Category: art Page 1 of 3

Waldemar Januszczak: Telling Stories Of Art “In Ways That Connect With People’s Lives”

Waldemar Januszczak, art, Michelangelo, Sky Arts, writer, broadcaster, host, documentary, culture, The Times, Polish

The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel was broadcast on Sky Arts in April 2021.

Among the many unexpected delights of lockdown life has been the opportunity to connect with people from the worlds of media and culture, and sometimes, the two combined in one. Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times as well as a documentary maker with numerous television specials to his name. Those programs, which have been produced for over two decades, reveal immense curiosity for the ever-evolving, all-encompassing universe of culture, and each is presented with humour, gusto, and incredible if equally approachable intelligence. Waldy, as he’s known online and through his entertaining podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, first came to my notice in 2015; though I’d read his work for years, it was Waldy’s four-part series on the so-called Dark Ages that caught my attention. Broadcast on a local channel across four Monday evenings at the height of summer, the series (from 2012) came at a particularly challenging time that year, having lost my mother in July and endured severe illness and multiple surgeries on my own before and after that. The nagging questions, in both personal and professional spheres, of who I was without the central figure of my music-loving mum loomed extraordinarily large; I would stare at the works of Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in books and online for hours, trying to glean some sense of order (beauty seemed too far-off and impossible to hope for), some sense of understanding, to a world rendered hazy, tilted, skewed, strangely airless. I would go to my own easel and try to draw or paint; I would sit at the computer, and no words would come. Who was I, outside of being this person’s daughter? Who was I, outside of this prison of a body I felt trapped in? Who was I, with these hands, which held my mother’s as she passed away, which held pencils and brushes, which typed out so very many words-words-words that seemed to affect no one and nothing at all?

Waldy’s work – his friendly presentational style, his enthusiasm, his clear thirst for knowledge – helped provide some clues. The full  of the series (The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light) was precisely the feeling imparted through the experience of watching the series at that point in time. It was as if a great spotlight was being shone on not only early Christianity and the Middle Ages, or indeed its related iterations, forms, and expressions, but along the way I, myself, was experiencing history and related notions of darkness, light, and all manner of shade and shadow between. By showing a new way to look at the past, the series, and Waldy’s work more broadly, provided an inspiring way of perceiving present and possible futures. The approach the writer/filmmaker takes to his work (one which, as I said at the start, blends smarts, humour, knowledge, and approachability) makes him a natural storyteller. Starting out at the University of Manchester as a student in art history, Waldy went on to become art critic, and subsequently arts editor of The Guardian. He worked in a variety of capacities across the BBC, and has, according to his own (quite humorous) biography, “since popped up pretty much everywhere where a radio dial can reach.” In 1989 he became commission editor for arts at Channel 4 (a time, which, he explains, was immensely fruitful in terms of providing future inspiration to his own broadcasting pursuits), and in 1993 also was put in charge of music at the channel, and subsequently began annual broadcasts from Glyndebourne – not to mention a little festival called Glastonbury.

That same year saw him become art critic for The Sunday Times, where he has been ever since. Twice voted Critic Of The Year, he co-curated a show at the British Museum in 2008 where modern and ancient sculptures were shown side by side, inspired by his own series on sculpture from four years earlier. Making films since 1997 with his own company, ZCZ Films, Waldy’s artistic explorations have been wide-ranging and ambitious: countries (Japan, Kazakhstan, America), concepts (politics, night), artists (Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo), religio-historical depictions (Mary Magdalene), and eras (the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo). Along with writing about contemporary art issues, including pieces on art collectives, the creative and spiritual meeting in abstraction (specifically the work of Hilma af Klint;  both March 2021), the Turner Prize, the symbolic power of a show focused on textiles (both May 2021), and how COVID has changed the art world (January 2021), Waldy has also written touchingly personal pieces – about the father he never knew, and about his battles with weight. Those writings are sincere and visceral, but they bear no trace of the sort of overwrought sentimentalities which so often characterize such works in the digital era; rather, they are the rich and (more than occasionally) spicy ingredients which constitute a person who is unafraid to be his own culture-loving, knowledgeable, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, unpretentious, immensely real self.

Such qualities may go a ways in explaining his presence on this website, for while Waldy does not work in opera, he embodies the very qualities so vital to the classical world, especially at this point in history. I referenced his work last year in an essay, and I’ve come to feel in the time since that his is a presence and a talent wholly needed, as various cultural worlds move away from lockdown status and toward some kind of normalcy. For while brilliance  does indeed hold a place in the classical world, authenticity, compassion – humanity – matters more, in this, our brave (and hopefully better) new world. We connected on Twitter (very brave new world indeed), over what I seem to recall was my love of the work of performance artist Ulay. (If you know of and/or like the work of Marina Abramović but have never heard of Ulay… please amend; his work holds extraordinary significance and beautifully poetic power.) Amidst the variety and ambition of Waldy’s pursuits, it seemed important to ask him, first and foremost, what he thinks of himself as: writer or broadcaster? His answer wasn’t particularly surprising, but his warmth and good humour, which carried throughout the course of our near-half-hour exchange, was a welcome and hopeful sign for post pandemic culture, and the people who love it.

You balance writing with broadcasting and documentary-making, but I’m curious what you call yourself.

An art critic, that’s what I’d like written on my grave. But right from the beginning, I’ve managed to do two things at once. When I was younger I was a student in Manchester, and I did this thing for radio, a student’s hour – I got roped into it – and someone at the BBC heard it, so I got working on the BBC doing a radio program when I was still a student, and it was out of pure luck. At the same time I was writing for Time Out; I’d do things for them and someone from The Guardian came across it and asked me to apply to them, so to cut a long story short, I’ve always done broadcasting and always done writing and the two have managed to keep going in parallel all the way through. I’m very lucky, and I made a step into television, but what I really like is looking at art and writing about it, which is what being a critic is – it’s not about being right or wrong with your opinions; you simply want to look at art, and to write about it.

Your integration of education and entertainment feels natural without being reductive.

I’ll put it simply: I’m an art lover. From my earliest memory, anything joyful involved cutting out pictures of famous paintings and pasting them, in my little cubby hole I had under the stairs – I’d paste stuff on the wall. I’ve always taken great pleasure from looking at art. I don’t understand why everyone else in the world isn’t that excited about art – it baffles me. In the UK we have these nature programs and people are happy to watch two frogs having sex or see beautiful butterflies in the air, or whatnot, for literally hours on end – millions will watch that – but put on something about a Raphael painting, which is also a thing of great beauty, or something about a sculpture by Bernini, or some great piece of architecture, and they tune out in the millions. I just don’t get it. It’s been this battle, always for me, to try and bridge that gap, to try and share this idea that art is interesting, exciting, and above all, a human achievement. It is my mission to try and tell stories of art in ways that connect with people’s lives. That’s all I ever tried to do. I don’t set out to be an original thinker necessarily, or to be necessarily different, I just set out with the firm belief that everybody should be able to talk about art in ways that involve or interest them, and that communication about it is what counts.

I like how you pull things away from being purely academic into a very direct and often sensuous relationship with art. I might be daunted by the artists and their related histories but watching your stuff, I don’t feel daunted at all.

