Wolfgang Tillmans: To Believe in Things

Wolfgang Tillmans creates his gallery shows like books of poetry.  The influential German photographer treats his viewer to work that varies wildly in size, scope, subject, united by meditation and attention.  He puts things in front of your face you want to turn from – a bloody decapitated lamb’s head.  Of course you’d rather look look at the immense and heroic boy’s torso – although at first you might look away thinking it is pornographic.  What is it?  A flesh rendering of Michelangelo’s David? It is a surface of skin and muscle arbored by a field of soft bending hairs, hundreds of them, winsome and alert.  It’s a topography of the body which makes you wonder if the landscape you saw before is the body of the land or the land of a body.

Tillmans’ attention demands that we pay attention to the undressed backs of IPhones, to the delicacy of flies’ wings and egg shells.  There are photos of socks and scrotum sacks and grace-brushed eggs, all of equal weight.

And the ultimate – a forgotten orphan of paper.  Two pieces of translucent acetate stuck on the ever-whitened gallery wall hang out with these professional photographs.  They’re part of the gang.  As you wonder why they’re there, and move back to again to look at them, they flutter.  They’re breathing, skin so sheer and cheek in bloom.

Our friend Isabelle Rose, who helped hang Tillmans’ show at David Zwirner Gallery in New York, said, “If someone showed that kind of sensitivity to me and to everything around me, I’d love them forever.”


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L’Shanah Tovah, Balkan Style

The synagogue in Dubrovnik, Croatia – a piece of culture that was lurking but hadn’t come to the fore until it was in front of me, a doorway on one of the many stone alleyways.  I went up the stairs to the third floor and entered a single but luxurious room, all dark varnished wood and hanging oil lamps.  Andrea Ferreira, standing in a corner, put down her phone. “Any questions?”  She was a descendant of one of the original Sephardic families that fled Spain after the Expulsion in 1492 and found a free zone in the Ragaza kingdom, then sympathetic to Jews.

In Belgrade, Serbia, I came across a synagogue, Sukkat Shalom, a large neoclassical structure dedicated after World War I with ill-founded optimism. Irina recounted that the community, some 200,000 Jews who had filtered mostly through the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, would be destroyed in the next war.  Perversely, the temple stands now only because the Nazis used the cool elegant space as a brothel.  The Sephardic community’s Moorish-design synagogue was leveled.  Sukkat Shalom is the lovely shell of a hope of tolerance, serving the remaining 2,000 Jews in Belgrade.

Back in Dubrovnik, Andrea Ferreira was cosmopolitan, soft around the edges with compassion and wisdom.  She recounted her history with a similar world-weary optimism.  Yes, her fellow Croatians were horrible, establishing home-grown concentration camps, treating Serbs maybe worse than the Jews they rounded up.  Yes, in 1991-2, when Croatia fought for independence, Serbs bombed Dubrovnik for eight months, heavily damaging the historic synagogue.  Yes, she smiled and shrugged, again, Croats are nationalistic,  again.  Were Jews better in Serbia?  She shrugged: Six of one, half dozen the other. These countries all have their issues.

Both synagogues will be celebrating the High Holidays starting tonight. They are stringing pearls across empires and centuries, across the energy of destruction.  The diaporic Jewish world is not only American or Israeli.  Coming back to America, I got quickly undone by reentering the stream.  It seems the madmen have taken over, and to even debate it is madness.

Although the Jewish holidays are early this year, it’s none too early for a reset, a prayer.  I am remembering Andrea’s implicit message.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for goodness to land in your lap.  Keep your head down and do what you do.  Be good, live well, love life.  Have a happy New Year, 5779.  L’Shanah Tovah.

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Aretha’s Song of Songs

A lot of intelligence and heart has been poured into tributes to Aretha Franklin, as if her artistry and soul pushed writers to go higher, further, trying to catch a bit of her immortality in her mortality. Her more-ness, her excess captivated listeners and writers/artists to mimic, to reach in the way she reached.

That aspect reflects one of the great parts of her story – her belief.  Aretha “never left the church,” as she said – she carried with her the power of gospel she got from her charismatic preacher-father. The ground that it gave her – rock-steady, you could say- is what she pushed from, pushed beyond, beyond reason, beyond words, into a zone where she could go.

The spontaneous sermon recorded in 1971’s live “Dr. Feelgood” recorded at the Fillmore West is something we could all use, right about now. “Some people worry if we’re gonna get on this bridge or that one – And haven’t even gotten to the bridge to see if we can walk across, oh yeah.” Her point: “Don’t put worry before worry gets to you.” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/aretha-franklins-astonishing-dr-feelgood)  It has the intimacy of all her work.

