Monthly Archives: September 2011

Mountain Time

Unwittingly, even ignorantly in topographic terms, we took a turn through New England and were surprised by the “range” of mountainous terrains. (And mountains don’t exactly sneak up on you. Besides, they are indicated on maps.) So, stupidly and simply, wow! Truly, though, it is hard to get a physical sense of such things on a map. This trip had its own built-in quests that were calculated and planned and full of expectations. Sometimes the joy of discovery is the anticipation, the imagining followed by the actualizing and, finally, the measuring of the two – a balance sheet of whether the thinking about is better than the doing, or vice versa. But the unanticipated joys, either large or small, can often be the most memorable part of travel. Like finding mountains.

For someone who purportedly loves mountains, I had no idea what was in store for me. Living in the mid-Atlantic region, I tend to think of the coastal states as being flat-ish lowlands, floodplains, sandbar shores intermingling with the sea. Maine disabused me of that notion. (As did Mark Twain; stopping off at his Hartford home, we were reminded that he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”)

Maine’s mountains meet the water on their own terms, spruce and pine emerging from speckled granite; the rock/paper/scissors game comes to mind, especially when the logging trucks come toward you on highways (yikes!). In Acadia National Park there are more than twenty mountains, individually named but lacking a range name. The tallest is Cadillac, at 1,530 feet. We didn’t set out to do this, but we climbed it. The views are well worth it. This climb turned out to be a highlight (no pun intended) of the trip. Especially on the descent, when we attempted the rarely used, barely accessible and minimally marked west trail. It set forth challenges and we became intimately involved with the mountain, both on top and on its varied flanks. One of us has a bruise to remember it by. Both of us have a sense of accomplishment, a memory of pounding hearts and a deeper understanding of the landscape and nature’s power.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are awesome and rugged, comparatively. Also, very much higher, considering that they have numerous four-thousand-footers and that those are then towered over by the renowned Mt. Washington, of bumper-sticker fame. As does its namesake, the tallest mountain seems to wear the same white wig made of clouds, preventing one from ever viewing its summit. And that explains its reputation for consistently having the worst weather in the States. These White Mountains possess a breathtaking beauty that can be matched only out West, yet in New Hampshire their presence feels more compressed and dense, adding to their intensity. In the East, you don’t have the same distant vistas of mountains before you enter their domain. (Kind of the same idea as when seeing whole trains out West and only partial trains in the East.)

Generally, when driving, our choice is to avoid interstates – the eunuchs of roads – but instead traverse the state routes and parkways, the older byways that knew what a road’s purpose was: to delight and surprise the occupants of the vehicles and to find unique approaches for going through and around things like mountains, as opposed to just slicing straight through, all in the service of connecting you in a less intrusive and more tangible way to the countryside. The most spectacular road of our journey was New Hampshire State Route 3, now partially eaten up by I-93, skinnying through Franconia Notch – happily unable to be widened further. Literally a mountain pass, for 12-15 miles I-93 is a parkway that winds between the cleavage-like high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges much like a log flume. The road reveals that the lower parts of mountains can be as spectacular as the tops on our roller coaster ride along nature’s splendor in tandem with human engineering.

Vermont’s Green Mountains are comparable in stature to the Whites (except for the one), although they appear a bit mellower, softer, rounder than their neighbors to the east. Surprisingly, they are, as are some of the other ranges mentioned, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Their greenness, it seems, is because of the density of coniferous trees, creating a rolling rise and fall with fuzzy edges. The softer flow of this group makes for a picture-postcard photo-op, as houses and small villages live in harmony with the surrounding topography; and these natural limitations make for a saner balance of man(made) and mountain. The intrusion of bare lawn swaths of ski slopes are a little dismaying, as if a large-toothed, sharp-edged comb had raked down the mountainsides – the visual counterpart of fingernails dragged over a blackboard. In situations of nature versus nurture in this country, one has to have a sense of relativity: ski slopes are better than the wholesale timber trade which once denuded entire mountains. So, even with the bizarre grooved effect, it is preferable to scalping.

