Friday, June 02, 2006

No Monuments, No icons in NYC

Ladies and Gentlemen, friends of architecture, history and art, tourists and travellers, Big Apple lovers, stop coming to NYC. Nothing to see, no landmarks, no iconic buildings or places, no monuments. Zip. Nix. Nada. Rien. Klum.Yok.

So says the Department of Homeland Security in its latest report that allocates money to US cities according to their risk of being a terrorist target. The result: NYC has just seen its anti-terror funds slashed by 40 percent, from $207.5 million in 2005 to $124.4 million in 2006.

Why are visitors wasting their time at the Empire State Building, the New York Stock Exchange, the United Nations, the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum? Why are the guide books listing the Guggenheim Museum, the Brooklyn Bridge and Rockefeller Center as "must sees"? Why are they still printing guide books of NYC anyway, since there's "no icons, no monuments"? This is no joke, just read the official document from Department of Homeland Security form obtained by ABC News

I guess it's easier to find metal twizzers in a suitcase at JFK that monuments in NYC, duh.

Unless Homeland Security considers Ground Zero and its lack of memorial as a synecdoche for the whole city? Impossible, they don't know the word "monument", so imagine "synecdoche"... must be pornography (with a liberal accent).

I still have to visit Louisville, KY, which received increased anti-terror funding this year. There must be a couple iconic cows to protect, and some monumental football stadium.

If there are no icons in NYC, I hope there will be no crowds this weekend when I walk around Lincoln Center, cross Central Park or Times Square.
And Homeland Security should really close its NYC office, and relocate its airport staff in Arizona and Texas. They could have a career change: after searching for terrorists, they could search for illegal immigrants.

But keep this secret: immigrants, with their accents, their culinary traditions, and their languages are precisely what make NYC iconic...

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Shopping? Eating? Holocaust?

I visited San Francisco over the summer and decided to check out a few memorials. I headed to Lincoln Park and at the entrance hang the following sign:

Lincoln Park Legion of Honor
Golf Course Art Exhibitions
Pro Shop Museum store & cafe
Restaurant Holocaust memorial

This sign was so mundane, I almost missed it. But when I found the Holocaust memorial I was looking for listed among entertainment places, I was shocked. Or maybe it's a sign that memorials are an integral part of entertainment and tourism.

"ice cream? movies? Holocaust?"

After all, people like me who are interested in memorials might as well use a sign that shows the bathroom, the restaurant, the giftstore and the memorial.

There are now Schindler's tours in Poland, and here is a travel agency that even offers Auschwitz as a bonus in a package tour... (I will need to write about this website later, because it also says that the old city of Kazimierz is famous because of Spielberg's film "Schindler's list", not because of its century-old Jewish heritage...)

It looks more and more as if memorials in general are not only built for the sake of memory, for the sake of social cohesion and other political means, but also for tourism purposes. An added function, rather than an added value, to monuments.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Historical Misstep

State representatives visiting Israel always stop by the Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, and lay a wrath on behalf of their country. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy did so last week during his official visit to Israel. And then he opened his mouth... Here's the story reported by Israeli daily Ha'aretz:

"The French satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine reported in its September 14th issue that during the visit of French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy to the new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem on September 8, he asked - while perusing maps of European sites where Jewish communities had been destroyed - whether British Jews were not also murdered. Needless to say, Douste-Blazy's question was met by his hosts with amazement. "But Monsieur le ministre," Le Canard quoted the ensuing conversation, "England was never conquered by the Nazis during World War II."

The minister apparently was not content with this answer, which, according to the magazine, was given by the museum curator, and persisted, asking: "Yes, but were there no Jews who were deported from England?"

Do we need to comment on this incident? the least I can say is that the history of World War II --who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, who deported Jews to help the Nazis, and who didn't-- is not taught the same way everywhere. Since the myth of "La France résistante" has prevailed for many decades, simply "forgetting" Petain's collaborationist governement and the deportation of French Jews by French militia, it is not surprising that such missteps happen. But it makes them even more frightening in the mouth of a Foreign Minister.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Memorial of the Week: Korean War Memorial, New York

The Korean War is a forgotten war, squeezed between World War II and the Vietnam War, despite the fact that thousands of soldiers from 22 countries and civilians were killed between 1950 and 1953.

The memorial erected in Battery Park in downtown New York City stands among other memorials located in Lower Manhattan (Merchant Mariner's memorial, 9/11 memorial Sphere, Norwegian WWII memorial...).

Just like the Korean war, the monument is a shadow, a carved-out, transparent silhouette of a soldier that barely interrupts the woody landscape or the gaze of the visitor. You see it and you don't.

