50 Dirhams a Day: NYC

50 Dirhams a Day: NYC

AED 50 = $13.61

New York is so beautiful in the morning that it’s worth losing a little sleep to watch the sunrise spill over the building tops. If you need added incentive, this city flows with coffee.

Begin your day in Union Square, watch the city come alive, and partake in some free entertainment — there’s always something going on at Union. Watch out for the ‘bad luck’ circles drawn in white chalk on the concrete: it’s like a giant game of hopscotch across the pavement.

From Union, walk down 3rd Avenue to 13th street and find Everyman Espresso. This white-tiled industrial-style cafe makes exceptional,coffee; their tea is also worth trying. Both cost around $3, assuming you don’t tip anyone.

After you’ve had your caffeine fix, walk across 13th Street until you hit Fifth Avenue. Wander the street, admiring items you will probably never own. When you get sick of the acute contrast between reality and dreams, grab a $1.50 bagel from a street cart and munch with vehemence. Your stomach can be satisfied, even if your capitalist instincts aren’t.

One of the best free things to do in New York is museum hop. As an NYU student, admission is free to some of the city’s top museums—the Rubin Museum, on 17th and 7th, is within walking-distance and currently exhibiting Francesco Clemente: Inspired by India. If you spend $2.50 (a bagel and a half!) on a subway ride to 86th Street, you can enjoy the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (donation-based entry), which affords stunning views over midtown Manhattan.

Despite the bagel, you might want more to eat. Wince as you spend another $2.50 on a subway ride back to Astor Place, from which you can walk to St. Mark’s Place (8th street) and grab a falafel sandwich from Mamoun‘s. This is the realest deal in NYC: the falafel delivers crunch without grease, and the tahini is as piquant and smooth as the lettuce is crisp. The culinary experience is well-worth $3.50, especially if you have been craving a taste of Abu Dhabi.

From Mamoun’s, head down 2nd Ave until you hit East Houston Street, and then follow it down to the harbor. Try to make it to the water before sunset. Then you can follow the main road to the Williamsburg Bridge and admire the scene suspended above the water.

Enjoy the way that time passes, and let go of a few minutes while you confront the myth of New York City: every image feels like an iteration but also a completely new experience, from brick buildings to steaming street grates.

P.S You have $.61 in change. You should have tipped the barista at Everyman.

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Lower Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn, with the Freedom Tower at left and the Brooklyn Bridge at right.

Photo by Tessa Ayson.

Art and Activism with Sue Coe

Art and Activism with Sue Coe

Sue Coe is an artist-activist. Her paintings are striking, haunting, and incredibly powerful. Coe sneaks into slaughterhouses, and documents the horrors she sees there through her brushstrokes. In her work, bleeding lambs collapse beneath the bold title ‘CRUEL’, their slit throats bleeding into a corporate’s open money bag. Pigs scream in agony, encased in gas chambers, collapsing on top of one another in a slew of twisted bodies. Cold machines grind hopeless living bodies into a sick concoction of limbs and parts. Coe leaves nothing to the imagination, each image imbued with a meaning that goes far beyond aesthetic beauty; her work makes a pointed statement about corporate corruption. These works force the viewer to confront their meat consumption in a very real way.

Coe grew up next to a slaughterhouse and in a recent lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi, sponsored by the NYUAD Institute and the NYUAD Film/Media program, Coe credited her career to the horrors contained within the walls of that slaughterhouse. As she speaks her words rush; she sounds as if she’s constantly on the verge of tears. Seemingly without noticing, she flits from point to point in a way that often is not entirely harmonious. It is as if the horror of her subject material has detached her from the room and its occupants, as if her connection with living beings is tainted. Every so often during the presentation she hits us with a fact that is as shocking as a physical blow: the living conditions of sheep when they are shipped from country to country, the horrific way in which pigs are gassed to death simply to save manpower and therefore money, and the heavy metal music that factory workers play in the slaughterhouses to drown out the screams of the dying animals and prevent the workers from going insane within the nightmare that is their daily existence.

Coe uses only a pencil and sketchbook, saying that anything more than that gets her too involved in the technical side of things. As long as you have a pencil and paper, she says, you can take things down – there’s an immediacy to the act. Technique is a test of sincerity in the sense that before art becomes a weapon, it has to be art. There is no content without form, even content as powerful and self-sufficient as hers. So she learned how to create the form, fast.

“[The maiming, the meat industry, the killing] goes on whether I’m there or not, “ she says, “and I prefer it if I’m there.” What is the interplay between empathy and disconnect? How does she balance her own sense of humanity with the resistance to the plight of others? Making her living from observing and documenting death, there must surely be a danger of getting too involved, a danger of succumbing to insanity, just like the subjects of her art. Coe seems to have lost faith in a lot of things already; she’s politically disillusioned, casually mentioning that “all politicians become corrupt eventually.” At one point Coe asks us whether we prioritize life or profit; and when we scoff that of course life matters more, she points out that prioritizing life over profit is exactly what the meat industry does NOT do.

