Ninety-nine bird carcasses nailed to a ten-by-four feet plywood board by obscure Danish artist John Olsen. The adjacent room houses an exhibit of fetishism (nudism, infantilism, shamanism) in design but retains its infamy as the site of Marco Evaristti’s 2000 exhibit Helena (known colloquially as “the fish-in-blenders exhibit”) and an onlooker’s decision to liquidize a goldfish. Like its rival museums near Copenhagen and Aarhus, Trapholt built its reputation as one of Denmark’s finest contemporary art museums through its flirtation with scandal and contempt. But while its rivals all enjoy metropolitan audiences who would accept Olsen’s dead birds as art, Trapholt sits on the outskirts of Kolding, my hometown, with just under 70,000 inhabitants.
John Olsen’s Fuglekalligrafi (“Bird Calligraphy”), 2003. (Photo: Leif Bolding)
Koldingers have a two-dimensional take on art: if it has a frame, we call it “art,” and it the colors within that frame form a discernable motive, we call it “good art.” To us, cubism still seems like the products of artists who lacked the precision of skilled artists. If we knew what it meant, we might call ourselves a city of Stuckists. Conceptual artists must think of Kolding and its environs as a small-scale version of the Bermuda Triangle. Outside it lie several thriving museums that house radical conceptual arts exhibits; within it, only Trapholt has managed to stay afloat financially, a feat it could never have accomplished without the government’s generous endowment for the arts.
Given our disdain for what people from the capital call “conceptual art”, it makes sense that Koldingers have long preferred the city’s other museum: Koldinghus. Housed in a medieval castle complete with moats, watchtowers, and cannon-holed walls, Koldinghus displays the kind of art Koldingers want to see. Its permanent collection of Golden Age paintings, ceramics, and silverware has the immediacy we look for in art. We saw the three-hundred-year-old still life of a corn field in our high school textbooks on the Danish art canon, so we accept it as the ideal form of art. The velvet ropes that cordon off the exhibit housing Koldinghus’ most prized assets, viewable only by appointment and only by art historians, convinces us all the more that we are not just seeing artworks, but the very essence of Danish history.
Trapholt has no velvet ropes. They call it a museum policy, but Koldingers think the lack of security correlates to a lack of security-worthy art. Consider the comments of an elderly man whom I overheard asking a Trapholt receptionist “do you even have any paintings that are older than me?” when I visited this summer. His consternation when the receptionist replied that they do not have any conventional paintings at all shows the Kolding frame of mind – a frame which I shared until I left for high school.
Selection of chair postcards in Trapholt’s gift shop. (Photo: Hansen Ong).
Selection of chairs on display at Trapholt, summer 2014. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
Koldingers’ two-dimensional conception of art must wane with distance, because when we leave the Triangle of Death, it seems we learn to appreciate conceptual art. On our trips to Copenhagen and abroad, my family would visit museums we would never have gone near if we had stayed within the Kolding area. On our 2003 trip to London, we went to the Design Museum, the Tate Modern, and even the Museum of Contemporary Art! Of course, we still frowned at Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project and questioned whether a big lamp really constitutes art (one does not go from philistine to all-accepting art lover overnight), but we had shown a willingness to experience, and perhaps even appreciate, non-framed art.
As a family, we made glacial progress toward acceptance of contemporary art in the decade that followed the London epiphany, but when I left home for a Dutch boarding school in my junior year of high school, my progress gathered pace. Outside the tri-city area, I met people who not only tolerated non-framed art, but who appreciated it and even produced it. I took part in my first flash mob, dabbled with three-dimensional visual art, and spent my holidays traveling to museums which housed what my fellow Koldingers might deem “radical art.” At the same time, I suffered the signature malaise of the expat, homesickness, and the combination of my growing interest in radical art and my longing for the city that scorns such art produced in me a change I had not foreseen.
When I went home for fall break after just three months outside the Triangle of Death, I visited Trapholt of my own volition for the first time. That visit opened my eyes more than any visit to a foreign museum could have done, because I discovered far from the elitist retreat I had imagined it as, Trapholt welcomed believers in non-framed art from all walks of life. I did not find a coterie of the petty-bourgeois but a mixture of secretaries, farmers, shop owners, and even my high school art teacher.
