Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: History

Six New York Museums And What They Are Good For

The Wilbour Plaque, from the Egyptian Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Good For Actually Learning About Art:

The Brooklyn Museum

While other museums throw piles of art objects behind glass cases with cards that say things like, “Amphora, Corinth, 4th century BCE”, the Brooklyn Museum takes a more down to earth approach. The curators don’t assume that, by virtue of wandering into an art gallery, you must already know what you’re looking at. Instead they tell you what’s up in plain language, often answering questions you didn’t entirely know how to ask.

Venus and the Lute Player, by Titian. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Good For Drowning In Beauty:

The Metropolitan Museum

It’s often difficult to know what, exactly, you’re looking at, and don’t even TRY to see the whole place in one day (or even one lifetime). But the thing about the Metropolitan Museum is that no matter how you approach it or what’s on display, you will always see something that leaves your jaw hanging somewhere around your knees. The collection is just so rich there’s no way to take a wrong turn down a boring hallway full of fusty old junk. The Met doesn’t have any of that.

The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry. In the collection of the Cloisters.

Good For Time Travel:

A tie between The Cloisters and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Maybe you came to New York because you want to see what being a “true New Yorker” is really like. Maybe you are a “true New Yorker”, and you just want to run away to medieval France for the afternoon. Manhattan can do that. And that. The Cloisters is an actual monastery, shipped here brick by brick from France by the Rockefellers, plopped down in a bucolic and period-accurate hilltop garden, and turned into a medieval art museum. The Tenement Museum is an actual tenement, restored to multiple layers of period-accuracy so that you can wander through on guided tours and see what life was like on the Lower East Side from the 1850’s through the 1970’s. They are two of my favorite places in the world.

Henry Clay Frick didn't have a Rembrandt. He had three motherfuckin' Rembrandts. Photo by Ozier Muhamad, via the New York Times.

Good For Pretending To Be New York Royalty:

The Frick Collection

After you’ve had your fill of the Lower East Side, come uptown and see how the rich capitalist fat cats lived. While the Frick Collection is a proper museum with a straight up ridiculous collection of important European art (Vermeers, y’all), a lot of the rooms have been left relatively untouched, with unobstructed views of Fifth Avenue and Central Park. Making it very easy to stroll amid the velvet couches and gilded clocks as if you, too, were to the manor born. But without all that oppressing the working classes.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum, photo via shafe.co.uk.

Good For Digging Deeper And Rollerskates:

The Guggenheim

When the Guggenheim is good, it’s amazing. Since the spiral main space is usually treated as one long ramp of a gallery, the curators have become experts in presenting exhibitions that suck the viewer in. Even as a huge museum nerd, for the most part I go into a gallery, look at a few things that seem interesting, maybe read some of the supplementary materials if they’re not too obnoxious, and then zip off to the next thing. But the Guggenheim doesn’t work that way. I typically go in with only the vaguest notion of who the artist is or what the work is about, and I always come out not only a newly minted expert, but head over heels in love. You can blame this museum for almost all of my artistic obsessions. Even minimalism. If you don’t know a ton about art, but you wish you knew more, make a habit of seeing shows at the Guggenheim. Maybe if we all get together, we can convince them to let us bring our skateboards.

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Traditional Home of the Way Out

The Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1967. I would love it if someone could help me find out who took this photograph.

As I’ve said in the past, I sometimes feel uncomfortable about the place/travel aspect of this blog. I live where I live and am the person that I am. I have the culture that I’ve been brought up with. So to me, everything else is “other” and thus fair game for this website. This is why I like to talk about New York culture, and why I hope to come across an excuse to talk about the South Louisiana/Cajun culture I grew up in. I feel like if I’m talking about my own stuff as often as I’m creating a window on Vietnam or Nigeria or Turkey, at least it’s fair. But then I’m constantly worried that the goal of my blog is to other people through the arts.

I found out this week that someone has already done that. And they’ve done such a good job at it that the piece of American culture they chose to highlight feels not just like another place and time, but another planet.

I’m referring to the BBC documentary series Whicker’s World, in which British journalist Alan Whicker covered social issues in places as diverse as Haiti, Paraguay, and Hong Kong.

In the summer of 1967, Whicker cast his camera lens on San Francisco, and the resulting film is one of those odd examples of earnest British reportage in a world that is decidedly un-earnest — in the case of the UK press reaction to Bob Dylan shown in D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back — or maybe too earnest, in the case of this Whicker’s World thing. The honest, straight ahead, unironic treatment of the Haight-Ashbury scene is wilder for the fact that the hippies are completely honest in return. The documentary doesn’t flinch or attempt to exploit the¬†titillating¬†subject matter, which somehow makes the subject matter seem even stranger.

