Archive for the ‘Image Craving’ Category

Mask as Religious Garment

September 11, 2020

I might get in trouble for this, but: I can kind of understand why people would have some confusion, or even skepticism, about masks right now.  The experts did a 180 in terms of mask advice early on in the pandemic, as we all remember, and even though the guidelines have remained mostly the same for a while now (insofar as we’ve all been told to wear masks) there has been some conflicting data on the topic: for example, a recent-ish study showed that masks made of certain kinds of material were actually actively unhelpful, while different health authorities in different states have mandated mask usage in different environments, i.e. outside all the time, or only when you can’t socially distance, or even in your own home.  Recently, researchers have floated the possibility that the mask might be just not-protective enough to actually engender immunity to Covid-19 in the wearer by exposing them to small particles.  This is purely speculative and is not really relevant to the conversation at hand, just to say that I get why people would be confused, generally speaking.

Let me be clear: I believe the research that shows masks help stop the spread of Covid-19.  As someone who is not a scientist or a doctor, I don’t know exactly how the process works––I can give you a sketch but not a detailed explanation––but I buy it.  And I totally do not care about people who think that masks are bad for you because they cause your teeth to rot or your oxygen to get low or whatever else they’re saying these days, because often these people are the same “medical freedom” fighters who are always talking about the body is a miraculous healing organism and can survive cancer without chemo, so if the body can do that then surely it can breathe through a thin cloth every now and then?  Some consistency, folks, please.

For those people, and for others who struggle with masks, I would like to propose another way of viewing them: as religious garments, which are non-functional, occasionally talismanic pieces of clothing that serve an ideological purpose rather than a practical one.

Many religions feature such types of garments.  There are the famous “Temple garments,” referred to also as Mormon underwear, which I used to make fun of liberally and now would never, bequeathed to Mormons during their initial participation in an endowment ceremony.  Sartorial signifiers of religious affiliation are hugely important in Plain Anabaptist traditions––you’ll remember the joke from Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise” about buttons, although the Amish actually do wear buttons–– as well as Orthodox and, to an even greater extent, Haredi Judaism.  From kippot (yarmulkes) to shtreimels(round fur hats worn by married Hasidic men on Sabbath) to the monochromatic, floor-length dresses worn by Amish women and the suspenders worn by their husbands, Judaism and Anabaptism in particular make great use of the fashion as semiotic communicator.  The list goes on: having specific uniforms for cloistered Catholics like vestments for priests, the hijab for women in Islam, robes of specific colors for Buddhist monks, and so forth.  You get the idea.  Particularly in more conservative sects/expressions of major religions, there is an intense focus on the minute detail of the clothing, garments or accessories: for Hasidic women, how long the hair of your wig is, or whether you wear a snood or a tichel, says a great deal about where your ancestors came from, what sect you belong to, and/or how liberal you are.  Years ago, I met an Amish Mennonite convert who was also an academic sociologist who had written an entire book on the variations in Amish women’s head coverings and what they symbolized.  Though an outsider would spot the difference between a black head scarf and a gauzy white covering for a bun, the sociologist delved into differences so subtle––type of pleating, width of band––as to be completely imperceptible to the uninitiated, but deeply meaningful to the Amish themselves.

What does this type of garment do for its wearer?  There are two main purposes, and how much the wearer emphasizes one or the other depends on a number of factors including general level of religious conservatism.  First, in some cases, like with the Temple garments and tzitzit, there is the idea that they literallysupernaturally protect you from harm.  But the broader one, and the one more interesting to contemplate here, I think, is the way these garments serve as a visual shorthand for tribal affiliation.  (That can be cultural or religious tribal affiliation, but in the case of many faiths, like the Amish and Haredi Judaism, the two are so intertwined that they can be indistinguishable both for the religious person and the observer.)  There are the tiny signifiers––like the bowsworn on beaver hats by Hasidim, on which side depending on the wearer’s sect––and the more overt ones, like hijab = Muslim.  Whatever the prominence, the dress lets everyone the wearers interact with know immediately who the wearers are (in broad strokes, of course): from their ethical precepts down to the nitty gritty details of their diet.

An example from my personal life: I dress modestly, which means I basically cover my knees and elbows and wear dresses and skirts.  I don’t do this 100% of the time––I wear pants a few times a year when I’m feeling spunky, and sometimes my dresses don’t fully cover my knees, which I don’t really love but that has more to do with style than religiosity––but mostly, I follow the precept of what we call tznius, or modesty.  I definitely do notdo it because I feel like men are wanton sexual beasts and I must protect them from my skin, and I don’t even really do it because I believe Gd wants me to (the Jewish texts are not particularly persuasive when it comes to this argument).  Mostly, I do it because doing so marks me as a part of a community, it lets other people know how I identify, it tells them certain things about how we should behave together as humans interacting without my having to explain it (i.e. don’t offer me bacon-wrapped shrimp, for instance, or don’t go in for a hug if we’re not related/married and you’re a dude).  Although to be fair, modesty being as unstoppable a trend as it’s proven to be, and liberal Orthodoxy being what it is, many people might not immediately get this.

