Wednesday, May 30, 2007

beyond gaggles and flocks

A Colony of Bats
A Thought of Barons
A Knot of Toads
A Raffle of Turkeys
A Decent of Woodpeckers
A Conspiracy of Ravens
A Company of Parrots
A Smack of Jellyfish
A Murder of Crows
A Dopping of Ducks
A Kettle of Hawks
A Congregation of Plovers

Thursday, May 24, 2007

taken aback

I don't think I can ever recall reading an article in a newspaper that has touched me so deeply as the one I just finished on my train ride out to Hannover this morning from last week's Die Zeit (Nr. 21; May 16, 2007; pp. 15-19), "Vor der großen Flut," by Anita and Marian Blasberg. In this artfully written comparison about preparations to cope with the inevitable consequences of global warming in The Netherlands and Bangladesh, two countries that exist at or below sea level, the gap between the rich and the destitute yawns quietly, soberly, and insistently. I don't want to provide a synopsis of it (see the link at right); all I want to say here is that it made me conscious that climate change is a problem that cannot be fixed, but which rather operates like a living organism introduced to a colony of other, more familiar, social ills. Which means there will soon come a time to write the history of global warming, of which this piece is perhaps one of its first and most successful chapters - and in this history, it will not be some aberrant interjection into geological time, but an ongoing chain reaction that leaves no aspect of daily life untouched.

The Dutch view global warming as a new frontier in economic opportunity and development; the Bangladeshi people pay for it with their lives. Farmers in South Holland face losing their land as the government tests new techniques for keeping the country on the map; in Bangladesh, the hundreds of thousands who have already lost their livelihood illegally pillage forests that might be their only salvation from the floods - as the time between the great monsoons dwindles from every 20 years to every fifth and soon every single year, the trees vanish at a comparable pace. And as the massive U.S., Chinese, and Saudi delegations at the world climate summit in Brussels this April quibble over wording like "many millions of refugees" (preferring just "millions of refugees" and finally settling on "many millions of people"), the sole Bangladeshi representative (the UN pays for only one flight per country) can only look on in silent bewilderment. This is a story as much about architecture and strategies of representation as is it the weather, as much about new migration patterns as it is about a kind of tacit genocide.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


It dawned on me today that a good definition of hysteria would be the mantra, "I'd rather be right than happy." There come moments that test this iron-clad law that may seem insignificant at the time - if, in the intoxication of justice, they are noticed at all - but which are decisive if one wishes to resist making one's life a "real Calvary" (as Phillipe van Haute once succinctly characterized the hysteric's existence). One might call it "picking your battles," but that always struck me as pedestrian a thing to say as "Life isn't fair." Because both approximate what I am trying to say by falling back on platitudes, they are more likely to rankle the hysteric rather than bring about a change in consciousness that may salvage her life, if sour her conscience.

The hysteric is in a double-bind: on the one hand, to live an ethical life demands that one be right and that one demand the same of the world. But what does one do when the good is not always the beautiful? Or when its not even all that good? I believe the hysterical woman was the first dialectician - the first to realize that heaven is actually a hell, and that it is here, now, on earth to be lived. And by always keeping this hell in view, she triumphs (but does not rejoice) in the knowledge that she is conscious of this truth, even if it makes her life here, now, on earth unbearable.

Lately, I am thinking of Ulrike Meinhof, especially as we are gearing up for the 40th anniversary of 1968 - which, in Germany, really began on June 2, 1967 with the student protests in Berlin on the occasion of the state visit of the Shah of Iran. Two nights ago I saw one of many TV programs devoted to narrating the history of the decade between that summer and the German Autumn of 1977. And I saw footage of Ulrike Meinhof from the early 1960s, as she appeared as a journalist on political discussion television programs. She looked very Beat and spoke very intelligently and struck me as so very, terribly - depressed.

Gerhard Richter. (German, born 1932). Ulrike Meinhof from October 18, 1977. 1988. Fifteen paintings, oil on canvas, Installation variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, gift of Philip Johnson, and acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (all by exchange); Enid A. Haupt Fund; Nina and Gordon Bunshaft Bequest Fund; and gift of Emily Rauh Pulitzer. © 2007 Gerhard Richter

good bookstore

Every time I use the Dammtor station when I return to Hamburg by train, I walk over the Dag Hammerskjöld Bridge to the Stephansplatz U-Bahn station. There are entrances to this stop quite a distance away, near the Casino and the Opera, but I always turn right off the bridge and enter into the closest passageway. I descend by a few steps to get to the entrance, and before I take the escalator down underground, there is a little used bookshop waiting there to greet me - an Antiquariat. I have always wanted to go in, but have resisted, thinking that what they sold was too expensive, but today I did. Standing in glass cases where you would expect the usual subway advertisements was a series of books that seemed more interesting than the next - a collection of early graphic work by Georg Grosz, a first edition of a collection of poems by Gottfried Benn, Thomas Mann's diaries, Benjamin's Arcades Project, Upton Sinclair editions with the original covers designed by John Heartfield - and they were all under 30 euro. I walked in.

