Donuts, is there anything they can’t do?

homer.jpg

If we needed more proof that some pagans are humorless, we now have it. The temporary chalk Homer on the hilside next to the Cerne Abbas giant has some pagans claiming they will do a rain ritual to erase this bit of advertising for the upcoming Simpsons movie.

As someone who spends most of her free time hiking to neolithic sites and researching them with a great deal of reverence, why does this not bug me? I’m not really a big Simpsons fan. I usually hate advertising’s pirating of public space. So what is it?

Maybe it’s so funny to me it actually transcends its function as an ad. It becomes almost Banksy-esque in its irreverence (think of the port-o-let Stonehenge at Glastonbury this year). Maybe it’s because to me the Cerne Abbas giant is not a sacred site. There are no records of this site before the 17th century, and it is more akin to some public toilet graffiti than a symbol of the divine. When I visited it, I found it muddy, macho and underwhelming. Unlike the chalk figure of the prehistoric Uffington horse which rises up, ghost-like and fragmented from the dramatic landscape, constantly obscured, increasingly fragmented as one draws closer, adding to its mystery. It’s set for the eyes of a God, not some human chest beating exercise. Had homer raised his yonic donut to the white horse, well, it wouldn’t be funny, just odd.

That Homer has appeared overnight in his y-fronts like a crop circle– if we pagans can’t laugh at that, we don’t really deserve our cakes and ale.

To quote Homer, “God bless those pagans.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

It hurts me to post this, but here you go:

Eugene Hutz and and Sergey Ryabtsev backing up Madonna doing the traditional Romany song Lela Pala Tute to the tune of La Isla Bonita at the bogus Live Earth performance at Wembley Arena:

Hell has frozen over.

I am a fan of Gogol Bordello, and I admit to adoring Eugene Hutz more than a grown woman should. I saw them live before they got big, and it was the best live show I’d ever seen. The band created a rare and transcendent temporary autonomous zone that I will never forget. Hey, I guess Hakim Bey says they’re temporary for a reason.

But Eugene, why’d you have to go out like that, as Madonna’s organ-grinder monkey? Madonna is infamous for her parasitic relationship with authentic others, using them for her own mediocre ends– don’t you know this? If you start believing your own hype, you’re going to be the next lame Borat punchline.

On the Gogol Bordello fan sites major fights are erupting, and the whole band was not behind this decision to play with Madonna. There’s a camp of fans that’s saying it’s stupid to be upset about the Live Earth performance– more fame and exposure is good for the band, and there’s either good music or bad– the performance with Madonna changes nothing. I can only think that people voicing this argument grew up without understanding music as a subversive political force. Music isn’t just “good” or “bad.” In a time when voices of dissent are marginalized in the press and news media, often the most subversive information can be coded in a song or live performance. And music, poetry and fiction are the only mediums that can really capture the emotional ambiguity of struggle. I was radicalized by the Clash, way before I picked up a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll and learned that the Clash were sellouts. Gogol Bordello’s music was political– subversive. I thought Gogol Bordello’s “Underdog World Strike,” and “Gypsy Punk” were more than just poses, but maybe I was mistaken.

As the band became more popular over the last six years, the shows were packed with new people– many of them hostile, “world music mosh pit” idiots. This was the case at the oversold Astoria show where at certain points it was so crowded there, thanks to a write up in Time Out, that I was so crushed between people that my feet were not even touching the ground, and I was bruised for days afterward, and I was nowhere near the front. So my jealousy of the band, which I’d listened to since their first album in 1999, began. Why couldn’t I just love them in peace with this tribe of people who “got it”? Why did I have to share them with boneheads?

Why did Gogol Bordello cancel shows in Prague to do this favor for Madonna? Why did I have to hear Lela Pala Tute mungled with a Madonna song I hated as a teenager, a song that represented every empty thing about pop music I had come to loathe?

Eugene’s erotic power and magnetism is significant, and that he now has hoards of pissed off fans only testifies to the passion he and his band have inspired in so many. I leave you with this– Eugene singing Lela Pala Tute to Pavla Fleischer, director of The Pied Piper of Hutzovina. (The film is, according to Fleisher, a kind of lovesick ode to Eugene.) There’s intimacy in the way he sings to her. We are voyeurs. I know the look in his eyes– that singular boyish attention, and it’s the kind of thing that can make the heart into some fluttering creature that will betray itself. He surely knows this. Fleischer posts a long diatribe along with this youtube video, with the vehemence of a jilted lover. “But to think that [Madonna] also wants Eugene to sing Pala Tute to HER – that’s a bit too much of a territory invasion :)! Madonna, with all the respect I have for you, I was there first!! :)” And this has gone beyond gossip for me. Pavla’s impulse to make a film based on a romantic obsession is creepy, and her possessiveness of Eugene’s iconic presence is a bit pathetic, but I see myself in her.

