Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dutch Still Life in the Age of Instagram

How old was I when I first realized a still life wasn't necessarily just a still life?

I had of course, seen still life paintings for my whole life. They were the necessary accoutrements to tasteful, middle-class living for decades if not centuries, only to be relatively recently usurped by abstract expressionism. The bourgeoisie gathered paintings of flowers and fruit, whether painted by friends and family, or whether acquired at small galleries or in tourist towns, and placed them on mantles and landings, art as innocuous as the wallpaper.

And yet if we go to the arts of the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th Centuries, we find that each angle was rich with religious meaning. Slaughtered birds, books, crystal goblets, mussel shells, and daffodils were imbued with meaning. A skull sits in the middle of a sumptuous chamber, to emphasize the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, while on oyster is a not-so-subtle reminder of lust. And at a time when Europe was being shredded by religious war, the still life became a Dutch specialty, a sort of aesthetic battle flag in the Thirty Years' War. 

Conversely, while the paintings of finished plates of food might on one level be a warning against immoderation, they are also the emblems of the Dutch Republic and its emphasis on trade. Those very same Calvinists who advocated a simple religion had no problem with the mass accumulation of capital. Without the religious agendas that marked, for instance, Spanish imperial expansion around the same time, the impetus of the Dutch colonial project was, above all else, the establishment of a network trading in what were then exotic commodities-- coffee, cloves, nutmeg, chocolate, and tobacco. And so the still life became representations of the ostentation and pomp of the new mercantile classes, the people who could afford elaborate breakfasts with lobsters and mountains of fruit.


Despite the fact that a great deal of this coded language and ironic double-meaning is lost on the modern viewer, the pleasing form of the still life remains-- probably something along the lines of what those merchant patrons were looking for. And its aesthetic DNA continues to the present day.

In a recent book of essays, Lawrence Weschler examined the portrait of Che Guevara's corpse, and found that it possessed the same composition as Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.


Likewise, we live in a time when everyone is taking pictures of their lunch spreads, albeit showing them off on social media feeds rather than in sitting rooms. At brunch, we have inevitably become like those burghers of Haarlem and Leiden in an age of speculation and expansion, attempting to immortalize our luxuries.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On the Negroni

It was in 1937 that M.F.K. Fisher first said that there were two different kinds of food writers, those who imitated Brillat-Savarin, and those who didn't. It is as true now as it was then, although nowadays, it could probably be split into those who imitate Fisher herself and those who don't. She condemns memoirs in which “from each chapter rises a reek, a heady stench of truffles, Chateau Yquem, and quails financière” (naturally), and also the books where young men cycle around Europe staying at charming inns and denouncing “the barbaric horrors of the cocktail.”

I write this as I sip the barbaric horrors of a nice Negroni at a French bistro in my neighborhood. As much as I hate the term “mixology,” it's such a standard part of the gastronomic repertoire now that it's hard for me to imagine an alternative reality, a time when a well-made cocktail wasn't appreciated.

But when I think about what exactly a cocktail is, the context makes a bit more sense. Consider that Negroni I'm drinking, a classic of the génération perdue recently revived from obscurity. And, in 1920, it must have seemed so modern, so detached from any kind of preexisting tradition.

Start with the gin, a drink that's Dutch in origin, but English in soul, and which was one of the first truly commercially distributed alcohols. In England in the early 18th Century, the hearty, traditional drink of the peasantry was local beer, but as the population moved to the cities, and a market opened up for a distilled drink made from lower-quality grain, gin became the crack cocaine of Enlightenment-era London, as immortalized in the famous William Hogarth print.


Or consider the vermouth. While herbed wines were a major part of the Roman and Medieval drinking traditions as well, vermouth took off as a likewise highly commercialized product in Continental Europe in the 19th Century, with brands like Martini & Rossi and Noilly-Prat all angling for the lucrative cafe market. Such an integral part of the new, highly branded world of alcohol was it that the world's first neon advertisement was for Cinzano vermouth.

And last, there's the Campari, which, while it has its roots in traditional Italian bitters, is a proprietary drink, invented in 1860, a pure capitalist-era product.

Now take those three things, themselves all delinked from the distinct, local traditions of ales, wines, and brandies, and blend them.

So I have to conclude that like the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the paintings of Henri Matisse, the Negroni has become a symbol of an older iteration of the modernist idea. Its pedigree comes with the passage of time. Just as how Matisse and his cohorts were once denounced as fauves, the insult became a badge of honor, before becoming a simple historical descriptor. The cocktail is no longer a “barbaric horror,” a bucking of antique tradition, but a part of that antique tradition itself.

I might be drinking this thing because of its delicate balance of sweet and bitter, but, like wearing a vintage shirt, or listening to an old 45 rpm record, there is the joy of placing oneself within the narrative of history. Part of me drinks it because, after a dull, monochrome day, when I see the countless stories contained in one object, it is like holding a prism to it. The whole spectrum becomes visible.

