Popsicle #20: For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut

As a teenager, I was a huge fan of John Cage. He seemed more cutting-edge than the coolest rock star.  If it had been possible, I would have papered my bedroom wall with his posters. (I used to have recurring dreams of meeting Cage). But as with most teenage crushes, my enthusiasm waned. Eventually I came to find Cage and the whole Zen-mystique surrounding him almost embarrassing.

But I’ve been thinking about Cage a lot lately. I even pulled out his books from the same basement bookshelf that holds my senior high school yearbook. In Silence, his book of writing and lectures, I read the following story:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”

Twenty years after setting Cage aside, I have a whole new admiration for his head banging. Beneath all of the Zen gentleness I can see how hard he fought to push music to new places.


I thought about Cage often while reading For The Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. Originally published in 1982, but translated into English for the first time in 2008, Takashi Hiranide’s writing doesn’t look like traditional poetry. The book is composed of 111 interlinking prose paragraphs that often resemble Cage’s Indeterminacy lectures.

These poems range from the truly prosaic:

(28) I walk along the clear patch of sun that is still too cold for batting. Nevertheless, on the riverbed, the young boys shouting and pelting the abandoned car with stones.

To surreal:

(32) Why not use your fluttering tongue to wipe the sweat off of that starling who is trying to strip off her wings. It’s so distant of you, my arboreal lover on the outskirts of town. From the shadow of the clothes hanging in a thrift shop, a single antelope watches you. Steel-colored eyes of contempt.

To scientific:

(13) The strange insect called scarabaeus skillfully constructs round pellets from the dung of hoofed animals such as sheep, cows, horses, and takes them to an appropriate place to be slowly consumed. For its larvae, special pellets are made by selecting only the dung of sheep, which has the most nutritional value and is easiest to digest.

But many of my favorite “poems” are those which reflect back on the book’s own making:

(44) Verse finds strength in being segmented. Dependent on neither future nor past, it persistently dangles between line space and line space. Like a child who cries all alone in the dark for a long time, it tries to tear itself as far away as possible from the shadows of time. Moreover, they are the ones that are, through segmentation, placed into lines.

(77) I have been organizing fragments for a long time now. Individual cul-de-sacs filling a tote bag are each driven into a form with much less leeway, and before they manage to connect with one another, are left in the hands of yet another display-belt of chance. The longer the work continues, more hands that cross over from one fragment to another change into an intermediate term equivalent to a fragment.

While reading Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, I pictured Hiraide clawing away at the formal limitations of the medium, forcing it to do something it doesn’t normally do. As with Cage, this is achieved as much with silence as with sound. On his website, Hiraide describes himself as “one who writes and erases poems in Japanese.”

Hiraide’s “fighting spirit” ignited my own long-lost teenage obsessions for Cage and quiet boundary pushing. It also led me to crack open that old high school yearbook. For a long time I was embarrassed of my high school ‘Memories,’ but now I’m kind of proud:


Popsicle #19: Wilson by Daniel Clowes

I don’t know if it is the change in altitude or the pollen count in Minnesota, but my normal post-Dispatch funk after traveling to Colorado has reached clinical levels.  The other day it got so bad that I checked webmd.com for the symptoms of depression. One of them was “Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable.” I guess that explains why I’ve been avoiding this Popsicle assignment. To get back on track, I made a trip to Barnes and Noble. In hopes of curing my post-Dispatch blues, I first visited the Eastern Religion section. But the various “Tao of” books just made me want to go home and watch more episodes of Burn Notice (another sign of depression?).

Eventually I made my way to the graphic novel section where I found a copy of Wilson by Daniel Clowes. The book is a portrayal of a self-obsessed, misanthropic blowhard named Wilson. After twenty minutes of reading the book, I felt cheered up.


In the middle of the book, Wilson goes to prison. “I actually used to kind-of fantasize about going to prison,” he says, “it seems like a good place to do some serious thinking…collect your thoughts, y’know?” These six panels represent Wilson’s unsuccessful search for enlightenment during his six years in prison:


“To read Wilson is to grapple with some bleak truths about ourselves,” writes Glen Weldon on NPR, “We are self-involved, ungenerous, even cruel.” Here’s the question: why does such nihilism provide comfort? Would I have been better off in the long run if I’d chosen a book from the Eastern Religion section?

It turns out that Wilson eventually finds a bit of Zen wisdom. On the last page of the book, an elderly Wilson stares out the window and has a revelation:




Popsicle #18: The Zebra Storyteller


I’m still on the road in Colorado without much time to read. But the other day in the van Brad made me aware of the storyteller Spencer Holst. As we continue to troll in and out of the Rockies looking for people with interesting stories, finding this little fable by Holst was just about perfect:

The Zebra Storyteller

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.

That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.

Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.

“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic, “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”

The zebra is so astonished at hearing Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why—he’s just fit to be tied.

So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.

The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.

He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact he hunted zebras.

The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.

One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ’em laugh!”

Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”

The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he’d been thinking about that very thing.

He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.

That is the function of the storyteller.

