Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

As a disclaimer, I was warned by several not to see this movie. Paris, however, has been raving about it for weeks. So here, mesdames et messieurs, is my honest opinion.

I cannot claim to be a Woody Allen connoisseur. I humbly confess that I have seen only Manhattan and Annie Hall, which would send many an Allenite to haughtily dismiss anything I say. But I refuse to believe that one absolutely must be fully acquainted with the full oeuvre of the artist in order to critique it. Some movies simply do not work, and you need no encyclopedic knowledge to see it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is of this very breed.

Our story begins with two polar opposites: Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), impulsive and idealistic, and Vicky (Rebecca Hall), rational and clear-headed. One blonde, one brunette; one flirtatious, one standoffish. From the first two minutes of the film, problems arise. The familiar Cartesian division of reason and emotion is simply too stereotypical; no women-- or men, for that matter-- are so distinctly cookie-cutter. These first few minutes that we see of Vicky and Cristina, sitting in the taxi in Barcelona, already become problematic. And not only is it odd from a feminist perspective-- it's also completely uninteresting, and entirely overdone. We have seen this again, and again, and again, and again since the Golden Age of Hollywood. Must we see it once again in 2008, a pre-Freudian, pre-Jungian complete misunderstanding of the human psyche?

Woody Allen, we understand that you do not understand women. But to assume knowledge when you create your female characters is already out of your line. Where is the complexity of Annie Hall? There is even an amount of condescension falling on Vicky and Cristina, as if they were just young and silly and didn't know any better.

Vicky and Cristina are joined by even more stereotypical characters later on, as they are taken in by an American expatriate haute-bourgeois middle-aged couple, and meet the "sexy" "bohemian artist" Juan Antonio at an art auction. Cliches run wild, and soon we see the breathtaking Maria-Elena (Penelope Cruz), the completely insane ex-wife of Juan Antonio. Cristina is whisked into the confusing and somewhat dystopian love triangle between the two ex-lovers, and is enamored by the "bohemian" lifestyle. What this movie makes clear, more than anything, is how little Woody Allen understands of this so-called "bohemian" artistic lifestyle. There is nothing original in his portrayal of what could have possibly become full-rounded characters; they are like Platonic Forms rather than characters, Maria-Elena as the Form of the Mad Genius, Cristina as the Confused Idealizer, Vicky as the Rational Soul Hiding a Wilder Heart. 8th-graders could have created a more interesting plot.

Which is not to say, however, that I left the movie disgusted. Confused, full of criticism, but somehow satisfied. Though the ending was more than unsatisfactory-- a sort of disheartened deus ex machina of the "it was all a wonderful dream" variety-- it was still, well, set in Barcelona. And Barcelona is beautiful. And, of course, those subtle things that make the movie so characteristically Woody Allen-esque (lunettes, overwhelming amounts of unnecessary voiceover, simple beginning and ending credits...) The only quotable part of the movie was Juan Gonzalez near the end of the movie: "We work, and we do not work at all. We are a contradiction, and some would say that is love," or something of that sort. Perhaps an interesting concept amidst a not-so-interesting film.

Dead White Males

Top 10 favorite dead white males

Idea stolen from Lucy

(According to the pre-1940 Chicago census I'm not white anyway, so, no reason to feel guilty.)

(Also, how very Columbia Core Curriculum of me.)

Need help? My full list, more or less chronologically: Alexander the Great, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Hobbes, Peter the Great, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jacques-Louis David, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Charles Baudelaire, Matthew Arnold, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Marc Chagall, Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali, Albert Camus, Carl Gustav Jung, Vladimir Nabokov, Francois Truffaut, Robert Rauschenberg

Monday, October 27, 2008


Last week for my Paris on Context Class: visiting the Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, an enormous Contemporary Art fair in the Grand Palais. Absolutely enormous, absolutely interesting, absolutely cool. I had no energy to walk through all of it, although I did spend over 2 hours there, after all of my class had come and gone, and my feet were near dead.

A picture of the colossal scale of this place, from the upper level:

A strange mix of pieces. As always, drawings and prints were my favorites, and mixed media. I get easily bored with painting. I liked the graphic stuff, too, and some of the photography was brilliant, although honestly I was unimpressed by much of it. There were smatterings of minor things by major modern artists (Calder, Warhol, de Kooning), which seemed bizarre in a contemporary art context.

Also, a lot of minimalism. I desperately hope minimalism is on the decline. It simply isn't interesting anymore as a concept, and its only claim to fame in the past was as a response to New York's abstract expressionism anyway.

