My dad brought us a 2-DVD set on Gaudi. The main title is made by Hiroshi Teshigahara(勅使河原宏) in 1984, but it’s more interesting to consider the 4 pieces in chronological order.

  1. Ken Russell 1961: a quite banal black-and-white one like a tourism infomercial, nothing eccentric that you may expect from the director.
  2. Teshigahara 1969: a silent 16mm study for the trip the director took with his father, founder of a distinct school of Ikebana. It spent a long time on the unfinished church in the industrial semi-utopia Colònia Güell.
  3. Teshigahara 1984: the title piece, which is mostly just an expanded version of the study. The more interesting (or less boring) part is the sound track. For a large part the sound trembled so much that we thought it’s remastered from bad tape, but instead it’s just Toru Takemitsu(武満徹)’s signature tremolando.
  4. God’s Architect by BBC, narrated by Robert Hughes, 2002. With Hughes’s signature irreverent comments, it’s the longest and most interesting of the 4. The most fun one is from his conversation with a Spanish artist who said Sagrada Familia is such a financial drain on the city and the country that it should be turned into a train station or something.
    I got to know Robert Hughes from his Goya biography, which I got from library but didn’t get to read beyond the first few pages. He has a most fascinating (and sometimes tragic) life to say the least, partly due to a most libidinous ex-wife.

The greatest thing about 798 is you can’t tell where art ends and where reality begins (and vice versa). The whole place is like a huge gallery. Anything you see can be a deliberate art piece, or reality as is (mostly abandoned factories and machines).

We didn’t have time or energy or wish to see a certain numbers of galleries, so we just strolled around (with a map in hand) and had fun.

Most galleries are small, but this one has a big hall leading to a restaurant/cafe. It has a few small rooms of installations.
Modern art is a lot more accessible when it’s based on familiar and traditional art. It’s a creativity shortcut, but sometimes it gets really interesting. We saw a nice piece at Princeton, and this one is also based on Van Gogh. Look closely at the flowers.
We stumbled into one of the main factory-galleries, with its signature Bauhaus shed roofs.
The guy could be an action artist, or a cook, or both.
 A couple of fun cartoons. The latter is placed in a shallow underground well so you indeed view it from above.
Pen is indeed mightier than sword, when it becomes a cruise missile.
A creative series about mining and miners.
The girl could be a high school student, or an action artist, or both. The gaudy colors seem to suggest the previous.
798 has become more of a tourist attraction. There’s even a day tour covering it and some other art zones. Most people snap photos in funny pose with anything, and this little bazaar is packed with no less than 1/3 of all people inside 798.

The kitchen sink was clogged.

The dishwasher was stuck in rinse cycle for a whole night.

The washer’s final spin sounded like a dozen anti-aircraft machine guns.

And we went into the City and had a most wonderful time–Ahhh, the sweet images and sounds of escape.

A good trip to New York always starts with good parking, because after spending 40 minutes circling the blocks in vain and forced to surrender to the $15/hour parking garage you wouldn’t have much good temper left. We found a legal space at the corner of Madison and 77th without much trouble, which is a small miracle according to Murray Tepper because many spots in that area is marked for diplomats.

Our main destination is the “El Greco to Picasso” exhibition in Guggenheim. We heard about it from from NYTimes a while ago, and finally got a chance to see it. Like the article suggests, anything covering 500 years of paintings in such a major force in European art is bound to be a tapas sampler. The taste is still excellent, since the tapas from which it samples are all world-class.

Now that I think of it, Spain seems to have the only unbroken stream of truly great artists in Europe from Renaissance to modern time. Italy was kind of silent after Renaissance; France only has Realism and Impressionism; Flanders has nobody between Rembrandt and Van Gogh; and the rest of the European countries have some spotty presence like Durer, Turner, and Kandinsky. Spain, on the other hand, produced one monumental artist in each of the 5 consecutive centuries: El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Gaudi, and Picasso. Yeah Gaudi is in a different category, but I’m just trying to make a point 🙂

That is actually the theme of the exhibition: the “endless return and reappropriation on a formal and iconographic level that binds together the works of Spanish artists” (from the exhibition page). The unusual order by theme instead of the usual chronicity emphasizes it, however I feel it’s a bit artificial: you can find “common” themes and styles and techniques or whatever you want to find in any random collection of 10 paintings, barring pure abstract expressionism stuff, maybe.

Another downside for this “greatest hits” exhibition is, well, there’s actually no greatest hits from any artist. There’s no way, for example, to borrow Las Meninas from Prado or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from MoMA–angry visitors would rip down those places feeling cheated. There are well-known pieces, for sure, like several Dali.

It’s still a great exhibition, after all, for an overview of Spanish art. The thematic display is freshening, and I particularly like the fact that all name plaques are placed very far from the paintings, forcing you to focus on the art itself instead of the names of the picture and the artist. I’ve got a terrible habit to look at the name plaques before the art, and sometimes skipping the art piece altogether if the names don’t ring a bell. So in the beginning it was a bit frustrating to spend much time looking for the plaques, but very soon I got used to this “right” way of viewing art itself, even though I can never get rid of the “this must be a Goya” kind of speculation.

