Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sei Shonagon the ultimate hipster

I recently got The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon from the library and it is the oddest and most perfect collection of lists and anecdotes and opinionated rants.

Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, the 11th century author of Tale of Genji. Both were ladies in the Heian court, where an individual's taste in poetry, lovers and clothing was the ultimate test of refinement. Shikibu rather disliked Sei Shonagon, calling her "dreadfully conceited" for using lots of Chinese characters in her writings and "so precious that [she goes] out of [her] way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight". At the time, Chinese was used predominantly by men, while women kept mostly to the phonetic hiragana script.

I can see Murasaki Shikibu's point - Sei Shonagon was an obsessive and merciless aesthete. She was the ultimate hipster who could out-snob the most judgmental hipster in Brooklyn. She focused on the tiniest details and had little pity for the failings of other people. She disdained the lower classes. She was not fond of loud children (I can relate...) or clumsy men or slovenly women.

But there's this charming, intimate tone to The Pillow Book that makes me want to forgive her. She writes as if she's having a chat with a girlfriend, talking about clothes, past lovers good and bad, the daily beauties and annoyances of life.

I could never get into Tale of Genji because it held me at arm's length with its formality and utterly foreign setting. Not the case with The Pillow Book.

Here are a few samples:

Cats - Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

Refined and elegant things - A girl's over-robe of white on white over pale violet-gray. The eggs of the spot-billed duck. Shaved ice with a sweet syrup, served in a shiny new metal bowl. A crystal rosary. Wisteria flowers. Snow on plum blossoms. An adorable little child eating strawberries.

Oxen - An ox should have a tiny splash of white on its forehead, and the underbelly, legs and tail should all be white.

Things that make your heart beat fast - A sparrow with nestlings. Going past a place where tiny children are playing. Lighting some incense and then lying down alone to sleep. Looking into a Chinese mirror that's a little clouded. A fine gentleman pulls up in his carriage and sends in some request.

To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well-scented with incense. Even if you're somewhere where no one special will see you, you will still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.

On a night when you're waiting for someone to come, there's a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart suddenly beat faster.

Things that create the appearance of deep emotion - The sound of your voice when you're constantly blowing your runny nose as you talk. Plucking your eyebrows.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Today's witchy outfit (and new rings)

I've got on all the makings of a witch outfit today: black layers, big protective and amuletic jewelry, cloven hooves courtesy of my beloved Maison Martin Margiela tabi shoes, black (and white) cat...

And yes, those are new rings! I've been working on a series of pieces based on shields, from antiquity to the Renaissance. Sneak preview!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The bath.

I just read Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White and watched the excellent BBC adaptation and have been thinking about female bathing and its place in art. It has obviously been an popular subject for artists throughout history but that classic fuzzy and cozy kind of "woman in the bath" image, I associate with the 19th and early 20th century artists, particularly Edgar Degas.

Faber's novel traces the relationships of an erudite and cunning young prostitute named Sugar with her wealthy bumbler of a lover William Rackham and his child-like wife Agnes in 1870s London. It has such a magnetic and repulsive atmosphere, full of the smell of sweaty bodies in unwashed clothing and chamber pots and consumptive blood on handkerchiefs and cold, unaired rooms with dark wallpaper. The life of a Victorian prostitute in this book is brutally pragmatic. One of the first scenes is a voyeuristic glimpse into the douching regime of Sugar's friend Caroline. And later, as Sugar is bathing:
"How many hundred times has she performed this ceremony? How many sponges and swabs has she worn away? How many times has she prepared this witches' brew, measuring the ingredients with mindless precision? Granted, in her Church Lane days the recipe was slightly different; nowadays, as well as the alum and the sulphate of zinc, she adds a dash of sal eratus, or bicarbonate of soda. But in essence it's the same potion she's squatted over almost nightly since she began to bleed at sixteen. 
A crucial hairpin gives way; the remainder of her waist-length hair threatens to unfurl into the tepid water. Shivering, she rises, standing above the froth, hands on her thighs. And, at long last, she is able to release the residue of urine, trifling but painful, that wouldn't come out earlier, before her bath. The yellow droplets patter down on the suds, writing dark nonsense into the white of the soap-scum. Is it only piddle draining out of her now? Could there really be anything else left in there? Sometimes she has walked along the street, a full half-hour after a wash, and suddenly felt a gush of semen soiling her underclothes. What could God, or the Force of Nature, or whatever is supposed to be holding the Universe together, possibly have in mind, by making it so difficult to be clean inside? What, in the grand scheme of things, is so uniquely precious about piss, shit or the makings of another pompous little man, that it should be permitted to cling to her innards so tenaciously? 
'God damn God,' she whispers, tensing and untensing her pelvic muscles, 'and all His horrible filthy creation.'"
I remember reading in an art history class about how the models for Renoir and Degas were often "working women" and that bathing regularly was something considered rather suspect since prostitutes did it. The art establishment was scandalized by Degas' drawings of bathing women, while they look innocuous enough today. But it wasn't until after reading The Crimson Petal and the White that these works, for me, began to take on more complexity. In fact, the rosy coziness starts feeling kind of ironic. The ablutions of these models were likely intense, private sessions of the only kind of birth control they could practice for themselves, and not solely the frothy indulgences that baths are today. Sheepgut condoms were available then, but expensive and often recycled. To insist customers use them was impractical. 
So! Anyway, everyone should read the book. And remember that Degas' bathing women aren't just fluff!