A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, November 11, 2011

In Honor of All Who Have Served...

Front page of the NY Times on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

Today is the anniversary of Armistice Day commemorating the armistice signed between the Allies of WWI and Germany at Compiègne, France in 1918.  It took effect at 11:00 A.M. in the morning - the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month".  While this reflects the ceasefire on the Western Front, hostilities continued across the Russian Empire and parts of the Ottoman Empire among other areas.

Canadians in downtown Toronto celebrate in 1918.

After WWII, the name was changed to Veterans Day in the U.S.  It is known as Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth, and remains Armistice Day in Belgium and France.  It is customary to observe two minutes of silence at 11:00 A.M. local time to honor the millions of people who died in the war.

President Eisenhower on June 1, 1954 signing HR7786,
which changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day.

The red remembrance poppy became a symbol of Remembrance Day.  These poppies grew in profusion across Flanders in some of the worst battlefields in WWI.  The poem "In Flanders Fields" inspired the symbol, although it is not definitively known who wrote it.

Peace is the most desirous state in the world, and everyone honors those who fought and gave their lives for it.  Today is a unique day, as it is 11/11/11.  So at 11:00 A.M. on 11/11/11, we should all observe the customary silence.  Two minutes of silence is little compensation, but throw your heart and mind into it and give thanks to those who sacrificed their lives in all wars.  And pray for worldwide peace.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Leaf Art

Although papercutting is an old art genre, and one practiced in cultures the world over, modern artists are seeking new ways to create with the technique.  A gorgeous, but more fragile way, is to cut leaves.

Huang Tai Shang claims to have originated the folk art form, and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1994.  Most Asian pieces are made from the Chinar tree, native to India and Pakistan as well as China, which is veined similar to a maple leaf.  The veins are made part of the design.

These leaves are picked in autumn, but only the ones which show no insect damage.  They are dried away from the sun for ten months, then boiled several hours to kill bacteria and any small worms and to soften them.  Once the leaves are ready, the artist peels off some of the outer layers until a translucent layer remains.

After carving, the leaves are carefully dried, but only about 40% make it without damage.  The carved leaves are then waxed to help preserve them.  The curing process is involved, as is the actual carving, which make these art pieces amazing.

But the art of leafcutting is also being done in the West.  Lorenzo Duran was inspired by both Asian and European papercutting traditions.  He has an ongoing project that he called Naturayarte.  He is self-taught, and claims his work is based on intuition, rather than reason.

Duran has learned to pick thick leaves, which he then washes, dries, and puts it in a press.  While the leaf is in the press he affixes a paper drawing to it.  He then begins to cut through the drawing sheet and attached leaf with a very sharp scalpel. This is very delicate and careful work as the leaves can break and   his time and efforts wasted.  Removing the sheet of paper when the cutting is done is the most crucial part, as the sheet has to be very carefully peeled off.

Duran sells his work through his website.  Other artists in the West are now creating the delicate work, often sold in folk art shops and museums.  Items sell for as little as $25 for a simple piece, up to several hundred dollars.  Longal Craft Company in Hebei, China will also do commissions.

Another of Duran's pieces.

Or, one can try to carve leaves themselves.  Only the very patient should attempt this, but the results may well be worth it.  If you are a stranger to frustration, this may be the medium for you.

Asian leaf art courtesy of Lonagal Craft Company.
Lorenzo Duran's work courtesy of his website.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Little Pissers

Manneken Pis is a very famous landmark in Brussels, Belgium.  The name is from the Dutch dialect Marols, spoken in Brussels, and means literally "little man pee". He is known as "le Petit Julien" in French.  The bronze fountain sculpture is of a little boy urinating.

The approximately two-foot sculpture was designed by Hieronimus Duquesnoy and was installed in the fountain in 1618 or 1619.  The original bronze is kept at the Maison du Roi (Broodhuis in Dutch), the site of a bakery in the 13th century, then an administrative hall, and now a museum.  This is because the statue has been stolen many times.  The current fountain statue is a copy that was made in 1965.

