30 June 2009

Haiku 181

(a reminiscence of the Charles River)

Swift river running
Racing beneath shady shores
Outstripping the sculls

29 June 2009

Haiku 180

(a summer haiku, for Ryan Reynolds and the selkies)

Beneath sultry skies . . .
Warm longing to live wetly,
Below the waters

28 June 2009

Haiku 179

Sitting in my chair
As if it's all new to me;
Where does dust come from?

Philadelphia 7: places of worship

Philadelphia's cathedral is dedicated to Sts Peter and Paul, and the eponymous saints flank the main entrance.

I went to the cathedral before I had my revelation that in the new digital age I could take lots of pictures and not worry about using up exposures, so I don't have that many pictures. (On the other hand, my battery kept running low, so I did have to keep an eye on that.) I also realized that I tended to take close-up or fragmentary shots of things, possibly because I've always been incredibly near-sighted. I tended to avoid the postcard shots, but then I don't have the postcards, so I don't have pictures of the whole edifice.

The facade of the cathedral is fairly plain, but the inside is quite elaborate and beautiful. It was built between 1846 and 1864, in a style that is obviously indebted to St Peter's Basilica in Rome. The building doesn't have large side windows, as a precaution against the anti-Catholic riots of the Know-Nothing era, and that may be why most of the decoration is interior as well.

The Stations of the Cross are done in sculpture; below is Station X, Jesus is stripped before the Crucifixion.

Below is the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, on Chestnut Street, down several blocks from my hotel.

The Theosophists, somewhat to my surprise, are still a presence; below is their building right off swank Rittenhouse Square.

And I was surprised and amused to see Mme Blavatsky hanging on the wall of the White Dog Inn.

Below is the Masonic Temple, which is right by City Hall and which, I discovered too late, has tours for the public.

St Clement's, an Anglo-Catholic Church near the Academy of Science, is below.

And this is the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Temple, shown from the park across the street. It's near the Dock Street brewery, where we had gathered for beer-related purposes. As we passed the temple Sunday morning, I was surprised and disappointed that the music for their service was recorded and not live.

Philadelphia 6: Reading Terminal Market

The Reading (pronounced "redding," I am told) Terminal Market is near City Hall, on the lower level of what had been the Reading Railroad's train shed, built in 1891.

It's a large concourse filled with different booths offering food (some raw or uncooked and some prepared) as well as local crafts and items aimed at travelers. It's crammed full of signs, both neon and painted, and counters and little kitchens.

Though a lot of the items are Pennsylvania specialties, they have foods from around the world, and boast of the variety, so they're not like San Francisco's Ferry Building, which makes a point of having only locally produced food.
I was amused by the toque-wearing duck pictured below, since it looks as if one of Donald's nephews has turned Sweeney Todd towards his kind.
People can sit and eat their food at the tables and chairs set up in one of the large central areas. When I was there lots of the shoppers were obviously out-of-towners visiting for the interleague Red Sox/Phillies game, which I would have gone to if tickets had been available. (You could only get them with a series purchase, or by entering a lottery for a chance to buy a ticket.) Since I managed to get Phillies tickets the last time I visited, a year when their new stadium was guaranteeing sell-outs, I was fairly flummoxed.

There are some sit-down restaurants in the Market. I didn't go to them, but I did find some good pizza places. Eating can be a bit tricky when you're traveling solo and have things to go to in the evening. Also, though I believe Philadelphia has evolved enough to ban smoking in restaurants, it wasn't that way last time I was there, and I won't even bother going into a restaurant that allows smoking. I'm always glad to find a place that sells food that is fast, healthy, and not too expensive.

Several of the seating areas, even the small, tucked-away one shown below, have pianists playing standards and pop songs. I ate some rolls there Sunday morning and left a dollar in the tip jar when I left. The woman playing piano had played Rock-a-bye Baby for a mother sitting there with her infant in a stroller. I thought that was sweet.

The Amish are a large presence in the Market, at least Wednesday through Saturday. I was going to try some of their food but the vegetables were way too overcooked for this California boy. (As far as other local delicacies go, I won't go near cheesesteak, which is the first thing most people associate with Philadelphia.)

