Babylonian tree-hugger: The lost verses of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh of Uruk, great king and itinerant seeker, priest of Kullab and bosom-friend of Enkidu, we thought we knew ye.

Well, we should have figured. The Epic of Gilgamesh, history’s first great narrative poem and mankind’s inaugural piece of literature, has (in modern times at least) always been a cobbled-together affair. The story we know today is the average, so to speak, of dozens of slightly varying versions, written over a period of about a thousand years or so, and unearthed from Akkadian, Assyrian, and Babylonian sites throughout the Middle East. Between the 1850s and 1930s the Gilgamesh tablets were collected, translated, and assimilated into the now familiar account of a melancholy king’s search for immortality.

But there was always that chance that just one for fortuitous turn of the spade might amend the story. And yep, sure enough, that has happened.

Archaeology and warfare have always been strange bedfellows, and this has surely been true throughout culturally rich Iraq. The tumultuous years since the 2003 U.S. invasion have seen countless sites and artifacts plundered and destroyed. Yet there have also been opportunities, doubtless impossible under Saddam’s regime, for the recovery of treasures which otherwise would have disappeared into private hoards. The Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, has been privately negotiating with smugglers, and buying back loot before it could spirited out of the country.

In 2011, for the bargain-basement price of $800, the museum purchased this clay tablet. A cursory translation revealed it to be part of the Gilgamesh story, a familiar “chapter” about Gilgamesh and his friend, the wild-man Enkidu, battling the god-monster Humbaba in the Forest of Cedar. The tablet was placed on display, with a short description card describing the story fragment and the language it’s written in.

Not long ago, the museum took another go at the translation, and discovered something truly ground-breaking: an additional twenty verses to the story that had never been seen before. These included some lyrical embellishments—descriptions of the sights and sounds, the flora and fauna of the Forest of Cedar—as well as an unprecedented glimpse of archaic ecological awareness. In all versions of the story, after Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba, they lay waste to the forest, chopping down and burning the trees. In the Sulaymaniyah tablet version, they immediately feel remorse and recognize that such destruction is evil. They also discuss their fear of the wrath of the gods for their actions, which foreshadows the traditional end of the chapter, in which the earth-god Enlil rages at them, “Why did you do this thing? From henceforth may the fire be on your faces, may it eat the bread you eat, may it drink where you drink.”

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Artists at work (that we never thought we’d see)

Sydney professor John Hall is to be heartily commended (hat tip also to Huffington Post’s Priscilla Frank for spreading the word) for helping to preserve some amazing century-old glimpses of artistic giants at work.

Ever seen (or ever imagine you would see) Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting? Or Auguste Rodin sculpting?



I never would have thought so either, but here we are.


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Upcycling writ large: Dutch designer clears the air

Upcycling is perhaps our most progressive response to ecological mismanagement. It is, in every sense of the term, turning trash into treasure; by rescuing and repurposing material otherwise bound for the trash-heap, upcyclers are at the vanguard of resource preservation—which just happens to be a twenty-first century eco-practice that just might save the planet.

So (for all our sake) take that to the extreme. Daan Roosegaarde did, with a project intended to not only clean the very air we breathe, but to also turn the particulate pollution—the stuff you’d rather not think about, but is gumming up your lungs as we speak—into existentially grim yet unexpectedly compelling jewelry.

The mechanism for this atmospheric metamorphosis is a 23-foot cantilevered tower, acting as catalyst and centerpiece for Roosegarde’s Smog Free Project.

Like any good potential planet-saving idea, this one is elegant in its simplicity—it works much like the air-purifier you might have in your home or office. Powered by green-energy sources, the system positively charges its 264 exterior horizontal plates, which attracts and holds the negatively charged particulate matter in the air. It can, in its silent and diligent way, clean 30 cubic meters of air per hour.

Above and beyond this functional design, the Project goes one step further: by isolating, compressing, and affixing as jewelry the collected soot, it upcycles a stark, tangible reminder of the actual and potential states of our life-sustaining atmosphere.

The prototype tower is currently churning out a bubble of breathable air in Rotterdam, and is the subject of plans for a world tour—stops in mega-polluted Mumbai and Beijing are in the works. Great idea, but here’s a better one: Why don’t we just replicate this simple, beautiful idea, and put one of these on every block?

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A century of the absurd – Looking back on Dada

It was roughly a hundred years ago (the dates are hard to pin down) that one of history’s most vibrant, innovative, and influential art movements was born. Dadaism dominated the scene for a scant twenty years, spinning off from the fin de siècle Cubism of Picasso and Cezanne, and maturing at last into the Surrealism of Dali and Magritte. Dada was a brief, bright flare; with a brevity perhaps not planned by its progenitors, but certainly in accordance with their common philosophy. As anti-art, Dadaism was pre-programmed for suicide, and if it had resisted that urge it would have necessarily devolved into self-parody.

