Thursday, October 25, 2012

Grub street food festival & “Never Sorry,” the new Ai Weiwei documentary …

Grub Street Food Festival
Had Ai Weiwei been in Manhattan this past weekend he would undoubtedly have shown up – at least for a brief period of time – at the Grub Street Food Festival which took place on Sunday (October 21st) on Essex Street near Hester, down on the Lower East Side on the park grounds of the (weekly) Hester Street Fair. But he wasn’t and he didn’t. Although, based on some of the content of the (new) “feature” documentary, Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry (directed, co-produced, and filmed by Alison Klayman), he would surely (& thoroughly) have enjoyed himself examining all of those vendors, in close proximity, and their culinary wares, along with the myriad munching possibilities they presented (no beer or wine was sold on the festival grounds but could, I understand, have been purchased outside & brought in).  

Indeed, some fifty (or more) food vendors – and we “checked out” the overwhelming majority of them – were present in the enclosed festival space so the four of us had a big job merely scouting around & through it all in search of interesting, flavorful & tasty mid-afternoon fare … but, I must admit, we found a great deal to savor and enjoy, from sandwich-based items of various ethnic provenance, to chili & barbecue, to desserts. You should have been there! 

Rubirosa Pizza Oven
Organized, I gather, yearly (in the fall) by New York Magazine’s Grub Street Food & Restaurant Blog team, this year’s event proved to be an extremely sumptuous “foodie happening,” with something for, and reflecting, well, just about everybody’s taste and culinary interests. Hundreds of people seemed to be searching for just the right food item, and just the right kind and quantity; others looked satisfied, on the spot, exuding an almost Zen-like happiness while eating what they had sought out and purchased!  Our key choices, after considerable serious debate, discussion and, as I indicated above, a fair amount of scouting, consisted in the following “goodies”:  an unusual pastrami knish from Knishery NYC; a small plate of gefilte fish, with spicy carrot horseradish, sweet beet horseradish, along with a few spoonfuls of chunky Russell beets … from The Gefilteria; a “chipotle’d chicken” soft taco comprising boneless chicken thighs in a chipotle broth, with salsa fresco, cheese, crema, salsa roja & all the “fixens,” including jalapeno, cilantro, and tomato & onion shavings (from Brooklyn Taco Company); a plate of Spur Trees’ barbecue baby back pork ribs with a “June plum” glace, amidst a pile of rice & red beans; a large cup of thick, spicy “Texas-style” chili, with bits of jalapeno, pieces of smoked brisket & melted flakes of cheddar cheese (from Bare Knuckle Chili); a mildly fragrant & nicely textured lamb meatball ½ “sub” sandwich (sorry, no idea from which vendor W. purchased this item); and a slice of “candied apple” pie with cut up mini-wedges of baked apple lightly inflected with cinnamon & brown sugar (from First Prize Pies). But the piece de resistance was, sans doute, a light – absolutely heavenly – thin-and-crunchy crusted pizza pie replete with melted slices of rich, creamy mozzarella, basil pesto & topped with sliced grape tomatoes … from Rubirosa Ristorante (home base at 225 Mulberry St., between Spring & Prince). We also sampled two varieties of Mrs. Kim’s Kimchi … very spicy, very fragrant, very nice!

We are (all four of us) looking forward, eagerly, to next year’s Grub Street Food Festival … same Essex Street spot, I would guess, and scheduled for October, 2013!

And back to the Ai Weiwei documentary … a rather slickly made, engaging, informative (if you didn’t know much about Ai beforehand), but somewhat repetitious film. The film, running right now at the DOC NYC Festival at the IFC Center (6th Ave. & West 3rd St.), apparently Ms. Klayman’s debut feature-length documentary, follows the “dissident” artist Ai Weiwei during the two-year period in which she had access to him and his family, friends & cohorts as he (and they) were preparing for, among other things, a major installation at the Tate Modern in London (displaying millions of artificial, but very realistic, factory-made sunflower seeds), engaging in anti-government protest activities, relaxing in his compound, planning for and witnessing the government destruction of his newly conceived and newly completed office complex & studio, and painstakingly investigating the loss (the deaths) of thousands of children due to government negligence during the 2008 earthquake in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in southwestern China.

The film also explores … Ai’s domestic life (as he converses with his anxiety-ridden mother, as he entertains his “illegitimate” son, as he interacts with friends, his brother, his mistress, his artistic “team”); his artistic decision-making and aesthetic, political & philosophical pronouncements; and an array of anti-government (anti-police) protest activities … involving, for example, Ai filling out myriad useless reporting forms “documenting” his protests over alleged governmental crimes, dining (in protest!) on symbolic, rare & specially prepared foods until the local police and investigators of some undefined ilk move him and his fellow diners inside and away from public view; and his own filming of judges & police officers and government officials & bureaucrats while resisting their incessant warnings, their taunting behavior, and pushing him around and (almost) out of sight. (Ai, it should be pointed out, appears to be a prodigious eater and consumer of all kinds of ethnic & local delicacies, and there is even a scene in the film when he is in New York, inside the Carnegie Deli, where we see him and a friend happily & mechanistically wrapping up numbers of corn beef sandwiches and ½ sour pickles for their later consumption).

As revealed by Ms. Klayman in the film, there is much on Ai’s proverbial plate – in the domains of art, politics, philosophy, protest, freedom, food (literally!) – and much that concerns him … and angers him. And all of these concerns and associated activities seem both to perplex and enrage the Chinese government, so much so that, as many already know, Ai was arrested and spent nearly three months in detention in prison, confined, and, if not tortured, certainly abused.

There is a great deal more to Ai’s story, to Ai’s work, of course, than I have begun to describe here, much of it documented in the film and much consistently documented by Ai himself on video and via still photography (he is routinely seen with mini-video camera, cell phone, or just a small camera, incessantly taking “still” photos, filming, documenting).  Indeed, it must be underscored that, while Ai is the subject and protagonist of Alison Klayman’s lengthy documentary film, Never Sorry, he is also his own documentarian, all the while recording & capturing every one of his own “moves,” everywhere, in one kind of media or another … on film, in photos, on Twitter, Facebook (and/or the Chinese-based equivalent), and YouTube, and, thus, preserving his own political and artistic work while it is (at the same time) widely broadcast & preserved by Ms. Klayman herself with her in-your-face portrait of this larger-than-life figure, and his impactful “doings,” and “provocations,” in the world of contemporary art, in the world of contemporary China.

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