Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Teaching Mondrian and 'The Matrix'


Abstract art, so they say, hasn't been well received by the general public in the United States since the 1913 Armory Show in New York. With the likes of Picasso, Duchamp, and Cezanne, the public was not especially overjoyed by the contents. Since then, many Americans still find abstract art to be baffling, offensive, and most frequently, something of a joke.

I still get a somewhat similar reaction when teaching 20th century abstract art in the art history survey. As an art that was more interested in high concepts rather than accessibility, it can be difficult to teach to art n00bs.

That's why I find that Mondrian is actually my favorite of the abstract artists to teach in class. He was dogmatic, inflexible, and I think rather unimaginative in the end, but for me he is a perfect teaching example.


Mondrian’s art was rooted in philosophy. He was interested in Theosophy, Blavatsky, and Shoenmaekers, believing that beneath the deceptive world around us lay the hidden structure of the universe. That underlying universal truth found expression in mathematics. Think, for example, of the inevitable expressions of math in nature: the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden ratio, hidden spirals in conch shells. It now appears that even hunter-gathers participate in the Lévy walk, a mathematical pattern of movement observed in bees and sharks.

Especially important for Shoenmaekers was the visual contemplation of this hidden cosmic reality (according to White (p. 25), a result of Shoenmaekers’ background as a Catholic priest combating Protestant ‘inwardness’). Artists could access this hidden mathematical structure of the universe using that oh-so-very visual branch of math, geometry. And so Mondrian stuck with squares and rectangles, lines, and, of course, the three primary colors (the subatomic particles of color, if you will). Naturalism in painting was deceptive, a lie, and it should be the goal of artists to reveal the true cosmos that exists beneath the world around us and perpetuate that truth for others.

This is some pretty heavy stuff to teach in an introductory art history class, but I can’t help but get excited about it because it relates to my research interest in iconographic theory. Yet, how to easily get across to students the point that Mondrian paints the core elements of the universe that lay beyond the lying natural world that lies?

For me, and probably anyone born after the creation of Star Trek TNG’s holodeck, a parallel between virtual reality and Mondrian's world quickly comes to mind. This is most helpfully articulated by ‘The Matrix.’ In that movie, humans are trapped in a fake world, a world made of lies that they don’t see and cannot recognize. The entire world is a computer's creation, while humans happily putter along, oblivious.


But Neo, like Mondrian, can access the hidden structure of the world, he can ‘see’ what lies beneath. And for Neo, is it mathematics? 


No, it’s code. But, of course, what is code? Numbers. Zeros and ones.

Like Neo, Mondrian wants to reveal the hidden reality to everyone, to make it clear as day. But alas, Mondrian finds it to be beautiful and wants to celebrate it, while Neo wants to destroy it. Because in ‘The Matrix,’ that mathematical structure of the universe is just another level of deception.

Nevertheless. ‘The Matrix’ and Mondrian. It’s still a pretty rad comparison – if one were to break down the visual world into its base code, the fundamentals of visual programming, wouldn’t it just be lines, shapes, and primary colors?


Who knew Keanu Reeves could help me teach abstract art?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Here Lies Bonita, UTK Pup

Before the summer began and Poggio Colla's excavation became my primary blogging topic, I was engaged in a mini-project about what I dubbed 'heirloom archaeology.' This referred to locally significant objects in a domestic structure inhabited for over 60 years by my family. When it came to the blog, I never quite made it inside the house, mostly focusing on historically interesting objects outside in the yard, such as plantsreligious images, and tools.

There is one class of items that I did not address, however, yet an emotional and archaeologically significant one: sixty years worth of pets. Most recently Tigger, after bravely falling in battle against stray dogs, joined his predecessors in the garden. My aunt and uncle's house is not unusual in this regard, and I recently came across an unexpected example here at UTK.

I should note first that it's only been in recent years that theorists have begun to reconsider the common divide between mortuary and domestic archaeology. While cemeteries were often separated out from living areas (the tombs located outside ancient city gates being illustrative examples), ever since Jericho bodies have been buried within houses. Indeed, sometimes they ARE houses. Kostis Kourelis, for example, conceptualized the Byzantine house as one constructed not just of harder architectural materials, but one built from the organic materials of flesh, bone, and burials.The living and the lost inhabit the same space in the archaeological record far more frequently than previously recognized.

I've been thinking about mortuary archaeology lately thanks to UTK's campus, which provides several examples of a rather thought-provoking nature. First, there's the Woodland-era Native American burial mound in the UT gardens, which might date back to the 7th c. CE. Then there is the Body Farm with its in-situ remains studied by students working in forensic anthropology, together with over 2,500 human skeletons stored under the football stadium in the anthro department.

And then there is the modern burial of that domestic pet located next to the library, in what used to be the back garden of the Tyson family's home. The Neoclassical ('Colonial Classic') Tyson House is now part of the campus' office building collection. No Tysons live in it any longer and the six acres of their luxurious property, complete with a ballroom for their daughter's 1913 debut, has in the hundred years since its construction been swallowed up by the campus. That daughter Isabella had a puppy who, supposedly, her father brought home to her from a military stint in Puerto Rico. Named Bonita, the puppy would be lovingly interred in a back garden, much like pets today.

