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New Orders

June 24, 2013

Ponte City & The Shifting Meanings of The Built Environment

In a piece posted in the new and sleek Turn On Art, I look at two works at the current ICP Triennial that explore the  human instinct to impose meaning on the built environment. In those works,  the artists played with perceptions of the city of Jerusalem — a place especially vulnerable to personal projections and shifting political realities.

Another series at the Triennial, titled “Ponte City,” does something similar. In three glowing light boxes measuring  152.4 x 50.2 inches each, “Ponte City” presents several reconfigurations of this iconic apartment building in Johannesburg. Built in 1976, in a society that worked quite hard to engineer its way toward a certain order (ICP recently held an exhaustive exhibit about photography during and after apartheid, which I wrote about here), this colossal construction of a 54-story luxury apartment building in the middle of Johannesburg could hardly withstand the aspirational projections of its architects. Like King Hussein’s unfinished palace in East Jerusalem, the grandiose plans of those in power quickly fell prey to political forces – facts on the ground competing.

SUBOTZKY_Windows - Ponte City 1

Originally built for a central Johannesburg community that was white and well off, Ponte City saw its intended residents flee to the suburbs with the end of apartheid in 1994. In 2007, developers tried to recast their aspirations once again, this time attempting to lure middle class black professionals. But the project faltered, and after going bankrupt a year later, Ponte City was left to deteriorate, in many places still unfinished, unpainted, and partially occupied.

Between 2008 and 2010, South African Magnum photographer Mikhael Subotzky, known for his gritty prison projects (such as Beaufort West about Beaufort West Prison 2006-2008, and The Four Corners 2004, about the inmates of Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison where Nelson Mandella was incarcerated), and English artist Patrick Warehouse, set about to photograph every window, internal door, and television in Ponte City. The resulting three panels echo the scale of the building, and are thematically organized by television/window/door. They are a sort of excavation of an ongoing  reality —  uncovering the results of the past rather than the past itself, exposing how the building has resisted any one meaning from taking root.

Political and economic booms and busts have littered the landscape with monuments to often delusional aspirations. Along with visual testimonials such as those at ICP, several fictional and nonfictional works have provided especially poignant, and often quite tragic, investigations of what these developers leave behind once their funding has dried up. Tana French, the Irish writer known for her page-turning mysteries, has actually provided one of the best of these in Broken Harbor, a murder-mystery set in one of Ireland’s many ghost estates that sprang up during the boom and now serve only as haunting reminders of so much folly. And in his piece on Venezuela, Jon Lee Anderson writes about the failed city of Caracas by way of the Tower of David, the world’s tallest slum, originally intended as Venezuela’s answer to Wall St.

It is possible to raze bad ideas sometimes.  But it is near impossible to foretell a building’s future, its place in society and whom it will ultimately serve.  You can only will so much reality by building it.

New Motor City

October 12, 2012

Will The Real Detroit Please Stand Up?

(In a recent piece for The Economist, I highlighted two new works that examine Detroit’s past, present and future. But Detroit’s problems are so complex, and the solutions so hard to see or understand, and I wanted to explore further. Here is a much longer version of that article, published here with the permission of The Economist).

 

CLINT EASTWOOD’S baffling conversation with an empty chair at the recent Republican Convention was not the first time this year that the aging actor stepped into the political spotlight. In the now famous Super Bowl  commercial for Chrysler, Eastwood declares, “It’s Halftime in America.” He tells us, “How do we come from behind? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.”

Detroit seems to represent many things to many people, often in hyperbolic terms —  the death of America’s indutrial might, the worst kind of urban blight, intractable racial tension. But also the future of America, the future of cities, the future of the post-industrial world. That’s a lot to project onto one city.

A (Very) Brief History

Most people immediately associate Detroit’s downfall with the 1967 race riots that left the city burning and brought in the National Guard in tanks. However, its demise began long before, bred, in many ways, by the very conditions that made it the world’s fastest growing city in 1930.  Henry Ford’s famous innovations and assembly lines in massive factories led to the quick profileration of other giant auto plants and related industries. The demand for mostly unskilled labor skyrocketed and presented a chance for the regular working man to finally make a decent wage and enter the middle class.  Diego Rivera and other fellow travelers visited the factories in Detroit and spoke praises of a new workers’ paradise. (You can take a look at Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle here).

Along with immigrants and white Southerners, this promise of a good life appealed to so many Southern blacks who had been languishing in often dire poverty. The mass migration North began, into a city that was neither prepared to house all its new citizens nor to address the  friction between the races and obvious racial inequities in hiring practices. The failure to effectively address these issues exacerbated already simmering racial tensions that only “resolved” themselves in the eventual white flight from the city and into the neighboring suburbs, taking most of the tax-base with it. Powerful unions that kept the working middle class thriving kept the lid on the pressure cooker for a while longer. But bad policy and racial politics, combined with a one-industry town manned by  mostly unskilled labor, left Detroit woefully unprepared for globalization and American auto fading.  It was a perfect and deadly storm. The world’s once most modern city suddenly seemed a crucible for the worst racial and economic issues plaguing America.  Today, a city once bursting at the seams, has lost half its population, leaving so much of it (40 square miles out of 149) abandoned, slowly being reclaimed by the Midwestern prairie from which it sprang.

Ford Assembly Line

“Saving” Detroit

The effort to “save” Detroit and what remains of the American auto industry has played a prominent role in the political landscape the last few years and certainly  in the upcoming presidential election.  To let Detroit and Big Auto fail would seem too strong a statement about the still precarious economic recovery. Obama’s decision to bail out the big three auto makers in 2009 is a major part of his economic recovery platform. As he boasted at the Democratic National Convention, “Osama is dead, Detroit is not.” Mitt Romney, on the other hand, famously stated in a 2008 New York Times Op-Ed that Detroit should be allowed to go bankrupt.

Along with major government intervention in Detroit’s fate, a serious grassroots movement of artists,  young entrepeneurs, urban planners and urban farmers has taken root in the city over the last few years. The cheap rent, empty arable land and the fading glory of a once grand city, has attracted a consistent and growing number of young people who very genuinely see the city as the new Brooklyn or Berlin, full of creative possibilities. It has attracted big names as well – Matthew Barney produced a major performance piece there that brought in big players in the art world;  David Byrne apparently likes to bike around the city; and  developer Tony Goldman, who famously revived Miami’s South Beach and New York’s Soho, visited and saw great potential.  Much has been written about new and trendy Detroit– a 2011 article in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times about the new (mostly white) hipster class, was titled,  “Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscle. “

A more serious examination of these two competing narratives – Detroit as beyond salvation and Detroit as the future of post-industrial America – has been sorely needed. Two recent , excellent, works take on this task, and mostly succeed. “Detropia,” a documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, looks at the personal, political and phsyical landscape of the city. Mark Binelli’s book, “Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis,” explores these themes in full, alternating between hard tragic truths and the new seductive air of optimism. There is almost too much material to mine.

