Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best of 2014: Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden

Model of the TWA Terminal at JFK, complete with runway

Every year, the wonderful folks at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx take ten days to assemble a fantastical miniature representation of many of the city's most recognizable landmarks. Now a 23-year-old tradition, the Holiday Train Show in the NYBG's Haupt Conservatory is the brainchild of Kentucky artist Paul Busse. Using twigs, leaves, acorns and other assorted materials culled from nature, Busse and his team have expanded the exhibit to more than 150 buildings from New York's past and present. Model trains run on tracks weaving around, over and under the Brooklyn Bridge, Old Penn Station, the Statue of Liberty and Yankee Stadium, just to name a few. While the trains seem to be the main attraction for the younger crowd, the exquisitely detailed cityscape is the real masterwork. For the curious (or the former architecture students) a small exhibit-within-the-exhibit illuminates the process by which the artists create a building, beginning with a cardboard model, which takes on progressively finer levels of organic detail, before being coated in a protective shellac. The photos (and video) below attempt to capture a bit of the show's magic, but it really must be seen up close for a true appreciation of the work. Luckily, it will be on display through January 19. If you plan to go, I would recommend purchasing advance tickets, as space is limited. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Roof detail of the old Penn Station

St. Patrick's Cathedral
The Haupt Conservatory at the NY Botanical Garden

Detail of Grand Central Terminal

Detail of the Statue of Liberty

Foreground (L-R): Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Met Life Tower. Background: Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Detail

Detail of TWA Terminal roof

Monday, December 22, 2014

Best of 2014: Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory

Kara Walker's A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

When I called Ai Weiwei's show at the Brooklyn Museum the most impressive exhibition of the year, I may have misspoken. That title might more rightly be given to Kara Walker's incredible installation this spring and summer at the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg. For two months, at no charge (other than the price of standing in a reliably blocks-long line), the public could visit "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the upaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant."

Entrance to Walker's installation at the Domino Sugar storage shed

Using the soon-to-be-demolished sugar storage shed as an integral actor, Ms. Walker's immense exhibition drew on centuries of the sugar trade's ugly history to explore themes of oppression, exploitation, stereotypes and the objectification of African-American bodies. Dark walls caked with decades of molasses residue, resembling stalactites, imbued the cavernous space with an overpowering scent of sweetness. Light streamed in from clerestories high overhead to illuminate Walker's focal point, a 75-foot-long by 35-foot-high sphinx fashioned from polystyrene coated in bleached sugar. Lording over the warehouse, the head of the sphinx took cues from imagery of the Mamie stereotype of America's not-so-distant past. Her body represented an exaggeration of the overtly sexualized objectification of black women, a depressingly familiar presence in contemporary popular culture, but just the latest strand in a thread that can be traced back hundreds of years. After a month and a half of existence, the sphinx showed signs of discoloration due to sun, leaks in the roof and exposure to hundreds of visitors per day.

Scattered throughout the warehouse and around the base of the sphinx, were molasses statues of children carrying baskets of raw sugar. By the time of our visit, near the end of the show's two-month run, the sculptures were found in various states of decay. Sticky puddles of melted molasses had formed around the children--on the floor, on walls; in low light, one could be forgiven for mistaking the result for pools of blood. The head of one figure had separated from its body, left to melt on the ground.

The show's ephemeral and evolutionary nature gave it a powerful sense of vitality and urgency. Its transience also instilled the feeling that the characters that composed its whole were decaying, and along with the institution that birthed and contained them, would soon be lost to history. But the remarkable impression left by Walker's show will not soon be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Best of 2014: Xu Bing's "Phoenix" at St. John the Divine

Xu Bing's Phoenix, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York

Commissioned to create a sculptural installation for the World Financial Center in Beijing, Xu Bing visited the job site while the building was under construction. His visit left him aghast at the working conditions of the migrant laborers on site, and inspired the direction his sculpture would take. Collecting waste and industrial artifacts found on the site and around the city, he then fashioned them into two larger-than-life phoenixes, 90 and 100 feet long, collectively weighing 12 tons. Beautiful and impressive as they were, Xu's original benefactors took issue with his vision, declining to install the birds in their intended home. They eventually found a showing in a gallery before making their way to the U.S.--first at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and now at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.

Upon climbing the monumental stair and passing through the doors, visitors are greeted by the birds from 20 feet overhead. Suspended from space frames hanging in the nave, the phoenixes--Feng (the male) and Huang (the female)--appear to be gliding towards the rose window. Essentially two gigantic found object sculptures, they are exquisite and complex compositions of discarded remnants of a culture's rush to modernization. These objects are given new life, the story of their humble origins elevated in a sacred setting.

