Do the Bird: Maurizio Cattelan’s Protest Sculpture

When Maurizio Cattelan unveiled his 30-foot-high sculpture titled L.O.V.E. in front of the Milan Stock Exchange recently, many people were wondering exactly where the love was. The massive hand with middle finger upraised resembles in style and marble structure Michelangelo’s David, if the young hero flipped off the Philistine Goliath just before firing the fatal stone. Cattelan specializes in confrontational art, but he claims that his prodigious rude gesture is “mainly about imagination” and love, actually, rather than a social comment on the international financial world. I don’t buy it, and neither should you, regardless of what Cattelan says, or even believes.

Cattelan has taken on giants before. La Nona Ora (“The Ninth Hour” in English) depicts Pope John Paul II struck by a meteorite. Perhaps Cattelan fantasized God smiting the pontiff for continuing some of the intolerant policies of the Catholic church. Equally memorable was Cattelan’s decision to sculpt Adolf Hitler praying. By flipping the world upside down—mass murderers as devout, religious figures smote for their sins—Cattelan asks us to refocus our attention and see thing afresh. L.O.V.E. borrows from the Renaissance tradition of Italy to ask us to look at the modern world with new eyes. Cattelan's works “call our times into question, offering themselves as a mirror, however cracked, of our present," Milan's commissioner for culture, Massimiliano Finazzer Flory, remarked in an official statement.

This sculpture is clearly saying something, but to whom? For Americans still struggling with a floundering economy, memories of the massive financial bailout that promised salvation but seemed only to save the financial institutions themselves still rankle. We would all like to give Goldman Sachs and friends “the bird” in the worst way. When the American disaster rippled across the oceans and soured world markets, that sentiment repeated in the minds of Europeans, Asians, and beyond.

But look closely at L.O.V.E. again. It’s pointing away from the stock exchange, not towards it. Cattelan aims the gesture not at the financial world, as he says, but at us—those affected by that world, but hopelessly outside of it. Perhaps Cattelan speaks the truth when he says he’s not speaking to the financial world. Perhaps what he’s really doing is speaking for them—putting in a single image everything they’ve said to the world for the last few years of bailouts and failures. “We’re too big to fail,” the three-story-high hand says. Instead of David challenging the giant, it’s the giant goading us to take our best shot, however futile. “Nobody loves Goliath,” as Wilt Chamberlain once said. This sculpture adds, “And Goliath couldn’t care less.”

As a New York Times piece today remarked, the calls for austerity in America and Europe are always “for thee, and not for me”—aimed at the poorest and not at the richest, who always command the discussion of finances, usually at the expense of the voiceless. Rather than decry Cattelan’s sculpture as a childish rude gesture, we should think more about the greater obscenity of how the economy punishes the innocent and rewards the criminal actions of the lords of finance. Rather than condemn Cattelan, we should join him in “doing the bird,” because the bird’s been done to us for much too long.

[All apologies to Morris Day and The Time for co-opting their song for my title.]

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
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Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash
Mind & Brain
  • Recent memories run in our brains like sped-up old movies.
  • In childhood, we capture images in our memory much more quickly.
  • The complexities of grownup neural pathways are no match for the direct routes of young brains.
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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by global warming, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.

The bodies that remain in view are often used as waypoints for the living. Some of them are well-known markers that have earned nicknames.

For instance, the image above is of "Green Boots," the unidentified corpse named for its neon footwear. Widely believed to be the body of Tsewang Paljor, the remains are well known as a guide point for passing mountaineers. Perhaps it is too well known, as the climber David Sharp died next to Green Boots while dozens of people walked past him- many presuming he was the famous corpse.

A large area below the summit has earned the discordant nickname "rainbow valley" for being filled with the bright and colorfully dressed corpses of maintainers who never made it back down. The sight of a frozen hand or foot sticking out of the snow is so common that Tshering Pandey Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association claimed: "most climbers are mentally prepared to come across such a sight."

Other bodies are famous for not having been found yet. Sandy Irvine, the partner of George Mallory, may have been one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest a full thirty years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it. Since they never made it back down, nobody knows just how close to the top they made it.

Mallory's frozen body was found by chance in the nineties without the Kodak cameras he brought up to record the climb with. It has been speculated that Irvine might have them and Kodak says they could still develop the film if the cameras turn up. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they died on the way back down from the summit, Mallory had his goggles off and a photo of his wife he said he'd put at the peak wasn't in his coat. If Irving is found with that camera, history books might need rewriting.

As Everest's glaciers melt its morbid history comes into clearer view. Will the melting cause old bodies to become new landmarks? Will Sandy Irvine be found? Only time will tell.

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