Monday, February 29, 2016

On Reading Under Sunlight

In a previous time in my life, I worked for a horrifically slutty web startup-- an outfit that produced just the worst sort of clickbait-heavy, content-farming nonsense, staffed largely by bro-ish guys in white V-necks, several of whom asked me for advice on how to grow more facial hair (how I wish that last part was a joke). Yet it had one great advantage, a lovely, older office space in a loft, the sort of open space where the pale, Northwest sunlight would come cascading in, over decaying water towers and rooftop gardens, onto old wooden floors, through the sort of big windows that made the corners ideal reading spots. And at break times, when I needed a refuge, I would go and sit with my book. Where, for a little while, I didn't have to think about the fact that I was making starvation wages to fill search engine optimized pages with Google-friendly verbal sewage.

It wasn't just the book. It was, just as much, watery light against each page, revealing the fibers of the paper, the fringes of the letters, the cracks in the spine.

To read the same thing under the office fluorescents would have merely confirmed my entrapment in the cesspool.

Just as important, I realized, is also the interplay between artificial and natural lighting. To read under a bedside lamp, under the covers, is the height of coziness. Yet to read under that very same lamp when the sun is shining seems claustrophobic. At best, the lamplight is unnoticeable. At worst, it's like a ghoul, an undead simulacrum of the bright sun.

While I have to conclude that the divide between the “natural” and the “artificial” is a construction like any other-- and perhaps, in fact, the division that we assume is the most artificial thing there is-- the way we experience these two categories remains a valid phenomenological distinction. Think about lemons. The taste of a fresh lemon can be like the experience of a summer day, but artificial lemon just reminds me of cleaning fluid. Or, conversely, the heat of a furnace on a frigid night seems like a warm refuge, but a hot day leaves you yearning for a cold drink.

And so the rays of the sun form the baseline of our experience of light. No matter how much time we spend indoors, the variety of natural light that we experience on a daily basis is almost certainly the most common form of light that we see. Much as the artificial lemon flavoring can never match the complex blend of oils, esters, flavonoids, citric acid, etc. in the real thing. And no electric light can truly mimic the particular blend of wavelengths, that seems cleanest and most pure in sunlight.

Nowadays, I live in the tropics. I don't spend so much time in the sun, and like more or less everyone else here I try to avoid the vicious noonday brightness. And I've got a job I don't despise nearly as much. But at lunchtime, I still want to read in a sunny air-conditioned room, and open my book to see the way the light hits the texture of the page.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Le Corbusier on On Nut Road

A new city is being built atop the old. It erupts from the old city at odd points, on streets near busy metro stops, along the radial highways that cross the canals, seemingly ignorant of all previous geographies.

I find myself, one night, on a bridge over a canal in On Nut, where, not long ago, the traffic and the concrete gave way to the rice paddies and orchards. All around are the sounds and sights of construction, of 2x4s being nailed into place, of fresh caterpillar tracks in the red clay soil, of cascades of sparks coming off of welding torches on steel armatures, of fluorescent lights left on in unpainted hallways, illuminating gray drywall and plastic sawhorses.

Signs are going up. Condos for sale, plus a “community mall”-- a ubiquitous Bangkok feature, a self-conscious imitation of Southern California planning with all the spas and modern Japanese restaurants one would expect. Artists' renderings show manicured hedges, smartly dressed diners, joggers somehow blithely ignorant of the fanged Thai sun.

And yet cross the road, and find yourself in a fully unreconstructed city, a hodgepodge of spontaneous construction-- market sellers of grilled pork skewers and greenish oranges, shophouses occupied by dental clinics and hairdressers, broken concrete, stray dogs, old wooden houses starting to tilt alongside an ancient canal, A supermarket with stalls selling cheap clothes, knockoff jewelry, herbal soaps, butchered squid splayed out across rapidly melting ice.

In 1922, Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect who had the gall to turn himself into a pseudonymous brand decades before Cher, planned out his Ville Contemporaine, a planned city of 3,000,000 souls that was designed to reflect his own authoritarian vision for what a city should be. Preaching the gospel of architectural determinism, he saw the perfection of man in the perfection of architecture-- which, fortunately, was a task Le Corbusier felt he'd more or less accomplished in the form of “towers in the park.”


But unlike a great many of his colleagues, Le Corbusier was able to merrily shoehorn his vision into multiple political ideologies. A handmaiden of wealthy European industrialists, he designed their country estates and lobbied them to build worker housing along his lines, but who also spent a few years as the favored architect of the USSR, and who willingly carried out the architectural vision of the collaborationist government in France in World War II, who afterwards lent his vision to the construction of vaguely democratic-socialist megaprojects in an idealistic, newly independent India.

