Sunday, December 21, 2008

Art & The City

On a cold, slushy, rainy day at Christmas time in midtown Manhattan – I step out of the subway station to find flocks of busy New York locals and visitors abound. In the mass of human bodies floating through the subways, the streets, the stores - how does one become a regular in a big city like New York City?

One secret may be to be a regular at a place. Some folks like to be a regular in their local café. Others have a favorite restaurant. And still others always hang out in their corner bar. I like to be a regular at
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

It was one of first thing I did when I moved back to New York City in fall 2007: I bought a membership card to MoMA. For $75, cheaper than the price of the unlimited monthly subway pass, I have unlimited access to the museum for an entire year. There are no lines to wait, no tickets to buy, no stress of people. Instead of trying to see everything in one day, we can take our time and just see a bit one at a time. I like to study and absorb one piece of work, and return at another time to see more. It’s a great way to appreciate the museum without feeling overwhelmed. I especially appreciate the movie theaters in the lower levels, where I have caught quite a few documentary and feature films.

The MoMA has a very nice atrium. The view is especially alluring through the windows from the third, fourth, fifth and sixth floor. In the current installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist who has created a 7,354 cm of landscape of sound, sculptural elements, and moving image that envelop the walls in a vivid panorama. There is a sign to take off your shoes before getting on the carpet – and to make friends with person next to you. The carpet is white and the huge sculptural seating island is made of suede like cushion. Despite being in a roomful of strangers from all over the city and all over the world, you get a sense of tranquility - you see people really relaxing, almost mediating. As I unlace my very wet hiking boots, I think to myself how welcoming it is to take them off and literally separate from the slushy cold outside. Sitting on the cushion and lying down, there is the comfort and warmth of being in one’s living room.

Encouraged by the other part of the sign to make friends with person next to you, I start to speak with this older couple from New Jersey. There are too many attractions in NYC and they don’t come to MoMA that often when they are in Manhattan. But today they are visiting with their daughter who is attending Savannah College of Art and Design. We then go into a deep discussion about art and its great value in society, and that there is not enough emphasis in the US education encouraging the study of art. After the couple left, I fold my coat to use as a pillow and lay down. As I stare at the panorama screen of a nude woman underwater, I begin to hear people speaking French around me. A sudden wave of nostalgia wash over me with the same image of me lying down…. on the square of Musée Centre Pompidou in Paris.

I developed an affinity for museums in the mid 1990s when I was a Fine Arts student at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center. Classes, homeworks, and projects required the art students to spend a lot of time with sketch pads in all the museums throughout the city. I enjoyed looking at the diverse objects in all forms of sculptures, canvases, and installations. It’s inspiring to learn about the artists’ backgrounds and their different time in history. I also love this concept of a public space as a place of learning and inspiration. From walking through the ancient artifacts of Mesopotamia at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to going up and down the rotunda of The Guggenheim where the architecture itself is a piece of art, to walking through the skyscraping dinosaur bones at The American Museum of Natural History, to pondering while standing underneath the Greek columns of The Cloisters – I am in awe of how different people in different eras of different parts of the world have all been inspired to achieve all they have done and their accomplishments are passed down to us today. Though I stopped studying art after high school academically, the passion for museums and a love for history stayed strongly with me.

When I moved to Paris in summer 2002, the first thing I did was get a membership card to museums. The museum I frequented most often was Musée Centre Pompidou. I eventually settled in the 11th arrondissement in the neighborhood of Belleville and the museum was just about half an hour walk away. It soon became my favorite hang out place. In the summer months I would lay down on the leaning square and stared at the colorful pipes. Whether listening to street performers play their instruments, or writing in my notebook, it was a great way to enjoy Paris and live the city as a local. Inside the museum, I had spent many coffee breaks writing in the café. When it got too hot, the Bibliothèque was a great place to escape the heat. And still, like MoMA, there was a lower level (and upper) for watching documentaries and features.

Today, there is a screening of Henry James’ Washington Square Park. This version is by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and came out in 1997. It is such a treat to see this film now, for the first time, on the big screen – it seem to be the right time as I have not lived in the city for almost a decade and am rediscovering it and trying to reconnect with it - watching the film in MoMA somehow made me feel closer to New York City. I am struck by the music composed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Long after the credits have ended and I have exited the museum and taking the subway home, one song from the film, "Tu chiami una vita" still lingers heavily on my mind. The lyrics are by Salvatore Quasimodo. It is a truly beautiful song, so well written, so meaningful, for all emotions it evoke, I am really moved.

Art is like love. So inexplicable, so not logical, so not something we think we need - but yet - without it, life is dull and not as meaningful. You do not need to study it, you do not need to read about it, all you need is to feel it. And when it does resonate with you, it is pretty powerful.