That’s a real compliment, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that, because that is what I want to do. Many years ago now I did have a job in formal television, I was the commissioning editor for music and art programming at Channel 4. So for the eight years I was there, I commissioned other people to make art programs, and I watched what they did and how they did it. And I became more and more determined and experienced in the field myself, and determined to not do what they did. The thing I least like in any kind of writing about, or making films about art, is what you’re talking about, this sense of art being something difficult, some kind of homework, that not everybody can get or understand. A lot of the language of documentary filmmaking emphasizes that aspect, with these added tropes: the music that isn’t very cheerful or it is atonal and difficult; there is speaking about stuff in ways that don’t really mean anything – if people don’t know what they really want to say, they usually use twenty words instead of one, because it creates an illusion of knowledge, authority, and experience. So when I gave up being a manager of other people’s work and began making my own documentaries again, I made rules; there were things I knew I wanted to do, and those rules are all to do with this thing you’re talking about. I want people to learn stuff and enjoy it – I’m not there to preach or look down on them if they don’t know something. It’s been the experience of watching other people do this that has driven me to that.

But you combine this knowledge with your strong personality – I wonder how much that draws people in, so it’s not solely “Oh, a doc about the Renaissance” but “Oh, Waldy is presenting a doc on the Renaissance…” 

I think one of the things is, I’m Polish, I’m not English, as you can tell from my name, and we’re a different breed you know? Polish people are not like English people; we have a different way of speaking and expressing ourselves. And in television and the BBC especially, there’s a very specific type of person that works there, fits into that culture, and succeeds, and someone like me comes along, and I’m the other, I’m different in almost every way. One of my sins is I like eating, a lot, so I’m chunky, and in television, especially these days, you don’t see chunky people, they go for the slim, pseudo-intellectual from Cambridge, so I stuck out there, because I am different and I’m not afraid. And, I think I’m confident in my knowledge. That’s one thing I can say of myself: I love art so much I’m constantly researching it, seeing it, loving it, and if you’re confident in your knowledge there’s nothing to be afraid of. So I try to find new ways of delivering material. I’ve always wanted to do that.

What I’ve noticed is that people remember things from the films, and what they remember surprises me often. In one of the things I made years ago, about the Baroque, there’s a scene where I’m looking at a ceiling in Rome, and I decided to do the camera shot lying on my back, because that’s the only way to look at it. If you want to see it properly, you lie on your back. It was a BBC series, and all the BBC people said, “You can’t lie on your back, you have to stand up and look authoritative on television!” So there are these funny things that do tend to bother some people but they’re not done for gimmicky reasons, I do them because I want to convey my excitement and experience in looking at stuff.

But that humanizes the art in the process, and that’s what is so often needed in the culture world. But it’s questionable if that style is supported by the people in charge…

That’s the point, yes – and arts programming does not get enough support anywhere. It’s a hard graft, getting the commissioning to do stuff. You know, I can’t tell you how many programs I’d love to be making right now; we don’t get the numbers to compete with the shows like reality television or the cooking shows, we don’t get the numbers they do because partly, in the past, arts programs have presented themselves as this thing you referenced, and that put a lot of people off. That’s a hard history to shift – a lot of people remember this sense of being talked down to, boringly, and they don’t want to see that. Of course what we want is everybody dying to turn on the television to watch, but it’s a tough ask because of that history; when you say something is “arty” there’s’ an awful lot of people who turn off, immediately. That word alone puts them off, and it’s one of the battles.

But do you think that tide might change now?

I’d like to hope so. I don’t know! I’ve not had a chance to find any evidence yet, but I do think the pandemic is having and will have a profound impact on the future, and I think it will be very hard to unlearn the joy of being at home and to not be imagining things for yourself. The pleasures we’ve had from this situation – as terrible as it’s been – have been things relating to people being in the position of having the time to examine the basics. And they’ve found new outlets for their attention, whether through television or podcasts or whatever. My own podcast, we only did it initially to do something during lockdown, but loads of people have said they’ve enjoyed it, so there is hunger for art, and an opportunity to take advantage of that hunger, but whether broadcasters will help us out with that is another question; they are not interested in changing the way people think about art, they have other fish to fry. But I’m optimistic.

One good thing is that my work has reached a much wider audience and that’s not to do with Covid, but the way television has gone everywhere with the preponderance of satellite channels. It used to be the only people who recognized me in the street were people who watched the BBC, but in the time when things eased between lockdowns last year, I remember going out and there were about sixty South Korean people who came rushing toward me in the street shouting, “Hey Waldemar!” They’d seen me on television there. So the international aspect of all that (interest) was very encouraging. I have a theory that in every country there are a million people who might be interested in art who, years ago, you had no chance of speaking with, but now there’s a chance, so add a million people up in every country – and that’s a lot of people interested in art. That’s encouraging.

And you have an audience on Twitter

I love Twitter – you hear other voices there. And the best thing about it is the reactions! For all we know, no one will ever read what I write formally, but on Twitter, people get back to you, and I love a good argument; I’ll argue with anyone, anywhere, on Twitter or elsewhere for that matter. So I’ve found (social media) fruitful. Some things I’ve done have been so pleasing. During the lockdown I ran this art thing with kids; people did homeschooling when the schools were closed, and, well, what could be more homeschooling-esque than art, really? People were drawing away, and so I’d set them little tasks, and there were these fantastic responses, they were really pleasing, these kids, 8, 7, 6 years old, drawing away and sharing their work. The other day we had David Hockney on the podcast and he said something wonderful: “why would anybody not want to draw? Try telling a 3 year-old kid not to draw!” It’s a thing we all have; everybody has that instinct, and so I had this forum where kids could express that during lockdown.

I loved that series (as did many), especially as someone without kids. That series was actually the point where I lost my patience with people who dismiss social media; for some of us, that’s the only way we can see that kind of thing. It’s our window on a different world.

Well gosh, you’d be horrible not to like this kind of thing, and to just dismiss it because of where you saw it! And it’s worth remembering that so many artists have nourished themselves on memories of childhood as well, and that Twitter is a great vehicle for expressing and sharing that sort of stuff. If you’re someone who comes up with lots of ideas, it can be a great forum for expressing them, and for promoting them. I find it very alive. With all these hours of daytime we had because of the pandemic, a lot of times in the day, you’d be in the office, alone, twiddling thumbs; you’d go on Twitter and find someone to talk to. I’d see these nice people writing in from Scotland and Australia and New Zealand, and that (experience of communication) was liberating and very pleasing.

It’s how we connected too! I want to feel reading your various exchanges makes me a slightly smarter person. 

You’re pretty smart as it is, so don’t worry about that! I’m so pleased we’ve connected, and with others too, I’ve done so much during lockdown. It’s nice to talk. That’s what it’s about.

How has all this connecting online changed your approach to your work, or… has it?

I don’t know how much it’ll change my approach in terms of my bread and butter work with The Times – with that, I do what I always do: see shows and write about them. But I have made a lot of new friends. One thing that Twitter is really good at is supplying you with information: you ask a question, you get a lot of responses. I had a film about Michelangelo on Sky Arts out recently and posted something relating to obscure arguments about biblical translations – the kind of stuff no one is into except me and a few biblical scholars, or so I thought! – and got so many responses from so many people. It was such fantastic information! You have to be really in the world of bible studies to know about these things, but it was so exciting to learn these things. So it can be a fantastic forum for education, for all of us, and more broadly, I think it’s given lots of silver linings to this terrible, terrible time, which we are now hopefully coming out of.

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Personal Essay: Coming Back To Live, Maybe

vinyl, record, album, Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Klemperer, Ludwig, Wunderlich, Philharmonia, Warner

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, so says Hamlet, in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s famous play, and indeed, the phrase holds several painful truths for our times. The sad news of the passing of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig at the weekend was met with a chorus of loving tributes and tender memories. That such an event occured amidst the hodge-podge of COVID-forced closures and reopenings inspired numerous listenings of her past work and moments of melancholy if vital contemplation.

