Nuclear recycling

I was reluctant to write a post about Ghanaian contemporary artist El Anatsui’s solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui, fearing that my lame photos and prose wouldn’t capture its freakish, alive spirit. His medium is discarded bottle caps, bands and found objects. He turns them into giant, fluid, flowing works. He gathers thousands of pieces like this:


And connects them together with copper wire to create stunning curtains like this:


This is some of the most painstaking work I’ve ever seen. It’s like pointillism except your fingers bleed. Where does his ambition come from? He connects flattened caps together with a painstaking specificity…


…to create splashes of color and texture. Look how this piece spills onto the floor.


Here he collected the tops of tins…


…to create long, snake-like sculptures that ooze across the floor and up the wall.

photo-12 photo-22

From a distance, the pieces hanging on the wall look like great swaths of multi-colored fabric. You want to reach out and caress it. Closer inspection reveals its sharp edges and copper wiring, not soft to the touch.

Behind a curtain of pop top rings.


*     *     *

Summer is half over. Do you guys call them lightning bugs or fireflies? It’s a regional preference. Do you call it a bucket or a pail? Pop or soda? The Daughters gather them up in our back yard and I always insist they release them. They’re not permitted to stuff them into jars. They’re such beautiful, innocent, harmless creatures. Both The Daughters and the fireflies. I wouldn’t keep either one imprisoned.

*     *     *

This pic is raw, straight from my iPhone. No Photoshopping, no Camera+, no Picoli—nothing. The technology behind this astonishes me. Some guy wrote a code that allows this to happen. Man, I’ll never be that smart.


54 thoughts on “Nuclear recycling

    • I grew up with lightning bugs but I read a Dr. Seuss book called Sam the Firefly about 300 times and it converted me. That’s enough for a Saturday at midnight. Did you really call him Pop? That’s very Ward Clever.

  1. Wow, I’m not normally impressed with much of what is termed “modern art”, but this guy has obvious talent. it speaks to the observer on so many levels, much more than the stupid bloody Tracy Emin. (I don’t like Eminem either)

    Don’t think I’ve ever seen such bugs, heard of them yes, but never seen in the flesh (or exoskeleton)

    Great pic.

    • I don’t know how he finds the time to create these pieces. The show included dozens of works, some of them gigantic. I agree the a lot of modern art leaves me cold but this guy is a master.

      They’re magic! When I was a rotten kid I’d catch a few dozen and keep them in a jar. So cruel.

      Great pic and great daughter, to boot.

  2. Those are the most “Light Up” Fierflies I’ve ever seen—And so many ALL together—BEAUTIFUL!!!
    That Artist is something else….His work is astounding and so very Beautiful….That hanging Curtain is really really stunning. In fact, all the pieces you shared are magnificent….! And yes, talk about Painstaking and painful, too…..My Lord! Thanks for sharing this—-I never would have seen it any other way…..I so wish I could see this ‘in person’…..

    • Just after sunset, fireflies start to rise out of the grass. They’re all over the place. I remember chasing them when I was a kid and now my kids chase them. It’ all a big circle.

      I was reluctant to do a post because when you walk through the galleries and view these pieces, you really are quite taken aback. I was afraid the same reaction wouldn’t come through in the post.

  3. Fireflies, pail, pop.

    Cool sculpture but wow! what a lot of work. Very tedious I would imagine.

    She has your eyes. She is beautiful. 🙂

    • Hi Ponita. Long time, no etc. You should see the whole of the exhibit. What I present here is just a sampling. It’s astonishing for it’s size. It must have taken years of doing this and little else.

      Thx re: my daughter. She is going to break hearts, starting with mine.

  4. I never knew fireflies had another name. Firefly must be the correct one because of Rufus T Firely. I’d like to see you wear a jacket made of those pop top rings. You might look striking.

    • You get a big *snap* for the Rufus T. Firefly reference. Sorry to report there was no clothing made out of bottle caps, rings or tin can tops. But I’ll bet you just gave the fashion houses of Milan the germ of an idea. [Oh, yes. They read here.]

      • A couple of years ago, in a boutique in East village, I sae a dress made of can ring-pulls!(Serious price tag, too!)

    • NOT the same thing. I’m not even sure what a June bug is. Does its rear end light up to attract a mate?

      It WAS a great show, wasn’t it! I didn’t even mention the John Singer Sargent paintings. What a stellar day of art that was. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

  5. I love that kind of art! We had a show in our local gallery last year, ‘FOUND OBJECTS’. I’ve been looking at junk differently since. I really should get back to making more art. I’m such a lazy bollix!

    All of my daughters would FREEEEEAK at having bugs on their hands! The only time I’ve ever seen fireflies was during my all too brief say in NJ!

