Azuma Makoto’s Botanical Aliens

Azuma Makoto Exobotanica

I can’t decide if Japanese artist Azuma Makoto loves flowers or hates them. His is a practice that seems at times bent on putting gorgeous plants through the most hellish of trials and punishments, while at the same time elevating something you can technically find in your backyard to the status of high art sculpture. It’s sort of like Hannibal for florists.

I was first introduced to Makoto’s work when I came across an image of his frozen flowers. In an exhibition held in Japan in the winter of 2014, Makoto froze a number of large, lush flower arrangements in cartoonish crystal-clear blocks of solid ice. Think the block of ice that Steve Rogers gets caught in for 70 years. The sort of thing that would probably never happen by accident in real life. I don’t know how the artist did it, but there must have been some scientific consultation going on for him to get the arrangements to look just so, like they were blowing in an invisible breeze, while suspended in effective cryostasis.

Azuma Makoto Iced Flowers

I think my favourite part of this piece is the backdrop that Makoto chose. A barren warehouse that seems in direct contrast to the liveliness of the flowers. The wet concrete floor, stainless steel apparatus and chains make me think of a slaughterhouse or industrial factory. Not really a place for flowers. That tired old word juxtaposition is almost as alive as the plants seem to be in this piece. I could talk about the slow death that the plants experienced as the ice slowly thawed leaving them wet and wilted on the floor, but there aren’t any photos of the aftermath – not that I can find, anyway. That was behind the scenes, not meant for the viewing public.

Azuma Makoto Iced Flowers Large View

So Makoto used ice one time to suspend his plants but in other cases it’s a recurring cube enclosure that looks like a cross between torture device and display case. A plant, sometimes a Bonsai tree, is held in place by four metal cables, leading to the corners of a small metal box, just a frame, with open sides. It’s an innovative vase, but provides the plant no protection or access to necessary nutrients. The plant becomes a beautiful object for a very limited period of time. Taking this further, Makoto sent flowers into space. Well, not technically into space, but into the upper levels of the earth’s atmosphere, about as close to space as you can get without being in the vacuum.

Azuma Makoto Exobotanica Crew

Why worry about the plants, suspended as they are in their metal cubes, days already numbered? I imagine they looked lovely for a few hours floating peacefully in the stratosphere, until they began to fall and wither. I’m not sure what the air and temperatures up there would do to a plant – I don’t think Azuma Makoto did, either. Launched out of Black Rock, Nevada, earlier this summer, the project isn’t the least Burning-Man-esque artwork I can think of, yet there’s something more focused and serene about it. The plants become Exobotanica, the artist’s website explains, they become extraterrestrial beings, freed from the earth. Perhaps this is a glimpse into Makoto’s true feelings about the plants – perhaps they are more, or can offer more than what we see them as. I wrote about Makoto’s studio in an upcoming post on Artist Run Website – his atelier, as many websites call it, because “studio” seems almost crass for the delicacy of the work that is being done here – and it, alone, is a work of performance art. Look at Makoto’s Exobotanica assistants, in uniforms with special patches on them. A team of scientists preparing for the future of art. I want to read that story.

Encyclopedia of Flowers: Flower Works by Makoto Azuma photographed by Shunsuke Shiinoki

All images from azumamakoto.com

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Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes

August was an interesting time to read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t think I know of any other books that so accurately portray the smell, appearance and general feel of autumn, particularly late October when the season is in full swing and the frost is only beginning to set in in the mornings. I know it’s a particularly North American concept of October, but that being the one that I’ve grown up with, it really made me long for sweater weather.

For a horror story, it’s very much a boy’s coming-of-age tale. Not to say that only boys and men can relate to it, I know I found it totally engaging regardless, but the text is rife with nods to apparent shared experiences by men of a certain age who grew up in a certain era. Released originally in 1962, it doesn’t exactly subvert the sensibilities of that era, but it doesn’t fall victim to them, either.

