Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Museum of Inverse Reality

Every day we walk through the same spaces. We move from the bedroom into the living room, in and out of the front door. There is the same train to work, the same train home. Objects are rearranged, they appear and disappear. The impression changes with weather and light, from morning to evening, and subjectively with our moods, but mostly our relationship to the places we inhabit is one of reiteration, one of appearance repeated again and again until we cease to even recognize their forms.

Which is why, as I stared into the glass-top table of a softly lit cafe, I was so stunned to see a world I'd forgotten about.

Like so many children, I'd spent what seemed like hours looking at the world upside down. Lying, feet up, on a worn armchair, I saw an entirely different room than the one I ran and played in.

Looking into the reflection on the tabletop, I was looking into a portal, a portal on another reality, and a portal on a reality I once held dear. Here were hanging lamps standing as straight as crinoids on the sea floor, fluorescent light fixtures like low-slung Japanese tables, the long white rectangular benches formed by ceiling beams, clocks tapering at a downward facing noon.

The world as I knew it was full of scattered things, stacks of books on coffee tables, dusty lines of ash gathered around the hearth. But the inverse possessed clean lines and spare white corners and immaculate 90 degree angles. Every object accreted into a ceiling, something you only noticed if you looked up. And the inverse was not so much a true inversion as an abstraction. Suddenly, everything was stripped of its conventional meaning and reduced to an inscrutable form with the texture and shape of modern sculpture.

It was a sort of space I only associated with the museum, a chilly and sparse emptiness filled with holy relics. And so when I went into the inverse, I was entering into a very personal museum, the air conditioning turned on too high, filled with the faint, smoky smell of a disused fireplace in summer.

As I grew older-- too tall and ungainly to curl up on a beat up antique chair, too busy to spend my time in a fantasy-- I stopped staring into the inverse. But occasionally I would get a glimpse.

There was Joseph Beuys, with his crude assemblages of felt and rough-hewn pine standing isolated in a white gallery. And that, of course, was my parents' threadbare rug and the stacks of firewood in a tarnished brass carrier.

There was René Magritte, an impeccable composer of steam trains in bourgeois parlors, sunny days by the Côte d'Azur during which pieces of balsa are conjured up in thin air, lonely poplar trees that seem to grow on other planets, their leaves lit by strange moons.

And there was Giorgio De Chirico, with his empty piazzas and cylindrical towers, casting long shadows on an eternal late afternoon in a nameless Italian town.

What binds them all is a sense of the metaphysical. Narrative is absent. In its place is an infinite spiderweb of signifiers and signified, automatic response, hidden meanings, miscommunication, unsolvable mystery, structures as peculiar as the constellations, painted faces as enigmatic as playing card royalty.

Of course our aesthetic sense changes over the course of a lifetime. But there are certain things we can trace to specific initial events. I walk through the halls of museums in London, Saint Louis, Kuala Lumpur, down white passageways, past massive plate glass windows and Barcelona chairs. I stop before paintings and video loops, and I can look at them, appreciate the technical effort of their composition, fix their place in the continuum of art history. But then I stumble upon something. And suddenly, I'm transported to the imaginary museum, and I'm face to face with inverse reality. Once, I used to hide there.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Christmas in the Province of the Million Rice Fields

Chiang Mai is a city within an image. To the outside world, it is a city of mists and golden stupas, nested in the lofty Thongchai Mountains, and encircled by its ancient brick walls and jade-green moat. This romantic vision is propagated within Thailand by countless romance movies and airline promotional packages; internationally, it's propagated by the Lonely Planet guidebook, that comically misinformed and sloppily written vade mecum of the Khaosan set.

I'd visited Chiang Mai a couple of years previous, and remembered it as a sort of Asian parallel to Santa Fe: the same old hippies parked at vegetarian restaurants, the same young hippies riding bikes shirtless, the same cozy used bookstores and mountain views, the same hemp bags and long cotton scarves, the same elderly tribeswomen peddling silver trinkets, and the same galleries selling cloying tourist art.

But as I stepped out into the slightly chill evening air on Christmas Eve, I found the town far more tawdry and knockabout than I'd remembered. The crumbling laterite chedis and teakwood verandahs were overwhelmed by all manner of architectural detritus: boxy insensitivities, commercialized fake deconstructivism, extruded-aluminum imitations of traditional Northern-Thai rooflines. Following an alley just outside the moat, I walked down streets I vaguely recalled from a whiskey-laden Songkran festival. Most of the bars and restaurants I had eaten and drank at were empty, save for the occasional grotesquely fat white man, perhaps accompanied by a troglodytic Thai wife.

Lost in the back alleys, the same storefronts kept recurring: the empty restaurants with solitary, obese Western customers, all of them with high ceilings and lone fluorescent lights, their only decoration a calendar with a picture of the monarch; food stalls with piles of limp cabbages and velvety curtains of tripe hanging inside a refrigerator case, pools of stagnant, stinking water accumulating on the pavement; dimly lit brothels, their windows blacked out, illuminated by rainbow-colored Christmas lights; dark, jungly parkways with uneven sidewalks; bearded European backpackers smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in front of their hostels.

Every street seemed a dejection. Row after row of guesthouses all promoted the same activities. The adrenaline-laced extreme sports they offered seemed to differ from ordinary sports only in their requirement of hundreds of dollars of technology. And the "hill tribe trekking" that is ubiquitously promoted revealed itself to be nothing more than a bunch of privileged, predominantly white youth regarding the indigenous people as safari-park creatures in their native habitat.

The grotesquerie of posters advertising the human zoo was doubled by the sight of impoverished Hmong and Karen, either displaying their wares on blankets or simply panhandling. The Thai bourgeoisie romanticizes their own tribal populace with the same vigor that the American bourgeoisie romanticize theirs, fetishizing their, oh, simplicity and building the occasional school while at the same time turning a cheery blind eye to the crass exploitation of their home regions by corporate entities (Western, other Asian, and local alike), the militant spread of evangelical Christianity through coercive tactics, and the routine export of local women to the fleshpots of Bangkok.

Despondent, I looked for someplace to sit down and maybe get some reading or writing done, have an antisocial drink, watch some band of local hacks play Creedence Clearwater covers, whatever.

Which is how I wound up at a French cafe-bar on a terrace adjacent to the city's night bazaar. The annoyances-- women trying to sell wooden frogs, that asshole Michael Bublé on the TV-- made themselves known, but for the most part, I could just concentrate on the beer in front of me, the marble-top table, the lights strung up in the palms.

And then from behind a fountain, a Thai marching band strikes up into a Christmas carol. All those songs that in America I find to be obnoxious and overdone are suddenly rather sweet when they're played by middle-aged Buddhists below the Tropic of Cancer.

These are the unexpected delights of going someplace else. Of course we expect to see things we haven't seen before, meet new people, eat new foods, walk down unfamiliar streets. But hidden within the unknown is that which is known, suddenly re-imagined. And, what is better, something you found so tired and dull and insipid suddenly given new life. You find traces of another time, another place enveloped in entirely different circumstances, and suddenly everything is brought into slightly sharper relief.