The former back garden with the back of the yellow Tyson House.

Little Bonita's grave would be attached to the deed when Isabella sold the house in the 30s, with the result that all future owners must leave it inviolate. My first thought on learning about little Bonita's spot was that it seems like a great comparative example for teachers covering ancient sanctuaries and abatons. The beautiful back garden of the Tyson home, where the city elite wandered at the beginning of the last century, is now a parking lot. A parking lot with this strange thing under a shady tree:

Here lies Bonita.

There's no inscription, there's no image, no marker with an Ode to Puppies, flowering bushes, red ferns, or other such clues as to what lies beneath. There is nothing whatsoever to indicate to the passing students that such an interesting (and rather touching) remnant of history rests here, on their path to Starbucks.

Just a boundary marker and a blank stone. I have to say its a bit strange to me that this is the case, especially at a university with a mascot that's a dog! If nothing else, it's certainly a reminder about memory, mortuary archaeology, and how easy it is to forget.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

So what did we find? 2013 Edition

You may be wondering whatever happened at Poggio Colla this summer, since I failed to post any details during the season. Let me give you a quick run down then.

This season we did not excavate on top of the hill, but instead explored the north west slope. We did this in order to investigate the earlier Etruscan period (7th c. - 6th c. BCE), since we know there was a settlement somewhere on the slopes. This area has been heavily quarried  in recent centuries, with the result that the hillside has been dramatically reshaped, what with quarries, roads, work terraces, and so on. In my trench (NW 6), we got to investigate this activity in more detail because the bedrock cuttings that were our focus turned out to be part of a deep stone quarry.

Here's a view of the trench half-way through the season. Note the clear stratigraphy: behind Sam and outside the quarry you see a very yellowish soil, whereas next to her and inside the quarry you see extremely dark, rich organic forest debris soil. After the quarry was abandoned in the 19th c., it sat open in the forest and collected run-off, branches, acorns, leaves, and so on, all of which turned into a dirt that any gardener would be ecstatic to put into their flower beds.


Of course, floating leaves were not the only thing to land inside the quarry. Part of the quarry walls collapsed inside, dumping stones of all sizes there for us to painfully remove during the excavation.

Phil Perkins contemplates a huge chunk of fallen bedrock before pick-axing out a break line as prep for the sledge hammer.
 

The stones actually mixed with a dense clay that held moisture to an extreme degree. This meant that not only did we have to sledgehammer bedrock, lift gigantic blocks, and bucket out loads of smaller stones, but we also had to deal with standing water.

Danielle and Peggy uncover a mini-pond in the trench, the first time we found standing water. Note that they are still eager and smiling.

This was a first for me. Yes, a few times in years past our contexts have gotten wet from the rain, but in this case, the water would bubble up as if coming from an underground spring whenever we removed certain stones. So we bailed and bailed bucket after bucket of grey water. At the end of each day we slunk out of the trench, covered in a foul smelling muck that dripped and plopped off of our clothing and tools. It felt a lot like excavating a well, but without the kick-ass finds and bones and egg shells.

Days later. We still hadn't found the bottom of the muck.

In the end, though, we did uncover a totally cool stone quarry, with all manner of cuts, tool marks, and niches.

Pretending it's a tomb, complete with sacrificial victims. If only.

Watching the dirt go back in on backfill day wasn't the coolest, but the students participated in the age-old archaeological tradition of throwing something in with the dirt to alert future diggers of our own activity. A few coins went in, but so too did this note:

 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Poggio Colla update from the Mugello Valley

We're two weeks into the season here at Poggio Colla, and it's time to give a proper update on life here in Vicchio. This year we are not digging on our usual hilltop, but down on the slopes, in the wilds of the forest. I'm the trench supervisor for the exciting NW6 (Northwest Slope trench 6), a gigantic hole in the ground:


The hill of Poggio Colla is covered with similar large pits because it was the site of mining during the last few centuries. Our interest in this pit grew, however, once we (i.e., Phil) recognized some noteworthy tool marks bearing a strong resemblance to those on our Phase 2 structure on the hilltop.



Digging a pre-dug pit is certainly beneficial because most of the work has already been done.  The problem, on the other hand, is that the terrain can be rather dangerous to those both excavating the edges of the trench and those simply walking along its borders. My fingers are crossed that my students continue to have good balance.

Attempting to avoid sliding into the Great Pit of Carkoon and the gaping maw of a sarlacc. Click to embiggen and enjoy Kenzie's fierce archaeology face.

Excavation is a bit slower than I hoped, with some unpleasant stratigraphy thanks to the more recent (non-ancient) individuals who dug the pit. We may not have reached the fascinating ancient finds that we all know absolutely await us beneath, but we have uncovered some real treasures nonetheless. Take, for example, Amanda's find. As she was scraping with her trowel, she excitedly announced, "I've found something!! I found something! And it has writing! It says...."


"Genuine Leather. Swiss."

