Maggie Nelson on the Pleasure of Walking Out

I’m enjoying Maggie Nelson’s smart, probing The Art of Cruelty. Here’s one passage:

[I]n my own life, I know I generally feel very alive and emancipated when I choose to walk out on something. After all, you walk out when you realize that whatever it is you’re watching, for whatever reason, simply isn’t working. Walking out reminds you that while submission can at times be a pleasure, a risk worth taking, you don’t have to manufacture consent whenever or wherever it is nominally in demand…. The fact that the exit door isn’t barred, the feel of the fresh air on your face when you open it — all this serves to remind you of how good it feels to angle the full force of your body and attention toward that which seems to you a good use of your short time on the planet, and to practice aversion towards that which does not. These are freedoms that life does not always grant…

This brings to mind a trip with friends years ago to see a play, a student production almost an hour out of town. I thought I might be the only one hating it, and certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone else to leave at intermission, but thought I owed it to myself at least to hint vaguely at the possibility of cutting our losses and leaving. Seconds later we were all on our way out. Yes, “the feel of the fresh air on your face” when you walk out of that theater– she really captures it.

This also reminds me why I found so silly the premise of this recent piece– here it is, “Finish That Book! You suffer when you quit a story midway through—and so does literature.” Nope, completely wrong, the freedom to toss a book aside — even if capriciously, even if for no good reason — is basic to the pleasure of reading.

The Penises of Southdowns Drive

I decided I wanted to document the penises of Southdowns Drive.

These graffiti appeared sometime maybe last summer. I found them amusing and somewhat charming, at least as far as penis graffiti go, and imagined they’d be removed or covered up pretty quickly, considering how many parents walk this route with young kids on the way to and from the park.

But nope, still there. Not sure if this should be attributed more to apathy and a lack of city responsiveness, or to a high degree of liberal tolerance on the community’s part.

Check ’em out next time you’re on Southdowns, just East of Bryan Park.


A Man Called Destruction (Alex Chilton biography)


I just read Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton.  I was a huge Alex Chilton fan in my not-so-wayward youth in the 1980s, as I discussed in this 2010 post (prompted then by the 33 1/3 book on Radio City and the Big Star box set), so it was great to fill in a lot of details and to understand parts of the story that had always been hazy or sketchy for me.  Overall it’s an excellent biography, I thought –at least for a fan; you might not have the stamina for the whole thing if you weren’t already one.

A few observations:

