Friday, June 26, 2009

The demise of an icon

The last defining act of an icon is an iconic death. The word spread so quickly and all of a sudden everybody's facebook status has something to do with it. I can't say I am a huge fan of Michael Jackson, but I still took a moment of silence, mourning the loss of a talented figure, mourning the end of an era.

It is a strange sensation that when someone died, you feel a piece of your childhood died with him - it has really become history. Perhaps the most known man in the world, Michael Jackson represents the entire cultural phenomenon of the 80s. I still remember listening to him on cassettes at my cousin's place. He was such a symbol of Zeitgeist of the western world! Pop is about the general public - the people. Low had become the new high. No matter how controversial he got in the last few years, his contribution to popular culture is enormous. He changed the definition of music, entertainment, media, publicity, and even social identity and spirit of humanity. The name transcends the person, transcends race, gender, state boundaries, politics, religion, and art genre. The legendary icon turns culture into a cult, and this is greater than life.

Sometimes I feel these icons are just like aliens (also think about Marilyn). They come and stir the world with their superhumanly performances (the happy-birthday song or the anti-gravity lean?), and then they just leave before the humanly process of aging.

[Added on June 26] Measurements of an icon

1980s & 90s:

Sale of 750 million records worldwide. Thriller (1982) has remained the biggest selling album of all time with reported sales of 109 million.
13 Guinness World Records, including one for "Most Successful Entertainer of All Time."
19 Grammy Awards, with a record 8 wins in 1984 and the "Living Legend Award" in 1993.
22 American Music Awards, including "Artist of the Century."
40 Billboard Awards, with 13 No. 1 singles in his solo career
13 MTV Awards.
12 World Music Awards.


According to Akamai's Net Usage Index, Web traffic to news sites increased by about 50%, peaking about 6:30pm EST. Keynote Systems, another website performance monitor, reported that beginning at 5:30pm, the average speed for downloading major news sites doubled to almost 9 seconds from less than 4 seconds.

Google's list of top 100 search trends in the hours after the news broke was composed almost exclusively of MJ-related phrases, ranging from "Michael Jackson died" and "Thriller lyrics" to "Neverland ranch." The computers running the news section interpreted the fusillade of "Michael Jackson" requests as an automated attack and responded to the related requests with squiggly letters known as a "captcha."

Wikipedia temporarily experienced technical difficulties and crashed at 6:15pm reportedly due to excessive edits and user overload.

On YouTube, increasing traffic flowed to music videos of Michael Jackson, while thousands posted videos of themselves sharing thoughts on the superstar.

There were twice the normal tweets per second generated on Twitter, topping 100,000 per hour. By the time the Los Angeles Times got credit for confirming the pop icon's death, "RIP Michael Jackson" was already at the top of the Twitter trends list. It is the most tweets per second since Barack Obama was elected president in November.

On facebook, the number of status updates during the hour after the news emerged was triple the average. The two RIP Micheal Jackson pages have more than 328,000 fans combined within 18 hours. There are also hundreds of MJ-tribute events posted on facebook. One in London has more than 100 confirmed guests.

Within a few hours of the news, the 1982 album "Thriller" was the No.1 album on iTunes. Several of his other albums were also in the top 10 of the digital store.

A statement from AOL yesterday: "There was a significant increase in traffic due to today’s news and AIM was down for approximately 40 minutes this afternoon."

Monday, June 22, 2009

The High Line in the rain

I visited the High Line on Saturday. It was raining but still pretty enjoyable. Here are some first impressions:

+ No doubt the reuse of the abandoned elevated rail tracks is very successful.
+ Subtle and thoughtful design.
+ Choice of materials works well together (concrete, corten, glass, wood...).
+ The meandering path breaks away from the rigid structured formalism and provides changing experience through the walk.
+ There is a rich variety of colorful wild-looking plants.
+ Ways of integrating the preserved tracks are very interesting, especially the movable chairs on the sundeck.
+ The amphitheater with giant glass windows is spectacular.
+ Good construction quality.
+ Provides an fresh and fantastic perspective on the city (and the river).

- It still lacks some energy. I guess it was partly because of the rain, there is not much activity going on. But there are areas that are just left empty and unprogrammed. I wish the city could introduce more vendors, performers, and alike to the park and create a more vibrant urban scene.
- The repetition of some design elements (such as the wavy concrete planks) makes it a little boring at the end. I hope the new "features" in Section 2 will make the whole thing even more interesting.

The value of dread

The Francis Bacon retrospective at the Met is a stunning collection of major works spanning 50 years of the artist's entire career. Many say Bacon is representative of figurative art of the 20th century. I would argue that he's actually somewhere in between figurative and abstract. The rooms are full of deforming monsters, screaming mouths, carcasses and blood. But all these images are mediums for profound emotions - fear of the abusive father, insecurity from the lack of formal training, and sorrow after the death of lovers... Ultimately, it comes to the abstract feeling of dread. Dread, or angst, as the existentialist philosophers would use, describes a non-directional intense emotion without a material threat. It's almost anxiety out of nothing. Margaret Thatcher once referred to Bacon as "that man who paints those dreadful pictures". But the painter didn't seems to find anything disturbing about it. For him, dread is part of human nature; it is the other side of truth. Confronting horror, one would have the strength to think optimistically. It's only through mortality that one could understand the full meaning of life.


Bacon's paintings transcend figurative or abstract representations because his subject matter is not the object but sensation itself. Sensation, as Deleuze put it, is a plane of intensities that acts directly on the nervous system before meaning or reasoned cognition (which would be called perception). It is the opposite of representation or signification. Bacon usually gave his paintings very neutral titles. I think the intention was to avoid any definite interpretations and let sensation act directly upon the viewers. The anti-narration is also exemplified in his misuse of the triptych format - the panels must be separated to break the traditional sequential arrangement, and leave the ambiguity of relationship essential to the work.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Cruxifixion, 1944

One key method of Bacon's paintings is chance. "A mark you make suggests another mark," he described. Things just happen accidentally. In Painting (1946), for example, he started painting a gorilla in a corn field. Then he saw a preying bird. But suddenly a line suggested something totally different. He didn't prepare to paint a butcher shop, but when the valves of sensation was unlocked, a string of accidents just built up on top of one another.
Painting, 1946

Bacon did not use models for his portraits. He used photos, film stills, and magazine illustrations as visual references, but mainly painted directly with sensation. "They don't need to be there - I know them so well already. I prefer to be alone and let the paint dictate to me." No matter how distorted or altered, "it always returns to you as the person you are trying to catch." Why? This is a reinvented realism that transcends visuality and acts right on your nervous system.
Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968


The figures in Bacon's paintings are always in motion: drifting, spinning, vibrating, or falling. Motion suggests the shift of space and the passage of time. More importantly, it implies the progression of becoming - a dynamic dimension that opposes representation and identity.

To paint motion, Bacon played with the conflict between contraction and expansion of space and time. As in Study for Crouching Nude (1952), the box with white lines is called space-frame. This visual machine forms psychological confinement. The spare background (solid colors or even leaving the canvas blank) intensifies the zone of isolation. But the cage actually mobilizes the figure inside - it's struggling to escape. A series of radiant strokes and vertical lines (called shuttering) dissolve and merge foreground and background, figure and setting. At the same time, the lines suggest an expanding movement, as if the soul is trying to break the space-frame and escape from the body. The series of number on the rail was taken from Muybridge's time-lapse photographs. By putting them all in one frame, Bacon contracted time with expansion of space. And on the other hand, time unfolds with spatial displacement and motion of the figure.
Study for Crouching Nude, 1952

Bacon once said, "Nine-tenth of everything is inessential. What is called 'reality' can be summed up with so much less." Motion is a means to collapse space and time from multiplicity, and sum up reality into a singular plane of sensation. By dismantling the structured tempo-spatial organization, figurative illustration abbreviate into emotional intensity.

Afterword: The visit was an intense journey. On the way out to the street, I heard a girl talking on the phone, "Oh-my-god! I had my nails done! Soooo pretty!! Ah, I have to show you right now!"

Unreal reality

Intimidated by the camera's precise documentation of reality, painting has moved away from figurativism. Now it seems contemporary photography is following the same trajectory. I am not sure if it is the need of artistic expression, or it's just simply boring to record things as they are. But I found these photographs really fascinating.

Ovilo Barbieri uses tilt-shift lenses to make real things look like models, defamiliarizing the familiar, such as the Colosseum, Times Square, and Las Vagas...

James Casebere builds table-size models and photographs them in his studio. His sources span from suburban homes to abstract architectural spaces.

Laurie Simmons also constructs models and dolls to represent the surreal American suburban life.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cracks on the street

A big hole mysteriously appeared recently along the Regent's Canal bikepath in Islington, North London. It's Joe Hill and Max Lowry's 3D street art, installed as part of a campaign to remind bikers to slow down.

I did a little research on 3D street art. Here's a collection of a few famous artists and their amazing body of work.

Edgar Mueller (German), Mysterious Cave, London
Ice Age, Ireland
Lava Burst, Germany

Kurt Wenner (American)

John Pugh (American)
Julian Beever (English)