Illumination

From Illumination. This is an audio installation in the psych ward of the prison hospital. This part of Alcatraz is normally closed to the public.
From Illumination, an audio installation in the psych ward of the prison hospital–part of Alcatraz which is normally closed to the public.

“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”

— Ai Weiwei

After driving carpools to schools on opposite ends of town last Thursday morning, I put a feline fecal sample on ice in the trunk–oh! my glamorous life!–and made my way through the pouring rain toward Pier 39. As a San Francisco resident, I avoid that part of town like the plague. It’s crowded, kitschy, and leaves me feeling swindled and somewhat culpable. Did you make your way from some other continent to eat substandard, overpriced clam chowder out of a sourdough bowl? I’m sorry. I am.

This time it was worth the effort and the heinous traffic, however. This time I was accompanying an art class on a field trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz.

It had felt like an indefensible luxury to take time from what I was supposed to be doing–working, tending to three sick foster kittens, preparing my presentation for the next day. What business did I have squandering four hours on art?

What I had forgotten is that art is not a luxury at all.

Art is good for the soul. Making it, viewing it, contemplating it, discussing it. It is the means for communication when mere words cannot convey what needs to be said. Art can speak truth to power, it can enlighten, it can challenge; it can soothe or amuse or complement the sofa. I’m not saying that all art is important, but rather that being able to do it and see it and think about it is vital. Where Ai Weiwei lives, his ability to make art is tenuous. He has been imprisoned and, after his release, continually harassed. His studio has been torn down by the local government in Beijing. He is forbidden to leave China.

I recall being in a snit once in art school, stressed out about some goofy project I had concocted–making portraits of George Bush by drizzling motor oil, of all things. “What am I doing noodling around in the garage while people are starving out there in the world?” I lamented to a friend. And she responded, “What sort of world would it be without any art?”

I think we both have a point.

Though unable to leave his country, Ai has somehow managed to create a provocative and politically charged show at a provocative and politically charged place. There are kites and legos and audio installations. You can sit in a cell and hear orchestral compositions written in a concentration camp or, a few cells down, hear songs by Fela Kuti, and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. You can read about the charges against 176 political prisoners and exiles from around the world, and write them letters while sitting in the prison dining hall. These are “the heroes of our time,” as Ai says. They have had the courage to speak up, and they are paying a high price.

Ai Weiwei’s vision has landed on our windowsill. Go and see it if you can. 1.4 billion people will never lay eyes on it.

The head of the main kite in With Wind.
The head of the main kite in With Wind.
From Trace, comprised of 176 portraits made from Legos.
From Trace, comprised of 176 portraits made from Legos.
Stay Tuned.
From Stay Tuned. It seemed to me that the walls were singing.

 

Advertisements

Bird by Bird

A different bird.
A different bird.                                                                                            ©2012 Beret Olsen

I was up half the night for reasons unbeknownst to me, then startled early from my sliver of sleep by the odd thumps of an imaginary intruder. Heart pounding, I dismissed my fears, forcing myself to lie still as a board for another forty-five minutes.

Today, bleary-eyed and unproductive, I parceled 15 minutes to close my eyes and breathe. My plan? To reboot and arise again, convincing myself I felt refreshed and clearheaded. But the second my head touched the pillow, the strangest sound curdled in my cat’s throat. Next thing I knew, a flailing blob of black fur hurled itself across the room and a small bird began dive-bombing my eyes. Swell.

Clearly a moment of zen was out of the question. Instead, I heaved myself back into a vertical position and set about finding the bird. I had to get that creature out of the house before the cat disemboweled it on the bed.

The weird thing was, I couldn’t find it. The cat was no help, either. She was just as perplexed as I was.

How long are you supposed to look for a trapped bird?

Eventually I gave up and settled back in front of the computer to knock out some work.

After five minutes of relative peace, there was a little scrambling sound, followed by something hopping on my foot.

You might imagine that the problem was now solved–bird located!–except it can be quite a production to convince a bird to try the open door rather than flying into shelving units and closed windows. It’s like trying to shepherd a drunk friend out of a party, and they keep curling up on a pile of shoes or wandering off into a closet.

Later, I found myself ruminating on the frequent appearance of birds. They are everywhere for me these days. I hear them mentioned in a turn of phrase, a discussion of Halloween costumes, or see one staring at me while I eat breakfast. Two surfed on the hood of my car for a block or two after I stopped for coffee recently. I suppose I shouldn’t mention that the bird pictured above was killed in a brutal showdown in my bedroom and then hidden by my triumphant feline friend. I didn’t find that poor soul for a few weeks. And that’s not all. Almost every book I have read in the past few months has featured birds…including:

  • Little Bird of Heaven–Joyce Carol Oates
  • The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt (Not finished. No spoilers!)
  • Ocean at the End of the Lane–Neil Gaiman
  • Bird by Bird–Anne Lamott
  • Imperfect Birds–Anne Lamott

Even Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, had a chapter about a parrot that I read and reread repeatedly throughout the summer. And on my book list to read next? When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I swear. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I also read Gone Girl, which has no significant bird that I recall).

If they were all crows, I would assume something terrible were about to befall me. I’m hoping I attract birds for a more benign reason. Perhaps I smell like a flower, or a heap of birdseed.

In any event, it’s time to get a feeder and a bell for the cat.

Home

My assignment today: shoot “home.”

©Beret Olsen 2014
©2014 Beret Olsen

I was desperate to avoid a Hallmark moment, so I turned my camera lens toward the ugliest place I could think of–my sink full of dirty dishes.

I started photographing the surface bubbles in a pan full of oil and water, switching eventually to manual focus. Suddenly, it was possible to see the dying daisies in the window reflected and refracted in the bubbles. Despite my best efforts, then, I was overcome by my own homemade Hallmark moment. Taking a breath, looking slowly and deeply into the bottom of this messy life barrel, I found something of wonder.