The greatest shock of my visit came not from the heterogeneity of the audience, but from the diversity of media Trapholt had on display. Sure, Trapholt houses its fair share of disfigured, abstract sculptures, but interspersed between these uninterpretable forms I encountered ornate works of contemporary ceramic art, a photographic chronicle of The Rolling Stones by two noted Danish photographers, and a special exhibit featuring upcoming Danish fashion designers. When I came back the following summer, that same exhibit housed Nick Cave’s sound suits, the first exhibit in Trapholt’s history to feature velvet ropes on the artist’s insistence.
But to my surprise, I did not find the exhibit that would become my favorite in Trapholt’s main building; instead, I found it on the lawn, in an old summer home designed entirely by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. While the cottage seems bland at first sight, every single object in the home is nothing less than a work of art. Jacobsen designed everything, from the six mobile cubes that comprise the summer home to the silverware and the cupboards that hold it, and each item has entered the history of Danish design as well as a majority of Denmark’s households. To this day, his Seven Chair from 1958 epitomizes Danish design in its simplicity and is featured around most of the nation’s kitchen tables (or, rather, the IKEA knock-off at a tenth of the price of Jacobsen’s original does).
I absorbed the tour guide’s anecdotes to such an extent that I inhabited and took pride in them. One such anecdote about Jacobsen’s Ant Chair has since become the story I use to justify why I take pride in Danish chairs. When Jacobsen released the three-legged chair in 1952, it resonated across Europe’s design scene for the way it rethought the very concept of a chair. What designers everywhere did not anticipate, however, was the wobbly nature of the chair and the ensuing injuries chair aficionados sustained from falling off the chair. Embroiled in grievance lawsuits, Jacobsen insisted that the Ant Chair remain in production and summarily fired anyone who dared to suggest producing a four-legged variant. Not until safety inspectors at Novo Nordisk declared the three hundred three-legged Ant Chairs in their canteen unsafe and threatened to back out of a million-kroner deal did Jacobsen agree to produce a four-legged mutant chair. He retained his artist’s pride, though; to this day, Jacobsen’s manufacturer delivers four-legged Ant Chairs with an explicit proscription against displaying them in galleries or commercial showrooms.
The pride Jacobsen took in his original product echoes the prides Danes take in their design heritage and in their chairs. I come from a chair-crazed culture, where vintage Jacobsens often sell for over $100,000 and where museum gift shops sell scale replicas of Arne Jacobsen’s Egg Chair, Swan Chair, Seven Chair, and (three-legged) Ant Chair. We might not recognize it from within, once we leave home, we realize that even in the country’s most philistine region, oases of art and chair fetishism remain.
The star of the show: Arne Jacobsen’s Myren (“Ant Chair”) (1952) (Photo: Trapholt)
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
As I buzz myself out of my Parisian apartment and light a cigarette, I wave at my Algerian neighbor through the window of his Arabic bookstore Librairie du Monde Arabe. Counting my steps to the tune of Edith Piaf’s Dans ma rue, “On My Street,” recently popularized by raspy-voiced Zaz, I swiftly stroll along my street. Russian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Chinese restaurants, a Greek fast food joint, a traditional French brasserie, a pub appropriately named after a saint — I consider how everything in this microcosm looks so well put-together and the mental snapshots sink in my memory as tableaux vivants I wish would never fade away.
Even outside the restaurants, I devour exquisite cuisine: the cuisine of the Parisian urban landscape. I think of my leisurely strolling as flânerie, a trope from French literary and cultural history that Honoré de Balzac, one of the founders of French realism, described as “gastronomy of the eye.” I dare to imagine myself in the worn-out shoes of the central flâneur, Charles Baudelaire, and venture to find myself in his words: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” Worn-down though his shoes were, Baudelaire’s words remain forever spirited.
