Suzann Victor

I had never heard of Artist Suzann Victor before I traveled to Singapore. Based in Sydney Australia, Victor was born in Singapore and much of her work deals with the effect of colonialism on contemporary Southeast Asia. She began her art career as an abstract painter but now concentrates on installations and uses whatever materials are necessary convey her message. She seems fearless.

I do not profess to be knowledgable about her body of work, but I can say this: from what I have seen, her art draws out emotion from mostly everyone who sees it. The emotions are not all the same; her work can be appreciated on many levels (remember how kids and adults loved Rocky and Bullwinkle?) Her viewers are free to admire her skill in combining found objects with high tech materials, or they can go deeper, allow themselves to be transported into her world and ponder her visual commentary on loss of cultural identity, time, sexuality, human longing. Here is one installation I spent a lot of time studying and enjoying:

Contours of a Rich Manoeuvere

bridge and chandeliers

Contours of a Rich Manoevure is located in the Singapore National Museum. Eight red chandeliers hang over a bridge that connects the old museum building to the new wing. The chandeliers are computer programmed to swing in a different pattern periodically. The installation was made specifically for the site. To see the official film on the installation, click here .

To learn about Suzann Victor and see more of her work, press here, here, and here.




suzann victor

The End of Summer in Bob’s Garden

It’s the end of summer in my neighbor Bob’s sidewalk garden, which now takes up the front of four row houses in South Philadelphia. Bob takes care of the garden and koi pond. The only thing he asks is permission to place a beautiful flowering plant in front of your house, which adds badly needed curb appeal in an urban environment. There’s a new addition to the koi pond this year: A big, sleepy turtle. He just appeared one day. Do you think he’s a magic turtle? Bob thinks he’s blind. All I know is that he’s very lazy. Once I saw him on a Lilly pad and thought he might have died. Then I realized that if Turtle had gone to the great hereafter, it is likely he would have fallen off the Lilly pad. But he bobbed up and down on that Lilly pad for quite some time. Turtle is lazier than a house cat. If you don’t believe me, try to sit through this video.

The Garden

Do you think Turtle is really blind?

Enjoy the slideshow.

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Ten Years On

A couple of years ago my husband and I visited friends in Montclair New Jersey. On a Saturday they took us to see the September 11 Memorial at Eagle Rock Reservation. There’s a cliff in the park on the side of a mountain and from there you can see the Manhattan skyline. It was there that one of our friends witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.

As we walked around the memorial and looked at the names of people who died engraved in the granite wall, our friends’ six-year-old son took his father’s hand and gazed up at him with a concerned look on his face. “Why is this here, Dad?” he asked,”did something happen?” Only then did it occur to me that the attacks took place before he was born. I remembered my parents telling me about events from World War II and how I could never quite get my young mind around them. I could get a good grade on a history test but how could I comprehend the emotions my parents felt witnessing those historical events? Words were not enough for me.

View of Lower Manhattan From Eagle Rock Reservation, West Orange, NJ

View of Lower Manhattan From Eagle Rock Reservation 1999

Memorial at Eagle Rock

There are many monuments commemorating the events of September 11, 2001. But why do we create monuments? A monument memorializes an important person or event. A monument is supposed to have meaning. A well executed monument gives us an emotional connection to the person or event it is intended to commemorate. We also make monuments from sites or locations that have meaning because of a natural or historical significance. That is why feelings swept over me that were so powerful they made my knees buckle when I walked across Dealy Plaza in Dallas. The Memorial at Eagle Rock was likely the start of a little boy’s emotional connection to the events his mother witnessed from that spot before he was born, because it spoke to him like words never could.

But monuments are not the only way we hold important people and events in our memories. Ordinary things can take on significance too. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is hosting an exhibit titled Excavating Ground Zero: Fragments from 9/11 that consists of 15 items salvaged from the site: a melted computer keyboard, eyeglasses, visitors passes; mundane objects that have achieved significance because of their connection to a tragic historical event. They give a human face to the events of that day because they are things that we all use and never think about. The objects in the exhibit could have belonged to any one of us. I had a friend who was chronically late, and as he made his way into Manhattan on the morning of September 11, he and thousands of other people were turned back at the George Washington Bridge. He had been on his way to a meeting in one of the twin towers. It might have been his glasses in the exhibit.

Another friend was working on the roof of a Washington, D.C. apartment building when he heard a loud noise. He turned to look and saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon.


These items belonged to a reporter who died covering the attack


More wreckage

2966 civilians including fire fighters, police, the passengers on Flight 93 plus 55 military personnel died on that day. It is estimated that at least 200 people died jumping from the twin towers. People unfortunate enough to have personally witnessed the horrible events of that day carry sounds and images with them the likes of which I pray I will never see or hear. That is my prayer for everyone. I know it will not be answered but I make it nonetheless.

People will continue to commemorate the events of that day for a long time to come. Commemoration can be a way of holding onto the past, of freezing a moment in time and trying to give some kind of meaning to events that seem senseless; it can be a way of trying to gain some illusion of control. We humans tend to want to fill in the blanks whether they are in optical illusions or in cruelly random events in our lives.

But keeping memories of the past alive is key to people understanding their history and themselves. This is so important. The hope is that by remembering, such things will not be repeated. This is a huge yet noble goal. There can be another result, however, that is so subtle you will never read it in the headlines: perhaps memorializing those events will help us to become better people. Maybe. If you can’t change the world, you can tend your own garden. That counts too.

Here are some links to art inspired by the events of September 11, 2011. There is much more out there and more waiting to be created.

