Entry 93: Looking at Pictures– Do I have to draw you a picture? If you’ve ever been the recipient of such a remark, you’ll- rightly- assume that your perspicacity has been called into question. And yet, how unfair! Steganographers regularly conceal nefarious texts within innocent-seeming pictures. Pictures do not always tell the truth. People who delight in deceit, obfuscation, puzzles, riddles, conundrums and sleight of hand are drawn to this practice.
The art of camouflaging what is true goes back a long way. (A note to Gen Y: photo-shopping is not really a new idea.) The Spartan king, Demaratus, sent a warning to the Greeks of an impending Persian attack by writing the message on the wooden board under an innocent wax covering upon which was written innocuous material. Tricky, eh? But not as tricky as Demaratus himself when he eventually switched sides and served as an advisor to Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC.
Spies, black-hat hackers and those shadowy forces who seek to create covert elite groups for arcane purposes all think that steganography is the bee’s knees. One group, Cicada 3301, has posted puzzles on the internet from 2012. Who are they? Speculation runs from recruiters to government espionage agencies such as the NSA, to alternate reality gaming tragics, to big bank mavens messing with cryptocurrency testing. But they are probably a small group of tech-savvy anti-establishment geeks who would have been Rosicrucians in medieval times or members of the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn a century ago.
I’m with Homer Simpson as far as trying to crack any code such groups might concoct is concerned, if at first you do not succeed, give up. And get on with your short life. Instead of hunching over plasma screens, chasing electronic chimeras across the wilderness of mirrors that is cyberspace, get yourself out of your room and into an art gallery- there you will find puzzles enough to titillate your senses and mind.
For my part, I cross the Nepean River to the Penrith Regional Art Gallery or travel by train to the Art Gallery of NSW or drive down to Canberra to the National Gallery- especially when there is a touring international show. Should my- generally prevailing- inertia prevent so much activity, I listen to music, say, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s magnificent orchestration, as played by the Chicago Symphony under Solti.
And I see the people and places depicted by Hartmann which inspired the musical work: among them, Gnomus the small frightened man I identify with, Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch whom I encounter after exiting the gloomy Catacombs but, finally, I ride in triumph through the Great Gate of Kiev- the finale of which had me levitating, or so it seemed, when first I heard it as a student. Another reason that I value this piece so much is that it is a testament to friendship.
Mussorgsky wrote the suite as a memorial to his friend Victor Hartmann who died at age 39 in 1873 from an aneurysm. After visiting an exhibition in his memory in 1874, he composed the suite rapidly during June of that year. However, he hit the skids and died in 1881 shortly after his 42nd birthday. Had it not been for his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, who published an, admittedly, flawed version in 1886, it, arguably, would have been lost to posterity. It makes you wonder how many masterpieces have sunk without trace because of the lack of a friend to pull it from oblivion.
Like Mussorgsky, I place value in drinking as an aid to inspiration, and during one bibulous late night alone I found myself surveying the living room: first, a wedding photograph in a silver frame, next, a family tree with photos of grandparents, us and the kids, followed by a wooden warrior with a shield from New Guinea. A ceramic Taoist philosopher made by my daughter sat on the cathode-ray TV which we still possessed then on which a muted re-run of Twin Peaks was showing.
At this point I stepped on a hand-mirror reaching for another drink, cracking it. Lifting my eyes in exasperation, I looked anew at a watercolour of a scene from the Glens of Antrim by a noted local artist- a gift from my brother who had visited the year before. Slumping to the floor, I noticed a bell-jar containing an exotic moth mounted on a faux flower, behind which the wedding photo of my wife cutting the cake distorted weirdly- or perhaps it was just the whiskey.
Beside me was a cane-chair holding an indoor plant with green tendrils covering the clues to a partially completed cryptic crossword. Picking up the pen lying beside the paper, I jotted down a few ideas which, a day later, I worked up into this song. As Nietzsche so cogently observed, for art to exist… a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication