Friday, October 23, 2009

Serge Sunne, Time, Identity and Otherness

I know very little about the artist Serge Sunne. He is Russian, but I don’t think he’s gained a wide enough circulation yet to attract the kind of theorizing and speculation given to more popular artists. This, I hope in some small way to remedy.

Since discovering his works I have quickly become enamoured with their strange depictions and surreal sense of the uncanny. Sunne seems to enjoy playing with concepts of identity, otherness, and time in his works in ways that I have not seen before.

“Another Holy Mother”, the title of the above picture combines an unsettling union of the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus with an entirely unworldly subject whose motherly embrace is a nightmare of its entangled, strangely disproportionate limbs. The contrast is made even more complete by the addition of the haloes around the two figures, whose pale, almost feeble light contrast so sharply with the darkness of their bodies.

Also consider the derelict ghost spaceship at the bottom of this post. Few artists I know have really focused on a little explored theme in science fiction: when the new gets old then ancient. Sunne’s “Abandoned Space Port” is another example of this lovely juxtaposition of an almost unfathomable futurity clashing with some sense of deep time.

I hope you enjoy these examples of his work, I probably be examining some of them in more detail as my studies (out side of school) continue.

For more images:

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Atomic Heart of Japanese Robotics

Japanese culture has been one of the major “alternative” imports into the west for the past several years. Their view of A.I. and humanoid robots is refreshingly different from that of the western traditions of Frankenstein, the Christian Golem (unlike the Jewish Golem), and the Matrix.

One of my earliest introductions to the east and robotics was in the form of Astro Boy, the boy with the atomic heart. I was too young to see it at the time, but the show must have clearly resonated with its Japanese audience, the only people who have actually had atomic weapons used against them. It’s hard to overstate the effects that this historical event seems to have had on the Japanese relationship to technology, and their desire to give it a human face in literature, art, and reality.

It is even more interesting juxtaposed, as it often is, to the Japanese dystopia in which the machines often take on a more human character than the humans themselves. Take for instance the manga Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kishiro, for which the question of humanity is an overarching theme. The main character is a human brain in a mechanical body, while several of the characters are human brains stored in computer chips and placed within human bodies. Questions of essential personality, indeed, essential humanity, get even more tangled in the light of amnesia, intentional and not, dream worlds, multiple personalities and the concept of storing human memory.

Despite the manga’s occasional turn to what I call “splorching” (excessively pressurized human gore often seen in Japanese media) and often taboo subject matter, the series still has a lot of heart to offer curious readers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Piye and the Black Pharaohs of Egypt

The history of Ancient Egypt is a three thousand year odyssey into the heart of human civilization, and it still echoes in many of our daily activities in ways we do not even begin to realize. I can’t support this belief with anything as respectable as facts, but it’s one that I hold, nevertheless.

It was all the more reason to me to be so intrigued when I learned that Egyptian civilization thrived for three-quarters of a century during the 25th dynasty under the rule of foreign leaders from Nubia. I was even more surprised to learn that their culture and architecture was so closely related to that of their northern neighbours. This seems strange, I mean, didn’t Tutankhamen have sandals with crouching Nubians carved into the feet so that he could constantly trample them? It may have been worse than history of intermittent warfare: it was a family affair.

The ancient nation of Nubia consists mostly of what is now present day Sudan. At the start of the 25th dynasty Egypt had fractured into a series of smaller factions ruled by local warlords. The Nubian king Piye, supposedly feeling that it was his duty to restore Egyptian culture and religion, invaded, defeating each of the individual lords and uniting Egypt with his own kingdom.

It seems incredible that this history of a major African civilization is still clothed in such obscurity. Considering their architectural achievements alone there should have been enough material evidence to raise a few academic heads somewhere. Hopefully this is changing though, and we can look forward to even more details of the life of the Nubians.

Resources of Interest:
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A Tale of Two Alchemists

The story of Isaac Newton's alchemical concerns is a relativity recent, but already much explored facet of the father of modern physics. Yes, he was predicting when the world would end using heretical biblical exegesis. Yes, he was trying to spiritualize matter. The "occult" quality of gravity was actually informed by the occult, and his contemporaries were completely justified in criticizing it as such.

Yet what is more interesting to me is how Newton's alchemical project compares to that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's. Goethe as a young man, ostensibly a poet and man of letters at this time of his life, went through several years of intensive alchemical study and experimentation. And yet over time he became increasingly critical of the material truth of his project, calling it a "beautiful idea" and instead dedicated a reasonable part of his later intellectual activity to elucidating its spiritual truth.

Thus we have a state in which Newton, the "great" of British science, clung to a literal view of his alchemical work, while Goethe, viewed by some historians of science as a mere dilettante, tried its truths and rejected their materiality, opting instead to focus on the power of the ideas themselves.

The matter becomes only more interesting if you consider the opposition of Goethe's and Newton's optics. But that is a story for another time.

Resources of Interest:

Gray, Ronald D. Goethe the Alchemist: A study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary and Scientific Works. Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2002.

Jantz. Harold. “Goethe, Faust, Alchemy, and Jung” in The German Quarterly, Vol. 35,No. 2 (Mar., 1962), pp. 129-141.

Raphael, Alice. Goethe and the Philosophers’ Stone: Symbolic Patterns in ‘The Parable’ and the Second Part of ‘Faust’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.