Monday, January 16, 2017

Ai Weiwei at Palazzo Strozzi

Annamaria on Monday


 Within days of arriving here in Florence, I saw a blockbuster exhibition of the work of a genius.



Ai Weiwei, Chinese contemporary artist and political activist, is a Bad Boy in the very best, most valuable meaning of the term.  Brilliant and irrepressible –despite an entire government’s efforts to squelch him, he is a master of communication.  He possesses a mind-boggling capacity to rethink ordinary objects into messages beyond powerful.  And a dazzling ability to condense complex emotions and sear them into one’s consciousness in one potent package.

 
The curators gave Ai Weiwei carte blanche to take over the entire museum,
unprecedented for this venue.  Here is what he put on the facades.

This was the first piece I saw, and it knocked me out.  I just love it when
someone does something that makes me think, "Why hasn't everyone thought of that?"



Ai comes by these capabilities honestly.  His father was the revered poet Ai Qing, friend to beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was denounced by the government in 1958, when Ai Weiwei was only a year old.  Weiwei spent his first four years in a labor camp and the next sixteen with his family in exile in Shihezi, Xinjiang.

Shortly after the family returned to Beijing in 1976, he enrolled in film school to study animation, but it wasn’t long before he was teaming up with other avant garde artists to create works that called attention to government brutality and corruption.

Ai made it abroad in 1981, spending the next twelve years in the US, almost all of it in New York.  He made friends with his father’s admirer Ginsberg, studied art, drew street portraits and did odd jobs to earn a living, and let the works of Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol work their spell on his imagination.  He also became a card sharp, as a top-tier backjack player!

In 1993, his father became ill, and Ai returned to China.  Over the next twenty-five years, he earned an international reputation for his work.  And the wrath of his government for his projects that criticize the administration. 

One example of that was part of the exhibition I saw.  It concerned the aftermath of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan province.  Poorly constructed schools collapsed killing many children.  Ai realized that the government was white-washing the tragedy and under-reporting the death toll.  He went into action with a team determined to publicize how many children died.  Their research—after a year of determined investigation—revealed that nearly 5400 children perished.  Palazzo Strozzi had on view a film of an installation Ai made of one length of rebar for each child lost.  Had that material been used properly in constructing the schools, many of the children would have escaped unharmed.  See what I mean about reducing the message to its simplest and most basic thought.

I could stay up all night telling you stories of Ai Weiwei and his art.  But here are two things I want you to know for sure.  He has given his organizations and projects wonderful tongue-in-cheek names.  The first after returning from New York was The East Village.  He calls his company and studio in Beijing FAKE Design and another entity he leads Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.  Then there was the Shanghai art exhibition called Fuck Off.  The exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi had a series of photos of Ai giving the finger to many great icons of human civilization.  Here are photos of some of those.




 
It made me laugh out loud that he gave the finger to Palazzo Strozzi


On the other side of the coin, he has been arrested and accused of “economic” or “unspecified suspected” crimes, once beaten so badly wile in custody that he needed surgery for cerebral haemorrhage.  When not jailed, he has been kept under constant surveillance.  With his incredible sense of the absurd, he watches his watchers in return, taking pictures of the people taking pictures of him.    And in one film clip I saw, duping the spies into thinking he was in a car and then tailing the car that was supposedly tailing him and filming the whole episode.  I loved it.  And all of these and more.  So much more.


   
This snake is made out of backpacks sewn together.

The government of Shanghai invited Ai to build a studio in the city.
Once it was done, they told him it was illegal.  He served boiled crabs
at the opening party, a play on words in Chinese that was a jeer on censorship.
This installation commemorates the opening party and the mind boggling fact that the
government then tore down the building they had invited him to put up.

 
Traditional looking wallpaper which shows the icons of today's technology
Icons of Florence, made with legos:





This portrait of Dante alone would have made me a fan! 



