241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

I am looking for a small frame for a postcard with some deer on it. I find exactly the right size, somewhere in a box. In the frame is Ms. De Boer. Or at least: an image of her, of course. I don’t know Ms. De Boer that well, so I flip her face out of the frame. Another Photo falls out. On it, a young woman and man with white Dianthus flowers on their blazers. Seems like an engagement photo, not one of resistance, considering the smiles on their faces (although the gentleman grimaces rather sarcastically).

An indistinct sense of guilt creeps up on me. I remember Ms. De Boer. For hours I have sat next to her, in her service apartment, in the middle of busy Schilderswijk.* It smelled musty, of old perfume and fabric softener. The sound of the oxygen machine constantly in the background. On the TV a soap series.

She did not tell me all that much about her life. She had drunk and smoked much, as a result of which she now had COPD. Her ex-husband was in a home for the elderly. She didn’t take kindly to that. Or to people generally. All the more to her little children, though. They were displayed on the upper ridge on the walls of her small sitting room. The dogs. Different German shepherds, of which one was the sweetest of them all, but I have forgotten any names. I also forgot the name of that epileptic Keeshond that (volunteering for the animal foundation) I came to walk for her. And in spite of the fact that it was everything to her.

In general, Ms. De Boer complained most of the time, but when her little dog was concerned, she would radiate. When things were going worse and worse, her anxiety over her dog took the upper hand. “For me, I’m done here, but who will take care of my little dog?” The dog wagged its tail, rain tapped against the window, Moroccans threw stones at the tram. The sound of the oxygen machine. The tears of Ms. De Boer.

After having been lying in hospital once again, she told me she had seen Death. A large black man had stood at her bed. She was afraid to die, and cried softly.

A while later was her cremation. It was by far the most depressing service I have ever witnessed. Besides me, there were four other service workers. And there was the church. Ms. De Boer was afraid and lonely in her last couple of days and for some reason or other, that attracts the church like a lamp does flies. All of a sudden there was talk of God and some conversion, whereas Ms. De Boer was the least religious person I knew. For a finish, they placed a large wreath with a religious text onto the ribbon beside the coffin. I can remember that this considerably obstructed my attempts at serious morning, especially for the bad spelling mistake they had made. I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was: “The Lord leeds me.” A grave matter.

So now I flip her face out of a frame and realise that the chance exists that I am the only one who still thinks of her. That is sad. She might not have been the most pleasant person to be around, but how much she cared for her little dog shows that she could feel love. And loneliness, pain and fear. She has given me the picture when she knew she would die. It was one of the few photos she had of herself. I will look for another frame for those deer.

* A neighbourhood of poor alloy in The Hague.

I cross the Thames; silver under a grey sky, and watch the throngs of pedestrians pass the bridge and make their way to the museum. There’s something magical to being one of the newest additions to this city, feeling myself immersed in a great crowd with the realisation that this is home now. Here, solitude lends itself to becoming a welcome spectator seat.

The path is lined with buskers where they compete with one another for air space. A man points his camera to the Rastafarian with matted dreads reaching past his knees – No woman no cry! – he hoarsely wails, while pointing at the colourful hat splayed open, awaiting the clink of change. Further yet, two indie boys croon and strum, a bongo player meditatively strikes his drums, and all coalesce into an arrhythmic cacophony.

As Tate Modern comes into view, I’m surprised to see a group of large, furry animals standing in front of the museum. There must be at least fifteen of them, donned in intricately detailed costumes of cartoon versions of cats, bears, foxes, and wolves. These are not your run-of-the-mill dress up shop costumes, their muscles are defined, sturdy, their masks are eerily realistic, and their jaws open and close at will. I watch as they interact with the spectators, and see the timber wolf taking on his role as the alpha dog, bending his knees and flexing his arms as the tourists snap away. On the other side of the crowd, the silver fox with her big blue eyes walks demurely, somewhat timidly past, and leans her head against the onlookers, allowing them to stroke her, pet her nose, and bury their faces into her furry shoulder.