More than anything else, Dadaism was a response to and a child of war. It appeared toward the mid-point of the First World War, as it became globally clear that the conflict was to be no grand adventure, but rather the ruthless culling of a generation. Dadaism was, as a result, peculiarly political, and it’s interesting to note that it first appeared in then-neutral countries, the United States and Switzerland, but its adherents were primarily combat veterans and refugees from the belligerent nations, especially France and Germany. As soon as the war ended those nations, and many others, embraced Dada in a way that can almost be described as a frenzy, with Paris, Berlin, Cologne, and Zurich as the artistic centers of gravity.

Reactionary though it was, Dada had difficulty defining itself, its goals, its ideology. More often than not, in accordance with its nihilistic roots, it was described only in terms of opposition—it was anti-bourgeois, anti-statist, and in terms of art as it was understood in the day, it was anti-art.

Today, Dada is best remembered as visual art forms—the paintings of Francis Picabia, the “Ready Made” sculptures of Marcel Duchamp, and the collages of Max Ernst. In its day, though, Dada refused such easy categorization, and embraced a universe of expression. Poetry, in particular, was integral to early Dadaism, even if some of its experimental efforts haven’t stood the test of time (Romanian Dadaist Tristan Tzara, for example, pioneered both nonsense verse—rhyming syllables with no inherent meaning, and ‘simultaneous poems’—cacophonous readings by two or more poets at the same time). Photography and film were also important Dadaist media; and all of it, during the Dada heyday of 1915 through 1925, tended to be presented in massive, chaotic, barely planned Dada happenings, which in of themselves might be thought of as proto-performance art.

The word “Dada” is, naturally enough, part of the absurdist package that formulates the movement’s counter-manifesto. It is essentially, purposely meaningless, yet it hints at meaning. In English-speaking cultures, it’s often a child’s first word. In the Slavic nations, it means “yes, yes.” And in colloquial French, it refers to a hobbyhorse. It is a melange that defies precise definition, much like the art and artists we call Dadaist.

In the United States, where (arguably) Dadaism first expressed itself, the impetus wasn’t just political, it was also an artistic backlash. The American art scene was still coming to grips with the legendary Armory Show of 1913, which all but forced the country to accept the relative new waves of Cubism and Post-Impressionism. Certain artists living and working in New York, like photographer Man Ray and expatriate Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, thought they could bring even more pressure to bear, by presenting America with art that was avant-garde to the point of folly. Duchamp, for example, turned a urinal upside-down, named it “Fountain,” and called it sculpture. Ray glued tacks to a flatiron and photographed it. Both pieces, simple and absurd constructions, have become iconic Dadaist representations.

New World Dada was to meet the Zurich-born (whence the name “Dada” was coined) stripe after the war, and like weather-fronts colliding, the amalgam was both creative and destructive. It flourished in this collaborative form for just a few more years before disintegrating. Was it the internal competition, perhaps deep-seated incompatibility, that brought it down? Or was it the lull of peace-time, and a lack of a counterpose to confront and ridicule, that made it irrelevant?

Either way, it was gone, but surely not forgotten. The direct descendants of the Dadaists were the mid-century Surrealists, but the current hardly stopped there. Politically provocative performance art, poetry slams, even punk rock owes a debt to the Dadaists who blazed their trails a century ago.

However Dada died, and in whatever forms its genes live on, its central tenet is as relevant today as it was during the dark days of Verdun: Art needn’t be static and it mustn’t be silent. Art should carry a message, even if that message is a wordless scream of rage and anguish.

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The Labor Movement: still working for us all

Saw some social-media ignorance on display this Labor Day weekend—which surprised me more than it reasonably should have. In this case it was a picture of flag-draped military coffins, with the guilt-inducer: “Just In Case You Thought It Was About A 3-Day Weekend.”

No. That’s Memorial Day you’re thinking of, and as near-sacrosanct as that holiday is and should be, it’s not Labor Day. Those are separate and distinct celebrations.

On Labor Day we honor the U.S. labor movement, and in a very real way it is about the three-day weekend. It’s about weekends in general, about personal time, time away from the job—things we wouldn’t have were it not for organized labor.

Labor Day honors the ability of the working class to strive toward the middle class—and it celebrates the fact that in doing so labor builds our infrastructure, sustains our industry, and powers our economy.

And traditionally, labor does all this with very little credit, and even less respect.