Going through the Berkshires and on to the Catskills, we are descending in size and scale, as well as latitude, but we are ascending in esteem. This area is considered a plateau, and whatever its codification, there is nothing more beautiful than the Catskill range in juxtaposition to the picture-perfect Hudson Valley. The mountains’ perspectival palette of greens into blues, sometimes going to purples with hints of yellows are so lovely as to leave one dumbstruck. The entirety looks moss-covered, a kind of giant Japanese-garden woodland. There is an appearance of comfort and calm in their curvaceous form and a magnetism that is inescapable for some of us so attuned. In the New York Highlands, just below the Catskills, gumdrop-like mountains erupt as guardians along the Hudson Valley. And, once again, we find ourselves climbing – Schunnemunk Mountain this time, our second ridge this summer. (Funny, considering that we have climbed zero up until this year.) With its unusual “pudding stone” and long and graceful waterfalls, and views of the Hudson that rival Maine’s coast, it is a long hike but worth it, nearly 1,700 feet. At this rate, maybe next it will be Mt. Washington.

All the mountains are sculpted earth; shaped uniquely by upheavals and slow compression, they are lovely, awe-inspiring, some maybe a bit fear-inducing. Their special placeness must be a result of genius loci, they and their settings creating a powerful arslocii.

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Art: Being a Where

The current surgical separation of Netflix’s conjoined-twin business-model offerings – disk and streaming – has got me to thinking about how I partake of the arts these days, and why, for me, the joy of the experience has diminished.

It’s not my advanced age that’s at the heart of the problem, although there is a degree of been-there-done-that that makes so much of what’s new seem so referential, like merely familiar subsets of what’s old. And it’s not because music and movies are worse than they used to be – or not just because of that.

No, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my dissatisfaction, even borderline alienation, has to do with placeness.

One aspect of this needs to be mentioned and, as it is not wholly central to things, dispensed with right off the bat. I used to dismiss as silly those recorded-music aficionados who felt that the reproduction on vinyl LPs was superior to the digital form. They claimed that, despite the cracks and pops and hisses that records are heir to, there was a “warmth” to them, a fidelity that was as true as it was “high,” and that the ones and zeroes of digital reproduction set down musical performance in a way that was chilly and superficial and, in terms of position, without anchor or referent. Lately, I’ve come around to the former way of thinking. Digital recordings provide tones and voices that are clear as a bell … but where is that bell, exactly? There is a scrubbed-clean sameness to much of the digital, but listening to vinyl you can actually feel the room in which the music was recorded; you perceive, through echo or a muffling or something, a locational aspect to the music-making – whether in studio, auditorium or  outdoor venue – that gives the listener a dimension of experience that an MP3 lacks: placeness, in a word, in the sense of feeling, even subliminally, that you are in that place with that performer. It is like what the sense of umami is to taste: an enhancer, a presence, that fills the empty spaces among the other components.

But, even more to the placeness point is the dwindling importance of the tangible and the environmental; in other words, the physical aspects. The portability, the ubiquity, the availability of digital files – on an iPod or iPad, via iTunes or other “stores” – is so enticing, such a leap forward in mass distribution … but, basically, I want to be able to hold a CD or DVD, I want to feel a paper book. I love the concept of “the cloud,” but I lack sufficient trust in anything I can’t touch, possess, collect – be with, look at, identify as “mine.” Yet more, I want to have a place where those paper books, or recorded movies, or captured performances reside, in toto and as separately selectable items; that is, a library, or a shelving unit, or a rack. I prefer my collections to have three dimensions, solidity and proximity. More than clicking on wheels or tapping on a touchscreen – both amazing technologies, don’t get me wrong – I want to look around me and see (and smell) my books, go to a wall and pull out the CD I want, open a door and check out my DVDs. I am no Luddite; in fact, I am an early adopter (I adopted early-adopting early); at the least, I am an early desirer. I see the benefits of the new (many if not most of them accruing to the manufacturers and distributors), but deep down I cling to the creature comforts, the humanness, the context – the placeness – of the old way. I want, as the overused Stein-ism goes, some there there.