Detropia

In their beautiful and moving film, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, provide the kind of stark visuals and atmospherics that underpin all of the issues Detroit presents, never shying away from hard realities but also never judging. Ewing and Grady, best known for their 2006 film Jesus Camp, are astute observers of  various aspects of the American condition. As Ewing  describes it,  “We actually went in to Detroit planning to on making “Detroit Hustles Harder,” a film focused on the revitalization of the city. Once we moved to Detroit in October 2012, however, it became clear that the story of Detroit is in many ways not one of the future but of people dealing with decisions made long ago. Detropia is a story of consequences: the realities of globalization, the price of short term thinking (by the big 3) and the real downside to unresolved racial tension. It also shines a light on those people who have chosen to stay in Detroit, to stick with the city and do their part. The pluck and grit they exhibit bring a sense of hope to the city.“

Ewing and Grady’s cameras achieve this by taking us along to frustrating union meetings, tense confrontations between the mayor and the public about his plans to “downsize” the city, long rides past abandoned auto plants, evenings spent with scrap metal scavengers, and the somewhat surreal existence of the artists homesteading in Detroit, who see it as their canvas and can afford to live there for $700 a month (rent can be as low as $250).  For the viewer who does not come equipped with familiarity of Detroit’s condition, the movie may lack a coherent enough explanation of its intentions. But for the initiated, it is a beautioful and sad meditation on all of these issues.

There is much discussion in their film of the American middle class and whether it is dying, like the city that many believe gave birth to it. China serves as the bogeyman to many of the people in the film, most poignantly during scenes of the annual auto show where amid excitement over the unveiling of the Chevy Volt, we are quickly introduced to competition from a new Chinese model, significantly cheaper.

Looking at the landscape in the film, one wants to resist the allure of “ruin porn” that Detroit so easily provides. But it is hard to pretend not to see the beauty of the decay in the city – grand old Beaux Arts  buildings sitting empty and overgrown, the history of the city lying around you. The beauty is sad but it is still beautiful.

Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis

Like Ewing, Mark Binelli also grew up in Detroit, and returned in 2009 to see the new highs and new lows for himself.  The result of his two-and-a-half year long stay is a book that hits almost every issue, giving both the necessary stupefying numbers (in 2009, half of all children in Detroit lived in poverty and nearly half of all adults were functionally illiterate; the city regained its number one spot as America’s murder capital and was a leading contender for most arsons, to name a few) but also supplementing hard numbers with the actual problems as grappled with in real life and providing optimistic counterpoints.

In one chapter he introduces us to Mark Covington – a Detroit gardener who has gained much attention for his urban farming efforts. After losing his job in 2008, at age 37, Covington, out of sheer boredom, began to clean up and eventually cultivate the vacant land in his blighted neighborhood. Detroit is a leader in America in urban farming and according to long-time Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, the city has enough unused land to become the first entirely self-sufficient sustainable city in the world.

Of course, the DIY culture of Detroit extends to less utopian ends as well. So many city services have been cut so drastically and crime is so rampant that a near-anarchic state exists for many residents. In his chapter on civilian responses to crime, Binelli tags along with Rick Ector who runs a firearm academy and gives classes mandatory to obtaining a conceal and carry license. In one class, Ector asks his student,“ What if, a twelve year old with a shotgun in his pants rolls up on a bicycle? Would you have it in you to shoot him? If you are not prepared to shoot a twelve year old, you should not carry a handgun!”

Binelli gives incredibly well grounded and always engaging colorful accounts of all that ails Detroit and the myriad proposals for its survival. His book is empathic but also highly skeptical – the poverty, mostly incompetent political class,  horrific but regular crime, lack of basic city services and weight of the city’s history appear to keep him from believing that Detroit can withstand these forces. His chapters about Detroit as a new creative capital are tinged with irony, and he rightfully remains skeptical of the idea that the creative class can save a city. And yet, he confesses to ultimately being seduced by the optimism of these new folks, who seem determined to stay, make Detroit their home and remake it into a new 21st century city that embraces its post-industrial fate.

Both the film and the book provide more than mere indulgence of morbid curiosity or scenes from the “last frontier.” As Binelli writes, “… it’s undeniable that Detroit feels like an extraordinary place, and at the same time, just as Greenland might be called ground zero of the broader climate crisis, Detroit feels like ground zero for…what, exactly? The end of the American way of life? Or the beginning of something else? Either way, that is why so many divergent interests are converging here right now. Who doesn’t want to see the future?”

Detroit’s problems are mostly particular to it and it may be unwise to read too much into its fate, but it serves as a strong cautionary tale for the new industrial capitals of the world and has emerged as a sort of canvas for possibiities for post-industrial, urban, America.

Further Reading & Viewing

Books

Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy

Movies

BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit

Searching for Sugar Man

The Way of the Jesuit

February 9, 2012

And a new book about Father John Brooks, the 1960’s, Holy Cross and some of its first Black Alumni (Clarence Thomas and Ted Wells among them)

In one of his many “God & Religion: Good or Bad?” debates, Christopher Hitchens addressed the role of religion in the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s, certainly one of religion’s more admirable chapters. Hitchens pointed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and said, “Fortunately for us, he wasn’t really a Christian, because if he had followed the preachments in Exodus about the long march to freedom, he would have invoked the right that the Bible gives to take the land of others, to enslave other tribes…The people who actually organized the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph, were both secularists and socialists. The whole case for the emancipation of black America had already been made perfectly well by secularists.”

Perhaps, but it is an unrelenting belief in one’s own righteous cause that leads both the secular and religious to that kind of unyielding faith and fight they deem their cause requires. The kind of moral and intellectual tenacity that led Mr. Hitchens himself to propound and act on his myriad beliefs and causes (Hitchens’ moral god was far more infallible than many celestial gods of others, just look at his unwavering support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq despite the mounds of evidence showing how ill-conceived they were).  Many models do exist wherein religious structures provide the kind of missionary advocacy necessary for effective action. Usually the key questions are what action, and to what end.

The history and tradition of the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church exemplify the possibilities for religious advocacy for progressive change. The work of the Jesuits is especially instructive since it is an exceptional and often-defiant part of a larger global faith that can be dangerously conservative and out of step with the day to day needs of its devout.

