Sunday, August 30, 2009

Provincetown 2009

Among the very first posts on bklynbiblio were messages about my trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts last year (including a recap of the trip, a review of the play 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night, and an exhibition review on the work of Nick Patten). I was back in Provincetown this past week, this time with my friends JM, AR, and RT. We rented a 2nd-floor condo that can be described as “antiquated” and “rustic,” but in reality should be described as “old” and “in need of redecorating.” We couldn’t complain though, because the view of the bay from our terrace was awesome (see my picture above). We even had our own semi-private beach. Provincetown hasn’t changed at all though. It’s still filled with families of tourists, many of whom try hard not to stare at the predominant gay and lesbian couples and friends strolling, dining, and shopping, and at the outrageous drag queens like Hedda Lettuce sauntering down Commercial Street advertising their shows at the bars and theaters. Provincetown is a celebrity hangout too. Our encounters ranged from simply pointing out a few, to having dinner and dancing with one in particular. This year's celebrities included gay filmmaker John Waters, gay socio-cultural pundit Andrew Sullivan, and photographer Amy Arbus. Fashion designer Marc Jacobs got married to Lorenzo Martone while we were there, but somehow we missed them completely, which actually is surprising because it’s not that big of a town.

Shopping was naturally a highlight of our trip. I got my Happy Dog t-shirt in powder blue and orange at Coffey Men (check out more of Scott Coffey’s designs on his blog Gallery hopping also was on the agenda. We paid a visit to places like The Schoolhouse Gallery where Amy Arbus was part of a group exhibition. The work on display was from her latest series, The Fourth Wall, which relates to theater actors in costume appearing in settings off-stage. David Sokosh, who works with modern-day tintypes, had a show with some interesting images at the Esmond-Wright Gallery. And AR almost bought a picture by Robert Cardinal, whose work conjures the spirit of the Provincetown coast using abstracted forms with bold colors.

JM and RT spoiled us with their superb cooking, but we also ate out a few times. To celebrate AR’s birthday we went to The Mews (the salmon was delectable), but otherwise we found ourselves frequently at Cafe Heaven for dinners and brunch. Of course, there seemed to be a neverending imbibing of spirits in our condo (e.g. Ketel One and cranberry cocktails), and we danced our asses off every day, sometimes at tea dance at The Boatslip, other times boogieing until 1am at the Atlantic House, followed by the obligatory congregating of everyone at Spiritus for pizza. The best dance songs of the summer included remixes of Madonna’s new single “Celebration” and Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face,” but the two most popular were “Hush Hush” by The Pussycat Dolls and “When Love Takes Over" by David Guetta and Kelly Rowland. You can check out a video of this last song below courtesy of YouTube, but first, check out this picture...don’t we look ultimately fabulous just hanging out on our terrace?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy 1st Birthday!

Happy Birthday, bklynbiblio, Happy Birthday to you! Exactly 1 year ago this blog was born, and as of today’s birthday, this makes 155 posts. If you browse the subject tags for the posts (all of which you can see on the bottom of the blog itself at you’ll discover that the top 3 tags are: “reviews” (29); “New York” (28); and “gay” (21). No real surprise I guess, as those things do seem to define bklynbiblio. Reviews have covered things like exhibitions and books. New York has encompassed my photography to cultural discussions about the City. And of course gay just crosses all boundaries. Here’s to another year!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vespasian's Villa

