Debating the legacy of Pop Art: Is it avant-garde or is it kitsch?
Art has sparked controversy for centuries, and in June, The Walrus continued the conversation by co-presenting “The Walrus National Gallery Debate” in Ottawa. In front of a sold-out auditorium, Robert Enright, senior contributing editor of Border Crossings magazine, and Blake Gopnik, chief art critic for the Washington Post, squared off in a heated debate on contemporary art as part of the Gallery’s blockbuster summer exhibition “Pop Life: Art in a Material World.” The debate was moderated by CBC Radio’s Carol Off — and is now available to all for online viewing.
You can watch this and other exclusive clips in walrusmagazine.com’s new video gallery.
The World Cup is over. What of the tourney’s promise of a better life for its hosts?
Under a low bank of clouds, the Indian Ocean thundering before me, I stand looking at a Soccer City made of sand. Facsimiles of the major World Cup stadiums are dotted along Durban’s Marine Parade, and the rangy young architects expect coins in return for their work. Here’s Green Point, there’s Port Elizabeth*, and, behind a gory faux-naif piece entitled “Big Leopard Bites Poor Man,” Durban’s own Moses Mabhida Stadium. In the morning, of course, these works will be swept away with the tide; one doesn’t have to be Jimi Hendrix to locate the dread metaphor inherent in this small slice of beachfront: World Cup 2010 South Africa. Chimera.
The last time I visited Durban, I sat in a dusty, dying colonial-era gentleman’s club in the heart of downtown, interviewing one of South Africa’s ranking captains of industry. His mottled drunkard’s nose was testament to the fact that our mid-morning gin and tonics were a habit rather than an anomaly, and he told me the following: “This country’s major resource is its people and their energy. Soon, my kind will be dead. Then the blacks running the show will have a choice: use the energy, or squander it. This place can go to shit in a hurry. Or it can be the greatest nation on earth. But make no mistake, South Africa is a marketer’s dream — the easiest sell on earth.” This was 2007, and he undoubtedly had the World Cup on what remained of his mind.
I’d left the club, picking my way through a city that was crumbling in on itself, a great dystopian mess battered by a furious southwesterly. Durban: holiday town of my childhood. During apartheid, the city was a seaside playground; in 2007, it was on the verge of ruin. But flash-forward to present day, and I properly understand what the old fellow was talking about. Durban is temporarily reinvented: crime-free, clean, temperate, ebullient. The city’s nature — Zulu meets Indian meets Edwardian English — once subverted, is now fully expressed. It’s real, not the whitewashed sham of the apartheid years, nor the neglected post-transition orphan-apolis. The blacks running the show have done a fine job. The easiest sell on earth, indeed.
Now what? (more…)
An interview with debut novelist (and Summer Reading 2010 contributor) Miguel Syjuco
At just thirty-two, Miguel Syjuco — who contributed a new short story, “Stet,” to The Walrus’s Summer Reading issue — has written one of the most inventive, challenging, and entertaining novels of recent years, Ilustrado. And now it’s a bestseller, too. He spoke with The Walrus in Toronto this spring, a few weeks before the book’s publication.
To start, can you tell me about how Ilustrado formed, and how it’s developed over the years you’ve been working on it?
The book came to be, in my head, when I was doing some fact-checking at The Paris Review and living in New York. They were putting their Writers at Work series online, so they wanted to make sure whatever was in their archive was right. They had us freelancers hitting the library stacks, and I was looking at all sorts of different sources — literary biographies, interviews, profiles, articles, introductions to the authors’ books. Say for example I was doing Jack Kerouac, and I was finding out all these really interesting things about him, from the factual — where he was born, when he died — to his writing style, everything. And I thought, that’s a really interesting way of getting a portrait of an artist. It struck me as a method that was really organic, because our way of grasping reality today is precisely through fragments of sources. When you find out about, say, the Icelandic volcano, you hear from friends, someone text messages you, newspaper articles, internet, blogs, whatever. So I wanted to write a book that did this, in a sense. But I didn’t know how — it’s my first novel.
I was writing Ilustrado as part of a PhD at the University of Adelaide — it’s the creative component. So I thought, I’ll make this portrait of an artist, Crispin Salvador. I’ll create all his work the best I can, and I just did it linearly; it wasn’t as fragmented as it was now. But I couldn’t crack it — it was thick, it was difficult to get through, and it was 200,000 words. I pity my poor PhD supervisor. I didn’t know how to do it. I just kept writing, and writing, and writing. It didn’t feel right. (more…)
“Do you think I’m sexy?”
Lady Gaga, covered in fake blood, squeezed into a black bustier, poses this question in her best rock-arena growl. The Toronto audience, easily 15,000 strong, roars its positive response as she flips back her crayon-yellow hair and semi-pornographically writhes on the floor.
“I wasn’t very cool in high school, so sometimes I abuse this part. Do you think I’m sexy?”
This endearing admission, made to a crazed, capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre, easily sums up why the cult of Gaga has risen to rapid glory. She is that awkward, misunderstood high-schooler all grown up, raising a big ol’ fuck-you middle finger to everyone who said, “No, you can’t because you’re too ugly/fat/stupid/uncool.” Submerged in the spectacle and decadence of her Monster Ball, she’s still very much that moody teen reject because, despite her all triumphs, she needs us to tell her we adore her. And when we do, she’s so genuinely in awe of the crowd’s frantic adulation. It seems like she has no idea how and why this all happened, how she went from bedbug bites in her New York apartment to God-like status in such a short period of time.
