Monthly Archive for March, 2010

Terror and Resilience on the Moscow Metro

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The last time I was in Moscow, in 2004, there were a number of subway bombings—though outside the stations, not on the trains or platforms—and a couple of airliners were bombed. Then came the Beslan school siege. In aggregate, these attacks were designed to instill fear, but at least to my eyes they did not. The Putin administration, while vehement in its rhetoric that it would root out evil-doers, basically returned to business-as-usual in its public face. No reason to disrupt confidence in the government. The public, inured after years of such attacks, seemed to brush them off. I would hope they can move forward so easily after this most recent spate of bombings. There’s nothing more terrifying than a subway attack, and it seems these were calculated, cruelly, to cause maximum civilian damage. Lubyanka station, across the street from the old KGB (and current FSB) headquarters, was a symbolic target, but also a heavily trafficked one at the city center. Park Kultury is also one of the city’s busiest stations: it’s on the ring line where several lines converge. The image above gives a hint at just how crowded the Moscow metro—one of the great glories of modern urban design—can be; it is taken at the Kievskaya station, just one stop from Park Kultury.

Quarantines, Physical and Otherwise

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I suppose it was ironic, but mainly just unpleasant, that I was kept from the opening party of Storefront’s Landscapes of Quarantine exhibition by a case of pneumonia. There was a time when that illness did in fact warrant hospitalized seclusion; in the 21st century, a few days at home and a dose of antibiotics is generally enough for recovery. Feeling better, I managed to catch the show a few days after the opening, and it’s well worth the visit, a beautifully installed and thought-provoking show that raises many intriguing and not easily resolved questions about the boundaries we raise for the purposes of security. The exhibition, curated by Bldgblog’s Geoff Manaugh, focuses primarily on the spatial implications and costs, both physical and metaphorical, of quarantine. The show put me in mind of W. G. Sebald’s wonderful novel Austerlitz, which points to another kind of quarantine we impose on ourselves: intellectual. The titular character of the book, Jacques Austerlitz, is a child of the Holocaust and the Kindertransports, who spends most of his life suppressing the memories of his own history, to catastrophic effect. A key passage, narrated by that character:

“I did not read newspapers because, as I know now, I feared unwelcome revelations, I turned on the radio only at certain hours of the day, I was always refining my defensive reactions, creating a kind of quarantine or immune system which, as I maintained my existence in a smaller and smaller space, protected me from anything that could be connected in any way, however distant, with my own early history….If some dangerous piece of information came my way despite all my precautions, as it inevitably did, I was clearly capable of closing my ears and eyes to it, of simply forgetting it like any other unpleasantness.”

Meanwhile, I’m on a self-imposed quarantine of my own right now—a much needed beach vacation. Some quarantines are better than others.

Artist! Lover! Swordsman!

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“No man could outfight him—No woman could resist his charm.” So reads the copy on this pulp cover from 1953. I picked it up for a buck from an antique shop a few blocks from my home. The packaging suggests a historical bodice-ripper, and in fact the contents delivers on that torrid promise. It is not, however, an (entirely) fictional account. The book is actually the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, one of the great sculptors of the Renaissance. Cellini is best remembered today for the Perseus and Medusa he crafted, on order of Cosimo de Medici, for the Loggia de Lanzi in Florence. It’s a gory affair, and one senses that the artist, who claimed to have used his own sword in brutal fashion, saw himself in Perseus, a sense that is affirmed by the fact that he signed the sculpture, prominently, on a strap that crosses the hero’s chest. (He probably would not have been pleased to learn that the esteemed Renaissance scholar Frederick Hartt called his masterpiece “remarkably inert.”)

Cellini fits squarely into that long tradition of artist rogues of which Caravaggio is only the most notorious. We have rather romantic notions in these modern times about what an artist should be (a tortured genius), and we like painters who fit into that paradigm. Rubens, a most conventional UHB, was not that kind of artist, and I sometimes feel he suffers for it. His writing is a case in point. Familiar as they are with Cellini’s rather purple and lurid precedent, even the most serious of art historians tend to dismiss Rubens the author as a colorless writer of arcanely detailed diplomatic treatises. This is not only crazy ironic (art historians making accusations of boring, jargon-y writing?), but a gross mischaracterization. Beyond his almost preposterous erudition, Rubens was in fact an elegant prose stylist who wrote with great personal conviction and with a rich vocabulary, a keen sense of metaphor, and a gift for a quotable turn of phrase. If some of his correspondence is necessarily technical, it was because he was conducting complex international diplomacy. Rubens, essentially, was an intellectual writer, a writer for the high-brow, and like so many high-brow (and middle-brow) writers in our day, he is suffering for it. Today we value the sensational. Cellini would have fit right in.

