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 StripteaseCindy Sherman's disturbing 1985 Untitled #153and Andres Serrano's 1990 Nomads (Payne) also made an impression on my internal 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.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Extreme Neighborhood-Hopping

The other day, a friend and I explored The 606, a 2.7-mile elevated walkway (somewhat like New York City's High Line) that opened last June and connects several neighborhoods northwest of Chicago's Loop. We entered at an eastern point in Wicker Park/Bucktown and walked for a bit and then took a bus to Logan Square, where we entered the trail again from the western side. Quite pleasant, this trail - walkers, joggers, bikers, dogs, and children moved along with no altercations, and pretty (albeit stinky) Callery pears lined the route while other landscaping held the promise of blooms in the coming months. It was fun to look down at the streets as we passed above and to see the residences abutting the trail. I also appreciated the clear signage. I'm a big fan of this attention to detail which, when absent or incompetently done, can make for a frustrating experience. Though not without controversy, I think The 606 is a good use of an abandoned rail line.

We took another bus or two for 14 miles down to the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park to listen to Michael Phillips (film critic of the Chicago Tribune) and A.O. Scott (film critic for The New York Times) discuss the latter's book, Better Living Through Criticism. Topics included the difference between opinion and criticism, the Disney film Ratatouille, film festivals, and the importance/relevance of film critics today amidst so much amateur criticism via social media, and the pressure to review films and other art quickly. Phillips and Scott agreed that restaurant and theater critics wield more power than film critics do insofar as "making or breaking" a new venture are concerned, whereas people will see a film (or not) irrespective of criticism.

Yet another bus + train combination (the Brown Line, one of my favorites because instead of being underground, you ride several stories above the world, moving through an Escher painting of buildings) to another destination 15 miles away - this time, all the way up to the Music Box theater in Wrigleyville to see The Invitation, one of the best, scariest films I've seen in a while. The sound editing and set design in particular were superb, but the acting and pacing of the story made for an edge-of-your seat thrilling escape. My seat neighbor had his T shirt pulled up to cover the lower half of his face for much of the film and it alleviated the tension somewhat to count the number of times people jumped or gasped throughout our 99 minutes together in the dark. I admit to being among those spooked.

On the Brown Line again south to Printer's Row and Cafe Meli for a hamburger and glass of red wine, a good way to end a day of intense neighborhood-hopping.