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A Totem to Public Housing

Totem by Chung Kai Fen

(Courtesy Fost Gallery, Singapore)

The Daily Pic: Chun Kai Fen gives a nod to the projects where Singaporeans live.

“Totem” is by a very young Singaporean artist named Chun Kai Feng, now having his first solo show at Fost Gallery in Singapore. His apparent riff on tribal art is in fact an homage to the classically brutalist benches that are a fixture of Singapore’s government housing, where something like 75 per cent of the population live. Stacking them high also evokes Brancusi’s “Endless Column” but there’s also a quiet reference to the Pop work of Richard Artschwager: The concrete of Chun Kai Feng’s benches is in fact just a kind of Formica. Which means that the brutalist concrete of housing estates is finally on its way to revival as a desirable decorative touch.

For a full visual survey of past Daily Pics visit BlakeGopnik.com/archive.

Smelly Museum

'The Art of Scent' Spritzes Fresh Aesthetics

Two women explore scent at MAD

Visitors explore perfume, in a setting by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (Photo by Brad Farwell)

The Daily Pic: At the Museum of Arts and Design, perfumes pan out.

Two women lean forward to get a whiff, literally, of the works in a show called “The Art of Scent, 1889-2012”, at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York – which turns out to be one of the most stimulating exhibitions in New York in recent times.

Back when I profiled its curator, Chandler Burr, I hinted at doubts I had about the models he was using to declare perfume art, and about his readings of his chosen art works. Now that the show is up, however, most of those doubts disappear. “The Art of Scent” really is a purist’s immersion in the language of perfume – no fancy bottles, no touting of luxury firms or their star clients, little to distract from the opportunity merely to sniff. And it proves that scent is an art form with its own unique rules and dynamics.

For one thing, there’s no such thing as a quick “glance” at a smell, the way there is with an image: It feels as though you’re either truly attending to it, or not. This means that you’re more tempted to return for more and renew the experience than with an image – maybe because the details of an aroma vanish so quickly from your mind and memory. Perhaps because most of us are so undertrained in scents, it feels like there’s a huge amount left to learn about them: The sheer difficulty of smell aesthetics make them that much more compelling. There’s a full language there, waiting to be mastered, and most of us don’t even know its ABCs. (I got a kick out of discovering the cotton-candy overtones in the perfume called “Angel” and the laundry-soap notes in “Drakkar Noir”.)

For someone like me, who lives mostly in the visual arts, the show also teaches an important lesson: Many people are probably almost as much at sea in the language of fine art as I am with scent. It’s also cheering: There seems to be so very much left to say in figuring out this art form on its own terms – more, anyway, than the show’s wall texts let on. Sorry, Chandler, but trying to draw parallels between realism and abstraction in painting and the same ideas in perfume doesn’t elevate the smells to art; it leaves them seeming subservient to the older, better-known discipline. Scents can be discussed, I feel sure, as though humans had only ever known the world through their noses. This show is so fine because it's so little like others we've known.

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Allen Ginsberg's Visual Beat

Jack Kerouac by Allen Ginsberg

(© 2012 Allen Ginsberg LLC. All rights reserved)

The Daily Pic: At NYU, the poet displays his shutter skills.

This photo of the writer Jack Kerouac was taken in New York in 1953 by his colleague and friend Allen Ginsberg, and it’s now in a show of Ginsberg photos that just opened at the Gray Art Gallery of NYU, where it’s on tour from the National Gallery of Art. The story around this and other early photos is that Ginsberg took them as snapshots and stowed them in a drawer until 1983, when he rediscovered, reprinted, published and sold them. What strikes me about the photos, however, is that a great many of them are far from casual shots: They show a deep acquaintance with all the stylish modern photography that preceded them. The Kerouac image, with its deliberate “error” of grafting a statue onto the poet’s head, would have been at home in the Bauhaus. This, you could say, was a specialty of Ginsberg and the other Beats: Taking the innovations of radical modernism and re-presenting them as impassioned outpourings direct from the soul. (This becomes obvious, and cloying, in the 1980s, when Ginsberg added faux-naif, nouveau-Beat scrawled captions at the bottom of his reprinted photos. His Kerouac portrait is shown here in its original, un-“improved” version.)

For a full visual survey of past Daily Pics visit BlakeGopnik.com/archive.

BRAINIAC

Is There a Science of Art?

In his new book ‘The Age of Insight,’ the memory biologist Eric Kandel studies the art of Vienna, where he fled from the Nazis when he was 9. Jimmy So talks to the Nobel winner.

Start at the end. My advice, if you were to find yourself with a copy of Eric Kandel's new book, The Age of Insight—and I recommend that you do—is to first read the acknowledgments, on page 511. For at the end of this handsome chunk of text come the most personal memories: "I was born in Vienna on November 7, 1929 … Near our house were three museums that I never visited as a child, but whose subject matter later came to fascinate me and that now assumed a significant role in this book.”

The first is the Vienna Medical Museum celebrating, among others, the pioneering work of medical doctor Carl von Rokitansky. The second is the Sigmund Freud Museum, which used to be the great man’s apartment. The third is the Upper Belvedere Museum, which houses the world’s greatest collection of the paintings of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele. So arrives, in the autumn of a long and decorated life, The Age of Insight, which really is one continuous and loving acknowledgment—of the debt that Kandel owes to the ghosts of great figures.

Kandel, the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University, always has a lab coat that drapes over his body. He wears a bow tie, and holds court in a spectacular corner office overlooking the Hudson River. I walked in thinking these were signs of authority and tradition, of an outer protective layer. But I was mistaken. Kandel laughs so very easily, and when he does his mouth opens like a Muppet’s. He points to a small painting on his wall, a Bruegel-like scene of town folks punching one another. “That? That is Columbia academics,” and bursts into giggles. This is a man who by all expectations should be feared and looked up to. In 2000 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for far-reaching discoveries about how memory—that mysterious, illusive dream—is created and stored. He is regarded as something of a modern-day Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of remembrance, with ghosts that ought to be cursed.

Klimt’s Medicine

Klimt’s 'Medicine' (Photo: Imagno, Austrian Archives / Getty Images)

Subway Romance

In this clip from a video called "Wind Tunnel," New Yorker Neil Goldberg captures subway riders buffeted by the air from passing trains. It's a highlight from "Stories the City Tells Itself", his solo show at the Museum of the City of New York.

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The Daily Pic

The Guardian Mothers of Art

The Guardian Mothers of Art

The Daily Beast: Andy Freeberg shoots the female guards at Russian museums.