A new book by Diane Brady is a sort of unvarnished ode to the important work the Jesuits did during the civil rights era, and a reminder that religious advocacy and action belong equally to the left as to the right. In Fraternity, Diane Brady tells the story of the personal mission of Father John Brooks at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., a college Time magazine then dubbed the “Cradle of the Catholic Left.”  From its beginnings in the mid-19th Century, Holy Cross proved a haven of elite scholarship for members of the population unwelcome elsewhere. As Brady recounts:

Among the first students to enroll at Holy Cross were four sons of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish-born planter in Georgia, and Eliza Clark, a mixed-race slave whom Healy owned and had fallen in love with. Their children were considered slaves, making them ineligible to attend school in the South. Instead,  James, Patrick, Hugh and Sherwood Healy came to Holy Cross in 1844. The Healy boys did well – Patrick went on to become president of Georgetown University in 1874, James was valedictorian of the first graduating class in 1849 and later became the country’s first African American Catholic bishop, Michael became a celebrated sea captain, and Sherwood became a priest and rector of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

The 1960’s presented somewhat different challenges than antebellum America though. Despite its earlier displays of integration, Holy Cross had evolved into an institution for the sons of the Irish Catholic well to do, quite removed from the hurly-burly of the decade.  While many liberal intellectuals embraced the ideas of integration and change in the 1960’s in the abstract, Father Brooks was one of the few who felt it his personal duty to realize them. The history of the Healy boys certainly played a part in affirming his convictions that Holy Cross was the right place. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, deepened his belief that this was also the right time. The time to try and bring bright young black men to Holy Cross, the kind of men – boys really, at age 18 —  that would survive and hopefully thrive as helmsmen of a new generation of radical change. Not a small amount of pressure, and quite a bit to ask of an 18 year old boy.

The title of the book, “Fraternity,” refers to the members of the first class Father Brooks recruited. It focuses on Ted Wells, Stan Grayson, Eddie Jenkins , Ed Jones and Clarence Thomas —  in one graduating class, one of America’s top litigators, a New  York City deputy mayor, a running back on the ’73 Miami Dolphins undefeated team and also subsequently a successful lawyer, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively.

As Diane Brady rightfully emphasizes, Brooks understood that recruitment was perhaps the easiest step. The greater burden lay on the recruited, in dealing with feelings of isolation in an alien environment, one filled with the incomprehension and latent racism of an otherwise homogeneous college community.  Questions such as “Is it easier to get in here if you’re coloured?” and other less innocent-minded questions and comments were common. Father Brooks often could only act as a sort of spiritual and social facilitator for the black students who arrived on campus. The rest the students had to figure out on their own.

Through the accounts of their experiences over the next few years, one witnesses many of the merits and drawbacks of affirmative action as well all of the other issues playing on the minds of young, black, draft-aged men in the 60’s – Black Power, the War, the questioning of sacredly-held traditions. Perhaps most illustrative are the widely divergent experiences of Ted Wells and Clarence Thomas —  the ones they arrived with at Holy Cross and the ones they carried away:

Wells, having grown up in a city (Washington, DC) that  had become a mecca and marching ground for black pride, was   looking for ways to recreate the sense of brotherhood at Holy Cross. Thomas had spent much of his life digesting racism on his own. He had learned to move easily in the white community, even if he never felt a part of it, and he didn’t have much interest in making skin color the prime factor in determining his social circle. Thomas wanted to be seen as someone who could fit in and get along with anybody. Let Wells revel in the black identity and push for civil rights. What bothered Thomas wasn’t being black; it was being noticed for being black.”

Thomas’ subsequent experience at Yale Law School only further embittered him towards affirmative action. And it famously informed his political outlook, which has tended to estrange him from civil rights causes, black institutions and the notion that black Americans should in any way view themselves or be viewed as different than anyone else. Ted Wells, on the other hand, embraced his role as a black American leader and role model. After doing graduate work at Harvard – earning both an MBA and a JD – he has, along with his accomplishments as a top litigator (his clients include Elliott Spitzer and Scooter Libby), served as counsel for the New Jersey NAACP, State Chair of the United Negro College Fund and Co-Chair of the NAACP Legal Defense  and Education Fund.

Sometimes it does take a perfect storm. Father Brooks had arrived at Holy Cross fresh from Vatican II (1962-1965), which filled him, and many others, with a sense of purpose and urgency for social change, and a belief that the church should be at its forefront. He also had exactly the right combination of altruism, zeal, empathy, guidance and ability to know when to step back and let the black students stake out their places for themselves. Indeed, Clarence Thomas often looks back fondly at Holy Cross as a place and time where he was treated and appraised as a man, rather than a black man, mostly because of Father Brooks.

While Father Brooks is highly unique, he also seems to embody everything that is possible from a religious sect that values intellect, scholarship and a commitment to social advocacy. The Jesuit Order may be “gaying and graying,” as some insiders jokingly lament, but it also in many ways seems the way forward.

Rockaway Mania (& Some Woody Allen)

June 20, 2011

Here’s something to round out everyone’s newly-acquired Rockaway IQ  (and by “everyone” I mean those who have just recently discovered what happens at the Queens end of the A Train, the rest of “everyone” I apologize for adding even more to the flood of Rockaway attention, but I’ve always liked to give Rockaway attention, I guess not everyone was listening carefully enough).

Over drinks after seeing Woody Allen’s latest film on Friday – Midnight in Paris – a friend and I reached that inevitable moment in the evening of having to address how this movie compared with the last few and with his best and what it says about the man. It’s totally inescapable, but always fun, and definitely worth indulging (though I probably wouldn’t want to overhear a conversation like that). I won’t say too much about Midnight in Paris, except to say it is too charming to miss (an antidote to the Rom-Com?).  The casting of the American literati of 1920’s Paris was kind of brilliant. Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein was maybe my favorite, and that’s the only one I’ll give away (try hard not to read too much about it before seeing it; hopefully, as a rule, like me, you don’t read too much about things you are about to see anyway). And Owen Wilson as a 21st Century wide-eyed American writer in Paris looking for inspiration was great – Owen Wilson does earnest SO well (remember Meet The Parents?).

For the  more savvy and literary transplants,  who arrived here after years of cultivating a romance for this city, Woody Allen looms large as the godfather of urbane and idiosyncratically neurotic  Jewish New York. (Spike Lee is another such godfather, of other outsized myths of New York).   Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977) seem to be the apotheoses of an outside admirer’s visions of New York –  the kind of place where Wallace Shawn’s intellectual animal magnetism causes beautiful and charmingly neurotic  women to fidget and stutter, while Woody Allen stands back, bewildered.  And worried.  But also the kind of place that revels in its romance, in long black and white takes with Rhapsody in Blue playing.

Another of Woody Allen’s odes to New York, and to a long-gone Golden Age, is his Rockaway movie – Radio Days. These days Rockaway is predominantly known and sentimentalized for its Irish-American-ness, once even dubbed the Irish Riviera, now a term reserved for Breezy Point alone, a gated community at the western end of the peninsula, where the Kings County DA, Charles Hynes, has a summer home (not without controversy – there is just something about the district attorney of an ethnically diverse borough, where many people of color are regularly prosecuted, living in an all-white gated community; during the dog days of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, Al Sharpton decided to make a point about this by marching to Hynes’ house in Breezy, with 100 supporters, chanting “Hynes, Hynes, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg!”).

