A Private Language of Modernist Mayhem: An Appreciation of Marcel Dzama

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Marcel Dzama, Grand presentiments of what must come, 2012

I haven’t talked about art as much as I’ve wanted to on this blog. Art is something I have a great appreciation for, but it’s an appreciation that I have found particularly difficult to translate into words. Most of my knowledge of art comes from the handful of art history classes I took as an undergrad, and that was almost a decade ago. As a result I often find I don’t have the proper vocabulary to discuss painting or sculpture the way I can write about novels and film. In fact, if I may let a private embarrassment come to light, when I visit an art gallery I will spend more time reading the placard explaining the meaning of the work than I will taking in and appreciating the work on an aesthetic level.

Still, there are some artists whose work manage to penetrate this barrier and hit me directly on an emotional level, to engage me in ways words can’t entirely explain. As part of my new “forget your insecurities and just write whatever you want on your blog,” I thought I would share my appreciation for one of these artists, the Winnepeg-born multimedia artist Marcel Dzama.

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If I Wrote Book 4 of The Legend of Korra

Book 4 - Comicon Promotional Poster

(Fair warning before we begin: this is going to be an intensely nerdy post talking about The Legend of Korra, so if you haven’t watched the show, not much of it is going to make a lick of sense.)

Today’s post is one inspired by an essay Robert Jackson Bennett wrote on his blog back in January about how he would rework the Star Wars prequels. In the introduction to his piece, Bennett mentioned that most everyone has a “hobby story” in their minds, some fanfiction version of a story you liked but just had some flaws that you’d like to see ironed out. I’ve certainly tinkered with a few over the years; one of these days I should write about my dumb Star Trek reboot idea that involves time-travelling Cardassians, the destruction of the Klingon Empire, and Kirk sacrificing himself in the third act and being replaced with an Andorian lady as captain.

However, there is one story that has exercised my imagination the most for the past two-odd years: the final book of The Legend of Korra. It’s a season of television for which I have such a frustrated affection. The basic premise, that the decadent, fractious Earth Kingdom has collapsed and is being reunified by an modernizing autocrat, is fantastic, and the autocrat in question, Kuvira, is my favorite character in the entire Avatar franchise. There’s a wonderful buildup in the first half of the season, as Kuvira begins to push back against international opinion as she establishes her new state, culminating in a showdown with Korra at the gates of Zaofu that both women narrowly survive. And then…

Well, then it all becomes a bit rubbish, which is where I step in.

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The USSR: A Personal Exploration

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The cover to Dream Factory Communism: The Visual Culture of the Stalin Period, one of my favorite art books.

I have always deeply insecure about my writing. This is not unusual in the world of writers, but it has always been a particular source of frustration for me. Whenever I flip open a empty notebook or see the white screen of a blank Word document flash in front of me, there is always this reluctance to commit myself, my ideas to paper. Depression, that plague of the postmodern era, has certainly had a hand in it that, despite months of medication, still refuses to completely unclench. Maybe it has to do with issues that burrow all the way back from childhood. Perhaps it is just a fear of being judged, of being called unworthy or of being attacked that keeps me from pushing forward. However, for any progress to be made, for anything new to be created, a single step must be taken, otherwise you just stay rooted to your spot, silent and immobile.

Speaking as someone who has spent decades silent and immobile, I can tell you that it is no way to live. Therefore, I am going to start coming out of my shell over the next few months, to talk openly and freely about things that interest and concern me, my anxieties be damned. To inaugurate this new direction, I would like to spend this post talking about something that much of my life has revolved around: the forgotten nation that was once known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

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Secondhand Manifestos: Quick Thoughts on Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia

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In case you’re wondering, the Constructivist cover was the publisher’s idea. Not a surprise, really.

It appears to have accidentally turned into Jackboot Month here in the Dolmen. Today’s subject, Bruce Sterling’s 2016 novella Pirate Utopia, is something I literally found out about yesterday and spent a few hours reading cover to cover. I’ve never been a big fan of Sterling, ┬áso I half-expected the story to set my teeth on edge. Much to my surprise, however, I actually found it to be a rather amusing little romp.

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The Bard in Jackboots: Richard III (1995)

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Like everyone in the English-speaking world, I had to read my share of Shakespeare during my formative years. I spent three years in high school with the Bard, making my way through Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. I didn’t hate the time I spent with those plays, but it was like so much of school. You memorize something long enough to do the final exam, then it just washes away. Lately, however, I’ve been developing an appreciation for Shakespearian adaptations that modernize the settings but keep the original language. Hardly an original concept, true, but there’s something to be said about keeping the poetry of Shakespeare’s original work, but putting it into a twentieth-century frame of reference that lets the work throw off the weight of centuries and connect with the audience, perhaps letting them see a glimmer of what the plays meant when they were new. As most of these adaptations I’ve watched are film adaptations of stage plays, some of the slipperiness of setting common to the theater remains in the film, often turning these stories into immortal fables whose lessons can apply to every era.

Now, I personally have a taste for Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays, so my list of favorite adaptations includes such lights as Ralph Fiennes’ Balkanized Coriolanus (2011), Julie Taymor’s gonzo Titus (1999), and Rupert Goold’s Stalinist Macbeth (2010), about which more later. However, my favorite one of these adaptations has to be Richard Loncraine’s Richard III from 1995, with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role.

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Rereading The War in the Air (1908)

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The Battle of the North Atlantic,” the frontspiece for the original 1908 edition of The War in the Air by A.C. Michael

One summer morning, sometime in the 1910s, the good men and women of New York City awaken to the sound of engines thrumming in the morning air. Craning their heads, they peek out of their windows to see the sky crowded with ominous hulks, great gasbags bearing the eagle insignia of the Kingdom of Germany. From loudspeakers a message is sent: give up! Your fleet in the North Atlantic has been routed, and you have no aeroplanes that can reach our zeppelins. Surrender your city, and no more lives need be endangered. To drive the point home, several airships shift and angle their way to positions over the Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall, Wall Street, and a few other landmarks. As one they open their payload doors, raining tonnes of high-explosive bombs on the structures below.

A scene from some modern steampunk novel? No, this is an old nightmare, almost 110 years old by my count. It is a pivotal sequence from The War in the Air, H. G. Wells’ serialized novel, written for The Strand all the way back in 1908. It’s a novel I have had on my mind recently, so I spent the last week rereading my old water-damaged copy. As it turned out, it did not awaken the same passions it once had in me, but it did clarify my thinking on a few points.

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Hard to Be A (Fictional) God

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A portrait of General Turyin Mulaghesh, protagonist of City of Blades, by Chanh Quach. You can see more of her Divine Cities‘ artwork here.

After a long absence, I’ve made a return to reviewing for Strange Horizons with my latest piece, a discussion of City of Blades, the second book in what has become Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy. Longtime readers of the blog may be slightly surprised that I am a lot more positive about this entry in the series than I was its predecessor. While I discuss the reasons at length in the review, one of the key reasons was that I went into City of Blades knowing what to expect. City of Stairs didn’t turn out to be the novel I thought it would be, and I was critical because of that. We all have our weaknesses, and that happens to be one of mine.

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