Monday, September 29, 2014

Les Lundis du Louvre

Hello... Do you come here often?
Every Monday we go to the Louvre. This is our big gift to the children, and, it turns out, to ourselves and our survey courses and our thinking about The Big Picture of art history. I have not chronicled these as I would wish, but then it's only now that I realize that there's a routine, that we've actually been doing this for six weeks in a row. The kids led the way today, and because we were finishing up Greek art and starting Etruscan and Roman art, they knew the way. Gift may be too ideal a word (the Louvre is always crowded, stuffy, echo-y, and splendid all at once), but the kids are into it - each with their Louvre notebook that they sketch and write answers to my wacky questions in - and that is the greatest gift. We ended our visit today in the Roman galleries, with Caracalla here glowering at us (he's the one who killed his brother and had his memory damned - damnatio memoriae - he was about as nice as his portrait busts make him look!).

We started the day in the Hellenistic galleries, late Greek art and its fabulous dilemmas and paradoxes and complexities. I found several new works I want to teach, especially this Hermes - he's pausing in the act of putting on his sandals so as to listen to the message that Zeus wants him to bear. The puzzle is to try and figure out, is Hermes being asked to bring glad tidings, or horrible news? This was the cause of much discussion based on facial expression, body language, what people thought of Hermes in the first place. And what is the idea of a god caught in the act of doing something as mundane as tying his shoe? The dilemma there, of the divine caught up in the ordinary, really fascinated Oliver and he went back a couple of times to confront the statue. Hermes has his body folded in upon himself in such a way as to make you think... (for you to decide!)

We came up with several titles for our dilemmas: "cute and cruel" for that horrid little boy who is strangling a goose; "pain and pleasure" for Pan pulling a thorn out of a satyr's foot; "good and gruesome" for the man dressed in a sheepskin skinning and gutting a deer. Eleanor chose this satyr to write about. She said she liked the weirdness of his smile - he's really happy and he looks really happy, she reasoned, but then, chances are he's also drunk. So is this the real him happy or the drunk him happy? Does the drunk him rule out the real him? (Her questions) Bottom line, she liked him. There are a lot of Pan and Silenus figures in the Room of the Caryatids - that Hellenistic pull towards the weird and compromised, a nice smooth contrapposto all but impossible anymore - satyrs grinning at children. Oof!

Iris, mighty Iris, chose the Nike of Samothrace to think, talk, write about. I asked her what she thought the dilemma was there, and she said (and I wrote this down) "She keeps on going despite an obvious wind." I just love that phrase, "an obvious wind" - there are a lot of those out there, it's a great great life metaphor. It's also an exuberantly defiant piece of sculpture: wings of marble, wet drapery in stone - all of it. Diaphanous drapery, I remember learning in college. Wet drapery to simultaneously conceal and reveal what's underneath. To insist on the strength rippling beneath. I like thinking of Nike as undeterred, as keeping on despite an "obvious wind" - what makes a goddess like her alight in the midst of earthly humanity? Whom is she gracing with victory and why? She holds her spot at the top of a huge central staircase really well, combating now invisible but obvious winds.

Crouching Venus, hidden children
I just love this picture. That is all, really. Aphrodite crouching now, her desirable belly in folds, her legs impossibly elegant for such a pose, her head (oh what was the expression on her face!) turned just so. And the kids on the step in the back, and this crazy dramatic swath of light between them and the Aphrodite. The girls were actually trying to figure out her back, and also her motivation, and what her dilemma might be. Goodness knows what Oliver was doing. Aphrodite crouches on, perpetually perturbed and turning, always graceful and ready. Mighty Aphrodite, this one.

 These last two are just so I don't forget ever ever. And it's more praises for the Bistro Victoires - the little bistro up the street and around a couple of corners from the Louvre. It bustles and we settle in and here's Eleanor wanting to have a discussion about the dilemmas of courage (what is courage? is it always fighting? is it sometimes running away?) - Oliver quoted Gandalf saying something about courage, and Eleanor decided to have her dad draw a stick figure of a man being chased by a dragon wearing a fedora. What would Socrates have answered?

Iris, untroubled by these dilemmas and questions, sat absorbed in her reading of an Asterix find (in English!) in the little alcove that our table retreats into. There was poulet rôti, and entrecôte, and (for Mac) canard. I don't want to forget, and sometimes I wonder why I'm so afraid that I will (because of an encroaching present? Because how do you remember? How do I get back to this feeling and this place?). So, to write, to consider the details of a day, the events that make museum days so different from library days. To think of how I can be changed by this; of how my teaching might be changed. To note the new mannerisms the kids have picked up (flicks of hair, positioning of hands, raising of eyebrows). To be here completely, to treasure the ordinary within all this extraordinary. To marvel at a god tying his shoe.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Writing in Good Company

