Category Archives: arts

Odyssey in Paper

Paper Cinema's Odyssey

Paper Cinema’s Odyssey

This article reviews Paper Cinema‘s Odyssey in 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival

Homer’s Odyssey has been retold in many times and in many ways but have you ever thought of presenting the story in black and white papers? That’s what Paper Cinema has done: staging the heroic journey of Odysseus in paper, and paper only.

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Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)

Self-Portrait 1986Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen 203.2 x 193 cm

Self-Portrait 1986
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen 203.2 x 193 cm

‘If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.’ (Quoted in Free Press (Los Angeles), 17 Mar. 1967)

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Travel the World with Van Loon

‘ “But what,” as Alice might have asked, “is the use of Geography without a little Travelling?” ‘, Van Loon concluded in his Geography: A Story of the World (1937). Van Loon was a prolific writer, most reputedly known for his Story of Mankind that won the first Newbery Medal – an award for distinguished book written for children. Full of humanity and compassion, his works provided a rich source of knowledge for children and adults alike.
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Vincent Malloy (1982) – In Anticipation to Frankenweenie

Vincent Malloy is seven years old. He’s always polite and does what he’s told.

Vincent Malloy is a short 6 minute stop – motion film directed by Tim Burton, telling a story about a young, possibly deranged, boy drowned in daydreams and fantasies.

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The Last Emperor (1987)

Puyi: ‘Do you think a man can become an Emperor again?’
Johnston: ‘Yes’

China after 1911 witnessed a rush of unprecedented optimism that welcomed foreign ideas like republicanism, democracy and freedom. Using the Georgian calendar, driving mobile car and wearing western suit became a sign of culture and modernity – a final victory of the civilized West. In another secluded place, the high red wall insulated an ancient culture from this rush, trying, rather obstinately, to protect the old traditions in keeping the lunisolar calendar, riding horses and wearing Qing robes. This is the Forbidden City.

The Inner Court within this Forbidden City which itself is a city within the Peking city resides a person representing these futile or noble, depending on how you see, attempts. He was hailed as the Lord of Ten Thousand Years but was stripped off any effective power by the age of 6. He was the absolute lord in his own court but a powerless commoner beyond the red wall. He is Puyi – the last emperor of China.

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Forbidden City in Rains

Forbidden City after the worst rains since 1952

‘The Empress (Cixi,慈禧)  rushed back to the Forbidden City and ordered to wake up the Emperor (Guangxu,光緒 ) in the Hall of Mental Cultivation (養心殿). The young Emperor jolted up from his bed, went out and saw the Empress has already arrived. She went in and cried “Why have you done this to me?”. Seeing such rage, the Emperor kowtowed and trembled. “From now on, I’ll do the job. You may rest.” That began the second round of the rule from “behind the curtain” (垂簾聽政) ‘, remembered Xin Xiuming, a late Qing eunuch (太監) , from his memoir about his 25 year life in the Forbidden City on the Hundred Days’ Reforms and  Guangxu’s secret house arrest order for Cixi.

The Hall of Mental Cultivation is the place that marked the end of the  Hundred Days’ Reforms – the final chance for China to become a constitutional monarchy. On the right side rests a little bed with a translucent curtain hanging. Now everyone can visit this bed; the bed where Cixi ruled behind the curtain and decided the fate of Qing.

In front of the Hall of Mental Cultivation stands the Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and Hall of Supreme Harmony (保和殿,中和殿, 太和殿, respectively). They align to form the central axis that cut through the Forbidden City like a knife – a Feng Shui style carrying such power that only the Heavenly Emperor can carry.

Nonetheless, this Heavenly Emperor is but mortal flesh in front of the history tide. 1911,  Xinhai Revolution forced the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor of Qing dynasty and of China. Under the Articles of Favourable Treatment, he stayed and lived in the Forbidden City until he was expelled in 1924, only after annually reduced subsidy, humiliations from warlords and continuous harassment.

I passed through the narrow passage from the Meridian Gate (午門), crossed the Five Dragons Golden Water Bridges (五龍金水橋) and finally reached the wide and large Square of Supreme Harmony (太和廣場). I looked in awe at the giant structure of the Hall of Supreme Harmony that accentuates the spacial dimension of the sky, showing the greatness of the Heaven – the Emperor’s ultimate source of power. Yet all these designs fall apart when crowd of people fill up the square and unmanaged grass grows between cracks of bricks and floors.

