The Casual Blog

Tag: Ai Weiwei

Animal friends and victims

Emu at Sylvan Heights

This week I visited the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in the little town of Scotland Neck, NC.  There were a lot of them, doing pretty much what we do — eating, cleaning, preening, playing, mating, fighting, resting, exploring.  The emu (the second largest bird on the planet) took a strong interest in me, pressing against the fence as though wanting to be petted, or perhaps to kick or peck me.  The sandhill cranes also seemed affectionate — so much so that it was hard to get far enough away to photograph them.  Several of the birds seemed to like it when I talked with them softly.   

Sandhill crane

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, was featured in the NY Times last week discussing his cats.  I like Ai’s art and his courage, and I like cats as well (though they should not be loose near birds, which they will kill). 

Ai said:

I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life. 

I’m with Ai on learning from cats, though I think he may overestimate the overestimate how rational (as opposed to emotional) humans are.  Our little cat, Rita, is both a friend and a teacher.  I’m sorry she dislikes being photographed, since she’s also strangely cute, and quite a good dasher and leaper for a 13-year-old.  

In other animal news, Ezra Klein’s new piece proposes that we include as part of the big Biden technology and jobs plan a program to speed the development and bring down the price of artificial meat.  This idea has merit.  As Klein’s points out, some of our biggest problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus pandemic, and antibiotic-resistant disease, are in significant part the work of industrialized agriculture, and especially the meat industry.  There’s also the massive cruelty, which could be stopped or reduced by substituting meat grown from animal cells, rather than hacked from slaughtered animals.  

Of course, it’s possible right now, without a new government program, to replace the meat we eat with plant-based food.  But most of us have been taught from a young age that we need to eat meat to be healthy, and the lesson got lodged deep.  There’s plenty of evidence that it simply isn’t true.  Indeed, it’s widely accepted that eating meat is not necessary to get adequate protein and other nutrients, but it increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses.  

It is both sad and bizarre that the right wing has spun up a lie that the Biden administration wants to outlaw hamburgers. But the quick spread of the hamburger lie in the right-wing subculture is also telling.  Our early intensive training in meat eating, constantly reinforced by advertising, rituals, and habit, makes it hard to change how we nourish ourselves, or even to think about changing.  Indeed, even raising the subject of such change causes some to experience anger, fear, confusion, and detachment from reality. 

An irony of the new hamburger lie is that historically, and still today, the US government has subsidized and actively promoted raising and consuming animal products.  This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought by, among others, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one of my favorite charities.  The suit challenges the US Department of Agriculture for its dietary guidelines encouraging heavy consumption of dairy products, which cause health problems for the significant part of the US population that is lactose intolerant.  (The complaint apparently does not discuss other health risks from dairy products, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.)

The government’s guidelines require that schools offer children cow’s milk, and generally forbid offering them plant-based alternatives.  The lesson that children or others need cow’s milk for calcium and other nutrients has been thoroughly debunked by science.  Even those unwilling to think about the dairy industry’s torturing of cows may be disturbed to learn that, to increase agribusiness profits, the government is endangering the health of many schoolchildren.   This is not right.

Visiting the Lower East Side, Turandot, recent Chinese art, and The Patterning Instinct

Looking southwest from the Sixty on Allen Street

Friday before last I went to the Software Freedom Law Center conference, and afterwards Sally and I stayed on in New York to see friends and take in some art and music.  We stayed at the Sixty LES (Lower East Side) near Jocelyn and Kyle’s new apartment.  Back in the day, we viewed this neighborhood as a place to be avoided after dark, but now it’s what Soho and Chelsea used to be — a lively and relatively affordable area where young people live and new art can be made.  It hasn’t yet been completely gentrified — there’s graffiti and trash, and little Bohemian businesses.  I enjoyed walking around early in the morning and taking pictures, including the street scenes here.

We Are Moving

We went to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and saw Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.  My only prior experience with Turandot was from recordings, and I had not particularly loved  the music.  The story,  involving a Chinese princess who murdered all her suitors, seemed far from alluring.

Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it.  Opera is a hydra-headed art with many elements, and here the music, sets, costumes, and acting made a compelling whole.  For this story, Puccini’s music worked brilliantly.  The Zeffirelli production looked fantastic, the orchestra sounded great, and the chorus was excellent.  Sopranos  Oksana Dyka and Maria Agresta sang beautifully, and the tenor, Aleksandrs Atonenk, absolutely killed in the famous Nessun Dorma aria.  