Poster from the Human Be-In designed by Michael Bowen, with photography by Casey Sonnabend. This event kick-started the Summer Of Love and alerted the media and the wider world to what was going on in San Francisco.

In reality, that world isn’t that far away from me. Yeah, it’s the other side of the country in a city I’ve never actually visited, but it’s a cultural moment that backlit everything that was to come in American culture. My mom had Janis Joplin records as a kid. LSD, not Crack, was the real spectre behind the curtain of After-School Specials and the Just Say No Club. Growing up in America in the eighties, The Sixties was the basis of everything. I don’t think The Summer Of Love stopped being relevant until probably September 11, 2001. And in a lot of ways it’s still relevant. But in Whicker’s documentary, it seems a million miles away. Is this my culture? Is this where I’m from? Worse, what about the society the hippies rejected? If the hippies look bizarre, the larger American culture — as described by the BBC, in any case — feels outright foreign.

I wonder if this is the feeling that inspired Gita Mehta to write Karma Cola?

The past is a Yakov Smirnov joke.

1961 USSR postage stamp celebrating Yuri Gagarin's space flight. via Flickr.

I have a fascination with Soviet Russia, especially the aesthetics of the USSR from the 60’s through the fall of the Iron Curtain. Call it ostalgia if you want. I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, even nowadays when obviously most reminders of the Soviet days are long gone.

I think it comes from the mystique of the Soviet Union as “other” when I was little. I remember taking a theater workshop when I was like seven years old (yes I was always a dork) where we were given the improv prompt “what if a Russian kid moved to your town?”

The teacher was really mad when I said I would ask him what it was like in Russia and try to become his friend.

Via Coolhunting.

Of course, now ostalgia is trendy. A museum of Soviet arcade games recently opened in Moscow.

There are also two recent books on design behind the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain Graphics is a book of Romanian communist poster and propaganda design, while Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is an exploration Russian product design.

A Krugozor cover from 1964. Via krugozor-kolobok.ru

My favorite Soviet product, though is Krugozor, a music magazine published from 1964 through 1991. It came with a flexible record, though I’m having trouble finding out exactly what was on the records. A 99% Invisible podcast episode dedicated to Krugozor claims that the records included sound effects and music, and that somehow the editors were allowed to include rock music. Which sounds weird to me because rock was apparently censored or at least stifled in the Soviet Union at the time. Then again, I’m not up on my Soviet policies on Rock n Roll through the ages — maybe it was only later issues of Krugozor that included that sort of thing, during Perestroika.

It’s really difficult to find out exactly what Krugozor was or what it included, because virtually everything I can find written about it is in Russian. This definitely adds to my fascination with it. If I could read Russian, I would probably discover that Krugozor was the Soviet equivalent of Readers’ Digest, and it would cease to be interesting.

Another Krugozor cover, this time from 1971. Same source.

Sidenote/pointless quasi-proustian reminiscence: For years, there was a Taaka Vodka billboard featuring Yakov Smirnov on Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard (AKA “Vets”, to the extent that I just had to look up the actual name of the street) in New Orleans on the way to the airport. My mother’s parents spent most of the 80’s living in Cameroon, so Driving To The Airport was always a momentous occasion. I will always ever so vaguely associate world travel, the Cold War, AIDS, terrorism, apartheid, Ronald Reagan, and Duty Free, with Taaka Vodka. For no reason other than that this billboard happened to exist and perfectly symbolize everything my five year old brain didn’t understand about the world. (I still totally don’t understand Duty Free.)

The place the music was born

Phil and Ronnie Spector. I tried really hard to find out who took this photo.

As a blogger with a day job in the film industry, I try to adhere to one simple ground rule: never write about work.

This is usually pretty easy to remember because of the piles of nondisclosure forms I have to sign every time I start a new gig.

But this time is a little different. I’m not going to tell you the name of the project I’m working on right now, or even what kind of thing it is. But I have to tell you this.

Our office is in the Brill Building!

The Brill Building is an Art Deco cupcake in architectural form. Honestly, it’s cool just to be working in a funky old building with a gilded lobby, arched windows, and, oh, Jesus, the bathroom. The subway tile is etched with craquelure so you know it’s been there since before subway tile was cool. The sinks might be my favorite part: wide porcelain pedestals with two taps, one for hot water and one for cold. Our floor of the building is a warren of tiny offices – no bullpens or expansive loft-like Work Spaces here. I can imagine a young Don Draper, fresh from the Korean War, sitting in these offices looking at paste-ups for next Christmas’ fur coat ads circa 1953.

