Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mo Yan, Ai Weiwei, the Pushcart prize, MoMA & more … part 2

Moving from the Hirshhorn Museum & the Ai Weiwei exhibitions back to New York & a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, I’d like to  mention, and briefly discuss,  a couple of the current MoMA shows we recently visited … “Alina Szapocznikow:  Sculpture Undone, 1955–1972” (through January 28th, 2013) & “Tokyo 1955–1970:  A New Avant-Garde“ (through February 25th). 

Upon entering the museum, we made a proverbial “bee-line” for the Szapocznikow show, revealing an extensive (over 100 pieces) and varied output – in terms of sculptural forms, size, subject matter, thematic content, media). Before entering the exhibition space, and before wending our way through four (plus) rooms of her free-standing & wall-mounted work, we watched a fairly comprehensive introductory video concentrating on some of her larger, more well-known & stellar pieces, her human forms, work displaying her technique(s) and the development of her oeuvre.  Her work comes in many sizes and shapes and, largely, but not exclusively focuses on the human body from all sorts of angles and on a variety of sexually based (predominantly female) body parts that look solid & heavy (as if chiseled out of marble or stone) but are actually, in many instances, put together from very portable, light-weight materials (e.g., “tinted polyester casts,” “poured polyurethane forms”). 

According to the background material posted by MoMA curators on its web site, Szapocznikowleft behind a legacy of provocative objects that evoke Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme, and Pop art.  Her tinted polyester casts of body parts, often transformed into everyday objects like lamps or ashtrays; her poured polyurethane forms; and her elaborately constructed sculptures, which at times incorporated photographs, clothing, or car parts, all remain as wonderfully idiosyncratic and culturally resonant today as when they were first made.”  

Femme illuminee, 1966-67
Indeed, the Szapocznikow show, “Sculpture Undone,” offers the viewer nearly two decades of her work that is, according to MoMA, “at once fragmented and transformative, sensual and reflective, playfully realized and politically charged.”  Plagued by her fight against breast cancer for years (she died prematurely of the disease in 1973 at the age of 47), the female body was, apparently, much on her mind and shows up in a considerable number of pieces both large & table-top small; some of these pieces are boldly sensual, some eerily (or even quizzically) abstract, many tender; some of the human figures recall, just a bit (& much to my own liking), the tall, thin figures reflective of the work of Giacometti. In all, this mid-20thcentury sculpture show now on view at MoMA is unique, personal, idiosyncratic, full of emotion-laden & sensually packed pieces … it is a show you won’t want to miss! 

We next ventured to an equally large, multifarious (though somewhat less compelling) exhibition – MoMA’s “Tokyo 1955–1970” – featuring post-war avant-garde paintings, photos, mixed media, video & documentary film, graphic design objects, drawings, posters, collage & sculpture.  While the show purports to introduce us to “the myriad avant-garde experiments that emerged as artists drew on the energy of this rapidly growing and changing metropolis,” and while the show is energetic and electric in various sections, the overall size and diversity of the objects tends, in my view, to lessen its overall impact. 

Painting - Tokyo exhibit, MoMA
Naturally, I would encourage all of you to see the show and make your own determination; but, here, I found that, while there are some truly unique, intriguing & impressive pictures, “items” & artifacts on view, less by way of expansiveness and more specificity of form(s) would have made the show that much more impactful for the non-specialist visitor. Again, have a look at some of the more interesting pieces on display in this show and scan the notes on their background “stories” … and, then, decide for yourself … before you head over to wait on line for a peek at Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (through April) or trundle down to visit MoMA’s Meta-MonumentalGarage Sale.”      