And though I have marveled at the everywhereness of new technology since my first  Sony Walkman, what I need to satisfy my need for placeness is place, a specific place, where the recorded media are displayed for my enjoyment. The ability to carry a player and/or a screen with you wherever you go to distract you wherever you are is a miracle of leisure-time democratic principle. But, for me, listening to music via earplugs in a public place, or watching a movie on a small screen on a hurtling bus, is nothing more than boredom-busting. To truly appreciate, even revere, a work of art, one needs to see it in a place designed for it to be seen or heard. By that I don’t mean only concert halls or movie theaters, though those are the best placeness places for such things (if they weren’t doing their jobs, they wouldn’t have been around for so long), if you could eliminate the annoying people factor; but in addition to those arenas, I believe that one needs to designate a place – a special room, a special section of a room – that is set aside to listen to music in, or read a book by the light of. I believe that there ought to be, if one can swing it, a special room or area the sole use of which is to watch movies in, with, if possible, some other spot in which to watch television. Formality of venue imbues a recorded medium with a special status, a properness, a location that lets us receive it in the spirit in which it was given, grant it the respect it desires and occasionally deserves – not treat it as some casual afterthought on the walk to work but as worthy of our complete attention, in an environment that focuses that attention and rewards our participation.

I love the streaming offerings of Netflix, sent via Roku box to my TV screen. But I have no intention of having them replace my getting of disks, as well. I will push a remote-control button and watch a streamed movie – that will be entertainment; but I will also slip the white envelope out from the larger red Netflix (soon to be Qwikster) envelope, slide the gleaming disk from the sleeve, feel it in my hands, carry it over to the DVD player, have the player’s drawer slide out to receive the disk and then slide back in. And then have the fruits of my very human, tactile process come up on the screen, and let the placeness envelop me.

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Sniffing Serra

Having visited Dia:Beacon several times, (and it isn’t nearby) I am continually surprised by what I find there. The space is overwhelming, with huge, cavernous rooms and hallways, all in giant scale; the light is ethereal, whether delivered indirectly through the clerestory windows, or directly through window walls where some of the glass is textured in a fractured opacity and just their clear central panes allow outdoors glimpses and sunlight to penetrate the monastic ambiance. And, too, the visual array of artworks (because that is the point, right?), from Robert Ryman’s all-white canvases to Richard Serra’s monoliths of hard and rusting steel, tempt you in every conceivable way with sui generis sensuousness and mystery.

But, as all these other senses are fully engaged, so fully that at times you want to cry or fall to your knees or just feel the vibration and disappear into the energy that each piece and each space is emitting, suddenly, this visit, there is the realization that one sense that had been formerly neglected I am now experiencing – smell. Olfaction. Yes, smelling art.

When I was in art school I smelled art everywhere. Every classroom and, later, every studio had a smell – a particular smell: oil paint, clay, acrylic paint, printmaking ink, sawdust, welding fumes. Largely, these were toxic smells of chemical reactions, but to anyone who spent time breathing them they were the smells of creativity. The smells are so universal and have become such a part of the fabric of art-making that I can walk into any artist’s studio and smell the familiar, immediately bouncing me back to a connected past with my school days. This is generally not the case in the more staid museums; everything is so controlled, often encased, air-quality adjusted and purified.

But, at Dia, I was noticing olfactory changes as I drifted from room to room, artist to artist, material to material. I became excited by this added layer of experiencing the works and the spaces they occupy. Often the inner, windowless rooms there have a stillness with an odor that accompanies the unmoving air. As I became more acclimated to the smells, I realized that each artwork had its own individual smell and that, when clustered in groups, or when massive enough to stand alone, there was a very noticeable odor associated with the galleries they inhabited and imparted to them. At first it was a vague awareness of changes in the air, then I started to home in on trying to “explain” or dissect what it was I was inhaling. I became acutely aware in Imi Knoebel’s Raum 19, a construction of wooden shapes and paint stretchers with that sweet, old lumber fragrance. Something you would smell in a bone-dry attic, with hints of Masonite and fir emanating from old pieces of furniture.