The Twin Towers and the City

911 Memorial Quilt

Charting Ground Zero: Ten Years After (Scientific Exhibit)

Rescue Me (Television Show)

Wall Street Journal Flames Burning Man

I read an interesting column in the Wall Street Journal last week. In “The Dead-End Cult of the ‘Burning Man’  Real creativity has nothing to do with antics in the desert, ”  Holly Finn  dismisses Burning Man as  a waste of time and opines that groups are fine for barn raising but that events like Burning Man only serve to infantilize the creative process. Even though I have never attended Burning Man, I wondered what  it was  about the event that caused  Finn to view it with such disdain.

todd's art carBrushingBurning Man 2006

For the uninitiated, Burning Man is a weeklong festival held every year in the Nevada desert. Attendees cast off the routine of their daily lives, wear zany costumes, party, meet other people and explore alternate means of self-expression. They are encouraged to volunteer on artistic and technical projects with other attendees, using whatever creative skills they might have. Burning Man also endeavors to create a safe space so participants are willing to try doing things they have not attempted before.  They might help to  build a giant wooden puzzle, collaborate on a mural or  construct a stage for drummers and dancers. They might even try drumming or dancing themselves.

Finn quotes noted  innovator and inventor Saul Griffith as complaining that his friends who attend Burning Man borrow equipment from him, don’t return it and don’t say thank you. I wouldn’t like that either.  But Finn claims that Griffith’s real problem with “Burners” is that most of them are creative for only a few weeks of the year, not 52. Does this burning problem keep him up at night?   I don’t know.  But his  friends seem to have some  creative ways of acquiring free stuff.   Maybe they don’t even go to the festival.  But I digress.

Finn asserts that innovative ideas come from individuals, not groups.  It’s hard to disagree. (Although Bell Labs might be an exception.)  But should we dismiss Burning Man simply because the 50,000 people expected to attend this year are not going to discover a cure for cancer, produce another Pietà, or find an economical way to save the Space Program by the  end of the festival?

Why are 50,000 people planning to attend Burning Man this year anyway? The answer is complex, but I speculate that some of them would like to expand their personal and creative horizons and are hoping Burning Man might help. Should they ridiculed?  Maybe.  It’s hard to get past some of those costumes.   But pitied and dismissed? Not so fast.

Most people I know are not able to create fearlessly. They have a voice in the back of their head telling them they have no business trying to make an innovative work of art or the next iPad.  Even if they manage to push through this fear,  they  still have to get their ideas out into the world.  If they can do that, then they have to deal with criticism, constructive and otherwise, and the ever-present  potential for failure.  All of this can make one feel extremely vulnerable, which not many people can handle.  Add to that  a corresponding lack of control over the outcome.  Talent and hard work might not be enough to carry the day.  Van Gogh proved that cutting off your ear is no a guarantee of success, at least in your lifetime. Let’s face it, in our society, being an innovative artist, inventor or entrepreneur is risky and not everyone has the stomach for it even if they have the desire.  You can be a mediocre plumber, teacher, lawyer or mechanic and still scrape a living together.  It’s easier to hide in one of these roles than making peace with vulnerability.

At the same time creative souls can’t help but be drawn to like minded people, hence the group art events and community art groups. For some people,  the stimulation and feedback they get from participating improves their work and sets them on a new path. Not everyone has the chance to explore or test his or her creative passions when they are first sparked.    Community art groups and events can provide a launching pad for these people. For others,   participation in art groups will always be a social event  with learning and creativity put on the back burner.  I  concur with Finn’s observation that community art groups and events can lead to participants losing their individuality and  moving in lock step with the group instead of  searching for their own voice.  But for some, events like Burning Man  can be a place to dip their toes in the water and open themselves to new creative possibilities

Finn maintains that infantilization in groups causes people to shirk responsibility for their actions, and argues that  this infantilization at its worst  is destructive, giving  the London riots as an example.  We have seen this sort of thing religious happen with cults and fundamentalist groups, but if I could pinpoint what caused the London riots, I would be a highly sought after consultant.  Alas, I am only a middle aged woman with too much time on her hands.  Even so,  I don’t think we’re likely to see  fired up members of the Burning Man cult destroying cities anytime soon.  For one thing, the nearest city is a long way from the festival.  Besides, most of the people  who go have day jobs. Do you know how much it costs to attend Burning Man?  I’d wager that some of them even take showers.

And while I agree that groups are rarely on the cutting edge of innovation, it’s also true that new ideas do not spring fully formed from the mind of the inventor or artist (Ok, ok  Mozart, make a liar out of me). A seed has to get planted and gestate. I don’t pretend to know how this happens.  (If I did, I  would  I would be that highly paid consultant I mentioned earlier.)  Do I need to remind you that manure makes a good fertilizer?

One of Burning Man’s strengths might cause its biggest problem: it strives to be accessible and inclusive. That means it is going to attract a lot of Yahoos who think they are at a rave and behave badly.  As for the criticism that the  festival goers don’t  produce any significant work during the festival, isn’t that like shooting fish in a barrel?  The festival only lasts a week and the works created there  are not meant to become icons in the annals of art history; they are supposed to be temporary.  One of the festival principals is to leave no trace of the festival on the landscape after it is over.  And with 50,000 people in attendance you can’t expect everything produced to be quality.

But that is not the reason events like Burning Man can make a contribution although, like so may other things we do to “improve” ourselves, the results don’t show right away.  The goal of Burning Man  as I understand it is to help participants find the means for self expression and to help each individual connect to his or her  creative powers.  This is a solitary exercise even though the festival is so big.  Some people will use Burning Man as an  excuse to party in the desert for a week (although I would prefer to party in an air conditioned venue without sand in my crotch).   But others will choose to go on this solitary journey.  A  few will continue on the journey long after the festival ends.   What’s wrong with that?