During one of my trips through the Market, I saw the women above helping a customer who was in full traditional punk regalia: piercings, mohawk, the works. I had several reactions almost immediately: this is a perfect shot; maybe this shot is too perfect? a little too obvious?; they can see me and I feel as if I'm treating them like animals in a zoo. This was not the first time such considerations kept my camera in its case. I walked by City Hall one day and saw at least a dozen cops milling around. There were so many, even for the City Hall area, that I was puzzled until I realized they were at a donut shop. And several of the cops had large guts and were smoking (which is when I realized you never see California police smoking, at least on duty). Again, I felt a little odd taking pictures of people only because they were walking jokes. These incidents increased my admiration for sfmike, who does this sort of thing so well.

I probably should have just been insouciant and speedier and taken the picture. The Amish way of life is definitely part of the marketing that's going on.

There were quilted potholders and other reminders that Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch territory was nearby. Apparently they keep a lot of bees, too, and sell both honey and bee's-wax items (I assume the wax dragon sculptures below were also for sale).

I bought some apples at one market. They weren't that good, but I probably shouldn't have bought the cheapest ones, either.

It's not all fresh fruits and vegetables at the Market.

27 June 2009

Haiku 178

Heat, and dirty air,
And the juice on your fingers
Of ripe apricots

26 June 2009

Haiku 177

Perpetual waves
Will crash against each other
If there is no shore

25 June 2009

Philadelphia 5: City Hall

Philadelphia's insanely ornate City Hall took thirty years to build and was completed in 1900. For decades nothing was built that would rise above the building's topper, a 27-ton bronze statue of the colony's Quaker founder, William Penn. In the late 1980s (of course!), developers decided that was old-fashioned, and the usual city skyscrapers now surround the building.

It's the type of building the modernists rebelled against, but unless you have a heavy emotional investment in the International Style, it's a wonder of its kind. I think it's a welcome reminder of a time when Americans felt public buildings were worth time, money, and their top designers.

Almost every possible surface is covered with allegorical statues, recreated classical garlands and columns, or just general decoration.

There are statues all around the building, including the monument below to President McKinley, who was assasinated by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Presumably that's why the monument refers to him as a martyr, but even given the shock of assasination I don't think he really qualifies in that category.

The naked prepubescent boy being protected/guided/inspired by the woman in the breastplate sort of amused me as being very typical of the art of its day and something that would never be done for a similar statue today, unless some daring artist wanted to create a scandal.

One of the arches features a fairly bug-eyed portrait of Ben Franklin; though an admirable man and the patron saint of the city, his is not really a countenance formed for neo-classical sculpture (which is part of his appeal).

Right across the street, and in contrast to the other surrounding statues, is Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin; elsewhere it might look like forced and costly whimsy, but in this company it looks austere and elegant.

Philadelphia 4: Italian Stallions

The story is that we're more and more a visual culture, but I think we're really a movie culture. Back when I still saw movies in movie theaters, I went to the first Austin Powers film, and realized that it was yet another movie comedy that had its funny moments but wasn't nearly as sophisticated or consistently funny as the best TV comedies of the time (in particular, the Seinfeld show). I have the DVD of the Simpsons movie waiting, but I find it odd that after almost two decades of surprising and subversive hilarity anyone still felt there had to be a movie to prove the show's legitimacy.

I had seen and liked the first Rocky movie when it came out, but I haven't seen any of the sequels, mostly because Stallone in the person of Rocky and Rambo came to represent the country's turn to mindless reactionary patriotism and I just didn't feel like it. I'll probably watch them eventually, because I like boxing movies.

Everyone remembers Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and posing at the top with his fists in the air. A statue of this pose was placed there for one of the sequels, and became an awkward leftover once the filming stopped.

You see actual athletes running up those steps, but you mostly see tourists climbing up to pose like Rocky. You'd think if we actually had a "visual culture" these people would then walk into the museum and look at pictures. Some do, lots don't. I think the museum was horrified at this fairly bad statue cluttering up their main entrance (too bad Rodin wasn't around to do it justice), and when I was in Philly about five years ago I heard that there was one of those controversies about where the statue should go. Back then, I was told it was out by the stadiums, but when I went to a Phillies game I didn't see it. The museum had compromised by placing a tastefully understated, conceptual-artish pair of bronze Converse prints and the carved name of our hero at the top of the steps.

