June 2008

Day after

It seems perfectly natural to me that it would rain the day after a charity car wash here in Newton. Isn’t that how it always goes?

Summer rain on gas grill

When it rains, it pours. Just as I’m settling into the relieved exhalation of Ah, summer!, I sit up to realize how many projects I have simmering on my proverbial back-burner. This week, an introductory Zen meditation course I’m teaching to adult education students starts; this weekend, three online literature classes will come to an end, bringing with them the usual end-term paper pile. In two weeks, a new online term starts, which means I need prep its syllabus and course-site now; in three weeks, a summer course I’m teaching in Keene begins, which means I’ll be commuting once again between Massachusetts and New Hampshire for six weeks.

Summer rain on gas grill

Add, like a dollop of whipped cream atop a sundae, the prep work I need to do now for an online American lit class I teach every fall and the program assessment work (a virtual pile of twenty 20-page papers I have to evaluate between now and August) that I agreed to do back in May, and you have a somewhat accurate picture of what Ah, summer! is looking like these days. None of these tasks are unduly daunting; even combined, this is less work than I typically do during a typical fulltime-and-then-some semester during the school year. But compared to what I typically want to do during the presumed downtime of summer (i.e. absolutely nothing), this juggling of to-do’s feels full and even unfair, with my Inner Imp feeling like a whiny kid saying “But I don’t wanna work!”

Rain on umbrella

Ignoring my Inner Slacker-Rascal, today I prepped a syllabus and handouts for this week’s Zen class, finished my syllabus and online course-site for July’s summer school class, and delegated my other tasks to other to-do lists: one for tomorrow, Wednesday, and beyond. One of the things that keeps me from complete meltdown during the fulltime-and-then-some school year are my to-do lists, which bring a semblance of order to the chaos. As much as I’d like to pretend I can romp through my summer to-do-list-less, my little black book of lists is still, even in summer, my most necessary accessory.

Got pollen?

In “More Lines for a June Heat Wave,” Leslee mentioned her “pollinated car.” In case you think the image of a vehicle “Dusted with / mustard powder” is a bit of poetic exaggeration, here’s an image to show why all of us with allergies here in New England have been sneezing and sniffling these days.

Crouching Spider

The last time I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Leslee, a mutual friend, and I saw Bourgeois in Boston, an exhibit including one of Louise Bourgeois’ larger-than-life sculpted spiders. The ICA doesn’t allow photography in its galleries, so Leslee, our friend, and I had to content ourselves with simply walking among and around the towering, spindly legs that filled an entire room while Leslee illustrated her post about our drizzly-day visit with images taken in the ICA’s camera-friendly public spaces.

Crouching Spider with Bay Bridge

Given that first, camera-free introduction to Bourgeois’ spindly arachnids, how interesting it was to stumble upon Crouching Spider along San Francisco’s Embarcadero last month, the absence of museum walls allowing me to take as many photos as I’d like. It’s one thing to see a work of art caged like a zoo animal inside a museum; it’s another thing to see it unleashed in the streets. Inside the guarded galleries of Boston’s ICA, Bourgeois’ sculpture cast soft, muted shadows and seemed a bit tame. “I wonder how they got this thing in here,” I remember wondering. In the shadow of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, Crouching Spider casts a wild, snaky shade, its withered, dwindling extremities mirroring the intricate web of the bridge’s suspension wires and railing: the spider’s art echoing the engineer’s architecture. Although devised by one in the same artist, the captive spider-sculpture I’d seen in Boston seemed entirely different from the open-air one I saw along the San Francisco shore.


On Sunday, Leslee and I returned to the ICA, this time drawn by the promise of air-conditioned respite from the weekend’s blistering hot weather. Whereas last year, our trip to the ICA was my first introduction to the work of Louise Bourgeois, this weekend we went to the ICA specifically to see its current exhibit by Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future. If museums are to art what zoos are to animals, my previous experience with Kapoor happened in the wild, in Chicago, where I’d taken loads of photos of Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, affectionately known among its fans as “the Bean.”