  • This isn’t news, but reading the whole biography made clear how incredibly strange Chilton’s career was, with some weirdly history-defying twists and diversions. He’s a teenage star as the singer of the somewhat manufactured pop group the Box Tops in the mid and late 60s.  When the band finally fizzles out in 1970, Chilton is all of 20 years old.  When Big Star similarly (well, very differently) fizzles out in 1974/5, the guy is 25 years old, having already lived through two full lives in the music business. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that in the immediate post-Big Star years, Chilton spent quite a lot of time in NYC and was even a semi-fixture at CGBGs right in the dawning of the punk scene.  He “stayed in New York for much of 1977, the year punk broke… Ball and Ork had already booked another prime gig: opening for Talking Heads at CBGB March 3-5, two sets each night.”  Chilton told a fanzine, “Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible.  In Memphis everybody thinks I’m a jerk.  Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.”  “CBGBs soon became Alex’s second home…. ‘I could drink free at CBGBs,’ Alex said. ‘The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were all coming out of that scene and were already too big to get close to or to be friends with.  But Richard Hell was omnipresent… The Dead Boys lived right across the street; I enjoyed their company.”  “Alex and the band opened at CB’s for Lester Bangs… The previous night, two of Alex’s favorite bands had been on the bill with Bangs– the Ramones and the Cramps… Alex had become obsessed with the Cramps and saw them whenever possible.”  Etc.  There’s something about all of this that just seems so strange.  Chilton was/ should have been a total legend at this point. But instead he’s this punk fanboy hanging around CBGBs waiting in line to see the Dead Boys.  And he’s still just 26 or so.
  • Perhaps the most mind-blowing such detail, with Chilton as a strange Zelig figure of the late 70s scene: “Alex still had his derelict apartment on East Ninth Street, which now had no electricity. He hadn’t paid rent in two months and was about to be evicted, so he packed his duffel bag once more and headed back to Memphis in time for his 27th birthday. A week later the Sex Pistols played their second show in America… in Memphis… Arriving early, Alex helped set up equipment… and tuned Steve Jones’ guitar for him.”  !!??!!
  • Something else I probably should have realized: Lou Reed’s Berlin was a big influence on Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third.  That makes sense. (That the album contains a cover of a Velvet Underground song (“Femme Fatale”) somehow kept me from considering Reed’s later music as an influence.)  In 1981 a New York Rocker writer and musician (Glenn Morrow), reviewing a dissolute live performance, observed, “Like a Memphis version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,… Chilton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plan t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness.”  Morrow concluded (wonderfully), “To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar player who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off-key.  It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop.  Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?”
  • Few others are likely to care about this, but I was fascinated to come across a citation from a thoughtful piece on Big Star published in 1975 or something by Mike Saunders, later “Metal” Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans!  I knew that he’d been a rock critic, but this still surprised me.
  • Speaking of the Sex Pistols, Chilton’s on-again off-again relationship with the beautiful Lesa Aldridge (a lot of the songs on Sister Lovers are about her) eventually degenerated into Sid and Nancy territory.  Not pretty.  (There’s also at least one verified report of Chilton making an offhand anti-semitic comment, although it’s not entirely clear to what degree this reflected real prejudice, as opposed to being more about trying to shock and piss off the journalist.) The drug intake at times becomes pretty startling even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.  Jim Dickinson on working on the Sister Lover sessions with Clinton: “”The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe,” said Dickinson. “That set the tone.””
  • The biography left me pondering some large questions about causality, character, talent, and luck.  What most explains Chilton’s fucked-up career and the fact that he never really got the recognition he deserved?  The book sometimes feel like it could be titled, Operation: Undermine Music Career. The book can suggest various different possibilities.  One relates to trauma and depression. Chilton’s beloved older brother Reid suffered a powerful seizure (he was prone to them) while taking a bath in 1957, just after graduating from high school, and drowned.  This hit the 7-year-old Alex hard, and he later attempted suicide twice (cutting his wrists), and once passed out in a bath and almost died as his brother did.  One gets the distinct impression that Chilton’s drug abuse was partially (as it usually is, probably) self-medication.  Or, one can read his drug & alcohol problems less as effect of something else, and more the central thing itself: perhaps he just happened to have an addictive personality, a tendency toward self-indulgence, and a dangerous profession for someone with those tendencies.
  • And then, when it comes to his relationship with the music business, do we see him mostly as a victim of a system that couldn’t recognize his genius? Or as bearing more culpability or at least agency in the process?  There’s a lot of evidence for the first view, as Big Star couldn’t have gotten much unluckier when it came to the way their records were handled.  OTOH, Chilton had opportunity after opportunity that he either squandered or passed up, either out of perversity, bohemian intransigence, integrity, drug-addledness, depression, just not caring, following his own muse, not working well with others (choose your own theory).
  • One detail that was fascinating to me: Alex’s older brother Howard got (or worked towards) his PhD in philosophy at Indiana University, and through Howard, Alex got turned onto the ideas of Wilhelm Reich.  He later cited Reich’s 1933 book Character Analysis as a major influence, saying that after reading it, “I began sorting things out.  Character Analysis helped me understand myself and the people around me… From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing and where I wanted to go.”  He also seems to have taken astrology pretty seriously, to the extent that he had to vet any potential musical partners to ensure compatible astrological signs.  (Well, it’s better than Scientology.)
  • I just read Carl Wilson’s good review of the book, in which he makes the nice observation that “Chilton’s story is … a mystery about whatever drives a handful of artists to be great at the expense of being good, to gamble double or nothing on the long odds.”

Finnish Sauna Bowdlerized!

Sarah brought home this book from our (great) local public library, the Monroe County Public Library:

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.13 PMFinnish Sauna by Allan Konya.  London: the Architectural Press, 1987. Selling for $64 and up on Amazon.  Here’s the sole review posted there (which a perfect 15 of 15 people found “helpful”):

Allan Konya has written the most complete text on the Finnish sauna, covering the broad spectrum from the origins and rituals (something often overlooked), design and construction, materials, siting and layout. Every facet of the subject is thoroughly covered in detail and one comes away feeling he has finally understood what it takes to make a “good” sauna. This book follows quite closely the earlier text; “The International Handbook of Finnish Sauna” written by Allan Konya and Alewyn Burger. Anyone interested in designing, building or using a sauna should try to locate this book. It is the “bible” of the Finnish Sauna and is far superior to any other text on the subject. I have designed and built several saunas and still find useful information and inspiration in this book.

