Monday, November 06, 2017


In England the Valkyries came to be relegated to villages, where they degenerated into witches; in the Scandinavian countries the giants of ancient mythology, who lived in Jotunheim and battled against the god Thor, have degenerated into rustic Trolls. In the cosmography that fills the Elder Edda, we read that on the day of the Twilight of the Gods the giants scaled Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, and tore it down and, aided by a wolf and a serpent, destroyed the world; the Trolls of popular superstition are evil, stupid elves that dwell in mountain caves or in rundown huts. The most distinguished among them have two or three heads.

Henrik Ibsen's dramatic poem Peer Gynt (1867) has assured their fame. Ibsen imagines that they are first and foremost nationalists; they think, or attempt to think, that the horrid drink they brew is delicious and that their caves are palaces. To prevent Peer Gynt from seeing how sordid their dwelling places are, they threaten to put out his eyes.

 -- Jorge Luis Borges, from The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967)

Monday, October 30, 2017

songs, riddles, games, cook books, candy and pastries, toasts, rhymes for clowns, patriotic speeches, plays for children or puppets, charming stories, fortunetelling, black and white magic

In this long-established firm will be found a varied and select assortment of songs for the current year, collections of congratulations , magic tricks, riddles, parlor games, cook books, booklets for candy and pastry-making, toasts, rhymes for clowns, patriotic speeches, plays for children or puppets, charming stories: “The New Oracle,” “The Book of the Future: Rules for Fortunetelling with Cards,” “The New Mexican Fortune Teller,” Black and White Magic: or the Book of Sorcerers.”

José Guadalupe Posada (1900)

related: Posada

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Eclipse, by Augusto Monterroso (1959)

When Brother Bartolomé Arrazola felt lost he accepted that nothing could save him anymore. The powerful Guatemalan jungle had trapped him inexorably and definitively. Before his topographical ignorance he sat quietly awaiting death. He wanted to die there, hopelessly and alone, with his thoughts fixed on far-away Spain, particularly on the Los Abrojos convent where Charles the Fifth had once condescended to lessen his prominence and tell him that he trusted the religious zeal of his redemptive work.

Upon awakening he found himself surrounded by a group of indifferent natives who were getting ready to sacrifice him in front of an altar, an altar that to Bartolomé seemed to be the place in which he would finally rest from his fears, his destiny, from himself.

Three years in the land had given him a fair knowledge of the native tongues. He tried something. He said a few words which were understood.

He then had an idea he considered worthy of his talent, universal culture and deep knowledge of Aristotle. He remembered that a total eclipse of the sun was expected on that day and in his innermost thoughts he decided to use that knowledge to deceive his oppressors and save his life.

“If you kill me”–he told them, “I can darken the sun in its heights.”

The natives looked at him fixedly and Bartolomé caught the incredulity in their eyes. He saw that a small counsel was set up and waited confidently, not without some disdain.

Two hours later Brother Bartolomé Arrazola’s heart spilled its fiery blood on the sacrificial stone (brilliant under the opaque light of an eclipsed sun), while one of the natives recited without raising his voice, unhurriedly, one by one, the infinite dates in which there would be solar and lunar eclipses, that the astronomers of the Mayan community had foreseen and written on their codices without Aristotle’s valuable help.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.  
Sit down. Be quiet.  
You must depend upon  
affection, reading, knowledge,  
skill—more of each  
than you have—inspiration,  
work, growing older, patience,  
for patience joins time  
to eternity. Any readers  
who like your poems,  
doubt their judgment.  


Breathe with unconditional breath  
the unconditioned air.  
Shun electric wire.  
Communicate slowly. Live  
a three-dimensioned life;  
stay away from screens.  
Stay away from anything  
that obscures the place it is in.  
There are no unsacred places;  
there are only sacred places  
and desecrated places.  


Accept what comes from silence.  
Make the best you can of it.  
Of the little words that come  
out of the silence, like prayers  
prayed back to the one who prays,  
make a poem that does not disturb  
the silence from which it came.

—Wendell Berry

Friday, June 02, 2017

Matter out of Place

When traveling to install his next exhibition, photographer Alejandro Durán starts by checking suitcases full of still-sandy plastic garbage from over 40 countries, all washed up on just one particular beach on the windward side of the Yucatán. Among the collection, for example, there’s a red flyswatter advertising an insurance company in Warsaw, Indiana, still in unsettlingly good condition. Among other things, Durán is reminding us that when these things appear to leave our hands and homes, there is no “away.”

All this plastic, along with Durán’s large scale photos, went up at the Granary Art Center earlier this summer. The installation and opening coincided with the provincial bustle, deep-fryer haze, and cheap disposable plastic toys, dishes, and cutlery of Ephraim’s Scandinavia Days festival taking place on the same block that same weekend. If we define trash as “matter out of place,” all this seemed at once wonderfully strange and foreign, even exotic, and at the same time uncannily right at home.

