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Archive for February, 2009

In the museum, people move with false reverence. What we’re affected by is not so much the painting, the sculpture, the historical or the avant-garde–it’s the way we’re all here together, but all separated by experience.

In front of my favourite Monet (and why should this be my favourite, this image of a cathedral I have never seen, cast in a light I have never experienced?), two women with their studying faces on. One (short dark hair, glasses, very still), hands crossed at chest; the other (longer dark hair, full of nervous energy), hands placed at the small of her back, bag worn across her chest and in front, as if she’s afraid of something, wants to hold her possesions close. They seem to be looking for something in the painting, something, perhaps, in the cathedral itself. Sharing (or trying to recall) a memory that neither of them actually owns. I want to sit in front of the painting, as I do every time I am here (there is a bench placed before it as if just for me) but they distort my view, they may as well have stepped into the image itself, and I’m too fascinated by watching them watch it to pay any real attention to Rouen Cathedral.

Walker Evans’ collection of postcards. Americana distilled. The streets were wider then; no, that’s not right, they were only emptier. People against a patchwork backdrop: LA, Nashville, church spires, telephone wires. Shiny black automobiles, from the days when they could still be called “automobiles,” still had some dignity.

Gauguin’s Tahiti is enough to make anyone crave a warmer place. I photograph it in black and white to see what, when the image is bled of colour, is left. Still something, I’ll tell you that much.

Irrisistible for the artist to make a sketch. One girl, on the floor, cross-legged, pony-tailed, makes a sketch of a lumpy, pasty female nude. Her breasts uneven (the nude, not the girl). A man, in flat cap and scarf, has brought his own folding chair, sits before a scultpure, balances his pad on his knees. People peer over his shoulder; the rendition is good, exact.

Back on the street, the Upper East Side, the sunlight is almost too much after the shadowed light, the light made for looking at things. We squint our way down Park Avenue. There’s nothing to eat in the Upper East. What, I say, do rich people not need to eat? Do they, I ask, as we pass Gucci, Prada, Christian Dior, get their sustenence from expensive shoes and ugly handbags? Do they get off on knowing that we will find their wide-avenued world unpenetrable?

Probably, the Man says, to shut me up. I’m hungry, therefore irrational.

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In the museum, people move with false reverence. What we’re affected by is not so much the painting, the sculpture, the historical or the avant-garde–it’s the way we’re all here together, but all separated by experience.

In front of my favourite Monet (and why should this be my favourite, this image of a cathedral I have never seen, cast in a light I have never experienced?), two women with their studying faces on. One (short dark hair, glasses, very still), hands crossed at chest; the other (longer dark hair, full of nervous energy), hands placed at the small of her back, bag worn across her chest and in front, as if she’s afraid of something, wants to hold her possesions close. They seem to be looking for something in the painting, something, perhaps, in the cathedral itself. Sharing (or trying to recall) a memory that neither of them actually owns. I want to sit in front of the painting, as I do every time I am here (there is a bench placed before it as if just for me) but they distort my view, they may as well have stepped into the image itself, and I’m too fascinated by watching them watch it to pay any real attention to Rouen Cathedral.

Walker Evans’ collection of postcards. Americana distilled. The streets were wider then; no, that’s not right, they were only emptier. People against a patchwork backdrop: LA, Nashville, church spires, telephone wires. Shiny black automobiles, from the days when they could still be called “automobiles,” still had some dignity.

Gauguin’s Tahiti is enough to make anyone crave a warmer place. I photograph it in black and white to see what, when the image is bled of colour, is left. Still something, I’ll tell you that much.

Irrisistible for the artist to make a sketch. One girl, on the floor, cross-legged, pony-tailed, makes a sketch of a lumpy, pasty female nude. Her breasts uneven (the nude, not the girl). A man, in flat cap and scarf, has brought his own folding chair, sits before a scultpure, balances his pad on his knees. People peer over his shoulder; the rendition is good, exact.

Back on the street, the Upper East Side, the sunlight is almost too much after the shadowed light, the light made for looking at things. We squint our way down Park Avenue. There’s nothing to eat in the Upper East. What, I say, do rich people not need to eat? Do they, I ask, as we pass Gucci, Prada, Christian Dior, get their sustenence from expensive shoes and ugly handbags? Do they get off on knowing that we will find their wide-avenued world unpenetrable?

Probably, the Man says, to shut me up. I’m hungry, therefore irrational.

Read Full Post »

Nothing here is as it seems. The museum in black and white; it’s not the paintings we care about, really, it’s the people looking at them, isn’t it? Karl Rove in Federal Hall, touring the Lincoln exhibit. (He has a crushing laugh, loud and ugly). The shop that proclaims to be “your 24 hour pot dealer” is really only an emporium for vases decorated with nipples. A barbershop proudly displays posters of boys wearing perfect bowl-cuts, men in mullets. Another features images of men in tight boxer shorts, dancing with their hair straighteners. Am I in a Dr. Seuss book? (Oh, the places–) Unnecessary quotation marks everywhere. How about this one: “free soup” with any sandwich! A plaque tells of a place called The Highway Leading to the Fortification Called Oyster Pasty. A friend takes us up the steps of a church; look closer, he says, so we lean towards the cathedral pillars and see a baby’s head emerging from a vaginal cornstalk.