Not entirely sure why it caught Sarah’s eye, but anyway, when she got it home she discovered something we both found hilarious: some reader has taken it upon themselves to render the book more American-family-friendly by censoring (or Bowdlerizing), with a black Sharpie, the book’s images of nude Finns lounging in saunas.

Here are some examples:

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.14 PM

Only a small amount of water should be thrown at a time!

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.15 PMPhoto on 6-11-13 at 8.15 PM #2What is that?  Is she carrying a baguette?

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.16 PMPhoto on 6-11-13 at 8.17 PM

Wow, nothing made it but the legs on that second girl!

I hate to tell you, concerned library user circa 1988, but you have taken what was a wholesome guide to Finnish saunas and those who enjoy them, and turned it into a very kinky volume– these images have become so much more erotic, as it is now impossible not to imagine precisely what lies under the tantalizingly thorough black ink.

Now to learn more about the often-overlooked rituals of the Finnish sauna…

Ai Weiwei and African Textiles & Art in Indianapolis

Road trip to Indianapolis.  First, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and, to start, the Ai Weiwei show: According to What?  This photo is of the kids looking at “a new sculpture made from steel rebar that was salvaged from schools that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.”  He and collaborators/assistants painstakingly bent all the rebar back so that it was perfectly straight and arranged it in a kind of rising and falling wave pattern.  Behind, you can see a list on the wall of the names of the many hundreds of victims of the earthquake, names you can also hear recited out loud from a speaker in the corner.


I liked the show — I think we all did — although I find Ai Weiwei’s work comes across pretty effectively on video and in description, i.e. it’s not totally transformative to see it in person.  I guess this is to say that he’s basically a conceptual/ relational artist whose work is as much about the social dynamics and processes that lie behind it as about its physical instantiation. So, seeing the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, for example, I’m not sure you get so much less of an authentic experience of his work than you do from going to the show. With the steel rebar piece above, part of the point is that it looks like a minimalist abstract work, but is in fact much more a polemical, political statement that exists in relation to, and as a sort of record of, all of Ai Weiwei’s other activities related to his protest of the Chinese government’s response to the earthquake.

Sarah made the point that in some ways his approach to art resembles Jeff Koons’; like Koons, he has (or had) a big studio and a lot of assistants whom he oversees as they produce large, sculptural works based on the ideas he comes up with.  There’s definitely not a whole lot of emphasis on individual craft skill or anything like that.  (Of course, his ideas are much more interesting and affecting than Koons’, which seem to mostly just be about the ubiquity of commercial culture.)

Actually one part of the show I liked a lot were the walls of his photos taken during his years in the mid-late 1980s through 1992 or so he spent living in NYC on the Lower East Side.  It’s fun and fascinating to see these glimpses into his life as an expat unknown Chinese would-be artist, chronicling the Tompkins Square riots and the like. There are big group dinners in what look like cheap Chinatown restaurants, scenes in peoples’ tiny bedrooms, hanging out with Allen Ginsburg.  Makes you wonder to what degree his later political activism was some kind of syncretic blend of Chinese/ U.S. practices coming out of those Lower East Side years.

Anyway, all that said, I think he’s a fascinating & important figure, and needless to say a powerful voice of dissent, but I don’t personally love the artworks as art.  For sheer sensuous/aesthetic pleasure, they were kind of blown away for me by the stuff on display in the Majestic African Textiles exhibit next door.  When I saw these (below) across the room I actually said to Sarah, “oh, look, they have some Nick Cave soundsuits!” [see my post about those, with some images, here]- but these were in fact Nigerian mid-20th century masquerade/dance costumes of the sort that must have inspired Cave’s soundsuits.

These are so spectacular!

imageCheck out the penis & boobs on this one:


And then these gorgeous, sometimes scary masks & figurines:


imageimagephotophotoCall me a traditionalist formalist, but at the end of the day I’ll probably always take the art that, when you’re in the room with it, overwhelms you with sensuous/ tactile/ visual  qualities that you can’t experience the same way in reproduction.