Beyond that – beyond is the word of the moment – is something much said.  It should be said over and over. Franklin’s sexuality and religiosity, her physicality and spirituality were not opposed but of the same piece. Her passion was passion. She made being a fully embodied woman godly, falling down and getting back up. She ramped up from blues to baudy to pleas to prayer in the same song, holding all those voices and letting them go and spill and be fed by an excess; she couldn’t contain them, they went where they wanted. And everyone who heard her felt and knew she had a truth. Amen.

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“Lèche-vitrine,” in French, literally means to lick windows, and seeing the smart and composed surfaces in Paris, who wouldn’t want to do just that? The phrase refers to window shopping, and it cleverly underlines the magnetism of the object and more than ever, the image. I like the “in-your-face” poster – a reminder that these signs come with a positive or negative charge.

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Ring Them Dubrovnik Bells

In the ’70s my parents had Liza Minnelli on heavy rotation, and that’s Dubrovnik first lodged in my head.  Across all that time, Dubrovnik – exotic and homely, worldly and worldweary, embedded with lessons of travel – has stayed with me.  Through all the hoops of irony and wit, I got a culture lesson which wasn’t wasted when I visited.

Here’s the set-up of “Ring them Bells”: Liza Minnelli sings of Shirley Devore who goes capital hopping looking for a husband.  Not a looker, she strikes out all over Europe – London, Madrid, Mallorca, Berlin.  Someone says, “Try Dubrovnik, dear, before you go home!”  First day  she met a guy on the beach who took her reason away.  They introduce themselves: she’s Shirl Devore, he’s Norm Saperstein.  Not only are they Jewish New Yorkers, it turns out they live next door to each other on Riverside Drive!  She had to go to borrow a thou’ and go to Yugoslavia to meet a lover next door.  It was all delivered with broadest accent and humor.

On a mission, Shirley heads straight for the guys in Dubrovnik, never talking about the beauty of the fortified city, polished stones, swimming off rocky cliffs into azure blue waters.  What does she care about sea powers like Venice that challenged it; Napoleon’s betrayal; certainly not Croatia’s Nazi collaboration!  (Shirley visited in the ‘70s; Yugoslavia was intact, so no need to think about the “War of Independence.”)  

In that way, she was somewhat like the tourists of today with their selfie sticks.  The medieval town, church, monasteries are but backdrop for their faces; at least Shirley was looking for love, they’re into self-love! 

As much as Dubrovnik was a prop for this theatrical song, I gathered from it something of the old world Jewish consciousness, at once cosmopolitan and provincial, realist and wise.  Do what you’ve gotta do, wherever you are.  Time is short.  Don’t expect too much of life – you’ll be disappointed.  Age-old Dubrovnik, worn-at-the-edges, brocade and Ottoman, seemed to share this.  Small countries, like minorities, have to keep their heads down, move cautiously while still doing what they do. 

Don’t forget – the travel changed Shirley entirely.  She had to leave home to discover what she wanted.  The wry moral of the song is: Girls, don’t stay in your apartments, step into the hall!


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Serbian Tempers

I thought it was gauche, unseemly at first to vacation on a land of recent wars. Yugoslavia fell apart, was tragic, bloody and rife with hatreds in the 90s. But if we avoided every piece of land soaked in blood, how could we move, no less travel? At the same time, every piece of land is part of some celebration, and certainly drenched in the everyday. So I was off to Belgrade.

This capital, a crossroads of many empires, is a rough mix if there ever was one. Kitschy Orientalism meets crumbling Soviet gray meets modern Balkan. With its cheap rent, good education and aesthetics, it’s also a bristlingly hip city with an all-night club scene muscular in its defiance.

Defy, defy! That’s the defining trait, and of course, everyone defies something different. Serbia is a mosaic of crazy passions. I had to invoke Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica to find a way: It’s best to neither avoid nor analyze, but give into bearers of various madnesses. Mad royalists praise their ancestors’ heroism and sue to regain their palaces. People mourn Tito’s experiments in giving health education and housing to grand and small; Orthodox Christians hate Tito for denying celebrations on their saint day.

Conspiracy theories abound: Tito died after his WWII Partisan heroism and was played by an actor for decades after!  The current press is a deep State (American) project. Serbs rule!  Boasting about food, culture, religion is a national sport. Like Jews, if you put two Serbs in a room, you have three arguments. Nationalism is dangerous, unless it’s your own.

In the rural countryside, women milk their goats, families braid their daughter’s hair by a crumbling barn. All are united by a tart dislike of the Turks until they have to go to Istanbul for sophisticated operations.

