Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Seventeen

Today I stayed home to make another attempt at washing. This time, things went well: the machine finished its cycle promptly after 90 minutes, there was no rain, and the sheets were dry after an hour in the sun. On a sunny day, there is something strangely pleasing about hanging laundry on a line, socks with socks, shirts alongside shirts, underpants marching neatly in a row with other underpants, and a certain satisfaction in knowing that the clothespin has fastened the cotton tightly to the line, so that it won't twist up or slide down.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Sixteen

Today I was sick and I didn't do anything. I sat on Graham's couch and let the snot come out of my nose. If you are going to be sick in Auckland, Graham's living room is a good place to be; the sun comes in through the bay windows, and there are shelves of books and seashells and hand-glazed pottery for your eyes to listlessly explore as you sip red bush tea on the red couch. It's very cozy.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fifteen

At brunch, we had seen an "apple and feijoa" smoothie on the menu. We asked our waitress, "What's feijoa?" but she could only tell us the obvious: a fruit—saying that it was rather particular and hard to describe. At night, Aldo went to the main house to pay our rent, and returned with two hands full of green, sweet smelling pods—tiny footballs with an umbilicus at one end, surrounded by a stiff crown of tiny leaves. Feijoa, from the tree in the garden, courtesy of our lovely hosts. He cut one in half and scooped out the inside with a spoon: pear and guava. Firm but yielding, aromatic and sweet, a delicately structured lattice infused with tropical juice.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Fourteen

Today we adventured to Whatipu (say FAH-ti-poo—the Maori "wh" is pronounced as an "f"), an expansive beach around the bend from Karekare. It's likely easier to reach Whatipu by foot, walking along Karekare's shore until they become Whatipu's, but ill-planning creatures that we are, we took the car, which meant driving all the way up and all the way back down and all around a mountain for 40 minutes, on a gravel road to boot. This should be considered my formal request that that road, and all roads, be paved. Was it worth it? I didn't personally find Whatipu as compelling as Karekare, although it was at Whatipu that we ran the 100 meter dash from the dunes to the shore and into the waves, stark naked, with no one there to see.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Thirteen

Today we went to the fish market, where you can pick out whatever whole, fresh fish you want and bring it to the chopping station, where they'll prepare it for your kitchen according to your orders. The man working the station wears white rubber galoshes, rubber gloves, and a white rubber apron. He scaled our snapper as tentatively as you might sand six coats of cracked paint off a banister, and after he'd gutted the thing, he used the side of his knife to swipe the pile of entrails to the floor. Then he pulled out a hose and flushed the inside of the creature clean, making a power-wash pass over the counter. All this was done in under ninety seconds, but I was transfixed.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Twelve

Tonight, we had mussels and Belgian beer at the pub. Kiwis are particularly proud of their mussels, which are bigger than the ones you get in the States, with green shells instead of black. The flesh ranges from a pale and pearly pinkish white to a creamy, almost lurid orange; they're chewy and taste a bit fishy. I generally find seafood to have a kind of celestial delicacy, but these mollusks are for mortal masticators.

Music: Massive Attack at the Vector Arena

I haven't been to a big show like this in a while, so found myself rather overwhelmed by the smoke and flashing lights and beer-swilling/spilling teeny-boppers pushing past me; I must be getting old. That said, Massive Attack put on a high-intensity show, considering they're even older than I am. They gave equal weight to their new album Heligoland and 1990s favorites like Teardrop, Angel, Safe From Harm, Unfinished Sympathy, and Karmacoma; the new songs are generally harder and more guitar-driven than the older dreamy grooves I prefer.

An enormous LED panel dominated the band's rotating cast of vocalists, and at times I wasn't sure whether the audience was cheering for the musicians or the light show. All Music Guide's first bullet point describes Massive Attack's mood as "druggy," so I suppose I should have been less offended by the textual accompaniment to their first song, in which the LED wall flashed name after name of recreational drug, flicking quickly through and then briefly pausing (ecstasy-cannabis-PCP-methamphetamines-HEROIN) as if an unlucky slot machine. The general remainder of LED accompaniment comprised the sort of pseudo-socially responsible headlines/hyper-leftist yellow journalism that is appealing to immature anti-establishment rockstars. I'm "anti-war" myself, but I don't think it's responsible to flash tidbits like "head in a bag" and "just doing our job" on the screen during a trip-hop show, at the beginning of which you've advertised the use of dangerous drugs whose cultivation and trade are deeply connected with the international violence and oppression you're criticizing. Nor is it just to compare the British PM's gardening expenses with the GDP of small African nations, unless you are also going to include for comparison the budget for your tour's LED set design. I will accept responsible political activism from an intelligent band like Radiohead, but couldn't help but feel like Massive Attack was clinging, in a very un-nuanced way, to Thom Yorke's coattails.

