Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: Philosophizing

Art and Place

Vintage Pan Am destination guide covers designed by George Tscherny. Via Container List.

It’s a little bit difficult to explain to people what my blog is about. Travels With Gloria germinated as a travel blog about art. I’d write about where to find the best Caravaggio paintings in Rome, how to score Coachella tickets, the ethics of travel photography, and whether maha-tourism sites like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal are worth visiting. In January I took a month off from other kinds of writing, meditated on the fetus of TWG, and somehow she took a left turn and became the blog you see before you. I like where she’s going, but what the hell is this about, anyway?

Baggage, by Chris Stott. This is a fricken PAINTING, y'all. Via Chris Stott, via Jen Bekman's tumblr.

I tend to tell people that I write a blog about Art and Place. This sounds pretentious, and I’m pretty sure it boils down to writing a blog that isn’t about much of anything. I especially started to feel this way when I was trying to brainstorm posts to write about my trip to Istanbul in February. I spent a lot of that trip exploring Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, which according to the New York Times is Kind Of A Big Deal these days. I saw lots of interesting work, and even more interesting curatorial approaches. And yet a lot of what I saw was not really all that Turkish.

Of course, I saw piles of work by Turkish artists. But what does it mean for art to be Turkish? A lot of the art I saw that was made by Turkish people looked pretty much just like the art that is being made by Americans, or Germans, or Israelis. Just, you know, art. The sort of art that fills galleries all over the world and doesn’t inspire anyone to say, “Wow, look how American/ German/Israeli this art is!” Very little of it — in fact, pretty much NONE of the contemporary works by young Turkish artists that I saw — seemed to be about being Turkish, or what Turkey is today, or to offer a perspective on Turkish history or culture. Which is fine, obviously.

Is this worthy of posting on my blog only if the artist is Malaysian or something? Marion Jdanoff, silkscreen. Via BOOOOOOOM.

But it made me wonder. Why do I feel compelled to write these posts about people like Keith Haring and Patti Smith in New York, or Nuria Mora in Madrid, or Carrie Brownstein in Portland? What causes those artists to be associated with certain places while there are millions of painters and musicians all over the world who aren’t associated with any particular place at all? Damian Hirst could be from Nebraska or Capetown as easily as he could be from London. Frankly, I’m not even sure he’s from London. Maybe he’s from Glasgow or Manchester. Does it matter?

Maybe the answer is in something the Somalian rapper K’Naan said about Fela Kuti:

Fela was, himself, an African. He was an African in front of Africans, he was an African in front of Europeans, and Americans, and anywhere in the world. He brought himself as a fully African human being who had something to contribute to sound and your mentality of things — without any concealing of any part of his heritage — exposing an entire sound to the world.

Maybe what these artists share is that particular interest in expressing place and their culture to the rest of the world.

Or maybe there’s no answer at all. Maybe it’s all racist bullshit. Maybe this piece is “about” Mexico because it’s about an aspect of Mexican culture that I, a white person and an outsider, recognize:

Gabriel Dawe, From the Plexus series. Site specific installation in thread and wood. Via Coolhunting.

Maybe I wouldn’t recognize that some other artist is even Mexican at all. Maybe none of the Turkish contemporary art was Turkish enough for me because I don’t know fuck all about what it means to be Turkish. Maybe I’m looking for carpets and Odalisques and Osman Hamdi Bey. Perhaps this blog will find a way to get people thinking about some of these questions, even if I can’t possibly answer them. In the meantime, I plan to continue posting dorky rants about Korean soap operas and how much I want to go to Uzbekistan. So I hope you like that sort of thing.

P.S. Do you guys want to know about Caravaggio paintings and music festivals and whether the Taj Mahal is worth it or what? Because I can do that, too. I think this is a little more interesting, but maybe that would bring in some more traffic. What do you guys think?

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?

What Makes Art Foreign?

Shi Le Seeking The Way, Fu Baoshi ca. 1945.

I was combing the internet looking for ideas for a quick post. Provençal street art? Indo-Caribbean miniature painting? Some ridiculous band? I thought I’d found an idea — apparently the Metropolitan Museum has a retrospective on modernist Chinese lanscape painter Fu Baoshi. The work is haunting, seeming to exist in the space between tradition and innovation, classicism and globalist fusion. Fu painted during the Maoist era, which is obviously fascinating.

I clicked over to the the Met’s website to see what else is going on there that might be worth a look-see. Except for a revonated American Wing, all the current exihibitions feature art from far-flung locales. There are shows about Renaissance portraiture and the notion of the heroic in African art. The Persian and Central Asian collections have been revitalized. And yet the only show that screams EXOTIC PLACES to me is the one about China. (There’s also an exhibition on narrative forces in Japanese art which seems equally exotic, but I saw the Fu Baoshi retrospective first.)

Portrait of a Young Woman, Lorenzi di Credi ca. 1490

Why is that? Why is European art “home” to me, and Persia and Africa not really worth a mention? Why do I mentally go to Asia if I want a post for my blog about art and travel? Frankly, very little of the art in the Metropolitan Museum is of New York. Museums like this were opened as great curiosity cabinets, windows on foreign lands so far away they were inconceivable.  Nowadays I’m not sure we see them that way. European art is “ours” — we learn about it in school and put posters of it up on our college dorm room walls.  Egypt, Greece and Rome are part of the same mythological continuum.  For an American it goes something like Egypt -> Greece -> Rome -> Charlemagne -> Renaissance Italy -> Shakespeare -> British Empire -> USA. We don’t think about how foreign all of that is. I was born in Louisiana.  My genetic ancestors are from the French-German border and Sweden by way of Scotland and Ireland. Why do I feel like anything Chinese is worthy of a travel blog post, whereas Renaissance Italy is not?

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