Friday, December 22, 2006

SFMOMA Roundup: "There is a light that never goes out."

Last Friday, Fosco and his sister Maggie Tulliver spent an afternoon in San Francisco. Of course, there was a visit to Beard Papa for creampuffs (try the milktea flavor--it's splendid!) and to the Pirate Store (where much money was spent and where sister Maggie got mopped). But the highlight of the trip was the visit to the SFMOMA to see two exhibits.

The first exhibit we saw was the retrospective of recent work by German artist Anselm Kiefer, entitled Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. The organizing principle of the show is Kiefer's concerns with heaven, responsibility, and the afterlife. And, of course, because this is Kiefer, you can bet that there is collective German guilt in there as well.

I've always been a bit suspicious of Kiefer for several reasons. First, looking at his paintings always makes me wonder what kind of nightmare it is to curate his work. The paintings are so huge and so clumpy: how do you move them? Does stuff fall off? And what about all that lead? Does the curatorial staff have to wear hazmat suits? And isn't it all so heavy? And what to make of all the non-traditional materials in the paintings (e.g., straw, sunflower seeds, sticks)--aren't those things going to start to rot at some point?

The second reason that I can't quite catch Kiefer-fever is the overwhelming seriousness of his paintings. They are entirely irony-proof. I mean, how do you laugh at works that are so dark and that almost always make explicit reference to the Holocaust? All that German guilt is a big downer (and a bit heavy-handed).

That being said, I was surprised, however, at how powerful some of the work in this show was. There were actually several pieces that were absolutely ravishing, including Sternenfall (1995) (seen below):

There was also the amazing piece below, which is about six feet tall. Each page is coated with lead and depicts a different star field map. (Of course, there are conservation issues here too--there was a grey lead sheen all over the floor under this one).

The problem with these pictures is that they don't capture how gigantic these works are. Kiefer's paintings dwarf you--and that's often part of their power. There was a third work that was just gorgeous, but that I am only finding in a very low-quality image file online. It's called "The Sixth Trumpet" (1996) and you can see it below.

I'm afraid it doesn't look like much here, but imagine it in its true dimensions: 16 x 18 feet. At that size, the cloud of black dots look both beautiful and menacing. From a distance, you wonder what that cloud is: locusts? black rain? However, when you approach the canvas, you realize that the dots are black sunflower seeds--one of the more remarkable touches in Kiefer's work in this show.

Of course, there are still a few clunkers here. My least favorite was the painting you see below, entitled "Quaternity" (1973). You can see the traditional rustic cabin interior of Kiefer's early work, plus three flames and one serpent. Each of the flames is labeled with the name (in German) of one of the members of the Holy Trinity; the serpent is labeled as Satan, making the Trinity a Quaternity. Get it? Yeah, you and anyone with an IQ above a precocious ten-year-old. This painting isn't quite what I expect art to do for me...

However, it would be churlish to dwell too long on the shortcomings of this painting (and a few of its ilk) when much of Kiefer's recent work is much better. I may not have become a complete convert to Kiefer after this exhibit, but I did find several works of his that I love.

Luckily, the perfect anecdote to Kiefer's Teutonic Gloominess was taking place just one floor above, with an exhibit of new work by Phil Collins. Oops, I meant this Phil Collins. Collins's video installation, entitled dünya dinlemiyor (2005), is hilarious, sweet, and completely compelling. Basically, Collins has filmed young Turkish people in Istanbul doing karaoke to songs by The Smiths. They sing in English against generic backgrounds of "pretty scenery" (e.g., mountains, beaches, forests). Some are pretty good and some are pretty horrible. All of them are absolutely fascinating. I had intended only to watch one of the performances (because I hate karaoke), just to get the idea, but I ended up watching the entire hour. Sure, the performances raise questions of imperialism, consumerism, and globalization (how do these Turks know The Smiths? Why do they all seem to want to be rock stars?); however, this is the least interesting aspect of the work. Rather, it is extraordinarily thrilling to watch the self-presentations of these (mostly) youths--their joy and confidence are infectious, their vulnerability is heartbreaking. I feel that I know these people quite intimately (and yet, I know nothing about them).

Some of the highlights, include the tightly-focused young man (below) singing the gorgeous ballad "Asleep." His sensitivity and introspection were powerful.

I loved the two girls below, who sang "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." The verses were performed competently, but it was the rush of enthusiasm that overtook them at the chorus that was priceless. Watching them sing "If a double-decker bus crashes into us..." was funny and charming.