I’ve been trying to figure out “what Gaga means” for months now, using my decade-old Women’s Studies degree to try to decipher how her torn fishnets and Kermit-coat fit into this big, sugary mess we call pop culture. Yes, I love Lady Gaga, and it’s hard to write about something you love so much when you don’t really understand why you love it. An obscure music-snob at heart, I’ve already given my pedestrian Gaga-passion more deliberation than I’d like to admit. Hell, after eighteen straight viewings of the homoerotic, militaristic, sex-fighting BDSM homage that is the “Alejandro” video, I’ve actually developed entire sociological theories of dominance and submission based on her shoe choices. (more…)
In training Chen-style tai chi chuan and other martial arts, a student comes to understand faith through fealty to form
Although I have dabbled in a few since, Chen-style tai chi chuan is the martial art with which I had my formative experiences. Training in the evenings during high school not only gave me exercise and taught me coordination, but granted me some unexpected insight into the world of religion as well. In both realms, followers may seem to accept the received wisdom of their traditions with a strange credulity — but, I found, the point of the practice is in its form, not its content.
Chen is the originating school of tai chi, a centuries-old martial art frequently pictured in the West as a sort of Taoist geriatric health exercise. In this and many other traditional martial arts, a large chunk of the practice consists of learning and perfecting one or more forms — choreographed sequences of the discipline’s techniques, the details of which are carefully prescribed from start to finish. Tai chi forms are trained at a mostly slow, deliberate pace, intended to force the practitioner to take care in performing each movement correctly. Students learn the routine by following along behind teachers and senior students, who also pass on explanations for the parts of the form as well as general rules of movement. In these, my group tended to eschew esoteric talk of chi energy or yin and yang in favour of practical concerns: you need to sink your elbows or else your arm can easily be put in a lock (“Thusly!”); the curled position your fingers assume during Single Whip can be used to strike at a pressure point; et cetera.
I only noticed later what a charitable sort of exegesis this was: we always began with the natural assumption that a move was included in the traditional form for good reason, and proceeded from there to give explanations for it. Sometimes these would change or even contradict one another, but the general feeling was that a great wisdom lay behind the form, and so its moves could be effective in many applications. With the form, as with a holy book, we could find confirming interpretations wherever we sought them, and so each lesson redoubled my trust in the rules and motions I was learning. (more…)
After Ghana’s exit from the World Cup, a gathering of heroes, Heineken, and hope in suburban Johannesburg
Under a bruised sky and a gathering chill — as un-African a tableau as imaginable — a crowd gathers. Fourteen barely clad tribal dancers pronk around a stage in an artfully cobbled square, ringed by wine bars and meze bars and high-end food outlets. This is Melrose Arch, a luxury outdoor mall compound in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. Built during the peak of the city’s post-apartheid violent crime wave, it has the simultaneous feel of a hyper-modern shopping emporium and a walled medieval city. Over the course of the World Cup, Melrose Arch has played host to one of Joburg’s most popular fan parks — or fan jols in FIFA-approved local parlance. Ghana’s Black Stars — recently defeated by Uruguay in a nasty quarter-final match that was stolen from them by the devil’s hand — are scheduled to drop by and say, “Thank you, South Africa, and adieu.”
The Black Stars have organized this encore appearance because locals, since the first-round elimination of Bafana Bafana, have embraced the team as their own. Indeed, it seems as if the whole continent has banded together, donning Ghana’s gold, red, and green, blasting those accursed vuvuzelas in an approximation of the Ghanaian national anthem. This pan-Africanism, having nothing to do with leaders the likes of Muammar Gaddafi or Ghana’s first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah, feels like the genuine deal. Such is the power of football; it has united a disparate continent, at least for a week or so.
Melrose Arch is the second of two scheduled stops on this impromptu whistle-stop tour, the first being Soweto’s Orlando West district. The drive the Black Stars are undertaking is weighted with symbolism. From Soweto to the northern suburbs: a half-hour trip through the South African divide. From the have-nots to the haves, and everything in between. (more…)
Critical responses to André Alexis’s critique of literary criticism
The current, July/August issue of The Walrus includes an essay by André Alexis, “The Long Decline” (excerpted from House of Anansi Press’s forthcoming collection, Beauty and Sadness), which voices concern about the current state of Canadian literary criticism. Our newspapers publish less and less of it, and this loss, Alexis argues, robs our literary culture of an integral element: the communal activity of considering and evaluating literary works. Moreover, according to him, what remains of Canadian criticism has undergone “a kind of populist critical rebellion,” after which, “Our reviews have become, at their worst, about the revelation of the reviewer’s opinion, not about a consideration of the book… Reviews have turned into a species of autobiography, with the book under review being a pretext for personal revelation.”
Alexis singles out novelist and critic John Metcalf as a major instigator of this backlash against the supposedly elitist tradition of aesthetic critique, as Metcalf has “encouraged reviewers to vividly express their opinions, especially their unfavourable opinions, in the belief, first, that it leads to discussion and, second, that a pungent put-down is more entertaining.” Pungent put-downs and other unreflective expressions of opinion are now, Alexis laments, par for the course among the current generation of Canadian critics; he suggests that they move away from this sort of literary subjectivism and back toward the idea of shared aesthetic standards. The essay’s polemical tone and naming of names seemed sure to provoke — and certainly have. We document excerpts from the resultant, ongoing kerfuffle below. (more…)