Le Lunch
There's been a lot of writing lately, all in the name of a proposal, which is a particular kind of writing filled with hope and itchy dread and ambition and self-doubt and, at the core of it somehow, this deep desire to write more. The INHA (the national art history library, basically) is a fervent place to do this, because you are surrounded by dozens and dozens of serious souls bent upon their work. George Grosz to my left; Michelangelo to my right; seriousness of purpose all around. A couple of pieces of mine have come out these past few days, too: the beloved "Hewn" (a word I can't stop thinking about when I think about medieval art) is out in the beautiful, brilliant collection Inhuman Nature; and my first piece about Breton medieval art (the incredible jubé at the chapel of Saint-Fiacre in Le Faoüet) is out in the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, in an issue on sacred objects that looks absolutely amazing. I write this with the usual combination of anxiety about my own writing and marveling at those of others, and increasingly with a desire to think collectively about writing. To write in good company is becoming one of the great joys of doing what I do. Roland Barthes revealed the deserved demise of the concept of the singular author long ago, but it's nice to be reminded. I love the promise of a table of contents and the intertwining of ideas, and the work of all towards some thing. I really like being a part of that. Party to that. So, yes, a public thank you to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen who nurtured the project from a conference roundtable at Kalamazoo two years ago to a symposium to the world at punctum created by Eileen Joy; and thank you to Shannon Gayk and Robyn Malo who shaped and guided invitations and conversations that created the terrific assembly of the JMEMS volume. And to the continuing experiment of the Material Collective. Over lunch breaks I've been reading Jacques Le Goff's last book, Faut-il vraiment découper l'histoire en tranches? (Must we periodize? That's not a good translation, but it gets at the heart of the question, at that insistent "vraiment" - really?), which is an ode to thinking together in its loving, searching review of all those who have sought to understand why we understand history in periods and epochs with distinct characteristics. I'd heard once that Le Goff never wrote books, but rather that he dictated them all - that he spoke them in beautiful rhetorical phrases that were later just slightly edited. I have no idea if that's true, but I love to think of the trajectory from idea to word to print filtered through conversation. Because he'd be talking to us, the dear readers, wouldn't he? Because there would be an address, a place for this good company.

After my last day "en bibliothèque" last week, I met up with everybody at the ever-beloved, still-raucous Chartier. God it's loud in there: but the surround-sound of so many conversations was like some wonderful ode to all the academic conferences, symposia, gatherings, and revelries I'd been thinking about that day. Somehow, Iris found a way (or was just exhausted enough) to daydream in the midst of the mayhem. She was indeed in good company.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On the Un/Representability of Immigration

Athena greets you!
Good writing days, long outings, and being "en bibliothèque" have meant less time to record impressions of the past few events, but they've been most provocative, and so let's go in together and try and understand. This past week-end were the Journées de Patrimoine (Days of Patrimony) in which multiple buildings are open either for free or for free and exceptionally just that day. The first day we went to the Hôtel de la Rochefoucauld (which is fun to say as well as visit), site of the Italian Embassy - only a few rooms were open really and they had been given over to restoration craftsmen (from furniture to wood working to stained glass). Iris received a lovely nail from a forger working the courtyard (!). Thinking to see the Palais de l'Esyée (sort of the equivalent of the White House), we walked over to find out that the two hour wait meant we were too late as it was closing in two hours. Tant pis - home to feast and then see Le Carré's A Most Wanted Man which provoked much discussion. The next day, bright and early, we headed out to the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration, way on the southeast side of the city (near Vincennes) which was the site of the 1931 Colonial Exposition - an event meant to reawaken French popular enthusiasm for the colonies (which was waning due to increasing conflicts) by putting their luxuries and benefits on display. Athena was there in 1931, and she is there now to greet you as you come up out of the Porte Dorée metro. She absolutely sets the tone. I'm not entirely sure why it's Athena who does so, but she is all Art Deco and strong and stern.

More than a museum...
As is what is now known as the Palais Dorée. An ode, an emblem, a song of 1930s Art Deco architecture: long, strong lines and the entire surface covered with carvings of the colonies. So a first gasp. And if you're seeing a very brightly red man swimming in the shrubbery in front of the museum, you're seeing the second gasp: the contemporary art that is present in the structure, and that makes it a smart, difficult place.

"Not all our ancestors were Gauls"
The contemporary art presents a vital commentary, sometimes (as here) an interruption in the otherwise rigid and absolute surfaces of the 1930s building, and others (as upstairs) in a powerfully disorienting parallel universe with the ideology of colonialism. That the whole uncomfortable (but this is a good thing) ensemble exists under the rubric of "immigration" is itself provocative. As The Specials said, "We're here because you were there."

The politics of the museum course, but also the race and difference in medieval art course, and maybe actually most any of art history course of late asks about presence: what is made present in a work of art, what and who is brought forth and how. At the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration the question of presence and bringing forth is especially pointed. Each colony is exhibited for its splendors, for the comforts or luxuries that it affords each Frenchman and Frenchwoman. But these are not the Tiepolos of old, in which the bounty of far-away lands spills forth effortlessly from enormous cornucopia. No, these are luxuries wrested and labored and otherwise pulled from the land by the people who live there. Maroc: phosphates, cereal, and wool.


Rubber from Cambodia; silk from cotton from Vietnam; nickel from New Calcedonia (a country which only last month received the remains of one of its last rulers, which had been kept here in France all this time after he was killed in a rebellion against colonial French rule). I'll be honest, I find these images hard to show: there's something about the certitude and confidence of the Art Deco style (the thick lines, the geometric forms, the insistent profile, the stilled expressions) that makes seeing the bodies of colonial subjects bent in labor for the greater glory of France remain an exploitative act today.

Do I then just show images that are less violent in their labor? Is the exploitation of artistic production any less violent in its consequences? It's more than fascinating that art is aligned with this enormous series of natural resources (tea, oil, coffee...). (And it makes the presence of a hippopotamus hunt on the banks of the Oubanghi river more than weird - but the spears and muscles of the hunters have quite an effect). I think of the hunger for works of art from Benin, from Cambodia, from Kolkata and more and more; of museum collections amplifying with each shipment, of artists each with his or her sculpture - mask - cloth. Art, rubber, fish, wood: all this stuff brought forth by labor memorialized in the carvings of this building. Time and history have not changed the building and its carvings - they still stand, as resolute as ever. But perception has changed (right?). Is there a way to look at these carvings not as a celebration of the riches of the colonies, but as a commemoration of the labor and resources exploited? Can a building stand in the exact same spot and shift from triumphalism to tribute?

