Friday, March 23, 2012

Artistic Freedom and Zenos Frudakis

"Freedom" by Zenos Frudakis
Size: 20 feet long x 8 feet high
Medium: Bronze
Location: GSK World Headquarters, 16th and Vine Streets, Philadelphia, PA

Zenos’ statement about his vision of the sculpture

Zenos Frudakis
I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process.

Although for me, this feeling sprang from a particular personal situation, I was conscious that it was a universal desire with almost everyone; that need to escape from some situation – be it an internal struggle or an adversarial circumstance, and to be free from it.

I began this work in a very traditional sculptural manner by creating a small model in clay called a macquette. The purpose of beginning in this manner is to capture the large action and major proportions of the figure within the overall design without any details to detract from the big idea. Another reason for not having details and for working on a small model only a few inches in height is that the small armature within it, holding the clay, is more easily manipulated, allowing for much greater flexibility in developing a concept. For example, an arm, a leg or a head can be pushed around without any concern for obliterating details, such as a nose or a finger.

The macquette is the original mass of clay where a concept is born and from which it grows and develops. This was important later when I enlarged the sculpture from several inches long to 20 feet long, and I retained in the larger work a sense that all the conceptual material, its forms, focus and development sprang from this rough idea. The work metamorphosized, in the way that we do.

Although there are four figures represented, the work is really one figure moving from left to right. The composition develops from left to right beginning with a kind of mummy/death like captive figure locked into its background. In the second frame, the figure, reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s Rebellious Slave, begins to stir and struggle to escape. The figure in the third frame has torn himself from the wall that held him captive and is stepping out, reaching for freedom. In the fourth frame, the figure is entirely free, victorious, arms outstretched, completely away from the wall and from the grave space he left behind. He evokes an escape from his own mortality.




NAPOLEON HILL (26 October 1883 ~ 8 November 1970)

In the early 1970s I picked up a paperback copy of Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and found it a great deal more readable than I had expected. This inspired me to investigate other American “success gurus” like Og Mandino and W. Clement Stone. I found their advice generally useful - but like all good advice, one has to follow it religiously, and I’ve never been a religious type. I also have an innate aversion to rightwing ideology - and all "successful" people tend to become rightwingers, because one must ferociously protect whatever one has acquired by fair means or foul.

Forty years later I find myself catching a preview of Napoleon Hill The Musical - scripted, produced and directed by my old theatre colleague JD Menon. Truth be told I only knew JD when he was in his early 20s, helping friends with various aspects of stagecraft and acquiring hands-on experience in showbiz. From time to time I’d bump into JD at arty events and exchange namecards – but I really had no idea what sort of work he’d been doing all these decades because I dropped out of the theatre scene in 1992. After that I kept in touch by doing the occasional theatre review – but I don’t recall catching any production by JD Menon.

Love, Sex, Desire, Romance, Hope, Faith, Enthusiasm and Napoleon Hill (Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)

So I was pleasantly surprised by what the man had accomplished the first time I visited Napoleon Hill The Musical at Matic. It’s akin to lunacy to embark on an original musical in this country – unless you happen to be married to a billionaire or have the benefit of a visionary corporate sponsor. To begin with there are so many elements one has to get right – apart from a solid libretto, a memorable music score, and an immensely talented cast (not to mention a competent and dedicated tech crew).

Although the pacing wasn’t quite snappy enough and a large portion of the cast appeared to be newcomers to the stage, their combined energy and enthusiasm were tangible and infectious. The camaraderie and joie de vivre I felt after the preview made me nostalgic for the “roar of greasepaint and the smell of the crowd” (as Anthony Newley once put it). And that’s ultimately what showbiz is all about – having a wonderful time while working off your excess fat.

Musical director Jeevz Menon
What impressed me most were the beautifully crafted songs and vibrant musical settings – a collaborative effort led by musical director Jeevz Menon (JD’s nephew and Berklee alumnus), songwriters Brittany Mahrer and Chris Murphy, with lyrical inputs from playwright-director JD Menon himself.

