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escher in lego

Some more Escher... Andrew Lipson and Daniel Shiu have been building Escher prints in Lego, including 'Balcony', 'Ascending and Descending' and 'Waterfall'.

While most of their creations needed some form of photographic or software trickery to achieve Escher's optical illusions, 'Relativity' is just Lego (though definitely in the advanced category).

M.C. Escher's 'Relativity' in Lego

escher's metamorphoses

What I didn't know: there are three different versions of M.C. Escher's wall-covering woodcut 'Metamorphosis'. Interesting to see the development of this work, which seems to combine all Escher's creativity and tesselation genius in one extravagant print.

The first one, 'Metamorphosis I' (1937), is still of 'normal' proportions, depicting a single transition from a coastal town via a block pattern to an Oriental figure. The town is inspired by the tiny Italian town Atrani, which had already been the subject of an earlier Escher print ('Atrani, Coast of Amalfi').

M.C. Escher - Metamorphosis I

'Metamorphosis II' (1939-40), measuring almost four meters in length, features a whole series of transitions, both morphing patterns and pictorial transitions. The town of Atrani reappears, this time transforming into a chessboard.

M.C. Escher - Metamorphosis II (detail)

Elaborating still further, 'Metamorphosis III' (1967-68) is almost seven meters long and interposes a number of new transitions into the earlier version. New elements include, for example, birds becoming sailing boats becoming fish. Would be awesome to see this one up on a wall sometime.

M.C. Escher - Metamorphosis III (detail)

Behold and scroll through full-length images here:

Update: With 'Metamorphosis III' recently added, all three versions are now on display at Escher in het Paleis in The Hague.

Update: Still haven't verified this with my own eyes, but reportedly a giant print of 'Metamorphosis III', measuring 48 meters in length, is on display at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport. It's behind customs, in Lounge 4.

repose

F. Scott Fitzgerald's great tragic novel of Roaring Twenties Americans in Europe, 'Tender is the Night', has some of its best moments in his sharp social observations. Take the scene where the protagonist, Dick Diver, an American psychoanalyst who has married into the high society of Europe, claims to be the only American with repose.

They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose - Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with. Things looked black for them - not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face.

"We ought never to have given up waxed mustaches," said Abe. "Nevertheless Dick isn't the only man with repose -"

"Oh, yes, I am."

"- but he may be the only sober man with repose."

A well-dressed American had come in with two women who swooped and fluttered unselfconsciously around a table. Suddenly, he perceived that he was being watched - whereupon his hand rose spasmodically and arranged a phantom bulge in his necktie. In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

(...)

"You see," said Dick smugly, "I'm the only one."

Ironically, this repose is precisely what Diver will be losing in his subsequent downfall, when the relationship with his wife - a former patient of him - starts unravelling and he must face the fact that he was bought by her family as a personal doctor.

By the end, looking back on this scene, it seems to contain the moral of the story: money doesn't buy repose. It is what separates the American nouveau riche from the old European nobility, and it is shown painfully in Diver's ugly antics in the final part of the book. (If embarassing behavior is the opposite of having repose, Diver embodies it, loudly and drunkenly.) But at the same time, the European repose conceals a whole spectrum of eccentricity and mental illness, as witnessed in Diver's wife and the patients that flock to his clinic in Switzerland.

Thus Fitzgerald paints a curious mutual dependency between America and Europe, like the lame trying to cure the blind while the blind tries to teach the lame to walk suavely. Both fail, but in Fitzgerald's story the American fails much more miserably. The story's cynical conclusion is that Diver's wife emerges from their broken marriage, perhaps not cured but at least stronger, more balanced, while he himself, the once idealistic psychoanalyst, has lost everything and drifts away into obscurity.

Owing to Fitzgerald's long struggle with 'Tender is the Night', two versions of the book are in print (and available online): the original edition (1934) using flashbacks, and a revised edition (1951) which tells the story chronologically. Though the first version is more suspenseful, the second version brings out more clearly the 'rise and fall' structure of the story, which has an almost Greek tragedy inevitability.

bein' green

North Sea Jazz hasn't been an exclusively jazz festival for a long time, expanding ever further into soul, funk, blues, world music and catch-all 'fusion'. By now, in its new and spacious home in Rotterdam, it's nothing surprising to see Paul Simon, Chaka Khan and George Benson headlining on the same evening.

Meanwhile the smaller stages yield such discoveries as Toto Bona Lokua, the global collaboration between Richard Bona (Cameroon), Gerald Toto (France/Martinique) and Lokua Kanza (Congo), with an African-Carribean sound and extended jamming reminding of Orchestra Baobab.