Having first encountered Kapoor’s reflective surfaces in the wilds of downtown Chicago, I wasn’t sure how well they’d fare–or how well I’d interact with them–in the captivity of museum space. Leslee and I knew from ICA policy we wouldn’t be able to take pictures; I knew from my time with Cloud Gate that we’d find plenty to do simply looking at the likes of S-Curve: a shiny, sinuous band of reflective surface that operates like a fun-house mirror, distorting and disturbing passersby with its mind-bending illusions. But how quickly would even S-Curve grow old, I wondered, and would other pieces in the exhibit fail to excite, being small enough (after all) to all fit into a single room of weirdly disorienting open space?

Alongside the ICA

Even in captivity, the work of Anish Kapoor does not disappoint. Upon entering the exhibit, Leslee and I found ourselves immediately facing S-Curve, and from that moment I felt the metaphoric feet of sensory perception knocked out from under me. Upon first approaching S-Curve, I lost all sense of depth perception, a disorienting sensation that was even stronger when I viewed Brandy Wine, a shiny red disk that flips, magnifies, and distorts objects reflected in its smooth concave surface. While daring an extreme closeup view of Brandy Wine, I repeatedly checked my feet to make sure I wasn’t walking directly into the piece. Apparently I wasn’t the only person thus disoriented by Kapoor’s almost hallucinogenic illusions, as each of the more mind-bending works in the exhibit was accompanied by its own individual museum guard who made sure confused visitors didn’t venture too close.

Hall with a view

Both space and light can be deceiving; we’ve all seen those captions on passenger-side car mirrors warning that objects reflected therein are closer than they appear. But the title of Anish Kapoor’s exhibit at the ICA–Past, Present, Future–suggests the artist is playing with illusions of time as well as space. The oddest piece in Kapoor’s exhibit is, interesting, the eponymous one, Past, Present, Future being a hemispherical mound of putty-like red wax that is continuously molded, smoothed, and spattered by a slow-moving, blade-like wall. Whereas the ICA visitors I observed were inspired to move by the crazy reflections of S-curve, dancing and darting around its winding surfaces to see it (and themselves) in every available light, the folks I saw viewing Past, Present, Future were almost motionless, stunned and silent in front of its oncoming wall. Seeing the smoothed surface of where the blade had been on this swipe or the previous one, people still stopped to watch where the blade was cutting right now. Even if an installation piece is doing nothing but molding the same wax shape over and over and over, there’s something about the process that irresistibly attracts our attention: the proverbial appeal of watching paint dry.

Behind the ICA

I’m no longer the same mound of flesh-colored putty I was when I shot photos of the Cloud Gate in Chicago more than two years ago, and neither is Anish Kapoor: we’ve both been subjected to the ceaseless swipe of time’s shaping blade. Objects reflected across the concave disk of years are smaller than they appear, or larger, or imbued with an entirely distorted sense of meaning. Finding your feet beneath you, now, is sometimes the only way you can navigate in a world that throws you S curves, sculptures, and artists trained in illusion. “We meet again,” said the spider to the fly, and this blogger, like a fly on the wall, wonders where and when the likes of us all will meet again.

For more photos of Louise Bourgeois’ Crouching Spider in San Francisco, click here; for a photo set from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (minus the camera-free Kapoor exhibit), click here. You can see a slide-show of Past, Present, Future here, and you can see additional photos in reviews here and here and here and here. Enjoy!

Courthouse station

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, the MBTA’s Courthouse station seems a bit surreal with its deserted concourse, cool purple lights, and shiny floor. On my way to the Institute of Contemporary Art yesterday, I wasn’t sure as I emerged from underground which was the quickest way to the museum. Luckily, upon exiting the subway station I quickly spotted a familiar face who pointed the way: Goldenstash!

Goldenstash shows the way to the ICA

Peony bud, with raindrops

This morning, after several gray, cool, drizzly days, summer arrived suddenly, bursting overnight into full-blown bloom.