With Agnes Martin, one would expect the smell of both linseed oil and acrylics, of course, but here they were faint, light, clear and pale – just like her canvases; whereas Robert Ryman’s works, whether room-size or small scale, had the presence of all smells. And On Kawara’s Today Series, daily paintings from 1966 to 2000, had an indistinct smell, a blurring of the years. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes had the whiff of heated dust combined with an electronic or solder pungency. While Joseph Beuys’ stacks of felt had, what else – wool, reminiscent of a formerly wet dog now dried, dust coatings and aged socks or mittens. Donald Judd’s Untitled (1976), was, as expected, plywood scented but almost minty in its intensity. And when the setting sun blasted through the clerestory above the minimal box constructions and the oils in the wood heated up, it was like a plywood sawmill without the dust, in the permeating aroma.

And so, I wondered, what about Richard Serra, could his pieces possibly have a fragrance? His monoliths of steel, a material that would seem almost inert except for oxidation: slabs of some natural mineral ores blended into a manufactured structural product? What smell could they possibly have? Hey, though, remember the plywood of Judd. (And right here I must confess to Serra being a favorite, so I really wanted the giant pieces to smell like something.) Union of the Torus and the Sphere sits in a kind of hallway and as close as I allowed my nose to scan it, there was, disappointingly, just a hint of something, at spots, a mild rust smell. I hurried downstairs to the Torqued Ellipses, his wonderful massive herd of shapes which you enter, are labyrinthine and so meditative that you get dizzy inside them. I took a deep breath; inhaled a dry cave, desiccated even. I smelled the rust, stronger now because I was inside the steel chamber and the enclosed air was more concentrated. There were distinct chalk-like odors, hints of dry mold as in cheese. Ah, yes, a fine blend, so fine I wanted to drink it in.

And once again I find placeness: in smell. It is said that smell is the most vivid sense memory. I hope to be sniffing Serra for many years to come.

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My Way Home

What is coincidence?

Not, I mean, its definition but, rather, where it belongs in our limited ability to pigeonhole. Is it an element of time? Well, sure, you need to have one thing happen or be seen, and then another, so as to have the set-up and, later, the comparison. But, it seems to have more than just mere chronological procession, with a surprise twist. Is it, then, a force, like gravity, or, less scientifically, like deja vu or precognition, or, dare I say it, Fate? Or is it a place – a place of comfort where things link and make sense and have some order in what appears to be a disorderly universe … a place where one needs to be in order for the click of connection to occur? Or is it all these, and more, in a mess of a metaphysical mashup … or none of these, but instead some involving thing as yet undiscovered and unimagined? Or, maybe, life is entirely made up of coincidence, that it is the brick and the mortar of consciousness and learning and meaning, and that we only perceive it and invoke its name when it is too obvious for our small minds to ignore.

Temporal? Physical? Mystical? Personal? Universal?

Whatever it is, or does, however it gathers together its powers and conjures, or doesn’t, there it was – coincidence – thick in the air and, first of all, on the air, on the radio, as we made our way throughout New England in our recent arslocii-driven road trip. 

Those who are young enough to have made their car trips serenaded solely by music stored on and reproduced from CDs, or MP3s, have missed the curiously quaint and painful exploration and depressing joy of being aurally imprisoned on long stretches of remote road with nothing but whatever the car radio can pick up. You drive, one hand on the steering wheel, the other – forefinger extended – poking at the “search” button, looking for something, anything, palatable, possible, to listen to for a while: no Mr. Rights, mostly Mr. Right Nows. To find a station with great music is your hope, and, should you find it, sweet sorrow, because before too long it begins to fuzz and fade, and then it’s gone, and you are back to the hunt: press–talk; press–twang; press–ad, press–ad, press–ad, press–ad; press–classic rock? No, contemporary country; press … . Like the definition of insanity, like the rat in a lab experiment, you keep pressing the button, running the dial’s full spectrum, bottom to top, and then round back to bottom and up the numbers again – press, press, press; maybe this time around, you think, it will be different, all channels miraculously changed, the demagogue at 98.6 supplanted, wondrously, by all-Beatles-all-the-time. You find yourself pausing at stations – programmed in some central studio somewhere and shipped to stations throughout the states, with only locally inserted commercials differentiating them and telling you where you are or are within earshot of – playing collections of oldies, mostly from the ‘70s and ‘80s (which, to those a certain age, seem less like oldies than middle-ies) that they’re packaging as “The Music of Your Time” or “The Soundtrack of Your Life.” And you realize what an immensely inane life you must have lived if this is its soundtrack.