So, go see the Ai Weiwei show, but be sure also to visit the Majestic African Textiles show.

Posted in art

Diane Arbus, Adventurer

Camera-obscura-...-Diane--007I read the Patricia Bosworth biography of Diane Arbus, originally published in 1984, only a little over a decade after her death, but reissued and, I believe, the basis for the 2006 film Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which stars a horribly mis-cast Nicole Kidman (!!) and which looks awful.

The biography is not perfect — somehow I felt the truth of who Arbus was, what she felt and thought, remained to some degree elusive or hidden from Bosworth and the reader — but I found it very gripping.

I had never known that Arbus was born Diane Nemerov and was the sister of famous poet (twice poet laureate, winner of Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Bollinger prizes) Howard Nemerov!  Quite the talented-sibling duo.  Howard is quoted late in the book saying that Diane once commented to him, “You know, I’m going to be remembered for being Howard Nemerov’s sisrer;” “how ironic and untrue,” he observed to Bosworth. (Although I think Nemerov’s own fame emerged more fully after the book was first published.)  They were cosseted children of privilege, of immigrant Jewish parents, in a rarefied Upper West Side Manhattan world, their father a wealthy founder of the Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue (Diane grew up to hate shopping for clothes); attended the elite Fieldston prep school where they were both recognized as very talented.  Yet oddly, Diane and Howard’s parents gave them very little if any money as adults, and both of them had to scrape and scheme to support themselves in their early adulthood.

I was thinking about some other famous later 20th-c American poets whose fathers were very wealthy industrialists or financiers. James Merrill, son of Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill-Lynch; Louise Glück, daughter of the inventor of the X-Acto knife.  I went to a private high school in Boston founded by another son of Charles Merrill, and I always found it funny to think that the Merrill money alternately funded a school and a poetry career.  Economic capital –> Aesthetic/cultural capital.

Diane married Allan Arbus as a teenager and they became a successful fashion-photography duo in the 1940s and 1950s.  People comment that the two of them were often in a corner consulting about a shot, whispering conspiratorially.  There’s an amazing reproduction of an image from a 1947 feature article in Glamour on “case histories of seven married couples who are collaborating on joint careers in the arts, the sciences, and business” that shows a prim-looking Diane in a long dark dress feeding their young daughter Doon.  They both eventually became disenchanted by the fashion world– after their divorce, Allan eventually became a successful actor, starring as Maj. Sidney Freedman on M.A.S.H. (!- this actually does not come up in the biography).

One limitation of the book is that it does not reproduce a single Arbus photograph.  I know them pretty well, but if you didn’t, you’d definitely want to read the biography with one of her collections in hand.  I am going to try to get hold of the 2003 catalogue Diane Arbus Revelations because I really only know the famous images from the 1972 Aperture monograph.

Even after reading the biography, I can’t quite decide what I think about the question of the degree to which the ways her photography sensationalizes and (cruelly?) exoticizes its subjects.  One of her mentors, Marvin Israel, says:

A photograph for Diane was an event.  It could be argued that for Diane the most valuable thing wasn’t the photograph (the result), it was the experience, the event… Once she became an adventurer — because Diana really was an adventurer — she went places no one else [no photographer] had ever gone to.  [Those] places were scary… But once [she] became an adventurer [she was] geared to adventure and she sought out adventure and her life was based on that… the photograph was like her trophy– it was what she received as an award for her adventure.

It would be difficult to defend the work on purely aesthetic grounds.  She was “adventuring,” pushing herself to enter into forbidden, strange, exotic zones– that sense of symbolic boundary-crossing was fundamental to the images. And a critique can certainly be fairly made of the ways different kinds of social marginality (e.g. ethnic, economic, disability-based) get conflated into what can seem like one big category of the non-normative. On the other hand, she was no slumming tourist, dropping in to get the photo and then going back to her upper-middle-class world.  She returned again and again, obsessively, to many of her subjects.  The famous photo of the “Jewish giant” with his parents came out of over years of visiting and photographing him: “from 1962 to 1970 she kept returning to the Carmels’ cramped apartment until she finally captured the image she wanted.”  And she became a regular at the Coney Island sideshows and Hubert’s Freak Museum, far beyond what could have been needed to get the photos, and got to know many of the performers very well (“the living skeleton, the embalmed whale, the ventriloquist with his two-headed cat”) and considered some of them friends.

