All about the art


Today was all about the art in Venice, we are here for the biennale, after all. Well, that and the beautiful architecture of the city itself. We first went to the contemporary art show Prima Materia at the Punta della Dogana. The show itself held several very interesting pieces, but my absolute favorite was something not properly understood to be part of the show itself, and that was the spectacular renovation of the museum by Tadao Ando. The museum is a gorgeous zen masterpiece.  Several of the works in the show were really thought provoking, like those by Roman Opalka, or Loris Gréaud, which were two of my favorites.

We next attended an exhibit called When Attitudes Become Formwhich was an odd recreation of a 1969 exhibit from the Bern Kunsthalle inside an 18th century structure in Venice (Ca’ Corner della Regina). They went so far as to recreate the walls and floor of the Kunsthalle inside this building and mount the exhibit in this recreated space within a space. It made for an odd pastiche and I initially hated the concept (and I am still a little dubious about the pretension of the show), but came to find it pretty fascinating on several levels. For one, much of the art was stuff we had learned about in Architecture school many years ago, and here were recreations of these things in their “original” setting (at least in juxtaposition to each other). For another, much of the work was made in materials (such as fat) that would purposely decay and wash away with time, and these pieces were recreated for the exhibit. Thirdly, all of this “outsider” art is now insider art, and in the intervening years one can see both the influence of the work spread out through the culture, and the power (cultural and economic) of these outsiders, who are now almost without fail part of the establishment they were trying to overthrow. That very power is represented and made solid in the (partial) vanity of this recreation.

We next visited the Palazzo Grassi for the Rudolf Stingel exhibit, which I found almost wholly without merit and either a huge creative failing or just plain aimless and annoying masterbation by the artist. We also stopped at a couple of pavilions for the countries of Bosnia and Montenegro, the second of which I found to be really lovely spacial constructions.

By the end of the day I was pretty beat and came back to the apartment for a rest. We head to dinner at a thankfully close-by restaurant at 9…

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Tenement life


Today I went down to meet my cousin (who lives here), and my Aunt and Uncle (who are in town visiting) for a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. There are several tours that one can take, each depicting a particular group of people, their tenement and tour description of what their lives were like.  Our particular tour was focused on Jewish families living there and working in the garment district, which in its heyday was enormous. The tour was not only educational, but implicitly political, dealing with subjects such as the history of worker safety and sweatshops, unionization, immigration, and family life in the US and on the Lower East Side in particular. Our tour guide, Max, was excellent, posing interesting questions about our definitions of sweatshop conditions and the like. It is interesting that there is no simple objective way to say for sure if someone is working (or living) in horrible conditions, as it depends significantly on our own current standards for health, worker safety and exploitation. I was struck by how much many of the circumstances in the tenements mirrored conditions I had seen in India. Some labor practices seem to exist side by side with a certain level of economic development. It was abundantly obvious looking at these places why unionization was at one time such an important lever for improving working conditions in our society. I highly recommend the museum if you should come to New York. I am sure I will return to take another tour.

O mighty Isis


That’s right, my first real exposure to Isis was in a Saturday morning TV serial. As a kid, I used to love that show and it piqued a little interest in ancient Egyptian history and mythology. Plus, let’s face it, Isis was (as the gay boys say) fierce.

So today I decided to go see an exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Antropología entitled Isis y la Serpiente Emplumada. The exhibit attempts to link the worlds of Egyptian and Mayan mythology via two of their main characters, Isis and Quetzalcoatl. Although there are some similarities (especially with regard to the central place held by these deities in their respective cultures), it would seem that the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe (and her antecedent goddess, Tonantzin) would have been a more appropriate choice in comparison to Isis. The exhibit was absolutely enormous focusing mainly on the Egyptian artifacts (some of which were completely stunning) and not limiting itself to Isis, but also concentrating heavily on related deities such as Osiris, Horas and Seth (among others).

I was exposed to a few new things at the exhibit that were quite interesting. For one, I had no idea how much inter-cultural borrowing there was between ancient Macedonia, Greece, Rome and Egypt with regard to their dieties. There were a number of fascinating Greek and Roman representations of Isis, for example, and the exhibit talked about the cult of Isis taking hold as far away as England. There were also a number of formal objects in the collection I had never seen anything like before in Egyptian artifacts. Many cube shaped statues and carvings, as well as some incredibly detailed sarcophagi.

Overall, well worth seeing, even though this exhibit suffered from exactly the same problems I have previously noted in the other exhibits at the museum. Namely, bad English translations, scant or imprecise dating, and disorganized stroy telling.

A little Anthropology


Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología gets kudos from just about every corner. Every person I have ever spoken to about Mexico City puts it way up on their list of things to see. And they do have an amazing collection of items. Their Maya collection in particular is incredible. The experience of being confronted with the quality and art of the physical artifacts leaves one mouth agape at many points. There is far too much in this museum to be able to explore in one day, so I didn’t even try. After about 3 and a half hours, I left well enough alone for another day. It was a great experience. And yet… I do have a few complaints about the exhibits:

– At many points the artifacts are seriously lacking any specifics about where they came from. They are all grouped together in the same room with a giant label like “Pre-Classic Period 2800BC to 100AC”. In addition, they often have no label at all to identify them.

