; there ghostly current pulses through us. The intricate machinery of her project is designed to show that blood ties are a weak line of defense against the blows administered by history, politics, or sheer unlucky circumstances. [italics my own.]

Yes. This entire work is more stunningly magnificent than I ever could have imagined, aligning greatly with my own theories on this whole world and what happens to us during our time here.

My Pop Art Series

This is part of the Living Atlanta street art series that was done by local artists in 2011, but I have only recently discovered this piece, very close to my office at 34 Peachtree Street. I absolutely love it. So I played with it in Lightroom to my heart's content, and this is the result. I can't have enough versions of this picture, it seems.

Ai Weiwei: A game of chess and China's elemental flaw

I have been fascinated by Ai Weiwei, the 54-year-old provocative artist and voice of dissidence in China, since May, when I heard an interview with his English translator on one of the my favorite podcasts. He was detained and questioned and kept by the government for 81 days this year, after his blog incited uproar from citizens who agreed and officials who saw him as a dangerous beacon. A tumultuous year has left him listed as one of Time magazine's People of the Year, as "The Dissident." I find him interesting in his amorphous and fluid form and interpretation of art, connecting what we think of as "Art" with unconvention and with blogging and microblogging (i.e. Twitter and very brief forms of connecting online), combining his artistic impulses with his gift for words, writing pithy and prophetic bits. That's a kind of artistry I greatly admire, especially in the face of the Chinese State And All Its Men. There is quite a difference--and a kind of bold bravery I cannot imagine--between being an artist in a free and functioning democracy and being an outspoken artist in a state which does not value or embrace free speech, open access to information, or the fullest extent of self-expression--even if it means criticizing the men upstairs.

In his Time interview he was asked "What would you like to see in China?" This was part of his brilliantly explained answer:

We need clear rules to play the game. We need to have respect for the law. If you play a chess game but after two or three moves you change the rules, how can people play with you? Of course you will win, but after 60 years you will still be a bad chess player because you never meet anyone who can challenge you. What kind of game is that? Is it interesting? I'm sure the people who put me in jail, they're so tired. This game is not right, but who is going to say, 'Hey, let's play fairly'?

I've been studying China, Chinese politics, language, culture and history, for more than six years now, and my own thoughts on its political system have shifted at times between the two most polar ends of the argument: that either the "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics" official plan has merit, is working, can improve and continue; or that China will inevitably give way democracy because it has already given much up to a free market economic system, and its people still hold memories of the extreme poverty and problems that stemmed from early plans in the early years after the Communist Revolution. People--around the world--have spent much time waxing on the future of China's political system. No one has explained its crucial fissure in its system so well as Ai Weiwei, himself a son of China, and the actual son of a revolutionary poet.

Artistry in the world, in our work, in ourselves

"William Morris told us to cease thinking of art as the rarefied expression of a mystically talented few, or as the peculiar possession of rich men. He argued that work is the mother of art, directing our study to carpets as well as paintings, axes as well as statues, and he bade us consider our own work as a source of insight into the work of others. With him, we come to wish that the painter in the loft, the scholar at the desk, and the industrial laborer on the shop floor might know the joy of the peasant girl at the loom."

Material culture historian Henry Glassie reflects on the value of the world as an inspiration for art, and how artistry, at its core, comes from age-old trades. He takes us through the lifespan of a traditionally-made Turkish rug to illustrate this, and brings us back around to the very fact that he is writing about it, to ensure we understand that all manner of artistry, big and small, is a product of the creative soul of humankind.

The chapter I read today was a joyous revelation, a celebration, of the material as historical, as everything we can and hope to be, in what we create on this earth, with our hands, our patience, our inspiration, our minds.

Snapshot Yangzhou: art students' retreat

As part of our "cultural education," we spent weekday afternoons on little excursions to museums, paper-making studios, calligraphy lessons, table tennis games, and tai chi sessions--to name a few. One of my favorites was our trek to one of the Yangzhou University art buildings, and this studio in particular. I got the impression it was shared by about a dozen students at once, and projects at every level of completion were laid on tables, hung on walls, or propped somewhere between. Art was a combination of contemporary images and portraiture, like the girl above, and traditional skilled Chinese landscapes and scenes, like the one in the background behind her, mounted on the wall. The art students were some of the most calming and friendly people I encountered; and I loved that they bashed the stereotype of the Asian science and mathematics student.

On this afternoon, we each paired up with an art student and learned some techniques in traditional Chinese painting--which involves much more methodical, patient strokes than anything I'd ever attempted. Accordingly, my buddy was extremely patient with me, and after several botched scenes, he backtracked and we began painting a bunch of grapes, something I was able to grasp more quickly than sweeping landscapes or trees or stallions. I proudly carried the rolled up paper containing my creations home with me, and brought them carry-on all the way home to the U.S., where I only recently rediscovered them and decided to display my grape bunch. My artistic friend also gave me one of his own paintings, which I also intend to finally mount and display in my home. His is a traditional scene, containing huge, large scale scenery, man nearly unrepresented in this homage to nature that is itself an homage to ancient Chinese art.