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4 Pieces of Modern Art and a Monkey

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By Andy Luttrell, Eastern Illinois

During my brief stint at art school, I felt like Jane Goodall. I spent time interacting with a strange species: artist. Artists are weird. Even though I have respect for them and what they create, I still get confused when I look at some "artwork." In a tribute to strange pieces of art that are hard to appreciate and seem like nothing more than the work of a wild animal, let's take a look at some crazy ideas that have been masquerading as art.


DISCLAIMER: I don't mean to imply that these should not be considered art. I'm just saying they're weird.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp "“ 1917

fountainIn 2004, five hundred British art experts decided that the most influential piece of art of all time was"¦a urinal. Notable French artist Marcel Duchamp purchased a standard Bedfordshire urinal, turned it on its side, and wrote: "R. Mutt 1917" on it. That year, he submitted the piece to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition.


Now, years later, art experts place it above the works of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Henri Matisse. I'll be honest, though; when I see a urinal, my first reaction is "Hey, I kind of have to pee," but a 1917 issue of the Dadaist publication, The Blind Man justifies the piece when it writes:


"Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view "“ created a new thought for that object."

Valley Curtain, Christo and Jeanne-Claude "“ 1970

valleyThis piece proves just how persistent artists can be in the executions of their crazy visions. What began as a simple idea turned into an expensive and frustrating ordeal. The idea was to hang a really big orange sheet in the mountains.


The 142,000 square foot curtain—that's 12,780 square meters to the artists (Christo having been born in Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude in Morocco)—was made of woven nylon fabric and hung gallantly between the mountains at Rifle Gap, seven miles north of Rifle, Colorado.


On August 10, 1972, thirty-five construction workers and sixty-four volunteers finished erecting the bright curtain. Just twenty-eight hours later, however, a forecast of a 60 mph gale storm forced the artists to take the curtain down. The culmination of twenty-eight months of effort (according to the artists) was a big orange curtain that hung in Colorado for a little while. It's no urinal, but at least it's exciting.

Today (series), On Kawara "“ 1966

todayOn Kawara is a Japanese conceptual artist living in New York City. Ever since 1966, Kawara has worked on a long series of paintings titled the Today series. The paintings consist of the date the piece was painted on, and that's it. If he does not finish the painting by midnight on that day, he destroys it.


Kawara stores each of these paintings in its own homemade cardboard box along with a newspaper clipping from that day. These date paintings have been created in more than 112 cities worldwide, and each painting reflects the language and calendar conventions of its respective country.


Another super-simple series that Kawara has taken part in is I Am Still Alive. In the 1970s, he sent a series of telegrams to friends and colleagues. Each telegram bore the same message: "I am still alive." Thank goodness.

Twelve Square Meters, Zhang Huan "“ 1994

Finally we branch into the area of performance art! Chinese artist Zhang Huan had a brilliant idea. In 1994, Huan sat naked on a toilet in Beijing's East Village art colony. Drenched in honey and fish oil, he exposed himself to swarms of flies and insects. Avant-garde photographer Rong Rong was taking pictures of the artist in the act until a villager walked onto the shoot and called the authorities.

This crazy idea has proved lucrative, however. According to an article for China Daily, photographs of the bug-covered Huan sell for more than $10,000 each. If I had a spare ten thousand bucks lying around, I'd definitely buy a picture of a naked Chinese man dripping with honey. The picture is maybe not safe for work, but if you're at home (or work at a really laid-back company), you can check it out here.

Examples of Huan's other works include getting nine people to strip naked on a mountain peak and lay on top of each other to reach a height of one meter (1995) and handing out live doves in New York City while wearing a body suit made of meat (2002).

Untitled, Pierre Brassau? "“ 1964

monkeyIf you've ever looked at a piece of art and thought, "a monkey could have made this," you might actually be onto something. In 1964, writers for the Göteborgs-Tidningen (a Swedish tabloid newspaper at the time) had a cunning plan to make a mockery of the art community. They took a 4 ½-year-old West African chimpanzee from Sweden's Boras zoo and gave him a brush and oil paints. The chimp painted all over the floor, his keeper, and a few canvases. An article for TIME notes that he even ate whole tubes of cobalt blue, a color featured prominently in his work"¦presumably because of its tart taste.


Claiming the paintings were made by an artist named Pierre Brassau, the hoaxers submitted the pieces to a gallery for exhibition. Monsieur Brassau found an enthusiastic audience. Art critic Rolf Anderberg said: "Pierre Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer." One of the paintings even sold for $90—that would be more than $600 in 2008 money.


Do you think you're smarter than Anderberg? See if you can differentiate monkey art from people art with this quiz.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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