Ever since Heinrich Schliemann claimed to have excavated the historic Troy of Homer's Iliad in the early 1870s, there has been a neverending determination to prove that archaeological sites are connected with famous people. Some of course have been incredibly significant. Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, or the discovery of the terracotta army of China's first emperor Qin Shihuangdi in the 1970s, would both count as important finds with historical veracity. But then there have been the bogus claims. A few years ago, archaeologists were debating over the veracity of the so-called sarcophagus of a brother of Jesus of Nazareth; the sarcophagus turned out to be a hoax. Watching the Discovery Channel heightens these expectations when they show eye-catching documentaries with historic recreations and computer reconstructions, and they announce revelations such as that the Egyptian pyramids weren't built by slaves or aliens, but in fact were built by slaves AND aliens working together in a proto-utopian desert paradise! The rush to claim authenticity continues. About two weeks ago, news broke on NPR and other news agencies that archaeologists claimed to have discovered Vespasian's country villa northeast of Rome. Vespasian, seen here in a cast of a naturalistic portrait bust from the Pushkin Museum after an original marble at the Louvre (image courtesy of Wikipedia), was an emperor of ancient Rome who established the short-lived Flavian Dynasty. He came to power in the year 69 and was responsible for cleaning up the mess left by crazy Nero. Vespasian ordered the construction of the Colosseum, but he died in 79 before it was completed. The uncovered summer villa in the countryside was large: 161,459 square feet in size. Archaeologists have excavated evidence of highly decorative mosaic floors, baths, and marble halls. Certainly it demonstrated a show of wealth. But as Filippo Coarelli, the archaeologist of the University of Perugia who has led the excavation, told Discovery News, "We found no inscription that says it belonged to the emperor, but the location, dating, size and quality of the building leave little doubt about its owner." And that apparently is the problem. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, has been vocal in denying the attribution to Vespasian. In a recent blog post ("Vespasian's villa? Don't you believe it"), she wrote quite adamantly, "It's just a large Roman house of roughly the right date in roughly the right place." In short, it's a coincidence. She also laments the ongoing desire for some archaeologists to glamorize their finds: "As usual a combination of fantasy and wishful thinking has driven this non-story. ... After all the 'advances' in archaeology, and what it can tell us about the ancient world, are we still looking for a 'Vespasian lived here' spot?" I think she has a point, but let's face it, no one outside of academia cares much about the discovery of some unnamed villa. Throw something like Vespasian into the mix and the exoticism of his name alone opens the ears--and wallets--of people outside the academic ivory tower. (Beard has written numerous books on ancient Rome; she is the co-author with John Henderson of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, a fantastic book about Greco-Roman art and its legacy through the late 19th century.) I've always been fascinated by archaeology and I would love to participate in a dig. Maybe then one day I'll be able to say, "I've found the ancient brothel where Caligula first lost his virginity!"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Niagara Falls

For those who don’t travel regularly, you may not know this, but crossing international borders isn’t as easy as it used to be. Even the Canadian border patrol was surprisingly annoying. You must have a passport now to enter Canada, and when you do they ask you so many questions: where you’re staying, what you do for a living, whether you brought cigarettes into the country, whether you ever drove a pick-up truck, how often you ate asparagus...things like that. Once we were in, we decided we weren’t moving the car again, so SVH and I never saw Niagara Falls from the NY side. We certainly didn’t miss it, however, because the view from the Canadian side is spectacular. We checked into the Radisson, and were we ever shocked to discover our "room with a view" really had a view! The picture you see above was what we saw from the window of our room: Horseshoe Falls in all its glory, with mist shooting into the heavens. It was like having our own neverending movie of the falls playing in our room at all times.

We stayed in what I would consider to be the more chic side of Niagara Falls, Ontario. There is every chain restaurant imaginable in the area, but the hotels are all newer with some dynamic post-modern architectural features. If you’ve ever heard that the Canadian side is kitschy, that’s the area further north called Clifton Hill. There you will find cheaper hotels, arcades, movie plexes, Ripley's Believe It or Not, etc. In other words, it’s geared toward families and children. Needless to say, we immediately left that area and returned to our end of the strip. The park overlooking the falls is well manicured and adorned with flower beds and hanging baskets. At one point I couldn’t help but feel like the entire area was a pavilion at Walt Disney World, “Niagaraland” or something, it’s so pristine, and the falls so miraculous they look almost artificial. (What does that say when a natural wonder looks like it's artificial instead of the other way around?) As for the waterfalls themselves, well they are absolutely breathtaking. I can truly say that they are one of the greatest sites in the natural world that I have ever seen.