There were two other performances not to be missed (but for which I cannot find pictures):

  • the incredibly sexy young man who performs "Ask" with his shirt entirely open (and who has beautifully hairy chest)--woof! Gaydar doesn't always work cross-culturally, but I have my eye on him...
  • the delightful indie chick who performs "Half A Person" with a completely startling voice (reminiscent of Edie Brickell) and a killer smile. If there is such a thing as "Turkish Idol," I think she could win it. [N.B., apparently the Turkish version is called "Popstar." Why does this not surprise me?]

If you want to get a better sense of what all this was like, I would hesitantly point you in the direction of this clip on YouTube. Unfortunately, it isn't the best performance from the installation, but it might give you an idea.

All I know is that, the whole way home, I sang along to Smiths songs. Apparently, that's all we need to bring the world together.

A Percocet Christmas

In a fast [American] car
I'm amazed that I survived
An airbag saved my life.

Radiohead, "Airbag"

Things were going too well--that should have been the first warning. Fosco's December had been a delightful carousel of family and friends (including JennyT's visit). Just as exciting, December has included a month-long visit from the East Coast of Fosco's beloved sister--let's call her Maggie Tulliver of Mill of the Floss fame. Maggie Tulliver hasn't been to Santa Cruz before, and so Fosco has been thrilled to show her the glories of his Life in Exile.

To that end, on Tuesday, Fosco, his sister, and his mother took a day trip down Highway 1. The weather was sunny (but chilly) and the waves were magnificent. We saw seals, sea lions, and sea otters. It was truly a spectacular day and, as we headed south from Carmel after lunch, we were looking forward to the second half.

And that's when an 18-year-old girl named "Mica" (or some such nonsense), trying to make a left turn onto Highway 1 going North, pulled her white Toyota Highlander into the Southbound lane and just stopped there--just in time for us to smash into her head on. We were travelling 40-45. The airbags deployed. Fosco and his sister were strapped to backboards (complete with head chocks) and rushed to the emergency room at Monterey Community Hospital. Six hours of X-rays and CT scans later, Fosco was diagnosed with broken ribs (broken by the seat belt, ironically). Luckily, his sister and his mother had nothing broken--just deep bruising and some cuts.

That was three days ago. Since then, Fosco has spent most of his time alternating between sharp pain and Percocet haziness. He wakes up every four hours to take his painkillers and can't lay any flatter than a 45 degree angle (otherwise he couldn't manage to get up). It all makes him feel pretty helpless.

Yesterday, Fosco had to be driven back down to Monterey (imagine how much fun that was...) to clean out his car and to release it to the insurance adjustor. Oh, did I mention that it was totalled? Here's a pic:
The adjustor was amazed that we escaped without more serious injuries. I'm sure, once the Percocet wears off, I will feel more appropriately thankful.

I'm sure that, as time goes on and I gain more critical distance from this event, I will have wisdom to share. However, I already have a few observations to offer:

  • contrary to my expectations, my life did not flash before my eyes right before impact. Nor did I (as a committed atheist) backslide into any sort of prayer. Rather, I think I was concerned more about the potential damage to my beautiful face. My sister recalls me screaming, "Not the face! Not my beautiful face!"
  • airbags turn out to be a lot less pillowy than they look on TV.
  • airbags also produce a moderate amount of acrid smoke. Do not, in your post-collision confusion, do as I did and start yelling about how the car is on fire and we need to get out "before it explodes." It turns out that cars explore mostly on television.
  • Remember how when you were a kid and your mom would tell you to wear clean underwear everyday in case you had to go to the hospital? Well, all I'm going to say is that we left on our drive very early that morning and I didn't bother to take a shower (because we were just going to be walking on beaches) and I didn't see any reason to put on a new pair of boxer briefs... It turns out that the old advice is correct--you are more embarassed to be undressed in the Emergency Room when you are wearing yesterday's underwear.
  • ditto for socks with holes in them.
  • most books make absolutely no sense when you're Perc-ed up.

At this point, Christmas looks like it will be a bit low-key. I'm just hoping to feel well enough to do some reading. And, as this post suggests, I can do some blogging--so watch for that. If the spirit moves you, Get Well messages, Chanukah gifts, and soiled briefs from Justin Hartley are always appreciated!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Chapter 26: In which Fosco's culinary adventures become ridiculous.

JennyT has the coolest job. As a very important executive in a company that imports bronze Buddhas from Thailand, she frequently gets to visit the SF Bay area. You may recall her previous visits in the last few months, chronicled heah and heah. And remember that time she and her husband, the Swedish Meatball, visited Santa Cruz? Yeah, me too. That was fun.