The vocals were pre-recorded with professional talents from various countries - and during the preview the lip-sync worked so smoothly I didn’t even notice the singing wasn’t live. Subsequently I caught the show on its final night and it was then I understood why the vocal amplification improved so dramatically whenever the actors burst into song. Apparently, only a couple of the performers had the necessary voice training to sing live; the others had to lip-sync it. Even so, the small orchestra performed exceedingly well; indeed, they were a major incentive for me to sit through the whole show a second time.

Haris Hadra as Napoleon Hill (photo: Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)

Well, the core of a musical is the music – and based on what I heard, Napoleon Hill The Musical has a lot going for it, even if none of the songs stood out as instant hits (like “Maria” from West Side Story, “On The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, or “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music). But who knows – given a few more hearings, we might find ourselves humming a number like “Persona” or “What Do I Do With A Dreamer?” from Napoleon Hill The Musical. At any rate, the music was a savvy and sophisticated mix of styles ranging from rhythm-&-blues, soul, bebop, country-&-western, ragtime, jazz, emo and gospel - with a couple of anthems and marches thrown in for good measure.

People who enjoy musicals are those who appreciate a bit of song-and-dance – so choreography is also a vital element. I’d say that the dance numbers in Napoleon Hill The Musical passed muster, but fell short of being absolutely stunning. The four choreographers involved had to work with a diverse cast of amateurs and professionals - which, naturally, limited the sort of moves they could incorporate, although one member of the cast (Klethi Raphael) was extremely acrobatic, being a practitioner of capoeira.

Set and costume designs were competently executed, though I felt the director opted to play it safe with a conservative approach. There are many ways to costume a cast and construct a set and, ultimately, it’s a question of taste – so let’s say I found nothing distracting or incongruous in these departments. The lighting was effective without being intrusive; that means it was, for the most part, excellent.

Napoleon Hill: dogged by failure, haunted
by demons
(Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)
As for the acting, what I liked about this production was that there were no prima donnas amongst the cast – even among the key players – so the ensemble feeling was strong. Haris Hadra, as Napoleon Hill, cut an affable and likeable figure – heroic in his physical presence, yet humble and vulnerably human in his demeanor.

He was ably supported by Natalie Heng (who played Hill’s first wife Florence); Russ Natasha (second wife Rosa Lee); and Katarazyna Gabriel (third wife Annie Lou as well as Martha his stepmother).

Thomas Pang’s portrayal of Andrew Carnegie was precise, polished and very professional; while Russ Natasha’s slinky, sultry portrayal of the opportunistic femme fatale Rosa Lee was archetypal. Donna Lynn was immensely watchable as “Sex” (though she could have turned up the mojo a tad more); Noor Farzianna Hassaan was entirely lovable as “Love” and Anuja Chandran was pretty enticing as “Greed.” Geoff A. Feyaerts turned in a highly animated portrayal of “Fear” and Gonzalo Morquecho Rey played “Revenge” with exquisite flair and flamboyance.

The vivacious Russ Natasha as Rosa Lee
(Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)
What tickled me was Kasyfillah Kamain’s “Anger” – a perfect parody of Umno’s infamous paid rowdies down to his red headband and bullyboy postures. Aemma Ellysa Isa’s adolescent swagger as the young Napoleon Hill was both amusing and charming, even if her performance verged dangerously close to overacting at times.

As Napoleon Hill’s alter ego, Marvin Wong turned in a confident and elegant performance, while Dayton Lim’s characterization of Hill’s father, James, was empathetic, even if a wee bit wooden.

