Saturday, February 27, 2010

february 27th EGYPT!

February 27th, 2010

I have been to Egypt this week.

The pyramids at Saqqara are still in my head. The step pyramid is from 4000-4500 years ago. You enter the area through a small opening in a 20 foot outer wall of refined yellow limestone---looking like alabaster—and enter a Hall of Columns—3 feet in diameter, 25 feet high.
We turn to each other, smiling and exclaim in startled whispers: the beginning of classical civilization. Set amidst desert, camels on horizon, sand in distance as far as one can see, the wall with stepped top encloses public ceremonial spaces. The yellow stone reflects the sun —golden. Saqqara is one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Egypt, the cemetery for Memphis, its ancient capital. Very beautiful, sere, powerful and yet of humane scale.

The Giza Pyramids across the river are a less meditative experience, crawling with tourists, neighboring the city of Cairo itself, another kind of a-maze-ment. As if down 23rd Street in NYC there was a building 3500 years old! We enter the second one with smooth limestone still covering its top: down a 4 foot cubic tunnel for 60 feet, then stand for air, then down another. To reach at bottom a rectangular bare room: 25 feet high perhaps 30 by 80 feet. A claustrophobic hike, to feel the stone above you.

Other wonders include the road to Memphis, lined with shops and people selling or carrying fruits and vegetables, sunny, slow, pacific—part of the agricultural outskirts of modern Cairo. Perhaps predictably in this landscape of ash and sand, people wear wonderful colors and designs, paint their trucks fabulously and their stores, Arabic script itself a decorative element. In the museum at Memphis, the pharaoh lies on his back (his leg broken) with smiling powerful face, 35 feet long, rounded lips, beautiful.

The Egyptian museum in downtown Cairo itself a wonder—its size perhaps a bit smaller than the Washington National Gallery or the Prado...? Impossible to do in a day but you know what you have missed and can go back. What I learn is that Egyptian art is not flat—the supposition of the frescos not withstanding. I gasp at the wooden statue known as the Village Headman or Mayor, "Sheikh-el-Beled"; 4000-4500 years old. When it was excavated the workmen assisting in the excavation work fell back in astonishment as the statue was an absolute portrait of their own mayor! In wood, in 3 dimensions, fully carved, even the back rounded, particular, the face a person, uneven ears, eyes of agate, alive, rotund, bellied—this is a citizen. An Egyptian type that in spite of many invasions has survived in the Nile Valley. In the same room, a scribe, legs crossed, back leans forward. The beauty, the intimacy ,the individualism of these portraits. I am in awe and admiration. It will take another 3500-4000 years to reach this degree of sculpted reality again.

Whereas the larger portraits of the kings and queens portray “serene majesty and youth” the portraits of the anonymous achieve another feeling entire. They make a relationship to our time, and of passage through time. Similarly, the ‘mummy room’ where, despite our B movie connotations, conveys awe of both terror and wonder. The kings are laid out chronologically, some are sons and one sees relation in the heads, the foreheads. The majesty of Seti, his beauty and fine features; Ramses with his long white hair, gone yellow with the fluids used to embalm him.

That these bodies are mirrors of ourselves from so many inconceivable years ago—there is both an underlining of our current contemporary ‘humanness’ and a sense of passage, that we live and die. We are both made large, part of the human dream of excellence and beauty, and laid low: time will bury us. That doubling is part of the intense beauty of these sculptures, and these bodies, these ‘things’. [I learn the Italian word for junk=roba. Molta roba]. Odd even so (no?) that bodies, mummies, are placed inside museums. We become art in death. Or is it museums are houses of the dead? As in Cairo, cemeteries are called ‘cities of the dead’. Is art then an identification with the dead? I always thought it was a celebration of the living, but perhaps no. Perhaps not so much a way to ‘beat’ time but to last in time? To extend into time, an aspiration of being with time changing, immortal, dead and not dead. To exist into the future. Our genetic thrust made manifest.

Too, the fresco paintings of geese resemble nothing so much as the Roman frescos from 2000 to 2500 years later. So much for a history of flatness!

Earlier that day we go to an Islamic mosque, the Citadel and then Coptic Church and Jewish Synagogue: all people of the book, as Mohammed described. The first sight of the Citadel is overwhelming: wood painted ceiling, multiple lights in multiple glass bulbs, pattern everywhere, glorious blues and greens and gold. The Coptic church seemed to relate to the orthodox Greek and Russian churches in their art, particularly the paintings which decorate the walls—ikon-like with a celebration of St. George killing the dragon alternating with Madonnas. These themes I found common in Russia.

