Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dreaming Awake: In the Aeroplane over the Sea

While corresponding with a few fellow art collectors the other day, it came to my attention that many of us share a passion for a record that came out 10 years ago, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane over the Sea. I think one reason so many of us like this album so much is that it's the musical equivalent of the art we love – emotional, symbolic, surreal, arcane, enigmatic, disturbing, passionate, evocative. If it is possible for a musical composition to qualify as a masterpiece of pop surrealism (or magical realism or phantasmagoric neo-romanticism, or whatever you call it) then In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is surely the genre's seminal album.

I won't write about the music, because that's been blogged about by thousands and extensively covered in one of the 33 1/3 books. For anyone who needs any further explanation of the universal greatness of this album, you can find it here and here and here. Over the past decade, Aeroplane has sent many a music reviewer into raptures of poetry and revelations about tear-stained epiphanies. At the same time, Aeroplane spawned Devendra Banhart and the whole freak-folk scene and created a hospitable environment for revolutionary bands like Arcade Fire and The Decemberists.

(If you're not already a convert, you will probably need to download it at this point. Be sure to set it up to play gapless.)

In the words of Kevin Barnes of Of Montreal, "The greatest aspect of the songs on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is that, though they are full of pain and confusion and passion and madness, they never seem self-pitying or self-indulgent. They never become pedestrian. I feel that Jeff Mangum's voice on that record was a portal through which the animal agony and maniac joy of the universal human spirit found amplification."

I think that says what needs saying on that topic.

Since this is ostensibly a blog about art, I thought I'd take the opportunity to address the album art before delving into more esoteric matters. Surely every NMH fan has pored over all the little bits and pieces of ephemera that accompany this album, hoping for some cryptic revelation. The first piece of artwork created for this album was Brian Dewan's "Flying Victrola." Brian, who is also a musician and instrument builder (and a friend of mine) had already done some drawings for another Elephant 6 band, the Music Tapes, and NMH leadman Jeff Mangum soon got in touch with him to see if he'd be interested in drawing something for Aeroplane.

Brian also drew a "Magic Radio" for Mangum, which never made it onto the album, but you can see it in the 33 1/3 book for Aeroplane, should you choose to pick it up. It's a drawing of an old radio spilling out items including fish, an airplane, musical notes, a clock with wings, and a trumpeting angel.

Here are some more revelations about the album art from 33 1/3:

"Bryan Poole, another Elephant 6 member, recalls that Jeff 'was always into that old-timey, magic, semi-circus, turn-of-the-century, penny arcade kind of imagery,' examples of which he’d find in thrift shops on his travels. Among the pieces that Jeff brought to graphic designer Chris Bilheimer was a vintage European postcard of bathers at a resort, and this was the image that Chris — working closely with Jeff — cropped and subtly altered to create Aeroplane’s front cover. The other source material included a book of historic circus posters, a clip art book of cloud formations, Will Hart’s Elephant 6 logo and Brian Dewan’s aerial cityscape.

Although Chris Bilheimer mainly works on computers, his aesthetic is more analog than digital. The disparate images selected for the album design ranged from Brian Dewan’s crisp new drawing to the slightly grubby old postcard. How could all these pieces be given a visually cohesive look? Chris solved the problem by scanning the back of the postcard, and using the foxed, spotted, off-white paper as the background against which all other images were screened. In this way, everything appeared to be about the same age and printed on similar paper, with the overall effect one of slow decay."

Many Neutral Milk Hotel aficionados still dream of the day when Jeff Mangum will come back from his self-imposed exile and record another album just as good as this one, though it seems likely that will never happen.

When I read this 1998 interview with Mangum, his descriptions of the images he sees in his waking dreams made me think that his visions would make very interesting paintings – and the more solitary pursuit of painting might be a less painful career for someone of his delicate temperament. (However, upon perusing his drawings, I decided visual art might not be his forté, after all.)

Here is a description of one of his visions, which he relates to a line from "Holland 1945" – "How strange it is to be anything at all."

"I wake up every morning completely freaked out that I'm in my body. Whatever dream I'm having has something to do with being totally freaked out that I'm in my body, and I usually wake up with a shock... It's also about all the crazy sleep-walking dreams that I have. I have all kinds of crazy hallucinations, and it's pretty strange. I open my eyes and I see things. I've seen spirits moving through the walls. I've seen a vortex coming through the wall. I've seen amorphous little balls of light bouncing all around in the front yard through the window. I've seen giant bugs on the floor. I was in a hotel room in Amarillo, Texas, and all I remember is standing on the bed and seeing the whole wall in front of me filled with lights that were popping like popcorn out of the wall. Then I'll wake up and I go, 'Wow, I was standing on my bed and staring at this wall.'"

These visions from a man who doesn't take drugs... no wonder life became a little too intense for him after Aeroplane thrust him into the arms of an obsessed, adoring fanbase. To hear him talk, you'd think he's almost living on another plane of existence.

"I started writing "Ghost," the song that goes, "Ghost, ghost I know you live within me," because we thought we had a ghost living in the house, living in the bathroom. So I locked the door and started trying to sing to the ghost in the bathroom. But then that was sort of like singing about the ghost that we thought was constantly whistling in the other room that kept waking me up, and then a ghost that may or may not live within myself.