So long as I kept my eyes off the stage and on my dance partner, I enjoyed myself. Ultimately, my experience with Massive Attack is as a Tricky fan, so I was disappointed he didn't show (though the presence of Martina, whose voice I know from Tricky albums, totally made the show). When they ended the encore set with Karmacoma, even though I was dancing, I was itching to get home and listen to Overcome, Tricky's far superior version.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Eleven

Our hosts are out of town for a few days, and have asked us to feed the chickens in their absence. Because Aldo is generally busy cooking for me at chicken feeding times, I intended to take this duty for myself, even though I find the chickens to be nasty little things, and I loathe their beaks and claws. And so, I filled the little plastic box with three handfuls of pellets, two of corn, as instructed, and brought the box over to the trampoline, under which the chickens are fed. My aim was to pour the grain out into an upturned plastic garbage can lid, as instructed, but the feathered beasts were hungry, and had been stalking me since my stint at the feed bags. Smarter than I expected, they knew why I was there. They followed me, a horrible gurgling in their throats, their beaks and claws dangerously close to my bare legs and naked feet. I stepped away, but they followed. I suddenly realized that I was being chased around the yard by three chickens. "Chickens!" I shouted, "Learn to fear me!" But they did not. My only escape was to fling the feed out onto the ground, far from where I stood. They scurried to it, leaving me at last at ease.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books: The Picasso Papers, by Rosalind Krauss

I've never been fond of Picasso; a few of his early blue paintings are pleasing enough, and for a brief moment, when I was writing a short paper on Les Demoiselles d'Avingnon, I became somewhat infatuated with that painting. Similarly, when editing a friend's paper on Guernica, I looked long and hard enough at that picture to find myself attracted to parts of it. But, on the whole, Picasso, for me, is a cold, unfeeling artist, and a shape-shifter more out of necessity than innovation, as each of his so-called styles is really another failed experiment.

In fact, the only treatment of Picasso that I've ever found remotely compelling is from the children's cartoonAnimaniacs, in episode 45 of the first season, in which the three cat/dog siblings barge in on the morose artist in his studio, insisting on a game of Pictionary. Somewhat against his will, they begin to play, but his classical drawing of a guitar isn't recognizable to them. "That's not a guitar!" they whine petulantly; "That's a guitar!" and scribble up a cubist confusion of the stringed instrument. This goes on and on, until Picasso's dealer walks in them and finds the Animaniac's drawings. Mistaking them for Picasso's own, he determines that they are genius, and snatches them all up to hang in his gallery.

Aside from being terribly entertaining television (quite the oxymoron, if you know me), this scenario is brilliant in its comfortable acknowledgment that cubism is just some crazy, experimental bullshit. Enter Rosalind Krauss*, whose Picasso Papers examine only two periods of the artist's career: cubism and the pseudo-return to classical drawing (which she calls pastiche). Krauss' main thrust, though it takes some excavating to suss it out, appears to be that cubism was a genuine form of artistic expression, but the post-cubist return to classical drawing, a pattern of pastiche in which the artist made copies of figurative paintings and photographs in the style of the French neo-classicist portraitist Ingres, was fraudulent, a psychoanalytic reaction against the mechanization of art (brought about by the camera and popularized by Picabia) in which his hand nevertheless behaved mechanically. Krauss uses the unwieldy Freudian concept of "reaction-formation" to express this, adding to her academic stone soup a healthy dose of Andre Gide, including a lengthy expanse on his stories of gold coin counterfeiters, a dollop of Dostoevsky by way of Mikhail Bakhtin, a pinch each of Adorno and Derrida, and other various, unrelated references, just to spice things up.

What stands out, though, is not so much her insistence on academic name-dropping, for that is unfortunately standard issue in these sorts of texts, but her complete inability to understand the artistic process, the artist's creative mind, and the simple legibility of a work of art. Loathe to admit that a drawing could be anything so simple as a drawing—a doodle, a sketch, a study—she insists that every stroke made by Picasso is an intentioned stroke, which mode of thinking enables misreading after misreading (truly, over-reading) of collages and drawings which to me, being raised by an artist and knowing a few others, are very clearly just a mode of artistic play, experimentation, and questioning. Of course, Guernica is the product of years of studied work, not the spontaneous jouissance (to use one of the academy's favorite ridiculous words) of a genius, but these minor sketches and portraits, which Krauss studies as if they were made with an equal amount of intention, are actually no more than exercises, the fiddling around of a hand and mind idle between projects, and engaged in playful conversation with artists and intellectuals both contemporary and bygone.

I'm no fan of the generally backward views of The New Criterion, but in one of its old issues, Roger Kimball wrote a piece entitled "Feeling Sorry For Rosalind Krauss," in which he laments the academic's inability to truly see and thus feel works of art. Of another of her books, he writes, "Few books claiming to deal with art can be more optically unconscious than The Optical Unconscious." As I'm no where near as facile a writer as Kimbell, I will quote him again in wholehearted agreement: "Here is a woman who has devoted her professional life to art and ideas, but who clearly has no feeling for art, and for whom ideas are ghostly playthings utterly cut off from reality. . . Why, she must wonder, do other people seem to care so much about art and beauty when to her it is all an arid, narcissistic battleground? It is pathetic, really. Her writing and ideas are pernicious, but one cannot help feeling sorry for Rosalind Krauss."

*full disclosure: I took a graduate-level seminar with her at Columbia and she gave me the only C I've ever received in my life. If you think that means I have a bone to pick, and that my thoughts on her book are therefore biased, fine.