    • There’s a whole “found object” movement. Initially I looked at it with a great deal of skepticism (I’m not sure why) but it’s just as valid as any other art form. Can you post some pics of art you’ve done in the past?

      Fireflies don’t really count as bugs. They’re totally harmless, make a pretty glow and gently fly away. A big hand full of spiders is another matter entirely, although I don’t know why that is.

  6. Wow just loved that art! Would love to have seen it in person. And fireflies – we don’t have them here. Magical! Thanks for sharing with us.

    • Hi Val. Nice to see you. Keep your eyes open. Anatsui is an internationally known artist with gallery shows and representation all over the world. If you get a chance, you owe it to yourself to see this stuff in person. Much more impressive.

      The fireflies come out in my back yard just as the sun sets. They fly in slow motion—float, really—and are easy to snatch out of the air. For they kids, they’re like toys.

  7. I don’t think we have those insects over here. Maybe it isn’t warm enough, or too windy.

    I wish I had a picture of a purse we bought in France this year. It was made by a Mexican woman who weaves together old chewing gum and sweet wrappers. The Ghananian bloke is excellent — I thought at first, with the curtain, he’d be a one-trick pony but clearly not.

    The last photo is so beautiful I can hardly look!

    • My photos are just a small sample of the retrospective. It took up four or five galleries. His works with much more than just bottle tops. There were a few pieces carved from wood that were beautifully done. Scroll up and click on Dinah’s flicker link. She got a couple of nice shots as well.

      The photo is a testament to how easy it is for a rank amateur like me to take stunning pics with this iPhone. How did they do it?!

      • Thanks–Dinah’s French pics are very interesting as well. Right, enough procrastination! Half past one and I’ve done nothing! 🙂

    • That’s an excellent point. Few things say summer more than chasing fireflies. I still do it under the guise of playing with the kids but the truth is I enjoy it. It takes me back to my youth.

      Here in NYC it’s a soda. If you ask for a soda back where I grew up in Cleveland, you’ll get a class of pop with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in in it.

  8. lightning bugs, buckets and soda in my part of the world… i will not share with you the lightning bug atrocities committed in my youth. it would hurt you deeply… they are beautiful creatures, and do not last overnight in glass jars – even glass jars with holes in them (don’t ask how i know… i’m an experimentalist.)

    “He connects flattened caps together with a painstaking specificity…” — THIS is why you are adored when you write about art. Purposeful words, without pretense.

    i’ve long been a fan of ‘found art’, but he takes this to such a beautiful extreme! thank you!

    • I committed the same atrocities and when I think back I want to wretch. That’s why I’m so diligent about not allowing the daughters to put them in jars. Did you know you can remove the part that lights up and stick them on your fingers like rings? Gross.

      Whether or not his art is “good” is purely subjective. It’s ALWAYS subjective. But you can’t deny the monumental effort he puts forth. I imagine it’s all he does with his day. There were a ton of pieces in this exhibit.

      • i know lightning bug jewelry well. they also can be used to light up a stick to make a glow sword… i’ll spare you the game of lightning bug baseball… but since we both grew up in the same part of the world, suspect you’ve played it.

        they bring me joy in june. almost as though we get SOME sort of reward out here in these parts for living in a pretty boring landscape most of the year. there’s a ‘lightning bug garden’ – a protected meadow, really – nearby that draws many firefly fans. and not of the ‘vampire’ variety…

      • We’re monsters. I actually feel pretty awful about stuff like that, even though I was just a dopy kid and didn’t know any better. I’m trying to show The Daughters a different path. Maybe they won’t wind up psychological wrecks like their dad.

  9. That art is great! I love those first curtains, the contrast of how they are made of junk but from a distance look like something luxurious and expensive.

    I just did a quick bit of googling about whether we have lightening bugs/fireflies in the UK and there seems to be mixed opinions about whether we even have them over here! I don’t think I’ve ever seen any here, but if we do, fireflies seems to be the preferred name for them! We usually say bucket (unless we are talking about Jack and Jill), and rather than soda or pop, we generally say ‘fizzy drinks’! Although in the more northern parts of the UK they lean towards pop. When we say soda we are usually referring specifically to soda water.

    That bottom photo you took looks like a photo from an advertisement. Nice work!

    • Scroll up and click on the flicker link that Dinah provided. She went to this exhibit with me and took a really great shot of the curtains. It’s good to have some people in the shot to provide perspective.

      Fireflies are a real light show in the summer. And they’re such frail, delicate insects. You can grab them out of the air and they don’t bite. They’ll crawl around on your hand for a bit and light up for you and then gently lift off.

      Thanks but that bottom photo is more of a technological marvel than anything else. The photo functionality on my iPhone is practically idiot proof.