One of my favorite moments was when I woke up early and ran outside to watch the sunrise over the falls. The sun was just peeking over the horizon but barely breaking through the mist and clouds. I took pictures (one of which you see below) as it slowly rose and glowed through the ether. I looked out at the river and watched the ferocity of the water rush toward the falls. It makes a rushing noise, a sound that can only be described as the terrifying pushing roar heading toward its destiny. With an energetic burst the water poured over its cliff, and foam and mist spewed upward reaching high into the sky. Through all of this the sun continued to poke its way, creating tongues of pink and purple reaching out to lick the soft blue sky. The gold-red light made an aureole, illuminating the mist like a vortex carved through steam. It was like something J.M.W. Turner would have painted. Somewhere in the midst of all this, I had seen out of the corner of my eye a woman sit on a rock nearby, but I was so intent on watching nature I didn’t pay her much attention. My eyes were tearing, from the rays of the sun, but also from the beauty of the moment. I was struck by the grandeur of the scene, the commingling of sun, sky, water, earth, and ether. It was then that it struck me, that if ever one were to doubt the existence of God, this was all the proof they would need to believe. I heard a sigh of joy beside me, and as I turned my head I realized the woman was a nun in a white dress and black habit. I couldn't help but chuckle to myself. I almost said something to her, but she was so intent on the scene that I returned my gaze as well. Finally, the sun burst through the mist, but we remained quiet. Our amazed silence said it all.

Mr. Waugh's Gay Lovers

Soon to be released is a new biography by Paula Byrne about the British novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), author of Brideshead Revisited (1945) and many other books. Evelyn (pronounced "EVE-lin" not "EV-a-lin," as my British friend CC corrected me) Waugh isn't well known in the US except among the literati, but he is still widely read in the UK. I enjoyed reading Brideshead, and bklynbiblio readers may recall my review of the 2008 movie version. The new biography is called Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead. From the title alone, it sounds like a tell-all book that reveals juicy tidbits about his life. Sure enough, the Daily Mail has already picked up on one of the juiciest: Waugh had 3 homosexual lovers when he was a student at Oxford. Byrne names them too: Richard Pares, Alistair Graham, and Hugh Lygon (can you find names more British?). Now, on one level, this news is interesting, considering Waugh was later married twice and fathered 8 children, but also because it provides readers with a better personalized sense of Waugh's involvement with Oxford love affairs and homosexuality in general, such as how he portrays them in Brideshead. Byrne, in fact, suggests that 2 of his lovers became the models for the character of Sebastian Flyte. Waugh brought personal details of his life into his work, such as his Catholicism, and thus his bisexuality now can be seen as an active part of his personal composition and his literature. But why does this news have to be presented as if it were a great scandal? The fact that the Daily Mail extracts just this part of the biography into an article suggests a sort of National Enquirer take on this great novelist's life. Furthermore, the insistence that such affairs were just a part of his Oxford days, emphasizing their temporality, a "phase you grew out of," reinforces outdated notions that homosexuality is a choice, when for most homosexuals it is a sense of identity. Indeed, reading Brideshead it becomes clear that Waugh was well aware of this distinction: Charles dabbles in homosexuality, but characters like Sebastian and Blanche suffer for their innate homosexuality as marginalized, self-destructive figures, which is one of the great tragedies of that novel. To me, that is a much more interesting story. The point is that it's 2009: are we really shocked to discover that a famous British novelist who went to Oxford had homosexual lovers? Hardly. But instead of tabloidizing it and then apologizing for it, isn't it time we took a look at how such critical aspects of one's life (Waugh himself referred to these affairs as a form of fermentation, "to prepare you for later on--for being married") played themselves out as constructive aspects of gender and sexual identity, both in his writing and in the culture and society in which he lived? Or am I expecting too much?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lake Canandaigua

