Of animals and absurdity

2 December 2012

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The Instagram feed @thiswildidea has been giving me a lot of joy lately. Have you seen it? Photographer Theron Humphrey’s project Maddie on Things isn’t new, but his photos of coonhound Maddie continue to be charming and inventive, and Maddie must be the most dexterous and amenable dog I’ve seen. Maddie deadpans with the best of them, making the photos delightfully absurd.

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Maddie’s success provides further evidence that we relish animals in ridiculous situations. The web is full of examples, but the phenomenon actually dates back much further, to the nineteenth century and photographer Harry Whittier Frees’s portraits of kittens in human scenarios. (And who knows, probably it’s even older than that.) Surely there’s a cuteness factor here, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. There’s something special in the way that projects like this ritualize surprise. They give us a formula which sets our expectations, but each installment disrupts them in new ways. Each photo follows a pattern, yet also pushes a boundary. It is playful and endearing and embarrassing — and we love Maddie for her game willingness to go along for the ride.

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Not to write cuteness off entirely, though. Cuteness is at root an aesthetic of vulnerability, and nothing is more vulnerable than the willingness to let someone put you in absurd situations. There’s sometimes a fine line between affection and humiliation, and it is a very sweet kind of companionship to be this loved and this trusting. Innocence by definition entails blind faith, and no matter how jaded we become over time, we seem to take a vicarious thrill in innocence and the way children and animals simply trust their welfare to our imperfect selves.

To be absurd, to be part of an absurd event, is also a kind of release. I think on some level we empathize with Maddie’s readiness to be part of someone else’s story, to be medium and subject, and to take on these strange challenges created for her. In any situation where we give up control and surrender to an experience (Philippe Halsman’s jump photos come to mind), we open up a new possibility to surprise ourselves. Self-surprise is one of the greatest joys, when we discover some new lightness or freedom within ourselves. Perhaps the greatest joy of participating in absurdity is permission: to be ridiculous, to be out of character, or simply to take ourselves less seriously.

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Images: ThisWildIdea
See more of Maddie, here.

Giveaway: Lux Archive

26 September 2012

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Fall is my favorite season. I know, I know — wasn’t I just lamenting the end of summer a few weeks ago? But while I miss summer’s energy and abundance when it goes, there is no salve like the surreal vibrancy of fall, of trees lit up like firecrackers in the crisp, drying air. In fall, I feel most awake, most attuned to the world, and perhaps most inclined to savor, as we slip towards the dark of winter. Though the colors of the trees are actually harbingers of decay, revealed from their normal hideout under a scrim of chlorophyll, they feel like a celebration.

As it gets cooler, things calm down, and I find I get a little more time to spend at home. Especially at this time of year, I think its important to make sure home is a place you want to be, and having beautiful, colorful art on the walls is big part of that. So I’m delighted that Lux Archive, a site that offers affordable, limited edition fine art photographs, has offered a special discount and giveaway for Aesthetics of Joy readers. Lux Archive has a beautiful range, with lots of pieces that bring the joy of the world into clear focus. Back in February I posted an amazing image of a cardinal in flight by Paul Nelson, which is part of a remarkable series called Wild Birds Flying available on the site. The amazing fall color images for this post are by David Reinfeld, and I love how each image seems to replicate a leaf structure at large scale — the branches like veins, the leaves like cells — affirming the lacy, fractal structure of our amazing world. There’s more: the airy, beachy images of Kerry Mansfield, the exploded flowers of Fong Qi Wei, and this deliciously bright and absurd dog on a giant watermelon.

For 20% off on prints at Lux Archive, use code JOY20. And for a $50 coupon for one reader (that covers half the cost of a small print), write your favorite thing about fall in the comments. I’ll choose one that’s particularly joyful and award the coupon next week. Make sure to leave your email in your comment so I can contact you.

I’ve never done giveaways on this site, but I liked this one because I thought it was generous and might bring joy to some of you who are seeking it. Enjoy, and if you buy a piece, let us know which one so we can enjoy it with you!