There is a word in Arabic that comes to mind: ghurba. My Arabic textbook Al-Kitaab translates the word as “longing for one’s native land, feeling of being a stranger” but its semantic field is much larger, ranging from detachment and homesickness to alienation and exile. Ever since I have first crammed my whole life into a standard checked-bag allowance and left my home of twenty years, I have felt ghurba in varying degrees. Drifting between my family house in Ljubljana, the NYUAD residence halls in Abu Dhabi, and my very first, very own apartment in the Parisian Latin Quarter, this uprootedness—albeit voluntary—only intensified as the idea of home started fading away. When the office of the administrative unit in my hometown handed me a document characterizing my legal status as “emigrant,” it foreshadowed my mental state of “homeless,” and the Slovenian words (zdomec and brezdomec, respectively) aptly indicate the blurred line between the two. But “home” only ever transforms: I have found mine in words, languages, poetry. Not unlike Baudelaire in his dialectic, I feel myself everywhere at least partly at home.
In fact, the “passionate spectator’s” sentiment gains in purity when I remind myself how many of the refurbished (read: gentrified) quaint dwellings throughout the Latin Quarter used to house this great French poet. Baudelaire lived his poetry and poetized his life in much the same way and I pass by many of his over forty accounted-for “homes” during my voracious strolls throughout the quartier. Few know that the small Île Saint-Louis, one of the two remaining natural islands in the Seine—the other supports the lavish Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame—used to provide an abode for Baudelaire and his Club des Hachichins. In the 1840s, the “Club of the Hashish-eaters” included some of the great French literary figures, including Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac.
Some paddle strokes further along the river, a plaque commemorates a former home to a couple of French intellectual giants, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and I wonder if this address is where they seduced their students into ménages à trois. Decades before them, a band of fin de siècle Symbolists owned the quarter: the poètes maudits, cursed poets. In Paris, the times change, but the company does not. Before the tourist industry, the left bank of the Seine used to be The Left Bank, la Rive Gauche, the Paris of writers, philosophers, and artists. Beneath all the hustle and bustle of souvenir shops advertising “1 for 3€, 4 for 10€,” intellectual fireworks are inscribed on the historical memory. I can see the enchanting Luxembourg garden close by and almost feel the ambiance of Gertrude Stein’s salon, which hosted the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound … On the other side of the jardin, young Jacques Prévert was growing up at the same time—perhaps my café crème used to be his Breakfast. I am mesmerized by the spaces marked with indelible intellectual history and a false sense of self-importance overcomes me.
As I approach my street, I reflect on my share in that history. I wonder what traces of ink I might leave on the palimpsest of the rue de l’école polytechnique, which harbors me so generously. The tiles I stride on overlay the fertile soil on which vineyards once stretched. There used to be an abbey here, frequented in the 5th century by Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, who lent her name to the hill into which my little street was carved. Not much later, church schools sprung up, joined in the 11th century by one of the first universities in Europe, la Sorbonne. Students and academics settled on this soil, echoed by generations that followed. This very soil then welcomed bookstores and printing houses and it cried when it was made to carry public gallows for the executions of sinners and unruly publishers …
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
And today? People from all walks of life pass their days on this little street that bears witness to layers upon layers of knowledge. The headquarters of L’Harmattan, one of the largest French publishers, stares back at me through my window and I bow down to everything the scraped green façade stands for. In my third-floor apartment, I live on top of a deep history of education.
Ali, the owner of the Lebanese restaurant opposite my house, wraps me a shawarma for dinner while we reminisce about Beirut we both last saw a year ago. He complements my Modern Standard Arabic with phrases in shami (the Levantine dialect) and I teach him how to wish bon appétit in Slovenian. Zaz’s voice slowly stretches out into the night: Dans ma rue il y a des anges qui m’emmènent, pour toujours mon cauchemar est fini. There are angels on my street that take me away, my nightmare is over forever.
Because I’m taking a “Pathways of World Literature” class called Dreams this semester, I signed up to watch a program of short films called “Dreams and Delusions,” which was part of last month’s Imagine Science Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Despite my stint with high school science classes, I would never consider myself a “science person.” That isn’t to say, however, that I don’t enjoy science: I do on rare occasions — just like I occasionally enjoy hitting the snooze button on my phone three times in a row instead of the standard two. I thought, however, that it might be interesting to supplement my coursework by examining dreams from a non-literary perspective.