Het Broodhuis.  Image courtesy of this site

There are many legends told about the basis for the statue.  One is that the young two-year-old Duke Godefrey III of Leuven was placed in a basket and hung in a tree when his troops were at battle in 1142.  He urinated on the opposing troops, who then lost the battle.  A similar story is from the 14th century when Brussels was under siege.  A young boy spied on the attackers as they placed explosives at the city walls.  He then peed on the lit fuses, saving the city.

Dressed in an orange costume to reflect Belgian pride.

Two similar tales are about a lost little boy.  In the first, a rich merchant and his family were visiting Brussels when his little boy got lost.  The locals formed a search party and eventually found him urinating in a garden.  The grateful merchant had the fountain built.  The second features a mother who went shopping and lost her little boy.  Frantic, she insisted on getting a city-wide search underway and he was found urinating at a street corner.  The story was passed on until commemorated by the fountain.

In a martial arts costume.

Yet another legend tells of a young boy awakened by a fire, who urinated on it thus saving the king's castle.  Reminiscent of the little Dutch boy who put his finger in a dyke, another story has the little boy inserting his penis into a dam with a hole in it, again saving the city.

Dressed as Santa.

So popular is this little guy, that several times a week he is dressed in costume. The schedule of his wardrobe changes are posted on railings around the fountain, and his hundreds of costumes are permanently displayed in the City Museum. Although the oldest costume in the collection is from the 17th century, establishing the ritual as an old custom, today the young man has become quite the "fashionisto".  His hundreds of costumes are managed by "The Friends of Manneken-Pis", who also select several new designs to be made each year.  The changing of costumes is a ceremony accompanied by a brass band.  Occasionally the statue is hooked up to a keg of beer, and cups are given to passersby.

There are similar statues elsewhere in the world.  There is a contender for an older one from Geraardsbergen, also in Belgium.  Tokushima, Japan, which is a sister city of Brussels, was given one by the Belgian embassy.  There is an exact replica in front of a restaurant in Bali.  The figure has been replicated so many times that it is a well-known piece available at many garden and fountain centers in a variety of materials.

A Japanese version on the platform of the Hamamatsucho station in Tokyo.

In the interest of equality, Denis-Adrien Debouvrie created a female counterpart. She is in an obscure cul-de-sac in Brussels, and is known as Jeanneke Pis.  She was created in 1985, and erected in 1987.  A little under a meter tall, she is virtually unknown.

Jeanneke Pis.  Image courtesy of this site.

So here's to children and nature and natural acts.  May the statues urinate for centuries to come!

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Damanhur - The Past is Present

The huge glass dome of the Hall of Mirrors.  Image courtesy of
the Daily Mail.

Looking for a religious community where your depth of involvement is up to you? Do you like art?  Do you like Italy?  There's a place for you...

The Hall of the Earth.  Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Damanhur is in the Piedmont area of Italy, about 30 miles north of Turin in the foothills of the Alps.  It has no spiritual leader, but it has a constitution and its own currency, called the Credito.  It was founded in 1975 by Oberto Airaudi (who now goes by the name Falco) with a total of 24 followers, and now has about 1,000 followers.  It was a secret organization until 1992, when its existence was made known.

A column in the Hall of Mirrors.
Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

They have an underground temple complex that was begun in absolute secrecy in 1978.  Since it was secret, it had no official approval, so once the government stumbled onto it, all work was ceased, except the art work.  Eventually, retroactive permission was given.  It has been called the 8th wonder of the world by the Italian government.