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Images: David Reinfeld, courtesy of Lux Archive. For more David Reinfeld, see here.

Joymaker: Naomi London, visual artist

19 January 2012


Joymaker is a new series spotlighting people who seek to create joy in their work.

It takes a kind of joyful madness to hand-apply 100 lbs. of raspberry jam to a gallery wall. And that’s exactly what attracted me to the work of Naomi London, a visual artist based in Montreal, who tries to bring a voice for joy and play to contemporary art. London uses joyful forms, visual metaphors, and textures (such as polka dots) to give her audience a sense of delight.

I’m fascinated by the shiny, sticky surface of this enormous red wall. While a red wall might typically take on a violent or alarming quality, the material makes it totally disarming, even childlike. I wonder if it stayed sticky throughout the installation, and slightly fluid, shifting its mottles in a slow gravitational creep towards the floor. Or whether it stayed firm, drying like a giant fruit roll-up. I didn’t ask Naomi these silly questions, but I did ask her some others:

How do you want people to feel when they engage with your work?

I’m very interested in the notion of play in art. I’m hoping that when people see the Jam Wall they can appreciate the unexpected beauty of the colour, as well as the playful absurdity of using this material.

Can you talk more about this connection between joy and absurdity?

I associate absurdity very much with play, and play is joyful. Other connections include humour in the absurd, e.g. the odd rhymes and tongue twisters of several early Dr. Seuss books. I find that there is pleasure in being in a ‘non-logical place’ in your head, which is how I think of the absurd. It’s about the unexpected, fun, and delight that can be felt when exploring things that deliberately don’t make logical sense, but are full of wonder and joy. There is an importance in the purposelessness of the absurd, which is something that makes is joyful (to me) and thus also linked to play.

Jam wall installing

Jam wall sample

What is the role of joy in your work?

I think that joy, beauty, humour and play have been underrepresented in contemporary art over the last few decades. I’ve been interested in trying to address joy and happiness in my work for past ten years or so. I’m currently working on a sculpture installation project in homage to my mother, (who died just over two years ago). Even though it is a memorial work of sorts, I hope that it still somehow evokes a sense of joy.

I’m making a series of balls which are made exclusively out of fabric inherited from my mom. (She was a talented seamstress and made almost all my clothes during my childhood.)

What one object most symbolizes joy to you?

I think I’m torn between seeing the first tulips in early Spring and my favorite large white mixing bowl that I use when I bake a cake.

What’s inspiring you right now?

Colour, and the unexpected use of saturated colour: chartreuse yellow + green, fire engine red, brilliant orange.

What other designers, artists, or creators should Aesthetics of Joy readers know about?

There is an interesting website run by a researcher/academic in Rotterdam:  The World Database of Happiness. The layout of the site is dry aesthetically but I think that its wonderful that the subject of happiness is being studied in this way.

I like the work of Franz West very much. Another artist whose work I really like is Ana Rewakowicz.

You can see more of Naomi’s work here. (In particular, make sure to check out Polka Dot Wall, a site-specific installation I find very joyful.) Images courtesy of Naomi London.

Comical violence

14 October 2009


No question that the economy has the fashion industry feeling hacked to bits, and this was apparent on the runways. At Commes des Garcons Rei Kawakubo’s clothes looked artfully pieced together from odd bits salvaged from a besieged factory. Interspersed with elegant minimalist pieces, Raf Simons’s show at Jil Sander had a few pieces with opaque layers largely eviscerated and overlaid with netting. But no one expressed the bathetic anguish designers felt at having their wings clipped with more humor and charm than Viktor and Rolf.

I can only imagine how the faces of the front row must have lit up to see these gored, sliced, and shaved tulle gowns come down the runway. Yes, they are marred by violence. But they’re so sweetly absurd that for me they are still an aesthetic of joy.

Joyful culture: flash mobs

15 September 2009

An email from a reader got me thinking again about joyful behavior. I’ve written before about joyful behavior in the form of random acts of kindness and other unexpected actions. These are often 1-to-1 or 1-to-many exchanges, and done with a certain level of intention.