Lots of people think this stuff is the height of religious stupidity.  Why would the God or a god care what you wear?  And why would people think their choice of shirts made them more moral, or even holier?  I get that.  There are definitely cases where people obsess over the vehicle at the expense of the engine, and then, when there’s some kind of vehicular malfunction, their hypocrisy is that much more embarrassing.  Maybe sometimes they’ve confused visual piety for actual piety (in some environs, that’s understandable, because the education is sub-par, or there’s inter-generational trauma that leads to fanaticism or a general blending of cultural expression and religious expression) and they think that as long as they’re wearing the outfit, they don’t need to worry so much about behaving ethically towards others or engaging in study or being mindful of other specific religious virtues.  Kind of like the faith version of the Peltzman Effect.  But in the best case scenario, wearing distinct garments that point to their religiosity reminds the wearer that they are beholden to ideas greater than themselves, and that they should conduct themselves in an overtly dignified and considerate way particularly in public but ideally everywhere.

So this is where the mask comes in (and yes, I’m admittedly writing this thinking of the obvious overlap between Evangelical Christianity and Covid-deniers/mask skeptics): if you just can’t wrap your mind around the idea that the mask might provide us some literal protection from the virus particles, what about, instead, viewing it as a cloth that symbolizes your belief in the idea that, as members of society, we have to make a covenantto protect each other?  Your willingness to make yourself a little uncomfortable (have you ever dressed modestly in a sweltering New York City summer?) so that people will know, upon meeting you, that you are committed to conceiving of our society (micro, as in local community, and macro, as in world) as a holistic entity that needs constant vigilance and nurturing?  Your desire to show others, via how you treat your physical being, that you care about them, and that you are aligned with the tribe that values that caring?

Do I think this argument would sway those who need to hear it most?  No.  As we know, the religious people who are the most mask-averse are Evangelicals, and most of the American Evangelical world (bar the Duggars) did away with most of their outward expressions of faith a long time ago, and also have found a way to de-emphasize the Christian ideals of charity, kindness, non-resistance, and other community-oriented (versus self-oriented) principles and replace (?) them with a warped and relentless entitlement and vague sense of “liberty.”  I don’t know much about how late-era capitalist Evangelism has become what it has, but I could probably take a stab at formulating a theory if you paid me (call Siobhan).

Final observation: would this make a face shield the niqab of the mask set?  I kid!

WHAT IN THE HELL DOES YOUTUBE ALGORITHM THINK OF ME?!

August 6, 2020

Recommended video for me.  I honestly would be curious to know the answer to the above question (if an algorithm could pass judgment, that is).

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Long Post

July 19, 2020

I’ve really been hoping to do a longer post for a while now, but you know, pandemic living has got me (and basically everyone else) down.  So I’m just posting this dumb thing in hopes of looking like as diligent a blogger as Jason Kottke––better a stopgap measure to save face than nothing at all!

Here’s my thought: I saw a think piece on why Twister is the best 90s disaster movie the other day.  I say “saw” because I didn’t actually read the think piece––who has that kind of time?!––but instead just nodded in bemused agreement.  Sure, that seems reasonable to me.  (Also, what else qualifies as a 90s disaster movie?  I guess I was thinking “natural disaster,” although when you Google the phrase it suggests films like Titanic and Independence Day.)  So I put it on when I was cleaning the other day, was mildly amused for the first fifteen or so, and then just started doing something else and didn’t bother to finish it.  But what those first fifteen minutes made me realize is that I am really missing something from my life: the thrill of the chase!  Not romantic chase, of course.  More like, that feeling when you’re with your pals and you all want a glimpse of something mighty and ephemeral and then someone says, “It’s close!” and you all race to jump in your cars and you’re radioing to each other, “Make a left!” and “Don’t let it get away!”  You know, the chase.

I think maybe I just want to be a storm chaser, although I don’t love tornadoes.  A monsoon could be cool.

Good talk eh?

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Tehching Hsieh’s Lessons for Quarantine

June 2, 2020

Earlier on in #quarantinelife, I was a virtual ideas machine.  Seriously golden nuggets were just falling out of my mouth every time I spoke.  I actually was a little annoyed, because I had more ideas in the span of eight weeks than I had in the previous three years, when I actually had at least a little free time to execute them.  Now that time is basically over, which is sad but also perhaps freeing, in its way.

One of the ideas I had during the brief moment of intellectual fertility was to interview the performance artist Tehching Hsieh about what he has to say about how to live under quarantine.  Hsieh is famous for his series of One Year Performances: for one year each, he punched a time clock every hour on the hour (sometimes called Time Clock Piece), never went indoors, lived in an 11’6″ x 9′ x 8′ cell (Cage Piece) and remained tied by an 8-foot rope to fellow performance artist Linda Montano (Rope Piece), with whom he was not romantically linked at the time and actually didn’t know before the piece began (this feels important to point out).