You get two different answers inside the museum. The large auditorium that greets you when you walk in is decorated with a mural cycle also from 1931 which relentlessly displays Western exports to the colonies (as opposed to the colonial imports displayed in the carvings outside). So here there is religion, medicine, roads, and more and more - all of the "civilizing" structures of colonialism. If you choose to click on the Medicine image, you'll see both nuns' habits and pith helmets bent over denuded colonial bodies receiving treatment and vaccines. The emotionally terse style of Art Deco creates/allow for this ambivalence: you can read these bodies and gestures non-dramatically, either as the facts of history (and you can go from there to see these moments as triumphs in Western history); OR you can read them as the facts of history (and you can go from there to see these moments as the hubris and harm of Western history) - and a whole range of responses in between. Is that why these images of nude women being vaccinated, of black men gesturing pleadingly up towards a monk, of more nude women welcoming the viewer have not been erased? If you erase, you can forget this ever happened more easily. If you allow it to remain, you risk perpetuating its original intent. And you are on your own, dear visitor, when you're here. There's no didactic wall text providing a moral compass through this complex geopolitical landscape. The art is confident and legible, the history reprehensible and complicated, the legacies multiple and present - the façade and auditorium of the Musée de l'Histoire de l'Immigration position you to move through that tension without comment.

But then you go upstairs. As you do, you are presented with a timeline of immigration: key dates in the history of immigration - Franz Liszt coming, the first time there was a "foreigners" designation on the French census (1851), when Pablo Picasso was turned down for naturalization, Algerian independence (1954-1962)... the commentary has begun. Now there are words, and lots of them. The first room you enter asks you a question: "How to represent two hundred years of immigration in France?" I am naïve/snarky enough to ask, "Only two hundred years?" There's an unspoken gap here between colonialism and immigration. The right is most vicious when it attacks immigrants, wishing to deny entry to any and all immigrants from ex-colonies - as though immigrants had no right at all to enjoy the prosperity to which they (and their families, ancestors, and countries) gave their labor and well-being. Does France "owe" its ex-colonies anything? Some say the debt has been paid (cf. medicine, religion); others say that dual entry book-keeping is the wrong metaphor, that we need to think uprooting and transplanting and grafting, that now we are in this together, and that to deny entry to France denies where the country's prosperity, wealth and opportunity came from. This is where the outside carvings (and all those resources that France used for its prosperity) start to make a different argument.

La Galerie des Dons
The voices multiply inside the "Galerie des Dons" - the gallery of gifts. A permanent, and permanently interactive, space, the gallery invites you, an immigrant to France or descendant of an immigrant to France, to donate an object that speaks to your or your family's immigration experience. There are samovars and strike cards, violins and boots, costumes and sewing machines - hundreds and hundreds of objects. There's contact information at the end of the video on the web page linked above in this paragraph if you want to donate something. Curator's moment: what are the criteria for admission? Who controls the display? The immigration trajectory of every person who donates something is traced and the object explained, often through direct quotes. It is an utterly fragmented "picture" of immigration, and this is where I started to think about the unrepresentability of immigration. The Museum of the History of Immigration has several modes of representation: the contemporary framework for the museum, the 1931 materials, the timeline up the stairs, this gallery of gifts, the contemporary art throughout - but none give a complete picture (none can), not separately, not together. It is a history that, in fragmenting countries and families and people (Fanon), must remain fragmentary. And so looking at each fragment is trying to understand another little piece, acknowledging that witnessing (a word that gets used a lot in the wall text and in that video) is part of living with.

La Machine à Rêve. Kader Attia
And so to end with one of the contemporary works of art, the one that really sealed for me this idea that no representation of the history of colonialism and immigration (and the French do not fear long museum titles, so why not?) is possible, and that far from a retreat this becomes an invitation if not a rallying cry to fragmentation as witness. A lot of fragmentation, a lot of witness - never-ending. Seamlessly intertwined with the Galerie des Dons, contemporary works of art by immigrants to France and/or their descendants emerge to form another layer of commentary: the most recent, critical, pointed commentary of the entire museum. This work by Kader Attia is called La Machine à Rêve - the machine of dreams. It's a vending machine filled with, as the web page for this work puts it nicely, "the dream of integration of some young women."You see these all over Metro and RER stations in Paris, offering drinks and snacks. Here, it's a wedding kit, a book entitled "How to Lose Your Accent in Three Days," a credit card, hallal certified alcohol. I soon took my place next to the mannequin to see what was on offer in the vending machine, standing next to her as the visitor before me had, thinking about the objects (all of them, every last one) and where they came from and where they were going.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bank accounts for American residents after FATCA

One of the things I can buy
with ease now, wipes clearly
designed for Nutella crêpes
I seldom provide practical advice in these pages, but after the 6-week saga / marathon / epic tale of opening a bank account... as American citizens... who are also residents in America... and (bizarrely enough this mattered) married people... after FATCA, I reason that if I can shave a couple of days off of the saga for anyone else, then yea for the blog. A tiny perfect storm developed in that a) the American laws changed and b) French banking does not react well to change. FATCA (possibly the most perfect acronym ever for a bill seeking to prevent rich Americans from tax-evading their money by putting it in foreign accounts (note: we are not these people!)) was passed four years ago, but went into effect in France last month. We had the dubious honor of being the first Americans at our local branch of PNB Paribas to open an account since FATCA. Lord. Our bankers were all young and beautiful and totally flustered but consummate professionals and gave us all sorts of incorrect information (no, we did not need to go get a utility bill from our American home notarized at the American Embassy in Paris!) until we worked it all out. We almost gave up several times, but the banking fees were eating up our savings, which are already going so fast, and if you don't have a microchip credit card here, you are nothing (seriously: you often can't make purchases, and you're relegated to long lines with others condemned to an existence without "la puce" (the louse - the endearing nickname given to microchips around here)). SO, at the end of the live-long day, here is what you need to open a bank account in France as an American citizen and resident after FATCA (at least at PNB Paribas which is a major federal bank - other banks will have their own quirks, but these should serve you well):