Flash mobs are another form of joyful behavior, but rather than focusing on making one or a few people feel good, they’re focused on collective enjoyment at a large scale. For those who haven’t encountered this phenomenon, a flash mob is a public spectacle usually organized by email, Facebook, Twitter, text, and other social networking technologies and services. Flash mobs gather groups of random people to do unusual things, such as ride the subway with no pants on, host a subway station art gallery, have a pillow fight, blow bubbles, or do a huge coordinated dance routine. This phenomenon has become so popular that you can find more than a couple MJ-themed flash mobs with little effort, and lots of events that require at least a marginal suppression of dignity.

It may not always be in good taste, but it’s usually in good humor, and good fun if you’ve ever experienced one. My dad and I walked through Times Square during this year’s Bubble Battle, and felt first hand the joy of a place we know well entirely transformed by the odd, but welcome spectacle. Flash mobs are also a wonderful way to experience the contagiousness of joy in action. Watching the videos you first notice a few bewildered looks from the immediate passersby, followed by smiles and whispers to companions. Others, who may not have noticed the spectacle, see the reactions of those around them and snap to attention, and you can watch as the processing happens in their brains, and the smiles spread across their faces too. Like a water ripple, joy spreads outward in concentric waves. Confusion turns to delight, and then comes back in on itself, as people converge to get a closer look. Then cameras emerge and text messages are sent, propelling the ripple even wider.

When people talk about the rise of flash mobs, they always talk about social media. But social media are only the enabler; what interests me is the drive. Media are the how, not the why, and the why is an infinitely more interesting question. I believe the rise of these events is driven by a craving for joy in everyday life, a desire to let the inner child out to play in a way that feels free. It’s a drive for connection, for tactile experiences, for oddity among the homogenized landscape, for reprieve not just from recession but from all of the rigidities and pressures of adult life. It’s a desire to participate in something where the outcome is uncertain and unimportant, because the experience is about being in the moment. And it’s not just about being in moments, but about creating moments that are worth being in, more worth being in than moments spent in front of the TV or swiping your card at a cash register. It attracts people of all ages and lifestyles because this is a deeply human need.

It is a wonder when technology provides opportunities for the new satisfaction of emotional needs; but because emotional needs can be repressed, rechanneled, and hidden for long periods of time, their sudden satisfaction can make it look like they are new needs, rather than long-buried ones. Flash mobs, in their  absurd way, make us conscious of this latent craving for serendipity in our culture and ourselves.



For more on flash mobs:

Thank you to Riaz for the link to the Sound of Music flash mob and inspiration for this post

Joy of hula hoops

31 August 2009


The hula hoop is back in full force this year, seen in everything from designer window displays (thank you, Kate Spade) to fitness classes (hello, Hoopilates!). People must be looking for a little cheap and cheerful fun in their lives, and personally I think it’s a not a bad idea. I took a hooping class recently with a friend and it was so much fun I think hooping could be prescribed as a credible (and recession-friendly) alternative to Prozac.

The hoop is brilliant because it is not only an object, but also a space and an experience. As an object, the hoop bears features of many of the different aesthetics I’ve talked about on this site: the circular form suggests harmony and completion, as well as renewal. The large scale (hard to miss a hula hoop) suggests the child aesthetic, while the bright colors and patterns (as on these beautiful bespoke hoops) suggest energy and exuberance. Even before it’s set in motion, the hula hoop is an appealing object.


The hula hoop is also a space. The hoop demarcates a zone in which you are free from certain rules that apply outside of it. Inside the hoop, you are allowed — no, expected — to move your body in a way that would be considered bizarre and socially unacceptable outside of it. This makes the hoop an oasis, a place that offers temporary freedom from conventions that apply in the spaces around it. We often forget that spaces can be portable, but many other oases function in this way, emerging from an object: an ipod, a costume, a few balloons and streamers. The hoop isn’t a very big space, which in a way makes it all the more remarkable — if you can define a space using just a plastic circle, think of all the ways you could create emotional spaces for people without erecting any screens or walls.