Eugene, come back. I’m wearing purple.

Train Spotting on National Gallery Grand Tour

I had just emerged from swanky dim sum in the subterranean aquarium of Yauatcha with my friend Liza when I was startled to find that we we in front of a large-scale reproduction of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. The anamorphic skull at the base of the painting confronted passers by– a distorted momento mori at their feet.

When I was studying art in school, I had a bit of a crush on this painting. It made me feel warm and fuzzy, and not just because the men in it were dashing, but their range of possessions fascinated me, and the skull, which my mind could see by turning the painting widdershins inside itself– it was magical. Seeing it on Berwick before me, I was wooed all over again.

Rubens on Ganton

Next, we stumbled upon Samon and Delilah on Ganton street– Ruben’s dimpled and generous flesh at eye level— and I knew something was up. I was in Soho– a place full of ad agencies, fashionable clothing stores and porno dens. Samson saited with sex on Delilah’s generous lap– this was really out of place here in the bastion of mechanized sex and silicone, air brushing and size zero dresses.

After returning home and doing some Googling I realized this wasn’t just a fluke, it was an actual show. The National Gallery has hung replicas of several paintings from their collection throughout the streets of Soho and Covent Garden, with surreal and fantastic results. I made a list of all the paintings I wanted to see, drew myself a map and headed back into Soho.

Some, unmapped, thrust themselves upon me. Others came with an Easter-egg hunt satisfaction– their gold frames an eye-catching give away. Some, like the Rousseau that I most wanted to find, eluded me.

Madame Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, Drouais.

She would die a month before this painting was completed. Blamed for the Seven Years War and called the “Godmother of Rococo,” here she sits beside a queue of taxis, outside the Picadilly station, working at her needlepoint with her little black dog.

Caravaggio’s Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.

Someone curating this has a sense of humor. Painted while Caravaggio was on the run for killing a man– he used prostitutes and criminals as models, so in many ways this painting is at home in Walker’s Court, a narrow alley of sex shops. I would have liked to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes here, but all the same, the choice of Salome is inspired. Much has been written about beheadings in art history as metaphors for castration, but I will leave that up to the Freudians.

Despite generic chain store take over and general sleaziness of much of London streets, many corners remain elegant, and this show seems to prove this. As I was walking I saw many perfect naked spaces that wanted an image.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Jospeh Wright of Derby.

I found this one by surprise, meandering off Wardour. Wright uses chiaroscuro, usually a technique used by artists like Caravaggio to relay a spiritual dichotomy of dark and light. Here the dichotomy is presumably in the service of science– enlightenment or ignorance. Only the picture’s moral ambiguity saves it from being pedantic.

The cruelty of the spectacle was heightened for me– on the sidewalk before the reproduction lay a disemboweled bird, and a few feet away a nutter followed what looked to be its mate, speaking to it as if it were an acquaintance, and periodically reaching out for it. Why the bird didn’t fly away is troubling to contemplate. Of all the reproductions, this was the only one that has suffered a vandal– somone had keyed the surface beneath the gentleman on the far left. I wondered if it was the same man that was tormenting the birds there, performing his own cruel experiment beneath the candle lit scene.

The show, sponsored by Hewlett Packard, is supposedly graffiti proof. The blogosphere has called it a “challenge to Banksy” and “two fingers up to Banksy.” But in many ways, the National Gallery has learned a trick or two from Banksy. Musuems in London are free, so this lesson is not so much about accessibility but recontextualization. Does the art elevate the street? Or, more happily, does the street change the art, humanizing it so that the paintings become mirrors for myriad Londoners. Ironically, the public display makes the work more intimate, private.

Grotesque Old Woman, attributed to Quentin Massys, Foubert’s Place.

I saved the Grotesque Old Woman, one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, for last. Sure, the intention is mysogynist, but she is such a fabulous creature– more memorable than the hundreds of portraits of beauties hung about her in the museum. But here she is alone on a brick wall, above some plumbing, holding her own. I stood there saying my silent hello, as a old man on a ciggie break sitting on the bench beneath the painting became increasingly annoyed at my presence. From what I could tell he had no idea what was behind him– a typical, incurious Londoner– sitting in front of what could be a suitable beau for him! He soon had enough of my hovering and wheeled his rolling suitcase away, cursing under his breath.

