The weird and wiggy, worldwide

As one who seeks out the freaky and farout in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)

Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)

Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world: 

Cast of Joseph Merrick’s, aka the Elephant Man’s, skull, Royal London Hospital. One of the most interesting, most hideous and saddest skeletal specimens ever.
Latex cast of the Elephant Man from the 1980 David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York. This is the mold they used to make-up John Hurt as the real-life Elephant Man.
“Crucified Woman,” an unsettling work by supreme provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, hanging in the Guggenheim in New York City. Note the pigeons. I have no idea what’s going on.
Cracked cherub in Iglesia de El Salvador, a gorgeous church in Sevilla, Spain. I love the little fella’s decrepitude and pink and bulgy doll-like creepiness.
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Stacked: a sheep, a pig, a cow, all with unicorn horns. Interesting, until you realize it’s just bad art.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Rugged hiking man with primates. The bloke’s head is like a bobble-head.
The Met, New York City. Exactly how I wake each morning.
Body cast of Chang & Eng, original Siamese twins, Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Gross and glorious.
A baby through Picasso’s eyes, Paris. I just like this poor warped toddler, so bulbous and twisted — and probably demonic.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the resident Torture Museum. Highlight: the saliva string and puddle.
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Trump in two years, in his cell. 
Malformed Baby Jesus, flea market, Barcelona, Spain. So distorted and freakish I desperately wanted to take it home and cuddle it.
Hanging horses by crazy Cattelan, Guggenheim, NYC. Something out of Fellini. See the little Pinocchio puppet by its front legs. Discuss.
Monkey murder. I really haven’t the foggiest. I wish I did, but I don’t. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

The daunting and taunting of the bulging bookshelf

Nothing in a home excites me more than bookshelves crammed and jammed with actual books, as opposed to knickknacks, tchotchkes and corny picture frames. Filled right, they are towering works of art, swirls of graphics and oceans of colors.

I love engorged, groaning bookshelves, whose heaving pulp cargo functions as stylish and classy decor, the jostling spines stringing rainbow rows of erudition, edification and entertainment. So gorgeous and seductive is a grand, brimming bookshelf, it’s almost erotic.

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At minimum, it takes hundreds of volumes to stock an amply, aptly impressive bookshelf. It takes a collector’s fervor, an obsessive appetite for those bound squares of facts, fiction and, so often, beauty.  

But there’s this: Do we actually read all the books in these sprawling collections? Or do they act largely as pretentious decor, literary plumage that flatters the owner?

That depends, but I know I rigorously try to read every title on my shelves, as nearly impossible and as crazily aspirational that proposition is. Still, I don’t see them as frills and frippery. I simply think walls of books look amazing. (Bookshops and libraries: Platonic ideals of aesthetic glory.)

I confess I don’t read all the books I acquire. One, the quantity is too great, especially when new books keep crashing my bulging bookosphere. Two, not every book is worth reading — too many just aren’t good enough. 

So, as I’ve mused here before, I frequently dispense with books that aren’t thrilling me. The rate that I put books down at the 50-, 80- or 100-page mark is deplorable. It’s also necessary. I show no quarter.

“I own far more books than I could possibly read over the course of my remaining life, yet every month I add a few dozen more to my shelves,” writes Kevin Mims in this essay in the New York Times.

That is a sickness I know well. But mostly I’ve stopped this hoardish habit. I realize now that not every well-reviewed book or immortal classic is worth picking up.   

I used to work in a corporate bookstore — the biggest bookstore in San Francisco at the time — and, like that ravenous kid in the candy store, the one with chocolate smeared all over his mouth, I couldn’t help but accrue a gigantic book collection. It fast became overwhelming, so I kept a list on a lined yellow notepad of all the books I hadn’t yet read, planning to cross titles off as I went. Sheer folly, that.

I have since evolved and have become the prince of the partially read book. Though my shelves boast more tomes that I have actually completed, the rejects are copious. 

And then there are the books I haven’t even cracked yet, and may never get to. In his essay, Mims locates a term for this: “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku.”

That doesn’t mean your fabulous bookshelves are mere pretty repositories, ceiling-scraping storage bins. They are libraries and all that that word implies: knowledge, art, stories, journeys, lives, cracking your head open with the world.  

Says Mims:

A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”

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* Late postscript: I stumbled upon this nifty quote in my readings later today. It’s from “The Bookish Life,” an article by Joseph Epstein:

So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.”