As a result, labor as a cultural and political force is in decline. Has been for some time. In a digital economy, where derivative finance is considered to be the most viable engine for growth, industry is seen as anachronistic, and organized labor as a throwback and a threat.

What that viewpoint fails to take into consideration is labor’s ongoing and irreplaceable contribution to our society. Like many things that are taken for granted, its worth is only appreciated when it’s interrupted. So, as always, the laborer will only get the respect he deserves when he lays down his tools.

That, possibly, is a fight for another day. The struggle goes on (history seems to suggest it’ll never end). This weekend, labor—and the rest of us—are invited to cease our toils peaceably, in fellowship and cooperation. The Labor Movement sacrificed mightily to earn us this respite, so it’s only fitting that we take just a moment of it to reflect on all its contributions, and on all its many sacrifices.

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Artist / provocateur Petro Wodkins makes Putin’s head explode

Petro Wodkins is by now an old friend of the Deconstruction—we chuckled with him back in May ’13 when he hijacked Belgium’s beloved Mannekin Pis (and replaced it with himself). And we thrilled with him in the following year when he (artistically!) took  on Zimbabwe’s perfidious strongman, Robert Mugabe.

Petro’s political evolution continues, and this time he’s picked a formidable target indeed—one all too able (and more than likely, willing) to strike back….

As part of a larger performance project called Sound of Power, in which busts of world leaders are fitted with audio speakers (“Play the people who play the world,” says Petro Wodkins), a likeness of Russian president Vladimir Putin was today blown up—after first playing some jaunty tunes of course. Actually, a trio of Putin heads were exploded, and in a gesture to cement the political message in play, they sequentially emitted the colors of the flag of the Russian Federation.

Word from Petro’s camp is that the gesture was noted and denounced in Russian media. I couldn’t independently verify this, my Cyrillic skills being what they are (non-existent), but I did notice, and took it as significant, that the YouTube upload of the performance has been intermittently hacked throughout the day. I’ve imbedded it below, and it was working at post-time, but if you have any trouble viewing it, you might just assume that Bad Vlad doesn’t want you to.

I managed to reach out to Petro (or whatever his real name is) and passed on a few questions. To begin with, I wondered, did he worry about backlash from Putin or his regime?

Putin looks too beautiful as a bust-speaker and likes fireworks. So I think it’s nothing to worry about.

Noting that the Sound of Power project has already gained some press, I asked what other heads we might see in the spotlight soon:

It’s big and complex project, that lasts over the year already. We’ll keep you posted.

I took the liberty of comparing Wodkin’s politically conscious performance art to the all-too-brief Dada movement of the early twentieth century. I asked if he thought that was a fair comparison, and whether we were seeing with him and other artists a flowering of a kind of neo-Dada:

A lot of crucial things are happening…we’re definitely experiencing something. Let’s wait [to give it a name].

Finally, at the risk of not Letting the Art Speak for Itself, I asked Petro what message he was imparting with this performance. Was there, I asked, a message for Putin in particular?

Russians consider him too serious, he is everywhere in our life. Sometimes you are afraid to see him even when you turn on your favourite porn. If people start thinking about Putin as a function, in the way they think about their furniture or bikes, being able to put him aside at any time for any reason, things are going to change. Hopefully once we’ll treat people of power as serious as teddy bears left in a closet years ago. Putin himself doesn’t need any messages from this side of the wall. He thinks he is almost God. It’s not about him. It’s about us.

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Strandbeests – The Uncanny Valley isn’t just for androids anymore

Theo Jansen is a kinetic sculptor—yet that seemingly innocuous title hardly does credit to his signature creation, the Strandbeest.

A Strandbeest—literally, a “beach animal”—has an organic appearance only with the most liberal stretch of the imagination. They’re an amalgam of wood, PVC, canvas…and that’s exactly what they look like. As a product of artistic engineering, they have a rugged sort of industrial beauty. But do they in any way seem alive?

They move…either under force of wind or by human nudging…and yes, oh my yes, they are surely alive.

Until now, the Deconstruction’s fascination with the Uncanny Valley has been limited to solely the anthropomorphic kind. The Strandbeest has put paid to that. Watching a sculpture scuttle across the sand in the manner of a massive and massively misshapen hermit crab has widened the valley. And that valley shall never close.

A wary welcome then (wary only in terms of unsettled appreciation) to Theo Jansen and his Strandbeests, which are now set to inhabit American shores. The Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts is hosting “The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen” from September 19th to January 3rd.

But what if they like it here? What if they refuse to leave?