SVH knew exactly what I needed: relaxation. Our trip, first to Lake Canandaigua and then Niagara Falls, was as near to a perfectly restful holiday as I have ever had. She planned everything, from reservations to driving directions, so that when we landed, I didn’t even know the name of the lake we were heading toward. I cannot thank her enough for that. We drove around looking at all forms of nature, and we saw everything from domesticated alpaca to Amish girls riding downhill on bicycles while holding onto their bonnets blowing in the wind. We ate brunch one morning at a lovely restaurant on Main Street called Simply Crepes, and stayed at the swanky Miami Motel, a 1950s-style motor inn that the owners are renovating (alas, the jacuzzi rooms were booked already). I was amazed that there was hardly anyone at the lake (then again, my threshold of comparison to the number of people in NYC means that anything more than five feet between me and the next person is the equivalent of a mile). Lake Canandaigua (here's a map) is large in length and skinny in width. One of the group of elongated Finger Lakes in upstate New York, it is simply placid and beautiful. The picture I took above shows you the mountains around the lake and how tranquil the water is, providing everyone with opportunities for boating, fishing, and swimming.

We also took a day trip to Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion, the c.1890 summer home of Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife Mary Clark Thompson. He was a director of a bank that eventually became Citibank, and she was a socialite who traveled the world. Their Queen Anne-style home is decorated in the eclectic Aesthetic style popular at that time, incorporating everything from beautiful Asian ceramics and Native American basketry to ever-disturbing taxidermied birds (including not just one but two requisite stuffed peacocks). The numerous gardens are lovely, including a formal Italian garden and a Japanese garden with a tea house. The house eventually became a hostel for employees of a nearby hospital, and the pictures in the house showing nurses in the 1940s and 1950s wearing bathing caps and modeling with the ancient statuary were a hoot to look at.

But of course we traveled to the Finger Lakes specifically for the wedding of my dear friends DG and RL, fellow Brooklynites. The bride’s family lives around Rochester, which is why the wedding was upstate. The ceremony and reception was at Bristol Harbor, a rustic lodge and country club that overlooks the lake from the hills above. Their ceremony was simple yet elegant. They wrote it themselves, respecting the faiths of both families, but focusing foremost on their own personal beliefs. I was honored to be asked by them to do a reading during the ceremony. They wanted me to find one myself. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want the typical love stuff or rehash the same old sentiments. I wanted to find something that was special for my friends, yet could transcend the idea of a wedding so that it had a message for all. Finally, I found it, and when I showed it to them, they agreed that they loved it. The reading is called “Unlimited Friendship,” by The Buddha. I’ve transcribed the passage below, but first take a look at this great picture of us from the reception. Don’t we look fabulous?

by The Buddha
Translated by Edward Conze
From Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology, edited by Robert Haas & Stephen Mitchell

This is what should be done by the man and woman who are wise, who seek the good, and who know the meaning of the place of peace.
Let them be fervent, upright, and sincere, without conceit of self, easily contented and joyous, free of cares; let them not be submerged by the things of the world; let them not take upon themselves the burden of worldly goods; let their senses be controlled; let them be wise but not puffed up, and let them not desire great possessions even for their families. Let them do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.
May all beings be happy and at their ease. May they be joyous and live in safety.
All beings, whether weak or strong--omitting none--in high, middle, or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, born or to be born; may all beings be happy and at their ease.
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or ill-will wish harm to another.
Even as a mother watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world, above, below, and all around without limit. So let them cultivate a boundless good will toward the entire world, unlimited, free from ill-will or enmity.
Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all their waking hours, let them establish this mindfulness of good will, which is the highest state.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lakes and Falls

The picture you see here is the 1857 painting Niagara by the American artist Frederic Edwin Church, a work owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Church made an international career for himself in the 19th century by painting large-scale scenes of the American landscape. He was part of the so-called Hudson River school. His pictures capture the wild essence of nature in all its pristine and sublime beauty. This painting of Niagara Falls is no exception. You can hear the roar of the water, feel the chill dank atmosphere of the dark sky, but then wonder at the sunlight that shines through and illuminates the foam of the rushing water. I wonder if my experience will be as captivating. SVH and I are on our way to Canandaigua Lake, part of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, for the DG-RL wedding, and then she and I are going on our own "honeymoon" to Niagara Falls. I'm really looking forward to relaxing and embracing nature--and good friends--for a few days.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Elgin Marbles: Ownership & Installation

