By on August 17th, 2013


Xu Bing 01 600 px


Xu Bing’s Phoenix is worth seeing with your own eyes.  Mass has been instilled with grace, a legendary Chinese bird carries a message about China today, a playful artwork is dead serious.

It’s installed at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts through October 27.  Read more about Xu Bing and see more images in my post here.

Xu Bing 03  600 px

Let’s start with the curves.  In an age when a pile of random bricks or bright-wrapped candies can get displayed as art Xu Bing and his team have labored to refine the details of their two behemoth phoenixes.  They’re made of construction-site rubbish.  If you could stand them on end they’d equal a nine- and a ten-story building.  Yet the fluidity of these fabric plumes convinces you of air currents.  It’s no accident — it’s superb artistry that offers us this lilting vision.

Xu Bing 04 600 px

Same with the metal.  Here curving detritus is made lyrical.  Those grungy arcs: beauty inherent and found.  The white dots you see are LEDs that trace the forms.  If you visit closer to the exhibit’s closing date [October 27] it may be dark enough by Mass MoCA’s closing time that you can appreciate the nocturnal plumage.

Xu Bing 06 630 pxY

More of a curvaceous tail feather

Xu Bing 02 600 px

This last image is an example of the carnival flair in the artwork.  Each attachment to the ceiling has a bright orange pulley and vivid blue-trimmed yellow strap.


I won’t report here on Xu Bing’s other works simultaneously on display.  They’re as varied as cherry pie and loggers’ boots and convinced me of this man’s intelligence and belief in what he does.  This too is something to experience.


if you go:

Other Art

The Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA has Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History.  In my view no visit to Mass MoCA should pass without a visit to the estimable Clark.  The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both praise the show.   Through September 8.


The Bridle Path, White Mountains, by Winslow Homer

This unfamiliar Homer painting arrested me.  The sunlight limning the palfrey’s legs is delicate, intense, a bravura touch by a phenomenal painter.

Where to stay

I’ve by no means tried all the options around North Adams but when I return I’ll go back to The Porches Inn across the street from Mass MoCA.  All of our party enjoyed it.  I can’t resist adding a shot of the tile artwork on their garage building.  The artist is Mike Glier.  I’d love to see more of his tile work online.  My apologies for the poor images: iPhone, poor light.  The heads of these birds are a glorious blue.

Mike Glier 02 400 px

Mike Glier 01 400 px

Behind The Porches front desk.

Porches front desk  400 px

Eating in North Adams

We had great hamburgers, mussels, quaffs and service at Public eat+drink.

By on December 18th, 2012


Northeaster by Winslow Homer       via WikiCommons

My last blogpost got me looking at seascapes and how intensely painters have shown us the muscles and moods of the sea.   The examples here show raw water, that ever-heaving force covering most of our planet.  The exception is a Winslow Homer, Gulf Stream, too apt to leave out.  A man in a broken-masted boat, the sea churning with sharks, a water spout on the horizon.  Power and peril.

There’s a subgroup of seascapes depicting the great wooden ships that began stitching the continents together.  Outriders of globalization.  They started a great intermingling of goods, ores, plants and animals that bent human history like a giant pipe-wrench.   One forgets how transformative the sea lanes were before steel hulls and railroad tracks.  Paved roads.  Cargos in the skies.

A subset of these paintings is seascapes of ships floundering in massive storms.  We hear so little about tragedies at sea — have they stopped happening?  Or are our hearts and fears focused away from the old fears of watery depths and vital supplies that never arrive?

The Japanese tsunami of 2011 gave us a heart-stopping view of oceanic force.  Here are paintings that show how masterfully a painter can conjure the power of oceans with the power of paint.

Max Jensen Großes, Marinestück         via WikiCommons

Atlantic Storm by John SInger Sargent     via Interface

Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer    via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Seal Rock by Albert Bierstadt             via WikiCommons


look further;

Impact of early intercontinental shipping

  • •  The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr.
  •      “Thirty years ago, Alfred Crosby published a small work that illuminated a simple point, that the most important changes brought on by the voyages of Columbus were not social or political, but biological in nature. The book told the story of how 1492 sparked the movement of organisms, both large and small, in both directions across the Atlantic. This Columbian exchange, between the Old World and the New, changed the history of our planet drastically and forever.

  •  The book The Columbian Exchange changed the field of history drastically and forever as well. It has become one of the foundational works in the burgeoning field of environmental history, and it remains one of the canonical texts for the study of world history. This 30th anniversary edition of The Columbian Exchange includes a new preface from the author, reflecting on the book and its creation, and a new foreword by J. R. McNeill that demonstrates how Crosby established a brand new perspective for understanding ecological and social events. As the foreword indicates, The Columbian Exchange remains a vital book, a small work that contains within the inspiration for future examinations into what happens when two peoples, separated by time and space, finally meet.”        via Amazon
  • •  on Wikipedia here and here
See also:



By on December 13th, 2012

The Herring Net by Winslow Homer                    via Wikimedia

In Winslow Homer’s The Herring Net you don’t see the mens’ faces, but their hats take on the wet sheen of fish.  A beautiful passage of painting.  And in all that thunderous sea attention is lavished on the cold reality of toiling humans in its midst.

