Forging human connections is like running a makeshift theater academy. At times, a man briefly stages in his head the turmoil ravaging another person’s mind. At times, he recalls and mentally rehearses scenes that have brought someone in those shoes a little cheer. Then he walks onto a visible stage, located wherever the other party can be reached, and re-enacts the soothing gestures that show he understands. The title of the script is “Empathy,” but are fleeting plays all we deserve in our very real lives?
Half Moon Poem – Hwang Jin-yi (Joseon poet and gisaeng)
It is not unusual to depict scenery through fashion. Clones of T-shirts emblazoned with images of palm-tree-dotted beaches or New York streetscapes have plagued subways and malls, after all. Even among high-end fashion labels, there are the Chanel hemline comprising of glittering motifs of the Dubai skyline, Christian Siriano’s evocation of ethereal vistas of sand and water through his pastel–hued prints, Jason Wu’s reproduction of the starry heavens on his diaphanous gown, and more. Jordanian architect and fashion illustrator Shamekh Al-Bluwi, in contrast, is the rare breed who unimaginably accomplishes the reverse.
Rock art, remarked philosopher Thomas Heyd, transforms land into landscape by imbuing it with cultural meanings. When someone looks at an old inuksuk, as Arctic researcher Norman Hallenday similarly opined, he is seeing more than a pile of stones—what enter his gaze are also the thoughts of another human being. And depending on how the viewer further engages with the stone structure, he adds new meanings to this landmark.
Traditionally used by various indigenous Arctic peoples as markers for food, direction and danger, as codes for private messages and as decoys that lead animals to hunters, inuksuit (the plural form of inuksuk) can carry a strong connotation of survival. In their unpolished states, they show mankind triumphing over nature by reconfiguring rather than destroying all its key elements. Co-existing on these man-made stacks of boulders, flat stones and/or broken rocks are the rustic beauty of unadulterated mineral formations and the moving beauty of human fortitude. To modern, non-Arctic viewers, these attributes add layers to inuksuit‘s exotic charm, harking back to a long-lost age of simplicity and primitive magic.
Fairy tale motifs like Cinderellas, wealthy Prince Charmings and beasts with hearts of gold underneath forbidding exteriors are very much alive in modern adult literature and films, as a drama reviewer helpfully pointed out. The titular pretty princess of She Was Pretty gets the raw end of the stick, however, when she grows up into a penniless ugly duckling, while her tubby childhood sweetheart transforms into a handsome and successful man looking like he has stepped out of a fashion magazine. Whereas he used to be the awkward, bespectacled child scuttering away at the appearance of the next-door belle, she is now the one hiding out of his sight and looking on in sadness as he embraces her ravishing bosom friend, whom he believes is her. In her reality, she thinks, she is just a supporting character, perhaps an almost invisible extra.
He, on the other hand, feels that the degree to which a person basks in the limelight does not cement his/her status as a main or supporting character. A change of perspective may reveal that the narrative is really about the emotions or personal development of someone lurking in the shadows. In Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance in the Country (1883), the central figure may not be the beaming, flamboyant woman whose bright red bonnet, floral details and voluminous dress draws attention to herself, or her dapper dance partner. It may very well be the woman watching outside the terrace where they are dancing, the railing of the terrace and tree leaves framing her face to the effect that she looks trapped in a neglected forest prison. Like the star-crossed lovers, the screenwriter Jo Sung-hee postulates, she is harboring a secret love for someone. Jo has her male lead entrust a jigsaw piece with the lovelorn woman to the female lead at their last childhood meeting, while he keeps the remaining puzzle of the painting. How she will find her way back to the picture and into the hole in his heart is the focus of the story.
Images of Maurits Cornelis Escher’s high school’s imposing stairways followed him decades after his torturous time as a floundering student there. Being no helpless hamster stuck on the wheel that was the past, however, the 20th century Dutch artist transfigured them and other kinds of stairs into epic landscapes which defy the laws of physics yet tantalize the mind. Nonetheless, art critics, even after his death, lambasted these lithographs and woodcuts for their emotional flatness and lack of aesthetic appeal. Mathematicians, on the hand, gravitated towards his geometrically sophisticated works like moths to a flame, reproducing them in scientific publications, deconstructing them and finding it astounding that they were created by a man who could not understand formal mathematics.
Marcel Proust opined in his magnum opus In Search of Lost Time that memory is a critical wellspring of personal identity and the substance of all relationships. It is what restores a person to himself after a spell of unconsciousness ends and the only place where interpersonal bonds truly exist. Echoing these sentiments, psychological drama Hyde Jekyll, Me featured memory as a recurring theme in its story development. Memories defined the boundaries of the split personalities of its mentally unstable protagonist and gave life to romance. Losing an arm or a leg, one of the personalities pointed out, would not change his identity, but once his memory was gone, he would no longer exist. The inability to share memories thwarted relationship building, whereas the flow of them rekindled love. Should memories then be recovered and preserved through works of art, as Proust did with his 4211-page tome, on behalf of a person so that he can at least live on in people’s minds for generations after his demise?
It is remarked that women hold up half the sky. Propping up one particular outstanding woman, in turn, was a peculiar little woman: a top-heavy wooden doll without arms or legs.
Japan’s asadora (“morning dramas”) is a tradition stretching back to 1961 at national broadcaster NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai / Japan Broadcasting Corporation). For half a year to one year at a time, the television series tells the story of a heroine fighting for her dream under adverse circumstances. Massan, which aired from September 2014 to March 2015, for instance, depicted a Scotswoman who married a Japanese man and helped him realize his aspiration of producing genuine whiskey in Japan in the 1920s-1940s. Along the way, she battled with social hostility against foreigners. Often, the stories are modeled after real-life women. In the case of Massan, this was Rita Taketsuru, the Scottish spouse of Nikka Whiskey founder Masataka Taketsuru.