There are nine ornate temples on five levels which narrate the history of humanity. They are linked by decorated tunnels.  When Airaudi was a boy he claimed to have had visions of a past life with awesome temples which were inhabited by a highly evolved community that worked for a common good.  He decided to recreate his visions.  He learned excavation techniques by digging on his parents' property.  While working successfully as an insurance broker, he searched for the ideal site.  When he found it he enlisted the help of like-minded people and the temples were dug.  Volunteers came from all over, working without formal plans, and setting up small businesses to pay for the work.  Thus began the society of Damanhur.

It was named after an ancient Egyptian city, known in ancient Egyptian scripts as "Di Men Hor",  a center for the worship of the Egyptian god Horus.  Located 99 miles NW of Cairo in the Nile delta, it was also called in Greek and Roman times "Hermopolis Mikra" or "Hermopolis Parva", which associated it with Hermes.  It attracted many ancient geographers, including Strabo.  Today it is a Roman Catholic titular see, and is in a richly cultivated area of agricultural production.

Modern Damanhur, Egypt.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although named for the ancient Egyptian place, the Italian Damanhur is neopagan and "New Age".  They call themselves a "collective dream" and a laboratory for the future.  Their commitment is to create an eco-village that weaves sociality, spirituality, and respect for the environment using both ancient traditions and advanced technology into a culture of peace.

There are miles of decorated tunnels.  Image
courtesy of the Daily Mail.

The citizens of Damanhur are active in many different voluntary activities - the Italian Red Cross, forest fire watchkeepers, Civil Defense, and assisting the elderly. The site is in an economically depressed area and they are bringing a much needed infrastructure with schools, libraries, and other services.  So rather than keeping themselves to their inner community, their goal is to outreach and become a part of the wider world while maintaining their connection to their spiritual base.

Hall of Mirrors.  Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Some of the businesses and services they have created are a result of the community and its needs.  The majority of their enterprises are cooperatives, which are further joined into a consortium.  These include:  artistic workshops, such as glasswork, mosaics, painting, sculpture, and restoration; computer and IT consulting; publishing; eco-architecture; therapeutic services; and agricultural tourism.  Not all citizens work within the Damanhur structure, but instead outside of the system.  But all contribute economically to the Federation.

Egyptian-style wall paintings.  Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

They have their own school, opened in 1985, which caters to children from nursery to middle school.  There are roughly 140 parents involved, including some who live in the valley who are not citizens of Damanhur.  Their stated goal is to create an environment where children can learn how to learn.  An important part of their educational program is travel - getting out of the classroom and learning through new experiences.  Learning foreign languages begins in nursery school. The children are very involved in ecology and environmental awareness.

In 2006, some children stayed onboard Greenpeace's
Rainbow Warrior during its Genoa stopover.

In terms of being self-sustaining, Damanhur currently supplies 50% of its food needs.  Besides farms for cattle, fish, pigs, and vegetables, they produce cheese, wine, baked goods, and honey.  They have their own laboratory to check food for GMOs.  Thanks to solar panel installations they can produce 70% of their hot water needs.  They have photo-voltaic installations and hydro-electric turbines with provides 35% of their electricity.  90% of the wood used for heating is locally sourced, albeit through a program developed to rehabilitate the woodlands, recreating the undergrowth which provides shelter for animals, and returning the area to its natural state.

There are many possibilities for citizenship within the community, from full-time to living outside but linked to projects.  Those living within the community share large houses of about twenty people.  These include young and old, couples, singles, and families with children.  Everyone has their own personal space but share communal areas such as the kitchen and meeting rooms.  Some citizens choose to live in apartments in the villages or in houses or farms in the woodland or rural areas.  Everyone chooses their own living space and companions, and though children live with their parents, every citizen looks after their well-being and supports them.  What is not allowed is smoking, narcotics, excessive alcohol, or overuse of pharmaceuticals.