The synagogue beautiful and not unlike an Islamic mosque —decorated with arches and patterns. Was it first a church? First a temple? It has a history as it has a basement that flooded earlier in the last few decades and thus, reminded me of St. Clement—house of worship built on house of worship built on….

Thursday we walked to Nomad, a store that had the best scarves we saw anywhere and then without a guide (yes!) took taxi to Bazaar. Very easy, walked through Egyptian part of bazaar, catching someone to show us the place (or did they ‘catch’ us?), not seeing another tourist which was refreshing. In very muddy streets (it had rained in the night) with women shopping in various degrees of veil, mostly male vendors. We see many interesting buildings, 'learned' by Kathryn regarding the sects of Islam that settled and fought over Egypt: Sunni and Shiite so absolutely relevant to the contemporary politic. Among us, we had a painter, a photographer/ filmmaker, a classicist and an islamicist —so we could fill in information at different times in different ways— prismatic. We got on well—each with our particularities of time and interests and appetite.

The bazaar itself was easy, lots of predictable tourist stuff plus some wonderful jewelry, metal antiques and belly dancing costumes for sale. Lauren practices this art and bought a professional outfit dripping with rhinestones plus head and arm bands! Gorgeous and while waiting for her to be ‘fitted’ we watched a chase through the market—someone had tried to rob another. A bit later, we watched him caught and marched back! As if a show put on for us. All the Egyptians store owners watching alongside. Then coffee at a 300 year old coffee house; early dinner at fabulous place with— well—truth to tell, the best bathroom we found in Egypt! We all wanted to live there. Coming out it started to hail! Snow in Rome first time in 25 years last week and now hail in Cairo. We bring ....extremes I guess. Rained for an hour or more—again, all the Bazaar owners enjoying the weather with amazement and wonder. We cab home to our island hotel on Zamalek (very nice area with cleaner air than lots of Cairo).

Next day picking up odds and ends as we headed to airport and slow flight home.

It was an intense week before leaving in that I worked shooting Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday plus Saturday morning. Thursday I took off and went to Tim Davis’s opening where none of his photos showed up (courtesy of Italian post!) —so we hung out, talked to Tim, looked at the group show. A great photo of Cairo at dusk with competing light of blue electricity and yellow daylight: TV satellite dishes dotting the landscape, suggesting pasted-in-circles—as if unreal as in an Andreas Gursky-like digital artificial montage. Thus, a full circle: from photo of Cairo to experiencing it firsthand.

I’ve been to Africa!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

snow and blossoms feb 16, 2010

February 16, 2010

What fortuity is Rome! As I turn I find. I am walking up the steps of the Academy and run into the new cook and his amazing girlfriend Lydia who mixes cocktails professionally and is a stylist. What do I need but a stylist who will do hair and makeup for my install?: EMPIRES’ FALL.

She is wonderful—upbeat, talented, responsible, and we have been working all week on this. So far 20 people have signed up: women and children becoming empresses and Triumphators—a reversal of power. I will include some of the pictures from the shoot. Fun fun fun. Seriously.

Last week Thursday Leonard Baskin’s lecture on taste. Saper to Sapienze; taste to wisdom. Very witty and compelling and as always (sempre) the food here has been marvelous. Leonard looked at New Testament’s Mary and Martha story where Martha the cook is considered beneath Mary, the listener (at Jesus’ feet!) —such degradation of work to mind (and passive mind at that). However, painters from Renaissance on who use the story emphasize food, the sensual, taste, even as Jesus retreats into a small window within the larger painting.