The first morning of the install, I took Alejandro on a quick trash tour and photo shoot in the piñon-juniper forests of Black Hill, just east of town. The standard rural rubbish: burned-out mattresses and other furniture; shot-up TVs and other appliances; the bodies of deer, elk, sheep, dogs, and other creatures, matted in miasmic heaps of fur, teeth, and bones. Also, and probably most striking, are the great big knotted bundles of colorful plastic baling twine, dumped in ditches at the edge of alfalfa fields. How compelling he found all this, or how much he was just indulging me, he was too kind and gracious for me to really know, but he did seem to like the neon-orange-on-green contrasts of the baling twine half-overgrown in junegrass. Lots of photos there. (Incidentally, junegrass, sort of like trash, occurs abundantly on every continent and most islands on the planet except, unlike trash, Antarctica.)

from the show statement:

“Washed Up is an environmental installation and photography project that transforms the international debris washing up on Mexico's Caribbean coast into aesthetic yet disquieting works.

“Over the course of this project Durán has identified plastic waste from fifty-eight nations and territories on six continents that have washed ashore along the coast of Sian Ka'an, Mexico's largest federally protected reserve and an UNESCO World Heritage site. He uses this international debris to create color-based, site-specific sculptures that conflate the hand of man and nature. At times he distributes the objects the way the waves would; at other times, the plastic mimics algae, roots, rivers, or fruit, reflecting the infiltration of plastics into the natural environment.

“More than creating a surreal or fantastical landscape, these installations mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament. The resulting photo series depicts a new form of colonization by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our culture of disposable products. The alchemy of Washed Up lies not only in transforming a trashed landscape, but in the project’s potential to raise awareness and change our relationship to consumption and waste.”

The ubiquitous accumulation and, in turns sublime, in turns ghastly scale and permanence of (hu)man-made things now seems a definitive characteristic of our moment and era, one that our aesthetics are still struggling to catch up with. (Lucky for us all, this blog isn’t the kind of place for one to hold fourth on things like late capitalism and “zeitgeists,” or we might all be in for a real jeremiad.) But here are a couple more illustrations of the above fact:

“Shrouded in trash bags, the men of El Derramadero walked down from their native mountain and returned three days later pulling a wagon filled with slabs of plastic. Once in El Derramadero, the wagon collapsed and was thrown into the fire pit where they melted the plastic, shaping it into cutting shanks for butchering and forming forks and spoons, letting them cool before sliding them into their utensil trays. They cleared the clumps of mud where their old adobes used to stand and molded igloos complete with plastic hinges. But although the people of el Derramadero were happy for having triumphed over their town’s name, Julieta did not want to live in a town made from melted plastic.”

Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (2005)

“The Matacão, scientists asserted, had been formed for the most part within the last century, paralleling the development of the more common forms of plastic, polyurethane and styrofoam. Enormous landfills of nonbiodegradable material buried under virtually every populated part of the Earth had undergone tremendous pressure, pushed ever farther into the lower layers of the Earth’s mantle. The liquid deposits of the molten mass had been squeezed through underground veins to virgin areas across the earth. The Amazon Forest, being one of the last virgin areas on Earth, got plenty.”

Karen Tei Yamashita, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990)

Also, for good measure, a couple stills from Rian Brown and GeoffPingree’s Blue Desert – TowardsAntarctica.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Wunderkammern: an oblique profile of artist Jeff Decker

“Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. In essence these collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines; marking the intersection of science and superstition; and drawing on natural, manmade, and artificial worlds—can be seen as the precursors to museums.”

—“Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities” MoMA (2008)

“Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets were created as a result of a growing desire among the peoples of Europe to place mankind accurately within the grand scheme of nature and the divine. This need developed during the fourteenth century and continued into the seventeenth century. The Renaissance wunderkammer, like the modern museum, were subject to preservation and interpretation. However, they differed from the modern museum in some fundamental aspects of purpose and meaning. Renaissance wunderkammer were private spaces, created and formed around a deeply held belief that all things were linked to one another through either visible or invisible similarities. People believed that by detecting those visible and invisible signs and by recognizing the similarities between objects, they would be brought to an understanding of how the world functioned, and what humanity’s place in it was.”

—“History of the Wunderkammern (cabinet of curiosities),” Tate UK (2003)

I think Jeff Decker’s life might be well understood as a sort of cabinet of curiosities. For the sake of this post, though, I should probably focus things here to just say that Jeff Decker’s studio is a cabinet of curiosities.

Earlier this year I was offered a chance to write short piece responding to an artistic work (painting, sculpture, photography, etc.) for the upcoming Mormon Art Center Festival, taking place in NYC later this summer. I am not an art critic and this was not to be art criticism. The proposal was kind of a blind date type of arrangement, since it was only after saying “yes” that writers were shown the work they were responding to. And it wasn’t until I was sent an image of sculptor Jeff Decker’s piece that I knew I was in trouble. What to say about the front end of a taxidermied rhino, regaled with spoils, saddled and ridden by a type of grotesque, chubby homunculus—and was that canopy the carapace of a sea tortoise? By now I was absolutely intrigued, but where to begin?