  • A W-9 form printed, duly filled out and signed within 3 months of your handing in your documents to open a bank account. The French bank will file this with the American government. You need not report your French bank account (via Form 8938) unless you have more than $50,000 in your French bank account (we have laughably less than that in our account, but gotta dance anyway). I point this out lest anyone get freaked out that they're going to be taxed on their French bank account because they're handing in a W-9. You won't, unless it's more than $50,000.
  • A letter of good standing from your American bank. Turns out banks have these on file (!), but the bank requires that the letter have your full name, your date of birth, and your street address in the United States. If you're a couple sharing an account, both of you need to have all of your information in the letter. You can get it notarized for good measure. As with all documents submitted for anything official in France: letterhead and a strong signature are key.
  • A utility bill from your home in the States from the past 3 months. There's a magic lapse time here of 3 months. So your bill can't be older than that. Just print it out (electric or gas are most common), in color if possible, and you're good. This somehow serves as proof that you are not only an American citizen, but an American resident as well. Because you pay your bills.
  • An attestation that you live in France. This can be a French utility bill (not more than 3 months old!) or, this is what we used and it worked very well, an attestation (they have forms) of your renters' insurance, which, of course, you are obligated to purchase if renting in France. A receipt for the rent from your landlady will not cover it.
  • A photocopy of your passport. But go ahead and bring your actual passport, they'll want to make their own photocopy.
NOW, if you're unfortunate enough to have succumbed to the sentimental act of getting married (instead of just PACSing yourself, for crying out loud - oh wait, we can't: America is insane and has made marriage a legal battleground so civil unions guaranteeing the civil rights of people who love each other are not the norm), you need to have an original of your marriage certificate. This was the one that threw us the most - may I just here and now sing the praises of the Cook County Records Office in Chicago: I made my request Thursday evening, it was there Monday afternoon. 

Racy items from Lindt are
 now more available!
Once you have all of these nice, neat things, in crisp originals, none more than 3 months old, you can make your rendez-vous with your banker and your bank account can then be set up. This takes about two hours and you sign as much paperwork as you would to buy a house. I am way too far into this description to be kidding. Page after page, "lu and approuvé" (read and approved) and then, our favorite, because (lousy sentimentalists!) we are married, we had to sign a page basically of mutual accountability for the account (if Mac goes crazy and buys All The Art, I am responsible for the debt) which had us testify that we were "solidifié et indivisible" (solidified and indivisible, which my beloved sister-in-law, newly horrified at learning of my love for a certain dish, compared to aspic). 

End of the first lesson
Congratulations! Your bank account is now open. But it is not yet approved. Ah, ah, ah! That takes a while, and things that were deemed ok to not have in the original (our hip young banker had told us to e-mail him a PDF of the renters' insurance attestation - ha!), turn out needed in the original. Finally, five visits and multiple e-mails later and the magic day comes when your codes come in the mail, and then you get the phone call to come pick up your cards (in person, with a passport). I would just like to point out that we're not idiots. We're both decently savvy (ok, I'm downright retentive) when it comes to preparing documents and dossiers, and we've opened an account in France before (but it was with Crédit Agricole which is a regional bank and we would have had to go back to Brittany to FATCA up our account over there). But FATCA changed the game and it was a wild ride. It's over now, "tout s'arrange" (things work themselves out) and my happiness at having our finances a little less chaotic almost makes me think this was no big deal. Except that it was - and for just a simple, the simplest, checking account. What, pray tell, does one do when one is a business, or anyone deemed "unusual"? I can't even ask that question without getting into some pretty existential waters. So back to the joy.  Today, with my open and approved, solidified and indivisible French bank account, I, an American citizen who is also a resident of America, withdrew money, I paid for books at Gibert Joseph, and, the most wondrous of all, I wrote a check for the fencing team. Was it all about avoiding ATM fees and "la puce"? In the end, no (I mean yes, but, more sentimentally), it was about moving through this country with a little more ease, and a little more of the wonder that the bureaucratic epic can become the cultural everyday.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bonsai, and what Oliver said

The Park Floral, near the Château de Vincennes, instantly very far away from anywhere else, worlds unto itself, is host to a disparate forest. In shallow pots of terra cotta and ceramic, on superimposed shelves, and gracing mounds are bonsai. Dozens and dozens of them. More than you could ever imagine all in one place. The effect, when you didn't expect to see any such thing, is breath-taking. We just all stood there, quiet, awed, I swear, by their presence. "1930," "1925," "1937" read the dates, marking the trees' survival beyond the lifespans of the ones who first stilled them. Slowed them down. Made them into these beautiful, beautiful things that ache, though, when you look at them. Mac got it all started when he spoke of contemporary critiques of bonsai trees, and then I, insufferably, asked if trees suffer. This lively exchange is a close version of what went on between the kids. Trees can't/don't suffer, but it looks like suffering (and terms like "ligature" get used) - but it also looks beautiful.

And so: how can suffering and beauty possibly be combined? (brief excursus into bull fighting and Hemingway). Aren't there ethical problems with the combination of the two? (bull fighting redux). Do we need to think about time and beauty and suffering? Is it the miniaturization that makes it beautiful? Something about being able to grasp an entire banyan tree (if that's what this is) in one glance? One of the main arguments against bonsai being anything other than one of the most beautiful art forms is the effort (and vigilance and concentration, said the wall text) it takes to tend a bonsai. I will be thinking a lot in the coming months about the actions around the word "tend," and what it takes to "tend to," and the work of the bonsai maker is pure dedication, unceasing devotion. There are moments of cutting, others of tying down, the careful attention to be paid to fragile roots that are never allowed to go too deep. Can suffering be conceived other than non-sensorially for the non-human? Can a tree be said to suffer if it is prevented from what it tends towards (to take root, to grow tall, to have its lignin stretch and unfurl)? And yet that, the process and the miniaturization that follows, results in something that is beautiful.