In Rockaway we have our own St. Patrick’s Day parade and a disproportionate amount of cops and firemen. If you want to look at one place where nearly everyone was directly affected by 9/11, almost to a man, Rockaway provides way too many scary numbers and stories; some would even say that my generation was irreparably scarred and there is an unspoken eerie sense of survivor’s guilt, in a community where booze is already a go-to remedy. Amazingly I can’t think of any movies about Irish Rockaway, though I have an uneasy feeling that a Ben Affleck type might want to produce another less than flattering story about Irish America. So maybe it’s best left alone. Rescue Me sort of takes that on – Dennis Leary and a few of the other guys from his house live out there.  Might not be the most nuanced portrayal of Rockaway and Irish Americans either though.

But Radio Days, set during the Golden Age of Radio, in the late 30’s and 40’s, is Woody Allen territory, and so pretty thoroughly Jewish, as much of Rockaway once was. Rockaway used to be about half non-religious Jewish and half Irish, but like most non-religious Jews in the rest of Queens, and certainly Brooklyn, Rockaway Jews left town – to Long Island and Jersey, the richer ones to Westchester.  And loads of Jews (and many others) used to summer down there in the days before AC; I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m guessing that’s how Allen got to know the place. My parents are still there and so are a few others like them, but the “newer” Jews are quite religious, and quite apart. It’s sad that the Jewish New York of Woody Allen is mostly gone, but you can add it to the long list of things once intrinsic to the New York character that are now sealed in history.

In the main household of the movie, a bursting with life working class Jewish one, the individual characters, confined to a stifling and intrusive home, find their escape and fantasy life through the radio. A young Seth Green plays the Woody Allen alter ego and the cast includes Allen regulars like a shrieking and overbearing Julie Kavner and also Farrow and Keaton.  The movie is a lot less “serious” than Annie Hall and Manhattan, and premised mostly on various small stories within stories, often ones with great punch lines, including ones about radio starlets and hanky-panky in the studios.  In one bit, Larry David plays the Communist next door neighbor, who lures his more observant neighbor – on Yom Kippur, in the middle of his fast – to commit an unspeakable transgression (eating pork, and then promptly being punished by God and getting sick).  Another story, making great use of the radio, takes us on one of Aunt Bea’s dates (Dianne Wiest), where she and her suitor drive out to the sand dunes of Breezy Point, only to get stuck in the sand in the middle of hearing about the impending alien invasion (think Orson Welles). A more recent invasion of Breezy occurred on June 6, 1993, when the Golden Venture, a boat carrying 286 illegal immigrants from China, ran aground just off Breezy after a mutiny; 10 people drowned trying to reach shore; several others who made it showed up on the doorsteps of some very confused Breezy Point residents.

Rockaway makes one wistful in many different ways – it’s a vestige of much that no longer exists in New York (including one of the last NYC neighborhoods to retain a local accent) and beach communities often hold on to their pasts longer than other places, and are an easy place on which to project idealized histories and simpler times.  The beach is fun and easy, and away from the city, which you can always see in the distance across the bay.  Radio Days doesn’t completely capture that, and Rockaway definitely deserves its own movie, relating to its more recent identity. But for NYC & Allen buffs, and the generally nostalgic, Radio Days is a charming tour of imagining what a place  and time once were.

Food, Freud & God

June 2, 2011

By far, my favorite and most used cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food – an Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Since Roden’s book is, essentially, a Jewish diaspora culinary survey, the book serves as a veritable tour of world cuisine, or at least wherever the trade winds took Jewish merchants and frequent expulsions took Jewish refugees.  Eastern Europe is given its respective space of course, but the most dog-eared battered pages in my copy are in North Africa and Asia, especially Morocco, Iran, Iraq and India (the dishes my dinner party guests may have already tired of are Fesenjan/Duck or Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnut Sauce, Kofta Mishmisheya /Lamb Meatballs in Apricot Sauce and Moroccan Mezze). Interspersed throughout the book, between different regions and courses, are short histories  — personal anecdotes and more general histories — of the various local Jewry, such as a quick rundown of the three different Jewish communities of India (the Cochinis, Bene Israel and Baghdadis) and the once vibrant community of the Greek Jewish population of Salonika, that make the book equally interesting as a colorful and engaging ethnographic guide as it is a cookbook.  The Sephardi World half of the book is subtitled “Many Styles of Sephardi Cooking, with Echoes from Ancient Baghdad, Medieval Spain and the Ottoman World.”  It more than lives up to the expectations that title inspires and includes recipes for savory pies from Salonika, soups from Yemen and various salads, rice and meat dishes from Iran, Italy, Morocco and Georgia.  The shopping for the ingredients alone  is worth investing in these dishes (especially if you have Sahadi’s nearby, Sahadi’s itself merits buying this book so you can actually feel like you are finally taking advantage of everything Sahadi’s has to offer).

Once, while flipping through the book with my mother, I came across a story about the author’s great-grandfather who was the chief rabbi of Aleppo in Syria. Already naturally inflated with ancestral pride (I was raised to believe Vilna Jews are inherently very special — hard even for me to tell whether I am being serious or not when I invoke it; it may have started as a way to tease my dad who has no roots in Vilna, where my mother is from, but if I am honest, maybe, sometimes,  in private moments, I think Vilna Jews are a little superior), I asked my mother “Do we have any chief rabbis in our family?” My mother replied: “No, I think we’re about 10th generation atheist.”

Spiritual thirst is a totally alien instinct to me and most of my extended family. It is not something we have ever spent any thought or energy on. It is a non-issue.  We did grow up with an insatiable curiosity about just about everything else though – history, politics, food, sports, art, music. Not that spirituality and engagement with the world are mutually exclusive, but the terrestrial world always seems to provide enough material  for us to get lost in.

Growing up in Israel, especially with roots in a kibbutz, there was a very clear,  loudly articulated and socially acceptable demarcation between the secular and the religious, often with much mutual disdain and incomprehension. And Israel being a Jewish country, “doing” Jewish things did not entail actually believing in their spiritual underpinnings. I carried this over when I moved here, and assumed that those who were modern, educated and sophisticated were surely also atheists who were religious only in their habits and practices of going to Church, observing holidays and following those precepts that helped them and made them good people. I did not – not for a second – think people actually believed. Especially not in the miracles. Living for many years in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, I quickly learned about all the magical “stuff” but always assumed that like Moses drawing water from a rock and an angel moving Abraham’s hand before he could kill Isaac, these were absorbed as myths with larger messages. Not so. Or at least not for a lot of great, sophisticated people I respected and admired. I learned the hard way that the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection are very serious, non-metaphorical, business indeed.  It was not merely about following the teachings of Christ.  And of course, after my limited exposure to religious Jews in Israel whom I dogmatically distrusted, I also met religious Jews who had first rate minds and intellects and are leaders in their professional fields (the amazing and accomplished Twerski family comes to mind – Professor Aaron Twerski,  a legal scholar, is maybe the top products liability expert in the country).  