All the absurdities. A sign that tells us both to cross the street and not to cross the street at the same time; even the signals have become confused, here. The windows of Bergdorf Goodman’s look as rich as any painting in the Met. I find a place outside Trinity Church where the Queen stood in the 1970s; Prince Philip, reads the inscription in the tile, stood nearby. Oh, no photographs, not here, says the woman selling posters at the flea market, and I retreat from her snarls and stumble into a rack of fur coats, brown and white, urban bears. On Madison Avenue, our first night in the city, cold and hungry, we look across the broad street (broad as an ocean) and see the Oxford Café. Seen from a certain angle, the statue of first world war soldiers on the eastern edge of Central Park becomes real; shadowy men pierce a wintry tree with freshly sharpened bayonets (do bayonets need to be sharpened?).

And I have a photograph to prove every single one of these things; but as one placard in the museum points out: “a photograph of an angel is either a miracle or a hoax.” (Even the photograph in this post is merely a reflection).

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Nothing here is as it seems. The museum in black and white; it’s not the paintings we care about, really, it’s the people looking at them, isn’t it? Karl Rove in Federal Hall, touring the Lincoln exhibit. (He has a crushing laugh, loud and ugly). The shop that proclaims to be “your 24 hour pot dealer” is really only an emporium for vases decorated with nipples. A barbershop proudly displays posters of boys wearing perfect bowl-cuts, men in mullets. Another features images of men in tight boxer shorts, dancing with their hair straighteners. Am I in a Dr. Seuss book? (Oh, the places–) Unnecessary quotation marks everywhere. How about this one: “free soup” with any sandwich! A plaque tells of a place called The Highway Leading to the Fortification Called Oyster Pasty. A friend takes us up the steps of a church; look closer, he says, so we lean towards the cathedral pillars and see a baby’s head emerging from a vaginal cornstalk.

All the absurdities. A sign that tells us both to cross the street and not to cross the street at the same time; even the signals have become confused, here. The windows of Bergdorf Goodman’s look as rich as any painting in the Met. I find a place outside Trinity Church where the Queen stood in the 1970s; Prince Philip, reads the inscription in the tile, stood nearby. Oh, no photographs, not here, says the woman selling posters at the flea market, and I retreat from her snarls and stumble into a rack of fur coats, brown and white, urban bears. On Madison Avenue, our first night in the city, cold and hungry, we look across the broad street (broad as an ocean) and see the Oxford Café. Seen from a certain angle, the statue of first world war soldiers on the eastern edge of Central Park becomes real; shadowy men pierce a wintry tree with freshly sharpened bayonets (do bayonets need to be sharpened?).

And I have a photograph to prove every single one of these things; but as one placard in the museum points out: “a photograph of an angel is either a miracle or a hoax.” (Even the photograph in this post is merely a reflection).

Read Full Post »


On the subway, rumbling under the map of Manhattan, somewhere or other beneath the dots, the lines and grids, the green space of parks, the skyscraper dreamscape, I read this:

“Cities are full of situations, sexually cunning people.”

It is Don Delilo, White Noise. Five years ago or so, I tried to read White Noise. It was an assignment and I rallied against it with all my will; I threw my late-teenage energy, such as it was, into hating the novel, into finding it blasé, so over, so dated, so not something I could relate to. Now I read it in between subway stops. 81st street and 42nd street are the bookends for one chapter; 14th and 72nd frame another. I find myself transfixed. Why is this, my dad wants to know, why the change of heart? I say maybe it’s because I failed to see the humour in it the first time around. I say maybe it’s because I was too afraid to recognize certain anxieties as being mine, too; that maybe it’s because, now that I openly own these anxieties, I can allow myself to enjoy the language.

Here’s a situation. Bryant Park. It’s fashion week but the only people outside the white tents are the nobodies, the people who work for the people who work for the people who do something related to fashion, and they’re badly dressed, they look cold, so we skirt the park. On the library side we try to identify the buildings around us. Lit up; dizzying. A man in a baseball cap comes close, asking for spare change. My reaction is always to turn the other way. I become absorbed in a bench. Is it some sort of denial, or is it just smart? I can hear him talking to the Man, and the Man’s two brothers, twins, nine years his junior.

“You take care of your sons,” the beggar tells the Man. I don’t know where this places me. And the funniest thing of all of course is that he does take care of them, as if they were his sons; and when he drops them off at the airport, leaves them there, he frets for their safety, their peace of mind.

***

“It is the nature and pleasure of townspeople to distrust the city,” Delilo writes. “All the guiding principles that might flow from a center of ideas and cultural energies are regarded as corrupt, one or another kind of pornography.”

I always liked the subway. I like it more now, and I have Delilo’s staccato words in my head whenever I mount the steps. I have no way of knowing whether the sentences that start to form when the cold sunlight hits my face are mine or his; but they end up being mine, twisted into something that only I could say. That’s all ownership is–and anyway, nobody owns anything here.

