There certainly exists a commonly held, preconceived notion of what Paris is like. It’s romantic and beautiful and accordion players set the soundtrack to your perfect evening. While Paris may not exactly fit that description, it lives up to its reputation as one of the most dynamic and charming cities in the world. However, it’s easy to forget that what we experience as tourists and visitors is not exactly reality. Just like New York, Paris has its shadier locales. I was reminded of this while researching Paris photography looking for inspiration for my own photographs. I came upon the images of Brassai, a Romanian immigrant who came to Paris, and made a name for himself through his romantic images of Paris at night. I had seen these images before, but they had never struck me as particularly groundbreaking or visually interesting. Yet, as I was looking through his images, I came upon a different set of photographs, which depicted a darker and moodier Paris.
Chez Suzy (1932) is an image in a larger portfolio of photos that depict quotidian scenes of a brothel. Three half naked and visibly exhausted prostitutes lay sprawled across the room, displaying an intimacy between one another that seems both incomprehensible and sisterly. At first, this image seemed erotic in nature, but after a closer examination it proved to be a true portrait of the post-coital lives of prostitutes. I found it almost uncomfortable to look at. It seemed like an intrusion.
De Botton spoke about how the art depicting a place can shape our image of it, especially after we have already judged it. While I did not dislike Paris as De Botton disliked Provence, I had unknowingly assumed that Paris was just another bourgeois city. However, Paris has a deep and varied history and Chez Suzy reminded me of that. Even now, issues such as drug and sex trafficking trouble Paris. Without even realizing it, I had a very idealized view of what Paris is and was. After looking at these photographs, I feel as though I have a richer understanding of contemporary Paris and its origins.
The other week I visited Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires also known as the MALBA. My favorite piece of work was Antonio Berni's Manifestacion. It is a piece that I feel personifies Buenos Aires in many ways. First of all, it depicts many people on the street. Buenos Aires is known for protesting on the street. The most famous example of people protesting is the mother's of Plaza de Mayo who protest once a week here in Buenos Aires. In 2001, people took to the streets for months protesting the banking laws passed by the government. After Del Potro won the U.S Open this year, there was yet another protest here in Buenos Aires, albeit a happy one.
The people in the photograph are also very diverse just like the population of Buenos Aires. In the photograph one can see men, women, children, white, black, and mixed peoples. Buenos Aires, according to reference.com, has a racial make up of 88.9% White, 7% Mestizo, 2.1% Asian and 2% Black. This may seem lopsidedly white, but one must take into account that the white population can be broken down into different subsets. For example, there is a big difference in Buenos Aires between European immigrants and American immigrants to the country, both groups would consider themselves White but different shades if you will. Therefore, this photo reflects accurately the eclecticism of race in Buenos Aires.
The buildings in the background clearly depict the array of different architecture in Buenos Aires. The picture conveys the sense that there is both grand and small beautiful buildings in Buenos Aires. There are never ending skyscrapers and modest two room houses both equally unique. Buenos Aires's architecture borrows from everywhere and everyone. There are colonial seventeenth century British copy cats and sixteenth century French Henry II look a likes. Everywhere you look in Buenos Aires there is a different style of architecture happening.
The wall in the picture is also very important. There are many class divides both literally and figuratively in Buenos Aires. There are many gated communities to prevent the poor from getting into the rich neighborhoods. There is an ever expanding poverty gap in Buenos Aires with the middle class shrinking everyday. The amount of poor people in Buenos Aires has increased in the past five years and shows no signs of slowing down. The wall in the picture could be a literal boundary separating the unseen community behind the wall, or a figurative boundary about the people feeling stuck. Either way, the wall is an important piece of the picture.
All of these traits combined are the reasons I feel that this photograph is a very fitting tribute to Buenos Aires.