After a few years of absorbing this realization – that a faithful mind could also be a truly modern sophisticated one – I became transfixed by it. Rather than wrestling with agnosticism, I have developed a deep hunger for understanding this and am always eager to hear it discussed by those whom I respect or at least have thought about their faith with the intellectual rigor they have applied to other parts of their lives. Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens recently had a famous public spar about it in Toronto, though that was more about the evils and virtues of organized religion, which is a lot less interesting. But still, an opportunity to hear someone who has excelled at Britian’s top institutions (and you know, was a popular Prime Minister, until he wasn’t) discuss faith.  But still, it left me unsatisfied, the rationality of faith itself wasn’t dissected quite enough.  My own personal attempts at engagement have mostly failed, as when a boy once asked me on a date, after learning I was an atheist, “But aren’t you worried about Judgment Day?”  — yeah that wasn’t heading anywhere especially edifying.

At last, I have finally come across a truly gratifying conversation about the subject in a play called Freud’s Last Session, at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theatre at the West Side YMCA. In this fun, hypothetical , pseudo-historical jaunt that takes place on one of the most memorably ominous days in modern history – Sept. 3, 1939 –  in Freud’s study in London, where he had taken refuge rather briefly before succumbing to cancer, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines what a meeting between CS Lewis and Freud would have been like*, and their inevitable conversation about their respective “faiths” – Freud’s sardonic declarations explaining why God does not exist, and CS Lewis’ earnest, charming incantations of why he does – you very nearly want to believe him. I could have sat there for a few more hours listening to those two actors and that script.  With the atrocities of Hitler about to be unleashed as the backdrop, the clear existence of evil and total absence of an interventionist God set the tone, and CS Lewis admits to wrestling with that very notion.

 And yet when Lewis talks to Freud about that craving that all humans seem to be born with for seeking some type of God or power higher than themselves, even I, who have never had that craving, had to admit that Lewis was actually using logic  pretty successfully to make his non-logical point, since it appears that most humans do (of course I believe it’s because the as-yet-unexplainable-by-science leads some to this, but still, it is pretty prevalent!).

Psychoanalysis was of course also at play, with the two literally and figuratively taking turns on the couch. Both had fathers whose religious fervor affected them very obviously and directly, with Freud musing that Lewis sought God as the father he never had (or at least one he could love) and with Freud clearly wanting to eschew the faith of a religious father who cowed and submitted to the anti-Semitism around him rather than stand up for himself – in the play Freud muses that he didn’t know whom he hated more, the man who had told his father to get off the sidewalk because he was a dirty Jew, or his father for doing so.

Another reason to see this play is the venue. One of the reasons I am pretty sure I won’t ever leave New York permanently is because there is always more of it. The theatre is in the West Side YMCA, one of the most beautiful buildings I think I’ve come across in this city in many many years, and it had somehow eluded me until last week. Need I say more?

*From the Playbill – “In his book The Question of God, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. writes, ‘Did Freud and Lewis ever meet? The possibility is tantalizing. After Freud immigrated to England…(a) young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?’ – His speculation sparked this play.”

The Man From Jamaica

May 24, 2011

Chris Blackwell, Island Records and Remembering Bob Marley

Last week, on the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, Chris Blackwell, Mr. Island Records, joined the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber for a very rare public interview.

On hand for the multi-media event, which included the video for Island’s first hit – Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”, footage of “The Harder They Come” and some spectacular photos of Grace Jones – were eager life-long reggae fans (some sporting t-shirts with Bob Marley’s photo), various folks from the industry and even some major music-makers themselves, including Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Paul Holdengraber had the enviable but rather serious challenge of providing, in such a limited time, a satisfying conversation with a man who seems to have lived one thousand lives in one.  Starting at the beginning of the beginning, Holdengraber and Blackwell recreated Blackwell’s youth – his life in a tony expat enclave in Jamaica, where Noel Coward and other major English notables, good friends of Blackwell’s mother, played prominent roles. Blackwell, who worked for a while as a water-skiing instructor, first witnessed water-skiing when Errol Flynn, fully-clothed, lit cigarette in mouth, miniature dachshund under his arm, rolled up his trousers and took to the water. Blackwell’s mother, one of Ian Fleming’s great loves, also undoubtedly had much to do with Blackwell’s employment as local guide for one of the first Bond films – “Dr. No”. This early immersion amongst larger than life talents and personalities led Blackwell to develop a natural touch amongst celebrities and would-be stars alike. More importantly though, his days in Jamaica planted the seeds of his lifelong love of Jamaican music, which while not always reflected in the top-selling acts he signed in later years, stayed with him and led to perhaps his greatest legacy – introducing the world to Bob Marley.

But long before the days of Bob Marley, Blackwell began Island Record’s discography by rather unglamorously loading his Mini with his then-slim  catalog –re-mastered records from cassettes sent him from Jamaica—and taking sales trips to the outskirts of London, to places like Brixton, Lewisham, Hackney.

Apart from his total devotion to musicians whose music he believed in, Blackwell’s success also has as much to do with his total devotion to musicians whose music he may not have felt a natural affinity to but whom he believed in as individuals. Cat Stevens and U2 are perhaps the most famous of these.  Blackwell told of finally, politely relenting to a meeting with Cat Stevens, who had reportedly wanted Balckwell to help him produce a musical. After hearing “Father and Son,” Blackwell told Stevens, “I’m really not interested in doing a musical, but I would love to sign you.” When Stevens asked him how should he go about getting out of his contract with Decca – with Dick Rowe no less, the man famous for turning down the Beatles – Blackwell had the perfect plan – Stevens should tell Rowe that the next record absolutely had to include the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Blackwell assured him Rowe would think him a bit mad and give him his release. He was right.

Like Stevens, U2’s music, which Blackwell mused was “rinky dink,” was far from anything seemingly natural for Island Records. Yet Blackwell was deeply impressed by the group and their manager and his only instructions to his staff at Island was to just follow the band’s lead.

When Blackwell began to actively seek out rock music to produce, he realized that Island was known for its reggae and he’d perhaps have to differentiate the label in some way to include rock. He came up with the pink album cover for his rock records, saying that at the time he thought, “people would know, nothing pink would ever come from Jamaica.”