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Ten

Today I stayed home alone with the intent of doing some laundry, or as they call it here, washing. I had just put the first load into the machine (as per our hosts' instructions, on "quick wash") when I realized that there was no dryer, and I would have to use the clothesline out in the chicken yard, which looks something like a twirling television antenna, on a massive scale. The "quick wash" was still going after two hours, when I gave up and instigated a force quit. By now, the blue sky had been swept over with a tropical storm, so I had to hang the clothes indoors while the second load washed. By the end of that (another force quit, this time after only 30 minutes or so), the sun was out again, and I hung all the clothes outside. There weren't enough pins, and a stiff breeze kept blowing our shirts out into the piles of dried corn husk, where the chickens pecked at them with mild interest. Aldo came home and we went to the park, practicing line drills as the sun set. In the dark, the sky broke again, and the rain came, hard. We ran home, but not until after we had finished our drills. In the dark, in the rain, in the nude, Aldo stood under the swinging antenna, pulling down our soaked laundry, while six chicken eyes, and hopefully no neighbors' eyes, watched.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Nine

This evening, we took a jog out to the park where we usually do our stretches, but instead of stopping in the clear grassy field where teams practice their soccer and rugby, we did a bit of exploring, following a narrow path through some trees and over a few bumpy knolls. It was twilight already, and the path led us into an overgrown no-man's land, with dried grasses up to our knees. All that open space, right there in the middle of the city, was completely unused—even for recreation. In the dark, we could hear the horns of cars we couldn't see.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Eight

Today, we woke up at an absurd, dark hour (5:30 AM) to run to the park and practice qigong. The sky was a wide expanse of velvety darkness, punctured by the light of stars, smeared by a streak that Aldo told me was the milky way. We settled in front of the Maori meeting house, a low, long hall carved with the primitive facesbig of eye and tonguewe had seen on the Maori dancers at Polyfest this weekend. We found these demons, designed to intimidate, rather inviting, but when we later told our kiwi friend where we had been, he shuddered, and told us that we ought not have gone there.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Seven

Today I tried to drive. I am a good driver, but I am accustomed to driving on the right side of the street, and today, like all other New Zealand residents, I had to drive on the left side of the street. I have been carefully studying Aldo while he drives, noting that here, one must make tight left turns and wide right turns, but what I didn't realize until I sat in the driver's seat was how hard it is to tell how near the car is to the curb. I nearly sideswiped an entire row of parked cars, and after driving about ten minutes to our destination, I was too afraid to park, and so, I kept on driving. One way to practice doing something that scares you is to do it whilst avoiding doing something else that scares you even more.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Six

Today we drove out to Manukau City, on the southern fringes of Auckland, for Polyfest. The Polynesian teens here are super styled out and remind me a little of the thuggy gay boys you see in New York's West Village weekend nights: half rapper's delight, half skater punk, with hipster flourishes here and there. My favorite look, rather popular among the young men, was the knee-length wrap-around skirt of traditional fabric with a Christian school uniform shirt, blazer, and tie, Maori fish hook hanging out of the Windsor knot, and a Sonic the Hedgehog-style haircut. The missionaries, it seems, were quite successful in leaving their mark. Aldo and I were chastised by a security guard for dancing too suggestively "in front of the children," a pack of hormone-crazed teens who had, unbeknownst to me, been watching us and giggling.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Five

Today, we went to see Jim to ask him whether we can park our car by the empty flat when we're in town. He must be 80 or thereabouts; his house is older—one of the oldest in Aucklandand he gave us a tour. He didn't much want us to park our car by the empty flat, but he did show us the secret room behind the kitchen, where a spice rack is actually a cleverly masked Dutch door. The room was filled with half-finished canvasses, for Jim is a painter, and his art hangs all throughout the house. He caught me gazing at a Byzantine Madonna and Child he had on the wall by the stairs, and said, "Oh, but that's not a painting, of course," perhaps flustered that I preferred it to his own Fauvist oil mashings.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Four

Today, I went to work with Aldo; he shares an office with a number of PhD students who sit in their cubicles working in silence, and there's an empty cubicle next to his where I can sit with my laptop. I was typing away when the silence was broken by canned demonic laughter—the ringing of a mobile phone. I only recognized it as such because when Aldo's mobile rings, it's with the bubbling sounds of a child's laughter. I wonder whether these laughing ringtones are particular to New Zealand; I've never heard them anywhere else.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Three

We live in a nice little shack behind the house of a friendly family. In their backyard, they have a trampoline, a treehouse, and some chickens. Today, I came out of the bathroom, and there were two chickens standing in the middle of our living room. It was easy to make them go back outside, but they had left us two nice little chicken poops on the rug. This is why I am always saying, "Chickens, go back inside your chicken fence," even though Aldo tells me the fence is to keep chicken-eating-creatures out, not chickens in. But anyway, what good is a fence that keeps chicken-eating-creatures out, if the chickens are also out? Chickens, go back inside your chicken fence.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day Two

Today, while we were driving on the highway, we saw a man on a unicycle. He, too, was driving on the highway. Also, he was text-messaging. Aldo said, "That is a brave soul." I think the Kiwis are pretty opportunistic about extreme sporting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Postcards from New Zealand: Day One

Today, I drank a glass of champagne and then climbed a tree. This is the first time in my life I have climbed a tree. One would think that the first time a person climbs a tree, that person should not be old enough to drink champagne. But I am twenty-seven.