I did, however, see a trend that I was honestly excited about: text. As a typical English major, I use text a lot in my art, and was overjoyed at finding it so well-represted in the "haute" version of the contemporary art world.

Another important fact: this was an international fair, so walls were often separated by city and country. Of course, there were many French, and especially Parisian artists, although metropolitan France (principalities of France, etc) were represented. The Moyen-Orient (Middle East) was (surprisingly) well-represented, and, not-surprisingly, Japan. I was not as moved by the Japanese artists as I would have liked, since I couldn't find any of Murakami's, and everyone else seemed to be a (worse) variation of Murakami anyway. China and Russia: extremely well represented. Some of my favorite works (most, in fact) were from China and Russia; they lacked some of the pretention of other countries, for some reason. Contemporary art tends to be too specialized, losing the power of sheer talent in draftsmanship that astounds even the completely ignorant viewer. Is it a coincidence that China and Russia share a tradition of being the major communitarian (as opposed to individualistic) societies in the world? Probably not. That, and their history of technical prowess, makes for fantastic art.

My favorites of the exhibition (not exactly sure if I have full rights to give details of all of these online, but nobody warned against it, so I'll take my chances. If anything I'm giving these artists more publicity) :

Thierry de Cordier, Nuptiale (Jeune Mariee), 2006-2008, Oil, acrylic, pencil, charcoal and ink on wood
(Translation: Nuptial [Young Married] )

Adam Fuss, Untitled, 2007, Unique gelatin silver print photogram

Yan Pei-Ming, U.S. Election: Obama/McCain, 2008, Watercolor on Paper

This last one was one of a diptych, with McCain's face depicted in exactly the same style. Very cool. Very popular with the Frenchies. High-school age pre-politicos were snapping pictures all over the place. I couldn't fit McCain in the picture. Besides, Obama for the win! VOTE Y'ALL!

Pauline Fondevila, La Nuit Nous Appartient, 2008, 4 Drawings under glass and table
(Translation: The night belongs to us)

Valery Koshlyakov. Couldn't find the title. A magnanimous work. Took up an entire wall.

(I. WANT. THIS. Oh my god)

Last two works by Barbara Bloom. Whoever she is, she is clearly obsessed with Nabokov's Lolita. As am I.

Emmanuel Saulnier, Naissance a Venise, 1999, ink and gouache on paper
(Translation: Birth in Venice)

Continuing the trend of text-within-art, this is art-within-text! Love. I've always wanted to draw/paint in a book but could never find a book I cared little enough about. I actually did a project like this in high school that I never completed. Maybe somebody can buy me a book I already have? Perhaps a Vonnegut? I'd LOVE to draw in a Vonnegut. Anyone want to give me a used copy of Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle? Oh wait, the latter has already been loaned to about 10 of my college friends and is currently wandering around New York...

Sun Xun, Shock of Time, Assorted Film Drawings, 2006

This seems like the same as the former, but Sun Xun took it to another level: to the right of this collection of beautiful drawings is a TV playing an animated film of probably hundreds of these drawings, probably all in a book! Brilliant. Beautiful. Sad, somehow.

Cameron Jamie, 2008, ink on paper (title = ?)

Melissa Gordon, Seeing and the Eye (Capturing), 2008, acrylic on canvas

Jorg Lozek, Das Buch (le bonheur), 2008, oil on canvas
(Translation: the happiness; literal translation: the good times)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Musée d'art contemporain, Lyon

The MAC, huddled in the commercial district of the sleepy French city of Lyon, rivals even the Whitney in NYC in terms of breadth and scope. Surprising for adorably quaint Lyon, although it is the second largest city in France. Three floors of expositions and a courtyard later, I found myself in the exhilirating and completely new position of being the artistic authority to my homestay family. But how can one possibly explain contemporary art-- all its shock, its glamourous enigma, its sheer weirdness-- to someone who doesn't feel the same exhiliration? A strange thing. I said something like, "It isn't about the love of the art as it is about the experience of it," which is a really crappy explanation, because I for one adore it, and not only the experience thereof.

