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October 4th, 2007

an only slightly edited version of a previously suppressed post [Oct. 4th, 2007|11:03 am]
Romeo Alaeff’s Art, And Various Related Topics Including East Africa and the Local Consumption of Macaroni and Cheese in Northern Scotland...There May Be a Kitchen Sink in the Discussion Somewhere

I still owe the Glenfiddich artist-in-residence program a coherent essay on what it is that they do, plus a concentrated focus on their 2007 American artist in residence, Romeo Alaeff. My loyal readership may not be awaiting this with quite the breathlessness that some of us have awaited John Crowley’s successive crowleycrow.livejournal.com posts regarding his trip to Prague, but I’m sure Alaeff would like to see his name cropping up more often in these pages.

And it ought to be cropping up, and Glenfiddich’s singularly enlightened bringing together of seven international artists each summer in northern Scotland, because Alaeff’s work, and the curatorial juxtaposition of artists from seven different countries to do what they will with a summer in proximity to Loch Ness and the Malt Whisky Trail, both represent the kind of venture with which joculum.livejournal.com deals repeatedly.

Namely, the sheer inventive variousness of our “infinitely curious and endlessly adaptive species” (or whatever Wade Davis’ phrase was, look it up a couple of posts back) and what happens when endlessly inventive individuals come together in productive collaborations or collisions. The usual wisdom these days is that you ought to get a blend of insights and collective visions; but sometimes, as with the history of Glenfiddich, the end result is so distinctive on its own and/or so delectably idiosyncratic that there is no question of mixing it up.

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The quirks and separate agendas of even a few people create odd side currents with unpredictable later consequences; I wonder if Nancy Davidson has gotten her story placed about the macaroni and cheese pies of Dufftown, sold to hungry pubgoers making their way home after closing time. The simple fact that I am wondering, and writing about that wondering, is one such unpredictable consequence, hence the semicolon in the preceding.

In other words, we three visiting journalists went on a side trip because one of us wanted to pursue a story unrelated to the artist program, but very much related to the life of folks who work in and around the distilleries of Dufftown. And that story has got me to thinking about the peculiar dietary habits of northern Europe in general, offshoots of which find their way into the Midwestern migrations written about by Garrison Keillor.

In the case of the miniature macaroni and cheese pies, I find it difficult to believe some bakery in Wisconsin never came up with the idea for the benefit of guys making their way home from the local version of the Sidetrack Tap. Late in the evening, one wants a hand-held, culinarily simple starch to moderate the absorption of alcohol, and hey, there it is.

It is characteristic of me that I was reminded of this by Wade Davis’ essay in Light at the Edge of the World on the cattle and camel herders of Kenya. Davis is writing about the adaptive qualities of the subgroups that found borderland grazing for both cattle and camels versus the traditionalists in both camps who got clobbered by drought, but that wasn’t what led to my typically bizarre leap of association.

No, what led to it was my recollection of a story I have told in detail in a previous post, about the well-to-do Kenyan herder who leads a traditional lifestyle right down to having the wish to communicate with his anthropologist wife via his cellphone when she is off teaching at her university.

And that I find that at all interesting has to do with the tendency of all peoples in all places to find delight in the different adaptive ways of the world’s peoples, for whom the adaptation may not seem worthy of note at all. As I wrote in a recent post, R. Kapuscinski’s recently translated Travels With Herodotus correlates his own ruminations on this topic with those of the original Greek compiler of global curiosa.

This brings us at last to Romeo Alaeff, whose silkscreen prints for the Glenfiddich residency derive their look from Rorschach-test inkblots, but their content from a vastly associative set of visual references. “War on the Brain,” if I recall the title correctly, is an exploration of warfare and the internal and external motivations for it.

The visual metaphors of the various pieces are clustered in patterns that allow, as in the Rorschach test, the viewer’s own projection of meaning; as Alaeff says, he wants to provide a guided but not a controlled experience. “If art is communication, I haven’t done my job if no one gets it.”

But I wonder, and I said so at the time, if at least one schematic map isn’t necessary to make sense of a complexly associative visual representation of history.

“War on the Brain: William Wallace an aw that,” Alaeff’s magnificent image devoted to William Wallace’s wars with the English, for example, contains outlines of flights of swallows, which on the literal level visit Scotland each year after migrating from Africa, and are for Alaeff creatures “that use the land but do not occupy it,” in contradistinction to those for whom every scrap of turf, used or unused, was and is part of a fiercely contested question of ownership.

That image alone could be a starting point for one of my 1500-word verbal meanderings, on nomadism versus the fetishism of fixed borders, but also on the untoward consequences of migratory patterns gone awry, climatic displacements, population pressures, and the war that ensues in places around the globe when such non-national questions mingle with the needs and wants of the nation-state.

But I will spare you that one, and leave the symbol sitting in Alaeff’s wonderful image.

Nevertheless, if you don’t see the birds in the picture in the first place (or far less clear borrowed images), you can’t start free-associating about them, and if you don’t know the habits of migratory swallows, you have no metaphor from which to spin your own fantasies. Facts can be baleful things, but without a few of them to anchor us, we are left free-floating, and the horrid results can be seen each year in the art shows and ’zines of fans of fantasy literature. Alaeff,, by contrast, seems to have a promising mix of fact and fantasia.

And I still need to write an essay about his project of creating “a point of paradox—a place between places where there is no resolution except to become comfortable with the paradox.” But this is not going to be that essay.

This might, however, be the germ of an essay to be titled “Selling Macaroni Pies to the Samburu.” Fortunately for all concerned, it most likely will not be.

*If I needed a reminder that I am not a journalist despite sometimes carrying a press card, the condition of my separate notebooks would be sufficient. Three or four parallel tracks of notes and reflections are carried out on the adjacent pages of at least three different books. Which is pretty much how my mind works anyway, as longsuffering readers of this journal will have noted.

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