Music, and the will toward its live presentation, has taken on a potent symbolism amidst pandemic; that will never really went away in certain places, while in others it has vanished entirely. Marketing buzzwords (“pivot” and “experience” and “reimagine) seem to be clothing a nifty, selfie-snapping holographic Emperor I’m not sure I’m ready to applaud. As digital producer Jon Jacob highlights in a recent blog post, the way certain forms of music – and more broadly, culture – are perceived has heavily colored large swaths of its current presentation and much-awaited in-person iteration. The past year-plus has forced a much closer connection to sounds and sights, solidifying and simultaneously blurring the relationships to entertainment, escapism, imagination, and immersion. Thus has music – sound as much as visual counterpart – become far more immediate and simultaneously distant, heightening the consciousness of directed attention, specifically in relation to one’s perceptions of time. Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann explores this issue in Felt Time: The Science Of How We Experience Time (The MIT Press, 2017; translation Erik Butler):

Where full attention is lacking, intensive experience is impossible. […] Presence is not simply a matter of mental focus; it also concerns the corporeality of the moment. The experience of presence occurs when body and mind, space and time, constitute a unity: here and now.”
(Chapter 3, In the Moment: Three Seconds of Presence)

Somewhat ironically, I have yet to see Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, and featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca; Wagner himself decreed that his final opera should, as Bachtrack‘s Mark Valencia succinctly put it, “be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers.” Those of us who thrive on the experience of the live in all its sensual glory have been (continue to be) forced to gawk at a glassy, glowing image ready-made for entertaining diversion. The immediacy which live experience so thrives on is now mediated through headphones, screens, speakers. Occasionally there is the unwelcome noise pollution of traffic and neighbours seeping through thin, uninsulated walls and ventilation shafts. Pressing hands against speakers does not, in any way, fade ugly circumstances out and bring something better back in, but oh, the intention is good, and surely that must count for something.

Intention is what seems to be guiding so many of us these days, for good or bad, and the most seemingly simple acts are, paradoxically, sometimes the most heroic; such is oft-contradictory nature of the times. Entering a big-box store pharmacy to get my first vaccination last week, I longed to hear some kind of music that wasn’t the determinedly busy-buzzy rock-pop every store seems to now pipe through its gaggle of tinny speakers. (It seemed wistful to want for the days of Muzak, and yet.) As I tried not to be alarmed at the full parking lot and number of shoppers (how is this acceptable but attending – giving –  a chamber concert, indoors or outdoors, is not?), a fashionably-attired mother-daughter team passed within inches of me, the younger member giving me a disdainful stare as I sat perched on the edge of a chair with a specially-marked area of tape around its perimeter. I stuck out my legs thereafter, feet touching tape, toes beating out a hurried, pseudo-tap “La donna è mobile”, comically sarcastic if self-soothing. It brought to mind memories of my own mother shopping at a certain supermarket because the owner would always put on opera at her visits; she would merrily bob her head along to that very aria as she picked up the week’s supplies. Not everyone has such (supposedly) fancy tastes, I realize, but then, my mother would say that classical music isn’t at all fancy. “That’s stupid,” she once said in relation to all this. “Just sit there and listen.”

It wasn’t Verdi but Mahler I had floating through the brain, or rather, heart, the day I received my first vaccination. The sounds of Das Lied von der Erde came floating in and out of the ears, its closing lines undulating like multicolor waves against the aisles of colorless boxes within view:

Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt

Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!

Ewig… ewig… 

A picture of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig came into mind’s eye, not of her performing this work, but from her final concert in Vienna in 1994; the poise, confidence, and grace were buoys against those long, grey aisles, and the prick of a needle behind a closer door moments later. Just sit. Just listen.

I do not recall the first time I ever heard  Ludwig’s voice, it was simply present, like oxygen – sensitive, feeling, alive. It was the famous 1964 Warner Classics recording of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring the mezzo soprano, together with Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Otto Klemperer, that led me back to a classical path I had strayed from for over a decade. In NPR’s tribute to Ludwig, music writer Anne Midgette notes that “If you want to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.” I think the warmth Midgette is referring to here (I think it’s that) extends to Ludwig’s performances of Mahler’s repertoire as much as to formal lieder. The phrasing, the pauses, the careful breaths, the coloring, the tremendous control and modulation – there is so much technique to be found and (rightly) marvelled at, whether in opera, art song, or orchestral work, but there is also a deeply felt humanity. Ludwig knew the lines well enough to know she could draw – really, really well – outside of them, and she trusted both her onstage colleagues and her audiences to follow her along on those journeys. To be confident about your choices as an artist is one thing; to be confident about showing such authenticity, as a woman and a public figure, is quite another.

In her wonderfully-titled memoir (“In My Own Voice”, Limelight, 2004), Ludwig wrote that “(c)ourage is needed to reveal one’s own feelings in interpretation and not tell the audience with raised forefinger: “The composer wanted it like this, and no other way.”” There must be room for that flow and confidence, but oh, what an uphill battle it can be for an aging woman to cultivate either (or both) of them within the confines of contemporary (and digital) culture. Courage, to paraphrase Ludwig, has indeed been needed. I stood at my easel this past weekend, for the first time in almost a year, and rather magically, I didn’t hear the mewls of insecurity which so often (and loudly) screamed; energy goes where attention goes, and the direction of it, like surgical incision, must be precise, flow allowed without judgement. Leaving doors open means allowing a spiritual kind of lüften; thus emanating from the carefully-placed speakers on Saturday was Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Strauss’s 1919 metaphysical opera about creation, connection, choice, and unique identity. Christa Ludwig sang in the very first Met presentation of this opera back in 1966, as the Dyer’s Wife, alongside then-husband Walter Berry as Barak. My first time seeing this opera live was in 2013, a conscious if rebellious (and ultimately life-changing) decision to skip a graduate school class.

The memory of that live experience still washes over me, a wet, warm, salty blanket of timbres and textures and tones, and instead of drowning, my fins make a happy, flapping return; I’ve been swimming upstream ever since, and over the past six years, negotiating an ocean of loss. Learning to live with less (people, opportunities, money, food, space, fun, conversation, closeness, trust, touch) has meant learning to be more careful in directing the sort of attention and presence to which Wittman alludes. I listen (read, watch, speak, and write, I hope) in very different ways, and relistening to Ludwig’s work recently, I was struck by the extent to which everything – the whirl of fans within, the din of traffic without – simply stopped. Her “ewig” is here, for us, for me, for this moment, and, somehow, feels hyper-concentrated: forever, right now, stay present, that voice entreats. And so, reapproach, recalibrate, reimagine: buzzwords for the era of coronavirus, advice for the will to return to culture, fortitude for colouring outside the lines. One has to trust one’s instincts; if others choose to follow, so much the better. Defy augury, that voice continues to whisper, the readiness is all.