The Imagine Science Film Festival was organized by Imagine Science Film, a nonprofit organization founded by Alex Gambis, (who is currently serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Biology and in Film and New Media at NYUAD). The organization’s goal is to merge the world of science with that of film. The film festival was held at NYUAD in late February, offering a mix of both short and full-length films, panel talks, and an experimental exhibit that was housed in the Arts Center.
The “Dreams and Delusions” program comprised eight short films from different parts of the globe and examined both dreams and neuroscience. I was interested in the program’s focus on short films. As someone who readily admits to being wordy when it comes to almost anything, the act of condensing — into a short film, a poem, or otherwise — fascinates me. While there were admittedly some films that I just did not “get” (i.e. a one minute short that was composed of rapidly evolving drawings reminiscent of all reasons why I don’t consume energy drinks), I did appreciate how all of the films played with the concept of a reality that isn’t really there and of thoughts that are so vivid they might as well be walking in the park.
The films presented in “Dreams and Delusions” weren’t as (neuro)science-heavy as I expected them to be: the closest was Jeannette Louie’s 2013 short Amygdala, which personified the bundle of neurons as a way to examine its role in how we perceive fear. The hippocampus made an appearance towards the end of the film, and I sat in the back row of the theater with a triumphant, “I-remember-this-from-high-school” smile on my face.
As we exited the screening room, we were asked to fill in a short survey to see which film would get the “People’s Choice Award” at the end of the festival. I chose Julie Englass’s Blame it on the Seagull, a 12-minute animated film that explored the ways in which our thoughts can interfere with our reality. The line between the narrator’s daily life and his fixation with avoiding death was constantly blurred, with color blotches and other images interspersed with Englass’s hand-drawn animation visually representing the blur. The narrator recalls the past events with the same buzzing intensity that the visuals convey. Blame it on the Seagull opened the “Dreams and Delusions” event and created a personal look at how the mind works, setting aside textbook definitions.
I can’t say that the event left me with a better understanding of how neuroscience works in relation to dreams. What I can say, though, is that I liked the films because I connected to them. I’ve been in situations where my mind has wandered off somewhere else, where I’ve had dreams that seemed so real I could’ve sworn I was awake, and where I actively began daydreaming in order to escape the reality of life.
Moreover, as part of a festival centered on science, these films seem to me some of the most accurate representations of science I’ve ever seen. More often than not we put science on a pedestal as an answer book to “Life’s Big Questions.” We often forget that science is the art of discovery and that people are drawn to the field because of the process of discovering.
In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t really “learn” anything from the short films. I don’t know how dreams work; I don’t fully know how the brain works—and maybe I never will. If Imagine Science Films seeks to establish a conversation between science and film, the “Dreams and Delusions” event struck a perfect balance: neither field overpowered the other; instead, they instead played off one another other productively and creatively.
Lights shimmered under the clear night sky as people strolled around Qasr Al Hosn, the fort that built a nation. Music traveled with the masses of people, who sang along or chatted with each other as they visited booths that offered cultural merchandise. I realized I made the wrong choice of shoes when I stepped on the sand and saw that right in the middle of the festival area, a boat rested in a man-made oasis. Small waves swayed as the speakers produced the familiar sound of the sea that nurtured Abu Dhabi as it grew. The fort watched over the crowd, who came to celebrate the past.
Having been immersed in Arab culture for my entire life, I did not think that a visit to the Qasr Al Hosn Festival would teach me anything new. I was wrong. I walked from one booth to another, taking a look at the variety of abayas and kanduras displayed there, mixed in with the bright colors of Indian saris, accessories, and lanterns. Local women were selling herbs, drinks, and foods, and explained that their grandparents used these products for medical purposes long before they became available in pharmacies. I was embarrassed when one of my friends asked me about the meaning of an Arabic word on one of the products and I couldn’t answer, but my confusion showed me how language changes as it travels distances — or, more accurately — cultures.
