On ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’

19 10 2009

The Emperor of Ice-Cream *
by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In a classical mimetic theory, the thing being imitated is meaningful, but it is meaningful only in the way that any object or event is inherently meaningful.  Steven’s poem here, however, is not classically mimetic, for while there is the image of an actual ice-cream maker evoked in the poem, it is not the literal connotations of the ice-cream man that Stevens is using, rather it is the symbolic connotations. These symbolic connotations, unlike, say ‘goldenness’ or ‘a dark and shadowy figure’, are not inherent in the object itself. Which is to say: the object doesn’t have an inherent symbolic meaning. Instead the symbolism of ‘the emperor of ice-cream’ is particular to Stevens, and thus the poem attempts to explain the image, while at the same time evoking the emotional sense that originally lead to the phrase being created.

The ice-cream maker in this poem is not a mere maker of ice-cream. The poem names him twice, as well as in the title, as the ‘Emperor’ of ice-cream.  He is lord over a dominion. In the first stanza the dominion he presides over is the one where ‘wenches dawdle’ and boys ‘bring flowers’ and when ‘be’ becomes ‘finale of seem’, and they wed, ‘the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’ His dominion in the first stanza, in fact, is the natural process of ‘boy meets girl’; the process of falling in love. The making of ice-cream and its consumption becomes a metaphorical image representing the process of adolescent courtship, contained within the quotidian experience of ice-cream, dresses, and flowers. Thus the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ is that god, or natural force, which oversees such interactions.

In the final stanza, however, we have something else. The images are of battered ‘glass knobs’, and an embroidered sheet (embroidered sometime in the past), and the cold, horny feet of an old woman who has plainly died. The objects here, the knobs, the sheet, the feet and their coldness, the lamp, are all signals of the end of life, the stillness of death, and yet still here ‘the only emperor’ still ‘is the emperor of ice-cream.’ The same emperor who oversaw the beginning of relationships presides over the cold, still end of a single love. The image of the emperor is re-imagined, retrospectively, and the ice-cream imagined at the beginning is re-imagined at the end in the coldness of the feet and the warmth of the lamp. The ice-cream, then, becomes mortality itself, and time the lamp that shines to melt it. The emperor of ice-cream is the cold fact of life and death. As was said previously, however, this is not a universal metaphor. Instead the image is Stevens’ alone, a personal interpretation figured outwards through physical/visual metaphor.

The works of Imagism, then, are plainly not just mimetic in the classical sense. In classical mimetic theory the objects of the poem were written into the world, and their significance came from the associations of worldly objects and behaviour (Abrams, 1953). In Imagism the objects are written into the mind, with the Romantic colouring of ‘things’ by the poet, and they operate dynamically within the mind also. In this way it is possible to see Imagism as being a combination of Mimetic theories of the imitated object/action in poetry and the romantic attachment to the poet.

~Chris

* STEVENS, W. 2001. Harmonium, London, Faber and Faber.





Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

27 08 2009

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

                                                            -Shakespeare

 One of the great maxims of our age* should be: when in doubt, quote Shakespeare. It’s not one, at least that I’m aware of, but in the busy storm of life, or in a lack of inspiration, Shakespeare is a safe harbour to sail into…

 Any Poet in a storm? **

 Yes? No. No, sorry. Forget I said that. *cough*

 Anyway, enough has already been written about the romantically titled Sonnet 18 (above) such that adding my meagre voice to the mix is hardly going to contribute to the overall understanding of the poem. In short, however,  the poem asks whether it should compare the subject to a summer’s day, and then describes why the subject is much ‘fairer’ than that, as a summers day is shorter, rougher, and more likely to decline than the person that it is being compared to. In the same way that a person may be flattered with faint praise the poem has the effect of praising the subject through the fact that a summers day compares unfavourably to them, though it is perhaps fairer to say that the person compares to the ideal summers day, one that is not rough, or brief, or intemperate.

Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18

The poem is, ostensibly, as much about writing poetry as it is about the subjects ‘fairness’. Where the first half denigrates the act of poetic comparison, and the poet’s ability to find an apt symbol, the second half of the poem brags that by expressing the subject in poetry they have essentially immortalised them.

