Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Art SPA Getty

                                    Sexcapades      Pilfered antiquities      Authenticity-challenged art works

“If you condemn something, you have to support your argument."
                                               Marion True, Curator of Antiquities 
                                               Getty Museum, 1986-2005

In 1997, the $1.3 billion, Richard Meier-designed, Getty Center opened its doors to the public for the first time – free of charge. Sheathed in white Italian travertine and home to art works ranging from the Middle Ages to contemporary photography – as well as to the Getty Research Institute, Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Foundation, and the J. Paul Getty, Trust – the Center’s several buildings occupy a 760-acre Brentwood campus that towers above nearby Bel Air the way the Capitoline overlooks Rome.

Yet like the private life of its founder and benefactor, J. Paul Getty, Sr., the Center’s 20-year history is replete with scandal and controversy, a story that’s played out as three more or less parallel, sometimes intertwining narratives: looted antiquities, fake works of art, and work place sex.

Somehow, if improbably, all three of these themes appear to have converged on the occasion of the Center’s latest exhibition, the Cave Temples of Dunhuang, Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road, May 7–September 4, 2016.

I arrived excitedly at the exhibit earlier this month expecting a tour of three conserved cave temple originals, restored to pristine splendor.

And why wouldn't they be the originals? With an endowment of $6.2 billion (as of 2013), the Getty is by far the world’s wealthiest art museum and could easily afford to purchase the temples lock, stock, and barrel from China (where since Mao, everything has been up for grabs) and transport them back to Los Angeles.

From a technical standpoint, such an undertaking should be entirely feasible. Folks move big structures all the time. Didn’t engineers uproot and lift two enormous limestone temple complexes at Abu Simbel to avoid the rising waters of Egypt’s Lake Nasser? What would moving a few small man-made caves be in comparison to this?

To ship the caves to LA, you'd first have to excavate them en bloc, pack them up securely in burlap, and stow them on a large freighter like the Maersk Triple-E.

Or for a decent rate, perhaps just send them UPS.

In this particular circumstance, the ethics of an extirpative (en bloc) excavation shouldn't create a dilemma for the Getty, either.  One of the cave temples, #320, had already been partially looted by another American, archaeologist Langdon Warner, in 1924. Thus, defiled with pieces missing to begin with – and with the home team being to blame for it – it'd seem an act of actual responsibility, even charity, to collect the rest of the cave for preservation. Naturally you’d need to dig out a couple of  adjoining ones, too, for purposes of comparative study. But with some 492 of these caves, no one's going to miss a paltry three.
Looted Cave Temple #320

Pretty much on the up and up, really.

True, China is notorious for red tape. But if Customs refused you an export license, you could still have black marketeers smuggle the temples disguised as, say, parade floats to Shanghai and then transship them invoiced as handicrafts to Los Angeles via Dubai. (Everybody does it!)

Like many American art museums, the Getty has quite a history with looted artifacts. In the 1970s and 1980s, the museum’s curator of antiquities, Jiří Frel, cooked up a tax manipulation scheme that expanded the museum’s collection of antiquities, including pieces of dubious provenance – a number of the latter being generally considered fakes.  In 2005, under pressure from Italian authorities to return looted items, an internal review at the Getty found that 350 of its antiquities had been acquired from dealers suspected or convicted of dealing in looted artifacts. By 2007, the Getty had agreed to return forty of these objects to Italy; as of 2014, some fifty-two had finally been repatriated – forty-six to Italy and six to Greece.

One of the museum’s most prized possessions, the 2,300-year-old Greek bronze known as the Victorious Youth, acquired in 1977, remains entoiled in litigation with the Italians to this day.

Most recently, Turkey has sought to recover artifacts it claims are held illegally by the Getty.

Surely, with this much expertise in black marketeering, the Getty could finesse acquisition of a few looted cave temples if it came to that, perhaps even leveraging its reputation for buying fakes as a smokescreen.

Finally, there was the testament of Lou Jie, director of the Dunhuang art research unit, who said of her work on the temple exhibition:

“In this state of submersion, I transitioned through the mental states of self, self-forgetting, and no-self, transported as I worked to a world of more than a millennium ago.”

