“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world gets smaller every day. At first it was so wide that I ran along and was happy to see walls appearing to my right and left, but these high walls converged so quickly that I’m already in the last room, and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run.”
“But you’ve only got to run the other way,” said the cat, and ate it.
I’ve been in Los Angeles this week, visiting family. Although I’m not usually a fan of highly cerebral (as opposed to emotional) art, a highlight of the trip for me was Michael Heizer’s piece Levitated Mass at LACMA.
The sculpture consists of a 340-ton boulder perched on top of a long concrete trench, all of which is surrounded by a patch of barren dirt. To me, it’s a work that seems very much about ritual. First, the painstaking process of moving the huge boulder to its current location. Then the experience of visiting itself: little groups of people arrive, hesitate, take pictures. Talk, in the predictably comforting ways we talk when faced with the unfamiliar. (“Is it art?” “That’s not art!”) And finally, file down the long concrete corridor underneath the rock and emerge on the other side with the sense that an obscure something has happened.
For me, the gigantic boulder in a miniature wasteland seems obviously evocative of archeological ruins, the half-fallen temples of ancient Egypt, etc. The act of passing underneath it is ritual stripped to its barest bones: an act that feels significant, although nothing about the object itself or the action offers clues to that importance — and as a result each of us is forced to spend a few seconds scrutinizing our own interpretive process. It is here, we are here: it all means something, although we don’t know why. (Like life in general, I suppose.)
So hovering over the gargantuan ruined ziggurat of the Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang, looking through the satellite eye of the web, to me there’s a sense of being a kind of strange space-invader, a voyeur from another world. Which leads me (sort of), in a roundabout way, to the man with the moustache.
The recently-deceased dictator of the DPRK, Kim Jong-Il, was a man of few words. In fact, it is believed the people he ruled only heard his voice once, in 1992, when he spoke a single sentence into a microphone at a military parade. By comparison, his recently-installed son and heir, Kim Jong-un, is a man of the people. (At 28 years old, he’s also the world’s youngest head of state.) During the recent centenary celebrations for Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung (the founding father of the DPRK), KJU gave a public twenty-minute speech. You can watch it here:
I’ve seen it a few times and there’s something compelling, disturbing and dreamlike about it. The sky hung with huge, motionless balloons, the architecturally-planned squadrons of watchers. Most of all though, I’ve become fascinated by the man with the moustache. You can see him at 1:24, on the left side of the screen.
He stands in the front row of some VIP section, his hands clasped in front of him. He’s wearing sunglasses, a dapper suit (possibly with a cravat) and very white gloves. There’s something proprietorial about his stance. He’s a man at ease in his surroundings (in the viewing stand for the great dictator’s speech, in the most secretive nation in the world). One gets the sense this is the kind of thing he might do every weekend. And watching him (a space-invader through the eye of the web) I get a sense of vertigo and a thrill at how the technology of our global age has changed distance — the ways we’re brought near to unexpected points, without explanation, which in turn throws into stark relief all the ways we’re still not close at all. Who is the man with the moustache?
“This very distinguished philosophy professor came out on the platform in front of this gang of students and took a bit of chalk and scrawled up a proposition in symbolic logic on the board. He turned to the audience and said, ‘Well now, ladies and gentlemen, I think you’ll agree that that’s obvious?’
“Then he looked at it a bit more and started to scratch his head and after a while he said, ‘Excuse me!’ And he disappeared.
“About half an hour later he came back beaming all over his face and said triumphantly, ‘Yes, I was right — it is obvious!'”