Anti-Western rhetoric is par for the course – after the 1999 NATO bombing of the city, there’s enough bitterness to go around for decades. As under Tito, Serbia tries to find a “third way,” but stays unfixed. That’s just scratching the surface of the mosaic.

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Foodie Talk in Belgrade

Belgrade. Food is the easiest way of entering a culture I don’t know and haven’t nailed yet. It’s a language that crosses borders. The fruit seller in the little neighborhood market knew from my face that he had the most amazing figs. The vendor kept offering us different cheese whose language is goat or cow, fresh or salty; always delicious. I recognized a very specific smell of spiced cured meat from Pittsburgh where many Serbs emigrated.

On the other end of the spectrum was the Ottolenghi of Belgrade, a showy riverside restaurant where I was completely attuned to their spin on a food culture, call it Mediterranean/Ottoman/Levantine with a dose of Slav. History of migrations, empires and settlements shows deliciously through the food culture. How the street names keep changing with each regime – that’s for another day!

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From Sea Urchin to Craggy Mountain

Not content to merely look at the imposing Montenegrin mountains, I had to meander three hours on switchback and winding roads to Zabljak, an enclave of summer sports that required down vests and leggings. I’d just gotten an understanding of the sea-happy coast; now it was A-frames, après-hike, goats and beer. Trying to categorize the place, I flashed on sleepy Alpine ski town, German physical culture obsessions, and soon, the meadows of the Sound of Music. The mind jumps to what it knows and delights in comparisons and adjustments.
Once we started walking, I started paying more attention to what was really there – the towering pines, apparently virgin growth, cluster around glacial lakes and a National Park. Entrepreneurism, until the recent flurry of tourism, is represented by little stands of berry and mushroom sellers (chanterelles, porcini!) at every turn. Scattered on the slopes are spotty little villages in disrepair, disintegrating into the soft hay. Cows wander up the slopes of mountains. On the higher elevations, an array of smart hikers – lanky locals, Serbs, Hungarians, British, French – in serious hiking boots, poles and tight pants, attack the superb organized hiking paths. Models fill bottles from the mountain spring where a saint is thanked for the source.  It’s a gesture, though maybe more than that – the big picture here is nature and the emerald lakes, “eyes of the mountain,” that see it all.

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Montenegro, What’s in a Name?

My grandmother, who spent her widowhood taking cruises, would bring us back dolls from her exotic travels. I was happy to see one of the pairs – a man with a red vest and thick mustache, his wife in an embroidered skirt – in the window of a souvenir shop in Budva, Montenegro. What a relic! The country of the folk couple, Yugoslavia, no longer exists; and Serbia, the country Montenegro broke away with after the war, is no longer its master and partner. Since 2006, Montenegro has been an independent country of 600,000.
How do you pin it down? Its name means Black Mountain in some mishmash of Romance language though the mountains are not black but either green, covered by burly trees, or granite gray. The country calls itself different versions of the black mountain – Chernogoria, in Latin letters, or Crna Gora written in its Cyrillic alphabet.
It has the magic combination of rocky cliffs sliding into gorgeous Adriatic water, which makes it a popular tourist destination. Thus the international language of seaside holiday – inevitable muscle guys and girls in string bikinis; flashy Russians; massive yachts from Russia and Jersey; some scorched-skin Brits. Cool beats, rock n roll, seaside beer and spritzers paid for in euros.
Some of the tourists visit the stone fishing villages like Perast – they take in 1) the 17th century palaces dating from the long Venetian occupation and 2) the short perfect espresso dating from the same. They wonder how the devastation of the ’90s civil war could have occurred near these fjord-like enchantments even if the fighting took place further away, in Bosnia, Kosovo. Here, though there are more Orthodox worshippers, the Orthodox and Catholic churches sit side by side, and Muslims visit both. And the local women start the day chatting with the widows who sit behind the open shutters on the back streets. Remnants of the old world.


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What France Brings to the Table

That French people come together on a hot summer afternoon to eat a ripe meal with their average fellow mortals – that makes me love the French.  For what France brings to the table in the family of nations IS the table, the utter love of fully immersing in finer points of food.  It might be  a crisped skin of a duck, cêpes, the potatoes of course golden; a wine that takes no prisoners.  The lunch might take two hours or even three.   “We’ll all arrive at noon at the same time,” the French saying goes.  Live in time, don’t worry about it. 

If this consciousness is the French tradition, gift and patrimony, does everyone get to sit at the table? In restaurants above the Victor Hugo market place in Toulouse (one amazing food town), the salt of the earth gather to eat their traditional fare.  There are “etrangers” who dig into the fat-laced patrimonial magret with their families like they were born to it..  France as a nation-state may devolve someday, but ripeness as an idea in the mortal should endure.  Happy Bastille Day!

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