Lucy and Todd

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The Faux Photographer of Disaster: Lori Nix

In Recent Articles on November 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm

(A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine on November 17, 2013)

I never had a doll’s house. I had trolls, those frizzy-haired rubber toys of the 1960s. It says a lot about the state of things in the West at the time that this was the image of humanity little girls longed for: splay-footed, slap-happy mutants with six fingers each.

One Saturday afternoon I made rudimentary rooms for my trolls out of shoe boxes, labelling them ‘LIVINGROOM’, ‘KITCHEN’, etc. I had the crazy idea that photographs reverse everything, like mirrors, so I wrote all the signage backwards. Then I photographed my trolls standing dully about in these sparse dens. The resultant photographs were blurry, but not blurry enough to hide the signs saying ‘NEHCTIK’ and ‘MOORGNIVIL’.

I’ve moved on from trolls to an interest in presepi, those miniaturized Neapolitan nativity scenes. It’s not the figures I like (caricatures of nineteenth-century peasant folk), nor the elaborate tableaux (complete with real fountains and lighting), nor all that manger business. It’s the touching imitations of food: mini strings of garlic, inch-long boxes of silvery sardines, baskets of lemons, or oranges, frilly-leafed lettuces, little purple artichokes… I own a four-inch-high bread stall, piled with loaves; a meat stand, garlanded with sausages; a fishmonger’s (with prices!), offering mounds of microscopic oysters, mussels, clams, and a lobster (2 euros). All of Italian produce is there, mouse-sized not mouth-sized (of course Beatrix Potter’s badly behaved mice were disappointed by their inedible English fare).

Another obsession is the Mexican Day of the Dead. Amongst my many small artefacts are a cowboy on a horse, honeymooners in a car, a naked lady in her bath, a glamour-girl admiring herself in the mirror, a few guys in coffins, and a happy barking dog. All skeletons, and all having a whale of a time. The Mexican afterlife is a blast, and makes it possible to think about the dead without descending automatically into grief. It’s hard to make death or sculpture funny but these artists manage both. Funny and tiny.

Is it just that we like baby anything? We like kittens, lapdogs, ducklings, panda cubs, Bonsai, toy trains, computer chips, dieting, downsizing… Anything shrunk, we’re there! Oddly, shrinking the world somehow magnifies it. But there’s a dark side to miniaturism too, even at its cutest. It’s for people who feel small, fearful and angry. Children need tiny people – dolls – they can bully. They need an outlet for the aggression their own vulnerability generates.

The weird mini crime scenes of Frances Glessner Lee from the 1930s are littered with bloodied corpses or cloth dolls hanging from nooses made of cotton string. Not meant as toys, nor even as sadistic fantasies, these were supposed to be police training aids, based on real events, and they’re doggedly dreary. Glessner Lee had problems with scale: the fabrics always look wrong. She’d hitch up a sash curtain that in real life would be thick as a tarpaulin. Now that is scary.

Narcissa Thorne was more precise about the details, and devoted much time and money to fabricating miniature historical interiors, now housed at the Chicago Art Institute. It’s no surprise that the sculptor and photographer, Lori Nix, makes a beeline for these miniature rooms whenever she’s in Chicago. Like Nix’s latest work, there are no people in the Thorne rooms. Unlike Nix’s though, Thorne’s interiors are neat and tidy, ship-shape. Nix revels in dirt, shabbiness and decay.

Lori Nix makes miniature dioramas of communal spaces which she then photographs. In constructing them, she has the help of her partner, Kathleen Gerber, another sculptor. Gerber acts as ‘the voice of “no”’, Nix jokes. ‘I have to talk her into doing things!’ But together, over the course of many years, they have produced an incredible body of work from their Brooklyn apartment/studio. The latest creations have appeared in exhibitions and now in a book, The City. Much use is made of foam sheets from the hardware store (carved, glued, sanded and coloured), postage stamps, miniature tools, bakeable polymer clay and Vac-U-Form kits. Meticulous and tiny thought hey are, the results aren’t exactly meant for the miniature enthusiast. These intense narrative scenes, ranging in size from eighteen inches to more than eight feet square, are designed purely for the photo shoot. Exposures can take up to half an hour, with Nix ‘sculpting’ the lighting. Later the dioramas are dismantled.

Laudromat at Night

The attention to detail is magnificent. I can’t get over the clothes hangers in “Laundromat”, or the tiny single-wash detergent boxes that lie about the floor, and the faded notes stuck on the wall (advice and admonitions to long-gone laundromat-users). The peeling poster of a tranquil forest glade is nicely ironic amid the global-warming machines below, and beside the shattered window a poignant cactus thrives. Nix used a real cactus here, allowing a rare convergence between the big and little, the real and the fake.

