Sunday, May 27, 2012

Houston We Have a Problem: Cultural Vandalism

by Drew Martin
In 1993, NASA conducted the first servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope to fix its optics problem. I remember this like it was yesterday because I was living in a polluted city in northern Czech Republic. The beautifully orchestrated mission was televised while I was struggling with something much more down to earth: the Yugoslavian washing machine in my apartment had leaked all over the floor again, which required rolling up the linoleum surface of the hallway and letting a burlap base layer dry out underneath. My situation was a mess and the flawless spacewalk made me ask myself, "What am I doing here?" There have been about 500 people from nearly 40 nations on roughly 300 manned missions in space. The Apollo program, which brought man to the moon, employed 400,000 people. Despite the achievements and advancements of all the astronauts and scientists, there is a small group of conspiracists who negate we ever left Earth. Although I think science fiction feeds our curiosity and inspires our adventures, part of the naysayers arsenal is that Hollywood is pretty good at faking it as the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing in Californication, "Space may be the final frontier, but it's made in a Hollywood basement." A very well done and respectful, six-part series about the space program is Discovery's When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, which I recently watched on Netflix. I am not one to follow conspiracy theories and I am not into the myth busters genre but I watched a YouTube video yesterday called, The Truth Behind the Moon Landings, which debunks the conspiracists, who are typically old loners living in trailer parks. One of the sober people interviewed in this clip referred to the conspiracy theory as a form of cultural vandalism.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Behind the Scenes at the Met

by Drew Martin
I just finished reading Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Danny Danziger, which is a 265-page book of interviews with 49 people associated with the museum. The list includes board members, the former director Phillipe de Montebello (when he was director) and curators. Danziger paints the museum with a broad brush so we also get insights from the operational staff of food services, maintenance, security and fire safety. One quote I found interested is from the trustee, Michel David-Weill:

Art suffers from a sort of overadmiration. People don't have confidence in their own likes and dislikes, and in particular they give too much reverence to what's in museums. I strongly believe that when you don't like something, there is sometimes a very good reason for not liking it.

Museum, aside from a cover jacket with a night shot of the entrance of the Met, is void of pictures. This could be a wonderful documentary showing all the people interviewed, with great stills and pans of the artwork and the museum galleries. As a book, it could also be a lovely coffee table book but Danziger is looking for something in the candidness of conversational words, which pulls together this jumble of thoughts that would otherwise be random. What is constructed from everyone's input is the overarching theme that it is an honor to work at the Met, it is a great place to work but a financial sacrifice you have to accept as a career, for doing what you love. One could imagine that such a line up of people would be a cornucopia of character sketches but I know of the employee, Ira Spar, a research Assyriologist of ancient near eastern art and met through him, J. Kenneth More, the curator in charge of musical instruments, and I was surprised how little of their personalities came through their words. The individuals are a collective voice with Danziger's approach. Through them he details the operations of the Met and its engine of marketing, fundraising, retailing, collecting, networking and of course, displaying art. Despite the positive tone of the book, one thing I could not stop thinking about is a kind of biased curatorial display of certain sections in the Met. It seems a bit odd that the ancient Greek and Roman art is bathed in glowing light, while the African Arts are kept in a dark hall.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


by Drew Martin
Pictured here, is a detail of Mark Ulriksen's illustration Adrift, which is on this week's cover (May 28, 2012) of The New Yorker. I think this one of my all-time favorite New Yorker covers. The king of covers is Saul Steinberg's infamous drawing of a New Yorker's world view. Seen from 9th Avenue, looking west, "Jersey" is a scrap of land on the banks of the Hudson River. The landscape recedes into a patch of dirt about the size of a football field representing America with a few odd rocks and a handful of scribbled cities and states. A dotted line to the left and right, represent Mexico and Canada, respectively. The Pacific Ocean, merely a few times wider than the Hudson River, separates this abridged version of North America from three bland island lumps labeled, China, Japan and Russia. I also really like the cover Jiří Slíva did of a New York skyline where he replaced the old water towers with oversized coffee mugs feeding into the buildings. Ulriksen's new cover is a far cry New York, but I love the connection between a perilous global warming environment and a difficult climate for today's graduates who stand about here, flightless, like penguins. Although neither of these situations is humorous, Ulriksen brilliantly delivers a cool image of globalization and capitalizes on the stillness of the single image to convey a sense of idle waiting.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Lila dit ça