Friday we go the exhibition hall for big Calder exhibit. Quite spectacular and led by Calder’s grand nephew who was wonderful —sympathetic and knowledgeable about the art. Seeing the early work was particularly rewarding: Calder’s paintings and early mobiles are sound sculptures in part, not as sophisticated as Len Lye’s perhaps but interesting original ambitions. Then his middle work masterpieces complete with gorgeous Miro-inflected gouaches. My second time at the show and more worthwhile. Also simply traveling around is a wonder always—continuing to learn about Rome and its neighborhoods. It is becoming familiar. Saturday was slow day---work. Which was good because

Sunday Valentine’s day was crazy fun digression. Went to Porto Portense early to pick up makeup and hair stuff for my install shoots. Then off to Chris Burden ‘dialogue’ at Maxxi which is new Zaha Hadid building for contemporary art. A piece of sculpture in itself—large, inspiring, curved walls, magnificent use of material, open turned inside out, strangely empty as they have not ‘officially opened’ the museum yet….lovely. Empty as it is now—it has another kind of power. Burden was surprisingly wonderful as well…funny, smart, the work which I know fairly well—witty and strong. Nancy D. called it “jackass art”---indeed, where he drops i-beams from the air into concrete. The ooos and ahhhs— sound, power, explosions. His Metropolis erector set pieces equally provoking and boyish and post modern.

Then out to lunch with Nancy and Robert Hammond. Divine caccio pepe

Yoga on return (there are now 5 free classes a week; I can hardly get to swim! Not complaining) and that evening we are to cook for Stephen. I to make fabulous frisse salad and steamed artichokes with lemon which I did make but dear Lydia invited me to eat with kitchen staff so there were ten of us at dinner with Mona the master chef cooking up a storm: a 7 course meal alone in the dining room candlelight and all. First caccio pepe (so I had to have a taste again…!) , then an amazing fried lemon platter—strange and fabulous. Then my salad and artichokes. Then pork loin, slightly pink with broccoli rabe, then dessert crème with lady fingers. Stuffed and happy and Lauren had made Hello Kitty valentines for everyone at the table! Very nice. Ooops forgot aperitifs by divine Lydia and wine on the table. Happy happy happy.

Monday: Daniel Mendelssohn’s talk. I could relate to his sense of loss, fragment---but my high point that day was the first shoot of the install earlier that day — women and children—everything went swimmingly.

O —and there was a flowering almond in the back yard on Monday as we were cutting laurel for the 'crowns'. And and how could I forget!? SNOW just last Friday. Yes it snowed for the first time in 25 years in Rome. Please look at the lush pictures. I filmed in the Villa Sciarra: snow on palm trees. That was/is the wildness of this place--- extremes of weather, sudden snow. While now its raining and raining and raining. But we are happy. Indeed. Our moment is now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spring is coming!

February 7th
dear friends,
a busy busy week and a half
To catch up:
Wednesday night January 27th we attend Arvo Part concert at the Rienzo Piano hall. The music was magnificent —stopped time. Early work was my favorite but perhaps just as I own much of it on cd, so that it has become a known habit? The new work attempting larger more ambitious interstices moving away some from his eastern influences, from Russian orthodox vocalizing. So interesting to hear his minimalism coming from another direction than the American minimalist composers of the 20th century (Glass, Reich, Riley). Instead of conceptual radical gestures, these are spiritual gestures—not unlike, on thinking of it, the radical Malevich paintings of white and black from the early 20th century. In St. Petersburg, on entering the Russian museum, are dual portraits of saints larger than life size by the famous painter Andrei Roublev, their robes black and white rectangles approximating the size of the Malevich’s canvases. Goes far to explaining both M’s choice and his turn to religious themes later in life. I own three Suetin drawings from the 1920s that likewise look like Bauhaus color studies but the forms he is using are the Russian cross (!). So much for secular modernism.

On the unreligious front, we had the next day a talk by Lauren on Trophys: sharp witty clipped presentation enunciating their difference—on occasion, a sign of territorial expansion; on another, driving home the fear of the imperial conquerer.

Friday a walk with Corey on the Campus Martius, covering the Theater of Pompey, the Campo de’Fiori, the Chiesa Nuova, San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini and its Museum to end a the Oratorio del Gonfalone. Too many churches have shuttered through my brain but the sculpture of the girl warrier, very Joan of Arcish by Michaelangelo early in his career sticks as do the strange paintings all over the Oratorio—now used for music choirs (maybe always?) and the pillars drawn there, which Bernini copied when he did his very odd terrific columns for the Vatican.

Meanwhile a discovery an hour or so away from Rome of extant aqueduct that 1800 years ago brought fresh water to Trastevere and leads under the Academy in the basement! Hmmmm does this mean I need to put a river through my install? which will open mid April in the basement. Maybe. On that end, Michael Lee my intern from Cornell and I today came up with a possible title: EMPIRES’ FALL. It works I think and as I am hoping to put China film on wide screen TV on steps leading down to the Cryptoporticus itself (the magnificent arched basement here), it makes sense. Two empires, two catapulting transitions. We shall see. Hoping to shoot part of it next week.