Coe’s presentation encouraged the audience to consider this contradiction between disconnect and empathy that her work often embodies. On one hand, I cannot help but think of Coe as completely disengaged; she’s disengaged from the audience, as if she has a set number of words she’s trying to get through and can’t wait to be finished with her talk. She’s disengaged, too, from the galleries that purchase and exhibit her work; “they hate me,” she says casually, “but I win them awards.” She must be disengaged from the slaughtered animals she works next to; it would be otherwise impossible to stay sane in the living hell of the meat industry. On the other hand, it was empathy that initiated her career and her identity as an artist, and it is empathy that drives her work. It is by creating a sense of (sometimes painful) empathy that she hopes to facilitate social change.

Coe classes her work as “graphic journalism,” and somehow her artistic representation packs more of an emotional punch than the factuality of photojournalism. We cannot hide from the brutality of Coe’s images: pigs being gassed, machines grinding twisted bodies, endless streams of blood. And yet her images are not always precisely “true” in that they are not necessarily mimetic. The painting of lambs bleeding into corporate money bags, for instance, does not capture something that has actually happened but nevertheless captures a truth about the meat industry: its corruption and its insistence on profit at the expense of everything else.The medium of art, and its inherent ability to be fictional, digs at the viewer’s conscience in a way that photojournalism cannot. At the same time, however, because Coe does not romanticize or aestheticize her images, the work has a gritty realism that we frequently associate with reportage or journalism.

Coe’s art emerges from fact but her representations of fact are imbued with her own disillusionment, her sorrow and hopelessness in the face of capitalist greed and the impossible power of the corporation and lure of the profit motive. Coe makes it clear that she will continue fighting, despite her sense that nothing she is working towards will be achieved in her lifetime. She concluded her talk with a gut-wrenching final fact, any semblance of hope long buried within layers of this clearly evident disillusionment: “We don’t see our victories because the bad is so overwhelming.”

Love in Objects: The Museum of Innocence

Love in Objects: The Museum of Innocence

BY TESSA AYSON

The Museum of Innocence is located in the Çukurçuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, Turkey, conceived of in tandem with its eponymous novel by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. It is set up across three floors, each no larger than a few small feet wide and a few tall people long. The objects are organized into exactly eighty-three boxes, which correspond to the eighty-three chapters of the novel. This novel spans eight years of obsessive love, charting protagonist Kemal’s ruminations on the nature of life and love. He falls in love with his cousin, Füsun, but their relationship is doomed before it even begins; Kemal is engaged to another woman. He breaks off the wedding, loses Füsun as well, and spends the next eight years pilfering items from Füsun’s family household where he eats dinner every night with her family.

The objects that Kemal collects ward off the profound melancholy that threatens to overwhelm him, and he is able to take solace in their comforting aroma and touch, knowing that Füsun has touched the very same surfaces. “Sometimes I would see [the objects] not as mementos of the blissful hours but as the tangible precious debris of the storm raging in my soul,” Kemal tells the reader, whom he addresses personally throughout the novel. Eventually he wins Füsun back, only to watch her die in a fatal car crash a few short weeks later. The novel culminates in Kemal’s hiring of Orhan Pamuk to carry out the museum project that is to commemorate Füsun.

The Museum’s collection could well have been curated by a nighttime spirit ransacking the pages of the novel, making away with the objects described within its pages and depositing them in the tiny, tottering, nondescript family apartment that is the home of the collection. There is something unearthly in the still air of the Museum; excessive noise is discouraged, and the objects hang in their boxes, dangling from invisible string, suspended in time and space. The Museum itself seems similarly suspended, tucked away mere minutes from the sensory-pummeling madness that is Istaklal Caddesi. Lilting Turkish and stilted English, wafting smells of roasted chestnuts, the clicking of shutters and noisy people doing noisy things in noisy excitement – all of this explosive, living energy subsides as you step off the street and into the Museum.

Through the novel’s expansion into the spatial realm, these eight years of longing are marked not through days but through objects, and by endowing the objects with the ability to track the movement of time itself, Pamuk gives them a unique power. Through the displays we learn that time is nothing more than a way of charting change in form – form of objects as well as living things. The constancy and stillness of the collection is therefore all the more haunting, a beautiful illustration of the suspension of time that Kemal endures throughout his separation from Füsun, his lost love.

The absolute ordinariness of the objects, the cigarette butts, tickets, and jewelry that comprise the exhibits, is the focal point of their magic. The objects expand beyond the realm of the novel into real life, disrupting our awareness of real versus fantasy. Imagine your favourite book being made into a film. Seeing the words lifted off their page, entering a three-dimensional space, becoming concrete, solid visual images, is always a disconcerting feeling. Now imagine that same feeling, but with the objects there—right in front of you, not separated by the mediation of cinema.

In his accompanying museum catalogue, Pamuk discusses the “massacre of objects” in Turkey that occurred as society’s focus in the mid twentieth century shifted towards Western ideals and the remnants of its Ottoman past were destroyed, leaving behind an “eerie emptiness”. For Pamuk this massacre is a societal and cultural threat; because of his belief in objects’ spiritual importance, the massacre effectively destroyed a large portion of Turkish history. Istanbul was once the centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire, the East and West combining to augment its might. But the same east-west fusion that previously made Istanbul so powerful now seems to be working against it. Istanbul is balanced on the geographical divide between Europe and Asia, teetering like a tightrope walker on dotted map lines.