A few trucks drove in and passed the Red Wall of the Forbidden City. The rains and moisture seeped in the wall and began to buckle the red surface. The paint tore off, exposing the bricks inside it. Other parts are discolored with batches of deep red and could no longer show the traditional auspicious wish.

Red Wall of the Forbidden City

As the rains fall – the worst rains in Peking since 1952, one remembers Trotsky’s words: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”. Dustbin of history. That’s where the Forbidden City belongs to – an imperial palace that becomes a tourist attraction  and a forsaken place to remember the forgotten history and the forgotten people.

Extended reading: The Last Emperor (1987), Life in Forbidden City: Eunuch  

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Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art in Pablo Picasso

‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable.’ This is certainly true in appreciating the baffling paintings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso – the most original and ingenious artist in the 20th Century

In Visite à Picasso, a short 20 minutes black and white Belgian documentary, Picasso drew on large glass plates in front of the camera – like a live show of a great artist in visually presenting his flow imagination, with a few rough brushes or sometimes just one continual brush that outlines a dove, bull, flowers, man and woman, and whatnot.

With these simple lines and almost child-like arts that look more similar as caveman painting than any great historical or mythological scenes from the Renaissance or Baroque arts, Picasso sought to deconstruct the reality with geometrical shapes and to reunite them into multi – perspectives – the birth of cubism.

Portrait d’ homme (Portrait of a man)
Homme à la moustache
(Man with a moustache)

It is hard to imagine that the same artist has painted the Portrait d’homme and Homme à la moustache, both showing a man with moustache but with vastly different style. While Picasso stuck to the conventional art technique in Portrait d’homme, with heavy emphasis on blue colour – expressing his deep depression at the time due to the suicide of his friend – he changed to Cubist style in drawing the same man by deconstructing him into geometrical shapes, along with  pieces of papers, cardboard, wallpaper and wooden frame that ‘synthesize’ or overlap with each  other to add rich texture and a tangible touch to the object of the painting. 

Le sculpteur (The Sculptor)

Refusing to confine in one style, Picasso proceeded to base on his Cubist training to experiment with surrealism – an art movement that explores the subconsciousness of human mind. In Le sculpteur, Picasso described a Roman myth about a sculptor, Pygmalion, falling in love with a statue he carved and loving it so much that he made a wish to Venus to transform it into a real woman. Yet as blood and flesh, she will eventually age and wrinkle, Venus warned. Pygmalion wavered. 

On one hand, the dreamlike scene created by bright colours and curved figures is a distinctive surrealist feature. On the other hand, the anxious Pygmalion and his mirrored visage, showing the Hamlet indecisiveness, strongly reminds of the presentation of simultaneous perspective in Cubism. 

Figure et profil (Figure and Profile)

Another interesting surrealist painting is Figure et profil that left a hint of autobiographical note. How many faces can you see? I see three: one on the left hand side, beside the window; another is the geometrical white figure itself; and the last is the alien – looking black outline – respectively representing Picasso’s progression from classical drawing in early years, then Cubism, and Surrealism later. 

Picasso broke conventions with Cubism and Surrealism and it is no surprise for him to reinterpret masterpieces as a form of pop art during his late years. The rough brushes and unscrupulous splash of colours in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe destroyed  the natural grandeur and a harmonious balance painstakingly constructed by Édouard Manet in his original Le déjeuner sur l’herbe but interestingly instead of pure destruction, Picasso’s reinterpretation suggests more of mischievous naughtiness to see the world as a child does.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe
(Luncheon on the grass)

Already a distinguished painter in the early years (he can’t scribble like a child since he was ten, he said), he spent his life to unlearn the academic and classical drawing skills and to rediscover the world with imagination and childhood’s curiosity. As Laozhi admired the innocent unconsciousness of children, Picasso reinterpreted the world with childhood originality. 

A cynical person might see his shifting style of art as a very good marketing attempt to boost up his reputation. What I see, however, is a man who tried to break free from the all too realistic world with his free flowing imagination in Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art.