The dimly lit room glows a warm orange as sunlight slowly pours onto the freshly polished hardwood floors. All around there is the lively chatter of an audience clearly too large to fit in such tight confines. Slowly, as the realization sets in, the audience gradually dies down as they notice the bemused face staring at them silently. Sitting there all along was the infamously controversial Czech artist, David Cerny. After gazing in silence for a good minute or so, he breaks his silence by saying, “I don’t know why you want me to say; All my work is bullshit,” he says, catching the audience off-guard and leaving them to wonder whether to laugh or stay quiet. He then laughs heartily, stating that we shouldn’t ask him about his infamously controversial work known as Entropa, for which he was commissioned by the European Union in celebration of Prague holding the E.U. Presidency. The work depicts countries in a satirical, and sometimes even blatantly inappropriate fashion, including a certain country (that shall not be named to protect the little dignity it has left) as a Turkish toilet. But the audience didn’t settle for this of course, and instead probes Mr. Cerny further, prompting him to state that out of the 12 million dollars he was paid to create Entropa, he returned the two million given to him by the Czech government. As for the remaining 10 million? Cerny defends his decision to keep the amount because the money came from “private donors”, as he grins sheepishly, swearing to never accept government funds again.
Reminiscent of a teenager trying too hard to not care in order to seem cool, Cerny says that he “doesn’t care about fame,” and cites it as the reason why he never signs any of his work. When asked if he creates his work with the intention of being controversial, he slyly says that he doesn’t, but instead views it as a reflection of his sense of humor. He reaffirms that while he cares about politics, he chooses to not get involved, and that the influence politics has on him only influences his work subconsciously. He states that his job is to simply “fill a space, and stick to the budget,” and tries to get the audience to empathize with his feigned humility by stating that he only gets about “one in ten” of his art proposals realized, and now even less with the state of the global economy. He further attempts (and fails miserably) at attempting to make himself seem grounded by saying that his work is “influenced 100% by the fact I was born and raised in the Czech Republic”, his chuckling almost bordering hysteria, “...or not.” He considers himself an exile of the Czech art community, stating that he would rather “hang with buddies at a bar” rather than fellow Czech artists. Leaving the audience with a story about how he was almost arrested for his “artistic expression,” he walks out laughing about he was going to go get trashed after the presentation at a bar. So he leaves the audience to wonder: Is he an innovative artist, or simply a pretentious douchebag? That is an expression for you to call all your own.
In his book Narcissistic City Hubert Damisch conceives of the city itself as a museum of architecture that “would have nothing imaginary about it because the monuments themselves would be preserved there, in situ, with or without its adjacent urban tissue”(58). Here Damisch is in the middle of making a complex argument which I don’t fully understand. He is simultaneously discussing The Immortal—a short story by Jorge Luis Borges—and the idea of a museum of architecture—a building dedicated to buildings; talk about labyrinthine.
Seeing one’s way fully through the argument would require much more thought ad re-reading than I have time for right now. More thought and re-reading than I’ll have time for while I’m in Buenos Aires and experiencing Damisch’s point without being able to explain it.
I was walking home a few days ago and I saw a building that rose up from the bottom of one of the few hills in the city. I was standing at the corner of Alvear and Cerrito, on top of the slight incline, right next to the French Embassy—a beautiful building, European style from the turn of the 20th century. But the building that rises up doesn’t have the luxurious Parisian look of the other buildings on Alvear. It looks like a drab reddish-grey concrete apartment building, an eraser dotted with pencil-pricks—a stub in the city. It’s (saving) grace lies in the slight curve of the grey rectangle, as if its thin, gummy form were being pinched at the sides just a little bit. I think of Frank Gehry’s designs with their wild shapes and of much of what I understand to be popular architecture nowadays—glass, slopes, immense spirals and permutations of cutting-edge material—and I think this looks better in a way. The design is more delicate. It seems to respond to the setting sun, holding its light in that palm-like curve as the light climbs down window by window.
I’ve noticed more examples of this adjustment to common form in the architecture of Buenos Aires. I have seen a building with three connected facades. The vertical sides are at a right angle with the ground but the bases are not in line with the street but set at sloping angles so that the building looks like a map, folded a bit at three creases, and stood up so that it rises above the ground instead of laying flat on it.