Huang (foreground) and Feng (background)



Detail of Feng
Detail of Feng
3D-printed prototype of Phoenix
Xu Bing's phoenixes will be on display at St. John the Divine through February. The installation alone would be worth the visit, but if you've never been to the building, it is a marvel unto itself. Begun in 1892, the Gothic Revival Episcopal cathedral is still incomplete more than 120 years later. Even so, "St. John the Unfinished" is the fourth-largest Christian church in the world. Visitors are welcome when the church is open--daily from 7:30am until 6:00pm. Guided tours are also available.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Best of 2014: What's Eating Dad?

Promotional poster for What's Eating Dad?, a film by Michael Goldburg (image via whatseatingdad.com)
If it weren't for Michael Goldburg, I'm not sure I ever would have attended the NYC Horror Fest. But because he's a friend, and because his short film, What's Eating Dad?, is a "horror-comedy," there I was, sitting in a dark theater on a Saturday afternoon, watching horror flick after horror flick. The festival consisted of several sessions, each of which featured a few shorts followed by a feature-length film. What's Eating Dad? seemed unlike anything else in the lineup. Funny and startling, it represented a refreshing break from the genre, exploring themes of love, sacrifice and family, all in eleven delightfully insane minutes. At least three moments that I can remember caught the audience offguard, causing the theater to burst into spontaneous laughter. In short, Dad was excellent. If it makes its way to a film festival near you, I would certainly recommend checking it out.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Best of 2014: Bucks 122, Nets 118 (3 OT)

Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks attempts a free throw in a game vs. the Brooklyn Nets, 11/19/2014.

After 30-plus years of basketball fandom, I think that November 19th was the date that I finally accepted that I have no true allegiance to an NBA team. Growing up in Kansas in the days after the Kings had fled to Sacramento, and leaving long before the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City, college basketball was all that mattered in our neck of the woods. And for our family, that meant all Jayhawks, all the time. 

As a Chicago-born child of the '80s and '90s (and as a person with a heartbeat), naturally I was a fan of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls. Just before Jordan retired (the second time), the Boston Celtics selected Kansas' Paul Pierce 10th in the 1998 draft. It didn't take long for my loyalties to change, and by the time the Celtics won the title ten years later, I considered myself a long-time Boston fan. That lasted until 2013, when the Celtics threw 15 years of history out the window and traded Pierce to Brooklyn. Having lived in Brooklyn for several years by that point, it was perfect. Instantly, I became a Nets fan. This was a natural transition, as ex-Celtics Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry arrived along with Pierce. After struggling early in the season, Brooklyn finished the regular season as one of the better teams in the league. I thoroughly enjoyed rooting for the Nets as they defeated Toronto in the first round of the playoffs before succumbing to LeBron James and the Miami juggernaut. Then, a couple of months later, Paul Pierce was off to Washington.

No matter. I still lived in Brooklyn, so a Nets fan I would remain. A few weeks ago, a friend offered me a great seat to see the Nets take on the Milwaukee Bucks. I wore my Tyshawn Taylor jersey. I cheered when the newly-retired Jason Collins was recognized for his years of contributions to the team. And then, as the game went on, Milwaukee rookie Jabari Parker displayed the poise of a 10-year veteran en route to 23 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo played through a twisted ankle suffered during the first overtime to drop 18 points and pull down 12 boards. John Henson played a meaningful role off the bench, and seemed to have fun doing it. But the story of the night ultimately belonged to Brandon Knight. On a night when he seemed to shoot every time he touched the ball, and the vast majority of those missed the mark (he was 5-20 for the game), it was Knight's play in overtime that proved most memorable. With the game tied and under three seconds remaining in overtime, Knight stole the ball, streaked down the court, and... bricked the winning layup. In the second OT, he redeemed himself brilliantly, unafraid to take and drain a game-tying three. The Bucks eventually prevailed, 122-118, in the third overtime, thanks in part to clutch free throws by Knight.

It was sometime in the fourth quarter that I finally admitted to myself that in spite of my residence, in spite of my seven-years-and-counting loyalty to Kevin Garnett, in spite of how fun it can be to watch Joe Johnson take over a game, and in spite of my Tyshawn Taylor jersey, I unequivocally wanted the Bucks to win. They just looked like they were playing with much more joy. I'm sure I'll jump back on to the Nets bandwagon if they make the playoffs, trade Deron Williams or get a new owner. In the meantime, I'll stick with the Jayhawks, and enjoy the NBA as an impartial fan... waiting for the day that the Morris twins lead Phoenix to the promised land. Go Suns!

For Eric Garner, We Walk

For the second night in a row, thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets en masse. They marched to protest a grand jury's decision not to press charges against the NYPD officer responsible for the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island this past July. Early Thursday evening, a large number of the protestors gathered in Foley Square near City Hall, before heading north on Broadway, bringing traffic to a standstill. Cars, trucks, buses--for quite some time, everything came to a halt.

From what I saw, the affected drivers and passengers did not seem to mind, with some even voicing their support, such as the cab driver in the video below. The honking is clearly audible, but if you look closely, you can see the thumbs-up, too.

