Tag: PEI

Art, Science, Wonder

At The Morgan Library & Museum (photo mine)

Amidst the challenges of last fall, the eagerness and inspiration with which I approached my cultural reportage faded away. It bothers me that I let something go that meant (means) so much to me, and I’m hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

The best place I can think of starting is by tidying up a loose, fraying thread I left dangling off the edge of my quilt of chaos last autumn. Between school assignments, stressful living conditions, and some deeply unpleasant personal chaos, I never got to reviewing the wondrous da Vinci show that happened at the Morgan Museum and Library. I covered a fantastic surrealism show of theirs in 2013, and indeed, the Morgan is one of my favorite spots in New York City, what with its awe-inspiring collection of historical documents, breathtaking art, and gorgeous old-meets-new design; the clean steel lines of its atrium blend seamlessly with the warm wooden tones and carved stone of older structures. The da Vinci exhibit captured this old-meets-new ethos. Art and science integrated in a unique, inspiring way, one that, on reflection has me thinking about the marriage between chaos and order, style and content, dreams and reality.

Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin” (which ran from late October 2013 to early February of this year) was a beautiful, fascinating portrait of 15th-16th century curiosity that directed itself at the world, ourselves, and our place and position straddling the mysteries of the two; it forced reflection on relationships, both with the Morgan’s other, permanent works, and the way museum visitors perceive and experience art, history, and the notable intersection of the two.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Figure Studies, 1505
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

“Figure Studies” (1505), a work done in pen and brown ink with traces of black chalk on paper, is a seamless blend of da Vinci’s artistry and passion for science featuring a large male nude who looks stripped of skin, his muscles exposed, his gluteus maximus a busy contusion of fine, light, grid-like ink strokes. The other figures in the work get gradually smaller, right to left, perhaps in a movement reflecting da Vinci’s idiosyncratic mirrored writing style. There are various scenes of motion — twisting and turning, from various angles — and sketches of a man on horseback, a horse rearing, and a set of male lips, sensuously curled open (and possibly exhaling a plume of smoke), at the top of the page. All the elements feel disparate and random, but the combination of bodies, gestures, and motion lend a certain joy to the detailed scientific doodles.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the drawings, it is impossible not to contemplate the materials used to create these works –ink, chalk, paper, metal, water — and their place in da Vinci’s world. Where did the chalk come from? The ink? How were they transported? What of the life of the person who sold such wares? It brings to mind a host of socio-historical questions in relation to the artist’s connection with the wider world, and the implications of pursuing art with a much wider world of trade, commerce, and economy at play. Such connections can so easily be forgotten or taken for granted.

It was impossible to take anything for granted that day, especially in a setting as special as the Morgan. Ornately decorated religious books, royal letters, old manuscripts, entreaties around the question of arranged marriages –many precious items within the Morgan’s permanent collection are contemporary to the works of da Vinci, and tell of a culture looking outside itself –to matters of law, of politics, of religion, of power and money –while da Vinci’s works are focused on humanity and the natural world, our relationship to it, and its connection to (and with) us. The artist’s firm fascination was with the mechanics of life, imagining the possibilities therein; such fascination is certainly tied to the exploratory spirit, a spirit which, in Da Vinci’s time, was tied to notions of human expansion and progress. The two were interchangeable at the time, and perhaps manifest most completely (and tragically) in the “discovery” of the Americas — European industrial and socio-political/cultural expansion at the expense of many native populations and cultures. I couldn’t help but look a bit askance at the “Hercules” depiction, knowing that, concurrent to its creation, a whole other set of mythologies and mythological systems were being plundered and destroyed.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a Young Woman, 
(Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s 
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

Still, thinking back on that rainy late-fall day, I am struck by da Vinci’s unfailing curiosity at the wider world. The artist was clearly testing the limits of his materials, using ink, then chalk (specifically finger-staining red chalk), to seek a new vision of his evolving world, a violent, swirling one shaped by politics, religion, corruption and competition. He wasn’t interested in doing portraits of the power-brokers of his day, but in finding and exploring tender humanity. Sometimes that took the shape of scientific inquiry, of motion and mechanics, and sometimes it took the form of soft, smooth flesh. He wielded his real-world materials deftly in an attempt to get at an other-worldly, if deeply earthy, complex-plain truth that lay behind the eyes of his subjects, be they human or animal, or past the slippery surface of mechanics and wings and internal organs.