And a lot of the songs on this record are about Anne Frank.
The record doesn't necessarily take place in the period of the Holocaust so much – it's a reflection of how I see that time period. I'm not even sure if time is linear or if it's all going in one direction, anyway. The world is this incredibly blurry, crazy dream that I'm just sort of stumbling through.

A lot of the songs on
Aeroplane really freaked me out, and it took other people to make me be comfortable with them, and to see that it was okay to sing about a lot of this stuff, not to shut them inside. 'Cause it was just too intense."

In 2002, Jeff Mangum was still pondering the mysteries of life.

"After Aeroplane, I felt I needed to take a bit of a harsher look at life, and that's what I did... and to try to deal with the brute facts of the suffering in life, and the joy in life. I'm trying to find peace in the world, as it is. I'm feeling this sort of slow stripping of my mind, like the layers of an onion. I'm starting to see through all these little structures that have been imposed on me by my society that tell me how I'm supposed to view my life and the world. What I'm supposed to find to be important and what is not. Sometimes you see through so much of it that you feel like you're just a leaf blowing on the wind."

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Tessar Lo's Suspended Moments

Tessar Lo is just 24 and says, "I have been – and always will be – drawing and painting." Born in Indonesia and raised near Toronto, Tessar works in a unique fusion of Asian aesthetics and pop-surreal motifs combined with evocative techniques sometimes reminiscent of the post-impressionists. He now lives and works in Los Angeles and will be participating in group shows all over the country in the coming months, culminating in his first solo show at project: gallery in early 2009.

Tessar describes his paintings as "the kinds of things I find beautiful and natural to me. I try to paint things that are momentary and surreal, in suspension. I love to include elements that are sometimes tense, but pique our interest and curiosity. I am fascinated with the idea of aging and wearing – and the changing of the meaning of images over time."

For several months, I've been keeping an eye on Tessar's work and enjoying it, but it wasn't until I saw "in between" in person at project:gallery's Insider Trading show that I was really hooked. It's subtle and sensual and emotional – it feels like a lucid dream that takes place on a summer night in which every particle of your being is fully tuned in to the cosmos... where the splendor and gravity of the universe become so overwhelming that they kind of start to pull you apart in a delicious sort of way. There is awe and terrible beauty in both the immensity of the velvety sky and the power emanating from the improbably massive tiger that lies just over the hill.

"in between"

Tessar cites his influences as "Haruki Murakami, Peter Doig, Cai Guo-Qiang, Gauguin, John Copeland, Satoshi Kon, ukiyo-e prints, childhood drawings, Yoshitomo Nara and then some." As a fan of Murakami, especially The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I think I can sense some common resonances. Comics certainly had a role in shaping Tessar's aesthetic, as well.

"el sueno de la razon produce monstruos"
(after Goya's "Sleep of Reason")

Amazingly, Tessar has only been out of art school for about a year, but even so, his style has evolved quite a bit since then. A year and a half ago, he was already creating thoughtful, mysterious, fascinating pieces...

"what tiger knew"

"she swam with me"

"riding on this know-not"

...but since then, his work has become deeper and more atmospheric, and his technique more confident.

"the crusade"

"like the first time"

"Angel" (from the Gallery 1988 Stan Lee tribute)

Recently, Tessar described a sort of vision he's been having. When writing about it in his blog, he called it "hearing things." To me, it seems quite relevant to the quiet, introspective quality of the latest work he's been doing.

At night, sometimes I can see into parts of other worlds.
Not too much unlike my own, but the moon is brighter and sky is a huge northern light.

I know that this is the only true freedom I have.
With my eyes closed and my mind's self running around; one moment in fields, the next in snow, mud, then sands.

When I have a hard time sleeping, I imagine I am on the surface of water and I start to sink. The feeling is warm and not scary at all. Before long, I am amidst coral and strangely curious beings that are half fact, half fiction. Still looking up, I see the abnormally luminous moon and the stars through the soft surface of the water.

If I listen carefully, I can hear a story of searching.


Tessar recently mused on his blog about the new direction he's been exploring most recently, which has so far produced a few subtle yet stirring paintings like "in between," "falls" and "the search may bring salvation."

"Been thinking a lot these days about the kind of work I've been doing. I have been re-evaluating and trying to look at the work more objectively. I realized that what I have become known for, (for the few that know) is something that is moving in a different direction. Maybe I always knew that the polished, rendered work would always come secondary to the rawer, more immediate work I know. As much as it is great to engross myself in the details and preciousness of my most recent work, there is definitely a side of me that wants to throw all that out the window - and be less preoccupied with technique and structure. Does technique and structure work in the same way conceptually as physically? In the sense that if I'm being comfortable and formulaic in the work, is that ultimately paralleled by my thought process? It scares me a bit - to lose the fire for work, and the desire for new ideas. But why answers, right? Maybe an answer will put the fire out."
"the search may bring salvation"

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water'd heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake, "The Tyger"

"a kind of cipher"