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Detroit is your playground – artist misplaces his tiger in the Packard Plant ruins

If you think it’s cool to play fast and loose as an urban artiste in the ruins of a once great American city–where, by the way, people still have to live–then you might be an elitist jackass.

British photographer David Yarrow defines himself as an artist AND conservationist, which is nice and all, but it’s hard to say what higher purpose he was serving when he showed up for a photo shoot this week at Detroit‘s famously ruined Packard Plant…with a tiger, two wolves and a bobcat.

The Packard Plant itself, in operation between 1903 and 1958, has been in a more or less accelerating state of decay since at least the late 1990s, positioning it as a sad and eerie microcosm for greater Detroit. But in an even more depressing development, the plant has become ground zero for ruin porn a cottage industry giving a degradingly new low definition for ‘slumming it.’

Apparently oblivious to the notion that places like Packard are not just graveyards for a once thriving blue-collar middle class, but also, again, unfortunately situated near peoples’ homes, photographers, would-be adventurers, even wedding parties (for fuck’s sake), are enjoying some kind of weird atavistic thrill by spelunking and shutter-snapping their way through monuments to past industriousness and urban abandonment.

From an historical viewpoint, it has to be admitted that some of the images are fascinating—the name Packard, after all, went in less than half a century from being synonymous with luxury to being, at least in this context, a byword for urban decay. But it’s hard to see how many of these self-styled explorers are connecting with the stories of the people and the industries that rose and fell in these places. One suspects that they are merely voyeurs to the epilogue.

And while I won’t try to unpack Yarrow’s motivation from afar, I’ll simply observe that it’s hard to see what, exactly, pictures of wild animals roaming broken hallways were supposed to signify.

Artistic vision aside, let’s just agree it was the height of irresponsibility–especially when the inevitable happened, and the goddamned tiger got loose.

Cut to the spoiler: no one was hurt, and the big cat was recaptured (turns out that in Detroit, you use a weed wacker to catch tigers. Who knew).

All’s well that end’s well? Sure, this time. Have we learned anything? Likely Mr. Yarrow learned something about animal handling, at the very least. If we’re very lucky, he and maybe some others learned that if you’re visiting a city that people call home, even if it isn’t a very pretty one, please don’t be a pretentious asshole.

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Earth Overshoot Day – we’re in ecological debt

2015 is 255 days old – less than 2/3 complete. And yet as of today, August 13th, we  as a global species have already used up one year’s worth of our planet’s resources.

This means that as far as renewables—plants and animals, not to mention carbon absorption—between Jan 1. and sometime today, we’ve already consumed more than our biosphere is capable of replenishing in one calendar year. For the remainder of 2015 we’re in ecological debt, not-so-metaphorically consuming our seedcorn.

At our present rate of consumption we require the resources of 1.6 planet earths to support our lifestyles. But we don’t have 1.6 earths, do we?

As 2015 winds down, and as we go on borrowing resources from a very uncertain future, let us spend a little time, and hopefully a little effort, on working our way back toward global sustainability.

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World’s oldest art manual now available for your review

Kudos and thanks going out to the Cambridge University Library for inviting us all to enjoy a 17th-century Chinese manual for artists and calligraphers, which had previously been deemed too fragile to open. The book has now been fully digitized, with all 388 pages viewable online.

It’s called the Manual of Calligraphy and Painting (or Shi zhu shai shu hua pu), originally published in 1633 by Nanjing’s Ten Bamboo Studio. The book’s breathtaking illustrations, while created by at least 50 separate artists, can largely be credited to Ten Bamboo’s innovative printmaker, Hu Zhengyan, who developed the process that brings the book’s hundreds of prints to life.

The technique was called douban, and now is more familiarly known as polychrome xylography. It is the meticulous re-printing of each illustration’s woodcut with successive layers of ink, resulting in multi-color pictures that resemble, more than anything else, hand-painted watercolors.

Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu is the earliest known manuscript to include polychromatic mechanical printing. It represents a milestone in art, publishing, and Chinese culture. It was nearly lost to us—or was at least no closer than a book we couldn’t open. But thanks to more current milestones in those same arts, and thanks to the good folks at the Cambridge University Library who were willing to leverage them on our behalf, this gorgeous book has opened for us once again.

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Subway Love – poetry in the age of viral media

If you’ve been wondering where in hell poetry fits in with our efflorescing twenty-first century digital artforms (I sure have), then maybe, just maybe, Brooklynite balladeer Max Stossel has your answer. Verse and video? It can work, and it can go viral.

Stossel explains, “I was waiting for the train in nyc and this just sort of flowed out of me. I was then lucky enough to find a talented videographer (Matt) as well as dancers (Ryan Weiss & Rachel) & a choreographer (Celia Rowlson-Hall) who believed in the message and wanted to turn it into a short. Hope you enjoy!”

