HOT VAN GOGH SUMMER

Even downstairs at the entrance you can hear the sound spilling out of the main hall. Closer and closer, up the stairs to the first cocktail bar, the volume gets louder and louder. We stand in line for drinks and peer in through the door. Everyone in the hall is arrayed in social-distancing circles, their masked faces softly aglow with drifts of colored light, listening to the worst. soundtrack. in. the. world. The space is acoustically merciless – a concrete box that used to be an auto dealership – but even so, the astonishingly seamless visuals and uneven, caustically brassy audio seem to have come from two entirely different productions/budget categories. The songs aim in the general direction of some blunt and simple idea of culture or tortured artistry or Frenchness – Edith Piaf blares into the cement vault while a projection of a painted sun whirls across the sky like a cancan dancer. Avec mes souvenirs j’ai allumé le feu.

Immersive Van Gogh – the pocketbook-squeezing global art/entertainment phenomenon that you may have seen on the side of a bus near you – turns Vincent Van Gogh’s more-or-less flat paintings into 360-degree projections by copying and pasting elements in them and stretching the background to fit. The painting The Night Cafe – peaceful and lonely, lit by warm light that somehow seems to exclude the viewer – expands into a hotel ballroom, with ranks of tables stretching back to far distant walls. Vincent’s humble bedroom becomes a presidential suite. Then the shapes subtly detach and slide past each other, like shapes do if you take acid and stare at the wallpaper. There’s a lysergic sense of precariousness, too – a creeping feeling that the warmth of the cafe lamp is not as robust as it seems, like all it would take is a misplaced word and we would all be having a Bad Trip.

Vincent Van Gogh's The Night Cafe, a painting in reds, yellows and greens of a cafe at night with a few patrons scattered across a few tables

The show makes heavy use of the self-portraits: thirty haunted reproachful Vincents stare at you, a hundred surly intense Vincents, a million piercing stares. They have found a candle in one of the paintings and transposed it onto Vincent’s hat – he floats in the darkness, multiplied, looking like a crazy person, because who else would put a candle on a straw hat (never mind that he never did)? A little drawing of a fly slides around, its buzzing overwhelming the soundtrack in the universal student-film shorthand for a descent into madness. Red light drips down the walls – really. I wish I were kidding.

IVG cannot leave well enough alone. The movement that already exists in the paintings is tediously literalized, with writhing cypresses and writhing olive trees, writhing wheatfields and writhing beards. The irises are coming to get you – they leave their cool bed and approach with menace. The whirling stars, lord, so many stars! And if three cypress trees in a golden field are perfect, then eighteen cypress trees must be even better! This math is as spurious as everything else in the show, but a shimmering panorama of one of the wheatfields did afford me one little moment of transcendence – one moment of feeling paradoxically embraced by the vast space of a Van Gogh painting, bathed in golden light, submerged in the French summer of 1889. Then something else happened and it was all gone. The pace of the thing is antithetical to contemplation, like a timed tour in which every group is hustled past the sights so that the next group can come in on schedule. (This is not, strictly logistically, true – the show is on a perpetual loop, and even the cheapest ticket entitles one to enter at any point and stay as long as one likes. I dare you.)

The first fifteen hits on a shopping search for "Van Gogh cypresses 1889"

The audacious, relentless marketing seems at times almost to be making fun of poor Vincent – his terrible lifetime sales figures are written on the wall, somewhere between the ticket counter and the first cocktail bar. What a sap! He couldn’t even sell a Van Gogh! Why didn’t he just take out some bus ads? There are at least five different production companies running Immersive Van Gogh shows, in 40 US cities, plus more overseas – it’s a gold rush, a free-for-all, apparently made possible by his work’s all being in the public domain. The phenomenon has been received in certain quarters as a strong argument in favor of perpetual copyright.

And I hated it! But I’m glad I went. That same week, I saw a show of art and artifacts from the volcanic entombment of Pompeii, which has fascinated me ever since I was a little ghoul. It was impeccable, and yet I haven’t thought about the Pompeii show even 10% as much as I’ve thought of Immersive Van Gogh.

The central thesis of modern art culture – Duchamp has a lot to answer for – is “you might be a sucker.” Be careful of earnestness and feelings – someone might be making fun of you! See these two splattery canvases? Which one was painted by a genius, and which one was painted by a monkey? Which one is a deathless masterpiece, and which one is a dropcloth? Artsy rich people love those smirking stories about how some poor person who has to work as a custodian threw away some expensive piece of installation art because they didn’t understand it was art. Right wing rich people love to mock them right back for fetishizing pieces of trash instead of paintings of Jesus. Somewhere in the mess, The Market and its cultural arbiters are deciding what is important and worth your investment. Quietly in the corner sits the question, the only question: does it move you?