One more interesting thing is the reassurance of Picasso’s stupendous productivity. At least 3/4 of the displays contain at least one painting from him. Wikipedia says “it has been estimated that Picasso produced about 13,500 paintings or designs, 100,000 prints or engravings, 34,000 book illustrations and 300 sculptures or ceramics.” I remember seeing a documentary on Andy Warhol where he claimed that on some days he makes more “paintings” than Picasso. How preposterous!

When we got out of the museum, the sky put on a faint glow of the freshly fallen night as the perfect backdrop for those Manhattan streets in fabulous holiday fashion. Our car idled down the super crowded 5th Avenue in a speed that would drive me crazy in any other time of the year, but Christmas ain’t any other time of the year!

The sidewalk was filled with people like I’d never seen before, progressively more toward and climaxed at Rockefeller Center. It’s a miracle that nobody was crushed or stampeded in that multi-block sardine can. We caught a glimpse of the 88′ Christmas tree (this one from Ridgefield, CT)–boy is that magnificent!

And a nice trip to New York must not conclude in traffic jam. Seeing the throngs of people I knew I had to take the secret entrance to Lincoln Tunnel–the only useful thing I learned from my boss in the previous job. In no time we were cruising (or rather, crawling) through the tunnel, leaving thousands of frustrated drivers behind…

  1. 秦颂 1996, budget ~$4 million (3000万元)
  2. 刺秦 1998, $10 million (8000万元)
  3. 英雄 2002, $31 million
  4. 秦始皇 2006, $2 million

Tan Dun’s opera was premiered last Thursday by the Met Opera and LA Opera. The storyline seems to follow 秦颂. The cost is of course only a fraction of those “Big Movies”, disproportional to the bad review in NYTimes, its worst parts quoted here:

Mr. Tan’s approach to operatic lyricism and vocal writing seems ill-conceived… His music does sing. And sing. And sing. On and on. Whatever the mood of the moment, whether dreamy, defiant, sensual or tragic, as soon as the characters break into song, the melodic lines are inevitably long, arching and slow… “The First Emperor” gives soaring melody a bad name.

The expansive lyricism begins enticingly but soon turns saccharine and, worse, inert.

Mr. Domingo(‘s)… best friend onstage often seemed to be the experienced prompter, Donna Racik, invisible to the audience but quite often the focus of Mr. Domingo’s attention. And though the role was written for him, he could not disguise the effort involved in singing it. Despite his trouble with top notes in recent years, Mr. Domingo’s voice sounded freshest when the lines took him into his still clarion upper range. The man takes on too much.

With one intermission, the opera lasted just 3 hours 20 minutes yet seemed much longer. In the final scene… after… in what may be the longest farewell aria in opera, which is saying something…, Mr. Domingo breaks one final time into lofty flights of ponderously arching lyricism. Listening, you cannot help thinking, “Oh, no, not again.”

“Oh, no, not again” is the exact reaction when my dad told me about the opera a while ago. It’s easy to find reasons for the Chinese quote-unquote artists’ obsession with our first emperor, but enough is enough! There may be more reasons to believe this string of “epics” indicate almost everything that’s bad going on in China these days. There are always good arts and bad arts. More money, more epic, more emperors don’t make bad arts good.

My dad taught all of those 5th generation directors. My mum taught Tan Dun musicology. I kind of feel sorry for my parents as teachers, not that they did anything wrong, nor that they could’ve done anything to let those guys grow up in a better way. They couldn’t have foreseen the future, but I wonder if they could, what they would’ve told those students–go back to your farms?

It hurts even more knowing that those guys are very capable of good stuff. I think 活着 is one of the best Chinese movies I’ve seen, 千里走单骑 and 秋菊打官司 very good, 霸王别姬 decent, or even 最后的疯狂 not bad in a historical term. And Tan Dun could become one of the greatest composers of our time unless he goes down on a road like this one.

Wake up, guys!

We went to Princeton a few weeks ago to visit my Tsinghua classmate and two ex-colleagues. After lunch my classmate took us to Princeton University Art Museum. It’s free and small, but has a surprisingly comprehensive collection spanning almost all chronological periods and geological areas, very good for a brief art history tour. There’s no well known masterpiece, though.

Its Chinese collection takes up almost half of the lower level for antiques with lots of good stuff across the ages. Two contemporary pieces are most memorable, one is an imitation on Shi Tao’s painting in Van Gogh style by 张宏图. I found his homepage online, and there’re a few more paintings like that. The other is a classical water-ink painting using slightly deformed Chinese characters to “paint” their corresponding objects, such as using many 枝 to compose branches, 石 as stones by the road, etc. It’s really a nice way to use the inherent artistic shape and flow of Chinese characters.

Ahhh, that time of the year: 72°, gentle breeze, sky as a huge monochrome canvas hanging in MoMA. Even Beijing gets a few days of sheer blue sky in autumn.

