Contemporary Art and My Problem with "Supposed-To"

By: leelefever on January 2, 2007 - 3:40pm

 I wrote this just before coming home and it's hard for me to post it because I don't want to sound completely ignorant of art. I think my feelings are related to a distaste for the art critic establishment (or what I know of it).  

I suppose you’ll say I’m shallow, or cynical or lack sophistication, but I am not moved by the majority of contemporary art I’ve seen lately – particularly multimedia art.  Yesterday we went to MACBA (Barcelona’s contemporary art museum) and I left exasperated and with a crinkled brow after seeing slideshows, films, photos and sculptures that, aside from the meaning assigned to it, seemed to mean or symbolize very little for me.  I think I’m growing tired of feeling like I’m supposed to feel, see or “get” something that I simply don’t.

Over the past year, we’ve both tried to take a de-mystified look at the world we’ve seen and I think it has extended to art in some cases.  This means looking at something in terms of what we really see or feel and not what we’re supposed to see or feel. In MACBA, it frustrated me to read the cards by an art expert or the artist that decodes the artist for the layman. An actual example:

Though his oeuvre is difficult to classify in one specific tendency, it possesses a significant conceptual component that expresses displacement and lack of communication and thus a negation of the very existence of contemporary society.

Oh, I get it now. He is negating the existence of contemporary society.

For multimedia art, I don’t want to have to be told that there is a statement about the world hidden in the slides of suburban Reykjavik.  To me, it looks like a slideshow of houses in Iceland. That is, of course, until I’m again enlightened via a laminated card about the piece. 

Aside from the artist’s peers, art critics and the artists own statements, I wonder how meaning or statements would be derived?  How closely would the artist’s vision of the piece translate to those of us that operate outside the art world?  And, if meaning is only derived from those privileged few, does it matter that I don’t get it?   Is it even supposed to have meaning for me? 

Here’s an example.  This is a 22 second video from a Tokyo subway station.  Is it art?  Does it affect you?  What does the experience of this piece make you feel about the world?

Now, consider the exact same video.  Only this time, consider this statement:

The artist is clearly making a statement about the closed and oppressed nature of Japanese society. The commuters are being closed off from the rest of the world - even as they are squeezed from every side to fit in behind society’s closing doors.  It makes painfully clear the nature of the Japanese experience.

OK, maybe you see it a little differently now, maybe not. You know what though?  This is what I was thinking when I shot this video – er, this was my vision for this piece:

I wonder if this is rude to video these people? Man, that train is crowded.  I’ve really got to hold this camera still.  Oh look, she’s wearing mask - that will be interesting.  They are so quiet.  It is ever going to leave?  I’m getting hungry.

My point is to illustrate how a lot of the contemporary art we’ve seen makes me feel by assigning extraordinary meaning to a video that was never intended to have deep meaning in the first place – it is just a video of people on the subway – right?

Perhaps I lack depth, intellect or an eye for art, but some of it just doesn’t move me and I’m not going to pretend that it does just because its how I’m suppose to feel. The art establish may agree that a piece is a statement about transcendence of gender roles in urban civilizations, but to me, it’s still just pictures of old people in a park. And I am OK with that.

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Sometimes I Have a Bad Attitude

By: leelefever on September 7, 2006 - 6:54pm

 I have a bad attitude sometimes, particularly regarding sightseeing and the tourist experience.  It’s a necessary and often rewarding part of the trip, but we’re both learning that we don’t really like sightseeing.  It often seems like the many of the things we see are significant because someone with dollars in their eyes decided to make it significant.  Either that, or the significance that is experienced by others is lost on me.

Maybe I am shallow or cynical or unsophisticated, but I will be just fine if I don’t see another “important” image of The Buddha for many years.  The same is true for many temples.  Long before we reached China, we started to recognize that we rarely leave a temple saying “that was so great!  or “I’m so glad we came!  Usually it’s more like “Hmm, another temple.” We call it temple fatigue.

