Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Memory of Modernism

About a month ago, my attention was drawn to a set of photos by the Dutch photographer Jan Kempenaers.  He'd gone around the former Yugoslavia with an old map to track down the monuments commissioned by Josip Broz Tito to commemorate the nation's suffering in the Second World War.  Battlefields, concentration camps, and other sites of national import were memorialized in one of those high-minded Communist projects that are so often forgotten.  The monuments were built as a material reminder of the victory of ordinary people over the fascist armies that marauded Europe.

They're all rendered in this unearthly, brutalist style that, as Foucault says, "heroizes the present."

Some look like the gears of abandoned spaceships:
Others like the skeletons of prehistoric sea monsters:
And others, like my favorite, near the Kosovo town of Mitrovica, seem to be nothing but a profound and monolithic gravity:

Take away the graffiti and restore the concrete, and you can imagine the little socialist automobiles gathered outside, the Yugos and Skodas and Trabants and Dacias.  Neckerchiefed Young Pioneers are gathered around, posing for photos, shielding their eyes from the Sun while they salute.

The Yugoslavs put so much effort into memorializing the defeat of fascism.  And think how quickly after the fall of Communism the peoples of the old Yugoslavia slipped into a new fascism.  Tito combated the ethno-nationalist impulse with a vengeance, recognizing it threatened the unity of the state and by extension his own power.  1989 saw the flowering of Prague and Budapest, but further South it marked the dawn of a decade of religious sectarianism and territorial revanchism.

Religious and ethnic wars slashed the Balkans to ribbons, and modern monuments crumbled in the hills.

When I was off seeing the world, I passed through the little Cambodian town of Kep (during the Indochine days, it was Kep-sur-Mer), some 10,000 people on a rocky shore a few hours out of Phnom Penh.

In the '60s, this was the Cambodian Riviera.  Squint at the old town, and you can almost see it.  Men in white suits strolling along the quay, lacing their Khmer conversation with French.  Lon Nol's cronies must have sipped Scotch at the nightclubs, where Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth sang.

The streets are quiet now.  When the Khmer Rouge marched into Kep in 1975, they torched the modernist seaside villas.  Teenagers in black pajamas, faces covered with red-checked krama scarves, must have gone through these buildings, ripping out velvet curtains and tossing volumes of Victor Hugo and the Reamker into the Gulf.

The black hulks of the old villas loom over the seaside today.  A number of them bear the bold designs of Vann Molyvann, Le Corbusier's Cambodian disciple who imbued fused the International style with design elements from classical Angkorian architecture.

Modernism is annihilated by another modernism.  Two radical approaches are incommensurate: the new architecture of Corbusier and the beyond-Maoism of the Democratic Kampuchea dictat.

Today, the peasants hang their wash on lines strung from the concrete columns.  The Khmers are tough as nails.  Everyone you see over 30 is a genocide survivor.

The government of Hun Sen, the one-eyed former Communist who has run Cambodia in some capacity since 1985, has announced bold plans to sweep away the ruins and restore Kep as the gem of the coast.  Onward marches the new capitalism that dominates East Asia-- the Chinese and Vietnamese and Cambodians have abandoned the anti-Western philippics and embraced the shopping mall.

So much of me still wants to be a modernist, to believe that Schoenberg can save the world, that a liberationist Marxist praxis will lead to a saner, less alienated society.

All I can be convinced of is that anything and everything is temporary and contingent.  We leave traces of our old desires around the landscape.  The old clashes fade into memory.  But in Mitrovica and in Kep, the flowers are still blooming.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anniversary Issue

Today is a dual anniversary.  First, I've been back in Seattle one year.  In that year, I've become reacquainted with everything I dig about this town: the watery light off the North Pacific, the madrona trees shading the long steps that cascade down Queen Anne Hill, the sunny, dry days that make you feel like you're walking through a Joni Mitchell song, the cold, wet days where you stay inside and drink coffee in your bathrobe.  I've rediscovered the joys of pho on dripping winter evenings, of gin-fueled dance parties in creaking Victorians, of noise shows in dingy bars, of arguing the difference between various Costa Rican coffees, of the hand-painted signs in Ethiopian script on East Cherry Street.

But, in addition to having spent one year back here, that's also one year I haven't been anywhere else.  I have not left Seattle city limits in 365 days, not even to go to a suburb.  I think, sometimes, about hopping on a bus to Shoreline or Tukwila just for the hell of it.  But this seems even more dismal.  My one time leaving the city would be to wind up in some chilly, windswept strip mall on a desolate strip of the Pacific Highway, before turning back.

I pride myself on being a peripatetic bastard.  On having rejected my home and gone to wander the Earth.  I'm slightly worn out and prone to reminisce about Cambodian mountaintops, about the long mosses that hang in the cold weather rainforests, about the steps of Sacré-Coeur on a July evening when Paris looks like an antique stereopticon.

So I have to wonder why it is I've stuck it out here.  I bitch about it a lot.  Everyone does.  Seattleites love to bitch about the rain, about the bad attitude it engenders, about that weird and pathetic desire that Seattle has to be a world city, to be a New York-in-the-Northwest, a Paris-on-the-Puget.

The virtual city threatens to overwhelm the old real.  The digital age has transformed the old town of salmon canneries and creaking viaducts into a shiny chrome post-metropolis.  What I hate about Seattle is exactly this, its icy, venal character.

And what I love most about it is its remnants, the ruins of the old America that poke out through the pacified city.  The half-erased Chinese signs and signs in a vaguely Chinese font-- COLD BEER, CHOW MEIN-- painted in alleys, the red gantry cranes that sway over the harbor, the filthy river that carries the name of a near-extinct tribe in the city named for its chief, the sudden flights of seagulls that swoop down through cobblestone streets filled with fallen sakura blossoms.

To a certain extent, what keeps people in one place is inertia.  Obviously, there are personal connections as well, to work, to family, to friends.  But I think a lot of what keeps people in one place is that they don't know why they would move when there's no suggestion that where they move would be any better for them.  We will be in one place tomorrow because it's where we are today.

Other cities and countries beckon me, and sometimes I imagine my future self there: walking through the streets of Brooklyn on an early fall evening, biking along the seaside in L.A., high atop a Maoist apartment block in Shanghai, staring down the entangled cityscapes of Berlin or San Francisco or Saigon or Seoul.

But Seattle and I have reached something of an understanding.  It's the spot on Earth that I've chosen, at least for now.  And when I walk home late at night, or when I see the sun rising from behind the Cascades, it reveals itself to me, and it's like receiving a valentine.