And then Oliver, who had been unusually quiet, said slowly: "But we always think that things that are made when we break the rules are beautiful." That, he went on and here I'm paraphrasing and extrapolating, and I think I get it but I'm still working on it - that beauty is predicated on there being a rule broken rather than obeyed. That beauty emerges amidst broken rules; that norms and beauty aren't actually that exciting of a pair. That for beauty to occur (appear, be recognized, make itself manifest) a rule or a convention needs to be have been broken. Maybe it's the violence behind beauty; Mac said Oliver's idea was approaching the sublime. For Oliver, all of this artifice and vigilance and tending of trees was one big rule break - the rule (of natural law?) that would normally ensure the "natural progression" (a phrase I am looking at more carefully now) of the tree. We find it beautiful, because we broke the rule that said it couldn't be done. There is a triumphalism (over some concept of nature? over that particular tree?) in finding something beautiful.  Here is beauty, wrought by humans. Someone who works on bonsai I think would see things more in concert; indeed, a concerted effort between human and tree. A concerted effort to produce these beautiful hybrids of human attention and arboreal tendency. Every trim, every depravation, every period of ligature, is a rule broken, a tendency thwarted and redirected. And then, this impossible being emerging: guided perfection (and I'm never entirely sure if it's the tree following the artist's lead or the artist following the tree's lead), the desire to see wonders (the specific desire, or longing as Susan Stewart would have it, of the miniature), the marvel of a shift in scale. We stayed a very long time in this space presided over by these wondrous trees, the intimacy and complexity of their years of becoming pushing up at beauty itself. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Scribe Eyes

The city was in a giving mood today. Some days the bus pulls away, the sidewalk trips you, there's poop, one more document for the bank, a long list of grievances even though you know you're lucky. Other days, Paris just decides to smile upon you; smile into you. The bus pulls up as you do, the work of art you want to see is right near an air conditioning vent, the flowers seem especially bright, and you are presented with this sense that everything you're doing is just the best possible thing you could be doing right now. The kids and I finished out Egyptian art at the Louvre: hard to let go of the Old Kingdom (and we didn't entirely) but there was a Tutankhamun room (nothing splendid (would have to go to Cairo) housing a fascinating panel of princes from Libya, Nubia, and Syria offering up their homage to the boy pharaoh). The last of the last Egyptian rooms is devoted to the Ptolomeic pharaohs and Cleopatra VII. Very smartly, in these last rooms, you can start to see the Greek vase collection in the gallery parallel to the Egyptian one: by peeking through doors open between the two sets of galleries.  The assignment for the day was to find an image that best exemplified the end of the galleries, of the Egyptian Empire. Eleanor chose this magnificent gold covering for a mummy because to her, the afterlife had always always always been important in Egyptian culture. "If they kept repeating the idea, it must be important." She favored the continuity argument. Oliver and Iris both chose works of art that bore the presence of Greek artists: rounder forms, more relaxed musculature, a hint of the Archaic smile. By the time you exit the Egyptian galleries, you're back in the Napoleonic Louvre: no more streamlined modernist galleries; instead, grandeur and echo. But I hadn't seen the Old Kingdom scribe - so back in we went (thank you, kids!)

This felt like a gift. I've studied and taught this figure for almost 17 years and I've always emphasized his vulnerability (the sagging muscles, the impermanent materials) and his lower status than the pharaohs. But in his presence, now in his own case (and not one among dozens of objects and buried in the back of a display case), I saw something else entirely: a piercing gaze that held me in its grasp and had us all asking questions. The eyes are "rock crystal" (rock crystal, mind you!) with little copper irises (for depth? for light?). It's just brilliant!!! He looked much more as though he were waiting and had all the patience in the universe to keep waiting. I see him as an infinitely more complex figure now. Yes, impermanence and desuetude, but those eyes! They really do seem to shine into eternity. Now, the usual art history questions follow: are these restorations? is the crystal original? has it merely been cleaned? I hope that this image can give you some sense of the beautiful "limpid pools"(yes!) of his eyes. I'm used to eyes being made of shell or painted on, but this, this was something else entirely. More present, more alive, more mischievous. I'll be teaching him entirely differently from how on!

And then to meet a dear friend, and all of a sudden there's a café in the garden of the Palais Royal and the beer (why not?) is very good indeed and this friend of mine, we've been friends for 20 years now and talking with her is the same rush of excitement and shared enthusiasm as it ever was. The kids read their new books from W.H. Smith (yes, English bookshop - land of wonders) and we talked and talked. And then down some stairs, through a passage, and into Bistro Victoires where there's bustling and steak frites (see photo) and the waiter is super sympa and we all feasted and then shared the same crème brulée which made just the right noise when its ever-so-thin sheet of spun sugar was lightly tapped before we reveled properly. Because poetry and arithmetic often work hand in hand, today was my birthday and I am 45 years old and it was 20 years ago exactly that I had my birthday in Paris and Mac and I had just met and still it seems that all things are possible, that there are many days of great thanksgiving, and that the eyes of a scribe of 2,5000 years ago might shine brightly anew.

Château de Vincennes and Parc Floral

If memory serves, it will rain throughout October, November, and December, the time of damp sweaters and warming cafés and layers shifting uncomfortably in crowded metros and museums, and we are thus taking advantage of these sunny days to be outside almost at all times. The market calls on Saturday morning regardless, but to be greeted by such flowers seemed a special gift, a herald almost.

Another photograph by Eleanor
So this post will be mostly images, with brief descriptions and a pause about something that Oliver said that has had me thinking ever since. If you're down at Vincennes and you haven't seen the castle (as I hadn't) then it's high time. You go in and you can climb the castle keep and walk in the footsteps of Charles V (a lot of footsteps of Charles V) and think about Louis IX setting up his hunting lodge here and then sitting under an oak tree and writing out counsels to his children. On a sunny day, you can wonder anew about kings past and all of this being open to us. Like I never get tired of flying in an airplane, I never get tired of All of Us getting to walk in grounds not meant for us. I wouldn't need to walk amongst the dinosaurs - this is enough.