My favorite of this musée impressionante was a South African artist named Kendell Geers. As almost everything I like, he is EPIC. Graphic and textual, he references other oeuvres of modern art in his own. My favorite, for example, is quite simple: black ink background with sharp typewritten-style text, "THISISNOTAFUCKINGPIPE." Clearly a reference to Magritte's infamous "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," something I was excited to point out to my Lyon homestay family. Kendell Geers uses the word 'fuck' to such an extent that it loses its power. For example, there is a drawing of him replacing the infamous late 20th-century "Love" sculpture with the word 'fuck.' Is this a treatise on the treachery of words? Is he following the illogical logic of René Magritte or in direct opposition to him? Hard to say. An example:

Other themes: America. Geers hates it, of course with good reason. Which of course caused me to like Geers that much more. And another theme, tying with the former: sexuality. An oversexed woman in ink, nude, probably masturbating, is displayed with the words, "THISISNOTAMERICA." Also: Religion. Religious symbols are covered in red and white tape (everything from Jesus on the cross to Buddha to Brahma to African fertility sculptures to Lara Croft), giving them a look of raw muscle.

Crosses and stars of david are produced on the wall with objects of police brutality, hitting sticks and such. A cathedral is reproduced with the sharpest barbed wire I have ever seen, with a mirror as the floor and a guard telling you, in full seriousness, to keep your hands to yourself lest you be pricked. And then a room in blacklight, with the seven deadly sins written on the wall in strange graphic patterns, a cartesian graph of sorts forming out of the letters of each. Etonnant, bien sur!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Being: review

The cover of this book shows a black bowler floating, illuminated by an essence of its own, above a bridge in beautiful Prague. More perfect a cover design could not be imagined for Milan Kundera's 20th-century masterpiece, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Like the bowler hat, motifs flow in and out of the prose seamlessly; philosophy blends with literature, theses blend with plot, and time mutates-- moving from one time to another completely devoid of structure, as if time was not linear but Hawkings-esque, a plane stretching infinitely in all directions.

This was the first time I was ever driven breathless by the plot-- the thought-processes of its characters, the often unexplainable actions, the rapid shifting of the characters' emotions-- and not the prose style. The prose is, fortunately for us, uncomplicated and easy to follow, without sacrificing the extreme complexity of Kundera's themes. I say complex because they are universal: themes of lightness and weight, soul and body, the relation of music to speech and of speech to emotion, the misunderstanding of words, the connection between animals and humans. They are themes of all philosophy classes, but from the perspective of not a philosopher, but a humble man, worn by time, a passive observer of the events of those around him.

On the surface, the story is one of two couples: Tomas, perennial womanizer, and his beloved wife Tereza, whom he consistently betrays; Sabina, Tomas's lover and famous artist, and her lover, the academic Franz. It is a pull-push story of weakness and strength, power and powerlessness. Thankfully the power in this story is not reserved in the hands of the man. Sabina herself is one of the most well-developed and interesting female characters of any book I have ever read, and certainly one with a great deal of power. It is a refreshing tale, unmoralizing and completely vulnerable. Every character becomes dear to the reader with time.

The themes of power and struggle are amplified in its setting, during the late '60s occupation of Czechoslovakia by the USSR. Our characters are constantly faced with the choice of supplication or deviance: either rise to the immortal and defeat the communists, and thus lose your occupation and whatever shreds of material happiness you possess, or succumb to the communist whip and continue daily life in silent obedience. All this makes "Unbearable Lightness" sound a little cliche, when in reality it is anything but. It is not even definitively anti-communist.

By far the most intriguing part of the novel is its notion of motifs, of images or objects that reappear continuously throughout your life, inspiring accidentally all events that unfold within it. I already mentioned Sabina's bowler hat, which consequently reminded me of Rene Magritte's paintings, most of which deal with anonymous men in bowler hats (Magritte's own artistic motif). In essence the motif is a piece of music, a variation of a theme; consequently, the music of Beethoven is another one of the novel's themes. For life to become art, a collage of motifs, is the consequence for all four of our main characters. Kundera posits that these motifs give our lives beauty and meaning, even though they--in and of themselves-- are mere empty symbols, like the idea of God.

Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness" is profound, surreal, evocative. Dreams and reality lie disturbingly close, undifferentiated and often meshed together. This novel seems the byproduct of an extremely sharp, extremely intellectual mind with the soul of an artist, a man so fascinated with the human condition that his heart seems to burst with both terror and unbearable delight.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Props to my friend Zhe Chen, who is on his 127 (!!!!) th drawing for his online webcomic, beschooled, about life at Columbia! I figured I should spread the joy. Zhe's in a comp sci PhD program at UCLA now, but is probably the most talented draftsman I have ever met. I was in both his Drawing II and Sculpture Fundamentals classes and he rocked both. Check it out:

And a comic:And my favorite:Haha, actually Columbia doesn't really suck. We're just not very happy. :)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Jeff Koons at Versailles

I've already seen the Jeff Koons exhibit, but after my "Paris in Context" course on Thursday, decided to hop on the RER and see his exhibit in the Versailles, his pieces set amidst the gaudy baroque architecture of the Versailles palace.

