Tag Archives: symbolism

Art Review: Ken Lum Ho Hum

On the weekend I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery and looked at different shows, including Ken Lum’s art. Even back when I attended art college I had a hard time believing that anything tossed anywhere (such as the cow patties in the foyer) were actually art. Maybe they were political or social commentaries but were they art? It’s one of the great debates and I know there is such over Lum’s work. Perhaps by that fact alone he’s a great artist. But, I don’t get it.

Ken Lum's sign art

Lum is known, I guess, for his sign art. My friend said she could have easily been driving down Kingsway looking at the car shops and fast food joints and little shops that festoon that strip. Except these have a “but…” afterward with a political statement or a social one. When I drive down to Oregon on the east side of the I5 highway there is a giant billboard owned by some Republican who usually leaves a right-wing (half nonsensical) message. I guess that’s art  too. The example to the left made up about a third of Lum’s show. Sleak…signs…with not what I’d call a super witty revelation on any of them. I will give that one or two of them I thought were funny.

This might have been the most interesting of the ones I saw...

Another of his series were large boards again with a person pictured on one side and a phrase often repeated on the other. Such as the one of a woman with a French phrase book that went something like this: Je/Je suis/Je suis Canadienne/Je suis Americaine/Je suis Francais/Je/Je suis…etc. The pictures aren’t beautiful and they’re not even really ugly. They’re not stunningly executed in the way photography can be showing the real ugliness or beauty of the world. They’re of the street and could have been snapped by anyone. If Lum wants to show the banality of life, he’s succeeded. I was left with this expression: meh. It made me want to take two weeks off, get some paint and posters and pictures and slap stuff together and see if I can have a show in the VAG as well. I mean, sometimes the difference between successful art and that which isn’t has nothing to do with quality. It depends on whether someone in “the know”–a curator, a rich collector, an art faddist decides something is good.

There were a few couches and sofa beds pushed together and piled high, or enclosed so that they were inaccessible to be sat upon. This is part of Lum’s statement and while I could understand it I’m not sure three made more of a point. From a strictly sculptural point of view I didn’t mind them. Oh and we touched the red circular couch. Gasp! Right away a guard was telling us not to touch because gosh, couches shouldn’t be touched. And after the couch has made its round, well it’ll probably be in someone’s private collection or a secondhand store.

Lum might be known best in Vancouver for the giant neon white cross that looms over East Van like a doomsday device. Horizontally, the letters spell Van, vertically, East. It is either East Van or Van East and supposedly hearkens back to that East Van pride days of your when gangs of young Italian Catholic men roamed the streets. This romanticism and fake geographic pride drives me nuts. I live in East Van and today, not 50 years ago is where we are where there is a multi ethnic, multi religious (or none) community. I don’t feel I should be dominated by a huge Christian symbol and if Lum really wanted to make a statement about East Van he should have put a yellow neon sickle moon, next to a green pentacle, next to some agnostic sign. Regaling in some symbol supposedly used by gangs before all the other ethnic gangs moved in (not that there are that many) seems absurd at best. It certainly seems like an ignorant erection in a time of many other religious beliefs being practiced. But if Lum wanted to evoke conversation and feelings, he succeeded. However, to do so in such an obtrusively permanent way is galling.

The one other piece in the gallery was a large glass maze, done in triangles. As you walked through it etched statements would show in the glass. These had to do with self-worth and image. As a fractured personality and the way we view ourselves this was well-executed and brilliantly done.

But overall I have to say Lum’s pieces leave me cold, except for the East Van cross, which raises my ire.

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Procter & Gamble and the Man in the Moon

The original Procter & Gamble logo.

Once upon a time two men, William Procter and James Gamble, formed a business. It’s genesis began in 1837 with the sale of candles and soap. The US was in a financial crisis and was rumored to be broke but the men persevered with what would have been essentials at that time. Electricity was still in the future.

Dock hands, handling shipments of the candles, would mark the boxes with a crude star to differentiate them from other merchandise. It seems this mark bloomed into the Star Candles brand and eventually the stars appeared in a semi-official capacity as the company grew (or maybe they marked the Star Candles boxes with a crude star). By 1859 the company was making a million dollars, a quite substantial amount for those days.

