I accompanied Melissa up to New York this past weekend. She was attending BlogHer. I wasn’t. I didn’t announce being there with her because a) I wasn’t attending Blogher, just along for the ride; and b) I don’t like broadcasting to the world via Twitter or Facebook or other methods on teh interwebs when we’re both out-of-town because I prefer to keep my home unburgled. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun to exist on the fringes of BlogHer—it was great getting a moment to see Jodi, Sarah, Cecily, Calliope and to even share a few meals with Lori (and meet Sheri). I was arm candy at a party in honor of Flotsam‘s book and got to meet Amalah and Jason—and have the quintessential DC-conversation in New York with him about how we commute to work; and then had an unexpectedly intense if brief conversation with Linda about the ways we rationalize why one person survives a trauma—be it illness or violence—while others do not. I didn’t spend any real time at the conference, but from the catalog of encounters above it is easy to see why the people who spend the whole three or four days there come out so overwhelmed.
What did I do? I got my culture on.
On Friday I went to visit a colleague at The Jewish Museum and checked out their David Goldblatt exhibit of South African photographs. They were extraordinary both for the beauty of their composition and for the way he communicated the everyday-ness of life under apartheid. I was particularly blown-away by this photo, which was part of the exhibit dedicated to Goldblatt’s study of Afrikaners and reflected the mix of reverence and revulsion he held for them. At first glance, this photo is a charming shot of three children out on a family picnic, with an older child cradling a toddler sucking on a bottle, while a third, middle-child lays sprawled on a blanket. Look with slightly more attention and you see that the eldest child is in-fact holding a (toy?!) gun to the toddler’s forehead and suddenly the prone figure of the middle-child looks more like the imitation of a fresh corpse than a serene napper. All children play with guns, but there is something so disturbing and ironic about this photograph, taken in 1965, at the height of apartheid regime, so reflective of its self-destructive arrogance and so telling of the sickness that had infected its culture.
The next day I met my sister and we spent the morning at MoMA visiting Matisse: Radical Invention 1913—1917. One of the most interesting parts of the exhibit was being able to view four sculptures, each entitled Back (I, II, III & IV) that Matisse created over the course of twenty years. Each version of Back began as a plaster cast of the previous version and then evolved to reflect the different ways of depicting the figure from soft curves to harsh angles, from Cubist sectioning of the figure to a smooth, representational, almost totemic creation that made me think of primitive fertility goddesses. The Art Institute of Chicago (where I hung out during BlogHer09) co-created the show and has a fascinating breakdown of the four Backs on their site. I was blown-away by how one can view over twenty years of artistic development through iterations of a single piece. As a writer, I suppose it would be like having Arthur Miller write Death of a Salesman four different times—except no one would want to hear that, whereas Matisse’s Backs are endlessly fascinating.
After lunch with my sister and brother I met my brother-in-law at the Ziegfield Theater to catch a matinee of Inception. A lot has been blogged about this film both pro and con. I have to say that I come out somewhere in the middle. I loved all the performances in the film and the effects were especially well-done, but the story was too-complicated by half and the cinematic quotes of other films, particularly 2001, were a bit unnecessary. The film seemed most comfortable with its nods towards James Bond films which made its “artier” references seemed contrived (which, lest we forget, true to the film, they were). I’ll give the final word on the movie to my always-hilarious brother-in-law who described the role played by Michael Caine as the part normally portrayed by Sydney Pollack (may he rest in peace).
Saturday I got up intending to walk over to the East Side and catch the subway up to the Met or the Guggenheim (I was undecided as to which). On my way to the 6 train I discovered much to my delight that Park Avenue had been closed from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Instead of city traffic there was a steady parade of bicyclists, runners and plain old walkers moving up and down the avenue, enjoying their temporary liberation of a motorized stronghold. So I started walking and before I knew it I was up by Central Park at 72nd Street and then just as suddenly up at the Met, where I didn’t feel like stopping, so I went the next few blocks and rewarded myself for the long walk with a knish from the street vendor parked out front of the Guggenheim.
The Guggenheim’s major exhibit right now is a show called Haunted which examines how contemporary photography uses different methods to “embod[y] a melancholic longing for an unrecuperable past.” It is a pretty vast show that spirals upward with a broad range of artists — there’s plenty to connect with, along with some stuff that made me shrug my shoulders and say, “whatever.” One piece I found fascinating was a series done by Sarah Anne Johnson called Tree Plantings which both documents through photographs a program where Canadian young adults spend a year re-foresting Manitoba and also captures the ephemeral nature of this profound, identity-forming experience through a series of diorama-like photos that recreate scenes that feel like nostalgia even as they are happening. It reminded me of my post-collegiate year in Israel volunteering on Project Otzma, an experience that was pivotal to my becoming the person I am today, and which though it only occupied 10-months in-time, continues to hold a place of mythological proportions in my memory. The earnestness of her subjects and the raw youth and unbridled strength of their activities is juxtaposed by the naïve recreations of these moments in time that are so crucial to the participants and yet shot-through with nostalgia. You sense the physical isolation in the presence of an overwhelming landscape, the intimacy of the group as a response, and the community, friendships, love affairs and visceral embrace of simple existence that mark an unreplicable moment in time. It is an archetypal experience and yet rendered so personally as to avoid making its portrayal cloying or pat. I loved it.
Parachuting back into the Hilton I couldn’t help but find the similarities to what I imagine some experience from BlogHer (although with so many sponsorships and swag bags the parallels are limited). It is a brief, intense experience, that exposes some to a feeling of intense community and shared purpose and that all-too-soon expels its inhabitants back into a reality where those bonds and their intangible rewards are harder to come-by. Sure, on the one-hand it’s just another conference with everyone looking to play the angles for themselves the best they can. But looking-in from the outside, it is also possible to see the pivotal role this moment plays for some, and how the memories they carry forward will inhabit a central part in a self-made mythology.
So, no, I wasn’t really AT Blogher. But I’ve been there.