 But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

This may be a bit of ‘street’ poetry criticism. But with this sonnet I feel like there are serviceable lines, for eg. ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’, and then there are the ‘Money Quotes’ like ‘Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade’. Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff. It’s all great, don’t get me wrong. This is Shakespeare, the man had a skill. But some phrases are more… transcendent than others. ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of may,’ is another one. Rhythm, rhyme, and meaning all come together into one finely tuned phrase. The beauty nearly obscures the actual meaning of the line.

 Neither sentiments – that the person being described is too beautiful to be described aptly, and the immortalisation in poetry of said beauty – are original to Shakespeare. Ovid’s Tristia is the much cited [suspected] inspiration for the second theme.

 What is more interesting is the gentle battleground being drawn across this poem as it relates to the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality. Actually, it’s not really a battleground. It’s more of a vague musing on the part of those Shakespeare scholars who have plainly exhausted all other possible avenues of speculation. The matter breaks down, more or less, into the order of the Sonnets as they were published.

 Sonnet 18 is clearly a poem of intense adoration, to the point where it is very often used as an example of classical love poetry. On the other hand, the poem is traditionally understood as being part of a series of sonnets called ‘The Fair Youth Sequence’ which are dedicated to a male friend of Shakespeare. This leads some scholars to think that, mayhap, the Bard preferred a bit o’ the ‘love that dare not speak its name.’ the counter argument is, of course, fuck it, Shakespeare was married. Then again, he ran away from his wife to live amidst the merry thespians of London. All in all, it’s fairly inconclusive. The other complication is the suggestion that the order of the poems was arbitrarily changed by the publisher who just threw number 18 in after 17 because, hell, it seemed to fit. No one’s going to read too much into it, right?

 This is, very possibly, the least important question in Shakespeare scholarship. You can also tell that this is one of his earlier sonnets. As time went on, Shakey*** became less fond of the end stopping he uses frequently in this poem and gets more into the use of enjambment. It is said, though I’ve put almost negative effort thus far into verifying the claim, that REAL Shakespeare scholars can date his plays and sonnets by how heavily enjambed they are. Cool, eh?

 ~Chris.

  *What ARE the great maxims of our age? I have no idea. Don’t spit into the wind? No, that’s more a maxim for EVERY age. I know: Don’t go up against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line! and stay out of the Fire Swamp. Also, you can’t be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself. 

 ** I Ought to be Bard.

 *** Otherwise known as The Bard, or DJ Spears.





New Fiction: Caught by Karen-Anne Coleman

25 08 2009

We have started publishing serialised fiction here at the Woolf and Maus (yes, just like Charles Dickens) and to kick off our series we are very excited to launch Caught, by Karen-Anne Coleman (that’s actually me – so in some ways writing this post does feel rather like the royal ‘we’).

Caught is set in Sydney, and tells the story of a remarkable photographer and his even more remarkable camera, through the eyes of his friend and landlady, Katy. As Katy learns more about this mystical man who lives in her basement, she discovers that he has touched the lives of other people in her neighbourhood too – in more ways than she would care to know. Caught is about what we mean to one another, how we love and how we let one another live.

The first chapter of Caught is available below, free to download in pdf format. For the next instalment, please click back soon.

Please also leave a comment below if you liked this work, telling us why!

Cheers

Click here to download the first chapter of Caught:

Caught Chapter One by K A Coleman





More from our modern JFK

12 08 2009

Since I wrote on Justin F. Kern’s photography over the weekend, the man himself responded with a small collection that shows just how the potential that I had eagerly anticipated in his increasingly sophisticated work is being realised. I had ask to see even more facets of our environment, and progressively complex ways of representing them. For the first time in this collection, sensuality genuinely bursts forth from his peach-coloured waves. Their hard, yet warm polymer surface offsets the organic tactility of his bark and tree trunks. Though they both focus on a curved surface, they juxtapose natural growth to man-made development, the adamantine and unyeilding to the brittle and crumbling, and two entirely different concepts of layering – one about decay (the revelation of new layers beneath dying others) and the other about intended revelation (where the creator only ‘lifts the skirts’ on the creation as much as s/he is willing to). The rainbow effect of lighting as it bursts through the spectrum of trees is breathtaking as it unifies some of these opposing elements. In this image, domesticated nature and artificial light come together to highlight the beauty of both human and natural forms of creation. Finally, the sailboat, so perfectly framed by it’s view from the jetty, is merely a destination at the end of the eye’s delightful meandering through an appreciation of the surfaces that have lead it there.