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City in the desert

Since 1972, one of the most colossal works of art ever sculpted has been rising from the sands in Lincoln County, Nevada. It is not yet complete.

Encompassing an area more than a mile long and a quarter mile wide, City is the work of dozens of people—artists, artisans, construction workers. But it is the brainchild of one man, pioneer of the ‘land art’ movement, sculptor Michael Heizer.

Heizer is perhaps best known for his 2012 installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Levitated Mass. This 340-ton suspended boulder is now a permanent fixture on Wilshire Boulevard, but its 11-day, 106-mile journey from the quarry to LA in February 2012 became in its own right a boisterously celebrated, if unintended, bit of performance art. (That trek, as well as the installation’s eventual completion, is marvelously documented in Doug Pray’s 2013 film, Levitated Mass.)

No less permanent, then, is City. Hewn from native stone, augmented with earth and concrete, it features plazas, complexes, and Mayan-inspired structures soaring up to six storeys in height. Like the Mesoamerican temples it echoes, it is being created to last. “I’m building this work for later,” Heizer says.

But for all his efforts (it is located on land Heizer owns, and to date he very rarely allows visitors) City has always existed on the cusp of danger. Numerous government projects, including the ill-fated Yucca Mountain repository (a now-cancelled project to store spent nuclear fuel rods) have threatened to site rail spurs, roadways, and electrical transmission lines near or even through the City complex. Heizer was said to have threatened to bury the artwork in the sands should any of those plans come to fruition.

That danger has passed. On July 10th, under authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act, President Obama designated a 704,000-acre swathe of the New Mexico wilderness as the Basin and Range National Monument. This new national monument includes 4,000-year-old petroglyphs, geologically significant basins and mountain ranges…and Michael Heizer’s City.

City, like society and culture, like progress and evolution, is incomplete. Unlike those things, thankfully, it is now protected.

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Mona Lisa, uncanny valley

Just because you can do something doesn’t, by any means, mean you should. The Manhattan Project scientists, just prior to setting off the world’s first atomic device at Trinity Test Site, New Mexico, in July of 1945, were taking tongue-in-check bets as to whether the explosion would set the atmosphere alight. We might have taken this as our first clue that our technology, in these latter and less wiser days, very often outpaces our penchant for using it properly. But we didn’t learn, did we?

You might argue, fairly enough, that digital interactivity doesn’t play on nearly the same field as runaway nuclear fission. P’haps not. But when they program a Mona Lisa clone to smile or frown at us, to follow us with her creepy, creepy eyes, and to generally break free from her Renaissance two-dimensional plane and to run rampant in the uncanny one right next door to ours…then that’s a clear sign that someone has gotten too weird and uppity with their tech toys. Time to take them away.

Signore da Vinci knew what he was doing when he painted this particular inscrutable lady. He used precisely the number of brush-strokes required to bring her to life, or rather to consign her to the ages. The Mona Lisa is complete. Digital touch-ups and necrophilic animation are not required, requested, or invited.

Don’t make me tell you again.

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Doctor Gonzo is displeased

Hunter S. Thompson, man of letters and vices, checked out of this vale of weirdness and discontent on his own terms, just over a decade ago. But through the grace of serendipity or his own careful planning (either explanation is equally likely) his words, deeds, and crazy-like-a-fox philosophy live on. Occasionally, even, we’re graced with new evidence that he lived as he wrote: fast and without regard for any fool who might get in the way.

So add to that archive this hilarious, NSFW customer-support call, in which the good doctor expresses his displeasure about a product, an installation, and the egg-sucking dogs who had the temerity to mess with his stereo. Enjoy, and always remember: when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

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The prose of Independence – Happy Fourth of July

When in the Course of human events….

It must have been decreed somewhere, by someone, that if you are writing your manifesto, you must purple up your prose. Self-consciousness infects the pen, and the desire to inveigh into and against the sweep of history blots heavily on the page.

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

Thomas Jefferson, commissioned by Congress to write a new nation’s founding document, must have felt no small measure of that prosaic imperative. Yet when his quill met the parchment his words didn’t lumber, they soared.

These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.

Sometimes the right wordsmith is in the right place at the right time. Tom Jefferson was many things: a patriot, a slave-holder, a country gentleman, a political operator, a genius. He served his nascent nation in a succession of roles: congressman, diplomat, cabinet secretary, vice president, and finally president. In each he’d log his due course of triumphs and shortcomings. His earliest contribution, though, might just have been his best: With the most inspired prose imaginable, he wrote America into existence.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

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