When I say horror in describing the story I definitely mean classic horror. There’s no gore or teenagers being stalked by serial killers here. A supernaturally evil carnival comes to town. No, there aren’t any murderous clowns, either. The carnival itself is something that would probably be passed off as utter camp if it were written into a horror story today, but Something Wicked’s temporal setting makes it totally believable. This is a time where 13-year-old-boys roam free in the middle of the night, escaping through their bedroom windows and are reprimanded only via brief scolding when and if they are ever discovered. There aren’t any cellphones or computers, and travelling salesmen are still a thing. The town is presented as a relatively idyllic portrait of “all-American” life in the late fifties.

Yet the action never feels dated or dull. There’s suspense, bits that are genuinely scary and as a reader I was still able to form an attachment to the characters to the point where I cared what happened to them. The story is tight throughout and never drags. I think this was at least partially a side-effect of Bradbury’s extremely short chapter structure – sometimes a chapter was only half a page long. I’m a fan of this. It means each chapter is a clean divide, describes only one scene, no matter the length, and it really keeps the pages turning. Not to mention that we’re treated to an ending that’s much more than just “the heros win, and the bad guys are vanquished.” It’s thought-provoking, satisfying and most importantly doesn’t feel like a rip-off the way so many happy endings tacked on to horror stories do.
As for gender roles: Bradbury is no Larry Niven, but again, the women in the story are passive objects. Set dressing and plot devices. Arguably the most prominent female characters are the boys’ mothers, and these two “characters” are completely interchangeable. Will’s mother has a few lines of dialogue in which she consoles her husband and son – Jim’s mother is only described from a distance. Basically, the boy’s mothers are on there to act as foils for the maleness of our three heros. Other than that, they don’t affect the story at all. The boys and Will’s father barely seem worried about getting in trouble with their women after running around through the town all night. Also, when do they sleep? There were points at which I got tired just thinking about this. Maybe I was just never a 13-year-old boy.

Aside from the mothers, women are presented in a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re the gullible fools who get eaten up by the supernatural evil presence while the astute young males see through the clever ruse immediately – and isn’t this sort of intuition often a traditionally feminine thing in literature? Men figure stuff out with science, while women are in tune with nature and “just know”?

If not that, they’re a part of the evil, as in the only female member of the carnival – the blind witch. I guess this is our feminine intuition nod – the woman communes with nature, has a sixth sense and is therefore a practitioner of evil black magic. The witch is portrayed as inherently evil, being a part of the carnival, but really all she ever does in the story is smell and feel things, knowing things in spite of her blindness, which we’re supposed to interpret as really creepy.

My short rant aside, there’s a reason Bradbury has been called the greatest sci-fi writer in history. (Link NSFW) This is an engaging story with solid characterization and plot. And for old, classic horror, I found it genuinely eerie. Read this at Halloween! Read it in front of your gas fireplace or with a lamp on under a blanket. Pretend you’re 13 again.

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I actually read this title a little while ago but I’m refreshing my memory for the blog because I feel it bears being written about. For starters, I really liked the story. The overarching plot is reasonably compelling. Unfortunately it’s marred by Larry Niven’s blistering disregard for women. This was published in 1970, and reading novels from a particular era, I think you have to steel yourself against some degree of oblivious, but belligerent, misogyny. That said, I’ve absolutely read other authors who allow the influence of their own era to exist within the book without it being completely awful for readers, who, 30+ years later are starting to get the  hang of this whole “women are actually people” thing and get queasy thinking about how recent a development that is. As I’m writing this I’m halfway through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the female characters in that serve mainly as either set dressing or plot devices, but Bradbury doesn’t seem to have an active hate/fear relationship with his women characters. Niven, on the other hand, sees women as pretty vessels. The female characters in Ringworld (all two of them!) could be convincingly replaced by aesthetically pleasing Tupperware.