Then Yael Bitton came from Paris. Funny she arrived Tuesday hands wide saying ooops I have a cold. And I too! So two of us sniffling, correcting, perfecting RIDING THE TIGER: Letters from Capitalist China. We really did wonderful work, got close, worked very hard. Now struggling with MORE techne, this time the omf sending—sound to you citizens.

We also got to go into town and see the Andrea Pozzo and the Pantheon. I include pictures from the Pozzo, a trompe l’oeil magnificence. The pictures will wow you I am certain. Yael left and I was sad. Yael’s wisdom as person and editor was in high thrust this trip. Really delightful.
Sad to see her leave. Back to my role as ‘hitchhiker’ ie a bit of a stranger with no context. I mentioned same to Nancy at Roma’s opening Friday night and surprise—she felt the same. It was good to hear it. She opined that because I am working so hard I muse be adjusted but of course I am not completely. Missing you all my deep amici! Just to let you know. Send back your love.

Meanwhile Friday afternoon did the big shoot of Diodati. Will put in photos later when receive courtesy of Nicholas who played an excellent Dr. Polidori. Tremendous push on mine and Mary’s part to get everything together. It did rain, which I wanted but made the light hard. We kept closing in to the window---but of course my focal plane was collapsed (when you open for the light, you get less depth of field. Film #101). Eileen did wonderful, sad thoughtful struggling with her Frankenstein bourning inside her (burning?), pushing back Dr. Polidori with a smile—very light. Best work she has done I feel. Aurelia distant and then light, seducing Byron. Richard as Byron, always very lordy! even with his iphone in view (ooops), Nick great in his crazed scene running from the room! I hold my breath and hope it worked. Just watched the video which is terrific. The villa is an excellent space and the fellows/actors do a great job occupying it. Now—to double check that the video can be used WITH the film altogether. I haven’t had time yet to edit and try that out, but this shoot and Mary’s skill building, makes me want to. Yea! We see this Friday hopefully…..

That evening Roma Pas, the Dutch artist opened. She handled the space well: two large rooms with very high ceilings. She worked her witty conceptual pieces into comments on Rome—her name the place: sycamore trees became stone columns, picture frames became a pyramid, clay became marble. So —transformations through material and shape. Good work.

Saturday afternoon was deep crazy massage with Bulgarian who announced as I lay down that Spartacus came from Bulgaria! I didn’t quite know what to make of that. He was rough tough and good. My body transformed. Then Stephen Westfall rescued me from work at 8pm to go out to dinner with him at Le Mani en Pasta, with risd friend Holly Hughes the painter (not the performer) and her husband who does exhibition curating at NYU. Very nice energetic folk and the meal was spectacular: mussels and clams (vongole), octopus appetizer, then spaghetti a la mare with green gnocchi. Topped by fragile (wild) strawberries and tiramasu. Incredible tastes and relatively cheap! 25E each for such a fine meal. Light in the stomach/ perfect on the tongue.

Sunday was quiet; sun came out. Michele showed up from Cinecitta (a student) with Saree for my birthday from David D. Gorgeous--felt so ...well like a butterfly actually. I am going to get Asha here to teach me how to wrap. amazing purple gold colors. then we went to cocktail hour and Michele did fine. He is very social; trying to get me to lecture to Cinecitta students (it is the national film school); he was very struck with THE PURSUIT and the improvisatory, 'fresh' he kept saying way in which i shoot and react. He also spoke of a retrospective at the National Film Cinematheque here—so that would be wonderful as well. It would be great to 'seed' the system.

Speaking of systems, I keep watching the WIRE which gets sadder and sadder. They have moved into the schools and everyone has such a hard time. Funny collapsed dialogue and true to life setting. A crippling critique of United States’ democracy from every angle: the young, the police, the politicians. And now when Obama is being attacked by all; just read this morning that wall streeters are giving money to Republicans—of course what could we expect?— I feel so sad. So obvious the need. So little the response. We live in a world where humanity is crippled; its constantly only for ME and not for ALL. I asked earlier and it still holds: who will make the addition?