At the “shore,” I saw how the locals made their living before the discovery of oil. An aged man, with a forehead lined with wisdom, sat on Persian rugs as he knitted fishing nets. His hands made each perfect knot mechanically; it seemed so effortless but the sight of his thin, scarred fingers showed the opposite. Sailors and fishermen sat in the boat, and showed us how they used the fishnets to capture the fish, which they sold at the fish market. In another tent, we learned about pearl hunting. Divers used to explore the depths of the sea to capture oysters in the hopes of finding valuable pearls inside. While it brought wealth for many people and enhanced the country’s economy, this life-risking occupation marked a lot of people’s lives with tragedy. It wasn’t the life of risk compensation or workers’ rights; you had to summon the courage to dive in or watch your children starve. The accounts of history we learned in these tents challenged the common idea that this country started from the discovery of oil. Staring at the miserable face of a pearl diver in old photographs made people forget the stereotype of the Arab who is born with a gold spoon in his mouth.
My next stop was the “Lest We Forget” exhibit, the name of which comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Recessional,” written on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The phrase has been linked to memory ever since, as a plea to remember the sacrifices of the past. The “Lest We Forget” initiative follows the path of its name as it was born out of a vision of preserving and sharing the Emirati heritage.
The exhibit, which was originally created for the Venice Biennale, started with a hallway of black drawers topped by a timeline of pictures. Viewers see the pre-oil era, and learn when the important landmarks of the UAE were built. The guide pointed our attention to a creative addition to the timeline: each landmark on the timeline in the UAE was drawn in white, while landmarks built in other parts of the world in the same year were drawn in grey. This feature allowed visitors to see how the UAE was developing in comparison with the rest of the world. It also reveals the jump this country made from its founding in 1971 to the present. I opened drawer after drawer and looked through a collection of memories that showed the birth of a country, from the yellowing pages of an old notebook used by pearl merchants to determine prices to the bottle that held the very first drops of oil that transformed the desert to a city.
NYUAD students took part in the festival by having their own exhibition of the work they did with Professor Pascal Menoret in a course called “Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi.” The students displayed an outline of Hamdan Street, one of the most important streets in Abu Dhabi, and showed off the street’s most important landmarks.
My evening ended with a little food-tasting tour with my friends. The volunteers offered us a taste of the yogurt their ancestors used to make while another woman showed us the process of turning the milk into butter and yogurt by wrapping it tightly with a cloth and leaving it hanging from a stick for a while. Families sat on tables surrounding the little café, shaped like a cottage, which offered several Emirati beverages and snacks. At the far end of the festival, we waited in line to have a taste of the delicious luqaimat, everyone’s favorite Emirati dessert, from a food truck. The food truck presented a nice combination of the food of the past in the structure of the present.
The Qasr Al Hosn festival offered everyone a distinct experience. Locals got a chance to remember and appreciate the history of their country, while expats got a glimpse of a culture and a past they rarely get to see. Just as the fort stands with all its antique glory between skyscrapers, so is the Qasr Al Hosn festival an image of a living history that guides us in our present.
[Photo Credits: Cyrus R. K. Patell (top); Dana Abu Ali (all others)]
The game is reasonably straightforward. Pass cards around from one player to another until someone collects a set of four. Each player can only hold four cards in her hand at once, and choosing to keep a new card means discarding another. Once someone has “four of a kind,” she grabs a spoon and the rest of the players follow. There are four of us and only three spoons – the only goal is not to end up “spoonless.” It is a game with the perfect combination of skill, eye contact, and clanging silverware. It is also a game our guide, appropriately called Happy, is particularly good at, and he spends most of the time with a half smile on his face that is transformed by his grin when we each lunge forward, scrambling for the silverware on the slanted table in the mountain side restaurant in Nepal.
We have one day left of trekking on the Annapurna circuit, and my arms are one of the few parts of my body that aren’t excruciatingly sore. Today has been one of our longest days, with a 4:30 am climb up to see the sun rise from the 3210 meter Poon hill, followed by a full day hike to Ghandruk, the town where we will spend the night before finishing the trek in the morning. We should be exhausted, but Happy’s enthusiasm is infectious. Spoons proves to be an easily translatable game, which Happy well knows: only in his mid-twenties, just a few years older than I am, he regales us every night with a seemingly endless collection of stories about the groups from around the world that he’s led through treks. After we leave he’ll lead a group from Poland – I tell him on one of our hikes that the only thing I can say in Polish is “give me a kiss,” which we agree probably won’t be the most useful phrase in the mountains of Nepal.