But I don’t have to imagine what sorts of people might have worked in my office once upon a time. I know the answer to that already. The Brill Building is probably the only office building in the world with a genre of music named after it. In the middle of the last century, it was the epicenter of the American commercial pop music industry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written in this building, as were probably half the songs performed by girl groups in the 60’s. Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” all happened here. Paul Simon maybe still has offices in the building? A lot of the spaces on our floor are suggestive of recording studios, with internal windows between rooms, soundproofing, and holes cut into the walls to facilitate running cable.

Anyway, that’s where I work. I can’t tell you what I do here, or what we’re working towards. But there’s a strong chance the ghost of Ellie Greenwich is reading this over my shoulder.

UPDATE: So, yesterday when I was researching this post (yes, sometimes I actually research stuff, shut up), I happened upon a music podcast called Sounds Ace, which recently did a special episode about the Brill Building sound. I didn’t get to listen to it until after I wrote my post, but omigod, it’s BRILLIANT. It’s exactly the playlist I’d have put together if I’d provided a musical component, minus maybe one cheesy Neil Diamond song. So if you just read this and got inspired to listen to some Shirelles, Shangri-Las, and Ronettes, you should go give Esther’s stuff a listen over at Sounds Ace.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Also I just discovered that Sounds Ace is made by Esther C. Werdiger, who also makes some of my most favorite comics, via The Hairpin. OMG can you feel the girl crush in the air? CAN YOU?????

I don’t want this to be happening.

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg do not want. Photo blatantly stolen from Awesome People Hanging Out Together. Unfortunately I was not able to figure out who took the photograph.

There’s a trailer for the On The Road movie.

I… just. Look. I don’t want to be one of those jerks. I stayed up till three in the morning watching episodes of Game of Thrones, despite loving the Song of Ice and Fire novels. I even like some pretty high-falutin’ books adapted into movies, like The Motorcycle Diaries (oh, man, I’m going to have to do a post on that one day), True Grit, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. And yet.

I feel like there’s an invisible line we all know is there, a creative equator, if you will. On The Road is on the other side of that equator. It’s sacred territory. You can’t do it justice in a movie.

Am I going to see it? Probably on opening night. I hope it’s every bit the abomination I say it’s going to be.

Chthonic is a nice word.

Basilica Cistern engraving by Thomas Allom. Featured in Robert Walsh's book Constantinople, published in 1839.

Did you ever think, “I want to go to there!” and then realize that you’d already been there? And that it was every bit as amazing as it looked in the picture?

This is the Basilica Cistern, in Istanbul (which was Constantinople when this engraving was made!). It’s an underground water… uh, cistern… that was created so that Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul would be impervious to siege tactics. Seriously, the city stored years worth of food and water and encouraged all Constantinopelians* to do the same, so that if there were ever attacks on the city, they could simply outlast their attackers. This actually worked, and is part of why Istanbul is such an old city that it’s had three different names so far.

Photo by Sara Clarke

No longer used to store water, the cistern is so impressive that it’s become a tourist trap very popular with visitors to Istanbul. Which is fine, because seriously, this place is Creepy Looking. There are crazy medusa heads, huge ghostly fish, and the lighting is super eerie. You should go.

You should also go check out Old Book Illustrations, which is where I found the engraving above. They have a bunch of interesting Orientalist engravings of Turkey on their blog today.

Bonus photo:

This is possibly my favorite picture that I took in Istanbul. Inside the Basilica Cistern, for reasons that I hope are obvious to everyone, there’s a spot where you can dress up in Byzantine costume and be photographed by this dude. For money, I imagine. Anyway, I snapped a picture of these people in the process of negotiating their Old Timey photo. Which was probably wrong, especially since now I’m putting it on my blog, and for all I know they’re nice middle class folks from Bursa who totally read traveling artsy fartsy blogs just like this one every day (Hey guys!).

Seriously, that emo girl is definitely in my key demographic. Photo by Sara Clarke.

*I fully just made this up. I have no idea what demonym is appropriate to describe people living in Constantinople before they became known as Istanbullus like they are today.

Dream Job: Museum Cat Caretaker

I wonder if this is what the Hermitage cat caretaker feels like on Monday morning? "Daniel in the Lions' Den" by Peter Paul Rubens. Photo by Son Of Groucho, via Flickr.

Once upon a time — back when it was an Imperial palace rather than an art museum — the Hermitage had a bit of a rodent problem. Empress Elizabeth came up with the obvious solution: kittehs! Almost three hundred years later, there are still feline exterminators living deep in the underbelly of the museum.