With a camera trained on this captive taxi passenger, he was all-too-happy to oblige with an interview.

Many signs such as this bore the last words spoken by Eric Garner to the police:

Others offered a broader message, in the wake of Michael Brown, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell and others.

On the way across the river, the Brooklyn Bridge, and later the Manhattan Bridge, were closed to traffic to accommodate marchers. By the time I got to the bridge, the protesters were gone, but so was the traffic, with the exception of a handful of police vehicles speeding back and forth:

It was a very eerie, but peaceful feeling. Back in Brooklyn, the police presence was much more visible than usual, as shown by the scene on Tillary Street:

The protests will likely continue through the weekend. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has announced that it will open a criminal civil rights investigation into the Eric Garner case.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Best of 2014: Danh Vo's "We the People"

Danh Vo, "We the People""

Last Spring, as Brooklyn Bridge Park continued to round into shape, a series of seemingly unfinished sculptures arose to complement the unfinished park. In fact, the enormous copper fragments are the artist Danh Vo's full-scale re-creation of 13 pieces of the Statue of Liberty's right sleeve. Situated on the incomplete Pier 3 upland portion of the park, Vo's creations are juxtaposed against views of the original, visible in the distance across the water. Examined up close, the new pieces bare all, affording visitors a look at the interior scaffolding and the unpolished copper within, as well as the rivets employed to hold the surface together.

Vo began the project--entitled "We the People"--in 2010, tasking a Shanghai fabricator to faithfully reproduce the original Lady Liberty in 250 distinct parts. Thanks to the Public Art Fund, about 20% of the project is on display through tomorrow (12/5), split between Brooklyn Bridge Park and City Hall. The remaining sections are scattered among public and private venues in more than 15 countries. It is Vo's intent that the disparate parts never be combined into a unified replica of the statue. Rather, they should be considered as individual elements in distinct contexts. Scroll down for a few more views of the pieces currently situated at Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Best of 2014: Ai Weiwei at the Brooklyn Museum

Detail of Straight (2008-2012)

For various reasons, the blog has gotten kicked down the priority list for most of the year. To make up for lost ground, it seems like the perfect time to break out a tried-and-true end-of-year gimmick. Allow me to introduce the first annual "Best of the Year" series! Starting today, I'll attempt to post every day or two to highlight an event, a place or a person that left an impression on me over the past year. The posts to come will follow no discernible rhyme or reason, other than the common thread of their collective impact on one person.

Without further ado, let's begin with what I considered the most impressive art exhibition in New York this year. Ai Weiwei: According to What? captivated visitors to the Brooklyn Museum from for four months, with a sprawling, comprehensive show spanning multiple floors. Upon entering the ground floor gallery, visitors were struck by a breathtaking and massive sculpture of gleaming steel bicycle parts. While a statement on mass production and homogeneity, the composition of identical pieces succeeds in creating a unique and energetic whole.

Forever Bicycles

Detail of Forever Bicycles

The son of a political dissident, Ai Weiwei is perhaps best known globally for his collaboration with the architects Herzog and de Meuron to design the "Bird's Nest" for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, of which he eventually became a vocal critic. If you have yet to encounter Ai Weiwei's work, I would highly recommend the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry as a great starting point. The film captures two years in the artist's life, including his arrest and eventual release by Chinese authorities.

Activism and social critique are essential threads running throughout Ai Weiwei's art. Some of his most powerful pieces arose from a reaction to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and the government's subsequent response. More than 5,000 schoolchildren perished in the quake, due to what Ai saw as preventable collapses of shoddily constructed school buildings. For Straight, he and his team salvaged deformed steel reinforcing bars from the debris, then painstakingly straightened each bar. The sweeping, resultant form suggests landscape as much as abstract sculpture, with massive fissures breaking the surface of the 73-ton pile of rebar.

Straight (2008-2012)

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn ranks among Ai Weiwei's most well-known works. In it, he documents himself dropping a 2,000-year-old vase, allowing it to shatter on the ground and calling into question China's relationship with its cultural history. The photographs of this performance served as a backdrop to a more recent creation, Colored Vases, a possible statement on modernism's relationship with and displacement of antiquity.

Foreground: Colored Vases (2007-2010); Background: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)
In Grape, wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty are combined in an unexpected and dynamic assemblage, calling to mind a supernova, or a gigantic porcupine.

Grape (2010)

For Moon Chest, Ai employed skilled craftsman to build a series of wood cabinets, with circular openings carved into each. Visitors were encouraged to interact with the pieces, and upon doing so, were greeted with views that resembled the phases of the moon.

Moon Chest (2008)

Finally, before you go, take a few minutes to enjoy Ai Weiwei's 2012 spoof of Psy's "Gangnam Style," entitled "Grass Mud Horse Style." Of course it was created as yet another jab at the Chinese government. By way of explanation, see this brief post from the The New Yorker.