Of the 17 books I seriously thumbed, 6 were "necessary," and, in the end, I only bought one. I am trying to use libraries even more than I already do, but as I leafed through the Berlin-Paris exhibition catalogue from the Pompidou or a huge monograph on John Heartfield, or even the Marlborough Gallery catalogue of Kurt Schwitters in Exile, I knew that I would one day regret not buying them when I could but that, in the more immediate future, I would regret shipping them back to the States when the time came even more. As for Ilja Ehrenburg's autobiography or Döblin's four-volume paean to the November Revolution of 1918, those were even sadder to let go because they were knocked out the first round, being more for pleasure than "necessity."

Fundgrube fuer Buecherfruende
Dammtordamm 4
20354 Hamburg
+49 (0)40 34 50 16

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


A postscript to my comments on Brideshead Revisited: it ought not to be forgotten that this is also a fundamentally very funny book. Humor is not used to assuage or apologize for the book's bite, but subtends every word so that, depending on your mood or general disposition, you might choose not to despair fully or indulge in righteous indignation - perfectly just reactions to the narrative:

"Even on that convivial evening I could feel my host emanating little magnetic waves of social uneasiness, creating, rather, a pool of general embarrassment about himself in which he floated with log-like calm."

This reminds me that I have always wanted to read Waugh's The Loved One, a satire on the funeral industry that was adapted to film in 1965 with genius performances by wildmen Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger. I adored this film when I first saw it as a kid, partly because it has all these scenes that take place where I grew up but which, as shown, does not exist anymore. The one shot I can remember vividly (save for one of the players taking a swing from the cliff-side overhang of a Case Study House) was of the outside of a restaurant whose door was actually the gaping maw of a whale waiting to swallow customers whole. When I saw it, I remembered that restaurant, and in doing so, realized that I had not seen it for a long time. I was very startled at having this image trigger a memory of a place I did not yet know had disappeared.

Monday, May 14, 2007

uneasy distraction

I picked up Brideshead Revisited at the house in Ireland and, against my better judgment, brought it back to Hamburg with me. I say against my better judgment as I only have a few more days in Germany and I should not be reading English novels, I have far too many books to tote around with me to my next settlement, and I am already desperately testing every excuse to avoid the heap of work closing in around me.

It has been a long time since I have been this immersed in something quite so hyperbolically British: it comes as quite a culture shock. At times, reading Waugh might as well be reading a foreign language. I am realizing just how long it has also been since I have read a novel (without wrestling with German too) and how this one in particular is turning out to be a rather comforting and unexpected tutor in the ways of human relations. Even though the world Waugh writes about is a dead world - deliberately saturated in a queasy nostalgia, a loving portrait of a rotten, even pathological, universe - somehow the little betrayals and unfathomable failures of his characters rests close. It is a book that relentlessly shows how every honest impulse or genuine affection is smothered, aborted, banished to the shadows. And while I would be hard pressed to see an economic advantage to this misery, somehow I am lulled, with the characters, into the belief that this atomization, this shriveling loneliness, is the way things have to be. Quiet, oblique abuse becomes one's only hope and salvation.

I once had my own Sebastian Flyte, but because that relationship did not conclude in drug overdose or crippling alcoholism, but rather ended for still more foggy reasons, I suppose I am rather late in learning the lessons this book has to teach. What happens when no one bothers to notice the slaughter of a sacrificial lamb?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

hurley making

There are two native Irish sports: Gaelic football and hurling. One of the three television stations we received was devoted almost exclusively to programming in the Irish language, and I caught a few minutes of a Gaelic football match. From what I could tell, it was a combination of rugby and soccer, with two different kinds of goal posts and players could touch the ball with their hands. Just before dinner the following evening I caught a short documentary called Hurley Making in English on one of the RTE (national) channels. Hurling has the appeal of being an indigenous ancient sport, whose tools were once hunting weapons. I thought this gave an added dimension to the opening of Ken Loach’s brilliant recent feature, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which shows a game of hurling and the subsequent fallout with British soldiers for an “illegal assembly.” Could the game itself, like the forbidden Irish tongue, have been a palpable threat?

