Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

A moment in a busy time of friendship and art and knowing there's only a month left in Paris to say "Happy Thanksgiving" and record-to-remember the feast we had at our place. Expat Thanksgivings are always wonderful, with this secret feeling as the rest of the world glides past you on their ordinary Thursday. Almost all of the food merchants knew of the holiday, though, having provided countless Americans with precious vegetables and meats to pull off this feat feast. All of them asked what it was really about and, because I was shopping at the market on a Wednesday and thus there wasn't a huge crowd, we talked. Many of them thought that it was a war remembrance meal - thankfulness for survival, for the war being over, more likely WWII since Americans lost more young men there. One merchant was surprised: "So, a celebration of the invasion of the Americas?" Could be that I didn't explain it well. And by that, I mean that I find it complicated to define: the deep love for the food and the gathering and the time that Thanksgiving brackets out for by-then exhausted Americans, and the wincing at history. I should have quoted Robert Reich who, in his infinite wit and wisdom, put it this way (the passage is available on his Facebook page):

In the autumn of 1621, a group of people who had long inhabited this land sat down with a group of immigrants calling themselves Pilgrims to celebrate a successful harvest. Initially, the native born had been suspicious of the new immigrants. The newcomers had come from across the sea without permission and without any rights over the land they occupied (you might even call them undocumented). They dressed oddly, had a different color skin, spoke a language the native born didn’t understand, and appeared to have few practical skills (they were nearly hopeless at hunting and fishing). Nevertheless, the native born shared their knowledge with the immigrants -- of local crops, planting and harvesting, and navigation – and thereby helped the immigrants survive.

In that first Thanksgiving, three hundred ninety-three years ago, the two groups joined together to express gratitude and mutual respect. It seems fitting that today we honor subsequent generations of hard-working immigrants, as well as the native born who have welcomed and helped them succeed in this bounteous land.

Happy Thanksgiving.

I've been thinking so much about immigration and who comes to what lands under what circumstances during this semester in Paris, and so of course Reich's words resonated with me. They also resonated with me because of the shame of Ferguson, and the sorrow and the rage and the loss of so much. There's little room in there for a "sincere" or "simple" explanation of Thanksgiving, of what we are thankful for. It's complicated; makes more for gladness than exuberance.

And we were glad, very very glad to be together with friends from far and wide and near and close. A decision was made early on to maybe not do turkey, and to go the way of duck instead. And so we did and were richly rewarded. We spent all day at the Pompidou (and Frank Ghery's hyper-realities of architecture, and Jeff Koons's cheek, and the permanent collection's insistent testament to striving for better was also intertwined in these Thanksgiving thoughts), and then came home to cook:

Magret de Canard with a red wine orange sauce (here)
Everything else was from the UK edition of Good Housekeeping
Brussel Sprouts with Garlic Butter
Potatoes Roasted in Duck Fat
Ginger-Roasted Root Vegetables
Cranberry Sauce with Candied Ginger and Orange
Apple Marzipan Tart
Orange-Chocolate Panettone Pudding

And so, to wellness and to discussion and to change and to hope and to gathering.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Of Scale and Remembrance

I've started thinking about scale a good bit lately, and Asa Mittman and Ben Tilghman's wonderful meditation on scale and sand was with me as I stood at the Armistice Day commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe yesterday. Scale seems to bring with it an awareness-otherwise-not-to-be-had (what's the word for that?) of proportions, and for me, this is very immediate around the enormous Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned by Napoleon (but finished by King Louis Philippe in 1836, long after Napoleon had stopped celebrating his victories), that muscular stretch of triumph changes radically in scale and meaning in 1920, when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is created beneath it. The flame that has burned without ceasing since then, already dubbed eternal in the need to know commemorations will continue, starts to stretch time and its scale and proportions around the monument as well.

The Arc has now stood longer over the Unknown Soldier and the commemoration of the Grande Guerre which changed war and modernity and society and bodies and everything else, than it had stood without him. These small, fragile remains, in combination with a flame that is never let out, and a solemn and grand ceremony every year has pulled the triumphalism of the Arc down to remembrance and loss and commemoration. This scale seems more human (I think I might mean more humane, too) than the celebratory proportions of Napoleonic assurances of victory. The cavalry shifted scales as well: an anachronism that somehow made the commemoration timeless, and made it stretch out across all wars - these horses held still and in formation, their energy and beauty rendering the feat beautiful.

