Artists of the Year

No distance in perspective has lessened its appeal. The late choreographer Bob Fosse was driven by a desire to duplicate, in human movement, the beauty of a single rose. He admitted to a jealousy of God himself. And the astronauts who first orbited the planet said, after staring back in awestruck wonder, that they could never view home the same way again.

Today, as we look around at what's being done to this planet, and what's occurring upon it, we come face to face with art's greatest nemesis: mechanized mindless efficiency. Cruel, callous, high-tech efficiency, and the carnage it leaves bleeding in its wake.

Yet step back, as far back in this case as the darkness of space, and there she is again, seemingly pristine, so brilliant against the blackness, wondrous, suitable for framing. No artist has yet matched it in presentation, in emotion, that evocative mix of strength and fragility. After all these years, Earth still wins my vote.

Artist of the year? Artist for the ages.

T.D. Mischke is the host of the Mischke Broadcast on KSTP-AM (1500).

 

Richard Flanagan
MICHAEL TORTORELLO

Having invited two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi, to join her in an expedition to Vinland, Freydis Eiriksdottir spills what might be the first European blood in the Americas. The time is near the turn of the first millennium; the story will be put to vellum 200 years later in "The Saga of the Greenlanders." First Freydis expels the brothers and their party from some shelters near shore (the continent's first real-estate dispute). Later, apparently in a foul mood, she has them murdered along with their men. Finding no one willing to execute the party's womenfolk, she slaughters the lot of them herself.

Believing there might be money to be made in capturing a wild native and dragging him back to Britain as a public attraction, leather peddler Richard Hore sails to the Americas in 1536. Years later, one of the surviving seamen, Thomas Buts, will tell the story to Richard Hakluyt, who will put it in a book called Principall Navigations. Over many months, the expedition sights but a single group of "savages," off the coast of Labrador. The Indians rudely decline to be taken captive as a carnival act, and instead race away in canoes. Poorly provisioned for such strenuous exploration, Hore's men begin killing each other and broiling the corpses for food.

This is how we got here. Welcome to the New World.

Richard Flanagan's brilliant novel Gould's Book of Fish follows in the bloody spirit of founding myths like these, but it finds fossils of comedy buried amid the bones. Sentenced for forgery to Van Diemen's Land--present-day Tasmania--London low life William Buelow Gould follows misfortune and misdeed to the penal colony called Sarah's Island. There he becomes a painter indentured to a man of science whose quest for academic recognition leads him to do business in the bones of massacred aboriginals. (The "Surgeon," after losing his penis in a domestic accident, will be consumed by a giant, belligerent pig.) The deranged despot of the island is the Commandant, a megalomaniac who dreams of attracting Javanese traders by forcing his slave labor to build a Great Mah-Jong Hall. None of these follies appear in the official record kept by the deposed King of Iceland, Jorgen Jorgenson. "The world, as described by Jorgen Jorgenson...was at war with the reality in which we lived," Gould writes in his own journals. "The bad news is that the reality was losing."

Reality loses many skirmishes in Gould's Book of Fish. But art--not artifice--is the victor here. This is a tall tale about tall tales. It's a poetic picaresque of the horrors of antipodean colonialism (come for the crime; stay for the genocide!). It's a story that, in its ingenuity, cannot be explained about human behavior that, in its grotesquery, cannot be believed. When Gould wanders into the wild with a sled of Jorgenson's bound deceptions in tow, we see a witness trying to hold history to account. Gould fails. Flanagan does not.

Michael Tortorello is a senior editor at City Pages.

 

Daniel Day-Lewis
LUC SANTE

Let me get the full disclosure out of the way: I was a technical advisor on Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. But I don't get points, and I had nothing to do with Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, paramount chieftain of the native-born gangsters on the Lower East Side of New York City in the mid-19th century. The only special advantage I can claim is to have witnessed on set one of the damnedest jobs of acting you're ever likely to see. I was there for only one week of the shoot, so what I mostly noted was the walk, a stiff-jointed, slightly stooped lope that recalls an animated skeleton in a Ray Harryhausen fantasy, as well as the accent, which sounds like the Noo Yawk dialect in the process of being born. "Would you like me to festoon my boudoir with your entrails?"--try saying that while protruding your lips. Day-Lewis and Scorsese worked up the sound from a recording of Walt Whitman.

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