La Sainte Chapelle
The castle ramparts are massive and the moat is truly impressive (no water, but still impressive in girth!). They enclose what must have been at one time a bustling space but has now been cleared out to reveal the gems and masterpieces: the Sainte Chapelle here (begun by Charles V with the Sainte Chapelle in the center of Paris very much in mind, and finished by Henry II who adorned it with some pretty incredible Renaissance stained glass). There are mysterious sculptures within that make the space wriggle a bit.

The Castle Keep
The Castle Keep (le Donjon) is truly grand. The tallest of the Middle Ages and designed with a resolute symmetry and order, it has had many lives. The statues that used to greet one at the entrance were those of Charles V and his wife Jeanne de Bourbon. They now await you at the Louvre. Charles seemed especially fond of this space and fashioned two studies for himself there: one for manuscripts and consultation with counselors, and another with an adjoining treasury (more manuscripts and rare and beautiful objects - now also at the Louvre). In the 18th century, the king's study became the humanists' prison, and Diderot was there for his Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (and wow does that ever look interesting - I picked it up and have started it and now want to rethink Derrida's Memoirs of the Blind exhibit at the Louvre - more to do!).

Cool app!
In the first study of Charles V you are handed an iPad and beneath your gaze and within your grasp, Charles V's study appears in resplendent color and furnishing. The Château belongs to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, which has big, big funding. Might I wave at iPad at Carnac and see rituals displayed? This is a very cool idea (I think that there's an app like this for the Roman Forum) - one of those revolutionary ones for archaeological sites. And of course it comes with a million questions about authenticity, access, intimacy to the past, and imagination.

Is that the Grandes Chroniques I see in the bottom left-hand corner? Let me just reach over...

Mac, this time

Of the dozens and dozens of photographs that Mac took of these resplendent gardens, this one signals the lushness and expanse rather well. The Parc Floral is both exuberant and meticulous. A horticultural paradise and pedagogical space, it offers up meditation and information. There's not a weed anywhere, no way. There's a sculpture to the gardening here: plants in full bloom creating volumetric shapes with each other. It's just magnificent. We listened to a concert of music composed by women around WWI by the Calliopé Ensemble - it was difficult music in parts, lyrical in others, it made me love every single person sitting there listening and France itself. I'm going to stop here because it's Monday actually and that's our day to go to the Louvre and so we're off. There's more, I realize, and there'll be time, I hope. Back soon, dear reader.

Saturday, September 13, 2014


By Eleanor!
Eleanor has become interested in photography, and Mac has started talking to her about lighting and composition and so a few of these will be her gems. My sweet brother and his fantastic little family came and went and we miss them and so off we went back to the Marais (where we'd all spent a couple of amazing days together in an apartment - airbnb, you are awesome) and continued our History of Paris curriculum (begun at the Cluny museum on a day I somehow didn't write about - we'll return I'm sure). I'm taking advantage of gorgeous days to go to museums and walk around neighborhoods - there will be plenty of rain in October, November, and December to keep me in libraries. For now, site visits and thinking about the museum course and tiny tiny to-go espresso cups and small beautiful parks.

These guys
Walking down the streets of Paris, France with three incredibly chatty kids aged 8-12 is pretty much a spectacle every time. The sidewalks are most often quite narrow, so there's a lot of single file walking - none of which deters them from carrying on lively conversations. I'll often turn around and see exactly this picture as I stop at an intersection to feel them bump up into me, oblivious to all but the finer points of the conversation, which, these days, is mostly likely to be concerning their favorite TV show, Lapins Cretins or how cool Guardians of the Galaxy were.

Shop signs
And so, to the Musée Carnavalet, a museum devoted entirely to the history of Paris and which is undergoing MAJOR RENOVATIONS! This is one of my all-time favorite museums: locks of Marie Antoinette's hair, 10-hour clocks from the French Revolution (why not go metric with time?), models of medieval Paris, front pages of newspapers from important moments in history. It's a completely eclectic museum, a museum of stuff - objects and things of what was then the every day which have survived to become emblematic. So: two whole rooms of shop signs, most of them from the early 18th-century, but many many based on medieval shop signs. Don't forget, it was Napoleon who came up with the idea of numbering street addresses. Until him (ah, Napoleon), it was "meet me at the giant scissors."

Creepy shop sign
I'd asked each kid to pick a favorite one: all three chose the eyeglasses. Because, creepy. And they are, aren't they? Just looking out at you across the room. It's early advertising (who could forget those eyes?), it's early wit (the restaurant "Au Bon Coin" is represented by a coing, a quince), it's early Orientalism (ask me about "The Persian," an enormous (7' tall) figure for an exotic goods store), it's early riddling ("Le Chat Qui Dort" - the sleeping cat - is revealed as such by the tiny mouse directly under his nose), it's all here. And the way that it's set up, you feel as though you're walking down a busy street. I hope hope hope that they do not change this room - it has a crowdedness that contemporary museums hate, but which I truly hope it doesn't lose. Watching the kids run back and forth and decode the signs was great joy. And then, on to the Revolution! The 10-hour clock! The hair!

The sign pointing up, and the black divider blocking entry, say it all. Well, and the kids' faces. Come on, Oliver, tell us how you really feel. Gaaaa! I'll have to look back through old photographs and hope to goodness that I got shots of the Revolutionary rooms (I'm sure I did) - they are truly old and crowded and surely will be changed. From what I can tell (and show you in a second) thus far, there's definitely a "period room" emphasis in the new rooms. I worry about those only because they tend to throw out things that "don't fit" and you lose your eclecticism that way. Fingers crossed. And hope (though dim) that the renovations will be done before we leave - it's a two-year project the guard told me, and everything was still as it ever was in January of 2013 when I was here with students last... Sorry kids, but look!

