Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Call of Elsewhere

"Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can." - Virginia Reed (one of the survivors in the Donner-Reed Party) to her cousin, quoted in Joan Didion's Where I was From.

Happy Fall! It is in fall and spring that I feel most restless, a sense of impending change or that I MUST change something, must move or keep moving. Now that I think of it, my European trips since returning to the States have indeed happened in May and October.

The white egrets and blue herons have left one of the ponds I pass on my bike rides. Red leaves have begun to appear, the light has become more focused, and there are more acorns and horse chestnuts that I need to swerve around so that I won't be pitched to the ground.

Never take no cutoffs: Joan Didion (one of my favorite writers) was descended from pioneers who made their way west across the country in the 1800s to settle in Sacramento; in fact, they were among the first settlers there. She questions the impetus for this movement from the south and east and wonders what the ultimate effect was, both on her and her family and on the very essence of what California came to be.

Earlier this year, The Criterion Collection released Wim Wenders' Road Trilogy which includes: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road. I watched all three recently and they moved me (as all his films do) with the melancholy experienced by his protagonists even after they have reached their often-nebulous goals. More movement, whether running away from or towards something or a bit of both.

The Call of Elsewhere: I also recently watched Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, another Criterion documentary just released last month. I have always admired in Bergman her fortitude, self-respect, and of course, her acting. Among other highlights of this film, we hear Swedish actress Alicia Vikander read the words Bergman wrote in her diary as a young girl in Stockholm and then as she matured, went to Hollywood, and eventually back to Europe. Although our circumstances couldn't be more different, I identify strongly with the pull she felt - even when at the height of her success - the restlessness that she defined as "the call of elsewhere," and responding to it like the flyttfagel (migratory bird) she often said she was.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Low Humming of Bees

The title of this post comes from "Orpheus and Eurydice," a Czeslaw Milosz poem I was reading as I sat in De Revolutionibus, a bookstore off of Krakow’s Main Square. I could hear the clop-clop of horses’ hooves, violin music drifting in from somewhere, birds chirping, church bells ringing, and people softly murmuring. You can’t blame me for drifting off for a nap, during which I dreamed that I lived in a place where I would hear only these sounds, feel gentle breezes and smell summer sun for the rest of my natural life. I was so happy when I woke up!

My nap arrived at the end of a full week of activities and fun, which produced similar euphoric moments. I attended the European Mensa Annual Gathering last week in one of my favorite cities in the world: Krakow, Poland. In addition to taking part in a number of stimulating events and intellectual pursuits, I gave a presentation about smart and thoughtful travel. The attendees were astute, funny, and lively and my talk gradually morphed into a discussion about how best to go from one place to another (and why we do so) while making the most of the experience. It was a learning exchange on both sides as we shared thoughts gleaned from adventures around the world.

You should want to get lost in Krakow’s cobble-stoned medieval streets, even if you know the city well. I have visited several times over the years, but still found new things to discover during a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz again (this time, with a historian guide who informed us, among many other things, that the Gucci family had built one of the synagogues there), the Jagiellonian University, a couple of historic pharmacies, a 14th-century bourgeois home, gold-laden Baroque churches, innovatively-curated art exhibitions, and an ever-growing range of restaurants featuring Polish cuisine of course, but expanding outward, too. Luck would have it that the Pierogi Festival was taking place during our visit; we/I partook in the Ruskie variety made with potatoes, onions, and farmer’s cheese. I also indulged in parowky (a.k.a. hot dogs), zapiekanki (a.k.a. pizza), and delicious lody (a.k.a. ice cream). But it did not end there: we/I also enjoyed French, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Thai and vegetarian/vegan food.

On this trip, I stayed in Podgorze, a fascinating area south of the Vistula that once contained the Jewish ghetto and still retains many original buildings, like the significant Apteka Pod Orlem. The street on which my hotel was situated – Ulica Piwna – was the main street which ran through the ghetto. Somewhat jarringly from a historical perspective, you can also find lots of street art in the form of graffiti and murals, empty lots, new apartment buildings, Tao, ZaKladka, and Cawa, where on my last night in Krakow, I sat with Polish people drinking wine under an awning watching both the setting sun beyond the Father Bernatek Footbridge (like Paris’s Pont des Artes complete with lovers’ locks) and the simultaneously pouring rain. Podgorze is also home to Schindler’s Factory and MOCAK, which currently has a fascinating, though quease-inducing show on medicine in art. Nearby, you can find the old walls of the ghetto, from which a ten-year-old Roman Polanski escaped.

My still-fresh memories of this trip continue to form, and will no doubt merge with prior memories of visits to Krakow; they will eventually solidify until I visit again. It’s a rich thing to have had such a layered experience of this city over the past 25 years. At the moment, I can say that the following experiences stood out the most: two shows at separate National Museum in Krakow locations – one about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wyslawa Szymborska, and another highlighting the paintings of EwaKuryluk; a Max Ernst show; the Pharmacy Museum; a tour of the Stalin-era steelworks plant’s nuclear bunkers in Nowa Huta (where we begged our tour guide to show us the usually-off-limit second floor rooms filled with Soviet Social Realist art and architecture – glorious in its starkness); and a Let Me Out experience. If you haven’t tried it, you should. In fact, if you haven't tried Krakow yet, it is time.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Women of Vision and Witness

Two photography exhibitions in Chicago reinforce the power of images to tell stories: the newly-opened Witness, at  the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment at the Field Museum.