Books: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

I generally shun non-fiction, finding it tedious. It's not that I don't encounter tedium in fictitious works, which I nevertheless force myself to finish, but that non-fiction has a greater propensity to be tedious, as the writer of non-fiction generally prides him or herself on his or her knowledgerather than his or her abilities. Not so Michael Pollan. Generally, I would not presume to know on which points an author does or does not, personally, pride himself, but Pollan is a very generous—almost confessional—writer, and one who acknowledges that, at the outset of preparation for The Omnivore's Dilemma, he knew very little about the subject on which he would eventually become a novice-expert.

The book, titled after the fact that, as omnivores, we suffer from the mixed blessing of being able to choose what to eat, rather than, say, a koala, which will only ever eat eucalyptus leaves. If all the eucalyptus tress get some nasty fungus and die, so do all the koala bears; but if our wheat crop does poorly, we can eat corn, and if all of our crops do poorly, we can eat the meat of hunted animals, and if all the animals are dead, we can eat fruit that grows on trees.

Because we can choose what we eat, we get ourselves into quite a bit of trouble (diabetes, obesity, and heart disease only being the most obvious of those troubles). In an investigative exercise to better understand what we eat, Pollan decides to research the making of four different meals, following them from the growth of the grain through the mastication process. The first is a McDonald's dinner, eaten in the car; the next, an "organic" meal that comes mostly from items purchased at Whole Foods, which we learn are indeed technically organic, but not necessarily so whole. The third is a more truly "organic" meal—not de facto organic, but grown conscientiously at the radical Polyface Farms in Virginia and more spiritually "organic" than meal number two (for which the "organic" chicken is one that eats organic corn, but lives in the same size metal cage as a commercial chicken; Polyface chickens strut around in the grass, eating bugs, as chickens ought). Meal the fourth, the ultimate experiment, is one that is hunted (wild California boar) and gathered (wild morel mushrooms) by Pollan himself, with ample assistance from an Italian woodsman who knows the finer points of shooting, dressing, butchering, and curing a boar, and who makes his own wine to boot.

Ultimately, Pollan is a curious, intelligent, conscientious man who writes lucidly and spins a good yarn. And so, I would be willing to read about his forays into just about anything: map-making, symphonic minimalism, garbage collection. That said, there is an incredibly important story here, and I'm rather disturbed to see that this book, which was one of the New York Times' Best Books of 2006, didn't make more waves—that is, actually change anything. Pollan's descriptions of the factory farming of corn, soybeans, chicken, pork, and beef—the reliance on petroleum fertilizers, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, and the feeding of animal waste to animals, are literally disgusting. (Before the onset of mad cow disease in the U.S., beef cattle were being fed a mixture of corn and cow fat; now they're fed a mixture of corn and chicken parts. Need I remind you that cows are vegetarians, who eat grass? Without pharmaceutical aids, they cannot digest corn at all.) A friend of mine, who lent me the book, finished it and immediately became a vegetarian, but Pollan briefly discusses vegetarianism too, and acknowledges that meat-eating is not the problem. (One could eat meatless factory-farmed products only, and be just as sick as a factory-farmed omnivore.) Surprisingly, corn comes out the bogey-man, one propped up by the American government and big business lobbyists.

I'm in New Zealand right now, which is known for its quality, grass-fed meats, but there are an awful lot of McDonald's all over Auckland. I can't help but wonder whether they serve local, grass-fed beef, or whether their supply chain requires that they import sub-par corn-fed products from the states.

Movies: The Last King of Scotland

Continuing on the topic of Academy Award-winning performances during my trans-Pacific flight, Forest Whitaker provides an ideal counter-example to Sandra Bullock: here is a man who deserved his Best Actor award.

I didn't see The Last King of Scotland when it was out a few years ago, even though I'd heard it was fantastic, because it seemed rather violent, or news-y, or just not me. I wasn't quite as robust in the past (not that I really am all that robust now; I still had to cover my eyes at the end of the film), and shied away from any non-fictional displays of cruelty (ironic, isn't it, that we tend to find fictional, i.e. gratuitous, cruelty less disturbing?) But after four hours of fluff, I was ready for something serious to chew on.

Not that The Last King of Scotland is such a first-rate film; I actually think it's a rather small, thin thing, structured only as much as is necessary to give Whitaker room to play his role. Garrigan, the young Scottish doctor along with whom we become enchanted and then disturbed and then disillusioned with Amin, is actually quite a cad, who could be said to deserve the grotesque meat-hook treatment he receives at the film's climax. Amin is a madman, but there is truth in his accusations of the supposed hero's intentions: that he has come to Uganda not to give, but to take. I'm not so sorry to see him given a near-lethal dressing down.