The evening closed with tales of two of the major icons of Island Records, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff’s success in Jamaica reached its height with his role and album for “The Harder They Come,” which Blackwell strongly urged him to do. Yet soon after, Cliff finally succumbed to the siren’s calls of big money and international fame. Totally personally and professionally devastated by seeing Cliff go, Blackwell was perfectly poised to receive Bob Marley and The Wailers, who entered his world soon after. The group had acquired a less than positive reputation amongst the producers in Jamaica and Blackwell’s  early trust of Marley despite this has become legendary. Blackwell fondly recalls , “They were broke but they walked in like kings.” Blackwell  advanced them the 4000 pounds they requested, simply telling them “go make your album”. Before the evening concluded with Bob Marley’s “Time Will Tell,” Blackwell noted that “Jimmy Cliff played the character (in “The Harder They Come”), but Bob Marley was the character.”

The Promised Lands, Part II (Uganda, Canada, Birobidzhan)

March 14, 2011

There is an old joke that because of Moses’ stutter, when he told his brother Aaron to announce to the Jewish people that they were headed to the promised land, Aaron heard “Canaan” instead of what Moses actually said, “Canada.” Think of all that space, there could probably be 50 Israels in Alberta alone.  In 1903, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered the Mau Plateau, part of today’s Kenya and Uganda, to Theodor Herzl as a possible solution for the pogroms in Russia and as a general place of refuge for Jews. The Zionists ultimately rejected the so-called “Uganda Scheme”  but it led to the formation of the splinter Jewish Territorialist Organization – led by British Jews who were open to the idea of finding an alternative tract of habitable land for their people, either in the British Empire, the Americas, or even Portuguese Africa ( Alaska was even considered at some point; apparently “habitable” is a very relative term).  The Territorialists mostly faded with the famous & infamous Balfour Declaration  in 1917.

But one other project to establish a Jewish homeland in the wilderness, far away from Palestine, or really any recognizable civilization, did materialize in the eastern reaches of the Soviet empire, near the border with China.  Birobidzhan was to become the first Jewish socialist autonomous (urban) region – for settlement by all Jews, not only Russian ones. This was in the early 20th, when the Russian Soviet experiment still stood as relatively  uncorrupted — a beacon of hope and inspiration for fellow travelers looking for alternatives to the colonialist, capitalist world.  Big Solutions seemed possible.  Architects as much as anyone, began to plan Big.

According to the catalogue of the 1998 exhibit Bauhaus in Birobidzhan (Tel Aviv Bauhaus Center– on the 80th anniversary of the Birobidzhan experiment): “From the stabilization of the new Bolshevik regime in Soviet Russia, Western modern architects – mostly Germans but also Americans and others – looked to the first socialist state in the world. They saw in it endless possibilities for modern architecture. In addition to the revolutionary momentum in all areas of life, private land ownership was revoked. In theory, it was possible to build and plan entire cities without limitation.” In the late 20’s and early 30’s there were many exchanges between the new Bauhaus School of Design  in Dessau and the Soviet Union, as well as Bauhaus architects and designers in Mandatory Palestine.

On March 28, 1928, the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR allocated the banks of the rivers Bira and Bidzhan for Jewish settlement and the first Jews arrived the next month. After he left his role as director of the Bauhaus School,  in the summer of 1933, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer traveled to Birdobidzhan  and developed a master plan for the city. Unfortunately, Meyer was eventually replaced as master planner because he was a foreigner. As Micha Gross and Iosif Brenner write in the catalogue, “Still the city stamp of Meyer legacy and the echoes of the dreams of thousands of Jewish settlers who came here from all over the Soviet Union as well as the US, Argentina, Poland, France, Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere. “

BY 1934 the Central Committee established the area as a “Jewish Autonomous Region”  and in 1936  declared it a “Soviet Jewish culture in which masses of working Jewish people will develop their own state-structure.” However, the brutal, all-encompassing reality of Stalin and his purges finally caught up with the proletariat Jewish dream and by summer of 1938 all plans were scaled back and then ceased altogether.

Some activity picked up again after the war but more “mild” post-Stalinist purges of Jewish leaders in late 40’s officially closed the door on this Jewish homeland in the far far Russian east and the Jews who had made their way to Birobidzhan mostly left and headed to the new Jewish state in the Middle East.  But it remains a Jewish ghost town if nothing else – the names of the streets and squares of this Russian outpost are all Jewish — a Yiddish grid on an Asian map.

Bauhaus in the Promised Lands, Part I (Tel Aviv)

February 21, 2011

As Frederic Chaubin‘s new fun book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP), shows, the last century left the globe strewn with monuments of big solutions to big problems.  Politicians, historians, philosophers, and other Men of Great Vision, cleared messy idiosyncracies from the map and proceeded to re-plan societies to make them work. Architects seemed specially poised to embrace roles as master planners of a well-organized utopian universe.

The Bauhaus school, of course, very much led the way, following William Morris’ ethos that art must meet the needs of society. In the Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius focused on collapsing the distance between art and technology, which he equated with “culture and civilization,” and placed his faith in the future in big building projects. Importantly, like other prophets of Modernism, he considered history to be “unnecessary ballast.” (Magdalena Droste)

During this time, one of Europe’s constantly gnawing and intractable “problems,” balanced rather heavily by the ballast of history,  was, of course, the Jewish problem – not only anti-Semites obsessed over a solution for the Jews, Jews themselves,  and their allies, sought a way to finally make the world a little less precarious for this small but annoyingly resilient diaspora.  Zionism gained its foothold in these years, with the first Zionist Congress taking place in 1897 and growing in prominence and determination in the next few decades.

Not surprisingly perhaps, two “solutions” to the Jewish problem bear the clean lines and white-washed walls of the Bauhaus.  Tel Aviv, which celebrated 100 years just recently, has the greatest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world, and is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for it. Similarly, a less well known, failed experiment, for  “re-placement” of the world’s Jews, is also a (mostly) living embodiment of one of the Bauhaus’ grander projects — Birobidzhan – the Russian city-state in the eastern reaches of Asian Russia near the border with China, which the Soviets foresaw as a Jewish homeland.

On Dizengoff Street, one of Tel Aviv’s main arteries, the Bauhaus Center is a small but comprehensive reminder of the role of this important Modernist entryway to the 20th Century.  In Dizengoff Center, just steps away from the Bauhaus Center, one of the world’s clearest manifestations of the International Style looms, with a plaza surrounded by round-cornered, sleek white buildings, many of which have recently been restored to their more original bleached hue.  If you are a Bauhaus fan, a pilgrimage is in order, as Tel Aviv might be the best example of a living breathing organic example of this highly organized approach – it naturally took root here, it actually “worked.”