Last week, she was back! And we spent a drizzly afternoon eating our way across San Francisco. I've mentioned before that JennyT and I both consider eating to be the primary touristic activity, but this time we took it to an absurd level.

We began at Fosco's new favorite place in the whole universe (even more than The Watergarden!): the Ferry Building. This place is a foodie's absolute DREAM! No wonder Rachael Ray began her San Francisco episode of "Tasty Travels" there. JennyT and I started with lunch at retro/hipster burger joint Taylor's Automatic Refresher (and, may I add, James Beard award winner!). I enjoyed my Texas Blue Ring burger (bleu cheese, bacon, bbq sauce, topped with an onion ring) and garlic-parsley fries. I wish my cell took better pix, because those fries were smackin'.

We then browsed through the specialty shops in the Ferry Building Marketplace. However, we kept running afoul of a twenty-person production crew in teal polo-shirts filming an episode of some show called "Take Home Chef." As far as I can tell from my 20 second perusal of the website, it appears to be some sort of cooking show with a chef/gigolo. It all looked a bit dodgy to us in person: the "chef" was wearing pancake makeup and appeared to be a graduate of Handsome Boy Modeling School. And whenever we tried to shop at a store, the crew would show up and push us out of the way. It was so not cool. Who would have thought that you need a twenty-person crew to film a show that I've never heard of?

Eventually, Johnny Fancypants and his cameras left and we were able to get down to serious dessert-hunting. We stopped at Miette for pastries. I had a delicious chocolate cupcake capped by a perfect Taj Mahal dome of marshmallow cream. JennyT enjoyed a dark chocolate tartlette. So buttery was that crust!

Of course, preparations had to be made for future desserts, and Fosco found himself enthralled by the creations of boutique chocolatier Michael Recchiuti. At $50/pound, Fosco was unable to buy the five pounds that he wanted. However, he still managed to buy at least one of almost every assorted chocolate (which he consumed later that evening while in his pajamas). His favorites:

  • Bergamot Tea
  • Cardamom Nougat
  • Tarragon Grapefruit
  • Honeycomb Malt
and, although it was a little strange, Fosco is still a bit haunted by the Star Anise and Pink Peppercorn chocolate.

After leaving the Ferry Building, we realized that it was time for a second dessert and so we headed over to SoMa to enjoy the brilliance of Japanese creampuffs at Beard Papa. I had never had a Beard Papa cream puff, but nothing says delicious like beards... Have you seen this Beard Papa guy? Clearly, this is a gentleman who enjoys cream puffs.

Will it surprise you that they are delicious? They are, although the best thing about the whole experience may be the whiff of fresh creampuff that greets you at the door.

Although they are a franchise, it seems that you're out-of-luck unless you live in the Northeast, California, or Hawaii. Or Japan.

Next, JennyT and I did our only non-food-related activity for the day: we paid our respects at the Tower Records Wake/Going-Out-of-Business Sale (at the oldest Tower Records in San Francisco--since 1968). On the day we went, the CDs were 70% off. The DVDs were even cheaper. I bought that Radiohead documentary and a bunch of emo-ish CDs (how is it that they were still on the shelves? Oh yeah, everyone but me hates emo.) The nearby "Classical Annex" was already shuttered--classical fans had cleaned it out weeks ago. I think JennyT bought some store fixtures. This was a particularly poignant activity for me, as I spent probably thousands of dollars as a college student at the Tower Records in Harvard Square. Probably half of my classical CD's are from that store. Alas.

Shopping made us hungry. And so, we headed for dinner at hole-in-the-wall hipster hangout Emmy's Spaghetti Shack in the Mission District. It's really pretty brilliant, actually. The spaghetti with meatballs is killer--and I mean that. Spaghetti is not an easy dish to make interesting/memorable at a restaurant, but Emmy's does it exceptionally well. I also enjoyed a delightful Lime Basil Mandarin Martini (pictured at right, a la John Mackey): Ketel One, Lime Juice, Basil Simple Syrup and Orange Water. Yum! The one drawback with this place was that JennyT and I were seated between two tables of foul-smelling bohemians (you know, like the characters is Rent). I have written at length about the problems I have with the Left's lack of hygiene, but this was just gross.

And just think: if I hadn't had to rush back to Santa Cruz for a social engagement, JennyT and I might have been able to have Second Dinner together as well!

It's the end of the quarter. Do I feel fine?

Whew. It's over. The Fall Quarter is finally over and, now that Fosco has slept for a week, it's time for the recap. Ergo, we have Fosco's post-quarter wrap-up...

1. Fosco was warned that the quarter system is noticeably different from the semester system and it's true. The problem is that 12-14 weeks of work are condensed into 10 weeks of class. This isn't a major issue with lecture; however, it is extremely problematic for writing a paper--it turns out those missing weeks are necessary.