Movies: The Blind Side

Watching the Academy Awards with friends, I was furious when Sandra Bullock won for Best Actress. I hadn't seen The Blind Side, but it didn't matter. How could the woman who had a year ago starred in the travesty called The Proposal suddenly be a serious enough actress to even be considered for an award? I so vociferously objected that I offended my friends who had seen and enjoyed the movie. And so, I was thrilled that Air New Zealand was offering me the opportunity to watch this movie while trapped in an economy seat, somewhere over the Pacific ocean, three hours into a fourteen hour flight, and judge for myself a performance that I wouldn't have been willing to watch under any other circumstance (it was on a trans-Pacific flight that I subjected myself to The Proposal as well, if that's of any significance).

Now that I've seen the film, I fully reserve my right to criticize not only Sandra Bullock (who musters a believable Southern accent, but faced no real challenge other than that in the role), but the entire project, a rags-to-riches fable that celebrates a rich white family for taking in a poor black teenager, and training him to become a pro-football star. True story; very nice.

I'll admit it's good to see Christianity presented responsibly (for our heroine mentions her prayer group, and when meeting her adopted son's crack-addicted mother, who says, "Well, ain't you a good Christian lady. . .", she responds, "Well, I try to be.") Though Christ's message demands a kind of radicalism even more extreme than our heroine's actions, given her community and her lifestyle, this is more than a tentative baby-step, and a horse pill for America's religious right to swallow. That said, for a more evolved audience*, the film is false, cloying, and has the feel of a made-for-tv movie on the Hallmark channel: good family values, tear-jerking moments, and an uplifting message (so long as you don't scrutinize it to carefully).

*Apologies for being such a self-righteous yankee, folks.

Movies: Sherlock Holmes

Truly, this is a dreadful movie, even to watch while on a 14-hour, trans-hemisphere flight. Why I chose, given the option of 78 movies on my personal screen, to watch this one is simple: the winning combination of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, which turned out to be surprisingly lacking in chemistry. One might blame the screenplay (preposterous, thin, and poorly scripted to boot), the direction (scene after scene so poorly lit one would be lucky to make out a face), or the attempt to mix action, mystery, period drama, literary reference, and star power all into one film, without properly giving room to any of them. Or, one can simply say, what a dreadful film; I'm glad I didn't pay $12 to see it (for I almost did), and move on with one's life, which is what I will do.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Art: William Kentridge: Five themes, at MoMA

An opening is rarely the best time to see a show; generally the crowds make the work physically inaccessible, and your sensorium is dulled by the free wine anyway. A short film retrospective, though, functions differently. The chattering revelers, who have come to see and be seen, would be forlorn in the dark rooms, filled with sound and flickering light, so they keep to the echoing loggia, crowding around the bar.

And so the benches are mostly free in room after room where all of William Kentridge's old films are playing. I've seen most of them before, and the ones I remember being my favorites (Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old and Felix in Exile ) still move me the most.

There are so many reasons why I love Kentridge's work, the primary perhaps being that I love it despite itself. It's not particularly seductive; I'm partial to clean lines, high production values, and pretty people. Kentridge works with charcoal drawings, occasionally adding a bit of blue to his black and white palette, and he creates moving images by photographing the literal palimpsest as he makes slight erasures and augmentations to lines, transforming each sheet hundreds of times, so that an eight minute film uses between 20-40 sheets of paper. This means that his films are swirling, murky things, where shadows trail each image and dim ghosts are left vibrating in the white spaces. Kentridge's cast of characters, too, are mottled and murky, aging, overweight, balding, naked. The blue chalk is usually used for water, cried as tears from his sorrowing characters' eyes, pouring from the faucet, filling rooms.

Why then, do these "ugly" animations move me? Certainly not because of their political intention; I generally loathe political art. Kentridge is South African, and the violent horrors of apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are omnipresent—pigs that explode, bodies that die and disappear behind blowing sheets of newspaper, long lines of refugees carrying their belongings on their backs. While I acknowledge the importance of international awareness, I generally request that my art edify, rather than notify, or, worse, horrify.

But there is something so incredibly human in Kentridge's work—he communicates our pain so tenderly, and discloses his own with such unabashed honesty. The diligent investment in his craft (he seems to be one of the few contemporary artists who actually, physically, makes his own work) is part of that honesty.

Without knowing how big the exhibition was, I over-invested my time in revisiting Kentridge's older films, leaving myself only a few minutes to watch the newer works installed in the further galleries, a number of which were installed together in one room (three pieces consisting of ten projections all together). These, which MoMA groups under the rubric of "Artist in the Studio" perhaps aren't strong enough to show on their own, but still detract from each other, and in them, Kentridge, the flesh-and-blood man, steps into the frame (he is present in the older films, but under the guise of charcoaled characters Felix Teitelbaum and Soho Eckstein). Whimsical and reminiscent of Dada films, these are more sullied by our contemporary moment, in which art is made about art and the artistic process, rather than about humans and the human condition. And so, perhaps it's for the best that I spent all of my time firmly lodged in the early 1990s, when Felix cried blue tears, filling the room with his sorrow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Art: The Armory Show

For me, the Armory show is a necessary evil. Everyone will be talking about it, so I have no choice but to go, and to see everything, and to do so quite attentively, so that I will be able to engage in the city-wide conversation the week afterward. And yet, for me at least, the Armory Show feels like a combination of the most gruesome things: a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving, the velvet rope in front of the nightclub of the moment, and the ramp that cattle walk before they are unknowingly slaughtered. There are crowds, it is hot, and there is a sense of blind urgency. Flashy things—neon lights, broken mirrors, drawings of genitalia (male and female)—are hung on every wall to delight or distract (depending on whether you are more in the mood for shopping, swinging, or dying an unpleasant but quick death).