This is undoubtedly because of the mass migration of German Jews to Tel Aviv before the war (the second one).  As Shmuel Yavin writes in the catalog to an exhibition at the Bauhaus Center – the Revival of the Bauhaus in Tel Aviv, Renovation of the International Style in the White City  — “The great construction wave Tel Aviv experienced in order to enable the absorption of the immigration waves, the fourth (second half of the 1920’s) and the fifth (in the 1930’s), included the building of thousands of buildings,” and “The arrival in Israel/Palestine in the early 1930’s of many architects, most of them from Germany, and the return of Israeli architects who went to study in Europe, brought about a drastic change in the building style in Tel Aviv. A transformation from the eclectic to the modern.” Hence, two very modern 20th Century solutions gave birth to a distinctly Jewish, distinctly Bauhaus new city.

In the same catalog, the architect Nissim Davidov writes, “Tel Aviv is unique in the fact that the town is associated with the International styles in all their aspect – ideology, design and texture, in a manner that was never expressed elsewhere. The fundamental ideological principles ‘creating a brave new world,’ and the uniform equality in building for the masses, went hand in hand with the ideology of the Zionist settlement in the country.

Davidov also emphasizes that, “As opposed to the urban texture in Europe, where the International style’s buildings were usually incorporated as an infill in a row, of which only the façade could be seen, the Garden City plan for Tel Aviv, in which each plan stands on a separate plot, singularly permitted to express one of the essential principles of the style – relating to the building as a volume.”

This has allowed each building, within this unified scheme, to become one distinct part of the whole, leading Tel Aviv to develop as an unplanned city might, it had room to breathe and become overgrown by its own unique character.

That Pesky “Jewish Question”

January 8, 2011

Two annual rites that round out my year in late December are a visit to the American Colony in Jerusalem and my visit with my Great Aunt Vera, also in Jerusalem. Vera is not a real Aunt, but a very close family friend in her 80’s who has known my family since my grandparents knew her in fabled, mythical, larger than life and history, pre-war Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania).  Both experiences are also, always, an exercise in dealing with the current status of that pesky “Jewish Question” – the American Colony, nearly as mythic and larger than life to me as Vilna, is not especially welcoming to Israelis or Jews, and neither is Aunt Vera.  The American Colony and Vera represent two different strains of that Jewish Question – the former very much about the history and politics of Israel, the latter about longing for a rich, glorious Jewish past that will never return.

This December, during my dinner with Vera at the American Colony, my great Aunt – completely fluent in Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Italian, French, German and Hebrew; better-read and traveled than anyone I have ever met; and possessed of “strong” opinions of the sort that would make a dictator stammer – started on a complaint that I unfortunately did not immediately recognize as ultimately ending in a general complaint about Jews.

Always difficult to remember the origin of these arguments with Vera, I cannot recall how she began her critique of the musical adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman. With her trademark “great disgust” for the corruption of the original story and the “true history” of that time and place, she noted the hideous discrepancies between the musical and the original; for example, Tevye would never, in a shtetl in Ukraine in the late 19th or early 20th, have ever openly proclaimed his love for his wife – he never would have used the word “love.” A few more critiques along those lines followed. I reminded her that Broadway and Hollywood often take great liberties with reality, or the original fictional story, and that she shouldn’t let this particular instance upset her so, it is the nature of musicals and adaptations.  Alas, I did not see the bigger picture. She explained there is no other culture or people on earth that would take one of its most hallowed brilliant writers and wring such an operetta from one of his best stories. I’m pretty sure I laughed when she said this and I assured her that many, if not all, cultures have done something similar. She asked me to name one. I told her that surely Shakespeare has turned over in his grave many times in the last few centuries after some productions of his work. She dared me to name one production.  Then I realized how doomed this conversation was.  How ridiculous.   I could not shake Vera from her conviction that Jews are the only people in history who would sell out like this, who would permit one of their most sacred stories to be bought and transformed like Tevye and Fiddler on the Roof.

Vera’s Fiddler on the Roof argument preceded a full two days of general and specific bitter complaints about how Jews have totally and completely lost their way in this world – how they are especially ignorant, unread, untraveled, uncouth…(for Hebrew speakers, Jews are simply “lo al ha-rama“) I asked her why she held them to such a high standard – are they not, after all, like everyone else?  But in her Golden Vilna they really were not like everyone else and an elderly woman’s storied lost world becomes the unfortunate point of reference for the modern world. What can compete with that?

Though I always bring Vera books when I visit, I hesitated to bring The Finkler Question this year. I honestly don’t think she cares to read anything by and about Jews anymore, and Harold Jacobson’s book might actually give her pause about her toxic feelings about Jews (she cannot even say the word “Jew” without spitting it out).  The Finkler Question pretty much covers it though, even if English Jews do have a very particular, English-specific, conflict with their identities – being fully English often seems to preclude much else culturally, unlike being American, especially New York-Jewish American where one can hold both concepts in one’s head without creating even a mild paradox —  perhaps unlike England, even today (one need only remember some articles about team allegiance around the time of Israel and England’s campaigns for the last Euro Cup, when they happened to be in the same group) – though interestingly, the UK’s current ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould,  is Jewish, the first time this is the case.  An interesting experiment! But the Finkler Question very convincingly explores the simultaneous fascination and disdain that many non-Jews hold for Judaism, especially in England, and generally in places where there are not many Jews but where Jews have distinguished themselves in some way;  that quixotic sex appeal of Jewish women, and often men, the admiration for intellect and industriousness; and the often simultaneous resentment of perceived Jewish pride and any positive notions of Israel – two sides of the same coin, more often than not.

These mixed feelings of admiration and resentment characterize many Jews themselves, either in their perception of fellow Jews or their own identities – distancing themselves from it at times, reveling in it at others. It seems like too much energy to me, and awfully confusing.  Perhaps I am lucky, as an atheist and Israeli living in New York (with no religious upbringing to reckon with), and maybe I flatter myself but I tend not to spend too much time thinking about the subject – it is what it is.  However, I do feel forced to think about it when others don’t let it alone – when friends make inappropriate comments about Israel or Jews (either praising them too highly as a friend’s father recently did, when he proclaimed that the Germans, in their quest to become the master race, nearly wiped out history’s only real master race; or when various men have a very obvious Jewish fetish and yet at the same time go out of their way to pronounce their views on Israel – usually they proceed with their political views based on nothing I have said, my name and dual citizenship usually suffice as an opening; lucky me! Sometimes they feel that as a “friend of the Jews” they have liberty to critique at will all and sundry.) It does crowd one’s head at times.