  10. Love the last picture…

    The art is interesting – I never really “get” a lot of modern art, and I don’t go looking for the hidden meanings/emotions etc. I look and consider it… I like his it has something about it that draws you in

    • Brother, I don’t get a lot of art, either, modern or otherwise. I enjoy it (or not) on a purely visceral level. I look at it and it’ll either move me or it won’t. Any metaphors I try to draw are usually off the mark, anyway.

  11. Wow. Those curtains are stupendous! That is some painstaking art. I love it.

    fireflies, bucket and pop.

    Incidentally, I am not getting e mail updates on your posts despite adding. This makes me tardy and I don’t do tardy ‘cos I’m English. It bothers me.

    • Scroll up and click on Dinah’s flicker link. She has a great pic that shows how BIG some of these pieces are.

      My site has been completely f-ed up since my “brilliant” rebranding. It doesn’t function at all the way I had hoped it would. Readership has plummeted. Also, commenting on other blogs has become problematic for me. What the hell was I thinking? Can I step into the way-back machine?

      • I shall have a look at that.

        Well, you’ve made your bed so now you have to lie in it. Apparently.

        Don’t worry – it will right itself and I shall keep checking in my utterly cool, manual way 🙂

      • You’re darned right I have to lie in it. Do you suppose this is the first thing I tried to improve that backfired? Ha. Don’t make me laugh. It’s like having a part-time job that doesn’t pay anything.

        I admire your old skool ways. Never change (but please post more often, lazybones).

    • Even if you DON’T like his work, you’ve got to give the guy credit for the effort. It’s a lifetime ambition. Really impressive to stand next to.

      Fireflies are so benign that having them walk all over your hand is not such a brave thing to do, really. Spiders would be another matter.

    • It really does look rather labor intensive, doesn’t it? I think he got a lot of the material from bottling plants. There’s no way he could pick up this many pieces off the streets.

      If you’re across the river anytime soon, it might be worth your effort to go see this. It’s pretty impressive in person.

      • I just read your About page. I’ve been a subscriber to Funny Times since its inception! For real! (I’m betraying my age.) Wish they’d run the Garrison Keeler column again. What happened?

  12. This is so rich! Just to remind you: of my two brothers, YOU were the one that taught me how to rip out the light from the bug’s but and mash it into my forehead so I could walk around like I was wearing a miner’s helmet.

    I am so glad you became a responsible father. While that was uber cool when I was five, I think that now I would be devastated if I knew you were teaching that to your daughters.

  13. The art blows me away. Like Lisa said, I was wondering about the carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Cool video! My daughter loved it, too. We have loads of fireflies in our backyard (which is like a huge cow pasture). We watch them at night and it’s like a huge fireworks show.

    Years ago when I lived near Seattle, I was paying for soda and the clerk asked me if I had “pop” in my cup. I was like, What the hell? Have I crossed into the Twilight Zone?! Then I remembered Mainers call subway sandwiches “Italians” and chocolate shakes “frappes”.

    • Hi Darla! It’s nice to see you. The museum ran videos of Anatsui being interviewed and hard at work. It looked like an insufferably dull and tedious task. If you’re interested you could probably YouTube it. (And since when did YouTube become a verb?)

      I’ll bet Maine is firefly central. Isn’t watching a huge field light up after sunset the best cheap thrill ever? Really spectacular. Especially after a couple of bong hits. I hear.

      Italians is new to me. It’s usually referred to as a sub or hero. Maine. So different.

  14. Mark,
    Perhaps I should comment on the art exhibition, which looks magnificent™ from your pictures, but from the few pics I have seen of you, I would rather comment on the fact that I think you look like Jim Jarmusch.
    Le Clown

    • Well, it just so happens that Jarmusch grew up in Akron, a stone’s throw from the western suburb of Cleveland where I grew up. If there’s a stronger argument supporting geographical gene pools, I don’t know of it. His masterpiece, Stranger Than Paradise might have been sold to the world as a work of fiction but for me it has a documentary quality about it. That’s EXACTLY what my misspent youth in Cleveland looked like, right down to Aunt Lotte.

      Wait ’til you see the NEXT exhibit I took pictures of! A real beauty. This time, an outdoor installation in the middle of a park off 23rd Street. Rope. Lots and lots of rope.

    • It’s a highly laborious way to express yourself. There are a bunch of artists in MoMA who work with monochromatic canvases. One color. How lazy in comparison.

  15. Thank you for pointing me this way. I just love this! The texture, the smoothness of the sculpture, the colours, everything! I imagine that it would take a lot of blood and tears to create something this beautiful. Sure, that goes for a lot of artwork, but this one probably makes that saying a little more literal. It’s amazing how some people see beauty where other people see trash. That gives me hope about the future.

    • It’s a labor of love and, as you point out, a most laborious labor of love. The photos are only a sampling. There were galleries filled with his work. It’s a wonder he has time to do anything else. I doubt I’ll ever be that dedicated about anything.

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