It's worth seeing at 10 a.m.on July 27, when the sun shines through it in a perfect angle, and illuminates the commemorative plaque on the ground. Why 10 a.m.? Because this is the time, back on July 27, 1953 (New York time, of course), that hostilities ended.

It is worth stopping and reading the information engraved on the ground, starting with the huge number of casualties on all sides, numbering in the thousands.

Then there are these flags of allied countries who fought North Korea and China. Too bad the colored flags, made of mosaic, stand out so much with their vulgar colors and their out-of-place cheerfulness. It is also striking that while the flags and the writing insists on an international war effort, the sculpture clearly depicts an American soldier with the typical helmet and backpack from the 1950's. Official descriptions of the memorial insist on the fact that the silhouette represents "the universal soldier"... Maybe the universal soldier can only be American; we are in the U.S. after all, so the international dimension remains anecdotal.

This memorial, erected in 1991, is one of the first Koren War Memorial in the U.S.

Dear memorial fans, I'll be away for 4 weeks in Argentina, exploring memorials to the Disappeared and other victims of state repression in Buenos Aires. Pictures and comments will come in late August.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Memorial of the Week: Wittenbergplatz, Berlin

In the center of Berlin, Wittenbergplatz is known for KaDeWe ("Kaufhaus des Westen"), which claims to be the largest department store of the West. It reminds of Harrod's in London: gourmet food, high-quality products, designers' brands, etc.).

Across the square is the neo-classical entrance to the S-Bahn station.

And almost lost between these two impressive Berlin landmarks stands a discrete but powerful Holocaust Memorial.

It is a 10-foot high steel sign that gets lost in the urban jungle of signs. It looks like a directory at the entrance of a shopping mall, or a list of sponsors.
But the list of entries is unmistakable: Auschwitz, Stutthof, Maidanek, Treblinka, and other names of concentration and death camps from the Nazi-era. "Orte des Schreckens", "Sites of Horrors", "die wir niemals vergessen dürfen", "which we can never forget".

As much as the memorial felt swallowed in traffic, its violent simplicity reveals outstanding depth and efficiency. Once struck by its presence and its content, the visitor can only draw connections between the camps and the S-Bahn station, which must have served for deportations of Berlin Jews.

And then there's the juxtaposition of the Holocaust and the fancy shopping center. That's also heavy loaded. While Jews were being deported on trains, it was business as usual at KaDeWe: fine cheese, train of Jews, expensive wines, train of Jews, spicy salami, train of Jews...

The Wittenberg Platz Holocaust memorial is successful because of the trilogy Holocaust-train station-Department Store. It plays on our sense of familiarity and our surprise, our tendency not to see things that blend so well in the surroundings and our need to be (violently) reminded of History's dirty pages.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Vegan Delight

I had heard from Gobo in the West Village a while ago, and had to try their recently opened Upper East Side Location.

Delicious smoothie, called "awakening" as a starter. Not that I needed to be awaken, that's an understatement for my normal state of mind, but I'm such a mango junkie that I picked this combination of fruit. Delicious, indeed, I felt the thick foam, and also each and every ingredient, from the mango to the cherry to the wolfberry to the ginseng.

Main course was butternut risotto with grilled almonds. It also had unnamed ingredients, adding color, smell and flavor to the dish. I was too full to try a dessert, but promise to come back for more vegan delights, especially after a month in meaty Argentina.

Check out Gobo's website, it's really sensual.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Arlecchino Servant of Two Masters

About fifteen years ago, my friend and theater mentor Pierre told me to go see Giorgio Strehler's "Arlecchino Servant of Two Masters" (Arlecchino Servitore de due Padroni), a Comedia dell'Arte classic staged by the master director of the Piccolo Theatro of Milano. I remember being amazed by the modernity of Carlo Goldoni's text (from the 18th century), and by the ironic and playful staging.

Yesterday, I saw Arlecchino again. Strehler died in 1997, but Ferruccio Solericontinues to play Arlecchino, and his three-hour performance moved me to tears. I laughed most of the time, catching some of the Italian-Venitian puns, embracing childish humor, circus acrobatics, century-old tricks and cute songs with immense delight. I hadn't heard myself laugh out loud for a long time and last time, it just came naturally.

And then this emotion, Soleri's tour de force: at 76, he still jumps, falls, gets beaten up, improvises with the audience, and maintains an incredible humanity. He gives Arlecchino this depth and his universal dimensions, beyond the trickster, beyond the poor servant. Another classic: the illiterate is often the wisest. Such freshness, such modernity.

I feel so privileged to have seen this performance, that I've never been so talkative about it, with friends near and afar. I need to get hold of a DVD of Soleri's Arlecchino, if it exists.