These pictures are beautiful, beguiling – and violent. They tell stories of apocalypse (reflecting Nix’s love of disaster movies) and the power of nature (she grew up amid floods and tornadoes in Kansas). Something terrible has happened here, from the human point of view, a calamity one suspects was manmade. Did everyone scatter in distress, depart stunned in orderly fashion, or were they just vaporized by a neutron bomb that kills people but leaves laundromats intact?

But the buildings too are starting to crumble, for lack of maintenance. Stuffed birds look on as real birds arrive. Books languish unread in a library, while trees grow out of the floor. Flamboyant jungle plants pose in a dishevelled mall; water and rust have put an end to the sinister activities of a computer control room; a sand-filled New York subway train has merged with the desert beyond; and crows take the stage in an abandoned theatre, nobody left to applaud them.

Subway

Control Room

The violin repair shop looks remarkably unscathed, but cobwebs are spreading under the table, and the view outside reveals bombed-out buildings. In “Beauty Shop”, the ‘beauties’ have apparently escaped, but the place itself has been ravaged. There’s a hint of 9/11 in the yellowed pieces of paper on the floor, and the rust on the chairs is like blood. Something chaotic, terrifying and tragic has happened here – quite like many hair salons I have known.

Vaguely humanoid Hoovers await an invasion of plantlife, not purchasers, in “Vacuum Showroom”. Where in the end, Nix suggests, will all our marketing, our manufacturing, our dust-sweeping get us? Perhaps the only way the balance of nature will be restored is if we’re banished from it. ‘We are on the cusp of no return in terms of the environment,’ says Nix, whose work has also been used in a short ecological film about the fish industry (The Story of Sushi). ‘Many of those in power don’t really want major change because it would mean the end of the profitable times for them…Modern humans have great difficulty thinking of the long term. We are myopic and selfish, our priorities are askew…’ Nix has hopes of technological breakthroughs in the future, but only if we put more emphasis on education.

In “Anatomy Classroom”, what was once an established place for learning is now deserted, as if everybody fled one day from some nutso gunman, never to return. Chairs have been tipped over, the diagram of the eye is damaged and dangling, and the pickled brains are running out of formaldehyde. Sombre blues pervade, and purples, punctuated by the red and yellow of internal organs: pristine models of a uterus, lungs, liver, thyroid, heart, colon, ear and hip. But there’s no need to study medicine if human beings no longer exist! The broken windows instead give a telltale Nixian glimpse of the outdoors.

Anatomy Classroom

Nature has finally had its revenge in The City: humans have fled, leaving their map rooms, malls and museums to the whims of plants and animals. It seems only fair. We’ve done enough desecration. But somebody save the presepi!

LE

(Images included by kind permission of Lori Nix. For more, see http://www.lorinix.net)

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Petit Mal — D B C Pierre

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

There are entertaining, thought-provoking  threads running through the mostly painfully short pieces in this book, DBC Pierre’s first for three years. The narrator has several contacts with the Virgin Mary, who wants to borrow money for a hotel room, in a story that might have been written by Etgar Keret (‘I could earn Priority Club points off the birth of God.’). There’s an ongoing news broadcast in which are reported, from time to time, deaths that are due directly to shopping.  A number of the characters have to admit that before a serious plot development they’d been drinking. There’s a debate about what fiction is, and what literature means now: ‘the more chaos we find, the more earnestly our brains write dramatic fiction – smooth, rational progressions from A to B, where we’re purposefully in charge, where we’re even heroic … but now our legends have been hijacked.’ But is it a notebook? A dream book, quite transparently? The problem is to figure out what this book is doing.

Towards the beginning it seems we will be, maybe, in a kind of George Saunders over-modern Europe or West, rather attractively reworked by Pierre, where fantasy may well be the answer to our ills. The narrator at a restaurant which specializes in the morning meal: ‘Icy vodka was the way to scare up a taste for breakfast. Bitterly cold vodka, then champagne. The morning’s first oysters with lime. Some tobacco … meals are not only punctuations but statements to the future. And the dark between supper and breakfast is often best left out of them. This was the stitching together of a day’s hems, sowing the night into a sac under the table…’ Pierre on the sensuous and material can be wonderful.

‘Axolotl’ is a really funny little family dialogue among those salamander-like animals in which a teenager gets told off for eating too much (of a neighbour family) and  contains the essential history of Mexico since the Conquistadors. In ‘Quantopia’ the hyper-relativity of modern existence is put in its place by the hyper-reality of a strong martini – now that is an account of quantum mechanics one can relate to.

Some of these pieces seem like aborted reportage, suggesting that Pierre has been researching some deep ideas in some of the world’s very troubled places. There’s a riveting quality to the prose in ‘Paradise’, about a refugee family – again, the material descriptions of this far-flung republic, the weather, the foods that are offered to those humanitarians who have come to help, are charming and moving and chilling: ‘In a world hooked on the turnover of conflict, on the savage, career-making glamour of unfolding crises, this is like a taste of things to come. The taste of permanent aftermath.’ But has Pierre gone to places like this? And did it depress him so much that this is all he can bear to give us?