It seemed likely to me that such thoroughgoing transcendental abnegation of the self would only be occasioned by painstaking en block excavation of genuine caves, not the fabrication of fake ones from fiberglass and Krylon®! Thus, Lou Jie must have been digging up the real thing, not making copies.

But despite all the above considerations,  I was in for a big disappointment!

(To enlarge, click on the image)
The Getty cave temples turned out to be counterfeit after all, merely 21st century copies!* Even to my untrained eye, it was clear right away that one wasn’t dealing with cave originals here (see critical analysis).

How could the Getty have been so mislead?

Well, for starters, it wouldn’t be the first time. The Getty’s traffic in looted antiquities is rivaled only by its history with fake works of art**, and the two things, not surprisingly, have often been interrelated. Bogus antiquities are typically of dubious provenance, and the latter in turn is typical of looted antiquities whether they’re bogus or not.

Take, for example, the “Skopas” head, or head of Achilles, purchased by Jiří Frel for the Getty in 1988 at a price of around $2.5 million. At the time, it was considered one of the museum’s most significant antiquities, a 4th-century B.C. treasure – until it was noted to be a copy of a head on display at the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Of course, no one really knew who had sculpted the counterfeit or for that matter, the original. But the cause of truth in such situations is hardly advanced when you have experts like Frel himself and probably others fabricating false records of provenance on behalf of private collectors and dealers looking to move their own loot.

Originally part of the Getty 
Villa, Malibu, collection

In retrospect, I should probably have anticipated that the Dunhuang cave installation would prove to be counterfeit. For given the Getty’s history with fakes, together with the highly unusual nature of the exhibition itself, this would have been just the occasion for more fakes to turn up.

Which brings me to the final theme of the Getty saga: office or institutional sex.

To be sure, there's nothing special about institutional sex per se. It’s as ubiquitous as red corpuscles, especially in religious institutions. What’s different about hanky-panky at the Getty, though, is the context. Feature a torrid romp on a 110-raj antique silk Tabriz tossed on the marble floor before Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa or Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë.

The imagination runs wild!
Alleged Office Party at the Getty (Undated Image)
As did the the staff at the Getty apparently.

In 1987, the president of the Getty Trust left his wife to marry his second-in-command. An affair between the associate director of the museum and the curator of the drawings department was notable enough to get mentioned in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by another employee. In 1996, a different (married) curator of the drawings department began a love affair with his assistant.

“They were fucking like rabbits behind the paintings,” said Peggy Garrity, a lawyer who sued the Getty over a client’s sexual harassment claim.  Especially, perhaps, in the case of the aforementioned Jiří Frel who, well-known for his “priapic tendencies,” had a three-sided desk useful for cornering (often cooperative) research assistants against the window.

And it’s here, I believe – if the Getty's staff would see fit to adopt the cave temples for a self-help regimen of, say, yab-yum tantric yoga – that the Dunhuang replicas could yet prove a major boon to the museum and its associates, way beyond mere historiography and silk road aesthetics. Yab-yum, you see, is the primordial union of wisdom and compassion expressed in a physical sense (yum, indeed). Perhaps the associated rituals would lend a more spiritual cast to the museum’s carnal goings-on and thereby dispel some of the notoriety.

“Where were we? Why, in Cave 320 just…meditating.”

* China is the world's leading center for mass-produced works of art

** In all fairness, art detectives say that around 60% of the art on the market is fake.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

LilthyEtta Here to THERE

featuring S. Clay Wilson’s Checkered Demon

THERE fits HERE to a T

 It was late afternoon. Through a high, stained glass casement window of the Hacienda La Scala, a dust-flecked shaft of pale citrine sunlight fell upon a half-filled page of careful blue script. With an audible sigh, LilthyEtta Saqueth Klatchbustle tossed aside her ink-stained quill and stirred uncomfortably. She’d been composing in dactylic hexameter for hours and exhaustion was overtaking her. What’s more, it’d been over a year since a vacation in Old Habanero, longer still since her last one.

There was about her an air of the traveler, of a sojourner on the verge of departure.