I was aware that what I was seeing was a group belonging to the Furry Fandom culture. These Furries, as they’re referred to, have an unusual interest in cartoon-like animal characters. In fact, some even believe they’re more like their specific animal of interest than human. They find each other on Internet forums and websites where they write fan fiction, and make fan art; they congregate at Furry Fandom conventions, and as it seems, in public spaces too. It’s a way of life, an identity, a subculture that creates a sense of belonging. Theirs is a tight-knit community where escapism from the every day lends itself in the form of a very expensive and very heavy fursuit, fitted with battery-powered fans to keep the user from overheating.
While watching them strut around the Tate’s bustling yard, I realise there’s no collection box. And what I’m seeing isn’t an artistic performance, either. It’s the simple act of the Furries taking on their role and engaging with the world as their alternate identities. The fur costumes disarm the plain clothed man and convince him of the wearer’s zoomorphic nature. By doing so, the Furries capitalise on our reaction to cute, cuddly animals and in a moment of instant adoration, they’re embraced, loved, and admired by complete strangers. I can’t help but wonder if these costumes are disguising the most deplorable, unattractive, acne-ridden and repulsive members of society imaginable. And, the assumption immediately arises that these people must suffer a certain social deficiency in order to resort to this inverted exhibitionism to find affection.
At the end of the day, I exit the museum. The sky has fallen dark and the masses have dissipated. My steps towards the tube station sound hollow in the absence of the buskers and I think of my new London room awaiting my return: dark and silent and empty. For a moment I think of these Furries, in this big city, and catch a glimmer of understanding.
‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ goes the famous and absurd line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). It popped into mind upon seeing stuffed dog heads hanging on the wall of the Horniman Museum. But of course, why not, they belong to the inventory of the animal kingdom. The museum attempts to give a neutral enumeration of things in the world, based on Frederick John Horniman’s private collection. That leads to odd categories and a collection of objects, containing stuffed animals as well as plastic models and skeletons. Less spotted woodpecker, brown rat, passenger pigeon, dodo and kakapo. There is still the optimistic notion in the air that by dividing everything into groups, the world can be controlled and understood. As I observe these categories a young woman asks me if she can make some inquiries about photographing in museums. The last questions concerns my origins, just white, western, European, what do we make of it? She shows me the options and says, yeah, I’m Korean-American, and that’s not in there either. And that is the very issue with classification: there’s always something missing. Completeness is a dream.

prins carnaval Geleen
Eva Braun
carnival 2
prins carnaval Geleen

Carnival...the horror...the horror.
What I wonder is, why do I find carnival so horrible?
Oh wait, it’s not that I find it horrible. I find it revolting.

In essence, it’s a great concept: “A short period of chaos, the temporary removal of social hierarchy. An exchange of roles and the exaggeration of the behaviour associated with the assumed role.” This gives the notion of some sort of social upheaval, which I’m always highly in favour of. Instead of social upheaval, though, chaos manifests itself in the manifold groups of people taking to the streets, behaving super strangely, clothed in bizarre outfits that pay no heed to any sort of vanity, who begin their drinking at 10 in the morning to rid themselves of last night’s hangover so that the party may continue unfettered. Thankfully, neither small-mindedness, intolerance, exclusion nor negativity impose obstruction for this daze of intoxication. When entering a mass of partying carnival-goers, you will immediately be immersed and welcomed, becoming part of the whole. You and the cavorting mass will become one.

You’ll see your neighbour joyfully frolicking his way past you in a failed attempt at a smurf outfit and you think to yourself, “There’s a spark of life inside him yet.” He’s likely thinking the same when he sees you in your homemade “Domino’s Pizza” suit. You spot the cashier from the local supermarket in passionate embrace and watch her green face paint mesh into her male fellow partygoer’s pink lipstick. Behind them, an extremely ugly clown is engrossed in an equally passionate embrace with a lamppost (not a costume, just a lamppost) while a carnival float in the shape of a nose passes by in the background.

There are many different versions of the history of carnival. At the core of just about every carnivalesque festivity lies a social or ecclesial hierarchy. There must be at least two parties of unequal social or ecclesial order. Because where there’s an authority, there are (with a bit of luck) a number of subjects or followers willing to emulate the wielders of power. The church’s authorities believed it would be beneficial for the “normal believers” to experience what life would be like when “the devil, witches, jesters, the antichrist, and the eccentricity in man” would rule during a short period of a few days of festivities before Ash Wednesday. They wanted to show the people how the world would fall to ruin and the depravity of a life lived solely by earthly principles. The logic of this reasoning might rightfully confuse you, as it basically implies the same as saying: give a man a million to do with what he wishes for three days and you’ll see, he’ll come crawling back to our church with his tail between his knees!