A leather watch band, sans watch. I wonder which person on the excavation staff lost a watch during the last twenty years, so that it could wash down the hill and be found in our trench. Also exciting was that orange object Amanda's holding: a plastic shotgun shell. Thanks to Christina, we know that the artifact must date to the 1930s and after, since it was at that time that ammo makers began to employ plastic. A nice comparison piece came from Gretchen's trench: a shotgun shell made of lead, which our weapon's expert Christina dates to the late 19th/early 20th century.

Off-site things are pretty mellow.

Our front yard.

The especially rainy spring delayed the entire growing season. As of yet, the fields of sunflowers are simply fields of green, full of teenage plants not yet ready to show off their cheery yellow faces. I'm still in the lovely little apartment named 'Cantina,' talking archaeology trash with my house mates and carefully rationing my last Casa del Prosciutto chocolate cake (the beloved restaurant doesn't open again until the beginning of August, since the family is on vacation).
 

My house-mate Phil, eating a snack.

My temporary roommate Angela rigged up this amazing mosquito-free nest, in which she cocooned herself each night. I wasn't bothered at first, since the mosquito population was down given the cool weather at the beginning of the season, but now that it's warmed up, I've received enough mosquito bites in unmentionable places that I'm wishing Angela had left me her valuable real estate.

Living in the Tuscan countryside continues to be something strangely magical. Beautiful views, mysterious bird calls in the night, and sunrise over the Appenine's. Every corner has a surprise, including our own backyard. Yesterday I walked past a tractor to find a peach tree, laden with picture perfect fruit. Hot damn! Thank you, Mugello.
 

 
 The peach tree. Nom nom.
 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rain of Maggots

Yes. You read that right.

Today in my trench two cicadas crawled out of some holes, still in their skin. Throughout the day the noise got louder and louder. We joked that by excavating our pit we'd released a plague.

It was funny until a storm rolled in, and it started raining maggots.

As in, the larvae of flies. Turns out they like to hang out in the forest, munching on leaves, and when an occasional thunderstorm comes along, they get washed out of the trees onto the heads and shoulders of unsuspecting students.

I'm sure you can imagine the results. Absolute shrieking, running about, flapping of hands, total hysteria and tears.

Want proof? Have a look at our ride home afterwards:

video


 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Baracca tales

Several years back, the excavation of Poggio Colla invested in an aluminum shed in order to protect its field tools from the elements. As an object made of metal sheets, it proved a major trial to carry the bits to the top of the hill where the tools are actually used. Since then, the shed has survived in varying states of preservation from year to year.

Until last year, of course, when we arrived to find the baracca ('hut') totally upended. It took us a week to make it past the horror and rebuild the abused structure. Much sweat and love went into the making of it and it became what I believe is the strongest version yet to grace the hill top. It even has a earthen embankment to keep it sturdy.

This year I was sure that the baracca would be in perfect condition, but alas for human intervention. Someone decided to use part of the roof to build what we think is a deer blind.



But the real problem is that we aren't even excavating on the hill this season, instead we're much further down the slope. So far down the slope that its way too far to carry tools back and forth every day. And thus we need a new baracca.

 
Gretchen and Phil tie up some supporting posts for the roof.
 
So we stole back the deer blind piece, the door, and one or two extra sheets that we had chucked in the woods. Add a few logs from the old sieve tripods, knot some ropes, and voila, a pseudo-baracca that will have to do for now.



Let's hope there aren't any thunderstorms in the near future, as the new shed seems a bit open. In fact, it's been noted that it looks more like a tiki bar and could use a few strategically placed coconuts and liquor bottles. So far it's working, though, so wish us luck!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Heirloom Archaeology: The Yard Edition Pt. 2, St. Francis

When I grew up, I assumed everyone had a St. Francis in their yard. We had one. Others in my family had one. When I asked who he was and why he was there, I was told that he protected and encouraged happy wildlife, that he would bring bounty to our little garden. He brought good luck to the yard and the squirrels and the morning doves.

Garden statues of holy figures are a tradition especially loved by Catholics. The concept and general idea behind them will be familiar to those studying ancient shrines for nymphs and other locally sacred beings.



In our family, St. Francis is the dominant garden statue and his presence can be traced to one particular image. It's the most 'sacred' in the family because its the oldest and it reaches back to the elder generation's childhood. It's been through hurricanes and moves, has been broken and reassembled, but somehow its still standing. It's the talismanic Athena Polias of the clan.

The statue of St. Francis has lived in the garden of the ancestral home's courtyard. The courtyard itself has gone through numerous changes over the years. Back in the day ('50s) there was even a palm tree in the middle.


This is where the grown ups sipped their cocktails: Myrtle Rask (my grandmother) and Anna Mae Sirl (great-grandmother).

But St. Francis was there, his toes in a bird bath, surveying his domain. He spent the years encouraging all the tropical plants to go wild, watching over the tiny lizards zipping across the patio, and providing a perch for song birds come to raid the bird feeder.



Analysis of the photographic evidence shows that nowadays St. Francis is in almost the exact same location, with some of the exact same plants still thriving under his protection.

St. Francis in 1958.


Best of all, he's still protecting the little animals :)