– Often it is not obvious which items are real and which are reproductions.

– Between exhibits, quality varies a lot. The Maya exhibit seemed the best by far to me.

– For a museum that strives to be international, the English translations are pretty lame and minimal.

– Clear time lines and relationships between cultures are thin. Greater emphasis on these would be a huge benefit. Graphics representing these would be most welcome.

Hm. Maybe I should become a museum curator or exhibit designer?

Honk if you think I’m sexy


With no more of a plan than meeting friends for a 6pm dinner at Freemans (highly recommended, btw. The food was the best I’ve had this trip.), I chose to head downtown and slowly meander my way from West Village to East Village, taking in the sites along the way.

Still having a couple of hours to kill before dinner, I decided to check out the New Museum, especially keen to explore their brand new building on Bowery and their much discussed new show “Unmonumental“. The building was beautiful from the outside and serviceable from the inside, but the show was pretty much dreck to my eyes. It was the visual and cultural equivalent of a stretched out one line joke.

As I was surveying objet d’art number 20 and wondering if I really could spend another hour in this place, I noticed a fairly handsome man looking at me. He approached and started asking me what I thought about the various pieces and we pretended to discuss them for a few minutes over the subtext of “shall we take this outside to coffee and perhaps a walk to your place later?” We made our introductions and continued onto a few more sculptures, making wisecracks about the artists’ intent or lack thereof. My new friend John became aware of the presence of another nice looking guy who seemed to be hanging on our conversation and laughing at some of our jokes about the art.

“Is he looking at you or me or both of us?” John asked, more to the room than to me.

The guy then approached and sort of introduced himself, and the three of us struck up a conversation. At this point I had no idea where this was all headed, but I knew I had a dinner to attend in about 50 minutes’ time around the corner. We all continued our blather about the lackluster art, but at some point I realized that I was having a hard time making out the words of our new friend. It wasn’t that he wasn’t speaking clearly, but that the meter of his sentences would change rather quickly and it seemed somewhat difficult to process without paying very close attention.

Still, we came to understand that he was a library science major from somewhere in the Midwest. He was also a pretty handsome guy and I have to admit to feeling a little unsure whether John was flirting with him or me or both. Then again, I was unsure of the same about myself. For some reason the conversation came to a rather odd pause, with the three of us just smiling and standing there for a few awkward moments. John then suggested we move on to the next piece, which we did.

And that is when it happened. As we crossed the gallery floor, I heard a loud “HONK!”

I turned around, unsure of what had happened or where it had come from. I turned back to continue another few steps when I heard another, equally loud HONK (although now, thinking back on it, it was really more of a SQUAWK). I then noticed our new friend kind of turning and bobbing a little, as if to avoid eye contact. And then I heard another SQUAWK. I realized with a slight horror that the noises were coming from our new friend. This clearly also made John uncomfortable, who wished the guy a nice day and then hurried us along to another part of the exhibit, muttering something about having sexually aroused the guy leading to his squawking.

As we walked away, I was feeling a little odd about the whole thing. We continued to hear loud squawks in the distance. I mean, this was a gallery type space, with people quietly milling about looking at and discussing the art in hushed tones, punctuated by these loud outbursts. I suddenly realized what was happening and although this entire sequence of events had transpired in little more than a few minutes, it should have occurred to me by the second or third squawk that our new friend had Tourette’s syndrome. I had in fact read about it in a book by Oliver Sacks just a few months ago.

John and I shared a brief tea in the downstairs coffee shop, exchanged numbers and said our goodbyes. I stayed on in the cafe and moments later I bumped into the guy again and we chatted for a few minutes. He started to apologize and explain and I waved my hand, telling him I understood what it was and said I was sorry if I seemed a little taken aback at first. He was a pretty handsome guy and I told him so. He returned the compliment and asked for my number, so I gave it to him. He then let out an especially loud SQUAWK, said goodbye and left. It is somewhat unlikely that we will see each other again, as both he and I are visitors to the city and leaving in a couple of days, but who knows? Life is full of strange serendipity.



One of the places I have always loved going in New York is the Museum of Modern Art. From the time I was a child and was brought here by my parents, to when I was an architecture student (mmmkaay, Scott?) living here in the late 80s, to my various visits back to the city, I always loved how MoMA would present an inspiring mix of ideas that cut across painting, sculpture, photography, video and design. MoMA for me has always been as Tiffany’s was to Holly Golightly: A place where nothing bad could happen to you. I hadn’t been back in probably 5 years and wandering around there for a few hours was pure pleasure. The new building pulls off that most difficult balancing act necessary for a museum: It manages to be both beautiful to look at in its own right and a place that doesn’t get in the way of displaying the work.