LilthyEtta (“Lil”) Klatchbustle
“I need to go for a swim,” she thought, slumping in her low-back Windsor writing chair and eyeing the small globe-shaped crystal inkwell that rested on the chair’s tablet arm. The iridescent indigo ink glinted back at her with a flash of rainbow colors as though giving a wink of encouragement.

Slowly, deliberately, LilthyEtta arose from the chair and took several steps forward. Then she made an about-face and pulled herself erect as though commencing a springboard dive. Bending her knees slightly, she leaped toward the writing chair in a graceful arc, her body spiraling like an arrow in flight, condensing, contracting, until finally reduced to mere miniature, she plunged headlong into the inkwell with scarcely even a splash (a 9 at least)!
Enigma of Arrival

The lengthy transit that followed, though cosmic in its dimensions, lasted barely a moment or so.

LilthyEtta at once found herself in an odd desert landscape suffused by muted pastel light. In the distance, a narrow line of Italian cypresses on the crest of a verdant hill seemed to march off into thin air. Nearby, a sign, like an ersatz icon of this strange ambient, said “Surreal estate for Sale” – some of the yellow text protruding spookily beyond its edges.

“Where the hell am I?” shouted LilthyEtta. “Am I dead? All I really wanted was a quick dip before dinner.” (Apropos this last, the discerning reader might be excused for a little skepticism.)

“Hiya, LilthyEtta – and welcome!” said a voice behind her. “You’ve landed in THERE. I’ll be your guide, cicerone, docent, and companion for the next little while.”

LilthyEtta turned to see a squat, rotund little demon with (the obligatory) stubby horns, stringy musculature, pointed pig’s ears, pug nose, and large bloodshot eyes. Bare-chested, he was otherwise outfitted in glossy black-and-white checkered trousers and outsize, pointed, black patent leather shoes that looked like pods of sweet peas. As he stared unblinking at LilthyEtta, his full, voluptuous lips curled into an egregious, faintly demonic, gap-toothed grin.

"Checkered Demon, at your service,” he continued expansively. “You can call me Checker. But befo' yo axe me, lemme just ‘splain that I gots ‘dis name of mine ‘cause’a my somewhat check’red past!”

So saying, the demon burst out in a shrill giggle, vastly amused by his own corny humor and faux patois.

LilthyEtta was less amused. “Not a swimmingly good start for the checkered one,” she thought grimly, “but perhaps he’ll improve. I doubt anything stays the same for long around here.”

“How did I end up with you for a guide, anyway?” she asked a little peevishly, as though her trip might’ve been planned all along. “Are you by yourself here in – what did you call this place? 'THERE'?

Oh, and my friends call me Lil.”

“Well, who’d ya expect, Lil? Virgil? Beelzebub?” returned Checker.

“To be sure, someone of your talent and character would’ve normally gotten, say, Lilith as an escort. Lilith’s been around way longer’n me and relates better to poets and womens in general, not to mention being better lookin’. But since she be on leave for the next couple centuries, you just gotta make do with what you got: I.”

Checker let out another unsettling giggle, this time betraying a degree of unease.

“Where is this THERE, by the way?” LilthyEtta persisted. “Is it, like, the afterlife or something? Can there really be a THERE here – or there, as some might say?”

THERE is right here – where everything starts and ends,” explained Checker. “Here (THERE) is the source of all energy – well, most of it – what you'd call the EMS or electromagnetic spectrum.  You start out in the spectrum and sooner or later you return to it in the form of EM vibes or waves. The section of the bandwidth you return to depends on your personal wavelength and energy – that's right, man, your aura!
Empyrean Magnificum Supremus

Take'a look at this diagram,” he continued, showing her a chart of the spectrum. “Notice that, ‘cept fo’ the ‘old school’ inferno, it looks a lot like the scheme cooked up by Dante Alighieri, the I-talian poet. Remember him?"

“Sure, but 'electromagnetic spectrum' sounds so dry and scientific,” objected LilthyEtta, “as though you need physics to appreciate the hereafter.

Whatever became of Dante, anyway? Where did he fetch up on your so-called spectrum when he ‘returned’? Or did he end up in that hell of his own?”