This is unbelievable! The unspeakably beautiful Art Nouveau façade and much of the interior of the jeweler Fouquet's shop! It's absolutely breath-taking!!! I've been coming to this museum for 25 years and have never seen anything like it - was it somehow in storage all along? a new donation? There are several rooms now (a ball room, a reception room) from multiple different Parisian sites - this is way beyond a period room, this is a re-creation and an environment. All soft, warm wood contrasted with smooth bronze: the flourishing young woman here holds bejeweled necklaces, and the interior (hard to photograph) has a stained glass window of a peacock atop of which is a 3-dimensional bronze peacock! It took our breath away. We've been pointing out the Art Nouveau Metro signs whenever they appear and Oliver put the stylistic pieces together - nice!

After that, there's a return to the period room, or rather a series of period bedrooms of famous people who lived in Paris. How all of Proust's bedroom came to the Carnavalet is surely a tale in and of itself. That's quite a twist, having a portrait of his father, the professor of hygiene and medicine, Adrien Proust, the very man who kept telling Proust to get out of bed already. Mac introduced me to him because he apparently did some work with neurasthenia, this new illness of modernity, this lassitude and fatigue. It's been claimed for Proust (and here I am out of my depth) whether by his father, himself, or posterity I don't know.

By Eleanor!
Mac met us outside the Musée Carnavalet, himself emerging from his library into the crowd. There's a wonderful phrase, "prendre un bain de foule" - literally to take a bath in the crowd, but metaphorically, hmm: to enjoy the crowd? feel yourself surrounded, enter the flow; phenomenologically, to feel yourself energized by the life around you, to let yourself be curious and taken up in something bigger. I don't know which came first, Paris or the phrase, but they meet nicely at the Place des Vosges. Beautiful park square framed by perfectly matching architecture of the haute haute bourgeoisie (Hugo lived here). But times have surely changed: where before, the grass was meticulously weeded by gardeners and vigilantly protected by whistle-wielding park guards, we (the people!) can now sit on the grass. This is no big deal to Eleanor who loved the fountains instead (rightly so), but it does blow my mind that you can now sit on the grass in Paris, France. Still not at Jardin Luxembourg, mind you, but here, and right in the heart of the elite corner of the Marais. Vive la Revolution indeed!

If I could have simultaneously held a camera and the mountainous falafels we were eating, I would have. The Marais's Rue des Rosiers is rich in these and there are multiple ones to try - these were the feasts of my student days and they haven't stopped. 6euros will still get you all the festivities and then off you go down the street to find yet another park that you can sit in (so many!). And then Paris does that thing, where you start walking and you're seeing things, but you're also just so happy to be in the company you're keeping, and so you keep walking and you don't want the evening to end and it doesn't have to, because the streets keep coming, and Oliver has one more thing he wants to tell us about The Hunchback of Notre-Dame which he'd just finished that morning, and all of a sudden, you totally understand the flâneur, but then there's the metro stop in front of the Hotel de Ville (which is lit up like a birthday cake) and you know this one will take you straight home and so, ok, let's go.

And we even scored four seats together, with Mac just on the other side, and I took this picture in stealth because I don't want to forget them ever reading on the metro, books almost automatically rising out of their satchels, still (to me) tiny bodies settling in to the lull of the train, Eleanor's head on my shoulder, all of us heading homeward.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tiki Pop

Two days later, I am as puzzled by the exhibit Tiki Pop at the Quai Branly as I was when I first stepped out. Poking around a bit has only made the whole enterprise (and I do believe that's the word) stranger, so there is little to do at this point but plunge ahead and make a few notes, hoping that, when I teach this in the Politics of the Museum class, my students and I might make more sense of it. So. What puzzles. The Display. There's an oscillation between glass cases and experiential environments. You'd think a museum goer would welcome this as "variety," but it comes across as confusing. (Let me say right here that I understand that this oscillation/confusion may be "part of the point," but that point, the ultimate goal of the exhibition, never becomes clear/is torn between a love and a critique of Tiki Pop. Examples of this oscillation are most pronounced in the difference between the glass cases, which present hundreds of Tiki Pop artifacts as these "explain" the phenomenon and constructed spaces, such as the room above, that mingle artifacts with museum props. In yet other cases, Tiki Pop objects are themselves mingled with original Polynesia objects (everything from lanterns to sacred works of art). What does this mean? How is this juxtaposition to be understood? I bought the Beaux-Arts magazine of the exhibition for reasons I'll explain in a bit and found this answer (loosely translated): "In the exhibition, we present several pieces of our permanent collection coming from New Zealand, Hawaii or the Marquesas Islands. In no way are they there to speak for the Polynesia people. Rather, they are points of departure for an exhibition that I would qualify as modern art." There is much to unpack here starting with the ease of separating Polynesian art from the people who made it, and the insistence on a rift between Polynesian art and modern art, that leads to the idea of the artifacts both displaying and explaining Tiki Pop. There's a bit of the "Ils sont fous, les Américains" feel to the exhibition, which after all is subtitled "L'Amérique Rêve son Paradis Polynesien" (America Imagines (says the publication, but dreams is ok) its own Polynesian Paradise) and indeed the same Beaux-Arts article presents America in the 1960s as a time when the country could (again, translated) "achieve its craziest (les plus fous) dreams."