On our last night of the trek I am astonished that I have somehow tricked my body into hiking through mountains for four days. The night before leaving Abu Dhabi, I woke up with the realization that growing up outside New York and going to college in the Philadelphia area had done nothing to prepare me for any sort of trekking. My travels before mainly involved navigating foreign public transportation systems, but not trails through the woods. Even when I arrive in Nepal, I am initially more comfortable in the streets of Kathmandu, where rickshaws and motorcycles swerve around messy-haired, baggy-pants clad tourists like myself, than I am at the base of the mythic mountains. I decide on the plane ride over that the best strategy for approaching the physical challenges is to ignore them completely until it is too late to turn back. Although probably far from a practical “life philosophy” this seems to work for the 32-mile trek. Granted, the daily Snickers bar that Happy took out of his bag when we were particularly tired probably helped as well.
Despite my trepidation when first putting on my backpack at the base of the mountain range, in less than an hour I am completely captivated by the trail – the way the landscape is a mixture of surprisingly humid jungles, complete with rushing rivers and overgrown ferns, to stone cliff sides looking out at mountains that are at times almost indistinguishable from the clouds that surround them. When we ask Happy how many times he had done this trek, he tells us the number is too high to remember. I wonder if we stop in the same places, feel awestruck in the same moments as every other novice trekker Happy guides, and how many times Happy has smiled and said, “just you wait” when someone gasps at the first view of a snowcapped peak.
The morning of our last games of Spoons, Happy woke us up for the view we had been told the whole trek to “just wait” for. In the darkness groups of walkers that we had seen throughout the trip moved in the cold, up the steps to the hill, guided only by pinpricks of light from nearby flashlights. Finally at the peak of Poon Hill we stared transfixed by the moonlight falling on the snow of remote mountaintops and by the countless stars above. With a combination of awe and exhaustion I tried to remember the last time I had seen the sky so clearly. I had seen nights of stars before, spent summers lying on grassy lawns to count the few that weren’t hidden by the street lights, but for some reason all I could think of was a time when I was younger and swimming in a river and I had tried to focus on each of the pebbles on the bottom. The pebbles were impossible to look at all at once and the way they drifted past turned floating on the water into flying – it was same combination of unsteadiness and an unreachable clarity. Turning my head from the sky was like lifting my face from the water, drinking in air that was fresh and cold.
I turned back to the mountain, and am momentarily surprised that I am not alone, and we sit as a group along the edge of the viewpoint and wait for the loud cheer from the crowd when the sun starts to peak from the edge of the horizon. For the next hour, as the mountains are slowly immersed in sunlight, we share moments of breathlessness with the crowd atop the hill.
On the last night, in the restaurant playing Spoons, I cannot remember where in the sky the stars were, or the shape of the pebbles at the bottom of the river. Instead I am fixated on the movement of the cards, the concentrated, furrowed brows of each player, and tension in our hands before someone reaches forward and creates a brief moment of chaos as silverware spins across the table out of our grasp. I try to memorize the smell of the local dish Dal Bhat from the kitchen, the lines on the increasingly familiar faces of fellow trekkers, and the way Happy’s hands move as he shuffles the deck. Like watching the sunrise that morning, none of it feels real, and the occasional clattering of the spoons is the only thing that reminds me where I am. In the morning we will return to the city, and in a couple of days I will be back on a plane to Abu Dhabi with stories of indescribably beautiful mountains, aching muscles following a climb up over 3,000 stone steps, and the best Snickers bar I’ve ever tasted. When I return, my stories will echo countless poetic tales of this romanticized country but for now Happy is passing me a card, and we are, for a however brief a time, cradled by the mountains.
Amman, 23 March 2013
Petra, 25 March 2013
Petra, 25 March 2013
Petra, 26 March 2013
Petra, 25 March 2013
Petra, 26 March 2013