Dante Alighieri understood as a particle/wave 
“Dante had an unfortunate proclivity,” mused Checker. “In his writings, he blithely consigned folks, both real and made-up, to his inferno with such vindictiveness and frequency you'd have thought him a literary critic. Upon reuniting with the spectrum, he found himself trapped in a high frequency gamma wave propagating toward null infinity – an example, perhaps, of what he himself called contrapasso, or poetic justice.

By the way, for your information, before this demon gig, I was head strobe light in a Soho disco!”

Checker interjected this latter a bit bumptiously as though it were some sort of achievement.

Unimpressed but a little apprehensive, LilthyEtta said nothing.  Poets, it seemed, might be at some particular risk in the spectrum. On the brighter side, Checker’s diction seemed to be improving.

"Abandon all credulity, ye who wouldst believe"
By now they’d crossed into a section of desert where the sand was unaccountably moist as though part of a littoral. Ahead, sketched on the ground in large letters, LilthyEtta could vaguely make out some words. As they drew closer, the text became more legible: ‘Abandon all credulity, ye who wouldst believe.’

“How on earth does that make sense?” she asked. “How can you believe something – anything – if you abandon all credulity?”

“The message just encourages you to empty your mind of preconceptions,” Checker explained. “Encounters here in THERE can end up changing you in unforeseen ways. But if you wish to roll with that possibility, you must start afresh from square one. That’s why I wear these checkered pants! Get it? Square one? Checkers?”

The demon's ridiculous non sequitur was followed by yet another earsplitting giggle.

“Or contrariwise, on your way out,” he went on, “you could simply retrieve all the information you came in with and be done with it. Black holes, you see, have a lush infinite head of supertranslation ‘hair.’ You can think of this ‘hair’ as the information you sort of placed in escrow near the event horizon as you came in.”

LilthyEtta, a little confused, looked askance. “Seems a bit racy, if you ask me,” she replied wryly. “You make black holes sound like cosmic vaginas. Are you sure about all this?”

Checker, sucking on his third can of Tree Frog beer, made no reply.

“So is that it for the spectral, um, spectrum tour?” LilthyEtta wondered out loud.

“Not quite,” said Checker enigmatically as he tossed away the Tree Frog empty and booted up an iPad Pro. “Since you’re a poet, there’s a special zone of the visible spectrum you really ought to see. It’s known as – hold on to your seat! – Poets in Hell!”

The scene that emerged on the computer display, a tableau of appalling carnage and debauchery, took LilthyEtta completely aback.

“How could a poet end up in there, uh, there?!” she exclaimed in agitation. “And what does it mean? Was Dante right all along?”

“Many of the hapless poetasters you see there were simply not well-versed in their craft,” explained Checker. “Others might've been counted among, say, the wickedly virtuous or virtuously wicked – like Ezra Pound. That’s him, impaled with pencils and fountain pens.

e e cummings was consumed with the idea of the lower case, and for a poet there’s no case lower than this.

So you see, they deserved it.

Actually, Lil, you yourself could be at risk,” Checker continued (a little too seamlessly), “but luckily, today only, I can offer you a discount broadband insurance policy that…”

“Never mind, I'd prefer not to,” interrupted LilthyEtta, fixing him with a critical gaze. “I know digital manipulation when I see it. Mother always warned me Photoshop® was an instrument of the devil.

Besides, its time I was getting back. Please call me a cab.”

Checker looked sheepish and a little deflated.

Charon will run you up to the cosmic shortcut,” he said. “He drives an Indian motorcycle these days instead of the boat. And don’t be put off by his Cheyenne war bonnet — he’s been sporting it ever since white folks colonized North America.”

Enigma of Departure
“Well, thanks very much for the tour,” said LilthyEtta. “It’s certainly been enlightening.”

“My pleasure,” replied Checker, reprising his devilish grin. “Here in THERE it’s always a nice day for somethin’.”

With that, up roared Charon – vroom! vroom! – and LilthyEtta shortly found herself back at the hacienda next to the writing chair.

Neatly stacked on the tablet arm was the completed draft of the chapbook she’s been working on.

“Not bad!” she said to herself. “How many writers can stay put and write, yet at the same time be somewhere else altogether? Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out how to be even more places at once – it’d be sheer poetry!”

Disheveled spirits

And don’t miss this rad bonus film coming to  the theater right in the front of you!