Archive for June 2003

Japanese Singing Insects

As promised, a pointer to Lafcadio Hearn’s essay “Insect Musicians”, in which he describes wandering through the “dazzling lanes” of toy-stalls on the night of a temple-festival, surrounded on all sides by “dainty puerilities, fragile astonishments, laughter-making oddities, … representations of demons, gods, and goblins,…immense lantern-transparencies, with monstrous faces painted upon them,…a ceaseless blowing of flutes and booming of drums.” And then, amid all this tumult, he comes upon:

“…a booth illuminated like a magic-lantern, and stocked with tiny wooden cages out of which an incomparable shrilling proceeds. The booth is the booth of a vendor of singing insects…”

the booth is the booth of a vendor of singing insects“The cricket cage peddlar”, Kiyonaga, ca. late 1700s, courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

He goes on to enumerate the various qualities and attributes of the insects, from the delicate abura-kirigirisu, “specially nourished…on sugar-water and slices of musk-melon”, to the virtuoso kutsuwamushi, or ‘bridle-bit insect’:

“The sound begins with a thin sharp whizzing, as of leaking steam, and slowly strengthens; then to the whizzing is suddenly added a quick dry clatter, as of castanets; and then, high above the whizzing and the clatter, a torrent of rapid ringing tones like the tapping of a gong.”

The popularity of singing insects persists in Japan to this day, as an article by Robert Pemberton in the November 1994 edition of Cultural Entomology Digest attests. Though it would seem that, these days, they have their technological rivals:electronic katydid

Electronic katydid in a paper covered plastic box cage, 1992, $9 US. The plastic katydid and its electronic chip mimic a popular long-horned grasshopper (kirigirisu, Gampsocleis buergeri de Haan) in both appearance and sound. This cage also features flashing fireflies. Electronic bell insects, including one with a very accurate chip that was sold in a Tokyo Mitsukoshi Department store for $200 US in 1990, are also available. Recordings of singing Orthoptera are sold in record stores, and can be heard in subway stations and other public places.

Lots more interesting stuff from this site, by the way. (Ramage is overcome).

And for more about Lafcadio Hearn, I urge you, once again, to visit Steve Trussel’s site dedicated to his life and work.


Written by Dave Lovely

June 29, 2003 at 11:51 am

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Fruits of Knowledge

From “A Moorish Calendar”, Black Swan Press, Wantage, 1978:

“To make apples grow with writings and patterns on them: take an apple when it is just full grown and about to ripen and write or paint on its skin whatever you wish, using ink or wool-dyes, egg-white, pottery-glazes, or liquid pitch. Write with a broad-pointed instrument and cover the apple with a net so that dew or rain, or the rubbing of fruit and leaves, will not erase the design. Leave the fruit until it is quite ripe, when you may pick it and wash away the ink so that the design is exposed in shades of white or green, thus producing a pleasing effect. The same may be done with plums, red or black.”

This is a beautiful little book I have, translated and illustrated by Peter Lord, edited from the Kitab al Felaha, or Book of Agriculture, written by Yahya ibn al Awam in the second half of the 12th century.

You can read more about Arab gardeners and farmers in Spain here.

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Written by Dave Lovely

June 29, 2003 at 9:31 am

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Turn, Turn, Turn…

From an article by Joseph Connors on the Ars Tornandi, an a aristocratic fad of the Baroque period, which ramifies into all sorts of unexpected areas:

“…ivory hollowed out in fantastic spirals, or reduced to elfin thinness, or shaped into concentric hollow globes … They stun the spectator who cannot believe they are carved from a single piece. Since the lathe operates by turning the stuff about its axis, its normal products tend to look like balusters or bedpoles, elaborate in profile but simple in conception. So connoisseurs, in their search for the difficult and the exceptional, looked for pieces turned in eccentric orbits around many axes. Among such pièces excentriques were ivory globes inside of which one might find a well-turned urn, a fleur-de-lys, or many-pointed stars. The beauty of the piece came from the difficulty one imagines the turner to have had to make it out of a single ball of ivory. The same logic applies to pieces cut hors du rond, like vases with bizarre scalloped shapes that seem to deny the circular motion of the lathe … Turnery is an art which delights in straining the limits of tool credibility. Extremely delicate and cut with machine-like precision, one cannot believe these pieces were carved by hand, but it baffles the imagination to conceive how they might be turned on even the most complicated lathes. Many ivory pieces tended to be tall and precariously thin, like the circular steps that are attached to each other by tiny stems, looking like a pile of coins held together by bits of toothpicks, but all turned from a single tusk … There is a tower-making mentality, in which the elements near the top of the piece are miniature variants of the elements occuring further down. There is a preference for spiraling forms, miniature towers of Babel with complex encircling ramps. The snake is a frequent decoration, coiling in long sinuous spirals … Mouldings are multiplied beyond all limit, and deeply undercut to bring out all the transparency of ivory. Some pieces pile up clustered forms: a many-pointed star inside a globe, on top of six cubes inside one another, on top of six concentric spheres … The Keplerian universe, one feels, has been reduced to a play of miniature forms.”