Read Full Post »


On the subway, rumbling under the map of Manhattan, somewhere or other beneath the dots, the lines and grids, the green space of parks, the skyscraper dreamscape, I read this:

“Cities are full of situations, sexually cunning people.”

It is Don Delilo, White Noise. Five years ago or so, I tried to read White Noise. It was an assignment and I rallied against it with all my will; I threw my late-teenage energy, such as it was, into hating the novel, into finding it blasé, so over, so dated, so not something I could relate to. Now I read it in between subway stops. 81st street and 42nd street are the bookends for one chapter; 14th and 72nd frame another. I find myself transfixed. Why is this, my dad wants to know, why the change of heart? I say maybe it’s because I failed to see the humour in it the first time around. I say maybe it’s because I was too afraid to recognize certain anxieties as being mine, too; that maybe it’s because, now that I openly own these anxieties, I can allow myself to enjoy the language.

Here’s a situation. Bryant Park. It’s fashion week but the only people outside the white tents are the nobodies, the people who work for the people who work for the people who do something related to fashion, and they’re badly dressed, they look cold, so we skirt the park. On the library side we try to identify the buildings around us. Lit up; dizzying. A man in a baseball cap comes close, asking for spare change. My reaction is always to turn the other way. I become absorbed in a bench. Is it some sort of denial, or is it just smart? I can hear him talking to the Man, and the Man’s two brothers, twins, nine years his junior.

“You take care of your sons,” the beggar tells the Man. I don’t know where this places me. And the funniest thing of all of course is that he does take care of them, as if they were his sons; and when he drops them off at the airport, leaves them there, he frets for their safety, their peace of mind.

***

“It is the nature and pleasure of townspeople to distrust the city,” Delilo writes. “All the guiding principles that might flow from a center of ideas and cultural energies are regarded as corrupt, one or another kind of pornography.”

I always liked the subway. I like it more now, and I have Delilo’s staccato words in my head whenever I mount the steps. I have no way of knowing whether the sentences that start to form when the cold sunlight hits my face are mine or his; but they end up being mine, twisted into something that only I could say. That’s all ownership is–and anyway, nobody owns anything here.

Read Full Post »

The thing about jet lag is this: it doesn’t just mess with your sense of time, it messes with your sense of place. This is a far more serious offense. Time is nebulous enough on its own that when, for a few days, we’ve totally lost track of it, when we’re hours ahead of or behind ourselves, we feel that maybe it is, this secret force we live by, just asserting itself for awhile.

Place is different. There’s nothing so off-putting as falling asleep in the late afternoon, knowing you’re in Oxford, and waking up convinced you’re in New York, and being therefore in a New York state of mind, and realizing only by the voices outside, crawling their way home after an evening at the pub, only by the smell of your house (a nice smell, a specific smell), that your body is still where you left it hours earlier to sleep.

I don’t know how to count the hours, speaking of them. And I never know how to describe the time before a transatlantic flight: is it yesterday that we left, really, truly? I can hardly convince myself that this can be so–that yesterday, whatever that means, we woke up late, we had lattes and bagels, we took the subway to midtown, and then again back uptown, we ate a Korean lunch across the street from Columbia. And I ask this, not to be pedantic or navel-gazing, particularly, but because I genuinely do not know how to answer it: was it yesterday or today or some time in-between that we sat eating croissants at an altitude so high it is usually reserved for our hopes and dreams alone, that I wondered, because my mind had gone numb in the hours of no movement while we sped over an ocean, if the correct way to spell student was s-t-u-d-e-n-t or s-t-u-d-a-n-t? My copy of White Noise now bears proof of this struggle, but I don’t know exactly when the struggle occured. Student. Studant. Student. If I spell it wrong, will they let me back into the country? (In the end, I spelled it right).

***

Photography is banned at the Institute of Contemporary Photography. Never mind irony, or paradox, or, indeed, copyright: there was a large part of me that wanted to turn round upon seeing this sign, back into the night wind, that wanted to say, even though admission was free, this isn’t worth it. Because I’ve started to become convinced that the value of a gallery or a museum or an exhibition space has almost nothing to do with the art being viewed. It’s about the art being created, the human traffic, the art that could potentially be created as a result. If I keep following this train of thought I realize of course that this is impossible, that only in a futile world could things be so: surely a passive audience is necessary, if for nothing but to stroke an artist’s fragile ego, reassure him that his work has some value, at least in terms of time.

But time. One time, we took the metro, from the village to the upper west side. As we were underground, staring at our own feet, moving fast through a rare darkness, things happened outside. Rain fell. Night fell. Things we couldn’t know until we re-emerged. Before we alighted at our station I looked at the bookmark in my novel, a thank-you note from a friend. Our Oxford address on it. I liked the way the address looked, the way the country (England) was not specified, the way our last names (Ward, Cansell, things that identify us in ways we can not change) were not specified. It seemed friendly, familiar, small in a city where nothing and everything is small.

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