Now it’s perhaps wrongful to accuse a writer of emptying his pockets, notebooks and bottom drawers out onto the reader’s plate, but in many ways this would seem to be the case with Petit Mal, no matter what weak intellectual justifications for the rag tag and bobtail are suddenly given towards the end. Having outlined the collection as ‘allegories of youth, wrongness and right’, which sounded promising and fun, Pierre ends up bleating that we must accept this book as ‘motifs and miniatures of accident, nature and legend’. He asks us to embrace ‘an honest flexibility to chaos’ and to ‘distil fresh nuance and live in it’. But I would much rather that he had done that.

What I can’t quite explain is why I dislike the cartoons and pictures in this book so much. Is it because they look like 1960s greeting cards? Is it because they reduce this book, which contains valuable thought, to a grabbable, point-of-sale object? There must be a point to its being designed so inelegantly, but what is it? In its little square format and colour covers and pawky observations interspersed between some interesting fiction, it seems that Faber and Faber want it to be nothing more nor less than the Happiness is a Warm Puppy of the 21st century.

TMcE

(This review was published in the Herald, Nov. 16, 2013)

Stuart Kelly on How Not to be American

In Reviews of Our Books on November 10, 2013 at 9:20 am

This is an exceptionally urbane and witty collection of essays, loosely linked around varieties of Americana. McEwen, a Californian now resident in Edinburgh, is by turns bemused, infuriated, despairing, regretful and frankly ashamed about his natal land; and although the book is often laugh-out-loud funny, the reader is acutely aware that the comedy is a carapace for profound misgivings.

The range of styles McEwen deploys is formidable: he begins with a satirical philippic where he deconstructs the new American uniform of cap, T-shirt, shorts and sneakers and its message of surreptitious infantilism and apathy about capitalism. This is followed by a more elegiac piece “Curse of the Sand People”, which compares the desiccation of northern California with another sartorial trend, the move towards khaki and off-white mousy, preppy clothing. The collection is tightly organised – there are further reference to the Sand People further on.

Some of the pieces are wonderfully surrealistic. There is an inspired compare and contrast between Lenin and Michael Jackson, and a series of cutely dappy imagined films (such as “Civilization And Its Discontents 1940 dir. René Clair. Fred MacMurray, Greta Garbo, Robert Blenchley (as Jung). A timid European doctor is haunted by his own penis”).

There are reference points which form constellations across the essays: Thoreau’s Walden, that hymn to self-sufficiency; Sinclair Lewis’s wonderful demolition of the venal and pusillanimous nature of commercial America, Babbitt. McEwen also discusses in depth two of my favourite films: North By Northwest and Harvey.

In North By Northwest McEwen identifies the real hero of the piece as being Cary Grant’s suit (looping back to the book’s obsession with how we are tailor-made), which retains a level of self-possession despite crop dusters, gunshots, Mickey Finns and scrambling around Mount Rushmore.

McEwen is even better on Harvey. In the film, James Stewart plays the wonderful Elwood P Dowd, an amiable lush who has a 6ft tall invisible rabbit as his best friend.

The film’s key scene has Dowd explaining that “when I was a little boy, my mother used to say to me ‘Elwood’ – she always called me ‘Elwood’ – ‘as you go through life you must be either “oh, so smart” or “or, so pleasant”. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

McEwen glosses this as “a surprising mid-twentieth-century plea for weirdness, for individuality, for kindness, a vote for a necessary biodiversity of personalities, a society of emotional richness that might have succeeded that of the unsatisfactory, self-satisfied striving and self-strangulation that always defined life in America”.

This is the book’s manifesto and heartfelt yearning.

The anger in How Not To Be American stems from disappointment; that the ideals of the US so infrequently map on to its realities. “When I Become King” distils this into 19 pronouncements, ending with “The Japanese to have the only standing army on the planet, expressly for the defence of the planet. They are armed with beautiful swords.”

McEwen’s work is just such a beautiful sword, incisive and dangerous at the same time. (Among his other regal commandments are “no clothing that says anything” and “to be issued free of charge: transit fares, museum entries, health care, wine, beer, tampons, shaving materials”. It would be difficult to imagine the Tea Party acceding to King McEwen’s commands).

It is difficult to criticise a book for what it is not, but having spent time in McEwen’s company in these pages, I slightly regret that there are no essays dealing with Obama, Sarah Palin, and the state of US politics directly. His bewilderment would be a necessary corrective to the usual platitudes.

If you like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report you will find an ally, a comforter and a co-conspirator in McEwen.
If you don’t like them, you’ll probably never pick this book up and have a deep scepticism about the written word anyway.

(Stuart Kelly, Scotsman, Nov. 2, 2013)