At the Field Museum, you can see the work of 11 National Geographic photographers and hear about their beginnings in a career mostly (and still) dominated by men. A key reason some of these women were able to get a foothold in this world was because they had access to women as subjects in countries where the sexes were/are strictly segregated. I especially liked the images of Afghan women, African animals, and Central Asian life. Particularly engaging was the part of the exhibition that explained how and why the photo editors chose to publish certain shots over others as an essential requirement for effective storytelling through pictures.

For me, the most remarkable piece of Witness was Alfredo Jaar's 2006 "The Sound of Silence." Here is what New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote. I had the same impressions when I experienced this event (it is an event and not a simple gaze-and-go). I was moved to tears, but also felt manipulated (like when we see other painful photos designed to elicit just this effect?) and then confused, and finally, just sad. Other images in this show include Walker Evans' entrancing NYC subway portraits (taken between 1938-1941), the more notable because the subjects were captured unaware. David Hockney's 1983 "Gregory Loading His Camera" depicts a Cubist-inspired portrait of the photographer's friend. Sophie Calle's 1988 "The Striptease," Cindy Sherman's disturbing 1985 "Untitled #153," and Andres Serrano's 1990 " Nomads (Payne)" also imprinted themselves on my permanent hard drive.

For the Birds

I've been thinking a lot about birds lately. I met the artist Tony Fitzpatrick on Sunday at the DePaul Art Museum, where he had dropped in with his wife to spend time with visitors to his exhibition, The Secret Birds. Fitzpatrick can best be described as a Chicago-based Renaissance man (artist, actor, playwright) whose art is collected by, among others, Helen MacDonald (author of the lovely memoir H is for Hawk) and John Cusack. Bruce Lee and Lou Reed were his friends.

We talked about the delicate balance of humans and wild creatures in urban and suburban environments. I mentioned how much I'd liked his recent post in Newcity about a peregrine falcon experience in Daley Plaza. Fitzpatrick told me about a visit to New York City, where a walking/birding tour in Central Park was led by Jonathan Franzen, another enthusiastic birder. We talked about The Genius of Birds and The Urban Bestiary.

On my long bike rides, I've gradually become attuned to the sights and sounds of a variety of birds along different parts of my route, a kind of bird map of the territory. These include cardinals, goldfinches, towhees, indigo buntings, bluebirds, red-wing blackbirds, swallows, catbirds, mockingbirds (my personal favorites), blue jays, starlings, hawks, Baltimore orioles, chickadees, robins, etc. I've even been able to distinguish slight differences among songs by the same species in separate areas, kind of a regional dialect.

Birds are all around us, but sometimes it takes a concerted effort to register their presence. I may have been the only one who noticed the following situation recently: at a Chicago train station, a man was passed out on a bench. A newly-fledged starling from a nest in the rafters above decided that the man's hip was both a good resting place and launching place to practice its flying. A nervous parent swooped down occasionally to make encouraging noises to its offspring as the man continued to sleep unaware.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Kerry, Andy* and Cindy

I saw the Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall's show, Mastry, at the Museum of Contemporary Art last week. A 35-year retrospective of his moody portrait paintings, Marshall fused references to contemporary black culture and civil rights history with sly homages to artists as diverse as Piet Mondrian and Velazquez. This show continues through September 25th. Also at the museum, I enjoyed the British artist Phil Collins's film about Bogota musicians who recorded an instrumental version of The Smith's 1987 album, The World Won't Listen.

Later in the week, I went to The University Club to hear PEN American Center president and acclaimed author Andrew Solomon speak about his latest book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change. In this collection of travel essays spanning the past 25 years, Solomon described his interactions with Russian, Chinese, and South African artist in the 1980s, when those countries were on the brink of change and when those artists had the most to lose by making art. I was particularly moved by his essay on Greenland, a country (also the world's largest island) with the lowest per capita population, but one which has the highest suicide rate and neither the vocabulary nor the tradition to discuss isolation and loneliness. In Indonesia, Solomon spent time in an unusual community, many of whose members are deaf due to a recessive gene. He said that everyone (hearing and non-hearing) communicated with each other with a sign language unique to that group alone. In another remarkable passage, Solomon tells of searching for his Jewish roots in Romania. When gazing at the stooped farmers in the field and the uninspiring village, he was struck with the realization that the ancestors of those very people had chased away his ancestors...and what a good thing that actually was in the end, despite the obvious negatives. In Senegal, Solomon was persuaded to undergo an exorcism for his depression - this involved quantities of ram's blood, among other things. In the final chapter of the book, Solomon's near-death diving experience in Australia sent chills down my spine. In conclusion, the author expressed his belief that "...if everyone in the world could spend two weeks in another country, 2/3 of the world's diplomacy problems would be eradicated."

Then I met a friend at Cindy's, located at the top of the Chicago Athletic Association, newly-restored and opened one year ago. It's a trendy place, fun, crowded, with interesting elixirs to choose from. I had a Golden Bear and afterwards, my friend and I went out to the safety of the patio to gaze at the NFL Draft hordes down below.

* Although I had the opportunity to talk with Andrew Solomon, we are not even close to a place where I would refer to him as Andy. This post's title was contrived - with perhaps unsuccessful results - but there it is.