I’ve seen balconies which pop out of a building more on one side than the other, as if the western side had been pushed back into the building leaving half a trapezoid exposed. I imagine a couple standing side by side watching the sun rise and one person watching the sunset because there is not enough room. Nothing is extreme. Things just look artfully adjusted.
De Botton discusses Van Gogh’s goal in painting: to show people part of the world, truthfully and therefore vividly. He played with form, scale, and color in order to express the life of his subjects. He describes painting a poet, exaggerating “the fairness of the hair, even [getting] to orange tones”(dB, 204). Those colors were there for Van Gogh but they weren’t exactly visible. He had a good enough understanding of color to know that exaggerating the color of blond hair, darkening it, would release orange tones. To get an image of this yourself, take a digital picture of a blank piece of paper or dull wall and play with the darkness/lightness as well as the contrast on your computer. It is strange and somewhat to equate Van Gogh’s skill with digital editing but this exercise shows how he accentuated what he saw as existent, what our digital cameras can approximately locate: imbedded colors.
This brings me back to the city as a museum of architecture. If seen in this way, buildings can act not only as art imbedded in “memories and cultural associations”(Damisch, 58) but also as vantage points. From these vantage points—balconies, living rooms, backyards, elevators—one can see the city (as well as the sky and the sun, and the people who live there) in new and different ways. The slight bends and curves of Buenos Aires buildings prompt the onlooker to reexamine the beauty of architecture’s subject: everything that surrounds it. This city is not just the buildings I have described, nor is it characterized by the Parisian or European styles which pervade its older, wealthier barrios (perhaps a more direct expression of de Botton’s point about art partially influencing where people want to go, the European architecture in Buenos Aires expresses a wish to travel to and live within the European city). If the city is to be considered a museum than it must retain the adjacent urban tissue in which its buildings are placed. Architecture can reveal beauty but not without its surroundings.
I remember on my first day in Buenos Aires I that my host mother was an artist. Once I walked in the door to the apartment she showed me all of her paintings. She told me about the studio she had gone to for years and about all the art she had created.
For this week’s assignment to venture out to a museum to further explore the culture of the place that we are going to visit for the next few months, I thought it would be a bit more of a challenge to go to a large and well-recognized museum to go look for cultural artifacts, photographs or paintings based in the Czech tradition. You see, when thinking of notable artists, photographers and craftspeople one always tends to think of the Italians, the French or other nationalities, without giving second thought to most others worldwide, leaving me hard-pressed to find articles worth writing about as they pertained to Czechoslovakian design. Firstly, what was “Czech style” and where would I possibly find it? Sure, I looked up a location of a small exhibit within the Czech Museum, but I figured, why not go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and challenege myself to discover these relatively little-known artists and expose their work to the masses (well at least our class anyway)? Needless to say, it wasn’t easy.
For my museum visit, I rode my skateboard to the Bea Art Hall Gallery, which is actually the hallway of the Centro Cultural Brasil in New York. They are showing about 10 pieces, all of which are inspired by the writing of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a novelist, short story writer, and poet, who lived and worked during the 19th century. The pieces invoked images of Brazil, which is only natural since Machado de Assis never left Rio de Janeiro. One painting jumped out at me, because the whole canvas, about the size of my midsection, displayed two toucans. I could not fully translate the Machado quotation next to the painting, and so I asked for the only employee there to help me translate. The words read something along the lines of “God, you have given man a face or friendship. Devil, you have made men confused between love and friendship.” And the picture was of two toucans. The woman said that the toucans were specific to the Amazon, and represented Brazil. Another instillation piece had leaves strewn about on a shelf. All of the leaves were green, yellow, and black, which I took to represent the Brazilian flag. There were some portraits of Machado de Assis, one of which had lines of his writing spewing out of his mouth. To tell the truth, the art itself did not give me any particular impression of Brazil, or even of Machado de Assis’ works.