If one chooses to live in Damanhur, there is the New Damanhurians project.  It is for people who are very familiar with Damanhur and believe in committing to live there.  The project lasts six months and consists of learning the philosophy, history and traditions.  Upon completion, one can formalize their commitment, either fully or at a different level of commitment.  Another level is known as the Spiritual People, which allows one to live a separate life with direct involvement in the activities of the Federation.  This level is dedicated to spiritual researchers, ecologists, and people who believe in Damanhur values.  Considered a seed to promote groups of enlightened people and spread knowledge, it is a spiritual link to the Federation.  There are thousands of such members worldwide in different cultures, who all come together at least one time a year, usually in August, in a communal celebration.

So will this utopian federation succeed in time?  It's hard to say, but they seem to have accomplished a lot and grown at a steady and productive rate.  With all the problems in the world, perhaps a community like this is the answer.  It is now on my bucket list, and I will be watching with keen interest as it progresses.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of their website.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Repost: Some Hashish, a Bouzouki, and the Blues...

By 1922, approximately two millions Greeks had come to Greece - Greeks who had never lived in Greece.  They came from Anatolia, where most had comfortable, if not rich, lives.  Many arrived in refugee settlements in Athens and Thessaloniki, with only what they could carry.  One of them was my grandmother.

Outcast, in a strange country where they were not particularly welcomed, they played music with lyrics that reflected their pain, poverty, political oppression, violence, drug abuse, and betrayal, along with the usual unrequited love and sorrows of everyday life.  This music was the music of the Greek underground, originating in the hashish dens of Athens and Thessaloniki, and eventually it merged with other strains of folk music.  It is rembetiko – the Greek blues.

Along with them these refugees brought Turkish traditions – hashish dens and tekedes, which were underground cafes.  The earliest rembetiko musicians were often itinerants, criminals, and ex-prisoners.  They would smoke from hookahs and improvise on their bouzoukia, a type of lute.  Eventually rembetiko moved from the slums into mainstream nightclubs and tavernas and became very popular. 

Because of the lyrics, rembetiko was repressed by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936, and hashish dens and bouzoukia were outlawed.  During the German occupation and the Greek Civil War all songs with references to disreputable or criminal activities, including drug use, were not recorded, but most likely still played.  The suppression seemed good for it, and when rembetiko came out of the closet afterward it was much stronger.  New innovations were added, notably by musician Manolis Chiotis.  He added foreign influences, and most importantly began using the new four-string bouzouki, instead of the traditional three-stringed instrument.

The bouzouki was perhaps the most universally important contribution to the music world.  Once introduced into Irish music, it became very popular.  It also indirectly influenced American guitar playing.  Dick Dale, arguably the father of surf music, played a staccato style on his electric guitar that he learned from his uncle, a bouzouki player.  Dale’s friend, Leo Fender, built an amplifier for Dale to augment the sound of his playing.  The rest, as they say, is electric guitar history.

In the 50s, rembetiko gave way to the laika style of music, a broader style of popular music that included songs with the bouzouki.  Around 1960, a rembetiko revival began as musicians sought to record some of the early songs.  Then, in the 70s, 78 rpm LPs were reissued and many are still available on CDs.  There was interest in recapturing the original stylings.  The songs’ associations with political conflict added to the public interest, as people were protesting and resisting the military dictatorship of the Junta years (1967-1974).  Rembetiko lyrics, though often not openly political, still smacked of subversion and rebellion.

Popular now internationally, rembetiko is currently the subject of research, and scholars and music historians are just beginning to publish works on it.  Below are words to one of the popular songs in English.  (Note:  a baglama is an instrument.):

O Kyr Thanos (Mr. Thanos) by Gigoris Bithikotsis

Mr. Thanos died grumbling,
At two o’clock at Hatzithomas’ tavern.
Lately he knew poverty, the poor man,
He even pawned his baglama.

His brother, the baglama,
Who used to cheer him up.
He pawned him, and died.

If anyone would’ve paid a few of his debts,
He would have his instrument,
He would be living.
But no one ever asked why he cries.
Nobody cares about another person’s pain.

His brother, the baglama,
Who used to cheer him up,
He pawned him, and died.