Later, in the 1960s after her divorce, this “adventuring” transitioned into sexual adventures, sometimes of a pretty seamy variety:

Sex was the quickest, most primitive way to begin connecting with another human being, and the raunchier and grosser the person or environment, the more intense the experience, and this enlarged her life… She… described in a particularly detached way how one night she’d had sex in the back of a Greyhound bus (“If you sit on the inside back seat of a Greyhound bus, it means you’re sexually available.” [ed. note: good to know!)  No introductions were made, not a word was spoken, and after this swift, mute encounter in the dark, she got off on the next stop and waited on the highway for an hour or so until another bus came along which would bring her back to New York. … It was almost as if she was determined to explore with her body and her mind every nightmare, every fantasy, she might have repressed deep into her subconscious…. Crookson listened as she told him of picking up a Puerto Rican boy on Third Avenue “because he was so beautiful.”… At this point Crookson interrupted to ask her if she hadn’t ever faced actual danger as a result of such recklessness.  Yes, she answered, but she’d always been “thrilled” to take risks to “test” herself- and besides, nothing bad had ever happened to her and for some strange reasons she was positive it never would…. [W]hen her camera was with her she always felt in control….. It seemed as if merging with her subjects… was a way of giving herself to them after they revealed themselves to her camera.

Many comment that Arbus carried her often-bulky cameras and other equipment in front of her like a shield– even when she photographed at orgies (these images have apparently never surfaced).  I was surprised that there is not a single reference to her ever getting mugged or having her camera stolen, given all the stories about her wandering about Central Park in the middle of the night or the like.

To me probably the most haunting images are the late ones taken at the institution for mentally-disabled patients in Vineland, New Jersey:


Arbus’s Guggenheim proposal (she won it): “While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future,  its innumerable inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning.”

Music Videos @ Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Another visit in Cincinnati was to the Contemporary Arts Center, which for a while was the only building in the U.S. designed by Pritzker-prize-winning, Rem Koolhaus-protege, Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.

From wiki: “A winner of many international competitions, theoretically influential and groundbreaking, a number of Hadid’s winning designs were initially never built: notably, The Peak Club in Hong Kong (1983) and the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales (1994).”  It’s funny to look at a (seemingly abandoned/ not up to date — only up to 1990) accounting of her early works: over and over, “Not Realized.”  Here is a good, albeit somewhat skeptical, analysis of the Cincinnati museum.  I like the building, although it is showy and I agree with the critique that “we are often forced to acknowledge the building at times when perhaps we should be admiring the work presented inside the building instead.” Although maybe that is not such a problem really.

(I just remembered an amusing bit in Bruce Wagner’s good novel Memorial — the protagonist is a semi-successful bitter architect who is always mentally fulminating about various international art and architecture stars including, obsessively, “fucking Zaha Hadid.”)

Right now the whole experience is very 21st-century and postmodern (or late 20th-century anyway) since the building is full of a show about the history of music videos.  I actually thought it held up pretty well — although most of the videos are things you could easily pull up on Youtube, they did make sense as a curated collection, and the experience of watching them on large screens with headphones in this context was often pretty engaging.  No question of course that music videos have been a major occasion for groundbreaking aesthetic experiment over the past 30 years.  A lot of Bjork… there was one whole little room based around her amazing video for “Wanderlust” featuring these somewhat Snuffleupagus-like felt yak creatures.  Also several Kanye West videos (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” lip-synched by Zack Galifianakis and Bonnie Prince Billy in the sidekick/Flava Flav role = great; the “Runaway” video featuring an apparent Victoria’s Secret model in painted-on feathers in the Man Who Fell to Earth angel role = crap), early David Bowie, LCD Soundsystem, several Michel Gondry videos, Missy Elliot and Hype Williams’s fantastic “The Rain,” all kinds of other stuff.

