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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Montclair art museum ... and, well, finally finding Rodriguez

The Montclair Art Museum (@ 3 South Mountain Ave., and Bloomfield Ave., in Montclair, NJ; tel. 973/746-5555) is a small but extremely valuable museum of art & cultural objects located in the New Jersey suburbs (Essex County) … in the NYC Metro area.  The museum is certainly worth a quick trip from, say, Manhattan, or a visit from any locale in northern NJ.  It is, in fact, a gem of a museum with an interesting permanent collection worth a trip just for its unique Native American collection housing more than 4,000 objects, including works by such well-known Native American artists as Dan Namingha and Allan Houser – and featuring special exhibitions on a fairly regular basis.

Right now, there are two exhibits very much worth your attention:  Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land” (through January 20th, 2013); andSaya Woolfalk:  The  Empathics” (through January 6th, 2013).  The Saya Woolfolk show is, according to the museum’s web site, the first “solo museum exhibition by the acclaimed multimedia artist and the second in MAM’s New Directions series of contemporary art exhibitions.” The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit – full of wonderful northern New Mexico color (pastels, browns, rich russets, a variety of greens, light blues), Hopi & Pueblo Kachina dolls, local landscapes, architecture drawings & paintings, and a couple of videos discussing her life & describing her homes at Ghost Ranch (near Abiquiu, in north central New Mexico) and the abandoned hacienda she purchased in 1945 in Abiquiu.

O'Keeffe - Home / Salon

This circumscribed exhibition, originated by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, reveals “the little-known breadth of Georgia O’Keeffe’s [deep] interest in northern New Mexico.” The show is positively uplifting, both intimate & very public, and spiritually probing & profound; and the works on display are at once dazzling, delicate, boldly colorful, richly textured, solid & dynamic. Even the card announcing the exhibit is extremely attractive & tastefully designed and one I will save, along with the small print of the spectacular Rust Red Hills (oil on canvas; 1930), which my wife and I purchased at the end of our visit this past Thursday night ... a special night in Montclair devoted to tours showcasing art featured at local venues, including the museum, several local galleries, churches, a hair & beauty salon (Parlor), and other small venues all displaying painting, sculpture & varied design materials.

O'Keeffe - Kachina Doll, 1934
If you are up for a brief but highly worthwhile trip to the ‘burbs, a quick 30-minute drive or train ride from Penn Station, I’d suggest that the Montclair Art Museum might just be a fine (even unique) destination for you any time, but especially now through mid-January.  Note that the museum is closed Mondays & Tuesdays and major holidays, but is open for “free first Thursday nights" each month, 5:00 – 9:00 pm. There are many restaurants of interest & culinary value in which to dine in Montclair; many not far from the museum, with most restaurants, even those upscale, in the BYO category.

O'Keeffe - Rust Red Hills
And, speaking of restaurants in Montclair, you might want to dine at Fin, a restaurant we have patronized on two occasions offering all kinds of fresh seafood: from a wide variety of oysters on the ½ shell, New England clam chowder, lobster truffle mac & cheese, PEI mussels in fresh tomato & white wine broth, lobster roll sliders, to a lobster & shrimp combo plate (“Shanghai style”), monkfish osso buco with crispy shitake mushrooms, honey-glazed pacific cod, to all kinds of fish marinated with extra virgin olive oil, lemon & fresh herbs (including whole bronzino, jumbo “u-7” shrimp, monkfish, Norwegian salmon & big eye tuna mignon) prepared in all manner of modes – from blackened to wood-grilled to baked & pan-fried – and specialty pastas such as squid ink tagliatelle with shrimp, monkfish, salmon & spicy tomato, risotto with “peekytoe” crabmeat, English peas & truffle oil, and even grilled Neiman Ranch organic pork chops served with citrus sauce & Thai shrimp fried rice!