“A short period of chaos, the temporary removal of social hierarchy. An exchange of roles and the exaggeration of the behaviour associated with the assumed role.” Anthony Howell (1945) is a British performance artist who plays with reversals in his work. In the performance, The world turned upside-down (1998) he walks around in an austere, classic men’s suit worn backwards. Two piglets that scurry around him, snorting and grunting, accompany him. Howell corrects his outfit as he walks. With his backwards suit and his tie on his back, he tries to turn his coat around, and in doing so the sleeves of his jacket nearly end up as trouser legs. The piglets symbolize man’s lowly self-indulgence and literally deliver the soundtrack for the performance. After the performance is over, Wiener sausages are served to the audience. By wearing this suit, Howell seems to be conforming to certain social values, which he immediately sabotages this by abusing, as it were, the suit on his body. He’s wearing a suit, but at the same time, he’s not.

Anthony Howell, he world turned upside-down, 1998

“A short period of chaos, the temporary removal of social hierarchy. An exchange of roles and the exaggeration of the behaviour associated with the assumed role.” I suppose my repulsion lies in the following: a SHORT period of chaos? The TEMPORARY removal of social inequality? What about the remaining 365 days? It’s precisely this short window of opportunity that I disagree with. Four days where all are licensed to act weirdly, dress bizarrely, and anything is possible. People, this no more than a drop in the ocean! Oh artists of all nations, carry on, carry on. On all the other days it’s your duty to reveal the world in a different light, to turn the inside out and the upside down!

“Defining, but also the forgetting of time is very important during carnival. The clock is overcome. When we celebrate carnival, we are greater than time. This is nearly metaphysical. You could almost say my book is also about Zen Buddhism.” As said by the Amsterdam author Jan van Mesbergen (1971), following his novel Naar de overkant van de nacht (loosely translated to: To the Other Side of Night,) that takes place in the daze of the carnival in Venlo that he visits annually.

(Oh artists of all nations, carry on, carry on!)

Alex Lacey and his favorite lion

If you’ve ever seen predators in a circus act, you’ll know how intense the experience is. You can smell and hear the animals, see their muscles flex, stare into their eyes. As you watch them perform with their trainer, they suddenly become personalities: awesome and dangerous.

The British animal trainer Alex Lacey's performance at the Carre's winter show was a work of art:an elegant ballet of harmony as he maneuvered the animals into various figures formed through simple actions like jumping, rolling, and sitting; all performed in a state of complete trust and compliance. The climax arrives the moment Alex dips his head between the jaws of the only male lion, Masai. Entwined, they are one, as though the boundary between man and animal has temporarily been lifted.

Placed completely at the mercy of his lion, this position is the ultimate demonstration of trust between a trainer and his animal.

‘I could never dominate my animals’, Alex explains, ‘so I must be their best friend.’ As a member of the audience, this is plain to see.

Circus animals are in the spotlight once again, although not on stage, but in politics. The issue at hand concerns twenty to thirty animals, that is, if we restrict our definition to semi-wild animals such as sea lions, tigers, lions, and elephants that according to some, maybe even you, should be prohibited from performing in The Netherlands.

The slurs and slander directed towards a regular, legal group of professionals and those affiliated –trainers are treated like near criminals, circus directors are threatened, and visitors to the circus are booed– poses some tricky questions. Does this hostile perspective on the circus world secretly contain a deep-rooted distrust to these ‘traveling folk’? The circus is traditionally associated with gypsies. ‘Bring in the laundry, the circus is coming’ is an old saying. Animal activists eagerly pounce on these gut feelings by hanging chains around their necks and gathering in front of the theatre during Carre’s winter show, conjuring images of gypsies forcing bears to dance on hot plates.

Do the animal activists realize that the Serbians, who traveled all over Europe from 1860 until the second World War with their dancing bears, had absolutely nothing to do with the circus? Or that dancing bears have been a thing of the past for a very long time? Even Hitler banned dancing bears from his Nazi Reich out of love for bears and hatred for the gypsies. How easy it is to destroy centuries of tradition and put people out on the street in that fit of rechtaberei and self-righteousness (look at how animal-friendly I am)!

Henri Martin

A famous European lion tamer

The English research report, Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses, explores the physical and mental state of the animals through quantifiable factors such as their levels of stress hormones and the sizes of cages. The report, compiled by those both for and against, uneasily comes to a conclusion: ‘There appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or any worse than that of other animals kept in other captive environments.’ The predatory animals aren’t always kept in cages. Yes, it’s where they sleep, but during the day large roaming areas are set up. Dancing bears and cycling primates have long been banned. Even the tigers jumping through hoops have been abolished. And not because it hurts them. Animal trainer Tom Dieck described jumping through a burning hoop as being the easiest trick to teach an animal, because as long as they’ve never had a bad experience with fire, they won’t be afraid of it. But alas, the fire department has prohibited it.