Another example occurred just today at the Summer Palace in Beijing, which is, by all accounts, an impressive sight of imperial grandeur.  Inside the palace grounds (and also in the Forbidden City) there are very important rocks with names like the “Blue Iris Stone” which are accompanied by a story of an who emperor found the rock and had it shipped to the Palace at great expense.  So there it sits, surrounded by a railing and sitting on a pedestal – a rock.  It’s not sculpted, it’s not shaped, it has never been used for anything or changed in any way, it may be in the shape of something recognizable and is certainly a rockish, yellow/gray hue (despite being described as “black and sleek”).  There is no doubt that it is a rock that someone could have found at any moment in history and is one of about 1 gazillion such rocks in the world. To the admittedly undereducated like myself, it appears just as it sounds – a rock – on a pedestal - surrounded by a railing.   I’m not sure how a rock becomes an item of Chinese culture, but many have and people quite literally line up to have their picture taken in front of it.

(photo of the Blue Iris Stone is from this travelouge)  

I have to wonder though, am I being cynical and shallow or am I being realistic?  We’ve seen it happen before in tour groups – the guide makes a big hairy deal about something and the group eats it up and prepares the cameras without thought.  This is where the tourist experience blends a little too closely with dollar signs.  Tour groups need sights and the more the tourist is convinced that they are seeing something significant, the more likely they’ll actually find some significance.  So, from my perspective, a strong percentage of what a tourist sees is filler – something to make the tourist feel like they are having a great experience in between the things that are really impressive and important to them.  I think this gets to the heart of why I loath tour groups – too much filler and not enough time to independently figure out what is significant to me.

The tour guide is very in tune with photo taking opportunities as well. He has surely observed the hoards take pictures of a sight and assumes that everyone should have one – including me. Sometimes I snap a quick picture just to make friends but at the same time I’m thinking “If you really want to know what I want to take a picture of, it’s the grotesque and barely alive condition of your toenails, Mr. Tour Guide.”

It reminds me of Las Vegas and seeing people very excited to take a picture of a replica of Michael Angelo’s masterpiece “David” at Caesar’s Palace.  I just want to say to them “That is not art you know, it is not historically significant, it is a piece of plaster put here for decoration alone.” But it doesn’t matter, they think it’s great and who am I to judge?

All this is leading to the realization that I don’t like sightseeing.  I yearn for reality or a historical and observable connection to the reality of a city or country. Modern history is endlessly fascinating.  The spread of Communism in Asia, Mao Zedong, Pol Pol, Ho Chi Minh… I cannot learn enough about that part of history.  Anything before about 1900 becomes somewhat opaque to me.  I can’t see as much reality in it or how it is affecting a country now.  What really does it for me is learning the modern realities of a place – the politics, the social issues, the transportation system, food, what locals do, say and wear day-to-day.  For me, this is endlessly real and represents something that I can grasp in my view of the world. Rocks and temples?  Not so much.

I will gladly continue to see sights and learn about history, but I’ll do it recognizing that there is a curiously real, entertaining and interesting aspect of tourism and tourists that can be quite rewarding to observe, even if the sights are not.

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Enough with the Heat Already!

By: sachilefever on September 1, 2006 - 2:19am

Everyday in Shanghai it seems to be 95 degrees with 95% humidity making it a chore to walk more than a few blocks during the day. Our East Asia hotel (US$45) is on a pedestrian thoroughfare, Nanjing Dong Lu, filled with Giordano and Sofitel side-by-side with small dumpling shops and McDonalds ice cream windows. Each evening at 5:00 we hear a saxophonist on a colonial balcony across the street begin playing overwhelmingly loud but somewhat soothing renditions of Tennessee Waltz and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. For us it signals the cooler hours have finally begun. 

Most of this trip has been over 88 degrees and we are both ready for the heat to be OVER. Lee has sworn off his sweat-soaked cotton T-shirts, and I’ve found it’s a much more pleasant experience if I don’t wear tank tops here (more stares), so we are both down to two shirts which are washed every second day. I can’t believe China wants to have the Olympics during mid-August just because of a lucky number (It starts on 08/08/08). I wish luck to the poor athletes and spectators who will have to endure it…but I digress.

