The pandemic is the medium

When it started, I thought the interruption would be short. Life would revert. We’d get back to the headlong insanity that we called normal.

A year has passed, and that once-vivid world is just another memory. Like university.

Black and White image of Marshall McLuhan in front of TV screens
Marshall McLuhan

Like that summer vacation, when you couldn’t wait to go back next year. Like Humphrey Bogart saying “we’ll always have Paris”.

Remember the 20th century? The wars: First, Second, Korean, Vietnam? The Great Depression? TV shows, everybody watching at the same time: Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, Star Trek? The Moon Landing? The  Whole Earth Catalog? Remember Marshall McLuhan?

Marshall McLuhan said that our so-called reality was all going to transform itself, turn into something else, transmogrify. Everything was going to be different, but we didn’t know how or what.

“We don’t  know who discovered water”, he said, “but we know it wasn’t a fish.” That was us. Fishy. Swimming around in a media sea, trying to see what was in the sea. But not seeing the sea. “The medium is the message”, he said. “That’s cool”, we thought. “Wonder what he means?” Fish.

What would McLuhan say today? There’s plenty to think about. Facebook, Twitter. QAnon.  Shopping on Amazon. Cell phones. Video games. Trump.

But then I tell myself, sternly: “Ron, don’t be a fish!”

The Pandemic is the sea. The Pandemic is the medium that’s  transforming us. It’s turning our world into something else, but we don’t know what it will be. And what it used to be, it will never be again.

Am I scared? Maybe not. What we’ve been through wasn’t all that great.

And now, I’m hearing a President say that everyone should be vaccinated fairly and equally. That we are all responsible for each others health. That the economy can’t afford poverty. That white supremacy cannot be tolerated.  That every child should be in a safe, well-ventilated school.

If the Pandemic is the medium, is that the message?


The Pardoner and his Tale, Jan 19 2021

The Pardoner, from William Blake’s 1810 engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims

Today (January 19, 2021) everyone in the U.S. is busy guessing who will be on the pardon-list of that outgoing guy. The official list will be documented here:

Meanwhile, let’s find out how a person who Pardons does it. Geoffrey Chaucer’s character The Pardoner, and his tale in The Canterbury Tales (1387) come to mind. A Pardoner was an official of the Church who was licensed to sell papal pardons or indulgences (=time off Purgatory, and a less painful Hell). In addition to this scam, a Pardoner often sold fake “relics” of the Crucifixion.

To introduce his tale, Chaucer’s Pardoner shows off his Latin: “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (The root of evil is greed). In his tale, three young men find a hoard of treasure and, while guarding it at night, end up all killing each other – you know this plot.

Below are a few excerpts from Chaucer where The Pardoner confesses to, and explains, his scams. Chaucer is so wonderful in his description of the foibles of his Canterbury Pilgrims.

344         And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe,
And in Latin I speak a few words,
345         To saffron with my predicacioun,
With which to add spice to my preaching,
346         And for to stire hem to devocioun.
And to stir them to devotion.
347         Thanne shewe I forth my longe cristal stones,
Then I show forth my long crystal stones,
348         Ycrammed ful of cloutes and of bones —
Crammed full of rags and of bones —
349         Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon.
Relics they are, as suppose they each one.   ….

383         Swich folk shal have no power ne no grace
Such folk shall have no power nor no grace
384         To offren to my relikes in this place.
To offer to my relics in this place.
385         And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
And whoever finds himself out of such blame,
386         He wol come up and offre a Goddes name,
He will come up and offer in God’s name,
387         And I assoille him by the auctoritee
And I will absolve him by the authority
388         Which that by bulle ygraunted was to me.’
Which by papal bull was granted to me.’
389         “By this gaude have I wonne, yeer by yeer,
“By this trick have I won, year after year,
390         An hundred mark sith I was pardoner.
An hundred marks since I was pardoner.

(PS: if you are daunted by the Middle English, try reading it aloud. You will be surprised that you get it. )

Source of the illustration:

Noguchi sculpture appears in the Rose Garden, Episode #2

How your intrepid blogger discovers new answers to her puzzles about the Noguchi sculpture … on Dec. 1
Timothy Harleth and Nikki Pisha in the Rose Garden.