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Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Igor Levit classical music performance series empty hall

Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

Berlin Philharmonic concert empty hall Philharmonie performance classical conductor orchestra music live

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Nagy Muller opera classical music performance series empty hall

Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

sea shore rocks sky blue scene clouds

Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

bread baking homemade kitchen aroma warm bake oven

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

Eternity’s Sunrise

(photo via)

The opportunity to sit with a piece of art, undistracted, has become a luxury, especially for those of us with stressful lives. Amidst the hospitalization of a parent, my own health woes, and a skunk-sprayed pet, having the time (mental, emotional, spiritual) and space to just sit with something artistic (and not fall asleep) has been a rare and much-longed for thing, a wish that vanishes with too much wind and implodes with too much noise. Time, place, and condition, of house, of hearth, of heart, have to be just so. It felt like a blessing to have a recent evening where all the phone calls had been made, all the dishes had been washed, and the skunk stench has dissipated enough to allow for clear thinking and open listening.

photo via

I was a huge admirer of U2’s work in the 1990s; a sense of adventure, in the sonic, lyrical, and especially visual senses, pervaded every creative choice they made at that time, and I suppose it reflected a more open and adventurous approach in my own life. I also loved the bald, raw honesty of Bono’s words, the way they swirled and stomped about with a ferocious kind of poetry, and the deep, dark places he and bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge boldly stepped into, with nary a look back. The combination of innate playfulness, balls-out experimentation, and unapologetic intelligence was intoxicating, and even now, listening to Achtung Baby or Zooropa or Pop (or even some moments on the Passengers project with Brian Eno) sends chills down my spine. It’s hard to describe the incredible nature of cultural discovery that U2 (and their inspirations) provided the soundtrack for in my younger days; I delved into the work of Genet, Duchamp, Basquiat, Antonioni, and innumerable others, with Joy Division, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and The Ramones on in the background. New worlds opened up to me — new ideas inside me were enthusiastically birthed and raised — and, at the time, it felt like so much of it had sprung from randomly seeing a guy writhing around in a pink shirt, and thinking, “hey, that’s a good song… I can dance to that…”

Alas, people change, circumstances change, the only constant thing in life is change, and so, my interest in 2000s U2 output plummeted. I can’t explain it, except to say that I didn’t feel the same kind of connection or fire-lighting inspiration. That changed, however, with the release of No Line on the Horizon; a sense of adventure was palpable in many of the songs from the 2009 album, and I loved the fact that, despite the quick hit / MP3 / downloadable / disposable nature of music in the 21st century, the work still felt like a complete thought, as an album, rather than a series of singles. There were flashes of rawness, realness, and plain old… mischief. It had stuff to dance to as well. And the cover art, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, was (is) poetic and beautiful. There was something daring about the entire venture, and it engendered a kind of new/old respect that pushed my artsy buttons.

I didn’t see the mammoth 360 tour, however; it was out of reach financially, and I just didn’t have the back strength to stand for any length of time. Something in me snorts at the possibility of having any kind of profound creative experience in the super-corporatized tour world of the 21st century as well (this could be cynical old age creeping in), but one moment (glimpsed via YouTube) that did impress was when you couldn’t see the band at all, during the performance of “Zooropa.” Done behind a huge metal sheath with the glorious sound blasting out, it was as it the band were begging its worshipful audience, “Please, forget the screens, forget the effects; just use your own imaginations, pretend you don’t know us, and just listen.” Absence created presence. It was, for me, truly a profound statement, one made all the more powerful for being made in such an immense space by an immensely influential group, and it’s one that still resonates.

That dance, between absence and presence, powers Songs of Innocence, released last year. I put off listening to it because I wanted the space, the time, the energy to simply be with it, uninterrupted. Just sitting and spending time with an album is, ridiculously, a kind of a luxury now, so great are the demands on our attention. But, turning off social media, TV, radio, and phone, and simply letting the music wash over me, the way I did in the 80s and 90s when I’d get a new album, felt like the most cleansing kind of ritual. Amidst the tidal wave of frustrations, setbacks, and challenges of late, it was the right time to step into the world the album offered, eyes, hands, and heart wide open.

Its title, referencing the work of William Blake, is a bit misleading; this is a very adult album that looks back to find strength and wisdom in the wide-eyed, pillow-lipped, deep-breath state of youth, and uses that energy to find meaning in the present. Many of the songs have a certain wistful quality lyrically, while there are also some searingly honest moments that feel confessional through not only words but sound; “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” defies its peaceful title by having a creepy, Throbbing-Gristle-esque electro undertow that provides just the right note of discomforting menace that paints a nightmare portrait of abuse, while “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” has a pulsating pseudo-dance beat that fits its anti-hero ethos and nicely salutes the sounds on Sandinista by The Clash, a fitting tribute to its Joe Strummer dedication. There’s also the continuance of charming geography here. In the 1980s, there was “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Heartland”; in the ’90s, “Zoo Station”, “Miss Sarajevo”, and “Miami”; in the 2000s, “New York”, “City of Blinding Lights”, and “Fez/Being Born.” Now there’s “California (There Is No End To Love)” and “Cedarwood Road.” It’s interesting to consider the contrasts between the latter two, one so rooted in the present, the other so firmly ensconced in the past; this push-pull of contrasts gives the album much of its power, with love and aggression, loss and abundance, acceptance and anger, and of course, presence and absence, providing a kind of dialectic undertow that reveals and conceals at once in a maddening, if eminently listenable dance of modernity.

Right in line with this dance are the album’s words. Bono has always had a special knack of making the epic, intimate, and of making the personal, universal in his lyrics. Here he’s co-credited with The Edge in lyrics writing duties, but one can still discern the heart, the art, and the electric shock of a life lived so full so as to be bursting with profane (and profound) contradictions. I felt a special, and deeply personal twinge in hearing his plaintive tenor deliver the line, “I’ve got your life inside of me” in “Iris (Hold Me Close)”, a song about his too-soon-departed mother. It’s one thing to hear a favorite artist belt out something personal; it’s quite another to hear them shout out the pain you happen to have felt over the course of a week filled with hospital visits, phone calls, and meetings. The absence of a mother figure, while always powering work creatively, holds a special sheen here, because it’s that absence that works as a kind of guiding presence that allows forward momentum along creative avenues — ones fraught with dangers, darkness, and dreariness, true enough, but also filled with “cherry blossoms,” with seashores, with light. Those things can’t exist without the other. Innocence can’t exist without experience, and vice-versa. Inspiration can’t exist without ennui. Absence can’t exist without presence.

And so, this is an album about balance, regeneration, and contemplation, and one that, perhaps, couldn’t have been enjoyed and experienced at a better moment, amidst the phone calls, the hospital visits, the surgeries, the skunk smell, and the dirty dishes. Am I a fan? No, I’ve never, ever felt comfortable in that camp. Am I grateful? Yes. Thank you for putting that in my iTunes, U2. My world’s a little richer,  and a little brighter. Innocence is both more wide-eyed and astute, and experience has never tasted more bitter or sweet, at once. Contradiction truly is balance, and that’s probably how it should be. Now I’m ready to dance.

Art, Science, Wonder

At The Morgan Library & Museum (photo mine)

Amidst the challenges of last fall, the eagerness and inspiration with which I approached my cultural reportage faded away. It bothers me that I let something go that meant (means) so much to me, and I’m hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

The best place I can think of starting is by tidying up a loose, fraying thread I left dangling off the edge of my quilt of chaos last autumn. Between school assignments, stressful living conditions, and some deeply unpleasant personal chaos, I never got to reviewing the wondrous da Vinci show that happened at the Morgan Museum and Library. I covered a fantastic surrealism show of theirs in 2013, and indeed, the Morgan is one of my favorite spots in New York City, what with its awe-inspiring collection of historical documents, breathtaking art, and gorgeous old-meets-new design; the clean steel lines of its atrium blend seamlessly with the warm wooden tones and carved stone of older structures. The da Vinci exhibit captured this old-meets-new ethos. Art and science integrated in a unique, inspiring way, one that, on reflection has me thinking about the marriage between chaos and order, style and content, dreams and reality.

Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin” (which ran from late October 2013 to early February of this year) was a beautiful, fascinating portrait of 15th-16th century curiosity that directed itself at the world, ourselves, and our place and position straddling the mysteries of the two; it forced reflection on relationships, both with the Morgan’s other, permanent works, and the way museum visitors perceive and experience art, history, and the notable intersection of the two.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Figure Studies, 1505
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

“Figure Studies” (1505), a work done in pen and brown ink with traces of black chalk on paper, is a seamless blend of da Vinci’s artistry and passion for science featuring a large male nude who looks stripped of skin, his muscles exposed, his gluteus maximus a busy contusion of fine, light, grid-like ink strokes. The other figures in the work get gradually smaller, right to left, perhaps in a movement reflecting da Vinci’s idiosyncratic mirrored writing style. There are various scenes of motion — twisting and turning, from various angles — and sketches of a man on horseback, a horse rearing, and a set of male lips, sensuously curled open (and possibly exhaling a plume of smoke), at the top of the page. All the elements feel disparate and random, but the combination of bodies, gestures, and motion lend a certain joy to the detailed scientific doodles.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the drawings, it is impossible not to contemplate the materials used to create these works –ink, chalk, paper, metal, water — and their place in da Vinci’s world. Where did the chalk come from? The ink? How were they transported? What of the life of the person who sold such wares? It brings to mind a host of socio-historical questions in relation to the artist’s connection with the wider world, and the implications of pursuing art with a much wider world of trade, commerce, and economy at play. Such connections can so easily be forgotten or taken for granted.

It was impossible to take anything for granted that day, especially in a setting as special as the Morgan. Ornately decorated religious books, royal letters, old manuscripts, entreaties around the question of arranged marriages –many precious items within the Morgan’s permanent collection are contemporary to the works of da Vinci, and tell of a culture looking outside itself –to matters of law, of politics, of religion, of power and money –while da Vinci’s works are focused on humanity and the natural world, our relationship to it, and its connection to (and with) us. The artist’s firm fascination was with the mechanics of life, imagining the possibilities therein; such fascination is certainly tied to the exploratory spirit, a spirit which, in Da Vinci’s time, was tied to notions of human expansion and progress. The two were interchangeable at the time, and perhaps manifest most completely (and tragically) in the “discovery” of the Americas — European industrial and socio-political/cultural expansion at the expense of many native populations and cultures. I couldn’t help but look a bit askance at the “Hercules” depiction, knowing that, concurrent to its creation, a whole other set of mythologies and mythological systems were being plundered and destroyed.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a Young Woman, 
(Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s 
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

Still, thinking back on that rainy late-fall day, I am struck by da Vinci’s unfailing curiosity at the wider world. The artist was clearly testing the limits of his materials, using ink, then chalk (specifically finger-staining red chalk), to seek a new vision of his evolving world, a violent, swirling one shaped by politics, religion, corruption and competition. He wasn’t interested in doing portraits of the power-brokers of his day, but in finding and exploring tender humanity. Sometimes that took the shape of scientific inquiry, of motion and mechanics, and sometimes it took the form of soft, smooth flesh. He wielded his real-world materials deftly in an attempt to get at an other-worldly, if deeply earthy, complex-plain truth that lay behind the eyes of his subjects, be they human or animal, or past the slippery surface of mechanics and wings and internal organs.

One can still find such integrated elegance in our age –in the work of Ettore Sottsass, Sergio Pininfarina, the architecture of Pei or Tadao Ando or Oscar Niemeyer, the scientific sensuousness of Sugimoto’s photography, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful art of Isabelle Dalle, and Denis Dubois, and Tumblr’s “Bedelgeuse.” Science and art can (and should) exist together; it seems strange we don’t connect them, when so many artists and scientists have.  Sometimes they are even one in the same. And while the integration can’t change history, it can change minds — and hearts. Da Vinci’s work goes far in mending wounds, offering us not a black or white or even a grey road, but one colored in tones we could see, if only we opened ourselves to it, looked at the mechanics, and then looked past them; it’s a better path that leaves the crumbs along the path to our better natures, to what, perhaps, might be our essential nature: to be contemplative, and calm, but always hungry — not to conquer or rule, not to subjugate or exploit, but to know.  Da Vinci’s art, and his science, his perfect integration of the two, reminds us of the hunger for knowing, for learning, for experience, for beauty; we are hungry for transcendence, and hungry for life. Let us eat, and let us always want to ask for more.

Something Old

Orpheus & Eurydice, Auguste Rodin, 1893.

The first Friday of every month sees many New York City museums waiving admission fees.

Keen on seeing the newly opened Kandinsky exhibit at the Neue Galerie (a spot I have some history with), I rushed to catch the uptown train, amidst a sticky, stinky, mid-autumn heat wave. Several stops later, with sore feet and aching shoulders, I exited, and found myself nearly running along 86th Street; it was getting onto 6:30pm and I knew the lines might be fierce. Worst fears were confirmed with three-plus blocks of eager, sweaty faces and shuffling sneakers.

Not being keen to deal with the suffocating effects of the oppressive humidity (bugs! sticky armpits! ruined hairdo! oh yes… asthma!), I decided I’d keep on the Fifth Avenue path, and take another look at the Balthus exhibit on at the Met (review forthcoming). The cool air of the Met was a beautiful respite from the heat, and Balthus’ beautifully geometric paintings were a sight for my over-computer-monitored eyes. 
Notes duly taken, I sauntered, enjoying the dusky quiet, and just …looked, a pleasure I rarely allow myself in the cultural realm anymore; it feels like a luxury, dawdling amongst artful things. And yet, as Guardian editor (and part-time classical pianist) Alan Rusbridger writes in his recent memoir, there is “a mundane need to have moments off the hamster wheel of editing [… an] instinct to wall off a small part of my life for creative expression, for ‘culture.’ ”

Serious, capital-J journalism -and its study for me, right now, at NYU -has been eating up every available ounce of creative/mental/emotional/intellectual energy the last five weeks or so. I’m beginning to resent something so central to my being – my arts passion -being ripped away from me, and the chorus of quiet, snarling voices of doubt uttering some uncomfortable phrases: no one’s interested in culture; the arts isn’t real news; you’re wasting your time; no one cares
Reliquary Arm of St. Valentine, 14th century,
Swiss.

And yet, Friday night’s visit to the Met reminded me of the fallacy of those statements, but underscored my determination to find new ways of sharing my passion, and blending that with my writing. Some of you seem to like it. (Thank you to those readers who’ve followed me through the years.) My artsy walkabout allowed me to stare, in the face, two truths: I need to keep writing, in my own way, about culture. There’s a certain sort of longing I’m experiencing, between past and present and future, between what I want and what’s in front of me, to try to take this passion somewhere else, somewhere higher and more powerful and… to be remembered, appreciated, loved in grand and intimate ways, probe, create, fail, and always, always stay authentic to who and what I am.

“Saudade” is a Portuguese word which, roughly translated, means “longing” or “nostalgic longing.” I first heard it used at a lecture in Dublin given by singer/writer Nick Cave. He defined it thusly:

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call “saudade”, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting up though our wounds.

Whether or not you believe in God doesn’t matter in order to understand saudade, or to appreciate its power in a writer’s (or creator’s) life. The idea (and experience) of longing is a very, very old thing, one expeirenced in the biblical cry, “why hast thou forsaken me?“; it also colors the entirety of Psalms, in fact, and is glimpsed in the hieroglyphic scenes of ancient Pharoahs raising their hands in praise of the sun. In the act of worship (surely a consummate act of love joined with faith), or musing on the nature of the divine, or amidst faulting that which we love and want to be joined with, we express our nostalgic longing for something beyond ourselves, and yet, deeply of ourselves.