  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

When A Tree Falls In The Forest … the end of the Pioneer Cabin Tree


One of the saddest pieces of news this week, to my mind, was the story of the Pioneer Cabin Tree at the Calaveras Big Trees State Park in California. The tree, which had a ‘drive-thru’ hole carved in its trunk in the 1880s, blew down last weekend in heavy storms that swept across the north of the state.

The Pioneer Cabin tree, which shattered on impact.

I’ve always been fascinated by giant sequoia trees, and one of the highlights of an early visit to America was going to the Sequoia National Park to gaze dumbfounded at the General Sherman tree. At the time that tree was reckoned to be the largest by volume, measuring 275 feet tall and over 100 feet in circumference at the base. The first major branch was 150 feet up, and although it looked insubstantial from ground level, the branch was reckoned to be more than six feet in diameter.

The General Sherman tree

But the most mind-blowing thing of all was the fact that the General Sherman tree was estimated to be somewhere between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. That’s a staggering age for any living thing on the planet.

It boggles the mind that this tree put its first shoots above the soil when the Greek Empire was in its heyday and the Roman Empire wasn’t even a twinkle in anybody’s eye.

It has seen the foundation of Buddhism and Christianity, the reign of Alexander the Great, the construction and abandonment of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, and the importance of a city called Mecca,

It has seen Boudicca, Charlemagne, the Crusades, Attila the Hun, the Viking invasion, King Henry VIII and his wives, the Reformation and the Renaissance, Edison and Einstein, and Marie Curie.

It has seen plagues, revolutions in France and Russia, World Wars, and pandemics, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, droughts, fire, famine and volcanic eruptions.

It has seen the best and the worst that man can do to the planet, nuclear weapons, and pollution and acid rain. It’s seen man develop the motor car, powered flight, break the sound barrier and visit the moon.

And it has survived.

Not so the poor Pioneer Cabin Tree, a youngster by comparison at a mere 2000 years old and with a diameter of around 22 feet. The drive-thru section was an enlargement of an earlier fire scar, and was large enough for cars to drive through the trunk at one point, although in recent years it had been limited to pedestrians. It is not the only hollowed-out sequoia, though. There are various others, some on private land like the Tour-Thru Tree in Klamath, CA.

The Tour-Thru tree in Klamath, CA

Sequoias are not the largest trees on the planet – that honour belongs to the Hyperion tree, a coast redwood, which stands at a little under 380 feet and is estimated at around 700-800 years old.



Nor is the giant sequoia the widest living tree – the claim of being the stoutest tree is grabbed by the Glencoe Baobab tree, with a trunk that measured 52 feet in diameter and grows in South Africa, and also the cypress tree.

Baobab tree in Africa
Adansonia (Baobab) trees in Africa, a surreal sight
The oldest tree is a Great Basin bristlecone pine, to be found in the White Mountains of California, and which is over 5,000 years old. Prometheus, another Great Basin bristlecone pine in Nevada, dated at 4,844 years old, was cut down in 1964 by researchers who did not realise its advanced age.

Great Basin bristlecone pine trees 
It does make you wonder about the insignificance of man as a species. I can only hope that the trees leave more of a lasting impression on this planet than we do.

This week’s Word of the Week is teterrimous, meaning extremely foul, ugly, or horrible, from the Latin teterrima, meaning most foul.





Saturday, January 14, 2017

My Mykonos Secret Place


Jeff—Saturday

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite secret places on Mykonos, though I guess it won’t remain so secret after today…certainly not after my next book comes out honoring it with a guest appearance.

Intrigued? 

It’s a place about as far away from the spiritual direction the old town of Mykonos has taken as one can imagine, while sitting at the very core of the 24/7 action the island has come to epitomize. I’ve been amazed for some time now at how a town as unique and beautiful as Mykonos could allow its architecture to be so compromised by transient shop owners wishing to make it look like someplace else.  Madison Avenue-style display windows imposed on classic Cycladic structures––and their rapidly spreading minimalist modern progeny––do not represent thinking outside the box.  They are nothing more than an unimaginative denigration of the island’s historic natural beauty. 



