Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Desire for Something Else

It lies back in there somewhere, deep in the recesses of early memory. The sweet smell of an attic, the cardboard boxes with the outdated logos of various American conglomerates and long-defunct department stores, and the endless piles of old magazines.

In the detritus of industrial America, I knew I would find something, some answer, some key. It was a belief I was never able to articulate, but that always lurked in my consciousness, like the feeling of looking out on an empty yard and not being able to recall where one last saw light of this quality, this hue.

So I looked through the magazines. Certain places evoked an immense exoticism: the scented jungles of Southeast Asia, vast, snowy islands in Northern Canada, the windswept steppes of Central Asia. Places at the margins of what we deem to be "civilization," where the experiences of positivism fray. They remained vast territories where death came from the primordial landscape, where human life still occurs in strict tandem with the season cycle and where animist myth still holds greater credence than the laws of planetary motion.

And there was my lifelong love of the map-- a beautiful tool that has been eclipsed by the admittedly more precise and useful version offered by Google. Maps of my own era were fine, but I was more interested in the earlier versions: maps with odd corners of Africa and Australia still marked "unexplored"; maps of old American entities long since passed into obscurity, the Lincoln Highway and the Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio Railroad, Western outpost towns with names like Aladdin, Wyoming and Kremlin, Montana; the old nations and cities that conjured up a more romantic era of travel-- Cochin China and Austrian Galicia, Danzig and Adrianople-- and those sepia-postcard spellings like Roumania and Tokio.

It wasn't so much that I was nostalgic for another era, but, as I grew older, more that I wanted to radically negate my surroundings. The more standard breed of teenage nerd stuck to Dungeons and Dragons or Final Fantasy VII or whatever, but I had an 1898 atlas prefaced by the stern face of President William McKinley.

But of course, this vision has little to do with the exigencies of real travel. Those hours spent with maps and photos have nothing to do with the hardship, the occasional bouts of sickness, the insectarium cheap hotel rooms, the occasional scams and cons, the terminal boredom of long waits at rundown train stations, the ugly habit of fat package tourists being waited upon by native servants, the even uglier habit of young backpackers looking to drink rum-and-Cokes on every continent and still have the gall to call it enlightening, and the awful recognition that you are probably not much better yourself.


I was sitting in a nowhere zone somewhere in Nong Khai Province. Red mud and intermittent rain and the butts of cheap Thai cigarettes stomped into the dirt. We were waiting for the border to open, in the humid pre-dawn. It was too dark and I was much too tired to read. I tried to fill the mindless void, but ultimately was alone to confront it.

But times like that are good for reflection, when you're far form home and wondering how you got there, how the hell it is that you've arrived in this godforsaken place on what was once the front line of the Cold War, where now there are groups of men sitting silently in the dark, smoking and staring.

I cycle back through my memory, through the chain of events that led me to this one specific place. And inevitably I arrived back in that attic, back to the thoughts of a blonde-headed kid in snowbound Iowa who saw a picture of a Papuan perched in a treehouse above the rainforest and wondered if, some day, he might sit there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Notes from the Outpost of Sangkhlaburi

I had some vacation time, so I'd gone up into the mountains around Sangkhlaburi. It's a remote place, four hours' bus ride from its own provincial capital.

Getting off the bus you feel like you're in a true outpost, all wooden buildings and steep streets without order and design. Beyond the lights of the town are the vast forests of the Dawna and Tenasserim Mountains, and beyond them, the war-torn states of Lower Burma.

Three memos written in my notebook at a cafe:

1. I'm sleeping so much here-- the weather saps one's energy with its schizophrenia, cold rain alternating with blistering heat. Everything is thick, humid, moreso even than Bangkok. The entire town seems stifling and waterlogged, prone to immense fungal growth.

2. And there's something sinister about its locale next to the Vajiralongkorn Reservoir, the old town submerged under the new. In the dry season, the ruins of the old temple emerge, but in the monsoon, everything remains hidden. The water immediately below my room is dense with lake weeds. I imagine trying to swim in the murk, my legs swept at by sinuous underwater greenery, like ghosts trying to pull me down into the gloomy depths.

3. I climb to the grand pagoda that looks out over the reservoir and find it devoid of worshippers. Statues representing the days of the week scattered around the edges of the central tower, out of order, mixed up, left to gather dust or perhaps never finished. At the base, a few rough-hewn wooden figures have gathered the gifts of devotees: a silver-leafed tree (the old symbol of fiefdom in the Siamese Empire), candles of many-colored wax, bottles of syrup-sweet red soda, and a pale statuette looking remarkably like a Buddhist Virgin Mary.

Sangkhlaburi is a tourist town on one level, but it is also a purgatory, a transit point. It is a town of unfulfilled dreams and failed developments, an inheritor of all of the ugliness that has happened in this region-- imperialism both local and European, colonialism, economic conquest, displacement, forced migration, socialist purges, capitalist destruction, holy war, tribal battling, and the general shittiness of mankind.