On Dec 1, 2020 at 10:00 am, the White House Historical Association host an online two-panel symposium on “The History of Diverse Artists in the White House Collection”.
Between the two sessions is a video of Timothy Harleth and Nikki Pisha in the Rose Garden telling us all about Noguchi’s Floor Frame. [see this video, in full, below].

How artworks can enter the WH Collection:

One of the panelists, Nikki Pisha, Office of the Curator at the White House, tells us:
“Our Collection includes life portraits of Presidents and First Ladies, as well as other individuals that were associated with the White House. We also collect works that portray geographic areas from our country and our cultural heritage, and then works by leading American artists. Aside from the portraits, all of the artworks that come into the Collection are by artists who must be deceased, and then the work must be at least 25 years old from the time that they passed away.
Once a work is selected for possible acquisition, we do a lot of research and evaluation in my office. Then we bring it before the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. This is a presidentially-appointed advisory committee that consists of professionals and scholars. That committee really helps advise on these additions to the Collection.”

Nikki Pisha tells us she acquired the Noguchi sculpture for the White House.

Nikki Pisha: “So when I saw the posting on Sotheby’s website, back in March of this year, it was really without question that this was the piece that we needed to acquire and place in the Rose Garden.”
Listen to her great story of how she makes a mad dash to New York City to pull this off.

The Presentation by Timothy Harleth and Nikki Pisha in the Rose Garden

Timothy Harleth is the current White House Chief Usher (the head of household staff and operations at the White House).
Nikki Pisha is Associate Curator of Fine Arts in the Office of the Curator at the White House.
They do a fine job of presenting the sculpture and its new role in the Rose Garden. And they answer some of my puzzles in the previous post.

However, new puzzles arise:

1: The lighting! The Melania video performance, dated Nov 20, cutting the ribbon, and the Rose Garden show dated Dec 1, giving a whole speech, with violins, has the same warm late-afternoon sunlight. The Harleth-Pisha video is cool midday light.

2: The timing! This video was made public (on Youtube) on December 1 in the panel discussions. The press releases about the sculpture in the Rose Garden went public on November 20.

3: The curatorial text! There is text in the White House Nov 20 briefing press release that puzzled me:
“He viewed Floor Frame as the intersection of a tree and the ground, taking on the qualities of both an implied root system and the canopy of a tree. In order to reconnect viewers to the planet, he envisioned the sculpture placed directly on the ground. The sculpture placement on the terrace in the Rose Garden allows visitors to happen upon it, giving it a found quality. While powerful in its own right, Floor Frame is humble in scale, and compliments the authority of the Oval Office. ”
I hunted for the source of any of this text. When a reporter uses the words “He viewed…. ” you need to be able to back this up.
But surprise! Most of this text, in bits and pieces, is spoken by the two presenters Harleth and Pisha.

So I conclude that the video presentation by Harleth and Pisha happened well before Nov 20.

Bold Decision

To repeat myself from part 1 of this story, the decision to add a Noguchi sculpture to the White House Collection is a bold, brave and important decision.

Final Thoughts

First Ladies at the White House traditionally have been involved in the Art Collection, starting with founder of the Collection in 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy. So let’s assume that Melania Trump has been offered an opportunity, or at least a photo op, to shine as an art patron in her final days as FLOTUS.

Noguchi sculpture appears in the Rose Garden, Episode #1

How a surprising news story in the US leads us to a Noguchi sculpture, a White House puzzle, and an unexpected update a week later …
Breaking News, Friday Nov 20, 2020

“First Lady Melania Trump is pleased to announce the installation of Floor Frame (1962), by Isamu Noguchi (1904-88). The sculpture will be located on the east terrace of the iconic White House Rose Garden.” (photo above)   [press release on the White House website.]

What? Installing art at the White House, while Donald is still fuming over illegal whatevers?

There was a photo shoot, in the late afternoon sun, on that Friday afternoon.
Melania is cutting a ribbon with Stewart D. McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association. But it looks like no one else is present except the White House photographer.

