Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Divine Comedy

Michelangelo, Creation of Stars and Planets, 1508-1512, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome.

Today, April 22, 2008, is Earth Day. Its approach was heralded by Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich and Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who appeared together on TV, warming a park bench as they promoted cooperation on global heating.

Too bad the Pope, while in New York last week, didn’t add his voice to the Green Chorus. Imagine the impact he could have if he would re-write the following critical bit of text and insert it into Genesis.

The original line from Genesis:
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’"

And the new Green version:
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Plan a small family, so that you don’t kill each other over limited resources, and follow the golden rule when you encounter the creatures of the earth. And remember, the natural world is fine with or without you; the issue is saving yourself from side effects of arrogance.’”

The Pope probably won’t make this re-write, so it is up to a legion of individuals to start making incremental changes in the way people think about the earth. And the artist Justen Ladda is doing his part by creating an instructive, sculptural comedy on Allen Street.

In the Chinese section of the Lower East Side, Ladda has installed a handsome collection of Chinese spirit stones on the narrow traffic median that divides Allen Street, a heavily trafficked artery that pumps buses, cars and trucks into the heart of Manhattan.

Great comedy like this is rooted in surprise. The appreciation of unusual stones in China is an ancient tradition whose earliest known reference is found in an historical text from the third century B.C.E. (before the common era). A stone was not considered a static object, but as a dynamic, miniature universe in which the inchoate forces that formed it could be felt. Unusual shapes and textures that evoked mountains, the course of water and even animals and plants were collected and those which best expressed the exuberance of the natural world were highly prized. Those stones that were not adequately imbued with the power of primordial fire and erosion were enhanced by human hands. Over time a culture of connoisseurship evolved and fine stones became a sign of the social status and sophistication of the owner. As objects of meditation, stones were traditionally mounted on graceful, carved stands for indoor viewing or composed with plants and water elements into serene garden vignettes. But the spirit stones of Allen Street are surrounded by the rushing-smelly-honking chi of New York and it is in this arena, where refined tradition meets the democracy of the street, that the comedy is played.

If comedy is defined as the drama of conflicting expectations, then the effect of the spirit stones of Allen Street is similar to 4’ 33”, the infamous musical composition by John Cage in which a pianist sits quietly at her instrument, so that the ambient, random noise of the auditorium can become the music. Like the dignified, classical musician of 4’33”, the spirit stones of Allen Street hold still so that the contrasting swirl of the New York street can also be felt as art.

By framing the street as a work of art, the spirit stones coax the mind into a pleasantly complex state of awareness that trots between three points. First, one notices the beauty of the stones themselves and the Asian aesthetic from which they derived. Second, one is transported through memory to other landscapes and, finally, one feels the richness of the contemporary, urban moment. This state of perception is comic in its unexpected collisions of time, space and culture, but it also enlightening.

The ideas threaded through Justen Ladda’s spirit stone installation are part of a progressive movement to think inclusively by collapsing a number of opposing ideas into larger concepts. The installation, for example, collages the East onto the West, effectively emphasizing the global nature of this time. Similarly, Past and Present in the artwork are no longer irreconcilable moments on a line of time, but are, instead, floating moments that may cohabit consciousness through memory. It was wonderful, for example, to look at the wild, vertical shape of a stone and remember a family trip down the Snake river through the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming, and at the same moment, assess the progress of a Chinese grandmother as she negotiated a pram up the Allen Street median. Landscape and Cityscape, also, are folded into one pot; each no longer discrete but part of a single, encompassing ecosystem. In this new way of thinking, men, mountains and metropolises are part of a single environment that progresses through the laws of evolution. The relationship between Man and Nature is no longer one of dominance and submission decreed by the Divine, but rather it is a search by people to balance and preserve a complex habitat.

The comedy of the spirit stones of Allen Street begins with a laugh at the collision of art and life, but it resolves into a new, complex consciousness that attempts to see the connectedness of things before they are parsed into bits. This new emphasis on inclusive thinking is a hopeful sign. Thanks Justen.

(The information on Spirit Stones was culled from “Spirit Stones of China”, by Stephen Little. Published by the Art Institute of Chicago with University of California Press, 1999.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008


On a fresh April morning after breakfast, I took a walk across the Williamsburg bridge, which connects the cultural hash of Manhattan to the ethnic scramble of Brooklyn. On the Manhattan end Jeffrey’s Meat caters to a diverse group of carnivores, who inhabit the Lower East Side. To appeal to all tastes, the butcher shop is decorated with a Caribbean palm, a Chinese Buddha, an Egyptian hound and paintings inspired by film noir.