This is a town of milling orphans and teak houses clinging precipitously to mountain slopes, occupied by nationalities on the run. The red sarong of a girl indicates her Mon ethnicity-- a people who once commanded vast swaths of present-day Myanmar and Thailand, but have now been consigned to remote backwaters, their ancient language and script fast becoming relics. There are the Karen, fractured by 70 years of civil war, the longest internal war on the planet. Saddest of all are the Indo-Burmese, refugees from an unremembered nation. Their ancestors were the indentured labor of the British Raj, were slaughtered in the Rangoon race riots of 1930, were purged as collaborators after the Ne Win military coup in 1962.

And there are the countless women with hollow eyes and missing teeth, carrying massive loads on their backs and puffing cheroots in the rain. Their clothing comprises a set of signs and symbols as emblematic as national flags, but unreadable by I, the Westerner, the tourist.

And yet it's a lovely place, a remarkably lovely one at that. The mountains here are a prehistoric boundary, a seam at the meeting point of the Indian, Eurasian, and Sunda plates. It is a border both geological and cultural, separating two old warring empires. Humanity's use of the hills is transient. The mountains stand as impassive as the Buddhas of the temples they contain.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Aesthetics of Desolation

Growing up, my parents had filled the childhood home with art books of every description, laid out on coffee tables and stacked on bookshelves. I never really drew a line between these and my picture books. As a child, there was something remarkably rapturous about each one, a transcendence that could only be expressed by Magritte or Klee or whoever.

Every book on my parents' shelf seemed like it had the potential to be a portal into another world. But the art books were so immediate in their impact on my mind. Here was the world of events that all took place in one time period, or one rough color scheme, or with certain recurring motifs, certain types of people, certain reappearing names for people and places. Each painter wasn't so much a real person, but a self-contained universe.

As I grew older and was able to put these names into some larger context, some narrative of art history, my raw feelings about these artists still lingered. Even as I attempted to describe one artist as the bridge from one school of painting to another, I would still have the residue of an old bias for or against them: the way that their painting looked, re-printed in a coffee table book with worn corners, spread out on the warped hardwood of my bedroom floor, in the light of a quiet summer afternoon.

It was thus that I rediscovered Andrew Wyeth, a painter so often derided for his sentimentalism. In the era of gestural abstraction and grand-scale minimalist sculpture, he was an unapologetic realist working in the vein of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. In the era of Vietnam and Watergate, he painted rural American scenes that seemed to stray altogether too close to the most repulsive forms of right-wing nativism, regardless of the technical and compositional talent he admittedly possessed.

But this analysis is superficial. Beyond the content of the paintings-- a woman in an old-fashioned black dress, a farmyard-- Wyeth seems to actually be cutting far under their surface. Every house is full of long, skeptical shadows, every lace curtain is yellowed with filth, every white wall looks scratched at, the paint cracked. The ordinary people he paints have mottled skin and chipped teeth, uneven stubble and ill-fitting, stained clothes. Even his spring flowers are muddy and trodden-upon.

And yet there is this sense of longing. The painting for which he is most renowned, while seemingly a charming rural scene is, deceptively, a depiction of the isolation of a girl whose legs are withered from polio, her face obscured.

It was a vision that struck a chord with me. The photographs I took as a kid with a disposable camera were all of closed-down factories and windswept prairies. I'm not sure which I encountered first-- Wyeth's impression of the world around him, or my own sense of rural desolation, but the two fed each other. In the art book I remember so well-- beige binding, gold lettering on the side-- there seemed to be some kind of solution. It was prism for all the uncertainty I felt around me, refracting raw feelings into a cogent, visual representation.

Of the countless attempts to locate a precise theory of aesthetics, all have failed. The old purposes of art-- religious genuflection, an expression of transcendental human experience, a search for the essential meaning of art or one specific type of art, a Marxist exposition of the dialectic of class struggle-- all seem like fool's errands. The metrics we use to determine our appreciation of art-- technical quality, sheer visual passion, conceptual truth-- are all deeply flawed.

Self-described postmodernists often advocate a sort of artistic anarchism, declaring that anything goes. On the opposite end of the epistemological spectrum, evolutionary psychologists and their ilk claim that we have a specific evolved aesthetic sense that dictates our perceptions of beauty and truth. My own personal perspective seems to be that the postmodernist approach more aptly describes contemporary art as well as more traditional forms, but both positions seem equally flawed, equally lonely, and equally likely to produce terrible art, whether that terrible art is Damien Hirst in the case of the former or shopworn romanticism in the case of the latter.

Schopenhauer claimed that art is a pure experience which we use to insulate ourselves from the horror of being. And, at the end of the day, when I walk into a museum, that's all I really hope for. My perspective may be informed by my awareness of culture, history, biography, ritual, religion, technics, mathematics, and composition, but my primal hope is that, for a few hours within the gallery, I can set myself straight with whatever is beyond its walls.