The show ostensibly entertains the years 1945-1968, but also presents a series of literary precedents (Melville, Stevenson, Gauguin slips in there quietly, and there is this intense image of Dix with an ancestral statue of his collection - and I'm going to need Mac to explain the image of Hitler in this book opening). It then presents a series of (frankly) pop psychology explanations: the economic prosperity that followed WWII made for a "stressed" (quoting from the wall text) population seeking escape and leisure. Enter (without discussion of American military presence or the annexation of Hawaii or anything geo-political) the Tiki. The case preceding that of dozens of Tiki glassware for cocktails is entirely dedicated to Prohibition, which explains (?) the American enthusiasm for cocktails. Ok. So am I sounding like an American calling foul at another culture's representation of American culture? Sure - high time that happened to Americans and American culture. But I also want to keep the focus on what is happening to Polynesian culture here, on how it is being portrayed as the soothing elixir to another culture without any analysis of the power structures that needed to be in place for that phenomenon to occur. There's an ease and an inevitability, an inexorability and a relentlessness, to the American appropriation of Polynesia culture. There is neither protest nor critique. A tiny bit comes at the end of the show when the "end" of Tiki Pop is explained by the Baby Boomers' generation being better educated and therefore cynical of their parents' enthusiasm for Tiki Pop culture, marijuana replacing the cocktail (!!!), and (and this has to be my favorite quote from the wall text) America losing its naïveté never to regain it. My defensiveness at my perceived misrepresentation of American culture is short-lived compared to my need for some kind of analysis of the conditions of possibility (beyond literary precedent and pop psychology) of what is an extensive period of political and economic exploitation.

The Curator. Ok, so maybe that need comes from being a humorless academic, which I'm not entirely so there's that. But I also don't think that poking gentle fun at wayward Americans is the only response to the American exploitation of Polynesian culture. And I understand that "Tiki Pop" as an exhibition title will draw more people than "American Exploitation of Polynesian Culture." Nonetheless, I felt the lack of analysis pretty insistently throughout the exhibition. This is the part that I would want to work out with students. What would be the mode, the tone, the emphasis, the material of an exhibit that acknowledges the politics of this cultural phenomenon? In some ways the answer is straightforward: go to history, go to geo-politics, go to economics (trace the movement's trajectory from California to Florida and then its spreading in the Midwest (when and how was the Tiki Bar at the University of Chicago, still in full swing when I was a grad student there opened?) and Everywhere Else in the States), involve Polynesian responses, bring in modern-day scars and inheritances. Bring in Sarah Vowell for goodness sake and have her read from Unfamiliar Fishes. In other ways, things get importantly complicated on questions of who speaks for whom, how dialogues can be created, who speaks with whom, how to live with legacies that prized pleasure and hid pain. Ok, so that's how I might start the conversation. It's not the conversation the curator, Sven Kirsten, is having. A self-titled "urban archaeologist," a cinematographer of music videos and Hollywood movies, and avid collector of Tiki Pop artifacts (whose introduction to Polynesia culture came by way of reading Thor Heyerdahl's book Kon-Tikifound on his parents' bookshelf in Germany), Kirsten adds this exhibit (and its hefty catalogue) to two previous publications exploring/celebrating the American appropriation of Polynesian culture for everything from hotels to ketchup dispensers that he has dubbed Tiki Pop (The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern). Once I learned this, I will tell you that I became more skeptical about the provenance of nearly everything from the show being "collection particulière" (private collection). Whose? And whom does the display of these artifacts benefit (knowing that any object that is part of a museum exhibit increases in value)? So that's the ethics component. But back to the insistent need for analysis (which I wanted) vs. presentation (which is done very, very thoroughly - make no mistake, this is definitely the best collection of Tiki Pop artifacts in the world).

I'm in a bind here because (let's just be quick about it) American culture sees professionalism as elitism. So for me, an academic, to decry the lack of academic credentials of the curator of a museum exhibit will be interpreted by many as snobbery on my part. But there is, in fact, a special training that goes into being a curator, one that of course can be stifling and predictable, but also one that, at its best, would have more vocabulary and wherewithal in confronting the complexity of American appropriation of Polynesian culture. In the absence of analysis, this exhibit becomes a loving look with a bit of head-shaking at those wacky Americans and their Tiki Pop. It would be one thing if this benevolent head-shaking occurred in a book or on-line, but in the halls of the Musée du Quai Branly, whose tagline is "where cultures come to dialogue" it is another thing entirely. I'm not seeing the dialogue, as much as I'm seeing a reminiscence, an exposé, an enthusiasm. What I see is immaterial, however, to the thousands of people who have seen the show, and to the hundreds that waited in line to see it as Eleanor and I left it. Tiki Pop sells, as it always has, with an unnerving glee that defies complications.

 The Publications. Very different things get said in different places. The Tiki Pop catalogue is by Sven Kirsten, and published by Taschen (run by Benedikt Taschen, who also emigrated from Germany to California - and lives in the awesomely cool Chemosphere by John Launter no less!). The Beaux-Arts magazine devoted to the exhibition is the only place where I've found French academics and museum professionals doing the writing. Now, the Musée du Quai Branly has a long and complicated history (chronicled in Sally Price's incredible book), but it's within these pages that you'll find analysis of the annexation of Hawaii in 1959, here that you'll see a photograph of Obama growing up in Hawaii (!), here that you'll see more intertwining of the European articulation of "primitivism" with American Polynesian consumerism. There's analysis and a score of images not in the exhibition (and of course fewer images than are in the exhibition - have to go to the catalogue for that). Finally, there's the strangest little publication. At the entrance, or the exit (when I noticed it) is a little blue fold-out paper. I picked it up, my head full of images of Tiki statues, full of questions of how this all (the phenomenon, the exhibition) came to be, full of curiosity about how the show ends, with the definitive end of Tiki Pop - with its revilement by the next generation as kitsch, racist, colonialist (the words of the wall text), with this "loss of naïveté" of American culture. And I look at this little blue fold-out and I see instructions for How to Host Your Very Own Tiki Party...! In English, with links to cocktail recipes and a Deezer playlist (put together by the Musée du Quai Branly) and suggestions for the right décor. And my puzzlement was thus sealed. Until further consideration (in class), as they say.

P.S. And then we went to Café Branly, which is of course very expensive, but the Café Gourmand is reasonably priced and comes with these fantastic little delectables. Fantastic little companion comes separately.