But it would be this little object, this "bleuet" (a wild blueberry flower or a cornflower) that would make itself known all day. We arrived at the Arc de Triomphe RER stop and all the exits save one were closed. Thus we actually got to the Champs Elysées by walking around the Arc from the back. This proved to be absolutely beautiful, as the back the Arc is still stunning but little populated. We met a woman and her son who were canvassing for Les Bleuets de France, an organization founded by two French women after WWI which raises money for veterans ("ceux qui restent") especially the wounded. In exchange for our donation we were given small, blue pins and Mac and I immediately put ours on. For the rest of the day people asked us where we had gotten our "bleuets" and for the rest of the day we harkened back to the ceremonies at the Arc de Triomphe. The little flower kept pulling us back, even as thoughts were already on Armistice Day and WWI - with Mac's scholarship so deeply involved in the War and with the incredible show that we would see later the same day at the Invalides, Vu du Front, featuring representations of WWI from soldiers in every media possible. The "bleuet" in France and the poppy in England (because of the poem, but also because of the incredible commemorative art project in the moat of the Tower of London) have become emblems for the Great War that defied all scale of loss - they are radically small and ephemeral objects that stand for (oh my goodness and with and against and have withstood) the enormity and presence of war.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Fake Nature Real Noise

Here I am at the Buttes Chaumont: Baron Haussmann's last project, a rural terrain then in what is now the bustling 19th arrondissement, ex-quarry/pig farm, present-day fantasy wonderland of fake nature. But really, by the 19th century, is there any other kind? That's an unfair question for about 20 reasons, but there is something delicious about reading Baron Haussmann's sentiments that Parisians, as of the 1867 construction of the Buttes Chaumont, need no longer fatigue themselves by leaving Paris, for he will have brought a better nature, an orchestrated nature to them. And yes! There are waterfalls and valleys and little mountains (made much nicer with a temple to the Sybil on top) and this cavern with a waterfall. And everywhere the bridge railings are carved in wooden forms, and there are planks, but they're all from molded concrete. It's just incredible. All arranged, all staged, all choreographed for maximum Romantic flânerie et appeal and yet - and yet and yet, when you're there, you find yourself breathing deep and staring at waterfalls and feeling very good indeed. It's not like other parks somehow - there's something a little wilder, you get lost more easily, the green is more willful, the water has more presence. I stood and smiled with Oliver and said to him, over the roar of the waterfall, "This is the only place in Paris, France where you can scream with impunity" - and his eyes gleamed and so he did: a full, rending scream, long and loud, his mouth wide open and his head thrown back. He was ecstatic when it was over - "I haven't done that in five months!" he said which a) made me wonder where he goes to scream back at home and b) made us both laugh that somehow, that - screaming - had been missing from our time in Paris.

This resonated with dinner conversation tonight which rehearsed the conversation that Mac and the kids had the Louvre this afternoon (I was "en bibliothèque") about these two entities. The one in the foreground is a taxidermied deer to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Musée Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle. It is positioned across from a 19th-century bronze of the Genie of the Hunt which (I hope (or maybe I don't) that you can make it out) features a stag brought down by said Genie and his dog who is pinning the deer by dragging it down by the ear. The deer bellows, mouth open, eyes wide, tongue swollen. The big debate that ensued was "which is more real?" Not entirely surprisingly, the girls went with the taxidermied deer (closer to the physical real) and Oliver with the sculpture (the experiential real). The kid who screams in fake waterfalls and feels an ecstatic release isn't going to let a little bronze get in the way of the Real.

I want to end (better brief than nothing) with this marvelous image. It's two highly stylized waves from a Viking stele which was featured in the "Voyager au Moyen Age" show at the Cluny (check out the awesome itinerary for children that you can download before you go). I'm going to show the entire stele in just a few lines, but here, I wanted to focus on this patterning, this stylization of waves - the crisp new wave to the left in tight interlace, the wave starting to crash upon the shore with its crest coming undone, its interlace in loopy disarray. And the bodies of the waves themselves thick as stone, joined and rearing, barely tempering. Whoever carved this knew their sound.

Here is the full stele. A stone carved to look like stone, with the warrior it commemorates astride his horse, his wheeled shield propelling him forward. Then a boat, then those waves - and wall text about final journeys to an afterlife. I've been doing a great deal of writing and thinking and reading these past few days, but none of it about these simulacra of the natural and their real effects. Oliver's scream in the midst of Baron Haussman's confection, the taxidermied deer staring at his bronze opposite, and these stony interlaced waves undone wind these strange elements around my thoughts and have me thinking about how the real will out in noise.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mystery Imposed/Mystery Revealed

I follow in my children's footsteps a great deal these days. They know the way more often than not now and we all have that sense of each other as we walk streets and metros (no child/parent left behind, is our motto). I've become aware of these shapes we trace only recently when, returning from beloved Brittany, Paris's rhythms were thrown into sharp relief. Today being Toussaint, and everything (really, nearly everything) being closed for this day of remembrance, there is a little more time to think on things like this, on intimate perception in public space, on simple and complex mysteries (and yes, that is a little pot of melted chocolate that Oliver enjoyed within his hot milk while the girls were at the Bollywood dance lessons).