Bravo JFK! These are stunning.

I think it’s soon time for an exhibition.





Snapshots of an Aussie JFK

9 08 2009

Justin F. Kern (JFK) is a lanky bloke with a loud laugh and eerily spider-like limbs, which, until recently I had only seen wrapped around a camera when the man was attending weddings, ceremonious birthdays and other noteworthy occasions. Watching him during these functions, as he leapt, dived and squeezed himself into a range of necessary positions for the ‘ideal shot’, it was easy to tell that he had a good eye for framing, aesthetic and that most elusive of qualities – the human element. This final ephemeral ingredient is always the defining factor in taking a ‘technically good’ photograph into the realms of magic. Having said that, working with a bride and groom, or beaming flower girl, it often seems that anyone with a big enough lens at these ‘special occasions’ can be taking these kinds images ‘filled with meaning’ – so what is the difference between a photographer and an amateur having a good day?

The debate goes back to the beginning of photography – just ask William Henry Fox Talbot, a pioneer photographer of the 1800s, or looked at another way, a very rich man with spare time and money up his sleeve to spend on a hobby. Was our dear Talbot, now revered as one of the grandfather’s of photography, a professional or amateur? And if he did become a professional, there must have been some time when he was still practicing as an amateur, training his skill – yes? Once again we return to another age old debate: the question of the artist or creator as genius vs hardworking and persistent labourer. The institutions of the ages have perpetuated the myth that artists, for instance, occupy a space almost of sainthood – in their ability to create something worthy of ‘holy’ reverence, objects which become relics in the museum space that should be determinedly conserved over the years as some meaningful production from the ‘artist’s hand’. The conceptual, and often historical, meaning of the work often has less relationship to the work itself than it does to the contemporary reception of the work. Though it may be sensually ‘uplifting’ (or not as is the case-in-point of postmodernism) to view a beautiful artwork it does not necessarily tell us much about why it was important historically.

Returning to our modern JFK, we begin to ask ourselves, why does the work of this young Australian, at the beginning of his experimental photographic career, intrigue us? The answer is emotive, as all good answers to intriguing visual imagery should be. There is a combination of heartstrings being pulled on in these images. In those of the outback I feel the connection to Ansel Adams, and joy at my own country’s landscape bursting so in outrageously celebratory colours. In the images of the pipes, emerging man, and light drawn onto the playing fields I appreciate the humour and irreverence brought to a visual plane and it’s representation of a country’s spirit. The fire images – at once beautiful and terrifying in their meaning, and the city lights that dazzle – all add to a multi-faceted portrait of our country that encapsulates many landscapes, experiences and moods.

What would I like to see from our JFK? More. I cannot to wait to see how his work matures, most importantly as he educates himself in other photographers and artists of Australia, and the globe, and uses their work to inform his own. I want to see many more faces of our nation and how they might be represented in increasingly complex ways. Most of all I want to see how he develops this theme of humour balanced with the land and people – ephemeral spirit emerging from within that which is actually seen – what I would call the visual equivalent of ‘reading between the lines’.

And what would I like to see from the rest of Australia? JFK, and other photographers like him, not only on gallery walls – but with a crowd standing around appreciating what the images have to offer them and their story.





Anne Landa exhibition AGNSW

3 08 2009

In the recent Double Take: Anne Landa exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, there were a number of works which caught the imagination of humanists and technologists alike.