The documentary was focused instead on the craft of making hurleys (bats) and balls. The film started with the felling of an ash tree, whose roots had to be cut a particular way to ensure that the grain of the hurley heads could withstand the impact of the ball. We moved among small family workshops, with different tasks assigned to members of various generations. As the narrator recounted the history of the sport (and myth plays an integral role in the telling of history in Ireland, regardless of its subject), we watched a younger craftsman repair the hurley of a star player. We moved to a renowned workshop for hurling balls in Dublin, and as we watched a man stitch the leather with mitted hands and an aggressive needle, I had to think of sail makers on the great mast sailing ships, which not too long ago, would run afoul on Fastnet Rock off Mizen Head, “the most southwesterly point in Ireland.”

Our last day in West Cork was spent on Sherkin Island, and as we boarded the ferry back to the mainland after a day of strolling through cow pastures and rambling by the ocean, I exchanged places with a boy of ten or eleven returning to the island after school, hurley stick in hand.

teeth will be provided

Ireland is about to hold elections and campaign posters tied to telephone poles were an ubiquitous addition to a West Cork landscape that usually consists of stone walls, bramble, grass, herds of sheep and cows, wire fences, the occasional tree deformed by costal winds, wildflowers, and (in the recent boom years of the “Celtic Tiger”) construction sites. Without exception, candidates represented themselves with frontal photographs taken against a neutral background, which amounted to little more than what you would expect to find in their passports. Splashed across the posters were their names and their party – and, if they were in the Fianna Fáil party of the current prime minister, Bertie Ahern, you could also read the chummy appellation “Bertie’s Team.” Posters sporting the portrait of Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, were in abundance, though I do not think he was running for a particular office this election. Smiling through his greying beard and oversized wire-rim glasses, Adams now looks more like a hippie-cum-math teacher from Portland than an alleged IRA terrorist.

I asked T. what Adams’ role in politics in the Republic currently was and we got to talking about his past appearances in the press. I remarked that I remembered seeing him on the American news on the occasion of the Good Friday Agreement, and he asked, “Did you hear his voice?” Legend has it that for years Adams never slept two consecutive nights in the same place, and under the Thatcher regime the ethical conundrum for the Irish press as to how to report his statements came to the fore: on the one hand, he is an incendiary figure of utmost newsworthiness, and on the other, there was no small concern about “giving a voice to a terrorist.” For a long time, whenever Adams was interviewed on television, he would be seated in darkness so that all viewers could see was his silhouette. This is common practice when the aim is to guard a speakers’ identity, yet in Adams’ case, I imagine the effect is quite the opposite – emphasizing his notoriety and rendering him more conspicuous. Yet what I find still more unusual is the fact that his words were also always spoken verbatim by someone else rather than altered by a computer. T. thought he recalled an instance when a woman spoke in his stead, and when no effort was made to change pronouns of first-person address, the “whole thing was just very eerie.”

As it happened we were on our way to Cork for the day on May 8, the first day of the regional government in Northern Ireland – and this nine years after the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin’s Chief Negotiator, Martin McGuinness, and Protestant preacher, Ian Paisley, are to lead the new government. T. reminded me who Paisley was by referring to a video we had seen of the stand-up of Irish comedian Dave Allen. Allen has a routine in which he mimics Paisley’s fire-and-brimstone approach: “‘...there will be a wailing and a great gnashing of teeth!’ And a little old lady in the front row says, ‘But I don’t have any teeth!’ And Paisley says, ‘Teeth will be provided!’”

robert gober at the schaulager

Last night, the summer exhibition at the Schaulager in Basel opened. This year, the honor goes to Rober Gober, whose Untitled (1995-97, above) is permanently installed on the lower level of this storage facility, designed by Herzog & de Meuron for the contemporary art collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Stiftung . The collection is committed to new art that uses materials in unorthodox ways, and while scholars or museum professionals can make appointments to view select works year-round, the space is only open to the public in the summer – and then only those parts of two floors reserved for special (typically monographic) exhibitions. Save for the Gober installation and Katharina Fritsch’s Rat King, works in the collection remain hidden from view in luxuriant bays that make up the majority of the building, one of the Basel-based firm’s best.