The sense of melancholy that resulted from the dissolve of this empire encompasses all of Turkish society, Pamuk argues, and is manifest in the resolute solitude of the objects. They are neither Eastern nor Western, but very specifically Turkish. Raki, the national alcohol, is displayed, as well as çay, the ubiquitous national tea. There are Turkish newspaper articles and photos; one particularly powerful box shows a collage of images, seventy or eighty newspaper pictures of women with black bands over their eyes to conceal their identity. If a man tried to escape marrying a girl he slept with, her furious father would take the unfortunate male to court and the press would publish the poor girl’s photo with the concealing band so as not to besmirch her honor. The same band was used for prostitutes, adulteresses, and rape victims. Pamuk uses this piece to illustrate the terrifying complexities of dating in 1970’s Turkey – put a foot wrong, and end up as another lost identity in the masquerade of hidden faces.

The Museum’s displays elucidate the subtle beauty that exists within the ordinariness of everyday life, the banality of newspapers and food and drink and odd family photos that do not belong to Pamuk. In a curious parallel to the novel, where Kemal pilfered objects that belonged to others, Pamuk acquired many of the objects that form the collection from the tiny antique stores around the Çukurçuma neighborhood. These oases are magical in themselves; they are crammed to bursting with tottering remnants of the past, curated by tiny old men drinking sweet tea. Dust forms a thick barrier between the past and the present, coating every surface and permeating the air itself with the thick smell of ageing. These stores are a treasure trove of Turkish identities hoarded by quiet shop owners. You can buy someone’s jewellery, cutlery; even their personal family album, peeling black-and white photos stuck onto thick, cracked pages. Pamuk has made full use of this eerie transplanting of identity, appropriating the possessions of unknown people to tell a story that necessarily becomes the story of a much larger social context.

The objects perfectly encapsulate the city’s split soul. They are quintessentially Turkish, and therefore draw upon the influence of the East and the West as well as something else that is defined by Istanbul alone. Wandering the neighboring districts of Istanbul is an utterly bewildering experience. In less than a minute of traversing cracked pavements, all the sights, sounds and smells accosting your senses change radically. One moment, the streets are cobbled, a charming, eclectic tapestry of mismatched bricks that catch your ankle because your face is upturned hungrily, soaking in the beauty of the piled-up apartments and the little old ladies traversing dizzying flights of stairs with pounds and pounds of fresh groceries. The next moment, you emerge into a bustling hub of high-powered businesswomen, barking into iPhones, toting Gucci hold-alls and tottering in stilettos that would certainly not hold up to the patchwork cobblestones of a street that lies thirty seconds’ walk away.

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The museum’s exhibits capture this interplay between the scarves and the stilettos. There is a serendipitous beauty in the mundane, the teaspoons and saltshakers and used cigarettes that form the essence of the collection. However, there is nothing serendipitous in their organization; the objects are painstakingly arranged, each telling their own specific tale, both consolidating and extending the novel’s detailed commentary on Turkish society and the ‘[two] souls [of Istanbul that] are continuously in dialogue with each other, sparring with each other and changing each other.’ (Orhan Pamuk, 2005 interview). These dual souls seem to have taken up residence in the still coolness of the Museum, showing themselves as transient reflections that shimmer across the polished glass exteriors of the exhibits. There is a quiet certitude in the precision of the collection, a knowledge that mourns the loss of everything that has been and will be.

I cannot think of a more literal and powerful example of the phrase ‘bringing an object to life.’ This museum is no small artistic endeavor; it represents the melding of two genres, two times and two genres of artistic expression. It is this last melding that I find to be most interesting, that of the transition between two very different art forms. The novel has been translated into tens of languages, but this particular translation, from the flat off-white pages crammed with words to the evocative three-dimensional representations of the complicated process of love, is certainly its most powerful.

How, you may ask, does one craft a representation of love from teaspoons and cigarette butts?

A valid question indeed. The answer lies in Pamuk’s extraordinary attention to detail; he takes into account the minutest descriptions, down to the colour of Füsun’s lipstick, changing each day she smokes her favourite Samsun cigarettes. 4,213 of these cigarettes are mounted in an installation on the ground floor. Each is pinned to the display, encased in glass; next to it is a number and a date in spidery, scrawling black ink. Many of the cigarettes are stained with lipstick, all of varying shades of pink and red. Taking in details like these feels like the times when you wake up from an afternoon nap and completely forget where you are and what your name is. Everything is blurred; details are slippery and hard to grab a hold of. Perhaps, as you are examining the spectrum of lipstick colours, a shout from the fruit vendors that clatter up and down the cobblestoned streets outside the museum will catapult you back into reality, and you will ‘wake up,’ confused as to whether you live inside the pages of a novel and whether, just perhaps, Fusün is a real person with a real addiction and a lot of different lipsticks.

 

Photo courtesy of author

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