Turning was also used to make anatomical models, of the human eye, for example:

“The English virtuoso John Bargrave counted in his collection a model of the human eye that could be dismantled into fourteen pieces, made in Padua on a doctor’s instructions by a German artist ‘by way of turnery in ivory and horn’. The combination of Italian anatomy and German craftsmanship must have been stunning, and the model of the eye would long remain a challenge to the high skill of the northern turner. An illustration of such an artificial eye by the Nuremburg turner Stephan Zick appeared in 1680, and Johann Martin Teuber gave precise instructions on how to make one in his treatise of 1740, using ivory, light and dark horn, clear glass for the lens and the vitreous humor, and vellum for the muscles … The eye could be dismantled into its most minute components. Complete with lids and lashes, and standing on a tall scepter-like base that was itself turned on the lathe, the Kunst-Aug lent its slightly eerie presence to many a cabinet of curiosities. But it also must have been an invaluable aid to restless dissectors of the eye like Claude Peiresc and Christopher Wren.”

Ramage wants to get himself a lathe…

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Written by Dave Lovely

June 27, 2003 at 9:09 am

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Ant Architecture…

…or what Death Dust leaves behind.

From AntColony, which might be subtitled “Everything Ants”, as that’s what it basically is (Ramage has had to be restrained, lest appetite got the better of him).

plaster cast of harvester ant nest

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Written by Dave Lovely

June 26, 2003 at 10:54 pm

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Chicago Dreamtime

Ramage awoke this morning from one of those hyper-vivid dreams that probably objectively last only a moment or so, but seem to contain such a welter of imagery and incident that they seem lived-through and real; this one was about being back in Chicago, where I lived for 3 months in the summer of 1993. Almost certainly, it was prompted by images such as those on Dawn M. Mikulich’s Chicagouncommon site (via consumptive).

This one, for example.

And then, I’m sure Mildred had something to do with it, too. How could I forget lips like these?:

the most beloved sign in all of Chicago

(from “Mildred’s House of Signs”, via morfablog).

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Written by Dave Lovely

June 25, 2003 at 9:20 pm

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…falling leaves…

As if by contrast to the previous post, via mysterium, Vietnamese artist Binh Danh’s photographs on leaves. Of this picture, “The Scream”, the artist has this to say:

sream for the fallen

“This image is printed on a leaf that could fit in the palm of my hand. It’s taken from a larger photograph of this same boy looking at a dead woman inside a pickup truck. When I exhibited this leaf at a gallery, it was just sitting on a pile of dirt; it was not cast in resin, it was not framed. As people returned to the exhibit over time, they could watch the leaf drying up, decaying, crumbling. By the end of the exhibit, the leaf and the image were gone.”

(Image from National Public Radio’s “Talking Plants”)

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Written by Dave Lovely

June 24, 2003 at 9:38 pm

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via nest magazine. Writer Carl Skoggard plays a wary waiting game as he takes a look at the extraordinary, and frankly scary, V&oumllkerschlachtdenkmal on the outskirts of Leipzig.

This is ostensibly a monument to the victims of one of the bloodiest, and certainly the largest, encounters of the Napoleonic Wars, the so-called ‘Battle of the Nations’ of October, 1813. Upwards of half a million men, from Prussia, Austria, Russia, France, and the various other nations allied to them, fought in it, and perhaps as many as 120,000 of them lost their lives. It put an end to Napoleon’s territorial ambitions in Germany.

Now, it is of course hardly surprising that such a huge event, so calamitous for so many, and so decisive, should have called forth a memorial. But what a memorial it turned out to be! Skoggard professes himself “flabbergasted by its extent and waywardness”, and who can blame him? It’s 91 metres high, it’s the biggest monument in Germany, and it’s downright weird. What happened was, the project got highjacked by a group calling themselves the “Deutschen Patriotenbund”, and the foggy fingers of a burgeoning pan-Germanic nationalism began to wrap themselves around it. Having raised funds to the tune of 6 million marks, they commissioned architect Bruno Schmitz to draw up the basic plan, with sculptors Chistian Behrens, and, after Behren’s death in 1905, Franz Metzner, responsible for the decorative scheme. It’s Metzner’s work, especially in the ‘crypt’ inside, that really makes the jaw drop, with his dream-fast, heads-bowed, archaic warriors flanking huge masks “representing fate or death”, and the giant figures personifying such ‘Germanic’ virtues as “bravery” and “readiness to be sacrificed”. While Behrens’ work had been, although powerful, firmly in the Jugendstil mode, Metzner’s shows strong pagan tendencies. And this in 1913. You can get an overview of the whole enterprise here, in German only, but with enough contextualising images to give a sense of what’s being said.

You’ll have to track down a copy of Nest #20 if you want to read Skoggard’s article in full.

More about “V&oumllki”, as Leipzigers affectionately call their local behemoth, can be found here – again in German only, but with plenty of fascinating images, like this one:

the flames of nationalism

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Written by Dave Lovely

June 24, 2003 at 5:06 pm

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