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The one I thought spoke to the most to our current moment was the performance where he lived in the cell, because of the obvious comparison that while we were all feeling cooped up, he was quite literally cooped up: no Netflix, no sourdough starters, no Times digital subscription or Quarantine Chat or anything at all.  He didn’t even make eye contact with the visitors who were allowed in every three weeks (totaling nineteen times a year).  This is how he described his life during that year:

Thinking was the focus of this piece and was also my way of survival.  While doing this piece, thinking was my major job.  It doesn’t matter what I was thinking about, but I had to continue thinking, otherwise I would lose control not only of myself but also of the ability to handle the whole situation.  It was difficult to pass time.  I scratched 365 marks on the wall, one for each day.  I had to calculate time; although I may have broken the rule of no writing, it helped me to know how many days I had passed, how many more days I had to go.  

More:

What I needed was the use of my confined body to carry out the work, while at the same time, my mind, detached from the confinement, was free to think and to advance. I am as free in the cage as outside.  My work here is not focusing on political imprisonment or on the self-cultivation of Zen retreats, but on freedom of thinking and on letting time go by. 

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He also talked about dividing his cell into different “rooms” in his mind, and breaking up his day by going on a walk “outside” (aka around the cell) and then returning “home” (his bed).

But then the more I thought about this, the more I realized that for me, actually the most analogous situation was the piece he did with Linda Montano.  I am, after all, not alone in my quarantine, but inside a decently-sized-for-NYC-but-not-big apartment 99% of my time with two small children and my husband (so actually, my version of this would be being tied to another artist and two young monkeys).  I’m sure some young-and-in-love types would hear about this piece and be like, “Oh, that sounds so lovely, being with someone all the time!”  But my response is: OMG no.  And it turns out that actually, Hsieh and Montano ended up really disliking each other.  Hsieh puts it diplomatically (“Linda and I were exposed to each other.  That brought complexity.”) but Marina Abramovic, in supplementary material provided for the publication of the book Out of Now, which chronicles Hsieh’s work, provides more insight:

But with Tehching and Linda there was no love.  I was really puzzled by scratches above their two separate beds where they slept.  Later on, I heard that they didn’t get along and in frustration they scratched the walls with their nails.  They had made this promise and they are both very fatalistic in their work so they didn’t want to break it.  

Interestingly, my husband felt like the piece that best mirrored our current times is the Time Clock Piece.  Why?  Because he is being asked to “clock in” without any sort of actual supervision and without actually going anywhere, I think was the gist.  Not to say that Hsieh didn’t have people to whom he was accountable––usually lawyers or other third parties were in charge of making sure he was doing what he agreed to.  And my husband also pointed out, intelligently, that the homeless populations in cities affected by COVID-19 might be represented by the piece where Hsieh stays outdoors entirely for a year, as many might be trying to actively avoid shelters, where crowding makes contagion even more likely.

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So I wrote to Hsieh, asking him if maybe he’d be willing to be interviewed and tell me a bit about how he feels his art relates to this moment, etc.  And he responded quickly!  And nicely!  And said no.

The beginning of his email read: I’m open to the connection you are building between the current situation and my work, at the meantime my work is about passing time, rather than how to pass time, I’m afraid it won’t the best for me to talk about my work in relation to the current situation.

Which reads a little like fancy art world speak for, “You obviously didn’t get my point, plebeian” to me.  But yes, of course I do understand that allowing time to continue on passively is not the same thing as figuring out what to do with your time (eye roll emoji).  That doesn’t negate the obvious question here: what on earth did you think about for an entire year?!

Hope you are doing well, although we all feel constrained in a way, at least we still have free thinking.

Said a person living with two toddlers… never.

Nothing

May 1, 2020

“What is nothing?” I ask.

“Nothing is when you are given a very small portion of ice cream by an adult, and you look at the plate and at the adult and you ask for more and the adult says you have a huge portion and you say, ‘That’s it?  That’s nothing.’  And that is nothing,” says Lulu.

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Hey Willy, See the Pyramids by Maira Kalman

Eff Off

April 12, 2020

Thank you for driving home how utterly trapped I am right now.  #letitdie

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Lego Auschwitz

March 29, 2020

Libera, Lego Concentration Camp

From the beginning, Konzentrationslager caused a huge sensation, with viewers split on whether it was an important work or a travesty. Depicting genocide with a toy made people uncomfortable. Some Holocaust activists saw the work as trivializing the experiences of survivors, while others disagreed. The Jewish Museum in New York City displayed the sets for several months in 2002 as part of an exhibit on Nazi imagery in modern art.

Even LEGO joined in the criticism, complaining that [artist Zbigniew] Libera hadn’t told the company what he was intending when it donated the bricks and that this contribution didn’t constitute sponsorship as implied by the packaging’s labeling. LEGO tried to get Libera to stop displaying the work, backing down from its pressure only after the artist hired a lawyer.

From The Cult of Lego by John Baichtal and Joe Meno

Honestly

March 4, 2020

The Coronavirus lewk is this cape with gauze face mask from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Oh Please

January 6, 2020

I know that Vogue.com is not necessarily where one should be going to see reality reflected, but cmon: how could a wedding where the bride wore five outfits ever be considered “effortless”?

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The Best Metaphor for Motherhood

December 18, 2019

Is this sentence about mama elephants trying to avoid breathing exhaust fumes from Babar.

 

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