Mountain laurel

In true New England fashion, when summer arrives, it does so with a vengeance: as I write this on Saturday afternoon, it’s 91 degrees outside. How strange, then, to see mountain laurel–a plant I associate with cooler climes–blooming in a shady spot where I hurried Reggie out of the sun on this morning’s walk. Apparently mountain laurel doesn’t read sweltering weather forecasts?

Say what?

Due to last month’s defeat of a proposed tax increase here in Newton, all branch libraries are set to close this Friday. This morning outside the Waban branch library, a homemade sign urged passersby to “Save our Waban branch library & our librarians.” Unfortunately, yesterday’s rain muted the water-soluble message, leaving one indelible moral: some colors do run.

Savenor's Market

Saved on my hard-drive are dated folders containing all the digital photos I’ve ever snapped: day folders nestled in month folders filed by their appropriate year. I’ve never counted how many photos I’ve taken then filed in this manner, but both the snapping and the stockpiling seem a bit obsessive, as if I’m hoarding canned goods in my larder against an imagined Apocalypse. “If disaster strikes,” some paranoid inner voice seems to intone, “at least I’ll have plenty of pictures!”

George Washington parades among the posies

On the one hand, I snap pictures I think I might someday blog, my eye always looking for something new or noteworthy. On the other hand, there are certain things I can’t help but photograph even though I’ve already blogged and re-blogged them so many times, I no longer have anything new to say. What more can be said about the fresh, new leaves of spring, or how many more posts about flowers can I share?

At this point, I’ve recognized that having a teeming archive of random photos is largely useless. Even if I, at some future date, decide I want to revisit the photo I took of Object X some Y months ago, there’s the question of whether I’ll ever find it: did I take that picture in January or March or May, and was it this year or last? Even when I can find a “vintage” photo, my Inner Ethicist has qualms about frequently posting pictures from the past. In my mind, Hoarded Ordinaries is a chronicle of Life Right Now, so if I post too many pictures from last week, last month, or last year, the sense of immediacy is lost. To me at least, frequently posting archival pictures feels like cheating.

George Washington

What I’m describing here is something of a personal conundrum. On the one hand, I insist on taking pictures without knowing exactly when or how I’ll use them, and I save these pictures rather than methodically tossing them. On the other hand, I’m hesitant to post archival images except in moments of blog-duress, when I’m desperate for something to share. If I were indeed hoarding canned goods, I’d be in the perilous predicament of saving up food I can’t by ethical precept actually eat, like a vegetarian stockpiling cans of beef stew. In such a scenario, how can you ever actually dig your way through your own accumulative impulses?

Today has been a literal rainy day. This morning I took Reggie on an abbreviated (but nevertheless soggy) walk; since then, I’ve spent the day doing laundry and grading online papers. If I were to create a dated photo folder titled 2008-06-04, that folder would necessarily be empty since I took no pictures today. What better excuse to revisit a handful of otherwise useless images I snapped before meeting friends for Sunday’s Art Walk in Beacon Hill? When else, exactly, will an occasion arise when I might need a photo of fruit and flowers outside Savenor’s, several shots of an equestrian statue of George Washington, and an extreme close-up of an allium?


Ultimately (and perhaps paradoxically), I think what enchants me most about the photos I take is exactly this sense of utter uselessness. The world doesn’t need another photo of George Washington strutting on horseback through the Public Garden; the world will be in no way improved by another snapshot of fruit and flowers. But when has utility or sense ever governed creative pursuits? “O reason not the need,” Shakespeare exhorted in King Lear. “Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous.” Even on rainy days, we’re collectively blessed with more than we’ll ever want or need. If the Universe continually insists on presenting us with spring leaves, ripe fruit, eye-catching flowers, statues, and souls, why shouldn’t we continue to notice and savor them, stockpiling for imagined Apocalypses we can’t yet begin to fathom?

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