Robin woke up from a five-year slumber in the body normally occupied by its host personality, a cold and strait-laced company director who swore that he would have killed him had they not been one and the same person. As an alter that formed part of their dissociative identity disorder though, he was a bubbly and free-spirited webtoon artist who went to great lengths to rescue people the host personality abandoned or would have abandoned. Exhilarated at his reawakening, he took a deep breath of the air for the first time in years, revisited the spaces and memories he left behind, and learnt that his webtoon was picked up for a drama adaptation during his absence. Then, he saw his (and the host personality’s) kindly mother and quickened his steps towards her in delight, but she, having caught news about his re-emergence, shuddered at the sight of him and took a step backwards half-apologetically instead, such that he could only stop in his tracks and greet her silently with a resigned bow. His father, whom he met next, was blunter, stating that he was not his son, his son’s twin or even the “Robin” he called himself but a mere parasite and illusion created by his true son. Throwing a bottle of pills at Robin, he ordered him to lie down as if he were dead and sleep it off.
For several nights to come, Robin strung together a blithe but tenuous life from post-evening hours begrudgingly allocated to him by the host personality, not seeing the daylight, not having a real name or identification, not being able to share his personal background freely, not comprehending the psychological threat looming ahead of him and not knowing whether he would ever wake up as himself again when he lay down to sleep. In this mirage-like existence, the one thing that kept him feeling real and alive was his palpable love for a girl.
“Evaporated like smoke”—that is one of the original meanings of the Italian word sfumato, which in the context of art refers to the gradual, imperceptible transition from one color to another in a composition, a technique that generates soft outlines in paintings. Producing an appearance that feels as if “a veil of smoke had drifted between the subject of the painting and the viewer,” this method is most prominently associated with Leonardo da Vinci and the artwork that enjoys the greatest fanfare over the world, Mona Lisa. Not unsurprisingly, the mystery surrounding the identity of the sitter, the meaning of her enigmatic smile and the relationship between the painting and its many replicas adds to this layer of smoke in a figurative sense. The most fundamental puzzle, though, must be why a yellowing portrait of a plainly dressed woman who meets neither the beauty standards of her time (1400s) nor those of the 21st century continues to captivate people in spite of the intense competition. While publicity, mystique and pure admiration for the painterly techniques employed probably contribute to a very large part of its appeal, genuine beauty may yet be found in the lady.
A grayish museum room, empty except for two lone men gazing at an old painting. Within the painting, the sun sinks towards the horizon in the distance. A flock of birds scurry on their way to their resting place before its light extinguishes. Against the desolate landscape, a man and a woman stop work to bend their heads in prayer, their farming tools and potato harvest strewn around them. It is a quiet moment within a quiet moment, no doubt.
Yet an unseen bell, suggested by the art title (L’Angelus), rings from a church tower in the distant background through the vast landscape, conferring an air of monumentality on the scene. Traditionally recited at 6 am, noon and 6 pm, the Angelus prayer recalls the conception of Jesus. Each time, the church bell is tolled in nine strokes, with a pause between every three rings. Jean-François Millet, whose inspiration for the painting came from his childhood memories, reminisced about how his grandmother would always made sure they paused their work in the fields upon the tolling of the bell to say the prayer for the departed.
This element of sound, enchantingly, intensifies the silence of the scene. As the significance of the prayer grows upon the viewers, the peasant woman’s bowed figure takes on a more profound meaning—a deep feeling of meditation comes between her lowered head and tightly clasped hands while her tilted body bears the weight of religious devotion. Her male counterpart now bares his head and holds his hat not for casual reasons but out of sincere respect for the moment. Their items lie haphazardly on the ground not as a representation of mundane farm life but out of deference to the solemn task called upon them. With life in a sacred standstill and thoughts lost in pious contemplation, we feel the Earth, the skies and the people underneath settle down in an atmosphere of serenity and calm, inside and possibly outwith the picture.
Remarkably, this enhancement of quietude through sound also occurs on a meta level. To present the tranquil sight, the artist did not sit back to savor his soothing memories. Rather, he took to work at his canvas, scratching away at the fabric and layering on paint after paint to recreate the peaceful atmosphere for anyone who would look at his artwork. Herein beckons another moment for contemplation: although tranquility is readily associated with passiveness and inactivity, the reality is probably that deliberate action is often necessary to introduce and maintain calm and quiet. In many cases, the sources of disturbance and noise in everyday life do not go away by themselves or just because we will them to. Instead, active efforts are frequently needed to rein in chaos, halt the natural flow of life and carve out a time and place for repose and introspection.
This insight into the relationship between action and stasis holds lessons for environmental conservation as well. Ecosystems are not saved by renouncing all forms of modern life and artificial systems. In fact, even as human activity has catalyzed the deterioration of many natural habitats, some of the biodiversity currently around might have succumbed to the age-old forces of natural selection if not for the extraordinary feats of engineering and other human interventions. An instinctive, “yuk“-based rejection of all biotechnological innovations, in particular, regardless of their restorative potential, may really be at odds with the preservation of nature. As advances in genetic modification and nanotechnology meet with social resistance, a nuanced approach to the conflict is perhaps most appropriate, lest the curative wonders of our rural landscapes become distant memories revisited with sighs and longing as museum relics.