It’d be a perfect chance to take a stroll in Central Park, but we left for the city already past noon, and there’re probably already a few hundred-K New Yorker basking and another few hundred-K tourists balking in the park. So we chose to stay mostly inside of museums, stores, and our car.

Our first stop is Ecotopia at International Center of Photography. We went there a couple of years ago when my uncle invited us to an exhibition on Chinese photography. It’s a pretty small gallery, and the exhibition isn’t great, so the $12 admission seems not very well spent.

Next two stops are furniture stores. We want to get a nice office chair to make J more comfortable when J works from home. I looked up Herman Miller’s retailer directory and picked a couple posh stores. First one is Terence Conran at the bottom of Queensborough Bridge. I first heard of it some years ago as the first store in US to carry the now ubiquitous Dyson vacuum cleaners. It’s nice and cool European fine living, but we didn’t find any good office chair. One thing we noticed is an ultra-hip, super-expensive stroller called Bugaboo Frog–lo and behold–3 out of 4 strollers we later saw on upper east side streets have Bugaboo logo! Then we went to a Design Within Reach store. It just opened an outlet store in Secaucus and we bought our bar stools there. It has several Aeron chairs and we liked it. Joel Spolsky can’t be wrong.

Then we went to the Whitney Museum of American Art for the first time. We had the prejudice that American art is somewhat inferior to European, and it turned out not to be totally unfounded. If it were not for the special exhibition “Picasso and American Art” and free admission from J’s corporate badge, it would’ve been a total disappointment. I guess we’re brainwashed by the concepts and aesthetics of classical European “high art”, but we do like certain “modern” stuff from Picasso, Miro, Chagall, etc. However the special exhibition shows the enormous influence and shadow cast by Picasso, which is the intent of the exhibition in the first place. We do like Calder’s sculptures, but graphical arts from the Pollocks, Warhols, and de Koonings (though he’s born in Rotterdam) look either too clueless or too commercial. I watched the first half of a Warhol documentary on PBS a while ago, and gave up on the second half (for Warhol, not the documentary itself). It mentioned that Warhol made a claim at some point that he made more pieces everyday than Picasso. How preposterous.

Our last stop is the Neue Gallery. Because it’s the last day of the Klimt exhibition, there’s even a short line at the door. It would’ve been a total rip-off were it not free admission from J’s corporate badge again. The “museum” is tiny: a 3-story corner townhouse with exhibition space only on 2nd and 3rd floor, and the 3rd floor was closed for renovation. We saw the Klimt paintings in Vienna’s Belvedere before they were returned to the Bloch-Bauer family, and Estee Lauder’s son bought one for a record $135 million for the Neue Gallery, his pet project. The NYTimes said the gallery is more known for the Austrian restaurant on its first floor. Well, we didn’t care for Austrian food at all, so it’s no surprise that we care even less for the gallery.

So it doesn’t seem like a worthwhile trip, but we did enjoy the experience. Where else could we find chic stores to browse and brash museums to bash under a perfect autumn sky?

Autumn in New York
Why does it seem so inviting
Autumn in New York
It spells the thrill of first-nighting

Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds
In canyons of steel
They’re making me feel – I’m home

It’s autumn in New York
That brings the promise of new love
Autumn in New York
Is often mingled with pain

Dreamers with empty hands
They sigh for exotic lands
It’s autumn in New York
It’s good to live it again

Autumn in New York
The gleaming rooftops at sundown
Oh, Autumn in New York
It lifts you up when you run down

Yes, jaded roués and gay divorcées
Who lunch at the Ritz
Will tell you that it’s divine

This autumn in New York
Transforms the slums into Mayfair
Oh, Autumn in New York
You’ll need no castles in Spain

Yes, Lovers that bless the dark
On the benches in Central Park
Greet autumn in New York
It’s good to live it again

Music and lyrics by Vernon Duke, 1934
As performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

We learned about these exhibitions long ago from NYTimes, and planned to visit them during the Labor Day weekend. A college classmate of J’s visited us last weekend, and booked a one-day NYC tour. We drove him to Chinatown early morning, had dimsum, went to watch The Inconvenient Truth (good content, lame movie), then went to Guggenheim.

We thought the Hadid exhibition would have lots of pictures and 3D models of her designs, but it turned out mostly to be abstract and undecipherable drawings and sketches. There are only a few models, but a few cool real gallery pieces like table/chair and a concept car. The most stunning piece is a full kitchen design–oh yeah, we’re so into kitchen right now 🙂

Never really like Jackson Pollock, but as the somewhat pretentious Julia Roberts says in Mona Lisa Smiles, you can dislike him but you can’t ignore him (something like that). The exhibition is all drawings, so there’s no huge canvas of dripping chaos. Still it’s really hard to make sense of anything.

HH probably won’t enjoy it, since he never really likes contemporary art. But then we still have Dada at MoMA left to see, so maybe he’ll choose to golf with Jay instead…


The lady on the LCD screen in the picture is Ms Hadid. She kind of looks like Becky, the office manager at my previous job.

UPDATE: Hadid won the prestigious Pritzker Price in 2004. Inaugurated in 1979, the few contemporary architect I know are all its laureates.

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