The Bar Room @ The Modern
By the way, following your visit to the two major exhibitions I’ve shared (just above), you might well have built up an appetite & long for a bite to eat. I would simply recommend remaining within the confines of the museum and heading for a table at “The Bar Room” at The Modern (reservations: 212 333-1220), which offers French-American (Alsatian) cuisine, casual dining at tables within a sizable bar area.  You can chose between & among items from their menu of small, medium, and large plates, expertly prepared, carefully plated & attentively served.  While the wines are, for the most part, priced a bit on the high side you can find something (something, that is, if you are sharing) that is both satisfying & reasonable … to complement your various menu choices.  Desserts, of course, vary in taste and consistency but are also well prepared and presented. Have a look at their menu; I feel certain you will be well fed, and, most importantly, you will have thoroughly enjoyed, and probably lingered over, a meal of great diversity.  One great choice in a large plate was the roasted poussin with enoki mushrooms, almonds, caramelized endive & Rodenbach jus @ $23; another solid (medium-size) plate proved to be the Atlantic grouper “en Matelote” with champignon mushrooms & applewood-smoked bacon @ $20. 

The French press coffee is strong & robust … and two signal desserts to partake in (among several others), with your coffee & a glass of port, might just be the dark chocolate tarte, with chocolate ice cream & the pistachio dacqoise, with caramelia passion fruit ganache & milk chocolate chantilly (each priced @ $12). The service & competency of the wait staff are truly outstanding as they ought to be in a James Beard Foundation Award-winning restaurant!  (MoMA points out that there is a separate street-level entrance, on West 53rd St., which enables museum visitors to patronize the restaurant and “The Bar Room” area after the museum has closed.)

Yes, Bill Henderson has done it again (along with his astute group of contributing editors and the writers, themselves):  Let it be known that the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize (XXXVII) has just been published and a “launch” party/reading event was recently held at Le Poisson Rouge (Sunday, December 2nd) featuring prize-winning poets (Patricia Smith, Timothy Liu) & short story writers (Joshua Cohen, Jess Row) whose work appears in the new edition (and/or has appeared in the recent past).

As a front cover blurb from The New York Times has stated, this Pushcart Prize volume is “a big, colorful, cheerful, gratifying ‘samplecase’ [sic] of small press fiction, essays and poetry.”  I very much agree and, further, suggest that there is a work of literature gathered here in the latest edition of the Prize volume for just about every taste & every reader’s interest – from an essay by the late Harry Crews, entitled  “We Are All of Us Passing Through” (from The Georgia Review) to a brief lyrical poem, called “A Shadow Beehive,” by, yep, a fourth grader, Rasheda White (published originally in Ecotone).  Have a look for yourself;  you’ll find a great deal to read, to enjoy & to remember; you’ll find material that is surprising, material that is refreshing as well as valuable, even, dare I say it, much that you will find contains (and reflects) a fair amount of emotional truth that will resonate with you long after putting the volume down. I can’t wait to plunge in even further!

Finally, by way of returning to Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, and their conversation session with Jonathan Safran Foer which we attended at The Strand a few weeks ago (noted in the introductory paragraph of part 1 of this blog post), I’d just like to note once more the interview with Mr. Ottolenghi & Mr. Tamimi, focusing on their backgrounds, experiences, current cooking interests, and their newest cookbook, Jerusalem, based on & emanating from, fundamentally, their memories of the cooking they grew up with in Jerusalem (from both Israeli & Palestinian culinary & cultural perspectives). Numerous great Middle Eastern recipes to try out reflective of many food categories & all varieties (fish, meat, vegetarian, salad, soups, appetizers, etc.). 

Yotam Ottolenghi @ The Strand
Indeed. Mr. Ottolenghi (along with his new London restaurant, NOPI) has been receiving lots of attention lately in the media, including Jane Kramer’s lengthy profile on him – “The Philosopher Chef in the December 3rd issue of The New Yorker and subtitled “Yotam Ottolenghi’s ideas are changing the way London eats.” According, to Mr. Ottolenghi & his partner, Mr. Tamimi, the philosophy behind their small London-based restaurant “empire” (with restos & delis in several locations in London & immediate environs) “requires that everything is hand-crafted with extreme care and attention, from basic raw ingredients.”  Sounds fine to me … and so, while he signed my newly purchased copy of his book, I asked him if he planned on opening a branch of one of his restos in New York any time soon; he just smiled, albeit philosophically, and invited me to visit NOPI … in London.