The press release continues: “Isamu Noguchi will be the first Asian American artist to be represented in the White House collection. … While powerful in its own right, Floor Frame is humble in scale, and compliments the authority of the Oval Office….
   Floor Frame was gifted to the White House by the White House Historical Association in March of 2020. ”
Aha! We will track down what happened in March and where.

Saturday, Nov 21, Melania unveils a tweet

The First Lady tweets on  @FLOTUS :
“We unveiled Isamu Noguchi’s Floor Frame sculpture in the Rose Garden @WhiteHouse yesterday. The art piece is humble in scale, complements the authority of the Oval Office & represents the important contribution of Asian American artists. ”
She includes four photographs from the Nov 20 shoot.

What happened in March?  The Sotheby’s Auction

Let’s find out more about that acquisition.
On March 6, 2020, Sotheby’s art auction house in New York City sold a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi for $125,000. The sculpture is called Floor Frame. It is:
“bronze, in 2 parts: i. 14 by 40 by 25 1/2 in. ii. 6 1/2 by 6 1/2 by 13 1/2 in.
Executed in 1962, this work is number 1 from an edition of 6.”
Sotheby’s shows the previous ownership history, but does not identify the new successful bidder.

Which Floor Frame is which?

On November 20, the articles in the press, reacting fast to the news releases, used photos of a different casting of  Floor Frame. Apparently they didn’t yet have access to the photos done at the White House on Nov. 20. It seems that the decision to create an “photo event” was a hasty one.

There were 6 castings of Floor Frame done by Noguchi:
in bronze, bronze with a black patina, and bronze with a gold patina.

Noguchi’s “Floor Frame” and the White House Rose Garden – timeline:

• March 6, 2020: Sotheby’s sells Floor Frame casting #1 in bronze 1962, for $125,000.00.
• Not public yet: Floor Frame was purchased by the White House Historical Association, for the White House art collection.
• July 27,  2020: Melania Trump announces that the Rose Garden will be redesigned, in time for the GOP Convention in late August.
• August 22, 2020: The Garden remake is done. One news story drops a hint: “A seating area on the east side of the garden — used at times by presidents for lunch and other meetings — has been removed and will be replaced by a yet-to-be-announced art installation. (AP)”
• September 26, 2020. A gathering (right) to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court became Covid super-spreader.
• October 2, 2020 Trump tests positive to Covid-19. Over the next few days, many more White House attendees test positive.
• Still no sign of the “art installation” on the East Terrace.  Everyone at the White House is busy campaigning.
• November 3 to 23, 2020, the Election, the results, the challenges… It’s a long three weeks.
Friday November 20, 2020, the sculpture Floor Fame by Isamu Noguchi appears on the East Terrace. The photo shoot happens.
• NEWS! Saturday November 28, 2020, Melania posts a surprise on her FLOTUS page on Facebook — a video of the ceremony! “A week ago”, she says. Took a week to put it together, but there it is! Watch it at the end of this post.

Did Melania make a bold selection?

The word “Selected”  caught my eye in the WHHA press release pdf: “November 20, 2020 (Washington, D.C.) – … Selected by First Lady Melania Trump, Isamu Noguchi’s 1962 bronze sculpture “Floor Frame” was unveiled this afternoon in the White House Rose Garden. ”
Did Melania Trump choose the Noguchi sculpture as her contribution to the White House collection?
Did she view it in the Sotheby’s online catalogue and request that the WHHA purchase it?

I am intrigued by this possibility. The choice of Floor Frame is a bold and extraordinary one.
• There is nothing else like it in the White House Art Collection (see examples below).
• It is abstract. It is minimal.
• It is not a table sculpture — it needs floor space, an exterior setting.
• It does not depict an American landscape, or United States history.
• And, it is likely to be considered confrontational by her husband’s  “fan base”.

Who is Isamu Noguchi?