And then - to complete the NSJ spectrum - you stumble upon a solo performance by Dutch singer Leine, tucked away on a side stage and almost too fragile for its surroundings. Her own breezily soulful songs were complemented by an endearing rendition of the oft-covered Kermit the Frog classic 'Bein' Green'.

It's not that easy bein' green
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves
When I think it could be nicer being red or yellow or gold
Or something much more colorful like that

It's not easy bein' green
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things
And people tend to pass you over 'cause you're
Not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water
Or stars in the sky

But green's the color of Spring
And green can be cool and friendly-like
And green can be big like an ocean
Or important like a mountain
Or tall like a tree

When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why
But why wonder, why wonder?
I am green and it'll do fine
It's beautiful!
And I think it's what I want to be

(Watch the original Sesame Street version here.)

Update: NRC has a podcast with Leine.

throwing self on heap of hay

One of the founding fathers of modern cinema, Eadweard Muybridge famously introduced motion into photography by pioneering the technique of stop-action photography. (The principle behind his technique is still used, with some computer help; a recent example being the bullet sequence in 'The Matrix'.)

Eadweard Muybridge - 'Galloping Horse'

His life's work, a collection titled 'Animal Locomotion' and containing 20,000 photos in all, is a curious mix of biomechanical science and Victorian naughtiness. Various animals and humans are shown in characteristic movement: horses and cats running, birds flying and nude males conducting sports (jumping, rowing, throwing, boxing, fencing) -- while nude females are shown waving a handkerchief or putting on a dress.

Here the scientific titles of his plates turn slightly ridiculous, with descriptions like 'Movements, Female, Miscellaneous phases of the toilet' or 'Movements, Female, Lifting shawl, putting around shoulders, turning.' But the most hilarious example must be the one titled 'Throwing Self on Heap of Hay', showing a woman, well... throwing herself on a heap of hay. (A partial animation of this plate, alas lacking the actual 'throwing herself', can be found here.)

Eadweard Muybridge - 'Throwing Self on Heap of Hay'

Described by a contemporary as "Walt Whitman ready to play King Lear," Muybridge's biography reads like an improbable adventure novel. His death, like his life, befitted his eccentric genius: after returning to England, he died in 1904 while building a model of the Great Lakes in his backyard.

UPenn, which at the time provided many of Muybridge's models, has a great Muybridge Collection.

Stanford Magazine has an interesting article on Muybridge, 'The Man Who Stopped Time'.

real snail mail

A "slow art" project by boredomresearch, RealSnailMail is "the world's first webmail service using live snails." Your e-mail could take days or even weeks to get delivered - if it gets there at all. (Apparently one of the RFID-outfitted snails hasn't delivered a single message yet.) Meanwhile you can watch the snailcam and ponder the meaning of instant communication...

So, drop me a line ;)

Official project launch is at Siggraph next month.

Via Neural and BBC.

morocco: gnawa

Back to Morocco, where the traditional music of gnawa, or gnaoua, provides a fascinating representation of the different ethnic and religious groups that have shaped it. Having just missed the annual Festival Gnaoua d'Essaouira, we were lucky to catch some glimpses of gnawa at the Festival des Musiques Sacrées du Monde at Fes, as well as at the Djeema el Fna in Marrakech (see earlier post).

As a religious order, the Gnawa are descendants of Sub-Saharan slaves brought to Northern Africa during the Islamic expansion - perhaps going back to Sultan Ahmed el-Mansur's conquest of the Songhai empire (approximately modern Mali) in the sixteenth century. While the Gnawa adopted Islam, and were influenced by the Sufi mystical tradition, they also continued to practice African shamanistic healing ceremonies involving trance-inducing music, singing and dancing. These all-night sessions called Lila - which are still practiced today - are said to have resemblances to voodoo ceremonies.

Mohamed Tabal - 'Hamida Boussou'

Hence, gnawa music is a deeply religious mix of African, Sufi and Berber traditions, but most of all it is music of the desert. Minimalistic and repetitive, these hypnotic incantations conjure images of the lonesome expanse and the harsh beauty of the Sahara.

Interestingly, the Essaouira Festival brings in blues, jazz and reggae musicians to further mix gnawa into a true (for lack of a better term) world music, with influences from literally all corners of the globe.

Ibiblio has a great multimedia site called Gnawa Stories with audio and video samples.

(The painting by Mohamed Tabal, a Gnawa painter, is titled 'Hamida Boussou', after the legendary gnawa maâlem.)