Pushing for Paris

I once knew someone who actually said this when I mentioned that my favorite city is Paris: “Huh? Even Munich is better than Paris.”

Deathly silence.

Munich?

Munich?

Thunderstruck, I retain this memory with terrible clarity. I crossed that person off my Christmas card list. 

(Now, nothing against Munich. Munich is neat-o. I thoroughly enjoyed Munich, if I didn’t fall in love with it. I like beer. And cuckoo clocks.)

When I was in Amsterdam in May, I was on a boat tour through the lovely canals and, coaxed by the pushy skipper, I was evidently dumb enough to say the city was beautiful, much like Paris, wherein the whole boat, about eight people, groaned, “Whoa! Amsterdam is waay better than Paris.” Murmurs and whispers ensued. (Oh, those awful French people, groused a ditzy Brit, echoing the laziest cliché in the history of world travel.)

I had to, first, snuff my indignation, then muffle my bemusement, then muzzle my laughter. Were they serious? Amsterdam is gorgeous and fun and historically and culturally robust, but it doesn’t hold a flickering little paper match to the overwhelming majesty of sprawling, art-encrusted, haute cuisine-infused, history-convulsed Paris, which boasts its own sinuous canal in the knockout, 483-mile Seine and all of its inviting, ancient quays. 

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The last thing Paris needs is some doltish American offering injured and angry apologias for the grand, gilded metropolis. Paris stands supreme, proudly independent, unimpeachable, a dazzling European peacock, plumage in full splay. Perhaps not everyone’s favorite destination, it remains high up, cleanly above Munich and Amsterdam. (I choose Amsterdam, which I adore for so many reasons, over Munich, for the record.)

Central Paris, that masterpiece of urban planning, conflates the antiquated and the contemporary for stunning treelined strolls. Magnificent parks, gardens and cathedrals stipple the cityscape and some of the most august art repositories in the world — Musèe d’Orsay, the Louvre, Musèe de l’Orangerie, Musèe Picasso, Centre Pompidou — unfailingly spellbind. Food, fashion, film — Paris is a throbbing epicenter for it all.

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Musee d’Orsay, November 2015

But we know this. Here I am describing, a mite defensively, the patent pleasures of this great city. All of it world-renown. For a reason.

While Paris preens and beguiles, some of my other eternal boldfaced cities include New York, Tokyo, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Krakow and stately Istanbul, where I return this month, giddily. 

Reader: I’d love to hear about your favorite travel spots. Drop names in the comments section and be as brief or windy as you’d like. I’m curious if Paris makes the cut or not, or if I’m crazy, and if I’m overlooking other star locations, be it Botswana or Buenos Aires. Type away … 

Cutting to the core of creativity

I’m reading two books right now: “Kudos,” the mesmerizing new novel by Rachel Cusk, and the non-fiction treatise “The Creative Habit” by celebrated dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp.

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The former is a whole-cloth original, narrative-defying, discursive and brainy, like the two previous books in Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, “Outline” and “Transit,” of which “Kudos” is the ravishing finale. Challenging and unorthodox, the seemingly autobiographical novels crack open your mind in a furiously fresh manner. They evoke Karl Ove Knausgaard’s rambling “My Struggle” series but are more rigorous, compressed, and chewier.

Catching my breath, I’m really here to dwell on Tharp’s self-described “practical guide,” whose full title is “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” I’m a sucker for eloquent lessons on creativity and the artist’s way, including, yes, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron, “The Sound on the Page” by Ben Yagoda, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott and “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. These books possess transformative powers, tweaking your creative habits just so, massaging your brain to look at the blank page or canvas with a kind of nervous optimism instead of paralyzing dread or clogging trepidation. They are weighted with wisdom.

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Tharp, a paragon of her art form, knows of what she speaks, and she speaks it plainly and persuasively, with little decorative dressing but plenty of panache. She’s a beneficent, caring lecturer, and the book, breezy and empathetic, bulges with sticky, pragmatic advice. Quick: “In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Or: “There are no ‘natural’ geniuses.” That’s in the first nine pages, and somehow I find these statements awfully encouraging. 