Once I’d decided on a set of short fables as the way to approach this, I decided to take my friend Laura up on her suggestion to arrange a visit to Jeff’s Hippodrome Studio in Springville, UT. She got me his contact info and he graciously set aside a Saturday afternoon last month to meet me there. I brought a notebook and camera, on which I’d stupidly set the ISO wrong, but some of the photos still turned out alright. I would describe Hippodrome as just as much a collection or museum (a shrine of the Muses) as it is also a working shop. And in this post I can only begin to scratch the surface of what turned out to be easily one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had in my life.

Any time spent googling Jeff Decker, will immediately and overwhelmingly acquaint you with his fantastic work restoring and sculpting exquisite, badass vintage motorcycles. He’s also well known as the only person in the world authorized to sculpt historic Harley-Davidsons. He’s often—and very fittingly, I’d say—referred to as a Frederic Remington of motorcycle sculpture. As I got out of my truck and came up the walk, I’m certain he could already tell I knew nothing about motorcycles before I even reached the porch for a handshake.

But that was OK. This left us plenty else to talk about, and before too long I realized we had all of the following in common:
- A shared love for scrounging things from the dump.
- And for Cormac McCarthy, Tom Waits, Basil Wolverton, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
- An unapologetic proclivity for going out into the back yard to piss, day or night.
- Both married to Kellys.
- And we’re way into birds, enough to both have our own stories about large, beautiful birds (not Thanksgiving turkeys) stored for a time in our freezers. (Jeff grew up surrounded by, among other things, hundreds of exotic parrots.)

It also didn’t take us long to get into the uncomfortable, sad, and mysterious subject of death. As Pablo Neruda puts it, the “little deaths” of individual lives; the big, monumental deaths and extinctions of entire species, nations, and civilizations; and what problems and questions these pose for collectors and artists like him. Though the image I was originally sent described the piece he was working on as a mounted white rhino, he soon clarified that it was actually a black rhino, which he’d found at an antique shop in pretty bad disrepair. There are several subspecies of black rhinos, most of them either completely extinct, or at some critical stage of endangered survival. Though one desperately wishes to be hopeful, these are among the too many creatures who have been hunted, chased, and displaced to the point of what we call “functional extinction.” The living bond between a life and its life place is broken and it becomes an object.

Although a certain kind of extinction is as old as life itself, the idea of extinction, our modern understanding of it, has only been around for about 200 years. Aristotle wrote ten books on natural history without extinction ever crossing his mind. Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment Europe had never considered the idea a possibility either. Thomas Jefferson had come across giant fossils of New World lions, mammoths, and sloths, and fully expected Lewis and Clark to bring such things back from their expedition, alive and well on the American frontiers. Until the early 19th century it was widely believed that there was no place for extinction in the economy of creation. Imagine this world! Complete with the same fullness as on the morning of Genesis’ seventh day.

But we have these remnant bodies, these objects, many of them anyway. Forms of life now passed into history. What to make of them now, with their attendant beauty, and often shame? Jeff and I discussed our own experience of human lust and covetousness, greed and desire, both the bad and the good. His work with these sculptures (there are two of them) places obese human children (the “mammon twins,” as he affectionately refers to them) on the backs of magnificent creatures, borne in a pageant of elaborate plunder and excess. Gold coins and splendid instruments, narwhal tusks and oryx horns, penguin wings and shrunken head replicas.

These things raise questions. How do we, the most privileged generation of life on earth, reckon with our complicated history and our prospective future? Again, both the beauty and the shame of it. In what ways can our seeking after anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy (these finest pearls) condemn us to repeating history, and in what ways might they redeem us from it? And what limits might there be on such redemption? In composing these sculptures, Jeff recognized and included the ancient conceptual theme of Arcadia as useful in framing some of these questions in relation to death, horror, and desecration entering the garden.

eye of providence

cacti potted in foundry crucibles

Jeff explains lost wax, male and female parts, and where (scary, fat) babies come from.

the naming of parts: tzanzas

crucifixion & canvas Ute kayaks

Wiz the three-legged terrier (sweetheart)

Of course it was also hard to talk about some of this without also recognizing the absurdity of our current national moment. At the same time, our struggle with greed, lust, and reckless covetousness is a very old part of being human. But fortunately, so is kindness and generosity. I had gotten to Hippodrome Studio at noon, not really checking the time the whole while I was there. It wasn’t until we were wrapping up that I realized it was already three, and that Jeff had graciously given me, among other things, the better part of his afternoon. He then sent me across the street to Art City Trolley (his and his wife’s restaurant) where I was treated to the best burger I’d had in a long time.

I don’t always ever post pictures of my lunch on the internet, but when I do, it’s with gusto!

(A slightly revised version of this post has also been posted to the--much fancier--blog By Common Consent.)

Monday, May 01, 2017

People's Climate March - Salt Lake City, April 29

No somos uno.
Ni somos cien.
¡Cuentanos bien!

Artist Jorge Arellano on the right.

Logan High School students!

surveil this.