One can still find such integrated elegance in our age –in the work of Ettore Sottsass, Sergio Pininfarina, the architecture of Pei or Tadao Ando or Oscar Niemeyer, the scientific sensuousness of Sugimoto’s photography, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful art of Isabelle Dalle, and Denis Dubois, and Tumblr’s “Bedelgeuse.” Science and art can (and should) exist together; it seems strange we don’t connect them, when so many artists and scientists have.  Sometimes they are even one in the same. And while the integration can’t change history, it can change minds — and hearts. Da Vinci’s work goes far in mending wounds, offering us not a black or white or even a grey road, but one colored in tones we could see, if only we opened ourselves to it, looked at the mechanics, and then looked past them; it’s a better path that leaves the crumbs along the path to our better natures, to what, perhaps, might be our essential nature: to be contemplative, and calm, but always hungry — not to conquer or rule, not to subjugate or exploit, but to know.  Da Vinci’s art, and his science, his perfect integration of the two, reminds us of the hunger for knowing, for learning, for experience, for beauty; we are hungry for transcendence, and hungry for life. Let us eat, and let us always want to ask for more.

The Outsider

Next month will mark ten years since I’ve moved back to Canada.

Prior to that, I’d been living abroad, first in Ireland, then England, for close to two years. I learned so much during my time away, though in the midst of it, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being an outsider. In my youth, I truly fit the role of a misfit; I was the girl who’d skip class to go to the art gallery or, in elementary school, intentionally forget gym clothes to read Kerouac. But being in a completely new environment presented a new, much more frightening challenge. It was uppermost in my mind to fit in as much as possible with my new chosen countries and their inhabitants, while at the same time maintaining my individuality and identity (which was a very shifting, transforming thing). Keeping balanced amidst those cataclysmic changes was a high wire act I didn’t always perform successfully. Never has Dickens’ “best of times / worst of times” dialectic been more obviously manifest in my life than it was when I lived abroad.

So it was with a lot of fascination that I read about Canadian theatre artist Maja Ardal‘s work You Fancy Yourself, a classic fish-out-of-water tale. In the one-woman show, award-winning Ardal uses pieces from her own background as a transplanted Icelandic native growing up in 1950s Edinburgh to tell the tale of friends new and old, memories made and forgotten. I had the opportunity to exchange some ideas around the ‘outsider’ label with her, and to glean her thoughts around an aspect of theatre that’s always fascinated me: the solo show.

Where did the idea for You Fancy Yourself originate? How much of it is personal?
I loved to dress up when I was a kid. My Mum had a trunk full of fabulous forties gowns and blouses. When I put those clothes on, I imagined myself to be completely transformed-as if I was the most glamorous film star in Hollywood. One day, I wore an amazing puffy frilly “off the shoulder” blouse to school, thinking that all the girls in the playground would worship and adore me. Instead, I was ridiculed, and pushed around by a mob of girls who all shouted “Who do you think you are!? YOU FANCY YOURSELF!!

About six years ago I started to think about those awful childhood moments that throw the cold light of day onto our dreams. I began to write story/poems about other children I remembered from my childhood, and the public humiliations they went through at the hands of bullies. I decided to try turning those poems into a play. The world of the play came alive around Elsa, a little Icelandic girl who has to learn how to fit into the rough world of the Edinburgh playground. As I wrote the play I compressed it all into fictional scenes. When I performed all the characters, I knew I’d made the right choice, as it is truly a joy to perform them all.

What are the best and worst things about doing a one-woman show?
The best things about doing a one person show are that I don’t have to compromise to other cast members when we have a gig or a tour, I am free to invent new things on the spur of the moment and I get really fit because the show is so physical! Also, I have an intimate relationship with the audience. I can’t hide from them and they can’t hide from me, and they start to realise how much I need them to play with me, and frankly their surprise and delight feeds me with joy and energy.

The worst things are that it’s lonely in the dressing room -it’s lonely when I’m on tour, like in Prince Edward Island and Salt Spring, or Edinburgh, and have no one to share the sights with when I have the flu, and have to pretend to myself that I don’t, and just do the show because there’s no understudy. I did a run of the show in Hamilton starting with the flu. The bizarre thing is that I would always start to feel better when the adrenaline kicked in, then the next day it would all have to begin gain.

What do you hope audiences come away with?
Having done so many shows and received so many written and verbal responses, I think I can safely say that people come away feeling rewarded, that they were at a play that spoke to them so personally while at the same time making them laugh wildly-and shed the odd tear. The play seems to remind us that when we try too hard to belong we must be careful not to betray those we love.

You Fancy Yourself runs at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille until January 23rd.

Photo credit: Alex Felipe

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