Vera, can, in one breath, represent almost every character in The Finkler Question – the distancing and disdain but ultimate identification with Judaism of Sam Finkler; the strong minded earthiness of Hephzibah; the refined Old World European class of Libor. It is interesting that she has chosen Tevye the Milkman as the apotheosis and nadir of Judaism.  As Irving Howe wrote, in 1963, about Sholom Aleichem’s critics: “50 or 60 years ago, the Jewish intelligentsia, its head buzzing with Zionist, Socialist and Yiddishist ideas, tended to look down upon Sholom Aleichem.” He was a bit too “folksy” for them. Howe also noted that , “(Sholom Aleichem) needs to be rescued from his reputation, from the quavering sentimentality which keeps him at a safe distance.” Howe’s essay from ’63 also reminds us that Sholom Aleichem was, from the beginning, claimed by many to represent “all Jews.” That is quite a burden. And sets up anyone who discusses or appropriates him for failure – someone, somewhere, will condemn and outlandishly criticize the appropriator for even deigning to touch such a work, in such a way.

The Jewish Question does seem to provide an inexhaustible mine of literary ore  — though it seemed nearly tapped until Jacobson’s book – maybe this was the final bit left? Maybe we can move on now? Unless of course you happen to write well and have something to say, then of course, it’s quite alright. So please, only good, genuinely imaginative writers are asked to ever take up this question again (or filmmakers — the Coen brothers made their Jewish movie, it seems, because they thought they ought to make one. A Serious Man was far from imaginative or poignantly astute).

And the Veras of the world are asked to no longer narrow their focus on Jews alone in their general bemoaning of the current state of the world.  It’s not just us at fault!

The Alchemy of Maps & Pretty Wallpaper

June 7, 2010

Laura F. Gibellini and the Domestication of Space

Almost despite ourselves, we claim the space around us more effectively than we could ever imagine. But also less willfully, maintaining a looser grasp than we think over our unique and personal design. Our desires and experiences manifest themselves through a subversion of  our intent, but also in tandem with it, informing it, and are further intertwined with unforeseeable experiences, nature, history, others.  Laura F. Gibellini’s work deftly and playfully explores these conflicting forces of the very human need to conquer and make whole and comprehensible, and the equally mortal constraints that shall always push up against it, our habits and patterns betraying us.  Throughout Gibellini’s work, an exploration of maps and domestic interiors, present the endlessly layered manifestations of the human inhabitation of space.

Despite our increased awareness that we understand so little and control even less, we keep grasping for ultimate control, trying to harness the forces of nature in an alchemical effort to transform the elements into a solid reality we can describe with human words, human images, human scales.  Even if, while doing so, we tell ourselves that actually, we are not seeking to conquer or control, we are, rather, merely trying to understand and describe, and perhaps guide a little.  Big Ideas and Big Solutions are dead we agree, but we can’t help but reach for them and their simplicity, like so many intrusive thoughts that are comfortable habits we do not really want to let go.

Gibellini’s subtle, painstakingly drawn and stenciled installations, such as “(In) Habitation” (160 x 200)  Hacia Afuera, Outdoor Art & Music Festival, New York, 2010), seem to excavate the process of map-making and domestication itself.  Her drawing takes the eye along deceptively familiar isometric patterns that do not, after close examination, describe the types of phenomena we instinctively expect them to symbolize.  These lines do not eventually converge to form a topographic description of a place, of a climate, or any other kind of observable event.  So much visual art plays with familiar symbols, using them as reference points for self-conscious reinterpretation, dislocation or just basic subversion. What sets Gibellini’s work apart, is that even though we are highly aware that we are looking at a simulation of contouring and mapmaking, we cannot repress our strong, nearly involuntary, need to find a recognizable pattern – to construe something truly familiar out of the so nearly familiar. An irrepressible urge arises to conquer the image we are looking at. To fill in the gaps and map the work itself.  It does reassure us that at last, at least one clear object, the form of a lamp, emerges from the web of intricate lines that until now were almost frustratingly vague, clearly not meant merely as decoration since the seemingly systematic lines seem to indicate purpose, but  without clear indications of any reality either.

The shape of the lamp that arises from this almost-map teases us with promises of the comfort of a domestic setting, a clearly delineated space we know from our own lives, something recognizable and intimate.  That Gibellini’s installation also takes on the qualities of a wallpaper pattern further deepens the feelings of intimacy. It also interposes another layer of domestication since the wall upon which this drawing of something that is nearly a map, nearly wallpaper, nearly a depiction of domestic serenity, is outdoors, in a garden, a communal one in East Harlem, into which artists, mostly from elsewhere, were invited to intervene. Gibbellini’s drawing – further domestication of a highly planned small urban patch of a garden, which itself, as New York is dramatically bereft of communal space, especially green communal space, provides a domestic intimacy that may seem forced but  which most New Yorkers strongly crave, respond to, and quickly inhabit. 

New Yorkers seem to have a special instinct, a need, to create intimacy and familiarity wherever they find themselves, and aggressively seek to conquer and appropriate their territory, partly because it is so limited, but also because the general anonymity and novelty they encounter on an almost daily basis can only be countered by creating these intimacies, whether they be illusory or real, temporary or permanent. The High Line is, of course, the most popular recent example of reclamation and domestication of a previously uninhabited and disinviting space.  And it is not surprising that it has become perhaps too popular, failing to provide quiet moments of intimacy because everyone is seeking them at once. New York thus betrays its own humanness by trying to carve out a distinct haven, tightly controlled by beautiful spare design, but also, ultimately, characterized by those qualities of New York that New York cannot escape – the crowds, the tourists, the need for more space, the brutal realities of expensive real estate. 

New Yorkers, and other inhabitants of densely-populated cities, have a very unique relationship with interiority and domestic intimacy, often seeking it elsewhere, outside of the home. In their own home they often cannot create their ideal domestic space since personal space is so limited; or, in other cases, it is a home that is felt to be temporary, either as a space between the spaces of work and play, or as a temporary place where they live in New York before they “move on” to the more solid and permanent parts of their life, where they will invest more of themselves and seek to more actively cultivate their physical surroundings, many seeming to walking around the city with the wider expanses of other regions always in the back of their minds. Grander horizons and “more than this” are also highly native qualities in this city, perhaps betraying the desire to want more than New York can offer, while seemingly, and consciously, fully committed to it.

 A garden wall provides Gibellini’s work with an additional lovely effect – at the right time of day some of the sun breaks through the branches and imposes its own sun-dappled pattern on the drawing.  In her work, Gibellini has often sought to recreate the wallpapers of the 50’s and 60’s, which sought to bring indoors some semblance of the nature outside – leaves, flowers, birds. With the sun intruding on this already nearly-domesticated scene, the ambition of those wallpapers, and of Gibellini’s effort to depict, archive and create the various meanings and effects of maps and domestication, are both exposed and somehow completed.

Publicado en Antípoda, revista de antropología y arqueología número 12. Departamento de Antropología de la Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.http://antipoda.uniandes.edu.co” In english: “Published in Antípoda revista de antropología y arqueología, issue 12. Anthropology Department, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.http://antipoda.uniandes.edu.co