25 February 2006

Every painting has its vicissitudes

I have decided to date this entry 25 Feb 2006 because it was the day I finished reading “The Lost Painting” and wanted to write about it. Some complications had delayed my initial encounter with the book, but as soon as that was settled, I finished reading it within a week.

The lost painting in question was “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio. Prior to reading the book, I have not heard of Carravagio, nor did the reproduction of the painting particularly intrigued me initially. But the book was a gift and my initiation into art history in high school has lasted me till this day, so I was quite eager to start reading it.

Perhaps because I identified with the fact that I was reading a book rather than admiring a painting, I did not notice much about the reproduction of the painting on the back cover of the book. It was only later when the book mentioned how Caravaggio was renowned for his startling use of light and shadow that I noticed his finesse at manipulating light to illuminate the expressions on his figures:

Taking of ChristLight, light, light. It is all about light in art isn’t it? (Cf my other entries on the Lourve and Epernay.)

Meanwhile, I was more absorbed in how the identity of the painting was pieced together using both traditional methods (ploughing through the Mattei family archives) and modern methods (using chromatography to determine if the paint coincided with that in other Carravagios, X-rays to detect the pentimenti etc). Some 200 pages into the book, I realized that such combination of traditional and modern methods mirrored those in archaeology as well – which is to say, art historians and archaeologists actually have much in common. Funny it doesn’t seem such a revelation anymore now that I have realized it, but I have never thought of linking the two that way. In any case, I was happy to see the grand divide between art and science once again being narrowed, the way it should be. (The first time I encountered the blurring of art and science was, I believe, at a Machu Picchu exhibition at Yale. I remember being fascinated by how the staple diet of the Incas was deduced using carbon dating.) It is unfortunate that the world has a knack of dichotomizing people and subjects into art versus science. What was that debate topic I had once before? “Labels are only for jars”.

Reading about Francesca’s foray into the Mattei family archives, it occurred to me that Francesca’s unborn great-granddaughter would have a much harder time should she choose to be an art historian or a biographer in this era of electronic archives and fragile hard disks. Besides, the delete button is too easy to click, too accessible by the impulse of anger… And then, too irrevocable. (Of course one can also tear up or burn letters, but the concept of destruction seems more imbued in the physical act of tearing or burning that people tend to hesitate a few more seconds before doing so than in clicking an innocuous-looking delete button.)

Even with the delete button aside, think about how incomplete an account of Virginia Woolf’s life would have been had her biographer no access to her letters, or how the mysteries surrounding Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes would have remained mysteries forever because there would be no final archive to open in 2020. Think about how if one of us suddenly dies, one’s email account and hard disk - on which so much of modern life resides - would be accessible to no one, and then with 3 or 6 months of account inactivity in the case of the email account, be irrevocably deleted… It seems to be me therefore, that it is just as important to appoint an executor-protector for one’s electronic estate in a will. This executor-protector is quite likely to be a different person from the one who executes the division of your financial assets which requires quite a different set of qualities. This executor-protector is the one to whom you can trust Yahoo or Gmail to release your email password upon your death, the one whom you can trust with your uninhibited electronic life story, the one who has the discretion as to know which letters should be shared or published, and which should be carried with secrecy to the grave.

On the day I finished reading “The Lost Painting”, I also happened to watch “The Red Violin”. It was quite fortuitous that this was the combination because one could see the parallels between the vicissitudes of a lost painting and that of a lost violin. Like the lost Carravaggio, the red violin was also Italian in birth. (To be exact, it was Cremona, the birthplace of many a great string.) The film traces the violin’s enigmatic creation and subsequent journey from an 18th century Austrian monastery, to gypsies who raided it from a tomb, to 19th century Oxford, to China during the Cultural Revolution, and then finally to an auction house in Montreal.

That night, I came a step closer to understanding why people collect antiques. It seem to me that it is so much the object itself that people collect, but rather the lives behind them. It is a way, perhaps the only way, of living vicariously the centuries that one could not have lived. No single person can outlive the violin and it is in this sense that I thought was it quite appropriate to name the violin as the leading character of the film.

I am not an antique person at all, but I think I am slowly coming to understand it. To me, it is always a delicate balance between the allure of living vicariously and becoming attached to history. Appreciating the past without attachment takes conscious effort. It is often an easier, albeit sometimes perilous, rule of thumb in life to just look ahead.