Mari Velonaki’s interactive cube installations are a particular wonder of light and movement. These little robotics react to the viewer’s touch: as you pick them up and move them around they ‘speak’ to each other by emitting sounds and slowly revealling handwriting across their lighted faces. Entitled ‘Circle D: Fragile Balances’ 2008, each of these mysterious messages was comprised of fragments from personal letters donated by Velonaki’s peers and friends, along with verse by Anna Akhmatova. Each of the cubes has a name, Bird and Fish, construsting characters in a relationship that is both loving and strained. Using bluetooth wireless connections, the spatial relation that Bird and Fish have to one another at any one time determines their ‘communication’ and thus their expression of emotion. The viewer (or perhaps user is a more appropriate term) is able to have some control over this relationship, and increasingly so, as Velonaki invites suggestions for future letters to be included in the work’s futher development. The comment here on our relationships, and our lives within the technological age, achieve both contemporaniety and timelessness. In this version however, the slowness of the media perhaps hampers the full realisation of the concept, I eagerly await Velonaki’s next instalment on the project.

The following is a video of Velonaki speaking about the project as it has developed since working with the curator’s at the Art Gallery of NSW:

Click here to see an student interview with Mari Velonaki.

Cao Fei’s film ‘What Are They Doing Here?’ 2005 uses perhaps a more traditional form of mediabut is not less touching in its ability to reach both the personal and the universal. As a commission of the Siemens Arts Program, Fei chose to intervene directly in Siemens’ OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan, Guangdong province. She entered the factory and encouraged the employees there to express their dreams, fantasies, and desires in the form of dance, song and performance. Her resulting film is separated into three parts, drawing out the reality of present day life in the factory, in contrast to dreams and hopes of the future. Fei’s greatest skill is in her ability to capture the monotony of manual labour in the same frames as lie her highly detailed and empathetic portraits of the workers. She has intimately brought both everyday experience and psychological reality to the screen.

The Double Take exhibition featured a number of artists, more that I have noted here. Check out the Art Gallery’s archived page for Double Take here.

In the recent Double Take: Anne Landa exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, there were a number of works which caught the imagination of humanists and technologists alike.

Mari Velonaki’s interactive cube installations are a particular wonder of light and movement. These little robotics react to the viewer’s touch: as you pick them up and move them around they ‘speak’ to each other by emitting sounds and slowly revealling handwriting across their lighted faces. Entitled Circle D: Fragile Balances 2008, each of these mysterious messages was comprised of fragments from personal letters donated by Velonaki’s peers and friends, along with verse by Anna Akhmatova. Each of the cubes has a name, Bird and Fish, construsting characters in a relationship that is both loving and strained. Using bluetooth wireless connections, the spatial relation that Bird and Fish have to one another at any one time determines their ‘communication’ and thus their expression of emotion. The viewer (or perhaps user is a more appropriate term) is able to have some control over this relationship, and increasingly so, as Velonaki invites suggestions for future letters to be included in the work’s futher development. The comment here on our relationships, and our lives within the technological age, achieve both contemporaniety and timelessness. In this version however, the slowness of the media perhaps hampers the full realisation of the concept, I eagerly await Velonaki’s next instalment on the project.

Cao Fei’s

Check out the Art Gallery’s archived page for Double Take here.

http://www.artnet.com/artist/156397/cao-fei.html

http://artnews.com.au/details.php?e=1561

http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archived/2009/double_take

http://www.csr.acfr.usyd.edu.au/people/MariVelonaki.htmAs a commission of the Siemens Arts Program What are they doing here? in 2005, Cao Fei chose to intervene directly in Siemens’ OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan, Guangdong province. She encouraged the factory workers to express their dreams, fantasies, and desires in the form of dance, song and performance.





Bill Henson and Controversial Art

31 07 2009
This is NOT a Bill Henson photograph

This is NOT a Bill Henson photograph

Following my post on

Lolita from the other week, my blog-buddy, Karen, brought up the topic of perception vs. representation, and how cultural values affect the nature of controversy. The question of differentiation between art and pornography is a Pandora’s Box of associated issues that I don’t care to open at this time. However, I am interested in the nature of controversy, and I think it’s worth a little idle musing.