Watch this excellent 3-min video by the Noguchi Museum
on Vimeo
Isamu Noguchi museum video link

Biography from the White House Historical Assoc. on Facebook: “Isamu Noguchi was one of the most innovative and prolific sculptors of the twentieth century. He was born on November 17, 1904 in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother [Léonie Gilmour] and a Japanese father [Yone Noguchi].  …In 1927, after receiving a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Noguchi traveled to Paris, France to work with sculptor Constantin Brancusi….
During the 1940s, Noguchi returned to stone sculpture as he continued to gain prominence in the art world. He became well known for his use of large stone slabs and for his impact on garden and park landscapes. He designed numerous sculpture gardens, including one for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Noguchi’s first retrospective in the United States took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968.
As his sculptures became well-known worldwide, Noguchi earned numerous awards and accolades including the National Medal of Arts, which was awarded by President Ronald Reagan during an East Room ceremony in 1987. In 1985 he opened the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York, a location to display his life’s work. He passed away on December 30, 1988 at the age of eighty-four.”

The White House Art Collection, a quick peek

My personal picks from the White House Art Collection website, clockwise from the left: Childe Hassam, Avenue in the Rain [1917]; Henry Ossawa Tanner, Sandunes at Sunset [c. 1885]; Alma Thomas, Resurrection [1966]; George Bingham, Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground (on the Missouri River) [1846-47]; Guy Wiggins, Brooklyn Bridge in Winter [c.1920];  Frederick Remington, The Bronco Buster, bronze [1895]; Gilbert Stuart, Dolley Madison [c.1803]

Breaking news! posted on FB Saturday November 28, 2020,
A Noguchi Ceremony actually happened!

There is a videographer! There are violinists, waist deep in the roses! And magically, attendees here and there!
She’s wearing the same outfit, and the late afternoon sun is the same. So it’s real! Oh, how could I have doubted.

PS: We extracted this from the First Lady’s Facebook page (which is open to the public), so that we could view it here without distraction.

East Enders vs the Republic of China

How a small news story about East-Enders and the Chinese Embassy takes us on a big ride through family history, via the Battle of Cable Street and the mural …

Ron’s late mum Alice Weihs was an honourary East-Ender. She was dubbed “Ellis the Ken-eye-dian” (cockney accent).

She went off to London UK on her own in 1976, for a brief visit — that lasted over 20 years. She got involved with some political east-enders creating a co-op to fix up a derelict apartment block (council flats) just south of St. Katharines Docks. The photo of St. Katharines docks below is from 1963, and still shows rubble from the Blitz of 1940-41.

The flat she fixed up is still in the family. She and Ron and I bought a leasehold in 1989. Ron and I love the flat, the riverside, the East End. So when some unusual news crossed my path, I paid attention.

Breaking News Nov 15, 2020 : The People’s Republic of China has been taken to task by the feisty citizens of Tower Hamlets, in London’s east end.
The situation: China’s plan to convert the former Royal Mint property into their new embassy in London, UK. (See A on a current London map below)

Why does this matter to the East-Enders who live around the corner?

Let’s back up in history a bit.

The East End is known for its extremes in everything: poverty,  pride, resilience and independence.

One defining moment of East-End pride happened on October 4, 1936.  

The British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Oswald Moseley, planned to show off how strong they were by attacking an “easy” target: the heart of the poorest area of London. They didn’t count on the well-organized resistance from the people who lived and worked there: a mix of radical Orthodox Jews, and radical Irish Catholic dock workers.

On Sunday October 4, 1936, with mounted police protection, the Moseley gang marched in from the west (B on the map).  They met thousands more people than they expected (at A, B, C, and D). Trams were strategically stopped by their drivers.
On Cable Street (D), barricades of pipe, bedsprings, lumber and rubbish blocked the street.  First aid stations had been set up to tend the wounded.

The Fascists did not pass!

This is known as The Battle of Cable Street.

The people of Tower Hamlets are proud of this resistance, and proud that Catholics and Jews fought side-by-side. In the years since 1936, there have been many new arrivals to this area, from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The area now has the highest number of Muslims than anywhere else in the UK.

So today, the Chinese discrimination against the Uighur Muslims does not sit well with East-Enders of any nation or religion.