In the early 19th century, Lord Elgin traveled to Athens, discovered marble fragments of sculpture on the Acropolis, and negotiated with the then-governing power, the Ottoman Empire, for the removal of the marbles. He shipped them back to his home in Scotland, where word spread about their beauty. Those who had been on the Grand Tour had seen Rome, so they were familiar with the Colosseum, the Forum, and Trajan's Column. But these new works from ancient Greece, hundreds of years older than Rome, were considered a marvel to behold. Elgin sold the marbles to the British government in 1816 because he was facing bankruptcy and needed to liquidate his assets. This act of desperation, however, became one of the greatest gifts of cultural heritage in the history of the Western world.

The simplicity and purity of the 5th-century BCE fragments of marble sculpture from the Parthenon became world famous once they were installed in the British Museum. And there they have sat since then, with tourists, artists, writers, art historians, and classicists visiting them for nearly 200 years. For more than 20 years now, the Greek government has been arguing for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The opening of the state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens has brought the dilemma of what to do with the sculpture into the forefront of cultural debates. This new museum does house the parts of the marbles that Elgin left behind, and the Greeks have been fighting to have them reunited with the larger portion that is in London. The debate seems to divide people. Those in favor of Greece getting them back see it as a form of patriotism. Those in support of the British recognize that the sculpture has had a new life in modern times thanks to Elgin, the works having influenced generations of art and literature production, and can now be seen in the context of other world cultures. What really is at stake here for the museum world is the ongoing debate over who owns cultural artifacts: museums who obtained them (legally or illegally), or modern-day nations that claim to have a right to repatriate the cultural artifacts of their ancestors. It is worth pointing out that neither the British nor the Greeks seem to be squabbling over how Elgin obtained the marbles. Nothing was apparently done illegally; the Ottomans had the right to sell them if they wished.

I have to confess, I'm somewhere in the middle of all this, but I seem to lean more on the side of the British Museum. I do see both sides of the argument. However, I feel as if the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece will open a proverbial can of worms, and museums around the world will begin to be forced to return millions of objects. It would shift cultural studies and economies in ways that one cannot even begin to imagine. It isn't as if change is bad. It could be good. But in truth many of these countries like Greece are only now just beginning to establish themselves economically in a way that they can properly house the artifacts and still make them available to the public at large. The British Museum may not be willing to return the sculpture, but they continue to want to engage in discussions over a loan exchange program with the Greek government. Apparently the Greeks are not willing. You can read more about all this and the new museum by reading these articles from The New York Times: "A Home for the Marbles" by Christopher Hitchens and "Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light" by Michael Kimmelman. CultureGrrl also had a recent post on the British Museum Director's "whopper" of a comment regarding the Greek government on the debate.

When I was in London I thought it might be interesting to take a few pictures of the Elgin Marbles, not so much as objects, but as an installation. Part of the discussion about the marbles has to do with how they are (or would be) exhibited. One of the things I discovered as I walked throughout the entire gallery is that the British Museum is definitely on the offensive about staking its rightful claim. One of the introductory wall labels in the gallery reads: "Elgin's removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the [Parthenon] has always been a matter for discussion, but one thing is certain--his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution. It is also thanks to Elgin that generations of visitors have been able to see the sculptures at eye level rather than high up on the building. In London and Athens the sculptures tell different and complementery stories. In Athens they are part of a museum that focuses upon the ancient history of the city and its Acropolis. In the British Museum, they are part of a world museum, where they can be connected with other ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt, Assyria, and Persia." Here's a picture of one of the other wall labels to educate visitors about the construction of the Parthenon and its respective sculpted parts: the frieze, the metopes, and the pedimental figures.

This is an image of the frieze. Sculpted in low-relief, the frieze ran around the inner wall of the Parthenon and was one continuous scene. The image at the very top is just one panel from the frieze. In the background of this shot you can see the sculpture from the east pediment.

Here is a shot of the free-standing pedimental sculpture. I have no idea who the man is, but he serves to give you a good sense of high high the sculpture is on the pedestal. In the background are two of the metopes that decorated the outside of the temple separated by architectural triglyphs.