There was a huge, noisy school group there (once they left, we were almost the only ones in the whole place) and the guards kept shutting off certain screens in order to protect the sensibilities of the little brats.  There was one little room specifically dedicated to “Controversial” videos which featured little peepholes you had to peer through — quite irritating actually as, ironically, you had to kneel to see them if you were over 5′ 5″ tall.  These mostly weren’t too exciting — the one I’d never seen that made an impression was the rather creepily erotic and fascinating video for a song called “Twin Flames” by the Klaxons.

Nick Cave Soundsuits @ Cincinnati Museum of Art

We made a little Spring Break visit to Cincinnati this week, and one highlight was the show of Nick Cave “soundsuits” at the Cincinnati Museum of Art.  This is not the Australian musician Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds but the African-American, Missouri-born artist.  (At first I thought, geez, if you have the same name as an iconic/famous musician, wouldn’t you use Nicholas or something professionally? But it turns out the poor guy is only two years younger than the Australian Nick Cave.)

The soundsuits are body suits made of fur and (sometimes human) hair and decorated with buttons and various other appendages, tassels, sequins, feathers, and patterns.  They’re really beautiful, often funny & joyful, sometimes a bit scary, sometimes in the form of bears or other totemic animals.  In some ways they’re very simple — as much textile art, fashion and costuming as high-concept art; obviously influenced by drag outfits and probably New Orleans Indian Mardi Gras costumes, not to mention actual Native American or other indigenous shaman or ritual clothing.  One room was screening a video of the artist (and others?) dressed in the suits, dancing and generating the sounds and noise that they are designed to make when moving.  But in fact they worked very well as more static sculptural displays.

Part of what was neat about seeing them was the clever way they’d been integrated into the museum.  The Cincinnati Art Museum is a big, old-school, traditional 19th-century art museum with a pretty impressive collection of Old Master-type work from the last few centuries.   They scattered the soundsuits throughout the entire collection such that you follow blue arrows on the ground from room to room to come upon them integrated with the permanent collection.  They often seemed to be playing off the Japanese ceramics or 18th-century French painting or whatever it was in that room; although I never felt sure how intentionally or expressly the juxtapositions had been been planned, it often felt as if there were subtle parallels or echoes at play.

The girls really loved them too, and would gasp and exclaim when we came upon a new one.  It was definitely art an 8-year-old girl could relate to, all about the transformative power of costumes and dressing up.

Here’s a video interview of the artist with some of the suits:

Brilliance/ Craziness of the St Louis City Museum

We had a great visit with friends to St Louis this weekend.  The zoo was fantastic… the Botanical Gardens amazing: we especially enjoyed a temporary exhibit up at the moment on “Extreeme Tree-houses” — at least a dozen “tree houses” made by artists, these not up in trees but around the bases.  All enchanting/engaging in different ways.

But here I want to discuss the great, amazing and very strange City Museum.  We forgot a camera so I am going to rely on the museum’s promo photos.

It’s difficult to convey how different this place is from any other “children’s museum” I’ve seen.   It has some of the qualities of Willy Wonka’s castle or a haunted house, I thought.  I commented to Sarah at one point that it feels like something set up by psychoanalysis-influenced surrealists in Argentina in the 1930s.  Here are a few tidbits from Wikipedia:

City Museum is a museum, consisting largely of repurposed architectural and industrial objects, housed in the former International Shoe building.  …The museum bills itself as an “eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel.” Visitors are encouraged to feel, touch, climb on, and play in the various exhibits…City Museum was founded by artist Bob Cassilly, who remains the museum’s artistic director, and his then-wife Gail Cassilly. The museum’s building was once a shoe factory and warehouse but was mostly vacant when the Cassillys bought it in 1993. Construction began in January 1995 and the building opened to the public on October 25, 1997. The museum has since expanded, adding new exhibits such as MonstroCity in 2002, Enchanted Caves and Shoe Shaft in 2003, and World Aquarium in 2004. A circus ring on the third floor offers daily live acts. The City Museum also houses The Shoelace Factory, whose antique braiding machines makes colorful shoelaces for sale.