Below is a clip in Visite à Picasso. The full documentary is available here

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A Talk on The Saint and The Lottery

Afternoon coffee with 50 Great Short Stories – a recommended anthology of short stories for leisure reading or daily dose of creativity

Short story is like a shot of vodka red bull that injects a short – lived yet intense dose of idea into the brain. Works like Dream of Red Chamber (紅樓夢or War and Peace give such a panoramic picture of life that span a thousand or so pages. Short story as it is nicely put ‘is uniquely capable of conveying, for in its very shortness lies its greatest strength’*.

The Saint by V. S. Pritchett and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, each with its different style and highly condensed plot, throw light on an aspect of religion.

The Saint tells of a story that religion is either reserved for the ignoramuses or a manipulative tool for the hypocrite; in fact they sometime go hand in hand. The unnamed narrator’s family has converted to the Church of the Last Purification that taught a rather tautological doctrine: any bad thing can not exist in reality, since God could not have made them to harm his creatures.

The narrator naturally followed his family to believe in it (the evils of family influence) until the coming of the Mr. Timberlake – a figure of almost sainthood in the church for reportedly performing miracles, including raising the dead – came to his home and upon the request of narrator’s uncle had a chat with him in a boating.

During the boating, Mr. Timberlake got caught by the tree branch, because of his foolish refusal to avoid it  (believing God would not have put the tree to harm him) and fell down from the water. Yet he remained in such calmness that he must have regarded any harm as merely illusory and erroneous, since God would not have made anything to harm his creatures.

Sixteen years later the narrator discovered Mr. Timberlake has died out of a heart attack. The doctor found it a miracle he has lived so long as the slightest shock would have caused him death.

His religious belief was, after all, a mere baby’s security blanket where he can desperately hold on to  avoid any shock. Any shock is unreal and non – existent; God would not have created any of it.

This is scary. Supposedly he is a miracle performer, leader of the church and a saint to the believers but even him has a hidden agenda of his own. It seems a cliché to quote religion as ‘opium of the people’ and yet that’s what this story has shown.

Another short story, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, stung me with shock at the ending. The story opens with a seeming cheerful rural community in a distant part of America organising a lottery – a tradition for a good harvest (“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon” as the old proverb said) . Children gathered stones, while Mr. Summers, the volunteer, carried the black box that was locked up the previous night to ensure no one has touched it.

After waiting everyone to arrive, Mr. Summers announced the rules: He’ll read the names; each family head draws a paper and keeps it folded until everyone has had a turn. It proceeded smoothly and Bill Hutchinson ‘got it’. Tessie, his wife, shouted ‘It wasn’t fair.’

In due course, another round started with only the Hutchinsons: Bill, Tessie, three children (Bill Jr, Nancy and Dave). ‘I tell you it wasn’t fair’, Tessie insisted. To no avail, each picked a paper and kept it folded until everyone has had turn.

The papers of Bill, Bill Jr, Nancy and Dave were blank. Tessie got the one with a black spot on it. In a business – like manner, Mr. Summer said ‘All right, folks. Let’s finish quickly’

Adults and children alike, including Bill and the three children, began to pick stones and threw at Tessie Hutchinson. ‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right’, she screamed.

The suspense holds to the last. The unthankful ‘prize’ of the lottery is to get stoned to death. This all starts from a tradition with a vague promise for good harvest and one that few remembered its origin. While some traditions are relatively harmless and even entertaining (like the Cargo cult or the treat or trick in Halloween), others can be deadly. It get worse when some overzealous believers blindly follow it, just like the community in The Lottery.

The stoning carries such a clear religious overtone that it seems religious tradition, in particular, has its part of destruction. From the Crusades in the Middle Ages to the present fundamentalists’ opposition against gay marriage, blindly following a doctrine or tradition, devoid of the changing circumstance, can be deadly.

The Saint and The Lottery with two highly condensed plots show two elements of religion. One one hand, it often falls into the hands of hypocritical people as a tool to manipulate the ignorant people and on the other, it has the power to push people into the dead corner. Either way, be an atheist.

* From Milton Crane in the foreword for 50 Great Short Stories

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The Saint

The Saint

“The success of our prayers had a simple foundation. We regarded it as ‘Error’ – our name for Evil – to believe the evidence of our senses and if we had influenza or consumption, or had lost our money or were unemployed, we denied the reality of these things, saying that since God could not have made them, they therefore did not exist. “

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