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. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Your People

Recently, I submitted a sample to a company that specializes in autosomal DNA testing. I wanted to see how the results matched what I had been able to unearth while researching my family tree in 1990, before I went to live in Poland. I was able to gather paper evidence and successfully confirm relations four generations back on my mother's and father's sides. In addition to family oral histories, I grew up believing that I was Polish. But what does that mean exactly?

The other day, I got the results of my DNA test and the results were both surprising and unsurprising. Not surprising: I am 100% European. 

But here were the surprising percentage breakdowns: 74% East European; 9% West European; 9% European Jewish; 6% Scandinavian; and 2% Trace Regions (in my case, Great Britain).

Over the centuries, the geographical region of the country we know as Poland was "visited" by many tribes; therefore, the Eastern and Western Europe and European Jewish data are not surprising. However, I really thought that I would have had some Asian ancestry (courtesy of Mongolian "visitors"), but according to the DNA test, that is not the case. I was quite intrigued by the Scandinavian and Great Britain information. 

I've been thinking a lot about the results of this test, wondering if my intense need to travel, explore (if that is, in fact, genetic) may have been inherited from roving Vikings, Celts, Teutons and/or wandering Jewish souls in my makeup. Since the data supposedly goes back 1,000 years, I will never know who these people that left their imprint on me were, but I think perhaps their lives have already been manifested in mine.