A minute or so into our visit, Celie and Iris and their buddy Thea climbed up into the curling metal slinky-like tunnel you can see in the center of this photo.  They disappeared from view.  Where did they go?  We had no idea.  There is no way to find out.  They popped out somewhere.  At one point we heard their voices in the din.  For a while we thought we would have to climb in too to find them, but were worried we were too fat.  Eventually we went up some nearby ramp and eventually spotted them across several shafts and small bodies of water, stone dinosaur heads, and numerous other chutes and passages leading into the ceiling, walls, or floor.  Some tight passages and tunnels end abruptly such that you have to back your way back out.  At one point I found myself walking through an enormous 19th-century bank vault door that felt as if it might clang behind me.  There are a lot of opportunities to walk into the mouth of some creature or another.  Some very digestive shapes in the tubes and cylinders.  You kind of feel you might get dumped down into the garbage compactor of the Death Star.

The whole museum is kind of like this.  In one spot there’s a small closet-like door or rather hole in the wall.  If you go in there you enter a somewhat creepy little labyrinth with several layers of wall space, lit by a few dim Christmas bulbs.  You feel a bit like a mouse in the wall.  At other points you can look up and see people walking above, or look down and see some kid waving under your feet.

Somewhere in the central enclosed system of spaces on the first floor we encountered a heavily tattooed dude who was one of the first museum employees we’d encountered.  He pointed out to us a spiral staircase we could climb up that would eventually allow us to chute down a 10-story slide to the bottom.  When I asked him if it was scary for kids he said, “well, I put my 17 month-old in it, and he survived!”  We decided to give that one a miss.  Celie I did go down a shorter slide that created a beautiful kaleidoscopic effect as painted metal tubes spin from your hands.

It’s kind of like a Dangerous Museum for Girls and Boys.  I seriously am bewildered about the liability question.  I have to assume that they know what they’re doing, but kids must get hurt now and then (or at least scared and stuck).  Thea skinned her knee and there was a whole first-aid center at the front administering band-aids cheerfully.  But the kids were in ecstasy.  They were really exploring and it was not all administered and explained to death by adults.  There’s potential for some actually scary moments, but the overall feeling is joyfully creative and surprise-filled.  You can see all the seams of the museum, it’s kind of a giant Rube Goldberg device.

Outside we entered a teetering, winding metal structure hanging off the side of the building that led at one point to a de-purposed fighter jet.  Unnervingly, the inside was not really stripped clean but was bristling with cut off wires.  Iris sat in the cockpit and steered a bit.

Down below were some people selling beers and margaritas (!).  Sarah is convinced that anyone could apply to set up shop and sell something.

On weekend nights it is open until 1:00 a.m. and occasionally they have “sleepover nights” when you can camp out on the roof — which we did not even make it to; it apparently contains a Ferris wheel, and there is an aquarium somewhere.  There seemed to be a wedding going on, as various well-dressed older people started streaming in towards closing time.

?!!!  What a cool place, a wildly imaginative version of urban renewal via the arts.

One other tidbit from our trip — we happened basically by accident on this amazing restaurant, the Firefly Cafe, in Effingham Illinois.  Where the Eff is Effingham?  On 70 between Terre Haute and St Louis.  It’s in a giant former barn with a big organic garden attached and a lake in back filled with huge koi.  Saveur magazine or somewhere named it the #2 Most Sustainable restaurant in the U.S. a couple years ago.  We had a pretty light lunch but the food was fantastic– amazing beets and greens salads from the garden.  Want to figure out some way to arrange for dinner there.

“Are we truly the crocodiles?”: Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” at IU

We were very excited to catch what was apparently the first commercial/non-festival showing of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams in the U.S.  This showing was introduced by Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, which is distributing the film.  He buttered us up in a nice way, effusing that “This is one of the best, if not the best, theaters I’ve ever been in… It’s a spectacular venue. You guys are very, very lucky.”  Maybe he says that to all the girls, but it gave me a warm & fuzzy (/smug & self-satisfied) feeling inside.

Apparently inspired by Judith Thurman’s article in The New Yorker about the neolithic cave paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France, Herzog managed to receive permission from the French government to be the first and perhaps only filmmaker to be allowed in to see and film the paintings.  In 1994 some hikers/explorers stumbled on this incredible find: hidden within a rockslide from thousands of years ago, they discovered hundreds of spectacular wall paintings, mostly of animals, dating from about 32,000 years ago.  Here’s Wikipedia’s summary:

Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar animals of the hunt that predominate in Paleolithic cave art, i.e. horses, cattle, reindeer, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave are covered with predatory animals: lions, panthers, bears, owls, and hyenas. Also pictured are rhinos. Typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures, although there is one possible partial “Venus” figure that may represent the legs and genitals of a woman. Also a chimerical figure may be present; it appears to have the lower body of a woman with the upper body of a bison. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave.