The second best thing about this is that there is a person whose actual job it is to take care of the Hermitage cats.

The first best thing? Apparently, at some point one of the cats escaped the basement and traveled through the walls of the palace for a week in order to reach the museum galleries. Now that’s what I call devotion to art.

 

On a slightly different note, Empress Elizabeth of Russia sounds pretty bad ass in general. Even if there is no evidence that she ever commissioned an official Cats In Racks portrait.

Via Art Fag City.

A distant mountain looms ever closer

The Buyuk Valide Sultan Han, Istanbul. This caravanserai was built in the 17th century by the mother of Sultan Murat IV. It's still in use today, though probably not selling silk or jewels. Photo by Sara Clarke.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Silk Road. Sometimes at night, if I can’t sleep, I imagine I’m not under an Ikea duvet in my Brooklyn apartment but instead bedding down in a caravanserai somewhere between Trebizond and Palmyra, circa 1350. For some reason, this always helps me drift off. It’s better than counting sheep.

One amazing thing about visiting Istanbul (probably the dorkiest amazing thing) was the fact that caravanserais still exist there. In Turkish they’re called hans, and a lot of them are still in use from the times when merchants crossed deserts on camels loaded down with silks and incense. Did I mention that Constantinople was the Western terminus of the Silk Road?

Nowadays the caravanserais are mostly used as home bases for far less exotic enterprises: in Turkey “han” is still the word for a sort of proto strip mall, a courtyard lined with shops selling headscarves or kitchen knives or knockoff Adidas sneakers. There’s usually an upper level for storage and whatever else you use the “back room” of a shop for anywhere else in the world. Once upon a time, back in the Silk Road days, merchants lived in these upper level rooms, and they watered their camels at a fountain at the center of the courtyard.

I did a little prowling around in some of the old hans of Constantinople, but it wasn’t enough. I think what I really want is to be a time traveler. Honestly, this is what all travelers to places like Istanbul probably want: to see an exotic old world that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever really did.

And, thus, I am considering buying a PS3 in order to get this video game and make my nighttime daydreams a reality:

Screenshot from Journey, developed by Thatgamecompany. Image blatantly stolen from BoingBoing.

It’s called Journey, and it’ll be available March 14. My birthday is the 29th. Coincidence? Hey, it would be cheaper than getting me a spot on one of those fancy Silk Road tours that carefully shelters rich Westerners through the backwaters (backdeserts? backsteppes?) of Uzbekistan to visit the ruins of places like Samarkand and Tashkent. Though I would also accept that as a birthday present, no worries there.

For true Silk Road dorks and ethnomusicology geeks, I highly recommend any of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project collaborations (buy on iTunes if you want your fellow ethnomusicology dorks to eat dinner tonight). This is music for mental time travelers.

H/T Boing Boing for the thing about the video game.

Our Lady Of Wisdom

Photo by Sara Clarke.

A couple days ago I asked the question, “Is preservation always the right thing to do?”

Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia — or Ayasofya, as it’s known in modern Turkish — is a prime example of that dilemma.

On the one hand, it’s possibly the most beautiful building ever. It was built by the emperor Justinian in 537 AD, so it’s obviously of historical interest. As a church it was converted from the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople to a Roman Catholic cathedral from 1204 to 1261, and then in 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror chose to preserve it as a mosque. So it’s also a holy place for people of various religions. There is no question that Hagia Sofia is worthy of historical preservation.

I’m going to ask that question anyway.

What if Ayasofya had been allowed to fester as Istanbul city life crept away from the old Byzantine center?

Photo by Sara Clarke.

What if Mehmet hadn’t been interested? (Which is a whole other architectural question, really, since the archetypal mosque structure used worldwide can be traced to Hagia Sofia, but let’s leave that for now.)

Photo by Sara Clarke.

What if Ataturk and the other founding fathers of the modern Turkish state had been a little more Soviet in their approach to religion and had closed it down rather than turning it into a museum?

Photo by Sara Clarke

What if they’d been a little more American in their approach and had let it stand as a mosque until attendance dropped and the building sank into disrepair, only to be turned into a shopping mall when Istanbul’s fortunes improved?

I guess the question I’m asking here is, how does the act of historic preservation affect — or maybe the right word is reflect — the march of history itself? What would Istanbul be in 2012 without Hagia Sofia, or with a Hagia Sofia that is still the mosque of Ayasofya, or the Mall Of Enlightenment, or a derelict site explored by intrepid travel photographers?

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