Like the German “sehnsucht,” saudade has deep, earthy roots, and divine, heavenly aspirations. The calm and cool of the museum, its lack of usual noisy visitors, the enveloping darkness and the shadows cast by the strategic, subtle lights, all created the contemplative environment I so craved, one where I wondered at the role of this oldest of emotional experiences, and its role in creation: of life, ideas, even… hey, new, artistic ways of telling and sharing stories.

Cleopatra, William Wetmore Story, 1869.

Saudade sits at the heart of the art I love most: it is a longing for something beyond itself. That “thing” -historically expressed as an old man with a beard, a round disk, elements of the earth – doesn’t have to be specifically religious. Lately I’ve wondered at the line between the earthly and the divine, and how it finds expression: marble, ivory, ink, oil, bronze, walnut, granite, graphite, silver, glass. Then there’s sound (singing, music, the plucking of strings, the beating of drums) and of course, bytes and pixels. We engage these things out of a certain love. Don’t we?

What is longing? Why do humans engage in it? There are no concrete answers, but again, I think such a feeling has to do with trying to scratch at the transcendent – something beyond us, past us, past our comprehension, and yet of us, with a certain familiarity and perhaps, a certain chemistry. Maybe it’s canvas, a slab of marble, maybe it’s the act of creating itself, maybe it’s God’s face, a lover’s face, our newborn’s face, the sunrise… the sunset. The cycles of life, death, sex, regeneration. We long for this kind of connection – to divine things, human things, beauty and pain wrapped together. Some of the best love songs capture this with a swoon-worthy precision (listen to anything by the aforementioned Mr. Cave or Leonard Cohen); other works of art -whether they be religious or secular -also distill this “saudade” into a grand, and yet deeply intimate, experience that whispers secrets of that most bewildering of trinities: love, lust, longing.

Bellini’s Norma, which I had the pleasure of seeing recently at the Metropolitan Opera, offers a heartbreaking portrait of just that trinity, with generous dollops of transcendent belcanto splendor. There’s something about the title character that seeks something beyond herself, her distant lover, the friendship of her handmaiden, the power of her tribe; it’s only when she is burned (with her beloved, no less) that she will come to be joined in a kind of union with divinity. Even as she faces disgrace and punishment, there is a discernible quality of saudade -in the libretto as well as the music -that lifts the opera out of the tawdry and into the realm of awe-inspiring beauty. There’s something divine about not only the story but the music, in and of itself. It scratches at a divinity it channels, pouring out its longing for a sort of union that is expressed physically in the love between the two main  characters at the opera’s end.

Diptych with Scenes of the life of Christ, Carved in Germany, 14th century

The opera whispered the questions; Friday night’s museum walkabout said them right out loud, confronting me with some uncomfortable feelings. Not only did I need to be reminded of my passion for arts and culture, but to underline the role of saudade in my life and work. There’s something magical about visiting dark places you’re familiar with; you know what’s around every corner, but you’re not quite sure how it’ll present itself without the safe filter of daylight. Darkened corners provide opportunities for dalliances, an empty tomb brings thoughts of permanency, changeability, communion with divinity and the folly of desiring such a thing. Beautiful sculpted faces remind one of a lover both human and divine. Night whispers its sad, beautiful song of saudade through such moments, and such intimacy with art, old and new, solid and not. It colors everything, personal and professional. Living with saudade feels like the right position for the artist -and the journalist -living, sometimes battling, inside of me. Experiencing the feeling of intense longing – for God, for blessings, for perfection, for failure, for permanence, for change, for flesh, for spirit, for love… for creation itself.

Twenty Zoo

The desire to be accurate with anniversaries and remembrances grows over the years. When you don’t have kids or a partner to mark time for you with loose teeth and grey hairs, odd drawings and fancy diplomas, you have to choose other markers.

Twenty years ago I trundled off to Maple Leaf Gardens, then a rattling old hockey arena for a hard-scrabble team, for a rock concert. There were cars hanging from the ceiling. And screens. Lots of them.

I’d been leafing through Orwell, gawking at Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, sitting googie-eyed at the movies of Marlene Dietrich, and enchanted by the music of the Weimar republic. I’d been letting Ziggy Stardust and Kraftwerk lull me to sleep and jotting down strange thoughts and abstract shapes in journals spread across wooden floors alongside plates of half-eaten baguette and unfinished essays.
It’s okay if you don’t have a computer, the teacher had said, not everyone does. Just print neatly and it’ll be fine.
I trudged up the stairs of the Carlton subway stop to be confronted with a choir of rosy-cheeked faces.
‘Tickets! Anyone selling? Anyone? Please?’
I walked through the masses, hands stuffed in deep, smooth winter pockets.
‘You selling?!’ a swarthy, balding, wild-eyed man asked me as I reached the top of the stairs.
No way, I told him.
‘Come on. Give you a hundred bucks.’
No.
I hadn’t even seen the band inside, but something in me said… go.
The lines for the loos were ridiculous. The lines for a bottle of water were ridiculous. Four dollars? Ridiculous. I was used to the concert hall, Lincoln Center, Roy Thompson Hall, Jesus, why was everyone pushing and shouting?
Settling in, I noted my side-view of the stage. The myriad of screens and cars and metallic pieces of spaced-out junk, poked out hither and thither, at all angles, like Picasso came to life via Flash Gordon. Oh. Was this supposed to be art? MOMA did it better.
The Pixies took the stage. I made a face. Who is this? God, that guy’s ugly. I thought about Pavarotti and Ziggy Stardust and the essay I was writing for Classics defending Clytemnestra. Really, she was the victim of historical sexism, and I had to set things straight, between bites of brie and glances at Ginsberg.
The Pixies left, I sighed with relief, my seatmate got popcorn. I doodled in my chip-faced journal. Time passed. I jotted down potential screenplay ideas, and put the journal in my backpack, where a copy of Naked Lunch was tucked away. It made no sense, but it made the clang-clang-clang of the subway easier.
My seatmate and I munched the popcorn, laughed at people’s hairdos, picking our teeth and gossiping, trading ideas and avoiding the yawning reality of graduation. He crumpled up the empty bucket and whipped it under his chair, ever-polite with a jaunty whistle and a bright-eyed grin.
I looked at the stage, and noted a small man wandering onto it. He wore dark over-large sunglasses, tight black leathers. He was looking around, curious, head cocked and smirking. A few people shrieked. Then a few more. I cocked my head back at him. Such a big head he had. Such big dark hair. And such big glasses. The arena was in an uproar. Oh? The show’s starting now?
It’s Jesus, I whispered sarcastically to my companion. He’s gonna save us all.