The countdown is now on for cooler weather!  After 6 days in Beijing, we jump on the train to Ulanbaatar, Mongolia where we are expecting to start days of 53F and nights of 33F! From there we go into Siberia and further into the cooler weather of fall for the rest of the trip.  Sweet relief!

We were so excited we decided to each get a pair of jeans, which we haven’t had all year. But it’s more difficult than you might think when every store’s largest size is still not enough. Coming out of the fitting room asking for the third time “Even bigger?” and seeing the clerk shake her head is a pride-swallowing scene for any Westerner. They would just take one look at Lee and say “No…too big.” Today we finally found a pair at Basic Jeans for about $28, and it will be just right for Siberia’s cooler temperatures.

Until then, we look forward to the saxophonist each evening and finally being able to be outside without sweating profusely, even if it’s still too hot to wear our new jeans.

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Lessons in Line Breaking

By: leelefever on August 27, 2006 - 1:54am

I had made a decision and I was going to act on it.  Gone were the days of standing passively in line while Chinese people wedge themselves in front of me and place an order before I could react.  I was going stand up for myself and try to be a little more Chinese.

This is not the kind of thing you can plan – it just has to happen and just last night, I had my chance.  We were in the Shanghai subway terminal in line for our first subway card at a vending machine, as we’ve done so many times before in other cities.  Just as the couple in front of me at the machine received their card and turned away, a young Chinese guy stepped directly in front of me.  So, with great determination, I stepped in front of him enough to place my right shoulder at about his eye level and in a single motion stepped directly in front of the vending machine.   It was mine!  HAHA!  I’ll show you line breaker!  I’m no push-over tourist softy!

So there I was, with this foreign and unfamiliar machine staring me in the face.  It was mine, yes, but I realized all too quickly that I had no idea how to use it.  The instructions were in English and the #1 read “Select Fare”.  Scratching my head with waves of embarrassment pending, I searched the machine for anything that said “Fare”.  Nothing.  I inquisitively pressed a couple of random buttons in the hopes that something would happen. Nothing.  My pride was on the line here and I was blowing it!  Thoughts of fleeing in shame entered my mind when I heard a voice over my shoulder, “Where do you need to go?”  It was the line breaker politely asking a simple question that I couldn’t answer completely.  All we knew was that we needed to go two stops on Line 2.  He ended up doing the whole transaction for me and after many “thank yous” I left with our subway cards in hand and my pride more than a little crushed.

The moral here is that if you’re going to try to act like a local, be prepared for the entire event.  Going off half-cocked is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot.

The Fellowship of the Flag

By: leelefever on August 25, 2006 - 9:20pm

By all accounts, the Yangtze cruise was an amazing experience and one that exceeded our expectations.  It also reminded us how much we value our independence as travelers.

We’ve often witnessed large groups of people being led around popular tourist sites by someone holding a colored flag and possibly a loudspeaker slung across their shoulder.  These are usually groups that arrive by bus and travel together as part of a package tour. For the first time on the trip, we became part of one of these groups, and it sometimes made us want to scream.

China is the sort of place that is often best explored with a tour group, as sites are set up to manage groups and not the independent traveler.  After all, we heard it was only 20 years ago that each tour group had a “government spy” that would submit a report to the central government about the sights seen and questions asked.  I suppose we should feel lucky to have access at all.

At least once each day, we would be led off the boat and onto a bus where a government-employed tour guide for the day would provide information about the sites and answer questions. Upon arriving at a destination, we would disembark the bus and follow the flag to a meeting spot, where more details would follow.  Sometimes, you could break away, other times you had to stay with the group, all being herded through the tourist area as if we might get lost or hurt ourselves without the flag being in sight at all times. 

After traveling independently for so long we came to resent the flag and all for which it stands.  We mocked the flag and joked about how we wish we had a flag in all parts of our lives.  We called ourselves The Fellowship of the Flag. The flag became the symbol for all the things that we eschew about dependent travel.  Once, upon being told where and when to meet the group Sachi looked at me and said “There is something about being told when and where to be that makes me sick.”  I know how she felt.