And, suddenly, frighteningly, you find yourself, desperate for connection, singing, loudly, surely, and, you imagine, wonderfully, “Precious and few are the moments we two can share …” and you hate yourself for actually enjoying doing this, for actually knowing – a full two decades since you’d last heard it – all the words, perfectly, all the “ooh-oohs” and precisely when they drop into the song. You despise yourself for remembering and precisely rendering the harmony line … at the top of your lungs. It is dreck, and you know it, but it is your soundtrack, and, there in the far mountains, in a remote valley, in a world of static, it is your lifeline. You would give anything to hear even Chicago, even “Does Anybody Ever Really Know What Time It Is?” Even that. You would give a pint of blood to hear “Walk Away, Renee.” 

Press–no. Press–no. Press–absolutely no. Press–no, never, ever. Press–uh, maybe … no. Press–n… wait! And there, somewhere in Connecticut, or maybe it was when we’d crossed into Massachusetts … instantly recognizable, as familiar as a heartbeat, as much a part of my life as anything I’d actually done … a note of the true soundtrack of my soul: “… and I (clash!) can’t find my-y way ho-o-o-ome, and I (pause) can’t find way wa-ay home.” Stevie Winwood. Blind Faith. One of the great rock songs of all time. Clapton. Ginger Baker. Ric Grech. You sing along, this time with feeling and fervor, because this means something to you – you don’t just know this song but, somehow, it knows you. And you sing, as he does, “cahn’t find my way home” although your whole life you have pronounced “can’t” as though the “ca” were the same as in the word “cairn.” No matter – you say “cahn’t,” and can clearly envision that still-slightly-disturbing and weird topless barely pubescent girl on the album cover, and it all brings back how exciting it felt when this music first hit, and you were first-hitting, too. Inscrutable lyrics reflecting the late 60s’ disillusionment, dissolution, even loss and directionlessness, echoes of not just folk music but ancient troubadours … “and I’m wasted and I cahn’t find my way home.”

And then it was done. That’s all we heard – flicking around the dial (although one no longer flicks, and there are no longer any dials), we’d come upon the song, like finding a friend adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean – in its final 42 seconds. The dismay of its ending so close on the heels of the excitement felt upon its belated beginning. Joltingly returned to the world of press–no and “Sugar, Sugar.”

But, eerily, every day of the rest of our journey through New England, occasionally twice a day, but never the same time each day, out on the road, searching, pressing and rejecting, “I can’t find my way home” would suddenly pop up and greet us, on different frequencies and far different locales … and always, always, we would catch it in its last 42 seconds. Bizarre to just short of the point of plan or profundity, almost to the note, to the syllable, we would collide, confer and depart. It became a joke – maybe these radio stations were playing only the last 42 seconds and we were actually catching it from the start. But we ached to hear the song whole, from its first solo guitar to fade out. Just once.

On our next-to-last day, after long hours of fast driving just to make time, in late afternoon we rolled into North Adams, Massachusetts, and to a converted factory complex that is Mass MoCA: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Though museums are like lobsters – the good stuff is inside the hard shell (and is acquired only by being accompanied by a lot of hot air), our quest was, as usual, to explore the outdoor art, the sculpture and earthworks dotting and, with luck, enhancing the periphery of the art building. Alas, there is not much there, not much that’s good, and some no longer intact or functioning. But we followed the directions of a Mass MoCA employee, wound our way behind the main building, where, in an old, abandoned structure – the Boiler Plant – full of long pipes and woven conduit, several flights up steel stairs and connected to this building by a narrow walkway, sort of hanging off the building and propped up on long, spindly trestle legs, was Michael Oatman’s seasonal installation “All Utopias Fell.”