As Procter & Gamble grew the stars on the candle boxes solidified and a logo was born in 1851, with thirteen stars and a man in the moon with luxuriant curling beard. If you know anything of the art styles of the period, you will understand that this logo, shown above, was as precursor to the stylized, swooping swirls of the Art Nouveau period. Part of the Romantic period in art, the design is not unusual for the time in style. My guess (as it’s hard to find out what the founders originally intended) is that the stars played significantly in the company’s brand evolution. From those stars, they became stylized and it’s said that there are 13 to represent the 13 original colonies of the United States.

Procter & Gamble, Satanic symbols, logos, branding

The new P&G logo.

Considering that Procter & Gamble supplied soap and candles to the Union army during the Civil War, it seems likely that they had some form of patriotism and pride for their roots in the United States. Shortly after this, they began making Ivory soap, among many other products. The logo was a longstanding icon for Procter & Gamble, and if you have ever used Crest, Crisco, Downy, Bounce, Charmin, Duracell, Gillette, Olay, Pampers, Tide or a host of other products, then chances are you might have noticed the little man in the moon with the stars on the back of the packaging. In fact, today Procter & Gambler (more commonly called P&G now as we’ve reached the age of abbreviation and acronyms) is the 6th most profitable corporation in the world and 5th in the US with only a few like Exxon, Microsoft, Apple and Walmart ahead of it.

Consider that this logo existed from the 1850s to to the 1980s before some latent ruckus arose. And what was it in the era that spawned supposed Satanic messages in rock n roll records played backwards that got people up in arms over Procter & Gamble? The stars numbered 13. Good lord! It’s the devil’s number and if you reverse the beard you see 666 and if you get drunk and draw lines from one star to the next you see more sixes. It’s more bizarre that the US dollar bills have an eye in a pyramid (Masonic ties and there’s a secret society there) than the man in the moon and the 13 stars.

But rumors spread and Procter & Gamble battled defamation and slander suits for many years. Interestingly, most of these rumors of the Satanic relationship stemmed from Amway distributors, who in fact have been accused of having cultlike activities, running pyramid schemes and being tied closely with the very conservative far Christian right. Now who seems more likely to have suspicious dealings?

Personally I find this logo has personality as opposed to modern and very sterile logos, including the new P&G logo. Branding is a powerful thing. Procter & Gamble had been in business far too long with their logo to bow to a bunch of superstitious nut jobs wanting to tarnish their image. Probably Amway’s true reason was to knock down P&G’s position in the corporate hierarchy. It might have made a dint but not that much and Amway, though powerful, has had to ride more waves of trouble than P&G. Unlike Starbucks who seemed to bow to public pressure (of a few) and kept changing their logo, P&G did not, until they hit an era of modernization. Did the logo changes or stasis affect these companies? Probably not much because they both have very strong products that hold up against the people with too much time on their hands.

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The Power of the Swastika

There is hardly anyone who doesn’t know what a swastika is, and, because 20th century Nazism understands the stigmatization of that symbol as it relates to hatred and racism. There are those who still support and believe in that particular symbolism, and are often called nationalist or neo-Nazi. The symbol is now so abhorred that Germany has outlawed it (along with a few other countries) and cringes as a nation every time it is seen. Games or other products in Germany can in no way display the swastika. They are a nation carrying great shame from Hitler’s crimes of the past.

So when someone of Western culture uses the sign, it is suspect ,and the person will be taken to be a neo-Nazi or white supremacist/nationalist as a woman in Winnipeg was seen to be. When her daughter inscribed a swastika on her arm, went to school and the teacher scrubbed it off, the mother decided to re-inscribe it the next day and send her daughter to school. Which resulted in social services taking away the two children. The couple began the fight to get their children back, citing freedom of political views.

As the case is beginning today, the mother, now separated from her partner, has softened her tone. Earlier interviews showed she was adamant about her beliefs and that the removal of her children had strengthened them. On CBC’s “The Current,” the woman stated that if she needed to change her beliefs to get her children back, she would. Perhaps her lawyers finally coached her that adamantly voicing her belief in her political beliefs damaged her chances of ever getting her children .

She also stated that she wasn’t a racist and believed only in white pride and going back to her Norse (she might have said Nordic) roots. That the swastika symbolized peace and love. But she also said she didn’t believe in interracial marriage. Umm, that’s racist or at least bigoted. Maybe not the big racism (you know, beating people and destroying their property) but it is still racist, as in you’re okay but I won’t mix with you because of the color of your skin.