Overall, on second appraisal, Napoleon Hill The Musical struck me as a very promising first version. Given the opportunity to tighten a couple of scenes further and restage it on a more lavish scale with more heavy-duty talent - the RM300,000 budget is approximately one-hundredth of what I imagine it would cost to produce such a show on Broadway - there’s a fairly good chance JD Menon will realize his dream, which is to take Napoleon Hill The Musical on a world tour.

Young Napoleon working in a coal mine for $1 a day (photo: Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)

Why not? Three years ago an Australian-Indian musical extravaganza called The Merchants of Bollywood managed to take the world by storm – successfully touring Asia, Africa, Europe, America and the UK. It was as slick and glitzy as any musical spectacle that’s ever come out of Broadway or the West End – and it flaunted a heady Indian aroma with spectacular dances and costumes. The beautiful and talented Carol Furtada, who played Ayesha Merchant, was catapulted to international acclaim.

Original musicals, like durian trees, take a long time to bear fruit. Often, it takes several versions before the final product strikes the right chord with a mass audience and takes off, eventually joining the ranks of immortal hits like The Fantasticks or Les Misérables.

director JD Menon

(Munira Abdul Ghani/NST)
JD Menon is fully entitled to his dreams – and it would appear that in bringing Napoleon Hill The Musical to fruition, JD has closely emulated the subject of his musical, overcoming a myriad of obstacles that would daunt anyone but the most audacious. Indeed, by populating his dramatization of Napoleon Hill’s life with a whole gamut of Emotions – negative and positive – he has drawn on a trusted technique in Greek theatre wherein the actors depict qualities such as Courage, Loyalty, Jealousy, Cowardice, Nobility and Hope. It was an inspired move, to say the least, and it would work even better if JD were to more vividly define and refine these characters – without lengthening an already long story.  

Malaysia has yet to take her artists, writers and performers seriously – and this neglect puts us at a vast cultural disadvantage when it comes to achieving world-class standards, especially in exportable media such as literature, films, theatrical productions, and so on. I believe we do have the talent – but for decades our cultural institutions appear to have been the refuge of deadwood bureaucrats, time-servers and brainless, myopic bigots whose idea of culture extends no further than insipid paintings of coconut palm sunsets, neo-romantic waterfalls and spiritless silat performances.

The fact that Napoleon Hill The Musical has seen the light of day at all is largely due to the visionary optimism of Christina Chia, chairman of Napoleon Hill Associates in Malaysia, who bravely underwrote the production so that its world premiere would coincide with the Napoleon Hill International Conference held on March 14-15 at the KL Convention Center, featuring Deepak Chopra as the main attraction.

Andrew Carnegie, steel
magnate and philanthrophist
Napoleon Hill struggled for 29 years before hitting the jackpot with Think & Grow Rich, which has sold over 100 million copies since its publication in 1937. Hill was inspired as a young journalist by his meeting with Andrew Carnegie, who challenged him to take on the task of interviewing more than 500 successful individuals and formulating some practical advice by which others might realize their own dreams.

In his single-minded pursuit of fulfilling his mission, Napoleon Hill neglected his domestic duties and, unsurprisingly, lost his family when his long-suffering wife Florence filed for a divorce, taking with her their three children. The vacuum in Hill’s love life was quickly filled by Rosa Lee, a social climber who later wrote a manual on how to snare a rich man – and then all but bankrupted Hill when she divorced him.

One might ask why Napoleon Hill deserves to be the subject of a musical. Well, why not? In 1991 I saw a brilliant musical in Melbourne called I Am Work – inspired by the life and times of Essington Lewis – Napoleon Hill’s contemporary and head honcho of BHP, the Australian steel giant. I was gobsmacked by the creative stagecraft that went into the dramatization of John O’Donoghue’s 2-act play with a cast of 6 men and 2 women. Even though it was a celebration of sorts of the life of a hard-headed industrialist, the musical qualified as high art.

Song-and-dance and a cast of nearly 60 (photo: Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)

In ancient times, epic poetry and murals were inspired by the battle exploits of victorious kings and emperors. Today's colossal overachievers devote their native genius and superhuman stamina to financial wars fought in corporate boardrooms.