Monday, December 10, 2012

Mo Yan, Ai Weiwei, the Pushcart prize, MoMA & more … part 1

Ian McEwan
Although I’ve been on the silent side for the past five weeks, or so, and away from the blog, I have, indeed, been busy – reading (Nobel Prize & Pushcart Prize literature; Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame; On Chesil Beach & the new novel, Sweet Tooth, from Ian McEwan); attending all sorts of events (notably hearing a conversation involving Jonathan Safran Foer, Sami Tamimi & the culinary ideas & experiences of Yotam Ottolenghi and his new cookbook, Jerusalem (written with Sami Tamimi; Ten Speed Press, 2012); visiting museums (MoMA & the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC); viewing newly released films (e.g., Lincoln, A Late Quartet) … and more.

Many “items” to discuss & share; I want explore a few of these briefly, in two parts.

Mo Yan
First, upon hearing of this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, I decided to seek out one of Mo Yan’s recent novels; fortunately, our local library in Glen Ridge, NJ, and the Essex County  library consortium (“BCCLS”), had many of his works on hand.  I selected a multi-layered, interestingly textured & disturbing 1995 novelistic work entitled The Garlic Ballads, a kind of Faulknerian (think a bit on the order of Absalom, Absalom! and its historical “depth” & geographically circumscribed space).  Like Faulkner’s corner of Mississippi – Jefferson & the surrounding Yoknapatawpha County – Mo Yan’s work, in this case, focuses on his own native territory, the garlic-growing region of Gaomi, Shandong, China where he was born into a family of farmers. The novel is based on an actual event (yes, a true story!) that occurred in the local county, and, specifically, on a small circle of peasant-farmers (within Gaomi Township) and their individual & communal experiences – their exceedingly cruel treatment of each other, one peasant against another, acting individually, or one family against another.

More importantly, though, the novel is about the local peasant farmers who participated in an (almost) ineluctable mass protest and riot against the immediate uncaring municipal government and its corrupt representatives – against the civil authorities, county leaders & bureaucrats, who routinely scowl at & harass the peasants; against the local governmentally controlled farm collective who would not buy their garlic crop; and against any other governmental representative (including the local police) who regularly brutalize them and extract all sorts of penalties from the local (county) farmers who depend for their livelihoods, and their children’s lives, chiefly on the sale of their garlic. 

Amidst all of the protesting is an impossible, and ultimately unrequited, love story between one independent-minded peasant-farmer and a young woman, already “promised” to another man within the bounds of a forced marriage, a contractual agreement involving the “delivery” of two brides for her two (aging, still unmarried) older brothers. Throughout the narrative described, and within a time frame of about two years, both lover and beloved are routinely victimized by her own family’s brutally retributive violent acts thwarting their relationship and blocking their marriage.

Howard Goldblatt
Indeed, while the local government bureaucrats & party officials, the various layers of police, the “state” agricultural king-pins all treat the peasants with scorn, derision, and physical brutality, what is most surprising & alarming, I would think, to the average western reader of this novel (translated with what appears to be cultural sensitivity and linguistic attentiveness by Howard Goldblatt, Mr. Mo’s primary English translator) is the ongoing mistreatment of individual to individual and by family members to each other and to their neighbors … men, women & children of other local families.  The peasant-farmer culture in the region of China depicted in the novel seems to tolerate – even tacitly (historically?) condone and support – the one-on-one physical violence, the cruelty, the aggressive defiance & psychological maliciousness, the utter lack of concern for another’s (the others’) humanity, and the family-on-family brutality reflecting a socio-cultural climate of repression, treachery, and truculent behavior all around.