She digs much deeper, with infectious enthusiasm. Using hard-earned lessons from her own work methods and creative processes in ballet and presenting instructive anecdotes about artistic challenge and triumph among such underachievers as Mozart, Beethoven Richard Avedon, Balanchine and Maurice Sendak, Tharp casts a wide net showing how happy accidents, preparation and luck (those are Siamese twins), ritual, archiving and mineable memory are critical components of productive creativity. (She also includes some loopy exercises that I didn’t have much use for. One required a bunch of eggs.)

Flipping through this clean, handsome, none-too-big book I plucked a few quotables:

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty, I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.'”

“Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you can take the next step. You won’t move on to that second chapter until the first is written, rewritten, honed, tweaked, examined under a microscope, and buffed to a bright mahogany sheen. You won’t dip a brush in the paint until you’ve assembled all the colors you can possibly imagine using in the course of the project. I know it’s important to be prepared, but at the start of the process this type of perfectionism is more like procrastination. You’ve got to get in there and do.”

“The best writers are well-read people. They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. They also know their grammar. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them.”

“There is no one ideal condition for creativity. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming.”

“Jerome Robbins liked to say that you do your best work after your biggest disasters. For one thing, it’s so painful it almost guarantees that you won’t make those mistakes again. A fiasco compels you to change dramatically. The golfer Buddy Jones said, ‘I never learned anything from a match I won.’ He respected defeat and he profited from it.”

“These mistakes — relying too much on others, waiting for the perfect setup, overthinking structure, feeling obligated to finish what you’ve started, and working with the wrong materials — are deadly. Any one of them will undermine your best efforts.”

“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources … Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.”

“You might not struggle for spine. You might be content to receive any random thought floating through the ether that happens to settle on you that day. You might think you don’t need a supporting mechanism for the art you’re constructing, a controlling image, a collateral idea to guide you. You might think getting lost is a big part of the adventure. You may think that, but you’d be wrong.”

In art museums, when are selfies ever cool?

An article I just read triggered a deep-seated pet peeve of mine. It’s not about how super it is that summer’s almost here, which really gets my goat, because I loathe summer. And it’s not about the astonishing nincompoopery going on in Washington right now. 

It’s more important than all that. It’s about patrons taking selfies in the world’s greatest museums, standing like glassy-eyed dolts before masterpieces by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, all the while blocking the paintings for others as they stage strenuous fake smiles at their cell phones without actually studying the monumental artworks hanging mere feet away. Pose, smile, snap, leave.

Recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I was looking forward to truly absorbing Rembrandt’s grand, justly famous “Night Watch.” It had been years since I’d seen it in the flesh, and this time I read up on it, prepared for a more immersive, enlightened viewing. 

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Mobs of viewers before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” this month in Amsterdam.

Not a chance. The painting is quite gigantic and still, when I got to it, a crush of phone-wielding zombies were cluttering up the view. I jostled and elbowed, to no avail. Details I wanted to drink in, such as the fuzzy little self-portrait of Rembrandt peeking out from between two watchmen, had to be quickly glanced before some dunderhead, camera in fist, bumped me away. 

Cell phones and those mortifying selfie sticks abounded, with people actually pointing cameras at themselves, plastering on gargoyle grins and snapping themselves in front of a masterwork they couldn’t care less about except for how it will look on Instagram. Can you imagine how those shots turned out? The mind reels. The stomach turns. 

A few sublime Vermeers prominently adorn the Rijksmuseum, but if you want to see them, really see them, wait until the Selfie Squadron gets its fix. Watch as it rushes up to gentle tableaus of sun-splashed domestic life, framing and snapping pictures, then summarily rushing to the next painting, like it’s a contest, some kind of desperate relay.

The selfie epidemic is even uglier at the Louvre with Da Vinci’s magnetic “Mona Lisa.” 

The way many patrons “interact with the 500-year-old painting exemplifies how differently the digital generation experiences art,” says The New York Times article I read. “Most of the roughly 150 people crowded around the painting were taking photographs of the piece, or of themselves in front of it. In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.”

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The “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza.)

This disgusts me, and it probably shouldn’t. No, actually it should. And this is why:

“Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.”

Hasn’t everything been reduced to this, a crass photo opportunity? Even at Starbucks, I see people satisfying the urge to take selfies of themselves with their massive milkshakes that pass as coffee drinks, tongues hanging out or lips pursed, fingers making a peace sign. Who but the takers wants to look at these images?

