We saw a truly wonderful show of paper lantern sculptures at the Canadian National Exhibition this year – and they did a fantastic job of being broadly international in their themes – without ever being jerks about it.

A very nice example of the distinction between multicultural tribute, and expropriation (more about the political side of that question, in a later post).

Simurgh (top photo)

Along with my literary Persian chums, I also have a few western friends who, like me, truly adore Attar’s “The conference of the birds” – a Sufi classic which was hugely influential for the development of western literature (Chaucer lifted from it, without ever understanding it’s allegorical depth, for his own “Parliament of Fowles”).

Surprisingly, for such an ancient text, it’s structure remains shockingly modern, in exciting ways. (Documented history, myth, allegory and first person narrative all blended artfully, to have a sum-is-far-greater effect).

Also worth noting, it’s one of those great texts with a wide variance between translations. I have three different versions myself, and found the Penguin rather hard-going. Of course, when I remembered that the used Shamballa edition I have was pressed upon me by a very nice stranger with whom I was having a fantastic philosophical conversation at Bathurst and Bloor as a young man, decades ago, I turned back to it instead – sure enough – golden!

Probably ought to have taken the hint and read it at the time. (Or did he somehow know that I’d really need it’s unique stimulus in a decade or two, and made sure I’d have it ready, for that reason?). ;o)


After the rendering of the CNE’s own ‘Prince’s gates’ in lantern form, which I featured on an earlier post – this life-sized depiction of Marco Polo’s journey was the first large display presented, a nice way to open with the idea of the long history of interchange and cross–pollination between cultures.

Also an opening promise that scale did not scare these artists one bit!

Green Dragon

The dragons, of which there were several, were all absolutely spectacular – animated, too – in this dragon’s case swinging his head back and forth, and opening and closing his jaws, independently.

Fierce, beautiful, wonderful.

Right down monoclops lane

Yes I know this monster is more properly called a cyclops, but Catherine and I have a long running joke about the monoclops, so I can’t help myself. This diorama actually showed the whole Argonaut (ship) with Jason at the wheel, sirens abounding, and presumably – trouble not far behind.

But I thought these giants were particularly spectacular – great creativity with form, to give them such brutish mass, despite their actual near-weightlessness.

Classic Greek mythology showed up several times in the show – Atlas, Pegasus, and the Minotaur – startling you, right at the end of a maze! – in especially dramatic forms.

If Jack helped you off a beanstalk…

Here’s another piece that did really cool things with scale – and I love the stylization of nose, ears and moustache – the all-terrifying bird face giant!

They did a fantastic job of Hansel and Gretel and the Goose who laid the golden eggs, also. Funny how certain creative moments continue to resonate particularly well, across cultures. Even where anthologizing from older tales, Hans Christian Anderson’s distillation remains incredibly powerful stuff.

Maybe I should polish things more often

Of course – the influence of tales from ‘the thousand and one nights’ is no less broad and enduring. Burton’s translation was a Victorian publishing hit, and even the money-mouse has been unable to denature the power of the underlying stories.

To me, Aladdin seems properly awed here. I rather like the peevish looking genie, too (hauteur really was a prized virtue of the cultured – ask Yaya the Barmecid)

How the Zebra got his stripes

It was not clear to me whether they were referencing Kipling’s just-so stories, or going for an older version still – but I loved this display for the mischievous expressions on both the Zebra-in-creation, and also the clever rabbit with the paintbrush – which moved up and down in nice steady brush-strokes, the whole time, as they (one sensed) giggled about it together.

A couple of smart asses, for sure

The animal-centric part of the show was huge, and I realized something curious while savouring the sculptures and thinking about very old stories.

The whole world comes together, when it comes to stories about animals, and meanings that can be drawn from them. Sometimes the very same characteristic behaviour is even taken to represent two different things.

“Stubborn like a mule” in the Western context can mean reluctant to be made to work. Whereas stubborn like an ass in the context of Islamic history, has indicated the strength required to not be moved away from purpose.

Tyger Tyger

The pose of this particular beast was one of the best in the entire show – absolutely action-packed, focussed, and utterly beautiful also.

Curious, how animals from very far away, can still have such deep old roots in our stories.

Kipling is so complicated to untangle that he really ought to be turned into a drinking game (unquestionably brilliant, but also wildly misrepresented by both detractors and boosters).

But William Blake’s is an especially clear example of a unique and particular artistic voice, which definitely added lasting magic, wherever it found fuel. Like Picasso, there is a sense of collaboration in everything we see – a dance between the untethered ecstatic genius, and the great wellspring source of narrative and meaning.

The interesting current culture debate around questions of tribute, study, range, compassion and expropriation might well be usefully explored sometimes from such a vantage. Remembering that while worst depths must always be considered, so too best heights and syntheses must be allowed-for in our design.

Which is not at all to suggest that one can’t enjoy a perfectly excellent Tiger without ever hearing a word about any of Blake’s contributions, but if you wish access to a Tyger, my friend…

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