Yet, given all the “official,” individual & family-based brutality and violence perpetrated within this complex novel (of nearly 300 densely packed pages) revealing events situated in Gaomi Township during the mid-1980s, it is still a difficult book to put down; you simply want to read on in the vain hope that life will get better and things will work out, and that, in the end, the characters we are following will survive and prosper, especially the rare few who appear innately selfless or act benevolently toward others – those few individuals who treat others, external to the family or within its confines – with dignity, humanity, and goodness. 

As you might have guessed from this brief summary, Mo Yan’s novel, The Garlic Ballads, is a memorable work – filled with considerable instances of hatred & pain mixed with the indelible aroma of garlic lingering, a profound smell etched in our hearts & minds, permeating the local geography and bodies of the characters, a la the pervasive smell of bodies & decay in Faulkner’s Absalom! & “A Rose for Emily.” But, while it must be underscored that this is a novel full of violent acts, untoward & routine cruelty, near-desperation, and monumental difficulties that, seemingly, will not be overcome any time soon, it is, at the same time, a poetic novel, filled with lyrical prose and a carefully articulated cast of characters, all scaffolded by short lyrical poems introducing each of the novel’s major sections … “announcing” and anticipating the fundamental emotional, political, and physical "health" of the locale, of the crops & the harvest, of the peasant-farmer inhabitants, and also – our major concern – of what looms, imminently, connecting all of these characters (their hopes & hates and dreams) with the issues confronted and events portrayed.
  Ai Weiwei & Zodiac Head

Before leaving China and things Chinese,  I just want to call attention to two complementary shows – featuring the work of Ai Weiwei – that have been organized at the Hirshhorn Museum (a unit of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC).  One, “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” consists of 12 animal heads seemingly impaled high up on stakes & situated in a large circle just outside the museum’s glass (rear) doors, on the plaza between the museum and the Sculpture Garden

Circle of Animals - Dragon
The sculpted animal heads were done in bronze, and, as noted by the garrulous & outspoken contemporary Chinese artist (see my recent blog post on Ai Weiwei & the current documentary feature film of which he is the subject), the purpose of the project has been to reinterpret the original 18th-century Zodiac Heads in order to depict the traditional Chinese zodiac that once, according to Ai, himself, “adorned the famed fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan [Garden of Perfect Brightness], an imperial retreat in Beijing.”  The Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is the artist's first major public sculpture project and, you might be aware, was brought to New York and shown in 2011 (May 4th – July 15th at the Pulitzer Fountain, Grand Army Plaza). The Circle of Animals is a bold, monumental outdoor assembly and an emphatic & awesome (some heads are, indeed, fierce looking, even frightening!) re-working, re-envisioning, of the signs of the traditional Chinese Zodiac in large, strong & solid elevated bronze figures (through February 24th, 2013 at the Hirshhorn).

Ai Weiwei - Installation at Hirshhorn Museum
The other Ai Weiwei show at the Hirshhorn Museum (extending throughout most of the 2nd floor) is entitled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” This extensive, diverse, and detailed exhibition demonstrates the scope and breadth of Ai Weiwei’s unique and idiosyncratic artistic practice and includes sculpture, photography, audio/video set-ups, and a variety of site-specific installations. In this sprawling show, the Hirshhorn presents a wide variety of both small & large-scale items, numerous black & white photographs, color photos, posters & “artifacts” depicting his architectural work in Beijing (including design work & planning documentation for the 2008 Beijing National Stadium), and various pieces from his recent sculptural output, amidst his moderate-size topographical, site-specific installations comprising diverse materials (see the photo). 

In summary, according to the Hirshhorn’s online exhibition-related material, Ai, “a leading figure among Chinese artists” since his return to China (from New York City) in 1993, “has continued to create art that transcends dualities between East and West” … focusing on “fundamental questions about the interrelations between art, culture, society, and individual experience.” The show allows for an interesting, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted experience of an important international artist working within a wide swath of contemporary media and (popular) recognizable forms; the show functions as a broad, solid, in-depth introduction to, and examination of, the current & recent work of Ai Weiwei.