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Popsicle #10: MASS by Mark Power

NN1500723For reasons having nothing to do with religion, my six-year-old recently started attending a Catholic school. As we prepared for his first day, I was a little worried about his lack of knowledge about Christianity. Not only had he never been to church, I’m not sure we’d ever explained the whole Christ thing.

Weeks after he started school, Pope Benedict announced that he was stepping down. With all of the talk in the news of red shoes and black smoke, I was even more concerned. I felt like we’d moved our son to a foreign country and we didn’t speak the language.

Around this time a book arrived in the mail from Mark Power. Wrapped in rich purple cloth and titled MASS, the book functioned as a perfect primer for this new world.

Power’s book is striking in its simplicity and ingenious craftsmanship. Without introduction or afterword, Power presents 18 pictures of Catholic Church services in Krakow, Poland. Each image is presented as a large, exquisitely detailed fold-out of the congregation photographed from above. Preceding each lavish poster is a simple picture of the church’s humble collection slot.


Yesterday, instead of going to church, my son and I looked at MASS together.

Who is that guy?


What do you know about him?

He wants people to be better persons.

How does he think they should do that?

They should be nice to each other and listen to each other.

Do you think he was rich or poor?

I don’t know.

He was poor.

Then why was he so famous?

Why do you think?

Because he died on a pole.

Why do you think people did that to him?

Because they didn’t like his ideas.

And what were his ideas?

I already told you…being a better person and listening to each other.

But why would they kill him for that?

I don’t know. Maybe because he was poor?

Why do you think they have a church for him?

I don’t know.

But you want to go to church, right?



Because we get to sing and talk and pray.

Do you know what these slots are for?


They are for money. Do you know why people put money in these slots?

So it doesn’t get stolen.

Right, but who do you think the money is for?

The poor people

Behind its deceptively simple presentation, MASS celebrates the majestic allure of the church while also pointing to its most fundamental contradictions. But it is hardly an endictement. As Power says on his website “There is much debate in Poland about the power and wealth of the church, perhaps most specifically in Krakow, and this was something I wanted to investigate and allude to. But what started out as a tirade against Catholicism soon turned to envy, both for the palpable sense of community and for a belief that I saw, understood, but simply couldn’t reach.”

Buy Mark Power’s great book HERE. It is an edition of 750 and has already been a #1 seller on PhotoEye, so you might want to hurry.



Top 10+ Photobooks of 2010 by Alec Soth

The Mushroom Collector by Jason Fulford
When this book arrived, I saw the cover and was afraid to look inside. I flipped through the first few pages and then put it down. I didn’t look at it again for days. It was everything I’d been waiting for and almost too much to handle. Now, after living with it for weeks, I can finally set aside my insane jealousy and proclaim this not only my top book of the year, but one of my all-time favorites.

La Carte d’apres Nature edited by Thomas Demand
It is rare that an exhibition catalog becomes a work of art in and of itself (see You and Me and the Art of Give and Take by Allen Ruppersberg on my 2009 list).  Based on René Magritte’s short-lived magazine of the same name, La Carte d’apres Nature is a dreamy, free-associative ramble through Monaco, Surrealism, Botanical Gardens, Luigi Ghirri’s eye and Thomas Demand’s brain. With a catalog this good, who needs the exhibition?

Family by Chris Verene
One of the masters of combining text and image, Verene’s book feels like an invitation to Galesburg, Illinois for a family slideshow. Funny, tragic and tender.

Story / No Story by Tobias Zielony
A floating, nocturnal tour around the globe of teenagers waiting for something to happen. Story / No Story perfectly captures the romantic ennui of the end of youth.

3 or 4 books by John Gossage: The Pond, The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler / Map Of BabylonHERE
What a treat to follow Gossage’s labyrinthine eye from his 25-year-old masterpiece to his utterly vital current publications. I can’t choose just one.

Fiume by Guido Guidi
If I were to make a list of my top 10 magazines of the year, #1 would be Fantom, the excellent new Italian photo magazine (or at least it would be tied for #1 with Foam, but I digress). Fatom is also in the book business. Their second offering (after an excellent Takashi Homma book) is a modest little softcover about a modest little river near Guidi’s hometown. Like John Gossage, Guidi is a photographer’s photographer who looks at the world with tremendous subtlety. Now if only someone would make a Guidi book with wide US distribution.

Yutaka Takanashi, Photography 1965-7
4 & Books on Books #6 Yutaka Takanashi: Toshi-e
A double-punch knockout of Yutaka Takanashi for photobook connoisseurs. These two books are the perfect combination of craftsmanship and scholarship.

The Sound of Two Songs by Mark Power
Just when I’m in the deepest depths of large-format, color-photo fatigue, along comes Mark Power to save the day. Power’s pictures are so good that they almost make me want to haul the 8×10 out of storage.

Picture Book by Hannah Höch
During 2010 most of my book collecting budget went toward photographically illustrated children’s books. Since most of these books are over fifty years old, they tend to be pricey. So I was enormously happy to find this inexpensive facsimile of Höch’s fantastic children’s book.