Homer is among the great American painters.  Look for his compassionate love of humans, his drama, his telling use of light and temperamental seas.


The herrings in the painting are as unalive as the boat.  Props.  They reminded me of an image I’d seen yesterday on the BBC Nature site.  The story is about humpback whales mass feeding on herring in a Norwegian fjord.  The sounds of the breathing humpbacks all over the fjord.

Herrings flee hunting humpback whales near Norway        via BBC Nature

In this photo

“You have no clue where [the whales] are before you see hundreds of scared herrings jumping out of the water, followed by humpbacks with wide open mouths.”                                  via BBC Nature

An eloquent image.  Who knew that panicked fish would fling themselves into thin air?  And in such numbers.

Humpbacks cooperate in hunting and have developed a method of rounding up highly concentrated masses of prey that is called bubble-net feeding. The hunting members of a pod form a circle 10-100 feet (3.1-31 m) across and about 50 feet (15 m) under the water. Then the humpbacks blow a wall of bubbles as they swim to the surface in a spiral path. The cylindrical wall of bubbles makes the trapped krill, plankton, and/or small fish move to the surface of the water in a giant, concentrated mass.               via Enchanted Learning

Humpback whale bubble net seen from above      via Neutrinos for Breakfast

A single humpback making a bubble net      via Neutrinos for Breakfast


But wait, we were talking about herrings.  This animation shows that juvenile herring have a hunting choreography of their own.

Herring Synchropredation animation by Mr Kils       via Wikipedia

Juvenile herring hunt for the very alert and evasive copepods [crustaceans 1-2 millimetres long] in schools: The copepods can sense with their antennae the pressure wave of the approaching herring and react with a fast escape jump.  The length of the jump is quite consistent.  The fish arrange in a grid of this characteristic jumplength.  The copepods can dart for about 80 times before they tire out.  It takes 60 milliseconds to spread out the antennae again, and this timeslot is is utilized by the herring to finally snap a copepod.  A single juvenile herring would never be able to catch a large copepod.                    via Wikipedia

There is an Atlantic herring but it turns out that other species can be meant by the term herring as well. So the sardines you stir into a pasta sauce may not be strictly Clupea harengus but will still taste mighty fine. Herring played a pivotal role in the histories of marine fisheries in Europe, and early in the twentieth century was fundamental to the evolution of fisheries science.  [Wikipedia]
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called Massive Motions about the millions of creatures who migrate seasonally.  I like to think about the amount of energy implicit on our green Earth.  The ergs that life generates daily  here.  Think of the Martian desolation and then think that the impact energy of a small mosquito flying into a wall is about an erg.  Earth has Life and all the ergs that Life entails.  Compare the ill-fated mosquito to a pack of 40-ton humpback whales blasting upwards in a bubble net.  The same whales who migrate 16,000 miles yearly.  Ergs.  By definition life cannot be inert.  To belong on a planet that has life is to exist inside the great pulse where young herring hunt prey in calculated grids and whale round up prey — including herring — in up-swooping spirals.
I’m not daft enough to believe in a bosomy goddess Gaea, but the interconnections of a living planet are profound.  Life creates energy, life expends energy.  Mars is not a roistering world.


Herring Coda for Booklovers

Bookcover of Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros   via

In this sea a barrel is sinking, and in this barrel is a man.  The barrel is a herring barrel and Lawrence Norfolk’s novel is notable for its herring lore, amongst a hundred other things.  The novel has no easy comparison.   A masterful, boggling, language-loving compendium of such imagination that your inner jaw will drop.  It’s a feast, a romp, a crazy tale.  If you don’t require a quick read treat yourself to this book.

If you need more encouragement, his four historical novels have been translated into 24 languages.  The fourth book, John Saturnall’s Feast, was just released in September.  I hope to find it under the Christmas tree.


look further:

Winslow Homer


Humpback whales

Gaea [I prefer the -ea spelling]
Lawrence Norfolk
  • About Norfolk
  • Lawrence Norfolk: A life in writing  in The Guardian, September 7, 2012
  • per Amazon:  (see the site for embedded links)
  • Lawrence Norfolk (born 1963) is a British novelist known for historical works with complex plots and intricate detail. His novels also feature an unusually large vocabulary.In 1992 he won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, Lemprière’s Dictionary, about events surrounding the publication, in 1788, of John Lemprière’s Bibliotheca Classica on classical mythology and history. The novel starts out as a detective story and mixes historical elements with steampunk-style fiction.It imagines the writing of Lemprière’s dictionary as tied to the founding of the British East India Company and the Siege of La Rochelle generations before; it also visits the Austro-Turkish War.Norfolk based his second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, on the story of an actual animal; see Dürer’s Rhinoceros. Themes in the work include the lost city of Vineta in the Baltic, the sack of Prato, and the Benin bronze-making culture on the river Niger.The third novel, In the Shape of a Boar, juxtaposes the flight of a Bukovina Jew in World War II with the legend of Atalanta in Calydon.