This year, I'm not sure whether the show changed, or I did, for there was a want of urgency. As always, there was an overabundance of neon (as if Bruce Nauman had alighted upon a new medium, rather than just creating a one-off amusement), myriad broken looking glasses (self-loving solipsists that we are, we tend to gravitate toward art in which we can see ourselves, and if we see ourselves fractured and distorted, we feel all the more "honest" for it), and wall after wall of unaffecting photographs.

I had my usual chuckle at the well-styled gallerists munching their festival vendor panini, selling art by artists who outsource their production (Customer: "Does the artist actually know how to draw at all?" Gallerist*: "Hmm. . . I am not sure. . . But of course, it does not matter, right?")

*French accent

But, I managed to see two things of interest. One was Grayson Perry's Walthamstow Tapestry, ironically one such outsourced work. Perry designed and drew the scene, but the fabric itself was woven by a computerized loom in Belgium (another of his tapestries, Vote Alan Measles for God, was sewn by workers in a Chinese factory, via a high-end rug company in London. Given the tapestry's overtly anti-consumerist thrust, I cannot help but find this lack of consistency rather disappointing).

The other, more ideologically integrated work that I managed to latch onto was a 22 minute video by Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck. Called Staging Silence, this black and white video with its magical laboratory soundtrack offers a number of blank stages into which hands insert tiny objects, one by one, creating a scaled spaces (a waiting room, an office interior, a country estate complete with working fountain, a forest, a theatre with proscenium arch), and then taking them apart. It was rather serendipitous that I decided to stick my nose around the dark corner where this film was playing, because it was easily missed, but also easily the best work of art on view.

Ultimately, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling, walking through the show, that I was unable to discern art from non-art. Having recently seen Tino Sehgal’s show at the Guggenheim, I had this insistent itch to walk up to people and say, “Excuse me, but are you a piece by Tino Sehgal?” Oddly, whether or not they were, this would be my own performance art, although I don’t consider myself an artist (being too inhibited to actually speak to anyone).

Sehgal-struckness aside, the work versus non-work question presented real challenges for me. The broken neon leaning on the floor against the wall, shattered glass all around it: a statement that Bruce Nauman is dead, or a mere accident that hasn’t been cleaned up yet? The Acura SUV on display, complete with attractive saleswoman in short, tight dress: a opportunistic attempt to entrance a captive, wealthy audience already primed to spend thousands of dollars, or brute commentary implying that art fairs these days are as blatantly middle-brow consumerist as Japanese luxury car lots? The black man with dreadlocks to his waist pushing a trashcan around on wheels: sanitation worker, or statement about the minority man’s role in the art world? I followed him around for quite some time, trying to decide, and trying to snag a photograph, but like the meaning of art these days, he was surprisingly elusive.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Books: Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding

I'm developing quite a taste for the proto-postmodern, when properly done (it seems I wasn't such a fan of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, but then Joseph Andrews is less than half its length). I call the picaresque Joseph Andrews proto-postmodern not because of its structure, which is rather linear, or because of its language, which is also rather straight-forward, but because of its intertextuality. A gentle farce in the style of Don Quixote (which I also found rather disappointing when I read it a few years ago), Joseph Andrews is actually more closely intertwined with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, an epistolary novel written only two years prior.

Pamela is the story of Pamela Andrews, a country girl who goes to work at the estate of Mr. B—, who, taken by her beauty, makes constant advances upon her. Pamela's letters home are long, breathy accounts of how she protects her chastity at all costs, though she nearly loses it again and again. Ultimately, moved by her virtue (or perhaps stymied by her intractability), Mr. B— marries the girl, and makes her a gentlewoman.

Joseph Andrews is, of course, Pamela Andrews' brother, who serves Mr. B—'s aunt as a footman. Fielding isn't so decorous as Richardson, so he unmasks the family's name: Booby. Lady Booby has just become a widow at the novel's outset, and turns her amorous eye on Andrew. But, because he is as virtuous as his sister, and in fact in love with the lovely, illiterate maid Fannie, with whom he has grown up, he politely rebuffs Lady Booby's advances (which are proffered from her bed, her collarbones bare to him). For this, while in London, the Lady ejects him from her service (after an amusing exchange with her head servant, Madam Slipslop, who happens to also have an appetite for Joseph, who is straight of back and full of lip, with curling brown ringlets and innocent, wide eyes). Joseph then takes to the road back to the country, to find Fannie and a new position.

Encountering his salty friend, the parson Mr. Adams, who had been on his way to London to sell manuscripts of his sermons, and eventually Fannie as well, the three wander through the countryside, generally penniless due to unfortunate circumstances, encountering bandits, hunters, and innkeepers both cruel and kind. The chastity of both Joseph and Fannie are constantly at risk, not at each other's hands, though they do gaze at each other quite amorously, but at the hands of a lusty countryside. Ultimately, their love prevails, though a climactic revelation of masked identities (involving gypsies exchanging infants in the cradle) for a moment fills everyone—character and reader alike—with fear that Joseph and Fannie are actually brother and sister (they are not—but instead Pamela and Fannie are sisters, and Joseph the lost-and-found son of one kind soul met earlier on the road).