Perhaps that is what makes the place I have in mind such a soulful refuge. At least for me.   It sits surrounded by glitzy ultra-high-end watch shops, only 30 meters from the heart of Mykonos’ late night café society, and just down the road, in the other direction, from Louis Vuitton and some of the island’s more well-known late night venues.  Its all white, classic 19th century Cycladic design stands beneath a balcony bearing a discreet sign advertising the island’s “accommodations center” on the second floor, separated from the flagstone road by a single step, and a thick, meter-high, white stucco wall enclosing a small, matching flagstone landing. 
 
The area at night


and come the morning

Directly up and across from the step, an ornately carved white marble jamb and entablature surround a sturdy, deep red, six-paneled double door, and off to its right, smooth white marble frames a matching red-trimmed, six-paned casement window with a model of an old-time sailing ship set inside on the sill.  The only apparent exterior concession to modern times is an open lattice of black iron bars over the window, but the bars match an ancient, cast iron canon set into the road just outside the wall.









A sign set in marble by the door reads, AEGEAN MARITIME MUSEUM.


An individual donor founded the museum in 1983 for the purpose of preserving and promoting the study of Greek maritime history and tradition, particularly the merchant-ship history of the Aegean Sea.  My good friend, Filippos Menardos, runs the place (when he’s not manning the register as his son Panayiotis’s truly phenomenal M’eating Restaurant) and speaks with great pride of the museum’s efforts to restore historical exhibits to their original state of design and build. 

Chef Panayiotis, Interloper, Filippos

Beyond the front door are a room full of miniature ships arranged in separate glass cases, walls lined in drawings of seagoing adventurers, their vessels and charts, and a rough marble floor bordered by artifacts of the maritime life.





But what truly draws me here takes me beyond that room, through a smaller room of similar appointments, to what lies behind a pair of solid red doors and a second set of glass-paneled French doors. 


Every time I step through those doors I wonder if Alice felt this way at the bottom of that rabbit hole.


It is a garden meant to honor those lost at sea.  But it also works well for those of us searching around on land. 

At the heart of the garden is a 400-square-meter mat of deep green, flat and smooth as a golf putting surface.  A gray flagstone walkway separates the grassy center from a border of olive, orange, hibiscus, bougainvillea, oleander, and other greenery, all running up to a two-meter-high, beige stone perimeter wall.  The garden is no more than 30 meters square but seems much larger because, beyond the wall, only treetops and snatches of a few all-white buildings are visible in the distance.


To your left, set off between what look to be a small storage room and the edge of the grass, stand the top two stories of a lighthouse.  A white, twelve-sided metal first story supports a second story of twelve, three-paned glass windows enclosing the lamp and lens. An exterior railed metal walkway encircles the base of the second story, and a verdigris dodecagon cupola and weather vane crown it all.


A plaque to the right of a metal hatchway in the base of the lighthouse commemorates an award at the Paris International Exhibition of 1889 for its lighting, and its subsequent service atop the Armenistis lighthouse in Fanari, at the northwest edge of Mykonos, from 1890 until replaced by a fully automated version in 1983. 


An array of relics from centuries at sea stands along the rear wall of the museum: cannon with metal and stone ammunition, a ship’s wheel, compass, engine-room telegraph to the bridge, and style of collision-avoidance device relied on in a time before radar.  A group of marble columns and slabs sits on flagstones by the near edge of the green, and three marble markers are at the far end of the plot. 


If you step on the grass you’ll notice two things.  First, it’s artificial turf.  A smart decision on an arid, drought-prone island. Second, the markers are marble cenotaphs, each honoring the memory of a sailor who’d not made it back to land, making this their spiritual gravesite.

I often come here to sit on a stone bench abutting the rear wall of the museum, looking out from a place of long ago, across the garden wall, to no place in particular, hearing not a sound except for the cries of birds.  And maybe my flute.

Please keep this to yourself.


—Jeff