1976: The year Alice came to London was also the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Some activist east-enders wanted to do something special to commemorate it. Local artist and illustrator Dan Jones suggested that a huge mural of the Battle be created on the wall of St George’s Town Hall on Cable Street. Fundraising began. From Wikipedia: “Planning for the mural began in 1976, when Dan Jones, Secretary of the Tower Hamlets Trades Council,  …[asked] artist, Dave Binnington, to paint a mural in Cable Street…   [who] also recruited Paul Butler to design the lower section. Many of the faces in the mural were inspired by newspaper pictures of people who took part in the battle.” Work on the mural began in 1979, but due to some setbacks, wasn’t completed until 1983.

1983: When Ron first took me to London to meet his mum Alice (1983 or 4), the first thing she did was march us across the street to the “local” on that Sunday afternoon, announcing to all her chums “Here’s me kids!” and introducing us to the publican. Good manners, East-End style.
The next thing we did was walk up to see the Battle of Cable Street mural.  It was the first of many walks to her favourite places. I can’t find any of Ron’s photos. Above is from The Guardian by Martin Goodwin, for the October 2016 commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.

Now back to the Chinese Embassy in the UK and the citizens of Tower Hamlets, and the breaking news, mid-November 2020:

“In a letter seen by The Mail on Sunday [Nov 15], Mr. Liu [China’s Ambassador to the UK] told Mayor John Biggs [mayor to Tower Hamlets]: ‘It is hoped that Tower Hamlets Council will respect the agreement reached between the Chinese and UK governments, resist disruptions and foster sound conditions for the building of the new embassies in our respective embassies.’ ”

A meeting of the Tower Hamlets Council in mid November 2020 resolved:
“to write to the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China based in the United Kingdom….  to cease its human rights’ abuses against the Uyghur Muslims and all other detainees….
… to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms…. We in Tower Hamlets welcome residents of Hong Kong who wish to take advantage of their now increased ability to move to the United Kingdom.”

My favourite bit is the parting shot of the Committee resolutions:
“The Borough [of Tower Hamlets] has a long and proud history of
being the first home in the UK for many people

fleeing persecution in their original countries.
And that those earlier arrivals are now British citizens.”

the other side of the story – remember the Opium Wars  

Future London embassy’s link to era of Chinese ‘humiliation and sorrow’

China acquired the historic Royal Mint site in London in 2018 for its new diplomatic mission —
Site has historic significance: it took delivery of tonnes of silver that China was forced to pay Britain in the 19th century.

Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, at the Playhouse

Poster for Guest of Honour. David Thewlis.

Atom Egoyan’s new film, Guest of Honour, was shot mostly in Hamilton. Last night, masks in place, we saw it at the Playhouse Cinema.

I am a great admirer of Atom Egoyan’s films. Yes, they are dark and brooding. Yes, they drift and ramble. I’m okay with that, because his vision is so compelling, and the films are so beautifully crafted.

The story is set in Hamilton. Remarkably, for a Canadian film, it really is Hamilton, not pretending to be some American city. The film opens in St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on Main Street (a location we know well, because our play Walter was staged there, back in March.) Jim, the main character, is a health inspector, who is seen checking on some of the well-known restaurants on James Street, most notably Wild Orchid, as well as the Trocadero on Barton Street.

The impact of seeing our Hamilton environment represented in film is surprisingly affecting. We’re used to nudging each other in the middle of shoot-em-up American films, whispering “Gage Park”, “King Street”. This really is Hamilton, and Hamilton is looking pretty good.

The acting is fine. The film is a tour de force for David Thewlis, shuffling and shambling his way through Jim’s troubled life, and for Laysla De Oliveira, as his daughter. Hrant Alianak and Arsinée Khanjian as the owners of Wild Orchid, Luke Wilson as Father Greg (and everyone really) deliver deeply nuanced performances.

Guest of Honour is a small, sad story about misunderstanding, about anger concealed too long, about the gulf between adults and children, about love felt but not communicated properly. Not for everyone, maybe, but for people who like a film that probes the complexities of life, more nourishing that twenty action-packed blockbusters.