Is there any truth to her claims of the swastika going back to her Norse roots? Yes. In fact, the swastika is pretty much a symbol once used universally throughout the world, just as the Greek key design was likewise used in Celtic lands and Mexico (and elsewhere I’m sure). There are conjectures of how and why the sign arose, from basket weaving designs to religious symbols, but the swastika and variations thereof is very old. It dates to neolithic and Bronze Age times. Some of the groups that used the swastika in one form or another were: Celtic, Germanic, Native American, Navajo, Hopi, Japanese, Baltic, Etruscan, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, Tibetan, Indian, and Slavic. The meanings have varied but it could symbolize the sun, man, god, fire, majesty, power, good luck, wandering, etc.

The swastika can be a variant of the sun wheel or sun cross  (a cross in a circle), which is older than the Christian cross and can represent the four directions. It is also very prevalent throughout Hindu and Buddhist culture to this day and figures largely in Chinese, Tibetan, Indian and Japanese culture. Items have sometimes been shipped to Western countries with these symbols on them (which may mean vegetarian or be a good luck symbol), which has caused considerable consternation and protest at the cultural misunderstandings.

So, in essence, anyone in our culture knows what the historical connotations are and should you want to exhibit pride in your skin color there are probably many better ways to do it, unless in fact you are racist and believe white is better. This woman (who can’t be named for protection of her children’s identities) doesn’t really get my sympathy. But maybe her song is changing.

The thing I always find amusing was that Hitler picked a symbol used for centuries by many races of color. That it was also Germanic probably helped but this indicates his ignorance of the great scope of symbols and culture. He also wanted a pure “Aryan nation” (and I believe this woman may have been a member of the Aryan Guard). What Hitler didn’t know was that India would have been considered an Aryan nation because the way anthropologists interpret Aryan is through the root language. It’s linguistics not racial types. And really, people in India are of the Caucasian race (people of the Caucasus region) to begin with. Bet that would have had Hitler spinning like a top. I wonder what the modern Aryan nations and neo-Nazis and others who want “Aryan” supremacy think of that and I wonder if this woman would marry a Hindu from India, since basically he would just be a very tanned Caucasian.

But maybe the next time this woman sends her kids to school (if she ever gets them back, and whether social services can intervene in political views is another matter) maybe she’ll have a higher wattage bulb turned on and realize the swastika has negative symbolism in Western culture. Unless she proves she’s Buddhist or Hindu she’ll have to keep her views secret and raise her children to be happy, peace loving racists.

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Dreamscape

Well it’s the usual Friday, except it’s still pouring and it’s a long weekend and I’m going to try and camp. Ick.

But I’m going to relate a dream I had two nights ago. It was amazingly visual and perhaps this was one of those muse visits. In the dream:

I’m driving some kind of Rolls Royce down the highway and several people in the car (I have no idea what they looked like) said I was going too fast. Then we’re in this meadow, which is hummocky with sparse trees, a few old locks and rocks. It’s light green and brown and looks an awful lot like my friends’ ranch in Clinton, BC. I’m driving down the middle trying to avoid various humps when a moose comes up to the car. It’s small for a moose and has moss on its antlers.

Then up the middle comes this amazing animal. It looks like a deer but in truth it is made of wood and moss and twigs and leaves and its alive. We just stop and look at it, noticing its dark eyes.

Next, as dreams do like to shift, I’m walking with some people into a glacial snowy area. There is a huge mountain and something like a high white shelf piled with hundreds of feet of snow. I look up think it looks pretty weighty and then proceed into the cave that turns into this long, downward sloping roughly chopped snow tunnel. It is in pale shades of green and white and light blue and just at the bottom I can see it starts to slope up again.

Then we hear a rumbling and great torrents of ice and snow flood up the passage, an interior avalanche. I manage to crawl out some side holes between the grey rock with two other people. Five are left in there including two friends, Karin and Eric (who I haven’t seen in years). Once it stops we go back in to find them and all the snow has turned to sand. We pull each person out from under the sand and besides being slightly damp and unconscious, they wake and are fine.

A friend of mine likes to interpret her dreams but I’m not sure I can with this. The interactions with nature were very strong. And groups of people mattered but were mostly anonymous.

Many of my dreams are muse driven, that is, they end up becoming stories. I don’t think this one will and even though there was that avalanche the feeling in the dream was one of wonder, where no one was injured. The colors were vivid and important, and I really hope this is not just a portent of early winter.

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