A Matter of Perspective?

The Vancouver Sun has run a long follow-up story, by Jennifer Moss, to my Los Angeles Times piece on the plagiarism charges leveled by Sze Tsung Leong against David Burdeny. I bring it up here as I find it to be a thoroughly disreputable piece of journalism, larded up with charged phrases clearly intended to frame the story in a positive manner for Burdeny. The implication is that a fancy-pants New York artist and a big city paper are somehow in cahoots against an innocent hometown boy. And so my article “coughs up” rather than “presents” evidence. And then there’s a paragraph like this, which seems almost cribbed from Sarah Palin: “Borrowed or not, there’s a little thing called freedom of expression at stake whenever an artist puts an image out there. In a corporate era, especially in a lawsuit-happy culture like that of the U.S., ownership of an image is more contentious than ever before.” So there is a tonal character to the Sun piece that I find objectionable. But far worse is its casual treatment of the facts. Continuing what is essentially a defense of Burdeny, Moss writes, “The L.A. Times points out that there are even similarities between the artists’ statements.” This subject is then dropped. Notice how the author does not see fit to examine these charges herself, or suggest that there might be some importance to the fact that Burdeny has apparently copied significantly from Leong in a second medium.

More egregiously, Moss raises an accusation—found on the Internet—that Leong’s gallery, Yossi Milo, has exhibited another artist whose work might be overly indebted to another artist. This, I suppose, is fair enough. But there is a gross imbalance given what Moss has not mentioned: that Leong is not the only artist Burdeny has been accused of copying. As I wrote in my article, Burdeny’s images also bear striking resemblance to works by Elger Esser and Andreas Gursky. And as I wrote in a follow up on this site, and as has been widely noted online, his images also closely approximate those by Michael Wesely, Michael Kenna, and David Fokos, among others. Through my own source I’ve learned that Burdeny actually took a course with Fokos, and then began copying his work so closely that Fokos’s gallerist was forced to intervene. Burdeny, as seems to be his M.O., denied the accusation. So Moss is content to impugn the character of the Milo gallery (and by association, Leong) but has withheld from the reader direct evidence that would seem to impugn Burdeny, the ostensible subject of her piece. Moss then concludes with a logical mindbender, suggesting that, somehow, Leong may have been the one copying Burdeny: “perhaps it’s the other way around, and Leong’s images are similar to Burdeny’s.”

Whether Burdeny is truly a plagiarist, or whether his work can be described as legitimately inspired by other photographers is a reasonable question on which reasonable people may disagree. Certainly the law is vague. But the idea that Leong is guilty of copying Burdeny is preposterous, and the Vancouver Sun’s article is, quite simply, a grossly irresponsible work of journalism.

Bruce Graham, 1925-2010

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It’s been a tough stretch for muscular, brooding architecture. Last week, Raimund Abraham, the uncompromising architect of New York’s Austrian Cultural Forum was killed in an automotive accident. This week, Bruce Graham, the SOM partner who collaborated with engineer Fazlur Kahn on the Sears and Hancock towers in Chicago, passed away. “Big John,” as the Hancock was called, was their best work, a tapered, hundred-story condo tower, with the X-braces of its “trussed tube” structure laid plainly bare on its facades. It is dark and imposing from the outside and comfortably modern within. (So, kind of like Chicago.) It has long been one of the city’s best addresses, considered as such from the moment it opened, advertising the “world’s highest residences.” A few years ago I edited a book on the building, with photographs by Ezra Stoller and an introduction by Kahn’s daughter, the architectural historian Yasmin Sabina Kahn. One favorite anecdote: the architect and engineer tested human response to the building’s slight sway at a Maytag “Tale of the Tub” washing machine installation at the Chicago Museum of Science. A nice story for a sad day.

Raimund Abraham, 1933–2010

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Herbert Muschamp often griped that New York was allergic to “serious architecture,” a refrain frequently aped by his successor, Nicolai Ourousoff. This was and is both unfair and inaccurate, and one of the buildings that demonstrates as much is Raimund Abraham’s 2002 Austrian Cultural Forum, which opened in 2002. Only 25 feet wide, it slices down from the sky, a kind of Easter Island guillotine. It’s a great building, a building with a spine [both literal and figurative], and a series of controlled, smartly crafted spaces. Abraham was killed earlier this week in a Los Angeles car accident, awful news. He had just given a lecture at Sci-Arc. A loss for architecture.

Writer’s Voice

My interview with Francesca Rheannon of NPR’s Writer’s Voice is now online. If you’ve got some free time, hear us gab about Rubens and diplomacy.