We have to ask, first, the question of why such controversies occur. I think that cultural values are essential for a controversy like the Bill Henson case (For a description of the case, go to the Wikipedia article: here), as the notion of inappropriateness in art is entirely a response to such values. The photographs that Henson took, then, are controversial specifically because they were perceived as having violated some sort of culturally agreed value or norm.

The question is over whether the production of these photographs, which included nude or semi nude young girls, was itself a violation of these values (were underage teenagers manipulated by the artist into compromised situations, and are the artworks a documentary of actual abuse) or were they merely a representation of a violation of these values?

The fact that young actresses were used to represent young people in moments of vulnerability or discomfiting intimacy might lend credence to the notion that actual violation has taken place. The question of whether the use of a young/underage actress in photographs portraying this style of sexualised content, then, becomes a legal issue. If a crime had been committed then there is no controversy, merely a crime to be dealt with by the legal system.

If no laws are broken in the creation of the content, however, the question becomes not whether any violation of a person’s rights has taken place, but, rather, whether such representations constitute a breach of a moral/social code.

This is much more of a grey area. The social norms on what is considered appropriate modes of representation can be breached without any violation of the Law. It is a matter of personal judgement, and as such can be argued back and forth almost endlessly. The question becomes about what level of nudity is appropriate for photographs of children? What effects will participating in such photographs have on the children? And what are the social implications of the photographs themselves?

Were the photographs actually promoting the sexualisation/fetish-isation** of children? I don’t believe they were, but I’m not sure that the questions I listed above are resolvable without further data. You could argue that it is not appropriate for a child to be photographed in a nude, or semi-nude, fashion. But if no breach of codes of conduct takes place in the production then you would have a tough time arguing that any harm was done. And in the absence of harm, who gets to decide what the standard of appropriateness becomes?   The question of appropriateness, then, becomes entirely mutable. What might be considered appropriate for one young person might be inappropriate for another, and so there can be no a priori assumption about what is generally allowable.

Assuming that no crimes were committed in the production of the photographs,  as was determined in the Police’s decision not to prosecute:

On 6 June 2008 it was reported in The Age that police will not prosecute Bill Henson over his photographs of naked teenagers, after they were declared “mild and justified” and given a PG rating[16] by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, suggesting viewing by children under the age of 16 is suitable with parental guidance.[17]

And assuming as well that the question of right and wrong in creating such images is a judgement based on personal values, the question is about whether a representation of violation constitutes a breach of a moral or social code. The argument that is usually made in this discussion is that representations of- (lets call it ‘undesirable behaviour’, seeing as people who object to it usually see it that way)- encourage actual acts of such behaviour. These claims tend to be unconvincing, however, as it’s nearly impossible to prove the causes of any specific behavioural act. It’s even less applicable in Henson’s case, where it would be difficult to imagine a mass influence of his photographs on a young teen audience.

As an aside, when the misogynist serial killer Ted Bundy was finally arrested and convicted he made the statement that his acts were motivated by pornography, and these statements are much used by opponents of pornography/pornographic art. However the counter argument has been made that those who make these claims after committing sexual or violent crimes are seeking only to transfer guilt from themselves onto something else. Indeed Ted Bundy’s claim to this effect was made as a last minute attempt to stay his own execution. The argument that the material has deleterious effects can still be made, however, and the book is far from closed on what the long and short term implications are.

In the absence of actual evidence of harm, in either the making or consumption of such depictions, these controversies seem to boil down to one central issue. The artwork was depicting a contentious area of behaviour, and some people just don’t like that. The same issue arises from novels such as Lolita and American Psycho, where the concept of harm is even further removed from real-life actions.* Some people just don’t like reading it, and while I applaud the desire to keep young people out of harms way, which is what motivated the original response to the Henson exhibition, I have an issue with people who make the claim that such art should not be made. I want to tell them that you, as a human, are not a monkey, and that if you’re not really enjoying it, like, not enjoying it at all, like, reading/viewing it is not just uncomfortable but also offensive, then put the book down, leave the art gallery, hell, ask for your money back if you have to, and go do something else.

~Chris

**I may have just invented this word, I don’t know.

*You can’t claim that a fictional character’s exploitation is the same as a real actress’, for example.