I don't know when the change happened, but the statue is back by the museum, only at the foot of the stairs, off to the right but clearly visible, at the base of the sloping garden leading up to the building. There are always visitors there getting their pictures taken. Sometimes these are kind of fun -- little kids wearing their boxing gloves, a group of Japanese tourists smiling and posing in unison -- and sometimes you get the type of parent who shows up on the 10:00 news for assaulting his ten-year-old's soccer coach. One father was yelling at his little son to smile since he looked constipated.

The Museum of Art has apparently made its peace with the statue, or at least with its appeal, since they sell replicas in their giftshop.

And at the Bourse (see Philadelphia 3), one store offers all the Rocky/Yo Adrian!/Italian Stallion wares you could wish.

This isn't really anything new. If you get past the Rocky stuff and go into the museum, you can see Bronzino's wedding portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, pretending to be Orpheus, in a pose inspired by the Greek fragment known as the Belvedere Torso. Different heros for different ages, but the same impulse to copy a hero, and a hope that copying the physique means copying the spirit.

Haiku 176

What is lonelier
Than being forced into fun
Group activities?

24 June 2009

Beckett, Beckettry, Beckettish

I very much enjoyed Cutting Ball Theater’s production last March of Will Eno’s monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), but I walked out of the theater thinking I probably didn’t have a whole lot to say about it, which is an occasionally awkward reaction. I was really impressed by the quietly modulated performance of Jonathan Bock (directed by Marissa Wolf); when he came to take his bow he was smiling in a way that told me how effectively he had created a character different from himself. I also had to sympathize with him because part of the play involves asking audience members questions, and since I prefer to sit in the front row he turned to me to ask what my dreams were or something, and I’m sorry, I know actors work hard, but they’re getting nothing out of me. I was also amused that after I had praised the consistently inventive stage design at Cutting Ball, they did a show that was on a practically bare stage.

I had been a bit irritated by the constant repetition of the New York Times’s description of Eno as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” Initially I think I reacted that way because I felt the reference to Stewart was arbitrary and trendy – if the first part of the monologue reminded me of anyone, it was early 1930s Groucho Marx. But as I walked to BART, stepping over discarded drug paraphernalia and strategically crossing streets to avoid as inconspicuously as possible the more threatening-looking huddles of street folk, sure that when I arrived at the station I would have a long wait for a miserably noisy and dirty crowded train, I realized the Beckett comparison was bugging me because this was exactly the sort of mundane low-level anxiety and suffering that he specialized in, and that I hadn’t seen in Thom Pain’s more colorfully picturesque suffering.

I guess any sort of poeticized bleakness gets compared to Beckett, the way a certain type of restrained romance written by a woman will always get compared to Jane Austen. But the thing about Beckett is that his characters aren’t just obscure citizens – they’re so marginal they practically don’t belong to society. And it’s only Beckett’s incredible innate sense of rhythm that can make their often obsessive and repetitive speech powerful and memorable. Comparisons to Beckett are a lot to live up to, and there’s really no need for them. I’ll happily see where Eno goes next on his own.

Thom Pain’s monologue, centering on childhood incidents involving animals and then on his girlfriend’s breaking up with him, seemed very much a young man’s story (maybe that’s where the “Jon Stewart generation” thing comes from, though I haven’t noticed that Stewart’s appeal is that age-specific). So I can’t help wondering if we aren’t just seeing the extravagant drama youth enjoys; Beckett’s characters are way beyond this stage. And though the notable grotesquerie of some of the monologue avoided the trap of being “interesting” and “quirky” in that overly contrived and very literary way, I couldn’t help remembering Laertes: “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, she turns to favor and to prettiness.”

What’s so awful about a lot of life is that it’s not bad in an interesting or unusual or dramatic way; it's just bad in a low-level, miserable, and annoying way. What struck me, oddly enough, is that the situations in Thom Pain were too dramatic. This play differs fundamentally from what Beckett does, which is to present the ordinary and banal so relentlessly and even literally (think of the way he embodies a metaphor of individual isolation by frequently showing people living in garbage cans, trapped in jars, or buried in sand piles) that they become funny and tragic. Beckett’s people are so marginal they don’t even realize they’re marginal. I realize it’s a tricky thing, trying to portray the banality and boredom of suffering without also being banal and boring, but it’s a truth about life that’s worth exploring. That may not be what Eno was even trying to do, but to me that’s where his work differs from Beckett’s, and for me there's a purer truth in Beckett's more austere artistry.