Perhaps it is the fault of looking at exhibitions at openings or my existing indifference to Gober’s work, but this show is agonizingly dull - and this was a sorry disappointment given that the Tacita Dean exhibition last year, after repeated and intense visits, left me with an unbound enthusiasm for the work of a heretofore unfamiliar artist, and that the Jeff Wall exhibition two years ago allowed me to warm to work for which I had originally deep reservations.

The first work I ever saw by Gober was one of his sinks at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when I was a teenager. I was with my father, who had apparently encountered his work before. He gestured to it saying, “What’s the deal with the sinks?” That question haunted me again as I wandered through the ground floor, seeing a litany of loving replicas of non-functional old-timey porcelain utility sinks – as well as equally repetitious examples of other favorite motifs (wax legs sporting children’s sandals and socks, baby cribs, household products). The most intriguing work in the show was one of the four large-scale installations, Newspaper, Rat Bait, Functioning Sink, Prison Window, and I guess it kind of answered my dad’s question for me. I had seen it reproduced many times before but could never get a sense of what was going on: as in Untitled, the sound of running water is crucial. Water runs into a series of sinks affixed to walls painted with a forest scene. The forest is so obviously a painting (it even looks like it was attacked by some blight that makes everything look like army camouflage), and though the sinks that intrude into your space continue to interrupt the illusion in an even more obvious way, you nevertheless want to imagine yourself in a real forest with the sounds of a real stream rushing in the distance. Puncturing the walls high above your head are barred windows that look out onto blue skies: you cannot see these skies without keeping in sight the top of the makeshift walls that form the room in which you stand and the lighting fixtures on the gallery’s ceiling. Again, you know that the space behind the window is shallow and illusory, and yet you want to see it as real, as deeper than the manifest stage set would allow. Despite our desire for imaginative distance (the space of fantasy? the breeding ground of ideology?), we are insistently locked into a physical proximity that coerces us to acknowledge that what we want to assume is fake is, actually, real and what we wish were real is, sadly, a sham. And thus we are all the more forcefully aware that we are in the Prison House of the Image, I guess. Scattered around are bundles of old newspapers and boxes of rat poison (all fabricated meticulously by the artist and his assistants); there is another door across from the entrance into the installation space, which leads you to a dead-end in the actual gallery and where you see the backside of the painted walls and more stacks of papers and poison, softly spotlit here and there.

Maybe Gober’s work is just too fussy and involved for my taste given the rather basic things he seems to be ruminating – and his excesses lack the kind of gripping, unpredictable supplemental payoff that would make me want to stick around in the wake of his puritanical, almost schoolmasterish lessons about the seduction of illusion. But I’m willing to hear a compelling argument why I should change my mind. The closest thing to get me to think twice came at the reception, although it was given in the spirit of a damning judgment: one of the art historians doing damage to the wine bar replied to the query as to how he found the exhibition with, “Totally humorless. He’s such a moralist. He’s a moralist and a pederast at the same time.” Now that could be interesting.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

first word

We landed in Basel after an uneventful journey back from Ireland. On the way out to Cork it was quite a different story, as Ryan Air had changed our flight from London Stansted and we found ourselves with an unplanned four hour layover. This alone was not disastrous – we had no appointments waiting for us on the other end, no cause to rush. There are worse things that could befall a person than waiting at an airport with someone whose company you especially enjoy. Instead, I realized that the added security regarding liquids on flights in and out of London was still in full force, though there is nary a mention of the present regulations in the baggage restrictions listed on the Easy Jet and Ryan Air websites. (Apparently, one should now check the websites of the actual airports for such things.) I had finally found a bottle of the contact lens solution I use in the States in a pharmacy in Hannover – all other brands make my eyes frighteningly bloodshot for weeks after a single use – and the bottle was too large to pass security in my carry-on. I spent £8 on 100 mL bottles and we stood in the shop emptying the solution into each. Curiously, the problem is the size of the container, not the amount of liquid. This security measure was put in place after a plot to detonate a flight from London by mixing liquids in the lavatory nearly nine months ago was frustrated. Curiously, this was the same flight that S.’s sisters and father took after their visit with us in Switzerland last summer.

When we entered the Basel airport on our return yesterday, the first word to enter my thoughts was süchtig, the German word for “addicted.” But to my ears, the German word still connotes suchen [to look or search for, to seek], making it somewhat more appropriate as I tried to describe my compulsive urge to travel to myself.