One of my great adventures as a 10-year-old was at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was the last of a grand tradition of international expos dating back well over a century, including iconic moments such as the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, or the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Eleven million people came to the event in Knoxville. There, I saw a giant Rubik’s Cube from Hungary, ate my first Belgian waffle, smelled my first (and last) whiff of moonshine and touched a piece of the Great Wall of China. The Coca-Cola Company even introduced its new brand of Cherry Coke at this Fair.
I went with my aunt and uncle in June 1982, and we saw tons of novelties — somehow I remember a Peruvian skull with pink teeth — and we also saw several shows. The Tennessee State Amphitheater featured a musical program called “Sing Tennessee,” with actors portraying such local heroes as Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. The crowd went wild over the last guy, thinking he was the man who invented polka dots. I learned later he had been a president. Federal Express also had a show at the Fair, and the theme was “Up with People.” It was very inspirational, and I’ve felt better about people ever since.
In the Japanese Pavilion, we watched a technological wonder: a robotic arm that could actually paint. If you waited in line for a couple of hours, you could choose from one of several pictures, and this robot would paint it for you. The images were very simple — a smiling sun, for example — but still impressive for 1982. I waited for a while until I realized that “Dogs Playing Poker” was not one of the options. So, I went and had another waffle and Cherry Coke.
I thought of this mechanical Japanese artist the other day when I heard on the news that a panda bear named Yang Yang is getting into the act. From her studio cage at a zoo in Vienna, Austria, Yang Yang has become an internationally famous painter. Her keepers hand her a brush full of black ink, which she languidly smears across pieces of white paper held in front of her. I’m told Salvador Dali used a similar technique in his later years.
Anyway, the end result of these instant masterpieces may have the average person scratching his head to make sense of the smudges, but that won’t stop connoisseurs from buying the paintings, which are being sold to raise money for a book to be published about the zoo. I think the working title is “Up with Pandas.”
As you can imagine, every news station is running a heart-warming piece about Yang Yang, who is happily fed a bushel of carrots and sweet potatoes after she finishes each painting. I don’t blame her. I would paint a whole landscape for an Oreo Double Stuf Cookie.
We know where this is headed. Soon Yang Yang will have a gallery showing in New York, where people with black fingernail polish will gush over the boldness of her strokes and will hail her as a new voice in protest art.
The Vienna Zoo is set to clean up on this new wave of organic handiwork. Just think of all those pieces of paper lining birdcages at the zoo that are thrown away every day. Who knows what incredible kaleidoscopes of color are thoughtlessly discarded at every shift change?
What’s next for Yang Yang? She is one ambitious panda. A reporter caught up with her between painting sessions, as she lounged in her steel-lined studio in a beret, munching on a raw sweet potato and sipping Kombucha tea. When asked about her plans, she lowered her sunglasses and said, “I want to direct.”
It’s about time. I’ve long thought the “Kung Fu Panda” movie franchise has lacked a certain authenticity, and Yang Yang is just the visionary artist to bring it back. The film editor may struggle to figure out her hand-painted storyboards, but such is the price we pay for art.