But perhaps I see these things in Beckett because that’s what I respond to. Years ago (so unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the critic making the point), someone writing about Dickens pointed out that for Chesterton he was a genial, humorous and good-natured writer, whereas for Shaw he was an acid social critic and reformer. You’re going to treasure Pickwick Papers or Little Dorrit depending on your inclinations. We see what we’re looking for in great artists. We carry around these general impressions of even our favorite writers, and can free ourselves from vagueness we didn’t think we had only by re-immersing ourselves in the actual nuanced words.

That’s a roundabout and perhaps dubious way of approaching the next show I saw at Cutting Ball, Krapp’s Last Tape. So here’s another monologue, with Paul Gerrior as Krapp (and David Sinaiko as the recorded voice of the younger Krapp), this time directed by Rob Melrose, Cutting Ball’s artistic director. The performance was fine but didn’t really gel for me, for reasons that no doubt have more to do with my moods and my feelings about this particular play than with the production; I liked Gerrior (though what was up with his weirdly sexual way of eating the bananas?), but Krapp’s Last Tape has always been, and remains, my least favorite of Beckett’s plays.

Krapp listens to old tapes of himself reminiscing about a woman he knew. He’s going on about the woman at one point and I suddenly really wanted to hear from her, and what she thought of this man, but you don’t get her voice at all, even as repeated by him. It’s a very inward play, exploring a layered moment of memory, but it’s a moment, not really a drama. Perhaps it’s simply that as an aging, inwardly absorbed man myself, I already spend far too much time with someone like that.

That was the close of Cutting Ball’s rich and ambitious season. Check out their next season; the Hidden Classics reading series looks particularly exciting.

And for further Beckett, I recently discovered (in a letter to Gramophone magazine, of all places), that the British Library has available a four-CD set of the radio plays he created for the BBC. I had some problems with their balky website so I wasn’t able to place my order until a couple of days ago and hence have not yet received my copy, but to me this sort of thing is self-recommending, and you’ll already know if it is for you as well.

Philadelphia 3: Down Independence Way

I walked down by Independence Hall one morning, but decided not to go in, since I had seen it on my last trip to Philly several years ago, and it would involve going over to the Park Service building and getting a ticket (which I think was free but might have been timed entry or otherwise inconvenient) and then waiting in line with the busloads of schoolchildren and no doubt going through rigorous security. Since I am an angry-looking bearded man I tend to get extra scrutiny. I saw the Liberty Bell on my last trip and I had to take off my shoes and belt and have a metal detector run over me and delightfully ironic though that was, I felt I could skip it this time.

Practically across the street from Independence Hall is the Bourse, which as its name indicates was a stock exchange. It was built in 1895 and is elaborately ornate in the manner approved of by Gilded Age money.

There might be some offices there now, but it's mostly taken up by a large food court and shops clearly aimed at the busloads of tourists. If you're looking for a place to buy a mug/t-shirt/mousepad/whatever showing Ben Franklin saying "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" then you've hit the motherload. One entire shop window was taken up by variations on that theme.

I went in because I was learning to use my new camera and wanted some shots of the building, and also because last time I was there at least one of the restaurants had served fairly healthy food. That place was long gone and I ended up not eating anywhere in the Bourse. I'm not all that picky (I think), but there are things I just don't need to eat and places where I don't need to eat them. I think the august architecture makes the food choices look even more awful than they might in another context.

The real highlight in the area is in the lobby of the Curtis Publishing Building, home of The Ladies' Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post. It's a vast mosaic designed by Maxfield Parrish and executed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and the Tiffany Studios.

Unfortunately I had not figured out how to use my camera's panorama function, so I couldn't get one shot of the whole thing, but if you're in Philadelphia and like either of those artists (or just color), you should go to the elegant lobby and check out the Dream Garden these artists invented.

There's an indoor fountain stretching in front of the work, and vases of flowers.

Haiku 175

Shiny cars whiz by.
They must have someplace to go.
I'm at a crosswalk.