On this Sunday afternoon, maybe I will go dig up the only antique-like thing I own – an old bond certificate for the Panama Canal…

17 February 2006

Emails lost in oblivion

If anyone has been sending emails to my Yale email address in the recent 6 weeks and not getting a response, this is why...

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at yahoo.com.
I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses. This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out. failed after I sent the message.
Remote host said: 554 delivery error: dd This user doesn't have a yahoo.com account (joanne.lim@yahoo.com) [0] - mta258.mail.re2.yahoo.com

--- Below this line is a copy of the message.
Date: Thu, 16 Feb 2006 16:38:11 -0800 (PST)
From: Joanne
Subject: wrong email forwarding address
To: joanne.lim@yahoo.com
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=iso-8859-1
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit

Hi Joanne,

I am also another Joanne Lim and I have an email forwarding service under my Yale alumni. I had accidentally typed your address to forward to instead of mine, so I think you have been getting some of my emails these 6 weeks or so. I am very sorry about this and have just rectified the problem. Would you still have those emails? I believe there was one yesterday from Panama and possibly replies from some other people earlier on. Some of these could be quite important to me.

If you stilll have, I would really appreciate it if you can forward to me. But if you have deleted it, could you tell me the content of the emails if you still recall the gist of them?

I'm really sorry about this and for spamming your inbox with my wrongly forwarded emails. Thanks in advance and hope to hear from you soon.


15 February 2006

Moon over night safari

I forgot how much I enjoy the night safari.

There was a time when I was there thrice in two months because we kept having negotiators from out of town... That was a bit of an overdose, I admit. And I swear the lone bear who lives with the porcupine recognised me when I was there that often: it gave me a big fat yawn the third time I was there.

But since we haven't been having that many negotiations in Singapore these days, I was quite happy to be back at the safari again.

Except we had an uninvited friend this time however. It also gave us a big yawn, but this yawn was less endearing than the bear's. One of the Peruvians found it lounging beside him and thought it was a piece of string. I saw him fling it further away from him. Then ensued a debate within the tram carriage:

"Was that a snake?"


"No, a string."

"No, it's a snake."

So it vacillated between "No, snake" and "No, string" for a while until we finally saw our friend rear its bright green head. In a moment of eureka, a triumphant voice declared, "It's a snake."

The result of the triumphant declaration was that a few people jumped off the tram, myself included. I like nature, but not quite so up close and personal. Ms L, who was famously afraid of birds and chickens, peered curiously at Ms Snake in her bright green leotards.

"Look, it is actually quite cute."


Meanwhile, a crowd of zookeepers had come rushing by. When they saw the snake, they let out an anti-climatic "Ohhhh" and replied nonchalently, "This is just a tree snake. Very common. Harmless." Then they all stood around to look at it like it is some long lost friend.

"Erm, yes, it's common, but aren't you going to do anything about it?" That was me.

So poor Ms Snake got flicked out of the tram by a walkie-talkie antennae, while the rest of us got ushered into the tram again. The initial nervousness of finding another uninvited friend subsided some as the tram purred into the foliage of the night.

The night air was a little humid from the afternoon rain, but the solitude a joy. The green smell of the jungle was now starting gliding elegantly past our noses. How refreshing, the scent of grass and earth. But I could already hear the Singaporean men groaning silently - NS*. Funny how the same smell can bring on such different olfactory memories.

The tram approached the giraffe enclosure. This was my absolute favourite place in the safari. Not the giraffe enclosure, but the lookout spot beside it. It was a picture of serenity, overlooking the reservoir with the most gorgeous colour of the sky. Today, the scene was resplendent with a yellow full moon over a red night. It was the perfect jingjing** backdrop!

Elsewhere, the elephants are frolicking away. To put it less euphemistically, they are mounting each other in open sight, to the giggly gasps of its shyer but no less interested human brethens.

It is a full moon after all. Give us a break man.

*NS - National Service. The mandatory, potentially traumatic, military training that young Singaporean men have to go through for 2 years.
**jingjing - A file nickname for the Tang poem CD-ROM project I was involved 10 years ago with Ms T and others. I was working on Jing Ye Si by Li Bai, so I was constantly looking for different moons to use as the backdrop for long interpretative texts. The occupational hazardous result of this is that I can now no longer look at moons without thinking how wonderful they might look as jingjing backdrops...