It’s too easy to blame unchecked narcissism, yet that’s surely a contributing toxin. As someone who’s almost pathologically camera shy, I can’t fathom this slavering need to record oneself every 15 minutes until dizzying repetition nullifies any semblance of originality. The pictures all look the same; only the “zany” faces vary. People love to look at themselves. As the center of the universe, their self-adoration knows no bounds. It is, I think, a sickness. The camera-clicking hordes in museums reveal a kind of twisted vanity.

Think about it. Your mugging face, beaming, and in the far background, lost in the clamor, is “The Night Watch” or the “Mona Lisa.” What then? The shame.

Heineken’s museum of Hell

Before I travel, I prepare like a madman, and my outstanding trip to Amsterdam last week was no exception. One night, fueled by wide-eyed, butterfly-stomach pre-travel excitement, I purchased a few advance museum tickets online: the Rijksmuseum (all majesty and splendor), the Van Gogh Museum (strong, if a tiny bit disappointing) and, in a snap of psychosis or addled hastiness, an 18 € ($21.50) ticket for the Heineken Experience, billed as a “sensational interactive tour” set in the original Heineken brewery turned museum in Amsterdam’s city center.

I grossly miscalculated.

The Heineken Experience was so massively lame, such an appalling and transparent marketing apparatus, that I was actually embarrassed to be there. You don’t go to be enlightened but to have “interesting” factoids about the Heineken family and the titular beer’s recipe recited to you by overexcited twenty-somethings wearing skinny headset microphones á la Beyoncé. If you have any idea how beer is made, the tour is old news.  

I should have known better, that a beer tour that includes two and a half “complimentary” drinks would attract mostly frat boys, their sorority cohorts and Euro trash, all of whom seemed glazed with boredom by the broad and vacuous explanations of how hops, water, barley and yeast make beer, and didn’t even seem terribly impressed by the stable of eight black horses, the so-called famous Heineken horses that stood there looking equally bored, sad that they didn’t get to also imbibe the scrumptious brew.

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One of the blush-inducing “interactive” delights at the Heineken Experience.

When the informational part of the tour ends, the museum falls back hard on high-tech filler that you can’t believe, from a ride in which you become a beer bottle to laser-lighted basketball hoops; a room pumped with blaring electronic dance music and strafed with green (the brand color) lasers, to a large photo-booth room where people sit on stationary Heineken bicycles while street scenes of Paris are projected on back-screens, so it looks like you’re pedaling through the French capital. Imagine that! People were having a good old time on those bikes, smiling at their own images as if they really believed they were in Paris. And they hadn’t even drank yet.

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Selfies, unaccountably huge here.

By then I was practically jogging to the final room, the bar pouring “free” beer. I sipped my beers with the faintest scowl, while trying to pretend I wasn’t altogether repulsed. My fellow chumps were laughing, taking endless selfies, shaking to the music, which veered from nauseating EDM to friendly pop rock. 

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A drum kit made of beer kegs! He looks elated and not at all a little confused.

All I could think was: There isn’t enough Heineken suds in this entire old brewery to numb me enough to believe this was a good idea. And then there was this: As in all museums you exit through the gift shop. But once you leave this emporium of baldly branded gear, guess what? You hit another gift shop, which is when I sighed to myself, Get me out of this Heineken hell. I felt violated, ripped off. Worse, those beers didn’t even give me a buzz. 

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A disproportionate amount of weak to bad museums litter otherwise wonderful Amsterdam — from the pot museum, prostitution museum and cheese museum, to the sex and erotic museums to the canal museum and, yes, the dopey Heineken predicament.

The antidote is to choose wisely. You can’t miss with the aforementioned Rijksmuseum (Rembrandts and Vermeers adorning a knockout space) and Van Gogh Museum (beautifully curated and suavely laid-out), plus the fine modern art collection at the underrated Stedelijk Museum, where everyone from Picasso to Damien Hirst are represented by canonical works. I’d gladly trade those 2½ beers for just one look at this ravishing blue doozy by Yves Klein at the Stedelijk:

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Jeff Koons: self-importance as an art form

“Koons’ act, which is perhaps not even an act, is to believe that he is a natural descendant of the great artists of the past, interpreting religious iconography with a kind of contemporary twist, but aspiring to the same level of eternal fame and truth. … Nobody questions the work because Koons’ lock on the market is so thorough. It’s a form of spiritual vandalism.”

 Critic Robert Hughes on artist Jeff Koons, after Koons compared his 1988 porcelain “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” to Michelangelo’s 1498 “Pieta”

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