And finally, there’s the motion, that wobbling gyration that brings the hoop alive. It’s a ridiculous movement, so absurd that it’s impossible not to smile while spinning a hoop around your waist. You feel self-conscious, but only for a second, especially at one of these classes where you look around and realize that old men are doing it and 7 year-old girls are doing it and some guy who sits in a cube all day looking at spreadsheets is doing it. Then your inner child takes over and you feel amazed that something so wonderful is so easy and so free.


Fads over the hoop come and go, but I think one of the reasons it has endured more than so many other more complex movement toys is that its simplicity creates possibility. The hoop is accessible to a novice, and while it can be challenging, it doesn’t take long to get it going in a satisfying whirl. But watching dancers work with the hoop as a tool, it can be amazing to see how many different movements they come up with. Many of the best toys share this ability to be open-ended (contrast with many current toys that are so prescriptive they lose their appeal after the first 20 minutes) and I think this is a key reason the hoop has lasted so long.

And by “so long” I mean 3000 years! Most people think the hula hoop was invented in the 1950s, where it became so popular that 25 million were sold in just the first four months. But actually a hoop made of vines was used as a toy by Egyptians as far back as 1000 B.C. It’s funny to think that one day thousands of years into the future archeologists may uncover our iphones and laptops and wonder what on earth they were for, but won’t have to wonder about hula hoops because their children will still be playing with them.

Top image by Little Rosy Runabout
Beautiful hoops available from Circle Candy
Bottom image by Tony the Misfit

Galapagos joy, day 2: flamingo pink

14 August 2009


Like many animals in the Galapagos, there are no guarantees with the flamingos — either they’re there or they aren’t and there isn’t much you can do if they happen to be feeding elsewhere that day. Fortunately, we lucked out, and were able to watch them graze on lunch for awhile. I choose this shot out of 40 or so flamingo photos because of the constrast in the poses of the two birds, the reflections in the still water, and the vast expanse of blue lagoon around them.

The reflections and the negative space accentuate the absurd gesture of the flamingo form and its odd proportions: the weight of the body atop implausibly skinny legs bent at awkward-seeming angles; the long, S-curved neck with the hairpin turn at the top; the chunky, toucan-esque beak; and the unlikely color, make these birds look like caricatures of themselves, like living lawn ornaments. And yet, what seems so cartoonish was transformed in an instant when the birds took flight.

Necks and legs in one smooth, undulating line, with black-fringed wings outstretched, they were not only no longer absurd. They were utterly graceful.

Allium and the joy of flowers

30 June 2009


I’ve been writing more than a little about the notion of the absurd as a route to joy lately, and as far as absurd flowers go, the allium pretty much takes the cake. Poofy, sparkly orbs, disproportionately large yet still light and airy atop impossibly tall, straight stems — the allium looks like something that would grow on a newly discovered planet. Its family heritage is no less comical: the cheery allium is actually a variant of the onion, presenting a globe above ground while its cousin hides one below.

The allium is one flower that never fails to make me smile. But of course there are many joyful flowers. Poppies, with their irrational exuberance — bright, fragile, and abundant. Peonies, which are perhaps more stately, but lavish with their fragrance and the endless layers of petals that unfurl implausibly from those tight, hard buds. Lilacs, which appear in an intoxicating fog of scent, offering a pure glut of sensation for only a few weeks. Tulips, too, with their early spring color and their way of opening themselves so wide as to practically turn inside out, offering all before going bare for another year.

The whole idea of the flower is joyful. It is an alluring spectacle, an unfurling of vibrant energy, both excessive and necessary. Color, pattern, scent, texture, intricacy of design — in the flower, nature spared no aesthetic expense. Surely she could have evolved other (more efficient) ways for plants to reproduce, but how lucky we are that flowers evolved to be the dominant means!