Versailles itself was underwhelming. And cold. Very cold. But contrasted with the setting of Versailles, I've come to appreciate Jeff Koons much more than I ever had when I saw the exhibit (considerably larger and more elaborate) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last June.

I had a mild argument with my professor on Thursday because I had described Jeff Koons's work as "masculine," dealing with "power," in those terms only because my french was not advanced enough to find the equivalent of "the glorification of man and the estrangement of the two sexes," which would've been too pretentious anyway, but definitely something I would say in, say, and English course. All at once, the class starts to mumble in disapproval. Somehow the general populace doesn't seem to see anything masculine or phallic about a giant metallic fuchsia sculpture of a poodle.

After seeing the exhibit, Jeff Koons definitely seems more... playful, self-aware, and even sardonic. Perhaps this was because of the setting, and the perfect juxtaposition of each select piece to its background. Both the oeuvres and setting are reflections on grandeur, on "luxe," on "pouvoir" and its affiliation with power and the creative spirit, the difference of one artist being self-aware, the other--Louis XIV-- in full comprehension of his "divine" authority as the "roi soleil." (Or perhaps it was the mysterious lack of the pornographic photographs they had in the Chicago exhibit...)

I loved how his "poodle" gave the room a vibrancy it hadn't had before, the way the fuchsia was reflected in the walls and parquet...The infamous rabbit.Michael Jackson and Bubbles. In gold. Yes, gold.
Interestingly enough, Jeff Koons didn't complete any new pieces for the exhibition. He just happened to have sculpted a silver Louis XIV, completely unrelated to the Versailles show!
A vase of flowers dating back to the time of Marie Antoinette in the royal chambers of the Sun King? Nah, just another Jeff Koons.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

La vie devant soi

Thanks to the vast and innumerable resources of Columbia University's Reid Hall program in Paris, I got to go to the theatre for free today! What I saw was an adaptation of "La vie devant soi," a novel by Romain Gary.

Romain Gary, a Lithuanian Jew who fled the Nazis with his family to Nice, France, was both writer and WWII aviator. He wrote "La vie devant soi" under a pseudonym, thus becoming the only person to win the prestigious literary award "Prix Goncourt" twice.

"La vie devant soi" deals with themes difficult to digest on a Thursday night after a dinner of wholesome ratatouille, but it was well-acted and extremely imaginative. It questions the nature of memory: what becomes of human beings when they are consumed by memory? When, like the title, life-- la vie-- stands before the self-- le soi? In the story, an old woman-- Madame Rosa-- is consumed by memories of Auschwitz, while being put in the compromising position of taking care of a preteen Arab boy called "Momo" of ambiguous age and nationality, put on her doorstep at the age of 4.

The play thus deals with questions of race and belonging, nationality and religion, and the differences between them. Momo's hereditary father returns, and Madame Rosa, ill and slightly delirious, is thus confronted with a dilemma: return someone she has grown to love to someone far less willing to love, or lie to his father and keep Momo for herself. Momo himself has a dilemma before him: tell Madame Rosa the truth about her illness, or pretend all is well and allow her to enjoy the last few years of her life?

Two hours long and excrutiatingly emotional, "La vie devant soi" is an exercise of courage to whoever manages to watch it. Beautifully acted, torturous, brutal... yet creative. Dream-scenes accompany every major act, and the play juxtaposes soliloquy and a somewhat more distant voiceover remarkably well. It is just imaginative enough to avoid lavishness. ("La vie devant soi" had me at the dream-scenes, though: I'm such a sucker for dreams!)

Also fascinating was the use of symbolism in the play; as you can see in the poster, the "valise"-- suitcase-- is an obvious symbol of change and memory, of "packing" your memories into one item, of condensing a lifetime of experience into something worn-down and insufficient. There was also the symbol of the Menorah, lit and put out twice during the play. Madame Rosa was a true Jewish grandmotherly figure-- the stage looked just like home, embarassing floral prints, mumus, Eastern European pots and pans and all. Ach! Now that is home.

Truly this was an appropriate play to attend before the dawning of Yom Kippur. Which reminds me: Happy New Year, everyone! Eat some apples and honey!