Here is what I think: Art is not a thing. Art is not anything. Art is not things at all. Art is a way of seeing. Art is a pair of goggles through which you can look at anything and say, what if someone made that… to talk to me? What if that was an attempt to communicate? How would I feel about it – this painting, that wall, the refrigerator, all these chairs? You can take your art goggles to the art museum, but you can also take them everywhere else. Pick something right now – stare at something near you, anything at all – and try to imagine it in the last art museum you were in, next to a little card on the wall. Really give it a good look. Can you read it as art? How do you feel about that?

A screenshot from Hennessy Youngman's "How to Make An Art," the only art criticism video you will ever need. The screenshot is a photo of a Doris Salcedo piece consisting of 1,500 wooden chairs stacked up in an alleyway in Istanbul. Superimposed over the photo is a bright red ART. ART!!!
Hennessy Youngman’s “How to Make an Art.” is the only piece of cultural criticism you need

Note: you don’t have to use the art goggles on something just because it’s in the art museum. You’re allowed to walk right on by anything that doesn’t move you. You’re also allowed to stop by the drinking fountain and consider this fascinating viewer-activated sculpture. (This is an old hobbyhorse of mine; I wish the Internet Archive had saved my white-hot indignation, on my former blog circa 2009, at the very idea of the Clyfford Still museum.)

If art is a financial investment, you might buy high and sell low – that is, you might be a sucker. If art is a password to a certain social class, you might say or enjoy the wrong thing and be laughed at by your peers – you might be a sucker. Anytime it matters what someone else thinks of what you think, the yawning chasm of potential suckerdom opens at your feet – don’t trip! But I’ll say it again and again, to anyone who might listen and everyone else too: anything that moves you is art. You are the only one who can decide to put the goggles on. You’re allowed to take them off whenever you want. I don’t have to like what you like, you don’t have to like what I like, but it is some snobby classist bullshit for anyone to say that you are a sucker if you are stirred in any way by Immersive Van Gogh. I have a degree in art, so I’m officially allowed to say this, and in fact it’s the only thing that I ever want to use my infinitely tiny hard-won art world authority for: Open the door. Open the door. Open the door. Let it all outside.

Speaking of outside! When you’re finished with the Immersive Van Gogh show, the exit is out the other side – you can’t go back the way you came. Plebes return their borrowed seat cushions. People with fancy tickets take their gift bags, rattlingly empty but awkwardly large to accommodate the rolled poster and fake sunflower and yours-to-keep seat cushion. (We got two cushions, and at first they seemed identical to each other, but later I noticed that one has black vinyl piping at the seams and a different grade of foam, which spun me off into many reveries about the international Immersive Van Gogh supply chain. The cushions are logo-branded and I use them all the time and I love watching people looking at them and deciding whether or not to mention it).

We went out past the gift shop, where the youthful staff were futzing with Starry Night umbrellas and, I wanted to think, making the sort of enduring friendships one makes at shitty jobs. The next door opened – surprise! – on the roof, where the cafe will sell you a French-ish ham sandwich. (What do Dutch people eat, anyway? Irrelevant.) I felt sheepish for suddenly appearing right next to someone’s table and they seemed to feel sheepish for having ordered food. We fled across the cafe and down the stairs.

When we finally emerged onto the immersive 360-degree cruddy sidewalk there was a guy gliding past on an electric scooter, wearing a Louis Vuitton logo sweater, carrying a Pomeranian tucked under his arm. “Van Gogh who gives a fuck-o,” he said, pleased, at about 3 miles per hour.

reading: Dani Shapiro on writing, Eric Pallant on sourdough, and if you haven’t had enough of IVG, especially if you clicked on that Bloomberg link above and need another perspective, the always-stellar Defector has got you
eating: Berkeley Bowl chocolate-chipotle almonds, birthday cake, and some honestly pretty terrible homemade ma po tofu (I’m not sure what happened)
listening to: the perpetually astonishing Neli Andreeva singing “Devoiko Mari Hubava,” slowed down to 50% in a vain hope of somehow understanding what she’s doing, which is sort of a junior version of cutting open the nightingale to see how it makes the song
looking at: Vincent Vincent Vincent cypress cypress cypress cypress cypress cypress
making: a pair of extremely practical floral-print jeans

Blague.