It is, at first sight, the perfect typification of the sort of thing that makes your eyes roll in exasperation with what passes these days as “art”: artspeak made solid, and less a testament to aesthetics or creative thought than to the artist’s ability to play the game required to convince a grant-giving organization to loosen its grip. What it is is an Airstream trailer that’s been tricked out to pretend to be, as accompanying material explains, “a 1970s-era ‘satellite’ that has crash-landed at Mass MoCA … with large parachutes and active solar panels … hybridizing a domestic space, a laboratory and a library, it has the feel of a hermitage, where the occupant will ‘be right back,’ only it is 30 years later.”

Yes. Well. Oh, brother. Another one of those – humorless humor, meaningless meaning,  flatline satire, ponderous triviality, fueled by misperceived self-importance. Well, we were there, we’d made the investment of climbing stairs (although, luckily, not the investment of hard-earned cash) and, so, we ducked our heads into the Airstream doorway for what we assumed would be a few seconds of disdainful perusal before making our yikes-filled escape.

Except – it was fascinating. A clever and droll and, actually, challenging piece. George Lucas, describing the scenic design of the first Star Wars, said, “The future should look used.” And, so it was here. Oatman had created a strange retro-future quasi-tomb, almost the result of an archeological dig, something thrown into the present from yesterday by way of tomorrow. Images of the 1939 World’s Fair’s signature Trylon and Perisphere, all sorts of wall scrawlings and images, lots of worn tech, a hippie-ish stained-glass window, the homey touch of a shelf of put-up tomatoes in Mason jars. And all, all of these objects and more, seemed to be referring directly to us and our lives: we are enthralled by the ’39 fair, our home-canned tomatoes look precisely like those on that shelf, the lounge chair in the “capsule” is exactly the model of the same chair we have at home. Everywhere we turned inside that customized trailer – so full and tight that turning was difficult – we seemed to be looking at a deconstruction of our own life, our own inner musings and inclinations and experiences. It was as if “All Utopias Fell” was made for us – like the mentalist in a show who shoots a balloon inside which is an envelope containing the card you’d secretly picked earlier. It seemed to anticipate us. 

I made my way slowly, farther back into the Airstream, amid shelves and flickering TV screens and detritus from a future passed. Then – hiss/click, hiss/click, hiss/click … . A sound I knew so well, a sound I hadn’t heard for years. There, down a bit and to my left: a turntable, an LP revolving on it, the tone arm stuck in the smooth, blank space between the end of the groove and the center spindle hole. Hiss/click, hiss/click.

And, as I looked to see what record it was, my eye was caught by something on a ledge below the turntable – the album cover for what was spinning above it. On the cover: the blue of a sky and a white puffy cloud, curly red-ish hair … I pulled the upside-down cover out from the shelf. The dull-expressioned pubescent half-nude girl holding a chrome jet plane stared blankly back at me.

I shifted my gaze to the record, and recognized the label, many years since I’d seen it last. I lifted the tone arm and gently, out of practice, placed it where I knew it should go and what would happen. From some speaker in this art environment, I heard the familiar guitar opening, and then the voice: “Come down off your thro-o-one and leave your body alo-o-one, somebody must change …”

And for 3 minutes and 16 seconds – not in my car, not traveling at 70 mph, not dictated to by mocking fate but, finally, being the recipient of its generosity, I listened to the entirety of “Can’t Find My Way Home.”

From our trip, I brought back home lots of photos, new memories, a sense of accomplishment – and the knowledge that I’d briefly visited a place where, for some reason beyond my pool of understanding and logic, what was, what is and what will be connected, met up, for the first time or again and, somehow, I was there when this co-incidence happened, either witness or participant, or maybe even creator.

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