Playing Borders by Anouk Kruithof
A mixture of photos, pamplets, poscards and posters, Playing Borders is always on the verge of falling apart – as is its subject: an almost empty, generic office space in which office workers create performances and temporary sculptures. Unfortunately I recently learned that Playing Borders came out in 2009 (it took awhile for it to find its way to Minnesota). But if you want a good photobook by a young Dutch artist dealing with generic office spaces from 2010, I can also recommend How Terry Likes his Coffee by Florian van Roekel (see my list of self-published books below).

Ten self-published photo books
It is important to highlight the incredibly vibrant world of self-publishing in 2010. What I love about much of this work is that it is less about the aspiration for profundity than it is about raw energy. To use the music analogy, these books are more like live shows than albums. As such, much of this work rejects the world of traditional commerce, book awards and top 10 lists. Nonetheless, here are ten that caught my eye this year:

Procrastinations by Jack Webb
720 (Two Times Around) by Andrew Phelps
Sketches by Viviane Sassen
Repose by Charlotte Dumas
Desperate Cars by Sébastien Girard
Grown Down by Lindsey Castillo & Tuomas Korpijaakko
As It Is? In Four Chapters by Harvey Benge
Since July by Eric Ruby
How Terry likes his Coffee by Florian van Roekel
Getting to know my husband’s cock by Ellen Jong

But like all of this list-making business, it just comes down to personal taste. I encourage people to visit some of the resources out there for finding those thrilling little gems that speak to their own experience:


Happy Hunting,

PS. Only a couple of year end lists have been published so far (5b4Sean O’Hagan/Guardian) – I’d love to hear your favorites.

Book Review Update

Thanks for all of the excellent feedback to my recent Open Letter to the New York Times Book Review. As I mentioned in my post, the one big chance for art books is the annual Holiday Book Review. Today it arrived. As usual, illustrators did pretty well. There was the obligatory review of a New Yorker illustrator’s book (Maira Kalman…again!), Comics (three reviews by Douglas Wolk), Graphic Novels (a review of Duncan the Wonder Dog), Drawing (a review of Picture This by Drawn Quarterly), and yet another Comics review (Doonesbuy at 40).

My pulse quickened as I looked at the double-page Visuals section. But just like last year, typography owned this section (Manual of Typography, Retrofonts, Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, Modern British posters).

How did photography fare? There were the usual travel coffee table photo books (New York: Portrait of A City, Yvon’s Paris). But then, tucked into a section called Curiosities was, gasp, an actual review of an authored photography book: Lost Souls by Lena Herzog. The most surprising thing to me is that I hadn’t heard of either the book or the photographer. I went to Herzog’s website but couldn’t find much more about the book. But I did learn on her Wikipedia page that she’s married to my favorite living filmmaker: Werner Herzog. I don’t want to believe that this is the reason her book was reviewed. So I’m curious if anyone else has seen the book. If so, what do you think of it?

Flickr Assignment #4

So much of the photography I love is less about a particular subject than it is a communication of the photographer’s process. What all of the previous assignments had in common was that they were an excuse to get out the door and encounter the world. For the fourth and final assignment, I want to make the communication of these encounters even more explicit through the use of narration. This is as much a writing assignment as it is a photo assignment. But I also want the writing to be visually compatible with the photographs.

One could approach this in a similar way to the earthworks artist Richard Long:

Richard Long: One thing leads to another - Everything is connected

Or one might use handwriting like Jim Goldberg:

No fun [by Jim Goldberg]

The point is to communicate your experience through the combination of text and image. Just remember, less is more. Elaborate photographs and flowery text are incompatible. Simple pictures and simple text generally work best.

So here is the final assignment:

1)   Plan an encounter (meet a stranger on Craigslist, find the highest place in your city, go on an eight mile walk, etc).
2)   Document your encounter with photographs & text
3)   Important: combine your text and image in a single file
4)   Submit your files here. Submissions are due by December 28th. Winners will be announced by January 1st.

Enjoy the ride…

3rd Flickr Assignment Winner

Thanks to everyone who participated in the 3rd From Here To There Flickr assignment. The assignment was to take a picture of a non-photographer and then have this person take a picture of you. My hope was to illustrate that amateur photographs are often as good or better than those made by ‘serious’ photographers. An inspiration was a project I saw in Foam Magazine called Manélud. In this series, the photographer Breno Rotatori would snap a picture of his 82-year-old grandmother at the same moment that she photographed him:

What I love about Rotatori’s project is its utter simplicity. Neither he nor his grandmother are trying to make great art. But the combination of their images allows the viewer to see things in a new way.

My favorite Flickr #3 participant, Andie Wilkinson, also captured this quality of effortlessness.


Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Andie was working with children (As some of you know, I have my own interest in his area). But I don’t want to downplay Wilkonson’s excellent work. You might remember that she nearly won our first Flickr contest with these entries. What I love about her submissions to this assignment was the way her images worked so well in combination with her subject’s pictures:


So bravo to Andie and to her collaborators. Stay tuned for the fourth and final assignment.