For the next two hours, I was witness to a marriage of words, music, ideas, art, sound, performance, and sheer theater such as I had never seen before. The snarling menace of “The Fly,” the shimmering sex of “Mysterious Ways,” the barking outrage of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” the shiny grandiosity of “Desire” … it was hard to verbalize what I was seeing… feeling… it was hard to take in, all at once, in one go. Jesus staggered along the outer rim of where the glass would be placed for hockey games, holding hand after hand after hand for support, a tiny smile spread across his lips. He reminded me of Dennis the Menace.
If you twist and turn away…
If you tear yourself in two again…
He was ridiculous -utterly ridiculous – but a very magnetic, theatrical presence. I was transfixed.
In 1992, I had no idea who Jenny Holzer was, or Mark Wojnarowicz, or the Emergency Broadcast Network. I’d vaguely heard of televangelists and had seen pieces of Apocalypse Now. I was months away from graduating high school and had a creative writing teacher who took students outside to a nearby cemetery for inspiration. I’d been to New York a dozen times and had hit all the major museums. I’d seen Pavarotti sing live in a few operas and eaten at top restaurants. But I’d never seen anything like this. Jesus was thrusting around in a silver suit, throwing money at the fawning crowd. Good grief.
ZOO-TV was a sexy, scintillating, stimulating soupcon of pop culture references both contemporary and classical, one that licked the brain cells even as it caressed the heart muscles in a winking, wide, over-friendly love embrace. I felt drawn to a life and way of thinking I’d only glimpsed at in all my trips to New York and Europe: it was full of arts, smarts, sauce, spice, and ever-present sex, wafting and floating above all things, its power only heightened by the intense, naughty mambo it held with a force equally as strong: love. Love for music, art, living, performing, the being-there-ness of the moment. All that stuff I’d been touching on in my Orwell-Burroughs-Kerouac-Ziggy-artsy-fartsy explorations. Authenticity as way of life. Authenticity as mask. Know who the hell you are… then play with it. Fuck up the mainstream.
It’s said this tour re-defined what big bands are, what they could do, who they could be, and how far they could reach. And that’s all true, but such an assessment misses the profound personal connotations. For me, ZOO-TV will always be a bigger thing than a tour, a band, a t-shirt, tons of gear, clever sayings, or flashy effects. It remains a marker, a compass, a talisman, a confusing pregnancy and messy birth, a shocking awakening to a wider world both without and within. It was grand opera and the intimate whisper ever. It was the absolute end of one phase, and the start of something much greater, far wider, unimaginably deeper, and vastly more frightening. And maybe, possibly, more thrilling. Welcome to your life; it’s all up to you now.
I go to encounter for the million time
the reality of experience
and to forge, in the smith of my soul,
To all involved in ZOO-TV, directly and not: thank you, from the bottom of my heart, now and forever more. I remember, I smile, I dance.
I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music drags me in
makes me come up

(Quotes: James Joyce; Patti Smith)

Photo credits: Top, via cinesonic; middle via Democratic Underground; bottom, artwork by Jenny Holzer via Walk With The Crustaceans.

Art Meets Heart

I’m always surprised and delighted by the sheer number of fascinating, artsy events happening in Toronto at any given time. In addition to Art Battle, A Work Of Heart, which also features live painting, is coming up soon. A Work Of Heart is an initiative that brings together artists and philanthropy in a spirit of cooperation, self-determination, curiosity and sharing. To quote its current release, “artwork is donated by seven local artists… half of the proceeds will go towards building a boarding school in Kenya’s Mathare Slum.”

Owing to conversations with TMS Ruge and other experts in the field of aid and development, I’ve developed a kind of mental alarm system for anything resembling Western-style feel-good-isms toward African nations. Too often those efforts are exercises in narcissism and brand-building, offering simplistic answers and reflecting the organizers’ romanticized (/stereotypical /racist) image of Africa and its citizens moreso than actively acknowledging the messy, complicated, multi-layered world of development and well, humanity overall. It’s easy to reduce a nation -its citizens within it, its continent around it -to easy slogans and poetic images, ones colored by celebrity visits and ad campaigns and big-ass concerts.

Work Of Heart is less interested in big gestures than it is in committing to long-term good. It’s a small, grassroots organization working at the grassroots level, lead by people who’ve been there, done that, and (vitally) plan to, for a long, long time. They put their money, time, energy and resources where their mouths are, their paintbrushes where their heart is. They aren’t afraid to get dirty, and they aren’t afraid to commit to the long-haul.
Laura Armstrong is the founder of Work Of Heart; she has a degree in Film and English, and has travelled extensively, working with Canadian organization Global Youth Network. It was through her work with GYN that she travelled to Kenya to work with HIV positive women and children, and subsequently got in touch with UCRC (Ugunja Community Resource Centre), an NGO that, to quote its website, “acts as an umbrella organization for more than sixty local community groups including women, children, youth, farmers and people with disabilities.” Their motto is “Local Action Is Beautiful.” Casey Mundy, a Toronto-based publicist with a degree in Psychology, also worked with the Global Youth Network, where she worked in the Dominican Republic as well as Morocco.
There’s something inspiring about these two young Canadian women who, though completely aware of their position as privileged women living and working in the Western world, are moving past that definition and into that of a citizen of the world through their long-term commitments. They understand you can’t just build a school, pat yourself on the back, and walk away; in fact, they keep walking towards goals whose benefits are not immediate, but are profound, real, and offer long-term benefit to communities.
A Work Of Heart’s latest art event happens tomorrow night in Toronto. I recently exchanged ideas about the organization, and about the roads that intersect between art, aid, and advancement with Laura and Casey. Their answers make me want to continue following A Work Of Heart to see how their initiatives progress.
How did you become interested in aid and development issues?
Laura: During my undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University, I started to participate in volunteer trips abroad. I helped build a house in the Dominican Republic, volunteered in India with famine relief, Peru for Dangue fever prevention, and Kenya to work with women and children with HIV. Different cultures and world issues fascinate me. I want to continue working abroad and learn as much as possible.
Casey: I also became extremely interested in aid and development issues while a student at Wilfrid Laurier. I have spent time volunteering in Morocco and Dominican Republic. Working and living with the local people in another country is a very different experience than simply visiting that location and its renowned tourist destinations. You get to really know the place, the people, their way of life and their motivations when you immerse yourself in their lifestyle.

The main thing I hear and read is that Western-style gestures don’t help in implementing long-term change – that it’s feel-good-ism for the privileged. How much of this initiative is about the long-term?

Laura: We work with an organization called Living Positive Kenya (LPK) which is located in the Mathare Slum, the second largest slum in Aftrica. This NGO is a support group for women and children living with HIV. Mary Wanderi, who founded this NGO (and is currently Director of Living Positive Ngong), is a pervious social worker who had the heart-breaking job of going into the homes of women who have died and retrieving their children. After dealing with an overwhelming amount of HIV related deaths she decided she had to take action. She then created LPK.

Women can come to LPK to receive support and job training. These women are taught how to live positively while HIV positive. When implementing a development project abroad you need to involve the community as much as possible and think in advance about potential problems and not assume what they would be. Observation and long term planning is key in making a sustainable project. We agree that education is the most vital way to change the future of the LPK children and will give their mothers time to work while their children attend school. That is why this boarding school project is where we are investing our attention and resources.

Why did you create A Work Of Heart?

Laura: I want to be there for the long haul. I am not looking for the the international ‘feel-good-ism’ experience and to simply walk away. These women aren’t just a group we support- they are our friends. We work together to figure out what the deeper problems are in the slum and try to find solutions that work for them and their community. After my first trip to Kenya, I felt that the amount of money needed to upgrade the LPK daycare was something I could easily fundraise. Selling my art seemed like the best bet to raise that money in my spare time. I paint as a hobby so it was nice to have a reason to do it more often.

What role do you see for art in helping to create social change?

Laura: Artists in general have a lot of passion and are always looking for ways to push boundaries with their talent. A Work of Heart allows them to push a new boundary because their art can now physically change a life for the better. Art is impossible to define but can be best described as something that makes us feel less alone. We want to take this concept and broaden it beyond the painting. Through the selling of our art we can connect to people across the world who are in grave need. It’s not just about painting a great picture; it’s about ‘painting a better world.’

Casey: Art is a positive practice that crosses language barriers and can be experienced globally. Art is exciting because it can mean something different to different people and create an emotional response. There is no right or wrong way to paint or be involved with art. I think that this project exemplifies how one person really can make a difference and that visual art, along with all types of art, like music, dance, can have a global reach and connect the world.

How do you find artists?