The Critic Happy
It starts with the Tim Parchikov exhibit at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie de la Ville de Paris (because long museum titles really are a specialty here). The show (one of four currently up) is entitled "Suspense" and I was thrilled because it was highly narrative - images of moments of suspense in a darkened room with eerie, slightly repetitive, music playing. But instead of wondering about what came before or after the moments in the photographs, I kept noticing Oliver getting more and more impatient (sighs, walking rapidly), and the girls getting more and more agitated (stage whispers, hugs). Ok, what's up? "It's just so artificial! None of these are actually suspenseful - it's just the dark room and the music. He's imposing the suspense on the images; the images themselves aren't suspenseful at all!" So I jumped in and Oliver and I started talking about where suspense comes from and what's an authentic image anyway, and how much of a photograph's effect should emerge only from the photograph itself and how much from setting. Oliver was having none of it (about the effect of a photograph coming from its surrounding rather than the photograph itself) and I found myself defending the images even as I felt my enthusiasm for them wane. Maybe Oliver's resolute modernism (art/Art is all within the frame!) was taking effect on me. I didn't really understand what he was saying until we walked into the next show, one by Alberto García-Alix, filled with shadows of birds and strangely angled figures. "Here!" says Oliver, "This guy - he takes what wasn't mysterious and shows us that it actually is mysterious. But the other guy took what wasn't mysterious and tried to make us believe it was." I've been thinking about that ever since, this duality of mystery imposed and mystery revealed. I've been thinking of it in relation to both art and the craft of art history - nourished as I've been by seeing a different art show almost every day here, and working down as I have been to the materiality of medieval works of art, that phenomenon where the mundane and the wondrous meet.

Newly discovered!
All of which (inexorably? at the very least insistently) brings me back to Brittany. As recently as 2011 (for a site listed with the Monuments Historiques as of 1931!), medieval works of art are still being discovered, or at least uncovered, there. Plaster had whitewashed this fantastic set of images on the vault of the two-aisled church of St-Gilles in Malestroit until its uncovering and restoration in 2011. Upside down and at the top, a lioness/ panther/ unicorn (as she is identified by the laminated sign propped up on the chair below) rears up; continuing clockwise, a centaur stretches out, and then down below, a marvelous marvelous elephant carrying a fortress on its back.

Truly, an elephant!
There, that's better. Now you see it in its full dappled, soft-hooved, short-tusked, lumbering glory. I love the tumult of mystery imposed/mystery revealed here: a wondrous animal made more mysterious (or more ridiculous, if you asked the kids) by this depiction whose origins and motivations remain a mystery and whose effect is well, yes, mysterious. Malestroit abounds with fantastic creatures (on its façade and all the way into its city streets with secular carvings that my beloved advisor Michael Camille loved to write about) which is really quite amazing for this tiny town of 2500 people (less in the Middle Ages) deep in the heart of the Morbihan, that most forested region of Brittany. Mystery mysteriously appearing in a mysterious place.

All of which brings me to music.

Specifically, the music of Jacob Handl (1550-1591) and Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) and other searching composers brought into bright, vivid, spellbinding life by my wondrous friend David Stein who knows this music so intimately and chose it for the program of an unforgettable concert at the church of St-Gilles at Malestroit, and directed the choir that made it shine. I remember being stunned when Kant proclaimed music the perfect art (grad school, I think, or when I used to teach art criticism; it's hazy but the temporality of visual art and the transcendence of music were suddenly opposed), but I'm not stunned to think on it when I hear the music that David wills forth. That's Handl in the clip above, the "Duo Seraphim" which splits the choir into two and took the audience's breath away as a second set of voices floated up from we knew not where in the way that medieval architecture has of confusing sound. And by confusing I mean intertwining and enveloping and making the known (the sure contours of architecture you can perceptually trace) the unknown (the fluid trajectory of sound that always eludes stillness and capture). It's hearing early modern music in medieval space that makes me realize the weight (heft, force) of music, the love and effort of the choral director lifting the music and sustaining it in the space as it starts to fill with sound and mercy, wonder, love and loss.

I've always been fascinated with where music exists as art: in the composer's head, in the score, in the voices of the singers, in the director's guidance, in the audience's emotions. In this, I can think on both music and medieval oral tradition (especially meeting in troubadours and secular poetry). In this, I marvel at how spatial music is, how spatially involved it is. In this, I perceive how a space can amplify sound (how David can somehow lift music from the page and into his choir's voices and offer it up to the space all around that receives it and embraces it and nourishes it), and how it can be amplified (how it can shimmer into something so much bigger than what I can see). How the elephant is transformed in its complicity with the wonder of this music. And doesn't Tallis and his "Lamentations of Jeremiah" above somehow make this happen?

Because what is this music, what was this wondrous afternoon, save the resonant oscillation of a most common element (our human voice, modulating sound unceasingly for millennia) with one most rare (the ephemeral alignment of voice, space, sound and all the love and survival that that alignment entails)? I felt this most when David led "Shir Hama'alot" by Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). Was this the first time the elephant had been enveloped by voices tracing Hebrew sounds into the air to be held by the vault in which it was painted? It was, when Salomone Rossi wrote the music, the first time that Jewish liturgical music had been set to the Baroque idiom. It creates, every time, a marvelous commonality between early modern synagogal space and wherever it is heard forever after. It reveals mysteries in their joy.