After cycling through industrial capitalism, communism, fascism, and social democracy, the tower in the park can thus take the form of post-industrial capitalism, as it did in the years following World War II, became emblematic of large-scale corporate architecture, both in high-density housing complexes and in suburban office parks.

And so On Nut is increasingly filled with the towers, as assets for the city's investing classes, leased out to more housing-transient populations-- young professionals, university students from wealthy families, expatriates looking for an environment that could just as easily fit into Dallas or Sydney. As the new city grows in size and influence, one wonders what will happen to the old. Will it be replaced, or will it grow in size accordingly, as a belt of poverty supplying the necessary labor to feed the tastes of those in the towers? And how much of it will be preserved as a nostalgic relic, an easily marketable counterpoint in a vertical city? After all, even Le Corbusier spent his final years in a rustic cabin by the sea.

The new Bangkok seems to grow and grow without reason, and one wonders where all the capital comes from. Ads appear for more and more condos, in further and further neighborhoods, with invitations to buy units off of the plan before ground is broken. The city takes on the character of a mirage, and it seems as if the act of construction takes primacy over the place itself. I'm reminded, at last, on that bridge over the canal, of Italo Calvino's Thekla, from Invisible Cities.
“Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask 'Why is Thekla's construction taking such a long time?' the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer 'So that its destruction cannot begin.' And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, 'Not only the city.'”

Monday, December 28, 2015

Lobster Thermidor

It seems so odd and arbitrary that we only occasionally think about the history of the things around us, and only at the things that we deem "historical" in nature. A 19th Century church, an old family photo, these are things where their oldness is an essential feature in the collective imagination, and so we always consider their histories. Or we see something new that has a specifically antiquated design, or something in which we know the history of why it was built that way, or the intent of its inventor or designer, and we can tell ourselves the story of how this thing that we see came to be in the world. We might let the shape of our electrical plugs, the bright red of a Solo cup, go without comment that day. But sometimes the narrative emerges, uncoils, and becomes visible. And so it was recently, when the narrative came to me in the form of a lobster.

The story of how lobster became gentrified is one of the more popular pieces of kitschy American food lore, especially in the wake of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. What was once considered an inedible pest became a cheap protein and a standard meal in the colonial prison system before its eventual, full rehabilitation as a luxury food. Or perhaps you've heard about the six-foot lobsters that reportedly roamed the shores of Manhattan Island in the Colonial Era, like animal symbols of the hyperabundance of a supposedly virgin continent.

 

And when the lobster came to me, that crossed my mind. But what was far more interesting was the way in which it was served. The beast came with its claws already cracked, its insides splayed open and blended into a rich, creamy filling, lashings of egg yolk crystallized along the sides of the shell.

 

The name smacks of antiquity. The dish was named at Maison Maire in late 19th Century Paris in honor of a play, Thermidor, by Victorien Sardou, a titan in his time, but likewise now mostly forgotten. The play opened in 1891-- a time, known in popular memory, as the Paris of La Belle Époque, of Monet water lilies and boulevard flâneurs, but which was also a time of near-constant military intrigues, the Dreyfus Affair, the beginning of France's colonial incursions, and the far-right populism of General Georges Boulanger's revanchist political campaign, before Boulanger's suicide on the grave of his mistress several months after the opening of Thermidor. The play is the story of the Thermidorian Reaction, the 1794 French counter-revolution that lead to the execution of Maximilien Robespierre and the bloody purge of leftists in 1795, a subject so volatile that the government of Sadi Carnot banned the production at all state theaters... until Carnot's own assassination shortly afterwards, in 1894.

 

And the lobster thermidor has become something of a rarity. Once a luxury staple, it has faded into obscurity, along with other out-of-fashion dishes codified by Auguste Escoffier. Roux-thickened soups, sauces heavy with crayfish butter and meat glaze, breaded chunks of beef and veal, compound salads drowning under gelatin or mayonnaise, and grotesque, floral garnishes of puff pastry and vegetables have been relegated. We see their photos lurking in old cookbooks, with shimmery surfaces in oversaturated colors.

 

And so what I have on my plate is not just a dish, but a high-modernist relic-- a dish borne of the capital and excess and tumult of the 19th Century, enshrined in the ideology and iconography of the 20th, before being junked in favor of new tastes. A culinary Cadillac.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunset, Saphan Khwai

Get off the metro at Saphan Khwai at sunset. Walk southwards, towards Pradiphat Road. Lunch shops are selling off the remainder of their curries for the day, signs for windowless “cinemas” down side alleys. New condos loom over the rows of empty shophouses quietly crumble in the humidity, down sois that until recently, terminated at the dilapidated remains of the once glorious New York Theater, a block of high modernism reduced to one of the neighborhood porn theaters before its eventual demolition. And off to the left, the ever-glowing pink neon sleaze of the Sutthisan Road go-go bars.