The treasure hunt aspect of the Grand Tour made me confront my shifting topography of Soho, the place I frequent most in London. I’ve gotten lost in the most familiar of streets there. Soho is infinite and mazelike, a meeting place of shifting landmarks and furtive delights. It seems fitting to me that the National Gallery has secreted away these surprises here.

A map of the paintings as I found them.

A Plague of Jolly Rogers

Damien Hirst and “For the Love of God”

Or, What Damien Hirst’s £50 million skull means to me.

I must confess to never really being compelled by Hirst’s morbid insincerity. When I first saw his suspended calf and sheep, “Away from the Flock” and “Child Divided” in Art Forum in the early 90s, I was repulsed. At the time, I was involved in animal rights quite seriously, but also there was something about his glib approach to suffering that put me off. Now that I live in England, I understand them in a new way, as a comment on an English pastoralism that’s now clouded with the nightmare of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Both catastrophes saw the countryside marked with massive burial pits for livestock.

Of course, if one thinks hard enough about something, one can find meaning. This doesn’t make the something art. While I’m usually up for the carnavalesque sensibility conceptual art often offers, I definitely won’t be queuing for tickets to see For the Love of God.

And who’s skull is it anyway? Some poor 18th century sod whose remains ended up in a London taxidermy shop. Apparently Hirst funded the making of the skull himself, which cost over 26 million to make– assuring the public that the diamonds are “conflict free.” In the most facile sense, the skull is a comment on the “you can’t take it with you” cliche. Ultimately, we’re all meat to Hirst, but a few of us have deep pockets, and this is his universe. When I see pictures of him, I just think “slick, cruel dork.” It makes sense that at this time in history someone so culturally impotent would be rich and famous. I’m sure some people think he’s laughing all the way to the morgue, but the only thing I resent is that his deteriorating body of work will continue to be foisted on us, and eventually it will be his own deteriorated body which will become spectacle. Mark my words– there are probably some obscene conditions in his will: his head in a vitrine, set upon by maggots and flies. Instead of A Thousand Years it could be called Fifteen Minutes.

Perhaps in For the Love of God, Hirst finally admits he’s not only mortal, he’s an art-history faddist stumbling after the zeitgeist. I ask you, how many skulls have you seen this week– on cereal boxes and kid’s sneakers, in the windows of H&M and New Look, on movie posters and chapstick and candy? You can’t walk a foot down the high street without being confronted by a skull on something, usually pink and intended for consumption by a 13 year old girl. Pirates are everywhere, and perhaps it’s fitting that Hirst would choose the most played of images to break the bank. He is a pirate, after all.

He’s not the first to decorate a skull– skull oracles, Aztec skull mosaics– Hirst has acknowledged their influence on the current work. But there is also Hirst’s contemporary, Steven Gregory, to consider. Gregory has been creating bejeweled skulls for some time now. Hirst actually wrote an essay for Gregory’s Skullduggery show catalog, and owns many of Gregory’s skulls.

And this is not the first time Hirst has merely taken someone else’s genuine product and turned it into a high-priced stunt. Stuckism, an anti-conceptual art movement, has argued that Hirst stole the idea for his shark vitrine from Eddie Saunders, “fish artist” and electrician who displayed a very similar shark in his Shoreditch shop window years before Hirst paid someone to catch a shark for him. Unlike Hirst, Saunders caught the fish himself. Stuckism’s photos of both works side by side make quite a convincing argument.

The Guardian quotes Hirst as being satisfied with the final object: “To me it seems gentle, quite soft,” he said of the skull. “I would hope that anybody looking at it would get a bit of hope, and be uplifted. We need to line the world with beautiful things that give you hope.”– proof of either his profound disingenuousness or his own numbskulled delusion.

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Hucksters

Recently I’ve become fascinated by the Shoreditch ad agency responsible for the Orange ads that feature before films, the ITV sock monkey ad, and the Supernoodle “noodle mine” ad. The agency goes by the Orwellian name of “Mother”.

Speaking of Orwell– In his Defense of British Cooking he argues that there are wonderful British dishes, but they must be home made. Wither British cuisine in the brave new world of the ready meal? It’s frustrating to admit the truth of stereotypes but since moving here I have been struck by many Brits’ complacency with really mediocre grub. This ad seems to capitalize on the “proud shite” food attitude– the love of kebabs and chips over anything green and leafy.