2. I spent most of the quarter writing what turned out to be a thirty page paper on the Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek and his Hegelian-Lacanian rehabilitation of the Cartesian Cogito.

I spent most of the quarter reading almost all of his oeuvre, vacillating between repulsion and ambivalence. I think I ended up somewhere near ambivalence.

Following Ted's admirable example, I will excerpt a couple of paragraphs from my paper here. These paragraphs occur near the end of my argument as I transition to my conclusion:

Žižek’s third objection to Heidegger contrasts with the first two in that it lacks sustained development in his work: in fact, it appears only in an endnote. However, I want to claim that this criticism of Heidegger is the most telling in that it exemplifies most clearly Žižek’s project and reveals him at his most strangely hermeneutic. In an (endnote) discussion of the differences between Heidegger’s early and late phases, Žižek notes that both phases share a similar style: “they are both ‘deadly serious’ […]. What is missing in both cases is joyful irony, the very fundamental feature of Nietzsche’s style” (Ticklish 67 n.16, emphasis in original). As Žižek never elaborates on this apparently meaningful feature of Heidegger’s style, I do not want to develop an argument here to justify this criticism (although it is certainly easy enough to imagine one). On the contrary, I prefer to read this criticism as a symptom of a preoccupation of Žižek’s own project. While this endnote functions as a denigration of Heidegger’s style, it also serves as a celebration of a philosophical style of “joyful irony” and “playfulness” (as one possible opposition to the “deadly serious”)—a style that Žižek ascribes (rightly) to Nietzsche. However, at the same time, there is another practitioner of joyful irony present in this endnote: Žižek himself. After all, it is Žižek who conducts interviews with himself (Metastases 167-217), discusses cultural differences in toilet design (Plague 4-5), who begins his most philosophically-accomplished work with a discussion of film noir (Tarrying 9-12), and who, even at the height of pure philosophical seriousness, interrupts his explication to recount a dirty joke (too many examples to cite). It is Žižek who titles chapter divisions things like “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!” or “Toward the Theory of the Stalinist Musical.” And it is Žižek who (unfortunately) in the first paragraph of the introduction to Enjoy Your Symptom! exclaims (in an homage to Thomas de Quincey) “How many people have entered the way of perdition with some innocent gangbang, which at the time was of no great importance to them, and ended by sharing the main dishes in a Chinese restaurant!” (ix). How many, indeed.

Why is Žižek trying so hard? At the beginning of this essay, I quoted Denise Gigante’s characterization of Žižek: “rather than importing interdisciplinary texts and events to his own theoretical perspective, he functions as a ‘vanishing mediator,’ mediating between various theoretical points of view” (153). While I agree with Gigante that Žižek does function as a mediator between theoretical points of view (while refusing to provide an identifiable “Žižekian” theoretical conclusion), I would insist that there is nothing “vanishing” about Žižek’s performance of mediation. Rather, Žižek’s style is calculated to prevent his vanishing—when you are reading Žižek, it is impossible to forget that you are reading Žižek. Žižek’s pose here is interesting in that it seems to gesture toward what Foucault identifies as one of the fundamental characteristics of hermeneutics: “one does not interpret what is in the signified, but one interprets after all: who posed the interpretation. The basis of interpretation is nothing but the interpreter, and this is perhaps the meaning that Nietzsche gave to the word ‘psychology’” (278). In a very real sense, Žižek is offering this possibility to us, his readers. By mediating, yet refusing to vanish, is the ultimate activity in interpreting Žižek actually literally interpreting Žižek?

Yeah, I know: it's hard to believe this is what I get "paid" to do.

3. I think my first experience as a TA for an English class was successful. My students were pretty amazing, actually. I was particularly thrilled by the student who approached me after our final section and said "Thank you for not being an asshole." I'm thinking about making this the primary tenet of my pedagogy: don't be an asshole. It's not bad advice, actually.

Of course, it has been five days since I turned in final grades and I've already gotten one student complaint... Does that make me an asshole?

4. Next quarter, most of the faculty in the Literature department will be located in the new Humanities building. As far as I can tell, this is the UC's devious plan to ghettoize the humanities. After all, the new building has no ceilings (it was over budget by that point...) and no sound-proofing in the walls (true!). Even more interesting, the story making the rounds has it that History of Consciousness Professor Angela Davis has likened the new building's concrete interior to that of a prison. And she should know. For some reason, I don't think the sciences have to deal with facilities like this.

Watch this space for some non-academic updates in the next few days...