Napoleon Hill is undoubtedly a luminary of the first magnitude among American success coaches in the tradition of Wallace Wattles, whose 1910 book, The Science of Getting Rich, inspired Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling 2006 DVD and book, The Secret. Everybody yearns for a taste of this elusive thing called Success.

W. Clement Stone: rags-to-riches,
inspired by Napoleon Hill
Napoleon Hill cleverly titled his book Think & Grow Rich – knowing full well that money, power and sex carry universal appeal. Without money, you can forget about power. Money and power are reputedly the strongest aphrodisiacs known to man.

The theory goes: if you can accumulate enough material wealth, influence and power are within easy reach; and with unlimited money and power, who can stop you from fucking up the whole world? Does that constitute Success?

Imagine getting paid $1.5 million a year as CEO of a toxic and polluting industry… how would you feel if a bunch of semi-illiterates in loin cloths decide to erect a barricade around your operations, claiming that you’re poisoning their rivers and destroying their miserable livelihoods? Would you suffer an attack of conscience and a sudden change of heart? Would you hand in your resignation and apologize profusely to those negatively impacted by your actions; and then do whatever you can to alleviate their suffering?

Shining Example of Success?
(Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)
Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, Dick Cheney, Ban Ki-Moon and Robert B. Zoellick are names you might find listed in the Who’s Who of World Affairs. These are men who have attained the very pinnacle of worldly power and riches – beyond the wildest dreams of their own former classmates. Are they not shining examples of worldly success?

Yet, having read Napoleon Hill’s book (among many other positive-mental-attitude manuals), I can attest that these self-help books never set specific goals for anybody – they merely offer practical tips on how to attain them.

And every one of them emphasizes the absolute necessity for us to anchor ourselves to an unshakeable spiritual foundation. Not only that, all these success gurus preach the same ultimate message: nobody can be considered truly wealthy or successful who isn’t at the same time compassionate, generous, and of the utmost integrity.

All previous models of success were founded on the erroneous notion that we are isolated individuals competing with one another to become King or Queen of the Mountain. Recent revelations in quantum physics suggest that each of us is an integral aspect of everyone and everything else in a holographic, multidimensional universe. As such, it's absurd to continue playing zero-sum games of win-lose. Win-win is the new evolutionary program.

The American Dream that became a Global Nightmare (photo: Vishnu Rajendran Amboo)

So long as there is a single homeless and hungry person on earth, nobody can be considered rich. True success must be something all of life can rejoice in – not just an elite cabal of criminals and sociopaths.

Chew on that, please, then act decisively to right all wrongs. Success, to me, is when heaven reigns on earth!

23 March 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Star Commander Lee Ahau Ben turns Sweet Sixteen!

Lee Ahau Ben, 13 days after he landed on 21 March 1996.
16 years later, he still believes Mickey Mouse is God.

Anoora was the most excited one of all at Ahau's party.
Mary couldn't persuade Ahau to participate in the cake cutting ritual.
Neither could Anoora get him away from his Nemo DVD.
Don't BUG me... it's my birthday!

Aunt Rodi got Ahau a beautiful coverlet with a religious motif.
Mugging for the camera with his Daddy...
Okay, Daddy, that's enough...
All this unsolicited attention is giving me a headache.
So just bugger off, all right? I'm busy cultivating some acne.

That's better. Pimples don't show up in sepia.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

"$1.2 billion a week, squandered by folks with 1950s mindsets using 1970s technology... all in the name of National Security!"

A former CIA agent blows the whistle on the "national security" scam...

"They're only movers and shakers as long as YOU LET THEM BE movers and shakers." ~ Robert D. Steele

"Don't try to heal a broken system. Create a new system that replaces it." ~ Buckminster Fuller

[From a friend's facebook wall]