If you end up at Fin, you will face a huge menu of starters, raw bar selections (clams & crustaceans), salads, a wood-grilled fish section, another section entitled, simply, “dinner,” “add-ons,” “table tastings” (including lobster mash potatoes & Thai shrimp fried rice), and, not-so-plainly, pasta.  My wife and I shared a beet salad (sliced red & yellow, with tomato, small chunks of  bleu cheese, sliced onions, mesclun salad greens, cucumbers & chopped walnuts in a simple olive oil & white balsamic dressing. She moved on to the huge & succulent Shanghai-style lobster & shrimp dinner plate replete with ginger curry sauce, crispy spinach & shoestring fried potatoes (@ $29; with half left to take home).  I opted for one of the specials, the exceedingly tender & nicely (carefully) blackened swordfish, served with mixed veggies & sliced Yukon gold potatoes, and surrounded by a silky, mildly spicy-sweet mayo & pepper sauce (@ $28.).  Throughout the meal we quaffed our own light, fragrant & moderately sweet Fetzer riesling (2008). And, finally, for dessert, we each ordered black coffee (@ $2.50/cup, including refills) and split the chocolate bread pudding paired with a “mini pitcher” of vanilla-raspberry cream and a solidly textured isosceles “slice” of semi-sweet chocolate mousse (@ $8.00).  Fin is situated in a bright & airy space, the service is prompt and friendly, and the management professes to be “sensitive to the environment” as it “practices [italics mine] the use of sustainable farm-raised & local fresh seafood.” Un plaisir, absolument …vous devez y aller! 

By now you’ve likely heard about Rodriguez, the Detroit-based, Detroit-born folk rocker who made a couple of albums in the late 1960s (including the now celebrated “Cold Fact”) and then dropped off the face of the earth, musically speaking … at least insofar as the USA folk- rock music enterprise was concerned.  A couple of local record producers – who were courting him and thought he was writing songs that would make him big & them rich – seem to have abandoned him after he made a solid initial album and had continued to generate idiosyncratic, absorbing, thematically intense tunes toward putting together a second album.
Sixto Rodriguez, or simply  Rodriguez, even after acquiring a BA in philosophy at Wayne State University, seems to have gone back to the daily grind (not his characterization) of construction work that he had been engaged in – and near-complete anonymity – in downtown Detroit until, that is, tapes of his album showed up some years later in South Africa (!) and were circulated and on music shop shelves all over that deeply troubled, apartheid-plagued land from about 1971 and throughout the 1980s & into the ‘90s and beyond. (The music made it to New Zealand  & Australia, as well, where he also became a star in absentia.)

According to a new, must-see documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, Rodriguez, however unknown he actually was, metamorphosed into a larger-than-life cult figure in South Africa, an inspiration to the young & white population, a celebrity singer there, a star … a folk-rock artist allegedly bigger than Elvis or Bob Dylan. But who was Rodriquez, exactly, and where could he be found? Was he still singing?  Playing clubs?  Giving concerts?  Was this folk-rock legend still alive?  (He was rumored to have killed himself … on stage, facing away from an indifferent concert audience.)  What were his concerns, dreams, interests?  What was he actually doing … now?  Would he come to South Africa to concertize and meet his millions of fans on the other side of the world?  Indeed, all of this is the subject matter of the Bendjelloul’s documentary in which two South Africans set out to discover what happened to “their unlikely musical hero,” a super-star(?), the “mysterious 1970s rock ‘n' roller,” Rodriguez.

The film is hugely appealing, endearing, almost unbelievable, and the multi-decade saga sadly but persistently engrossing. Even if you know something of the bare bones of the Rodriguez story (told on NPR several weeks ago), you will be amazed, nevertheless, and, ultimately, heartened by this intrepid voice, self-abnegating & self-effacing personality, and singularly empathic & audience-centric performer!  The music, written and performed by Rodriguez throughout the film, is lyrical, inspiring, often message-driven, and compassionate (especially so, perhaps, in the eyes of the otherwise non-rebellious white youth who came of age during the brutal apartheid period in relatively recent South African history).  It is, truly, a must-see film …