As I began to walk across the bridge, the excitement of colliding culture that was embodied in the d├ęcor of Jeffrey’s Meats, gave way to a different sort of New York thrill. The bridge was so physically dynamic that memories of human differences were suspended just long enough to demonstrate a fundamental human connection, i.e. the kick of defying gravity.

Who knows the most about gravity? Astronauts know how to deal with its absence, but acrobats know how to overcome it, which, I think, gives them the edge. Maybe bridge engineers actually know more about attraction, since they can interrupt the pull of things and suspend masses in space for centuries. Ultimately, everything collapses, so this debate is pointless. But when one is standing in the middle the bridge, hovering 135 feet above the East River, the tension between mass and the fundamental force of gravity is magnificent.

This suspension bridge, built at the end of the nineteenth century, is a stunning instance of mass in defiance. The material burden of cars, trucks and trains is collected by four cables, which arc in perfect parabolas between pillars that accept the load and transfer it to the ground.

It’s an ecstatic moment in which matter is relieved of its gravitational burden so that independence of form can be expressed.

The poise of the steel bridge is magical, transforming pedestrians into elegant illustrations of the mechanics of movement. The knee straightens and raises the torso so that the free foot can pass the supporting leg. The left hip swings forward bringing the leg with it, while the right shoulder falls back for balance. The right arm swings forward in unison with the left leg, adding momentum to the advancing figure. Like cables to pillars, tendons transfer the weight of muscles, organs and fat to the bones which accept the load and transfer it to the ground.

And all of this is accomplished with little break in the conversation.

At the Brooklyn end of the Wiliamsburg Bridge, the cultural collage began again. I was met by bedraggled George Washington just back from Valley Forge.

And to gain the strength to overcome gravity during the return trip, I ate an excellent budin (bread pudding) at a Spanish bakery with a French name that serves a community primarily composed of Yiddish-speaking, Satmar Hassidim.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

George Washington at the Bollards

Every time I hear a plane pass low over Manhattan, I wonder if the whine of the engines heralds the next missile made of jet fuel and people. I heard a plane as I was walking through Wall Street, which is at once an historical site, a financial center and, after 9/11, a trauma point. As I listened to the plane and looked up at the statue of George Washington, who was inaugurated there, my stomach lurched with a mix of pride, worry and disappointment. The pride was for a nation founded on the principles of equality and freedom. The worry was for the future of family, friends and self and it is a worry that will not to be quieted by Homeland Security procedures or the war in Iraq. The disappointment was for the nation’s response to 9/11, which was rooted in hubris, fueled by fear and executed with extreme violence.

With this mix of thoughts and feelings, I continued to walk through Wall Street, studying the look of the place.

The colors of business on Wall Street are black and white with accents of gold and red. Black is impressive. It enhances the contour of powerful form, while minimizing detail and imperfection. White is divine. It is all the colors of the spectrum at once, bright and pure. Gold is power. The stuff of crowns, it signifies the material wealth and wisdom of the sovereign. Red is the imperial body, all busy meat and wine.

The colors of Wall Street business, however, are interrupted with slashes of warning-orange at perimeter defense stations where retractable, vehicle barriers are inserted in the center of the streets leading to the New York Stock Exchange. Before these steel barriers are lowered into the ground, vehicles are checked by men and sniffed by dogs.

Classical forms, both Greek and…

Modern, dominate the street. These styles plainly display the logic of construction and both claim that the physical order of the exterior is a reliable indication of the civic virtue that resides within.

There are a few opulent sights, which in this classical environment seem naughty. But they are discreetly tucked away like the paisley lining in a wool suit.

Since the streets are narrow and the buildings are tall, the sky is cut into shapes like a dagger and …

a pointing hand and...

a falling star.

But at one intersection, the street opens to a breathtaking vista in which a classical temple, aped in glass and steel, seems to sit majestically on an acropolis of competing businesses. It’s an, “oh my god moment”, that is really funny. I wonder if the visual joke about the collision of classical ideals and capitalist competition is intentional.

There is little advertising on Wall Street and the few images that are there appeal mostly to men and predictably portray them as massive chins in pin stripes.

There are colonnades grand enough to host legions of well-groomed, financial workers.

But the streets at 10 AM were quiet and populated mostly by smokers idling in granite niches, avoiding the wind.

Security on Wall Street is high and photography is not allowed on private property. Several times I was stopped and warned about taking photographs, so I stayed in the public domain. One security guard, however, approached me very aggressively and challenged my right to take pictures on the street. Our encounter got a little heated, and afterwards I regretted the exchange. It would have been easy to diffuse the situation if I had stayed calm and introduced myself instead of responding in kind. Responding to aggression with more aggression is not usually as effective as getting to know the adversary in attempt to find common ground. Someday, I hope a majority of people know how to resolve conflicts without resorting to escalating threats. It would be great for George Washington to once again preside over a Wall Street free of bollards.