The flag does offer some security I suppose and the flag bearer is often a knowledgeable and friendly person.  However, as we discovered at Yellow Mountain, the flag bearer can ruin a day.  I had been looking forward to Yellow Mountain for many months as it is the place of classic Chinese mountain scenery, with steep misty and craggy cliffs. 



Unfortunately, our flag bearer was a control freak.  All we wanted to do was be on our own and return at a specified time to catch the bus – but this guy would not let us.  I asked him for information so we could leave the group and he would blatantly ignore me and only say “it is a highlight, I’ll take you there”.  Then as Sachi asked “Can you show it to us on the map?” He just stared at her defiantly in the face and puffed away on his cigarette.  You could almost hear him saying to himself “independence in NOT a virtue”.

We and a few other Western couples attempted a break-away while waiting for the geezers in the group to ascend the steps but he stopped us in our tracks saying that he needed to “make an important announcement" – more waiting.  In the end, we spent about two-thirds of our time waiting around with the flag Nazi and one-third actually exploring the scenery.  He made us feel as if we were 5 years old and he was the sage grandfather who held the sacred knowledge of the mountain.  This grandfather never uttered a word of wisdom, except where to go to catch the next cablecar.

Somehow we have made it through over 12 countries just fine without a flag leading the way and if we have a choice, the next twelve will be flag-less as well.

Anatomy of a Scam in Vietnam

By: leelefever on July 27, 2006 - 8:22am

It’s been said many times- be clear with a Vietnamese cab driver about your hotel, or they will take you to their friend’s hotel, where they will earn a commission. We’ve seen many attempts at such diversions, but none so blatant as we experienced today, just after arriving in Hanoi.

We took a cab from the airport into town (37km for US$10). On the way, we told the driver to go to the “Camellia 3” Hotel and showed him where it was on the map. He agreed and the agreement was settled. Along the way he had a number of phone calls, which rang in a ring tone with the volume on 11. We understood nothing he said.

Upon arriving in the Old City of Hanoi, a young Vietnamese guy walked over to the car, opened my door, stuck his head into the car about 3 inches from my face and said “Welcome to the Camellia 3 Hotel!” I struggled to look around him at the building and the awning and did not see anything about the Camellia, or any hotel for that matter. No matter what we asked, he continued to insist, quite rudely “Yes, this is the place, the Camellia 3 Hotel, let me get your bags.” All I could say was, “First, please back up and let me get out of the car.” I left Sachi in the car and stepped into what was supposed to be the Camellia 3 Hotel. I walked to the reception desk and said “I’d like a business card please, where is your business card?” Their answer: “We ran out”. This, of course was a lie and there was no longer any doubt what was happening. This was not the Camellia 3 Hotel.

The cab driver must have thought we were complete idiots. He actually thought that he could drop us off at some random hotel and we would believe, thanks to the not-so-skillful scamming of his not-so-sly cronies, that we had arrived at our requested destination and would blindly get a room, earning him a commission.

We’ve met a lot of nice people in Vietnam, but it is the prevalence of this kind of bullshit that will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth. We said to him what we say to all people who try to pull such stunts. “You are bad for tourists – you keep doing this, tourists will stop coming.” He only smiled with a “you can’t win’em all” attitude and went off to give another tourist a good reason not to come back to Vietnam.

Street Hawkers and Young Love

By: leelefever on July 24, 2006 - 1:44am

 Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes on the streets of SE Asia knows the street hawkers – the people selling goods and services on the street.  The most dominant and tenacious of the hawkers are the drivers- people offering rides on their tuk-tuk or motorcycle.  Others include people selling sunglasses, drinks or any other tourist consumable.  I would guarantee with absolute certainty that the two phrases I’ve heard most over the last two months are “Sir! Where you go?” and “Sir! You buy something?”  This morning over breakfast we denied no fewer than 6 offers for the Saigon Times newspaper.

We’ve gotten used to it, but sometimes we just want to throw all of our stuff on the ground and pitch a fit in the middle of the street screaming “I have had ENOUGH!  NO! I DO NOT want a RIDE or a DRINK or a T-SHIRT and if I do, I WILL FIND YOU!!!! Most of the time though we just offer a polite “no thanks” and walk away.