It’s a shame because I liked the story so much. I just learned that there’s a colloquial term for this type of story: “Big Dumb Object” or “BDO” for short. In BDO stories the entire premise is based on the existence of this one big object, whether it’s a threat to humanity, a giant physical anomaly that later proves to be the ticket to humanity’s continued existence, or just a weird unexplored chunk of space rock. Gamers, think the Traveler from Destiny. In the case of Ringworld the titular object is all three of these thing, which is why a team of explorers are sent to…well, explore it.

Huge unexplored space objects are my fetish, so I was quite enthralled with Niven’s descriptions of the Ringworld itself. The author’s descriptions of alien worlds and made-up future technology are sometimes a bit hard to follow, but having a picture in your head is more important than whether or not the picture is accurate. The story’s fairly large in scope, with the huge distances taking years and years to travel, even with fantasy advances in propulsion technology.

The main character, Louis Wu, is honestly just some old rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much else going on. Accompanying him on the expedition is Teela, who we first meet when Louis ends up sleeping with her at his birthday party. Despite an age gap of something like 40 years she falls haplessly in love with him because it’s the future and they have anti-aging technology and people live way longer and because Niven is extremely transparent in the way he projects his own fantasies into his writing. And pretty much the only reason Teela joins the expedition is because she can’t bear to leave Louis and also because Louis can’t bear to go on this multiple-year space journey without someone in which to holster his dick. The other two characters are of different alien species – one of which has sentient males and non-sentient females. I don’t think I really need to say anything more.

The one other female appears toward the end of the novel. She’s a crew member from a marooned space ship. Hang on, did I say crew member? I meant ship’s prostitute. Okay. I am totally supportive of sex work as a legitimate way to earn a decent living, and, okay, this alien is portrayed as mind-blowingly good at her job, but it would be so nice to meet a female character who is in the novel for reasons other than “has a vagina.” I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess that a progressive portrayal of sex workers was not at the forefront of the author’s mind when he wrote the character.

My verdict? Buy the book. Buy it USED. Read it, enjoy it, throw it against a wall. Pass it along to your friends.

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1) by David Weber

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

A few days ago I thought I was going to start this review by saying that David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, the first novel in the Honor Harrington series, attempted to be feminist but almost missed the mark. After having finished it, I can say it really hits its stride in the latter half. Considering that the last few novels I’ve read have been Horus Heresy volumes, it was wonderfully refreshing just to read something that focused on a female lead character. And even more refreshing to note that Honor Harrington is not treated as an anomaly in her universe, but rather that Weber’s Navy seems to have a fairly even distribution of men and women among all ranks and positions. Women in this novel are portrayed as capable, intelligent tacticians, scheming politicians, corrupt billionaires – and each is just as sincerely written and believable as any male character in a similar position.

While the story itself is tight and relatively small in scope – small given that the main conflict involves a space station, wormhole travel and interplanetary espionage – the writing itself drags very occasionally. This is usually when Weber gets caught up in explaining the technological aspects of ships and weapons or the history and process of various political systems. It’s clear that the author genuinely enjoys his world-building, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate this – I can think of a lot more stories where a bit more world-building could have improved things. Weber’s bouts of exposition sometimes go on for four or five pages, eventually reading like someone rambling nervously at a bar, knowing their target is going to walk away as soon as they stop talking.

Those of you expecting a tale of swashbuckling high-space-seas adventure won’t be disappointed – though you should be warned that things take a turn for the #dark towards the end of the novel when the stakes get higher and the body count rises. I’ve never been particularly put off by blood and guts but the way the gore is treated here (serious, with odd dignity given the number of over-the-top violent deaths and their slightly-too-loving descriptions) might be a little incongruous for summer reading. Honestly though, my biggest complaint about this book pertains only to the specific edition that I bought, which features a conventionally beautiful, long-haired Honor Harrington on its cover despite numerous descriptions to the exact contrary within. I digress: the book was engaging almost all the way through, with likable characters and meaningful losses, and I will definitely buy the next installment of the series.