Granted, this ad is funny. One of the creative partners of Mother discusses the ad in an Independent article:

“Take Supernoodles. For years it was good mums, twirly forks, fun in the kitchen, and all that crap. Our strategic insight was that the brand truth lay not in mums giving it to kids but with guys who were too drunk, too stoned, too lazy or too stupid to eat anything else.” He goes on to say, “We couldn’t have done it without the strategic insight that the product was actually a 49p sack of crap…”

The sad thing is this ad echoes some British ideas about food. “Salad” is the sad piece of lettuce you peel off a boxed sandwich. Brown rice is hard to find in the grocery store, impossible in restaurants. I could go on… I was vegan when I moved to the UK, but after a year I realized that unless I cooked everything myself or decided I hated food, it would be near impossible.

The Mother agency is also responsible for the Egg credit card ads, of which Theft is Good reminded me. The Egg ads feature guinea pig consumers who are being observed by lab coated technicians. At the end of a recent ad, the animals visit a gallery where a miniature Barbara Kruger canvas extolls the virtues of the credit card. You can see the ad if you visit the Theft is Good blog. Barbara Kruger was once famous for her propaganda-like billboards subverting rampant consumerism with ironic slogans like “I shop therefore I am”

Theft is Good also called my attention to the Barbara Kruger installation for the Selfridges Department Store. In art school I attended a seminar with Barbara Kruger and was amazed by her contrary and cynical pose. It’s really no surprise that she would undermine the very content of her superficial work, with the help of Mother, by doing an installation for the equally cynical Selfridges department store. I need not bring up the Selfridges’ “Future Punk” installation last year at the Oxford Street store, where they had a bouncer and a velvet rope at the door. The suited Aryan’s shtick was to first deny you entrance to the space and then tell you if you came in you could look but not shop. I remember wondering at the time if I was indeed expected to shop as the ultimate FU punk-rock gesture. Rock and Roll Swindle indeed.

It’s also no surprise that Kruger would be cozy with the cynics at Mother, who often depict the consumers of their featured product as idiots. For instance:


Pimms “Holiday Camp”– where a toffee-nosed twit is too clueless to figure out he’s actually in a prison. But perhaps the “real” humor here is the idea of the unwashed prisoners drinking Pimms, which is considered in Britain to be a “posh” summer cocktail. When I was in a Hammersmith Hospital 20 bed ward, the guy in the bed across from mine was a prisoner from Wormwood Scrubs, the neighboring prison. He was in chains, shackled to two guards who kept alternate watch over him. When they brought us tea and a small cellophane wrapped muffin he looked over at me in my backless hospital gown , winked at his minders and said, “I am a lucky boy, hain’t I?”

Yeah, it would have been more amusing had they brought us all Pimms.

The funniest and most troubling of the Mother ads I have seen is the Pot Noodle “Fuel of Britain, Isn’t It?” campaign. The recent history of mining in the UK is full of strife and woe. Thatcher brutally broke the unions, calling them “The Enemy Within.” She closed mines across the country and there were battles between miners and the police. Miners families were starving and grass-roots food schemes fed them. No surprise the boys at Mother would then co-opt this history to sell nutrient-free grub. The men in the ad are workers at the Pot Noodle plant in Crumlin, Whales. The Crumlin mine was closed in 1967. The miners in the ad say things like : “You learn a lot about yourself in a noodle mine. Deep below the ground the noodle miners must carve through sheer Welsh rock to extract the delicate noodle.” and “For the noodles, golden noodles, in the land of my fathers…” This is funny only until you realize that many mining communities were quite proud and the history of mining in the UK is one of radical resistance.

When I taught writing in America, the critical thinking unit was most difficult. I would bring in fake ads from Adbusters and usually the students would not get them. They could not decipher the real ads from the satires. They had no distance from the ads at all, and could not separate themselves from the products represented. Often their identities were intimately tied to them. I may be a cassandra but I find this deeply disturbing. These product-mongers have marked our age, and without artists and writers countering them, they will define it.

Some people have commented that I take ads too seriously, that they are merely entertaining jokes intending to sell us something. But are ads not crowding out public space? Are they not infringing on cultural production, buying integrity, stealing authenticity from others who have labored to earn the right to their own dreams, free of commodification?

When ad agencies and transnational corporations are buying off artists, thinkers and those of us who should know better, Billy Bragg’s union anthem “Which Side Are you On” carries with it a new kind of meaning.

And now I leave you with something completely different– Martin Shakeshaft’s documentation of the Miner’s strike of 1984.