23 June 2009

Philadelphia 2: Rodin

As you walk down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you pass a small, elegant building that houses the Rodin Museum, which is administered by the Museum of Art. When I was there its front was being renovated, so The Thinker was thinking his thoughts amid scaffolding and plastic sheeting and the dark shadows of the surrounding trees.

Although there are individual Rodin statues I love, I have to admit my feelings for him have never quite recovered from my long-ago trip to Paris, when I spent a day at the museum now in his former home and realized that you could have too much not only of a good but of a great thing. I can even tell you the exact moment when I overdosed: at his bust of Bernard Shaw. In place of the lively intelligence and sparkling humor you might expect was the magnificent melancholy of a dripping river god. I would have taken that as insight into an overlooked side of Shaw -- the sorrow over humanity beneath the satirist's jibes -- except that just about all the sculptures had the same look. Rodin may be deep, but he is not broad, and therefore is maybe not best seen in bulk.

The sculpture above, for instance, a study for the Gates of Hell titled A Shade, is very powerful, especially since it is positioned almost at floor level and is life-size. But about a yard away is a very similar statue depicting Adam, and the conjunction, for me at least, dilutes instead of doubles the impact.

This isn't a problem unique to Rodin. Long ago I had a job where I often had to stay late printing out slides for presentations and suchlike, using systems that now seem laughably slow but were the latest thing then. On one of those nights I had with me the collected poems of Yeats and before I knew it I had read more Yeats than one should read in one sitting. His lyrics weren't designed for that. It's now difficult for me not to associate his poems with that night and the sense of a particular style used once too often. And there are pieces of music I've listened to so obsessively at certain periods of my life that I now can't really hear them through the fog of association and repetition and expectation. I'm very susceptible to the lure of Complete Works, but it's difficult to know how to manage them so that you gain a complete view of the artist's achievement without overloading on his or her method of achievement.

One of my favorite Rodins is The Age of Bronze, shown below. I love how you get a different sense of the young man's situation, his emotional process as it were, depending on how and from what angle you see the statue.

Haiku 174

Birds carol aubades
To the grey still silent world:
Can you hear them too?

22 June 2009

Philadelphia 1: Duchamp

When I first went to Philadelphia several years ago, I discovered how impressive the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Duchamp collection was. They have not only the famous Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even):

(a shard of the glass)

but also Etant donnes: 1.la chute d'eau/2. le gaz d'eclairage, the enigmatic and disturbing work he created secretly over the last twenty years of his life. I didn't take any pictures of that one because you really have to experience it as intended, by looking through the barely visible eyeholes in the heavy wooden doors in the alcove at the very back of the galleries. I spent so much time at the museum this visit that I was practically a docent; I saw one young couple glance in and assume that there was nothing there. I don't know if they were grateful that I told them to go back and look through the eyeholes. Incidentally, the piece needs some restoration work - the woman is starting to crack. I did buy a "lenticular" postcard of the piece in the gift shop: one of those 3-D-type things that shows the door if you hold it one way and the interior view if you shift the angle. The gift shop was full of those, for all sorts of pieces likely and unlikely, and I bought a few different ones because they were so odd.

Before my recent trip, I read Calvin Tomkins's biography of the artist, which is apparently out of print but which I recommend very highly if you have any interest in Duchamp and his vast influence on contemporary art.

I'm still trying to get used to my new camera, but this was a deliberate picture:

(Self-portrait with large glass: La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, moi-meme)

Philadelphia also has a selection of the famous readymades, which seem like forerunners of minimalism, Pop art, conceptual art, and probably a number of other fertile schools. You can also see one of his chocolate-grinder paintings on the wall, an image that recurs in the Large Glass.

Whether or not you like those schools of art (or perhaps more precisely, schools of thought), the readymade concept can change the way you look not only at art but at the man-made world around you.

For instance, sometimes neon is art:

(Bruce Nauman)

and sometimes it's lighting:

and it can be difficult to tell them apart.

By the end of the trip, when we came across a metal strip stamped with the words Space Within These Lines Not Dedicated set in the sidewalk near the University of Pennsylvania, we had an unresolved debate over whether this was a piece of conceptual art or some sort of legal marker for commercial real estate.