Finally, this is one of the metopes depicting the battle of the Greeks and Centaurs (half-man/half-horse creatures). These were carved in high-relief, making the figures practically pop out of their frame as if they were free-standing sculptures as well. And here's the crux of all this. Did you know that all of this sculpture was at one time painted? The only reason why it's white today is because the paint has faded.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

London 2009 - Part 3

I saw this magnet in the gift shop at Buckingham Palace and I decided I had to add it to the collection on my refrigerator. Admittedly, at £3.95 it was a bit expensive, but I figured, what the hell, this Queen is worth it! (I’m talking about Elizabeth II, of course.)

So speaking of Buckingham Palace, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the State Rooms were open for visits. They only do this for two months of the year, late July until late September, and only started it a few years ago to help pay for restoration work at Windsor Castle after the fire there in 1992. Buckingham Palace only became an official royal residence in the early 1800s under George IV, but since then it has served as the primary residence of the monarch. It underwent a major expansion during Victoria’s reign to accommodate her growing family. Today it is Elizabeth II’s primary residence and the site for all official state receptions and events. The student rate of £15 was a hefty price to get in, but I am glad I did it. As you move from room to room with your audio headset guide, you’re led through some of the most stunning architectural spaces, most designed by John Nash in an ornately Neoclassical style. There are elaborately decorated plaster ceilings, columns covered in faux lapis lazuli, and gilding everywhere. It is truly an impressive experience. Even the throne room is set up like a stage, with Elizabeth’s and Philip’s chairs embroidered with their initials raised on a dais. I was equally impressed by the artwork hanging in the galleries, including Old Master paintings by Vermeer and Rubens and many works by the 19th-century German painter Winterhalter, who made a career painting the British aristocracy in a highly idealized fashion. There’s also a hall full of marble statues, most commissioned by Victoria and Albert from artists of the day like Gibson, Theed, Thornycroft, and others. In another room, there was a special exhibition celebrating Elizabeth II’s tours around the world since coming to the throne in 1952. She is the most traveled British monarch. Gifts from nations in the Commonwealth were displayed beside the gowns she wore on many of these state visits. Fashionistas like to make fun of the Queen’s wardrobe, but it turns out that pictures don’t do her clothes justice. She had some stunning ballgowns during the 1950s and 1960s.

And just when you thought I might have had enough of the aristocracy, I also went to the British Library to see the exhibition Henry VIII: Man and Monarch. The exhibition celebrates the 500th anniversary of his coming to the throne at the age of 17 in the year 1509. I’ve written on Tudor-related topics on the blog before (see my reviews on The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors), and this exhibition certainly feeds into the perpetual popularity of the overweight monarch who had six wives (two of whom he executed) and established the Church of England. But it also tries to show that he was a Renaissance man. Walk into the exhibition and a wall panel tells you quite boldly what to expect: “This is the Henry VIII of myth and legend. But Henry the monstrous, bloated tyrant with a face like Humpty-Dumpty of nightmare is only one of many Henrys. There’s also Henry the handsome, idealistic prince[,] the devoted son and husband, the scholar, poet, musician, friend and lover.” The exhibition was quite engaging. I’m so used to visiting art exhibitions and looking at paintings and sculptures that looking at manuscripts, plates, books, letters, documents, and the products of material culture on display here took me nearly two hours to fully appreciate it. Two of my favorite parts of the exhibition were Henry’s beautifully designed portable writing desk and a love letter to Anne Boleyn in his own hand. But one must appeal to the kids as well, and since Henry was an avid jouster, they have a setup where children can look through an armor helmet, ride a pretend horse, and lift a wooden lance, all while watching a video segment of a joust from the point of view of the knight. Needless to say, I had to experience it, so I forced a little girl off the horse so I could get on (hey, come on, she had had her turn!). Let me tell you, that lance was unbelievably heavy! And to think they wore armor too. I don’t know how they did it. I’m now in awe at their resilience and apparent strength. I guess Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Henry Cavill do have the bodies of Tudor men! The exhibition closes on September 6th. Click here for the online exhibition website.