Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ethiopia: My Hunger Games

by Drew Martin
It is interesting that the country that I first associate with hunger, Ethiopia, because of the 1983-1985 famine that led to nearly half a million deaths, is home to one of my favorite cuisines. A good Ethiopian restaurant also defines for me a livable neighborhood, such as one I frequent in New York, and others I have visited in D.C., Boston, Cambridge, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Amsterdam.

The traditional dining experience is centered around one of my favorite food-related sculptural objects, the mesob (pictured second from top), a colorful, wicker basket/table with a conical lid, which is filled with a large plate covered with injera, a spongy bread that is something like an edible washcloth. The most authentic injera is grayish brown because of teff flour, but many restaurants serve a whiter, wheat-flour version, which is never as good as the teff injera. The injera is covered with different islands of mushy but delicious, legumes, vegetables, and meats (although vegetarian combinations are filling and satisfying on their own).

A world away in America, the mid-80s Ethiopian famine was not only on people’s minds because it got a lot of press here, but because it created a social response through popular media. The U.K.’s assembled Band Aid with the likes of Bob Geldof, Phil Collins, Bono, George Michael, Sting, Boy George, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie (plus others) sang their hearts out so people would reach into their pockets and donate to relief efforts. Their song Do They Know It’s Christmas? was created with good intentions but it was totally self-righteous, and offensive with a superiority theme and idiotic lyrics such as "And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime…Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow…." 

Even worse was the album cover (pictured third from top) with a kitsch Christmas-themed collage of illustrations and vintage photographs of spoiled white kids in contrast to two poor and malnourished Ethiopian children, covered in flies, with what appear to be Pop-Tarts in their hands.

A U.S. approach followed on the heels of this with a slightly-better We Are The World, which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, and featured a sea of performers including, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. But like the U.K. project, and despite raising a lot of money, this effort had its criticism and got lost in the hype/ego and fame of the performers.

Fortunately, the American view of Ethiopia has improved, and while not much is still known/discussed here, the stereotypes of great endurance runners, beautiful people, and delicious food are positive. While many people may not know Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, fewer probably grasp that Ethiopian scientists have contributed to advances in satellite radio systems, superfast computers, and genetic engineering.

On a recent trip to Boston, I stayed at a dorm-like residence in a lively neighborhood in the South End. For my first night I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant around the corner, and for my second night I walked to Cambridge to go to an Eritrean restaurant I had passed on an earlier trip. When I mentioned to the waitress I had not tried Eritrean food before, she said it is basically Ethiopian food, and when I ordered a beer with my spinach and collard greens dish, they only had Ethiopian brews. Despite the familiar mesob and injera, I thought it was better in that it was spicier.

I told the beer specialist at my local liquor store back home about the beers I had, and how I was disappointed they did not serve Eritrean beer at the Eritrean restaurant. He mentioned the Frank Zappa quote:

You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Ethiopia has more than a dozen beers. One of my favorite is a fairly new (2013) amber version of the St. George (pictured bottom). They also have Ethiopian Airlines. Eritrea has at least one beer, Asmara, as well as a fleet of planes for Eritrean Airlines, although it has been banned from flying into the European Union since 2012.

Listen/watch: Do They Know It's Christmas?

Listen/watch: We Are The World

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Dream Installation

by Drew Martin
Last week I had a dream that I was in a museum with a group of people. The most interesting space was one large, dimly-lit, earth-toned room, which had a mesmerizing sculptural installation.

The work was a large artificial field with waist-high swaying synthetic stalks. You could tug on the perimeter to expand it from one side of the room, and you could also walk into it to discover hidden things: a naked lover, lost toys, forgotten things.

It was a dream within a dream but was presented as a work of art. And while this work does not actually exist, it is one of my favorite art works because of the physical interaction that revealed desires and longings. It had the presence of an Anne Hamilton exhibit with the thinking of a late-Duchamp, or perhaps even Karl Schwitters.

Perhaps it is just a dream, or maybe something new - Field of Dreams, a dream installation by Drew Martin, 2014.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Happy Meal at the Strip Mall

by Drew Martin
Last night I had a dream that I was going to look at an academy for my son, who is going to high school next year. I drove into some remote part of northern New Jersey, and parked my car in a big, almost empty lot next to a cheap, one-story stand-alone building with wrap-around windows, which had the poor architectural sensibility of a stripmall. I walked around the structure to try to find the academy and noticed an oversize jacuzzi inside, which was full of naked couples joyfully jumping up and down. I stopped to look and noticed that the pairings were odd. For every older out-of-shape person was a younger fit counterpart, not unlike a fitness trainer. I went inside and sat down next to the pool of water and watched everyone having a good time, albeit somewhat scripted. When the others noticed that I was not part of the group, I got up and left. Right on my heels was a slinky Korean lady named Jenny. She was trying to be affectionate and intimate. I found her very attractive but was confused by whether or not she was sincere or if this was part of this organization's recruitment. I peeled away and walked along the road trimmed with uninspired woods accented with large glacial rocks.

I walked by a little boarded-up town. There was an aircraft museum with a jet outside, which I thought my son might like, but it was also closed. I saw a frumpy little woman and I inquired about the name of the town. She replied, "A town that has been abandoned." I looked around at a few signs and surmised that this place was called Rybnik, which means fishpond in several Slavic languages, whose countries also used this word for names of towns. I spent the night in a hotel and then at dusk of the following day I returned to the building to see what might be happening. First, I walked by a nearby stripmall. I saw Jenny in front of me, and she stepped into a nail salon and greeted her friends and then left to go to work at the building. She was wearing a long, flowery skirt and a conservative jacket. When she saw me she got embarrassed and ran inside.  I walked over to the building and heard a band of misfits playing music outside a side entrance. The musicians and other locals looked as if they had never left the area. They were mutated and rough around the edges. They only played for a few minutes, like it was the introduction to a late-night TV show, and then they all stopped and looked in the windows.

It was obvious that this was a nightly ritual, and their main source of entertainment. Inside, the jacuzzi pool was still; empty of naked revelers. This evening the space was filled with a wrap-around, informal dinner table full of guests/tourists who looked like they had been bused in from the Midwest. Peppered around them were the paid, soon-to-be-naked employees, but the conversation was being directed by a few old, heavy set men with robust voices, who were kick-starting conversations about football and engaging the tourists. 
It was obvious from the mumblings of the locals that all the prompts were scripted, and that this was just the start of an evening of events that would conclude with the jacuzzi romp.

It was a peculiar dream because it was about a modern culture that needs to have a scripted dinner party and evening events to have a good time. The jacuzzi part of the dream came from something I recently saw - 
Slavoj Žižek's look at the Santa Barbara wine festival romp scene in the movie Seconds with Rock Hudson, in his psychoanalytical look at films - The Pervert's Guide to Ideology.

Click here to see the scene from Seconds.