Whoa, the plankton is alive again, with appetite renewed! Herewith, a heretofore unpublished blog post I wrote eight years ago when I thought this day was going to come a lot sooner. Please do stay tuned for future updates; they will… well, at this point in 2022 we should all know better than to make any sort of predictions ever again, but let me assure you that my intentions are much better than they were in 2014.

So it’s been awhile!  On the blague!  It broke, and then it broke some more, and I sort of stopped caring, and then it broke/caught on fire/was sucked down a black hole semi-permanently, and as I’m writing this, I don’t actually know what state it’s in – will my backup work?  I mean, has my backup worked?  Or will I end up hand-scraping old entries off of the Internet Archive and re-potting each of them on a shiny new WordPress1 installation somewhere? [2022 note: hiiiiiiii from n00b WordPress land] Or will I just let the Internet Archive take care of my posterity and start again all new right here?  I mean, have I already let the Internet Archive etcetera?  WHO KNOWS?  You do!  But I don’t yet! [2022 note: god bless the Internet Archive but they stopped scraping Ravenous Plankton in 2009] I am composing this entry in the irksomely tiny “new” gmail compose window – if you want to know what’s killing civilized correspondence, incidentally, it’s line breaks every twelve syllables like it wuz a goddamn haiku in here – anyway I am composing this entry in the gmail window prior to any actual resurrection of le blague du Ravenousplankton, entirely because I saw something you guys oh man I saw something I just *have* to tell you about.2

This past Friday, by which I mean March 7th, 2014, was the fifteen-year anniversary of Salesforce dot com.  How do I know that?  Because they sponsored a party at Justin Herman Plaza involving a semi truck full of donated canned goods, and a live performance by Kansas City’s finest export, JANELLE MONÁE.  Janelle Monáe!  Was she awesome?  Of course she was.

The crowd was full of Salesforce people smiling and handing out free water.  I found it a little creepy, though I was thirsty, especially standing there for half an hour waiting for it to start.  (The internet told me it started at noon.  Sarah Davis said it started at 12:30.  Shouldn’t I already know who to listen to?)  The bunches of balloons and logo mascot and t-shirts and tote bags all made me worry that there would be a lot of corporate pep rally before we got to the main event, but they kept it concise: a little back-patting by one of the honchos, and a mayoral proclamation presented to them by the actual mayor (I did not know those came with a personal presentation – that must not leave the mayor a lot of time to do other things).  The honcho declared Janelle Monáe to be his favorite artist – even all his favorite artists, rolled up in one – “she’s Michael Jackson!  She’s Prince!3  She’s Ella Fitzgerald!” And, advantageously, 67% less dead and thus proportionately more available to play your party!  [2022 note: *wipes away a tear*]

Then the honchos left the stage – as did, alas, the ASL interpreter4 – and the show began.  The band – guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, horns, back-up singers who looked like mod astronaut Supremes – posted up at their positions, the PA played Thus Spake Zarathustra, and our heroine was wheeled onto the stage in a tearaway straitjacket and a cloud of smoke.  YES. YES YES YES. Why, o why did I not bring binoculars?  Because they would interfere with my dancing, I suppose. They tore into a song which I did not recognize, but should have – then one that I did recognize, but couldn’t name offhand – then “Sincerely, Jane,” which is one of my all time favorites and sort of made me cry5 – and after that I lost count in sweaty rapture.

I can tell you that they played “Electric Lady,” which is clearly supposed to be the anthem but has a whiff of obligation around it (this one’s for the ladies) that made it much less interesting than the rest.  She’s got plenty of other socially-conscious songs that don’t sound like she set out to EmpowerTM anyone – the abovementioned “Sincerely, Jane,” with its lament for the vicious circles of racism and poverty and its gorgeous pleading chorus, or even “Cold War,” whose lyrics don’t exactly jump off the page but which I totally buy when she’s singing it. Or, come to think of it, “Tightrope,” which is more or less about not letting the bastards get you down (an extra dimension added by the video, which is set in a dystopian mental hospital).  Or “Q.U.E.E.N.” – “am I a freak?” – featuring fellow noted music weirdo Erykah Badu and the line “I’m tired of Marvin askin’ me what’s goin’ on.”  Or, you guys, all of these videos have millions of views on youtube.  Did she get famous while I wasn’t looking? [2022 note: yes!] How come none of those millions of people were at the show on Friday?  The crowd danced like they were dancing to their boss’s favorite band.  After five songs half of them left and went back to their desks.