Fielding has a keen sense of humor, and though he is never vitriolic, his commentary—on wealth, politics, and Christian morality, is quite cutting. All the while, his tone remains smart and jaunty, far superior to the affected moral pretense of Richardson's. This is literary riposte at its earliest and best.

Books: Eros & Pathos: Shades of Love and Suffering, by Aldo Carotenuto

Carotenuto, an Italian psychoanalyst, attempts to answer such timeless human questions as Why are we lonely?; Why are we jealous?; and Why do we fall in love? in this slim volume. These questions (and their answers) are of such an intangible nature that his selections of poetry, which punctuate each chapter's beginning and end, often tell us more than his own words (indeed, Carotenuto may be a better editor of poetry than psychoanalyst). That said, even attempting to address these questions is a rather brave venture, and there are moments at which he does indeed provide insight.

Unfortunately, these are more than matched by the moments in which he seems to be drowning in suffering himself. Carotenuto (whose name, incidentally, means "tenderly held") has a surprisingly grim outlook, likely stemming from his overexposure to the faulty field of psychoanalysis, which overemphasizes the role of the intellect in the well-being of the heart. Having been in love, and being in love, I can guarantee that I've never desired the death of the love object, as he suggests the lover must, nor have I experienced any veritable sacrifice of self, which sacrifice he uses, in part, to define that nebulous state of love. Such notions must derive from Freudian absurdity, in which violence and love bear each other's seeds. But the co-dependence of these concepts diagnoses poor emotional health in the writer, rather than providing any insight to his readers.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Movies: A Single Man

Tom Ford is undoubtedly one of the best fashion designers of our time, perhaps of all times. What he did for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche ten years ago was revelatory. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for his directorial debut. What he has done for film is surprisingly tedious and indulgent. Or perhaps not so surprising, for what is high fashion if not indulgent, and what is a feature-length commercial for fine wool if not tedious?

For that is what this movie is: a feature-length advertisement (I could say indulgence, but I will be crude and say advertisement) for fine men's fashion, accessories, and housewares. Buried behind the fabric there is something of a story of lost love—gay love, it is key to acknowledge—but whatever might have moved us has been styled into something so trite that we feel little empathy for our stuffy, British, gay Colin Firth, aptly called George as all Englishmen not called Colin must be called.

George lives his last day in his Architectural Digest home (its minimalist, eco-extravagance explained in a throwaway line about Jim, his lost lover, having been an architect), having flashbacks of his carefree lover. As I've lamented here before (incidentally, another gay tale*), structuring a film through flashback often leads to the sensation that we are watching a series of lifestyle commercials, rather than a coherent, meaningful film. Jim, a character with little more interior than an Abercrombie & Fitch model (who, in fact, seems to be modeled on the gay fantasy of the straight Abercrombie boy). George, conversely, has stepped out of the pages of an Ishiguro novel, with his fastidious suits, crisply folded papers, and sharp linens; never as comfortable with his homosexuality as Jim was, George has long ago slept with a woman (his dear friend Charley, a besotted Julianne Moore), and cannot get over his dead partner by simply going to bed with the Spanish James Dean he meets in the liquor store parking lot.

But the film's ultimate resolution, in which it is in fact another young man's interest that rekindles George's will to live (that of one of his doe-eyed students), ensures us that his grief isn't incurable. How lucky that he was too concerned about the spotlessness of his bedclothes to actually shoot the swallowed gun-barrel at the film's extended anti-climax. But, how unlucky that, waking in the morning hungover from too much Scotch, he dies of a sudden heart attack.

Ford takes not only directorial and production credits, but also shares writing credits with David Scearce, someone else who has never written a movie. That's a lot of responsibility for a filmmaker. Greats like Woody Allen and the Coens do this regularly, but Ford is unseasoned. Indeed, his film is beautifully art-directed and shot, but that, combined with its episodic structure, and lack of any real depth, prevents it from being anything more than a living, breathing fashion editorial. Ford could easily cull 60- and 90-second sections of the film as television spots for his new men's line, and perhaps that was just his intention.

*Allow me to clarify: I do love a gay love story, from the American cowboys in Brokeback Mountain to the impossible relationship between an Israeli and a Palestinian in The Bubble. I hate going to the ballet because the celebrated couples are so tediously hetero-normative (how I long for Gay Swan Lake!). What I find so disappointing about Ford's film is that it wastes an opportunity. Its attention to surface at the expense of depth reinforces detrimental stereotypes about an entire subculture struggling for equality and acceptance. Not only is Ford a bad filmmaker, he is a bad gay.