by Drew Martin
This weekend I watched Lila dit ça (Lila Says), a French film about a fleeting relationship between Chimo, a Muslim living in an Arab quarter of Marseille, and Lila, a fresh, blond beauty who moves into the neighborhood with her batty aunt. Chimo and Lila are blossoming teens. She drifts with the wind while he eddies in her current. Chimo lives with his mother (his father left her for a French woman) and his three closest friends hold him back: they mock his potential as a writer when he is offered a chance to attend a literary program in Paris. The teacher who makes this offer to Chimo explains that all he has to do is write a story to be considered for the school. His time with Lila becomes the story and the narration of the film. Chimo is twice the observer; the first time as a cool witness to Lila's actions and stories, and then in retrospect, recalling the details of their time together after she leaves for Poland. What is interesting is that the source of Lila's stories is not her real life but a fantasy she creates from a mix of magazine articles she collects in a scrapbook, which is left behind for Chimo to find. Lila's claims grow from somewhat believable stories of her making love in a haystack in a big, red American barn, to more surreal tales of being visited by the devil with a smoking penis. Lila flashes her privies to Chimo, pleasures him while riding a moped through an empty, industrial part of town and tells him about her wanting to be filmed making love and her dreams of making love to a hundred men. Her desires always circle back to him, for him, but there is the misunderstanding of just how sincere she is. Chimo adds to the end of his narrative that she served up all of her spicy stories because she liked the look in his eyes in the moments she told him about these things. Lila is the talk of the quarter. All the young men who desire her, frustratingly call her a whore and make up stories about her based on what they believe her to be, a loose woman. Lila is provocative but she remains a virgin until finally being raped by Chimo's friends. What I like about this film is that it is titillating on the surface and creates an illusion of being more erotic than it actually is. In this regard the film is very much like Lila, not because it teases us but because it works on our desires and the imagination that accompanies strong emotions, like displaced fantasies in the absence of our intimate partners. I think this why one woman posted online that she put this movie on a list of films she wants her boyfriend to watch. More than anything else, Lila dit ça is a film about understanding the passion of a desired love. The use of space is very interesting here. Interiors are not comfortable places. Streets are labyrinths. It is only through movement away from these spaces that we feel liberated and it is only in parks and gardens where intimacy is achieved.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1307

by Drew Martin
Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 is a fascinating look into the making of a Steinway grand piano at the company's factory in Queens, New York. L1037 takes a year to make with the skill of hundreds of workers and 12,000 parts. This documentary shows a logging operation/mill in Alaska where a Steinway representative selects the planks of lumber that will be used for the bodies and sound boards of pianos. Another scene captures the delivery of a Steinway to a family where a grandson plays for his relatives, which includes his grandfather. The old man speaks about the continuity of his life through his grandson's musical talent. There are interviews with numerous musicians who talk about the personality of each piano and we see just how fussy some of the best concert pianists can be.  The most interesting interviews are with the workers. Some of them are sound technicians but many of them are very physical craftspeople who speak about the importance of the sense of touch to their work and an overall immeasurable quality of human involvement in the process. What is stressed towards the end of the film, and which you accumulate an appreciation for from the start is the knowledge of the workers, which must be passed on through apprenticeship.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Partners in Time

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Cinévardaphoto. The Netflix blurb for this film is, "How potent is the power of a picture? Filmmaker Agnès Varda asks this question and attempts to answer it in three separate vignettes. In the first, a female artist, Ydessa, collects photographs of teddy bears. But why? Next, the director examines her snapshots from the 1950s, taking a step back in time. The final short captures Cuba after the revolution, full of possibilities and on the brink of otherness."

Cinévardaphoto is narrated in French and has interviews in various languages. Netflix categorizes the film as "cerebral" and "understated." I found the first section most intriguing. "Ydessa" is Ydessa Hendeles and her collection of teddy bear images displayed in the film is from her show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany in 2003. There are two-story rooms filled form floor to ceiling with first-half-of-the-twentieth-century photographs of children, adults, families, sports teams and soldiers. Each picture is nicely matted and framed, and has the unifying element of a teddy bear, who appears as a companion of little kids, a playful element in racy pictures of naked women, a humorous prop in staged photographs of men playing cards and even as a hunted animal. There are teddy bears at family gatherings, trips to the beach and even going off to war. Ydessa explains that the exhibit deludes the viewer into thinking that there is an abundance of such photographs when in fact, they are quite rare. She also downplays the obvious teddy bear theme. She says, the teddy bear show is not a theme show.

"It takes the notion of theme, turns it upside down and inside out. It says, you look superficially at an installation shot and you will think it is a theme, you will think it is a traditional show of typologies and taxonomies but once you get close you will see that it is much more complicated than that and much more challenging than that and much more rigorous in terms of what is being presented. It is not a theme show. It is a narrative that explores world memory."

The show was called Partners. From the pictures, you would assume that the partnership is between the little stuffed bears and their human friends but the show has a twist to it. A stark backroom displays Maurizio Cattelan's statue of a of kneeling Hitler looking heavenward for forgiveness. After seeing the sculpture, the photographic memories that the old picures offer and the crammed display seemed steeped in the Holocaust. Ydessa says, "There was a German trauma there was a Jewish trauma. We are partners in this trauma." The show was in Munich, the capital of the Nazi movement, in the Haus der Kunst, an exhibition hall that once celebrated German and Nazi art. There are teddy bears with nazi embellishments, pictures of Nazis with teddy bears and one mat that was debossed with a swastika. Visitors to the exhibit describe a feeling of claustrophobia in another person's obsession and an extreme emotional shift once they notice Cattelan's Hitler. The collection alone at first seemed odd to me but in light of the Holocaust, I understand and I am impressed by Ydessa's project. The display is not just a gallery hung with images. It works as installation art. The labor and costs of neatly framing the hundreds of images must have been astronomical and although there is nothing monumental in the show, it leaves (even from seeing a film about it) an impression of a massive whole work of art, like a Richard Serra or Anish Kapoor oversized sculpture. A key element to the exhibit is that Ydessa is the child of two survivors of Auschwitz and has very few images and heirlooms of her ancestors.

The bottom picture of the triptych here is of the installation but the other two images here are not from Ydessa's show. The top one is of my father's teddy bear, Hermie, taken on Christmas day in 1940, his second Christmas. There is a picture of him on the desk. The other image is one I took of my four-year-old son a few months ago with my old Ricoh camera, with black and white film. It is a nice image of boyhood. He was attacking me with a bat in one hand, while clutching to his teddy bear in his other hand.