I was so baffled.  Because you guys she was so good!  She was so riveting!  She has that awesome show-person-ship6 that makes it impossible to look away from her no matter what she’s doing, but she’s also got the musical chops to back it up.  Get this: in the middle of the set – the middle of the set! – they covered the motherfucking Jackson 5.  And then they played some more of their own songs.  How was the cover?  Spot on – she sings like an 11-year-old Michael Jackson, and dances better – but it was so spot on, it was almost like “fuck you guys, here you go, we can do this song you want because you’ve heard it a thousand times, now listen to something new for a minute.”

Which was a perfect way to deal with it, really.  I don’t mean that they tossed off that cover, either.  They played it with the requisite glee – can you even hear the bassline to “I Want You Back” without grinning? – but without artsiness or mindless imitation. They played it like Olympic figure skaters do triple axels in warmups, like calligraphers write the grocery list, like a major-league batting champion in the back yard hitting baseballs out into the night, over and over, just because it feels good to do something beautiful. 

…and then they played some more of their own songs.  It was just about the nerviest and most fitting display of artistic chutzpah I had ever seen – until ten minutes later when one of the backup dancers came out and wrapped Janelle Monáe in a cape and they finished the song with a few laser-cut-precision hit-it-and-quit-it’s7 and my jaw just dropped and I laughed and laughed – and then she threw in some zoot suit moves and hi-de-hi-de-hi’s and for a moment my fevered brain thought she was somehow commenting on Black celebrity8 and its fraught relationship with the mostly-white pocketbook of power9 [2022 note: of course she was, among other things], until she grabbed the beribboned mic stand and did a little Steven Tyler, directly into a little Joe Strummer, and then galloped off the stage, covered in glory.

——————————————

1 – yr correspondent having learned something about supporting small independent businesses in industries I only marginally understand – though, don’t get me wrong, it’s that last part that’s the problem. If I had more modern web savvy, and cared more, I would have noticed that my beloved cool web host was crashing and burning well before my own little garden plot went with it

2 – but probably not urgently enough to get the RP back online any sooner than, hm, July.  I’m guessing, of course.  How did I do? [2022 note: not very well!]

3 – the comparison is common, but I actually hear quite a bit of musical difference [2022 note: I am heroically resisting deleting this with the benefit of “Make Me Feel”-based hindsight] – Prince is solidly funk-based, Janelle Monáe is much more rooted in soul, early rocknroll and the occasional swoop into movie soundtracks. But they are both beautiful fashionable sui generis Black pop stars, which puts them in the same small category, I guess. [2022 note: *wild sobbing*]

4 – it would’ve been cruel to just throw any ASL interpreter at the show, but a prepared ASL interpreter would’ve had a great time, I think – ASL translations of pop songs are their own particular art form

5 – what is with nearly everything sort of making me cry these days?  Happy things?  It is ruining my tuff image.

6 – ok there’s one more thing she has in common with Prince

7 – apparently James Brown kept his band in lockstep by fining them, and sometimes firing them, when they fucked up. I suppose one should be grateful that the Godfather of Soul didn’t have them whacked.

8 – mostly specifically *musical* Black celebrity; I did not see her dunk anything, except metaphorically.

9 – you know, soul and the selling of it; working for The Man even as an independent entertainer; the most powerful Black man in the world is a boring politician [2022 note: OMG please come back, all is forgiven] and the richest rappers are barely junior investment bankers on good years; all that crap

reading: Sara Gran, Infinite Blacktop (to prepare for her new one!); Diane Kochilas, The Greek Vegetarian; Bessel A. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score; Sari Solden, A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD
eating: dude it is my 30th vegetarianiversary! I’ve been vegetarian for 30 years today! yesterday I had very elegant vegan sushi with Erin, to demonstrate just how much I’ve grown and gotten sophisticated in the past three decades; today I ate buttered macaroni with too much cheese like I did four times a week when I was 13
listening to: Du Blonde (is anyone else comparing her most recent album to David Bowie?), Rufus Wainwright’s “Peaceful Afternoon,” Smurph’s stellar 2021 post-punk mix
looking at:
the awesome Helen O’Leary show at Patricia Sweetow Gallery, all faceted landscapes like Diebenkorn and Thibaud and Max Ernst’s “Garden Airplane Trap” but I like Helen O’Leary better – her work frolics at the border between painting and sculpture but also demonstrates why everything is actually a sculpture and how sculpture actually stomps all over painting (sorry painting)
making:
well dang mostly I guess just this website right now but hold the phone, don’t go too far, more soon!