 
I'd walked this route countless times to visit my friends who live in this area. But it was only recently that I began to pay notice to the grim, lumbering building on the Northwest corner of the Saphan Khwai intersection.

From ground level, it mostly seems to be a row of shops like any other-- food places, wholesalers of cloth, jewelers, all of the normal elements of most Bangkok neighborhoods-- but look a bit closer.

Up above, there are a few more floors than one would expect, and doors to nowhere jut out from masonry walls. A security guard waves cars in and out of an underground parking garage. Looking through to the back of the shops, a large, empty space can be seen, the walls painted institutional green, with a large empty tile floor in the middle. And above a food center, one sees the railings of overhanging floors, the interior space hidden behind hung white sheets.

A little research, and I finally found a photo of this, the Sisupharat Arcade Building, as it was under construction in 1979, right at the start of the Thai economic miracle.


And as it stands today, after its last iteration as the Saphan Khwai Branch of the Merry Kings Department Store, another victim of the 1997 Financial Crisis.


The hivemind of the Internet has become immensely fond of dead malls, those malls that either are abandoned, or, more likely, seriously under-occupied, remnants of a consumer base that has since moved on. It's as if, in the continuing wake of the big collapse in 2007, there's something cathartic about seeing a material manifestation of the total obviation of the suburban, American dream.

Bangkok has contributed to it in the form of the New World Mall, the structure near Khaosan Road that became famous for having partially filled with water, and becoming home to schools of carp.


Thailand's 1997, America's 2007. At the bottom of the business cycle, inefficiencies will inevitably pool. Destruction, sans renewal, emerges as an inevitable characteristic of capitalism. And this is why there is something so compelling about those sites that remind us of this sobering fact. We live among constant billboard, fantasy consumer products projected at us from every angle. Which is why, on warm nights in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, it might not be a bad idea to look at the broken concrete that lurks behind.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Arabesque

They come at me at points in the day, when I'm least aware. When I'm lying in bed at night, or during a slow afternoon at the office. Sinuous forms, peacock feathers and nudibranchs, dancing around the corners of my vision before they dissipate in the murk, or swim off into the unknown territories beyond my eyelids.

All of them could loosely be termed “arabesques,” a loosely used term, of course, but something that also implies complexity, interwovenness, and transcendence.

We get the term from the intricate patterns of Middle Eastern decorative work, mosque tiles filled with lines wrapped around one another in eternal horror vacui. In the cosmology of the Islamic Golden Age, it was the purest form of representation. The curvilinear patterns reflected the warp and woof of the Arabic script, and by extension, the Qu'ran, shape and language bound together in an eternal logos.


And in Southeast Asia, it manifests itself in the unalom, the spiral pattern that decorates the edges of sak yant tattoos and mandalas, and which I see in white paint on the roofs of Bangkok taxis, interlaced with the ancient Khmer script.


The forms exist in nature. Not only in the vines and tendrils that inspired so much of the original Middle Eastern arabesques, but also in the invisible forces that contour the world around us.

I see them in the sea creatures that seem to toe the line between plant and animals, floating on waves, or fixed to the ocean floor, like creaturely plants. Lacking vertebrae, constrained as they are by water pressure and turbulent flow, the crinoids and corals and coelenterates, bryozoans and holothurians seem to us earthbound creatures to be as unfamiliar as aliens. And in his masterwork Kunstformen der Natur, Ernst Hackel painted and displayed them to almost look abstract in their unfamiliarity, patterns that could readily decorate a Turkish doorway.


You see the arabesque form inscribed into the rock in the gravitational flow of water, in the deltas that frame the swampy ground at the mouths of rivers, and in dry regions, deserts and Alpine highlands, the ghosts of streams form great alluvial fans.


And you see it in the Lichtenberg figures, the delicate, dendritic tracings that demonstrate the flow of energy through insulating matter. They appear in the clay of lightning-struck soil, and on the skin of lightning strike victims.


In the late 1950s, Gaston Bachelard turned his attentions to these sorts of descriptions. Unsatisfied with descriptions of the world around him in terms of origins and causes, he turned to raw, lived experience, how the thing in the world reverberates with him, the observer. He believed his subjective experience to be indicative of universals.

I don't ascribe any universality to the arabesques I see. A hardline phenomenologist might say that they constitute some kind of deep-seated umwelt. But I think that, in reality, as with all perceptive phenomena of this sort, they are simply the constellation I perceive among many stars, seen through my own very specific telescope.

And yet it's a powerful enough connection that it shapes my perception for them. Lying in my bed, they seem to move around me, velvet-black and shimmering gold. When I wake up in the morning, they suddenly scatter as my eyes open. They lie there in wait, hiding themselves in the shadowiest recesses.