The situation is not unlike the story we all know of the boy that really, really likes a girl. The girl is not so into him, but politely talks to him and smiles at him politely.  The smitten boy of course perceives any interaction as a move in the right direction and pursues the girl with tenacity.  He asks her out on a date every time they meet and over time, the girl tires of his advances to the point of becoming annoyed. Little does he know it, but with each interaction he drives her further and further away. Eventually the girl learns that the only way to deal with the boy is to ignore him completely and be leery of other boys like him. 

Such is our situation with the street hawkers. With each offer, we find ourselves less and less likely to deal with them or even acknowledge that they exist. Like the smitten boy, they don’t realize it, but their tenacity is actually preventing more business than promoting it.

See also:  10 Reasons Why Street Hawkers are Like Email Spam 

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Feeling Old on Khao San Road

By: leelefever on May 31, 2006 - 9:20pm

There is a famous street in Bangkok called Khao San Road which is known as the "backpacker ghetto". It has cheap rooms, cheap food, lots of bars and hence, lots of backpackers.

Before we arrived in Bangkok for the first time, people said "Go see Khao San, but don't stay there". Being you can't get there by train and Bangkok traffic is a joke, we didn't make it to Khao San Rd. until today (our 3rd visit to Bangkok).

I'm really glad we're not staying there. Something that I've learned about my travel style is that I don't want to be surrounded by other travelers. Seeing other westerners in a secluded temple in Kyoto takes something away from the experience for me. I'd prefer to feel like the only foreigner in a place that no one can find. When I look at Khao San road, I see the opposite of that. It's wall-to-wall backpackers, strutting around with their day-old dreadlocks, sunburned cheeks and too-cool-for-school attitudes. Though we carry a backpack, it is abundantly clear to us that we don't identify with the average 20 year old unkept-and-proud backpacker. It seems that the badge of honor among backpackers is to appear that your lodging does not have a shower. It also seems that Khao San road is as much about travel fashion and looking cool for other backpackers than anything else, and I'm over it. And yes, I am perhaps jealous that I'm not that young anymore and realize that I sound even older.

If I were 20, though, I'd love Khao San Rd. and would be right there with them. But as a 32 year old traveler with a backpack, I can't help but wonder if the Bangkok they experience happens without the company of 15 other people wearing a "Same Same But Different" t-shirt.

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Back In Bangkok

By: leelefever on May 30, 2006 - 6:41pm

Back In Bangkok, originally uploaded by LeeLeFever_TwinF.

Well, the Japanese adventure is over and our budget is happy to be back in SE Asia. Japan- what a highlight.

It is nice to be back in Thailand- the land of succulent pineapples, cheap lodging and constant summertime.

Unfortunately, I was quickly reminded of a part of Bangkok I could do without. Twice tonight I saw people parading around the city streets with elephants (above) offering rides and pictures. It's a spectacle the first time, but thereafter the sight grows more and more sad. I've ridden an elephant before in Sri Lanka- in the jungle and through a reservoir, so I can only be so critical, but I HATE to see them in the traffic of a busy downtown street. You can just see the weariness in their eyes.

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Thai Boxing (Muay thai) in Bangkok

By: sachilefever on April 5, 2006 - 5:38am

Thai Boxing (Muay thai) in Bangkok Originally uploaded by sachilefever_twinf.

I remembered why I don't like to watch boxing matches: The sweat streaming down the boxers' bodies while they fight, trainers rubbing sweat into their boxer's muscles during every break, sweat flying into the crowd as one boxer gets in a big punch. I don't even mind people hitting each other, just don't show me all the sweat! It's gross!

Lee wanted to be sure to see Thai boxing, so here we are. We just had some yummy street food outside the arena, and now we're sitting in the foreigners section ringside. There are other travellers to meet here as we listen to the drums and crowds cheer during each round. We all seem to be guessing at the rules and scoring, and cringing at the blood spurting from the head of the boxer in the red corner. It's a cool scene to see the crowd so excited and the drink and numbers runners scurrying through the rows. It's really loud. I'll be surveying the crowd more as the rounds go on...avoiding the visions of sweat splashing on the ropes.

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