Theater: Measure for Measure

While I was quite the Shakespeare aficionado in middle school, playing such grand roles as Tranio (The Taming of the Shrew), King Claudius (Hamlet), and Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, duh) at the ages of 10, 13, and 11 respectively (can an 11 year old girl at all understand Lady Macbeth? I do believe I did), my appreciation for the bard fell off as I grew older. In high school, I was assigned Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and King Lear (one each year except junior year, which focused solely on American literature, giving a much enjoyed respite from all things crusty and opaque). In college, as an English major, I had one required Shakespeare course. For this, I had to purchase a hardcover tome resembling the old family dictionary—with crackling sheets of nearly translucent 8.5x11 paper, printed in two columns of 10 point text single-spaced—which contained every last of the storied playwright's works. We didn't read them all, but bulldozed through a good number of them, getting particularly bogged down in the Richards (which I'm certain nobody enjoys).

In all that time, though, I'd never come across Measure for Measure, so knew nothing about it when I sat down at the Duke Theatre for a Broadway production directed by Arin Arbus. I thought perhaps it was a tragedy. Please do not shudder at my ignorance. Expectations bind us, so that we cannot fully experience art; the bard's first audiences didn't know what to expect when sitting down for Measure for Measure, so why should I?

This is actually one of his best plots, filled with intricate twists enabled by one of his favorite devices: the masked identity. In the briefest sketch, the Duke of Vienna, displeased by the state of morals in his city, announces a trip abroad, leaving his deputy Angelo in full control. Rather than departing, though, the Duke merely takes on the disguise of a friar, enabling him to mingle with his people in the streets. Quickly, perhaps because the power has gone to his head, or perhaps simply because he's over concerned by the letter of the law, Angleo has a citizen—Claudio—arrested, for he has gotten his fiance with child and they are not yet married (though it is only by a technicality). Further, he has sentenced Angelo to death by beheading the next morning. Claudio's sister Isabella, so morally upright and chaste that she is about to enter a nunnery when we first meet her, is overcome with grief, and approaches Angelo on her brother's behalf. The deputy, either enamored of her beauty or intrigued by her chastity, offers to free her brother on the condition that she spend a night with him. While she laments her brother's certain death (for what brother would ask his sister to sacrifice her chastity for his life?!), the Duke-friar appears and suggests a plan involving another masked identity: Mariana, a woman who was once engaged to Angelo, whom he abandoned when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, but who still loves him, should go to Angelo in the night under the guise of Isabella. Mariana agrees, but after their tryst in the middle of the dark night, though Angelo detects no foul play, he sends an order to the prison, demanding not only that Claudio be killed immediately, but that his head be delivered to him as proof. Luckily, the friar intervenes again, and a convenient death from illness in the prison that night provides an alternative head for Angelo's bloodlust. Soon, the Duke is ready to reveal himself, and in the final Act, all is restored to right. Angelo is unmasked as a cruel and unfit leader, and is made to marry Mariana. Claudio is revealed to be alive (for the Duke cruelly let Isabella think him dead in order for his plan to unfold more dramatically), and is at last able to marry his betrothed. Even the town player (for lack of a better term), who fathered a bastard by a whore nearly two years past, is forced to marry the woman and take ownership of the child. In the final moments, the Duke asks for Isabella's hand (in a comedy, no major character can go unmarried in the end), though she is quite surprised by this, and never agrees to marry him before the play is finished. That said, what 16th century gentlewoman can say no to a Duke and get away with it?

Arbus' staging is not quite as contemporized as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for the screen, of which I have fond high school memories, but neither is it a traditional, high Elizabethan affair of the Branagh school. The Duke and his deputies wear gray suits and ties, giving them a bit of a Law and Order air in the opening act. The whores wear what whores (literal and figurative) wear today: fishnets and fmbs and sequined mini-dresses. Isabella wears a narrow ankle-length skirt and high-collared white blouse with her hair in a bun, looking very much like a protestant school mistress in some undefined era—the amount of skin showing implies the Victorian (which suits her ethics), but the cuts are of the pre-war 1940s, and the fabrics clearly contemporary. And so, the stage is something of a Banana Republic-meets-Bebe affair, which doesn't jive all that well with the Elizabethan language. Costuming aside, Arbus' work is fine; the quality of the production comes organically from the quality of the script, bubbling up through the quality of the actors, who handle it very comfortably, playing easily with the language and timing themselves perfectly (for this is play that depends on banter and interjections).

The only real problem with pulling the text out of its historical context is that Isabella's character becomes far less sympathetic. In 16th century England, doubtless, it would be a cruel brother who would ask that his sister sacrifice her maidenhead to save his life (in fact, typically a brother would risk his life to save his sister's honor). But in 21st century New York, where strangers meet, exchange fluids, and part within a 24 hour span (or less!), never to see each other again or even recall the experience, Isabella seems awfully selfish; what is one sexual experience, even if it is one that one doesn't want to have, weighed against a family member's life? And so, Isabella, rather than echoing the wise and beautiful Portia (The Merchant of Venice, another legal drama that hinges on a woman's wisdom), appears naive, prudish, and spoiled.

But pulling away from Arbus' staging and observing Isabella's plight in the text alone, one can't help pitying the poor girl—she is the plaything of Angelo, cruelty incarnate, but equally of the "benevolent" Duke, whose ultimate designs on her aren't much different from his deputy's. Both are intrigued by her chastity, and if one seeks to possess it and the other to simply destroy it, neither acknowledges the girl's own true desire: to preserve it and enter a nunnery. A truly provocative production would double Shakespeare's own doubles, highlighting the lurking similarities between Angelo and the Duke.