Also on Saturday, we spent some time at the Met Breuer looking at  the photographs of Raghubir Singh and at the Met looking at the old masters drawings exhibit, Leonardo to Matisse.  On Sunday, while Sally went with Jocelyn to see the NYC marathon, I went up to the Guggenheim to see Art in China after 1989.  In that year a decade of relative political freedom in China ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Young Chinese artists went in various directions, with many leaving China, and in various landing spots looking to express their political and personal concerns. There were 71 artists and groups represented, and multiple media and approaches.  Not all of them spoke to me, but a few did, powerfully.  

Ai Weiwei breaking a Han dynasty urn

One of the best known artists in the show is Ai Weiwei, whom I’ve found inspiring as a dissident thinker and conceptual artist.  One of his works here was a room that brought to light thousands of  unnecessary deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to a corrupt system and  shoddy construction of schools.  The work was as much journalism as art, but that was not by accident.  In the exhibition notes he is quoted as saying, “Fight for freedom.  Forget about art.”   I don’t think he means to be taken literally on the forgetting part, but he’s serious about the fight.   

Chen Zhen’s dragon

The big hanging sculpture  by Chen Zhen of a dragon made of bicycle tires and parts was delightful and thought-provoking, invoking China’s shift from bicycles to cars and other technology.  I also liked Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddha room which had little Buddha statues, parts of old computers and other detritus hanging underneath a suspended garden.   Liu Dan had a large work that evoked traditional landscape painting but with a severe twist.  Others used video with varying degrees of success.  I liked the one that had a dozen or so monitors showing people scratching.  

Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddhas

Most of these Chinese artists had been influenced both by their traditional culture and by Western culture, just as we in the West are absorbing Asian influences. I’ve been reading a new and intriguing book about how cultures are made and evolve:  The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent traces the development of several Eastern and Western foundational ideas, including Taoism and neo-Confucianism, which he argues have been successful and remain vital.  He also contends that certain core ideas of monotheism and science, including the mandate to dominate nature, are closely related to each other and are drivers in our global ecological crisis.  There’s a lot in the Patterning Instinct to process, which is why I’m now working my way through it for a second time.  

 

Bad ski luck, good paintings, and amazing atoms

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Our ski trip to Whistler was a mixed success. The alpine vistas were out-of-this-world beautiful. The runs were long, and the terrain was varied and challenging. The skies were mostly blue, and the temps were moderately cold. The village was bustling with lots of shops and restaurants, and people speaking many different languages. The free bus system got us around, though we sometimes had to wait a while. We had exciting adventures, good meals, and laughs with family and friends.

The snow, though, was disappointing. We arrived right after two exceptionally good snow years, and in the middle of what’s normally the snowiest time of year, but found it hadn’t snowed for weeks. Bad luck! There was still snow on the upper part of the mountains, but for most of our stay, its texture ranged from fairly hard to super hard.
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The sound of skis on fairly hard snow is sort of like the sound of an ice scraper on an icey car windshield, or a snowplow scraping a street. We learned to listen for that sound as we went up the lifts and watched skiers descending the steeps, and pondered the least noisy way down. At speed on hard snow, you get bounced and buffeted, and you make those awful scraping sounds. You need to watch out for rocks. It’s hard to relax and let it flow.

But we did find some areas of non-punishing snow, and had a certain share of joyous turns. We particularly enjoyed some areas on Blackcomb mountain that had dramatic rolling ups and downs. There were pitches with non-icey moguls that were fun. And at the top, as I mentioned, spectacular alpine views.

I skied on rented Volkyl Kendos, which I found to be versatile and reliable, stable at speed and quick from edge to edge. I was also happy with my new Dalbello Panterra 100 boots, which were easy to get on and stayed in good communication with my edges.
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We had an afternoon in Vancouver before heading home, and checked out the Vancouver Art Gallery, a fine old building in the classical style. There was a exhibition featuring some fine works of Cezanne, Degas, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Modigliani, and Soutine collected by Henry and Rose Pearlman. I enjoyed the paintings, and was particularly glad that Gabe could see this well-chosen collection, while his own artistic eye is developing so quickly.

We also checked out an exhibit of contemporary Chinese art, where I saw two pieces that blew me away: a giant sculpture by Ai Weiwei made of hundreds of antique three-legged stools (shown in this video) and installation involving ceramics by Liu Jianhua that seemed to hover both in space and time. We also stopped in the Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery, which had interesting masks, totem poles, and graceful stone sculptures of bears and other creatures.

On the trip back, I finished reading Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe, by Curt Stager. Its main point is to explain how our bodies are built and operate from an atomic perspective. We all know, sort of, that we’re essentially atoms, but it’s challenging to grasp and accept what that really means. Stager traces our oldest bodily elements back to their origin in exploded stars, and explains how our constituent atoms have been recycled through minerals, vegetables, and animals prior to arriving in us. The idea that we’re connected to everything around us turns out to be true! I found it challenging, and inspiring.