Laura: Networking. I have friends who paint who know other artists. It has slowly been growing over the past year. People I have never met want to donate pieces to me because they love the concept. It’s a great feeling to see how other artists connect to it so quickly and so passionately.

How do you hope to expand Work Of Heart and its reach?

Laura: We have decided to push our goals and limits further each year. Last year we aimed to raise $1,000.00 and this year we want to raise $10,000.00. This is our first art show. We hope to have larger ones down the road and have more artists from the GTA involved. We have a deep connection to the women and children we work with in Kenya and want to help them build a sustainable community for their children and themselves.

Casey: I hope to continue to raise positive awareness for A Work of Heart through the media and help to build a solid base of supporters. I am passionate about this project and happy to pitch something I truly believe in.

A Work Of Heart Facebook page is here.

Rumbles In The Barnyard

When WNYC announced the removal of Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads at the Pulitzer Fountain recently, a wave of shock went through me. Was it government-related? Part of some nefarious plot? No, it turns out the time of the Heads was up and they were off to their next destination in Los Angeles.

All good things, it seems, must come to an end, and sometimes those endings aren’t as dramatic as we initially believe them to be.

A week tomorrow, I’m going to be returning to Toronto. The reasons are, I suppose, somewhat dramatic; I’ve a family member undergoing a third round of chemotherapy, and I’ve been unable to secure reliable, paid, full-time employment here in New York. Much as it’s horribly depressing in the most theatrical way, it is also hugely, soothingly logical. Emotionally, I’m pulled between falling into a huge vat of overheated self-pity and rising above it all in the cold, clear knowledge that this could very well be the sort of vision-over-visibility issue I’ve been rattling on about for a while now.
Consequentially, Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads have been on my mind a lot. The first time I saw them was entirely intentional, while the second time I had an appointment locally, and the third was totally by accident. Each time, I observed the people there, laughing, posing for photos, snapping away blithely unaware of the plight of the artist behind the dead-eyed sculptures.
Each head represented an animal in the Chinese zodiac, and seemed to be innocuously bland and possibly, to quote an artsy acquaintance, too blatantly, inoffensively commercial to be rendered artistically interesting. But, in my mind, the placement of the heads said a lot about them, and one’s reaction to them. Sometimes the context in which an artwork is placed is nearly- or just as -important as the work itself, and in this, Zodiac Heads was certainly no exception.
The Pulitzer Fountain isn’t that hard to find -if you know where the Plaza Hotel is. And the world-famous Plaza isn’t hard to find if you know where Fifth Avenue is -that mecca of retail exuberance and commercial worship, that temple to spending and decadence. Emerge from the swirling heat of the New York City subway and you’re confronted with high-end (or wannabe-high-end) stores, tottering divas, ogling tourists, fast-walking assistants, immaculately-suited business men, and over-make-up’d teenagers. Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads was situated at the end of this zoo of humanity, where Central Park starts.

Far from being a simple “retail bad/art good” dialectic, Ai’s work has a whimsical, laughing quality that lives in perfect harmony with its darker undertones. There’s a hollow stare to these animals and their coy expressions; the pig head that was nearest to the Plaza has an eerie grin, while the rabbit head was benign if air-headed, and the strong ox looked dazed and overwhelmed.
Zodiac Heads’ proximity to the retail mecca of Fifth Avenue underlined the transactional nature of the art world, as well as its paradoxically community-building ethos. People who posed with the Heads may not have know who Ai Wei Wei is, but they certainly had fun with the heads – picking out their own animal, or, failing to know that, their own personal favorites. Acting as counterpoint to all this personalizing, the political (not to mention their historical context) can’t be overlooked. China’s economic relationship with the United States gains particular heft in such a commercial environment where transactions -whether in clothing or real estate -are a microcosm of not only trading relationships but of supply, demand, and ideas around credit and… owing.
To what do we owe Ai Wei Wei then? Or the Chinese government for freeing him? Anything? Ai Wei Wei’s recent release made me re-consider my own position as an artist -here in New York, and indeed, back in Canada. What is the definition of “home”? Where do we find ourselves, truly? To whom do we “owe” our freedom? I wonder how Ai’s creativity has been shaped by his captivity in his homeland and how much he’s been able to balance his need for freedom artistically with the rules around his release. When and if he figures it out, I’m sure the results will be spectacular.
Until then, I’ll keep thinking about his Zodiac Heads. Sure, we’re free to figure out “sign,” but it remains to be seen whether that’s a sign in and of itself, or signifying larger connections and relationships, seen and unseen, real and unreal, factual or mythologized -and the nature of those transactions, their value in our lives, the payment they demand, and the freedom they do and don’t grant us. Does it matter? Should it? Some things are choice, others things are necessity; how we negotiate what’s in the middle is what makes us better artists -and human beings. Yes, we have an “animal” side, a side that wants glamour without the payback, fabulous without the bill, excitement without anxiety, success without responsibility. But remembering Zodiac Heads, I want to believe in more, in that ever-changing art of the possible. Now, it’s up to me to me to live it, and figure out my place in the stars -and here, in the barnyard of earth.
Photos taken from my Flickr photostream (lots more Zodiac Heads there!) …

Brighter

As spring approaches, I always think about Ireland a little more than usual. I moved from Dublin in the spring, and every time there’s a whiff of spring in the air I remember the crocuses that were merrily breaking through the ground when I left Ireland. Standing in stark contrast to all that spring gaiety was Ballymun.
Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the area one travels through to get to (and from) the airport in Dublin was dominated by seven low-level apartment buildings and became infamous for its drug-related activities, particularly when Dublin suffered a serious heroin epidemic in the 1970s and 80s. To quote Design Research Group’s thorough feature:

They were a well intentioned attempt to relocate people from the inner-city of Dublin to more modern high rise accommodation on the then outskirts of the city. The symbolism of the names of each block, Pearse, MacDonagh, Clarke, Connolly, Ceannt, Plunkett and MacDermott, each a leader of the 1916 Rising was indicative of efforts to re-imagine an identity for the Irish state during the late 1960s. Their very modernity was such that it embodied a shift away from the rural towards the urban.

Owing to a complete lack of infrastructure (including roads, services, and even access to basic goods), the site quickly suffered a kind of ghettoization, with the apartment blocks becoming the epicenter of the spiral downward. People may know the line about seeing ‘seven towers’ (and no way out) but they don’t necessarily know the place, much less its history or people. Author Lynn Connelly worked to set that right in 2006, when she published The Mun, which portrays its residents in a far different light than the drug-filled media reports that dominated Irish press for so long.
In 2004, demolition on the infamous apartment block began, its residents relocated to housing as part of the area’s regeneration. There have been plenty of good developments, including a Civic Centre, a theatre, residents’ groups, and of course, new housing. But the Ballymun renaissance hasn’t included everyone, alas.
Genius Dublin artist Maser, who’s been doing his special brand of pop-meets-graffiti around the city for over a decade, offered his own colourful contribution to Ballymun, just before demolition began. I used to see Maser’s early work when I’d wander around Dublin, old Minolta in-hand; looking back on it, the graffiti-meets-billboard approach incorporates so many elements of art I love: colour, texture, playfulness, and subtext.

This was done as part of the They Are Us project in 2010 and is dedicated to Rachel Peavoy. The Ballymun flat resident was found on January 11th, 2010 in her apartment. She’d died of hypothermia. An inquest into her death revealed that Dublin City Council had turned her heating off and refused to turn restore it to the flats despite the cold winter.

Next time I’m in Ireland, I’m not just driving through Ballymun. I’m going to stop for a while.
Photo credits:
Top photo by World News.
Demolition photo by Barry Delaney.

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