Because of the bad experiences at Lascaux, where (Wiki again) “since 1998 the cave has been beset with a fungus, variously blamed on a new air conditioning system that was installed in the caves, the use of high-powered lights, and the presence of too many visitors,” Chauvet is now completely inaccessible to the public.  So if you want to see the paintings, you gotta see Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

I found the movie to be a slightly odd combination of really excellent Discovery Channel-type archaeology documentary (this describes let’s say 75%-80% of the film) and characteristically whacked-out Werner Herzog film (the remaining 20% or so).  When I first heard the phrase “Werner Herzog 3D cave painting documentary” a year ago, I guess I imagined something different, something stranger, so at one level it was a bit disappointing to find scenes like the following: Shot of four scientists sitting in a generic white office-style florescent-lit room.  Herzog’s voice-over: “The scientists were housed in a nearby sports complex.  Although they each possess particular specialties, they share their work collaboratively” (something like that).  Cut to the laptop screen of two nerdy scientists explaining a graph.

That is to say that the two aspects of the movie, the earnest Discovery Channel-style documentary and the whacked-out Herzog film, often felt to me somewhat in conflict. Some of the most Herzogian scenes involve scientists and others involved in the project whose obsessions and idiosyncracies he draws out and dwells on to amusing or defamiliarizing effect.  There’s the “Perfumer” who walks around the surfaces outside the cave, smelling the ground, trying to sniff out undiscovered chinks or crevices.  (I remained a bit confused about whether he was an actual member of the investigating team or just a local amateur.)  Or the scientist whom Herzog films dressed in his deerskin Inuit costume performing a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on animal bone flute.  Or the affably nerdy, bristly-moustachio’d scientist (the 3D really brings out the moustache) who demonstrates, badly, the technique of spear-hunting with a small sling.  I guess the problem for me was that these scientists, unlike many of Herzog’s previous documentary subjects (e.g. Timothy Treadwell), do not in fact seem bizarrely or inexplicably obsessed.  They are dedicated to their work, for obvious and good reason; sometimes when Herzog tries to draw out their oddities (as with the anthropologist who, it turns out, used to work as a circus performer), these eccentricities seem somewhat beside the point.  This isn’t exactly Klaus Kinski in the jungle of Peru, and none of the scientists seem all that strange.  Herzog specializes in depictions of obsessives whose objects of fascination do not make rational sense; these cave paintings cannot be explained by reason alone, but anyone’s fascination with them is perfectly easy to comprehend.  (Sarah pointed out that it was a little surprising that Herzog spent so little time discussing competing anthropological/archaeological theories about the ritual practices of these neolithic peoples, which would seem to offer ample opportunity for Herzogian musing on primitive urges and practices.)

There’s also a sort of coda featuring some albino crocodiles, supposedly the product of genetic mutation from nearby power plants, who inspire Herzog to wonder, “Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time? at the neolithic artists of the cave paintings.  (Sehring wryly noted that at a public appearance last year, Herzog blithely declared that all the stuff about the albino crocs was completely fabricated, which Sehring implied poses a marketing challenge for a documentary.)

The crocs felt like classic Herzog (not least in their uncertain positioning on the fiction/documentary border), but then so much of the rest of the film is a much more earnest and straight-forward examination of the cave paintings, in the context of which some of his vatic pronouncements can seem a bit silly or extraneous.  (Speaking of his vatic pronouncements, ever since I discovered the brilliant “Werner Herzog reads classic children’s story books” series on Youtube I sometimes find myself giggling a bit at the sound of his voice.)

No question though that I would not want to miss the loving, rapturous exploration of these amazing and very mysterious images, which Herzog convincingly describes as “proto-cinematic” in their capture of animal motion; the 3D technology does not feel like a gimmick but an opportunity for something close to an in situ experience of them.  And, despite some of my reservations, Chauvet Cave does make perfect sense as one of Herzog’s sites of wildness and mysterious otherness, a sealed-off zone of otherworldly creation that, no matter how fully we study and chart it out, we will never fully understand.