The Night-Time Met

By Rob Packer

The Met is one of the world’s greatest museums—and if you include The Cloisters, probably the greatest—and I try to swallow the $25 recommended entry fee every time I’m in New York. The collection is spectacularly wide-ranging and the large halls with windows looking out onto the park have beautifully modulated light streaming in through the windows. Though greyish, yesterday was the day for this trip, but by the time we’d come down from The Cloisters and been distracted by food and eyewear on the Upper West, it was already dark as we headed across Central Park.

During the day, the Temple of Dendur comes as a relief after enclosed room after enclosed room of Egyptian funerary art: the light changes and the park opens enormous to the side. At night, the effect is reversed: amply lit galleries come as exposition and give way to the demonstration of the temple* standing aglow behind an oily reflecting pool. The whole gallery feels so sparse as if you were looking at a scale model of a cosmos you barely understand.

The female pharaoh Hatshepsut from another room

Hatshepsut as sphinx.


* Maybe a historically inaccurate impression: the temple was built in post-pharaonic Egypt to glorify Augustus Caesar.

More of the British Museum

By Rob Packer

The incomparable British Museum

The British Museum is one of my favourite places in London and I’ve written about it before here. As I was looking through the photos to put on this blog, I started thinking about the advantages of growing up in a city with such a wide swathe of world history at hand—the BBC’s excellent History in the World in a Hundred Objects to see how wide it really is. At the same time, the museum’s history reawakens memories of European colonialism’s ambiguous legacy and the can of worms of restitution. The image of foreigners carting off a nation’s history is an unpleasant form of expropriation (the Parthenon Marbles is just the most famous example) and restitution would be a fillip both for national pride and the tourism industry. At the same time, the argument that such and such cultural artefact has been better preserved in this or that museum might actually be true in some cases, but it sounds self-serving and overly simplistic to apply it to the entire collection, resting as it does on counterfactuals. After all, we often have no way of proving that monument X would have survived if piece Y had survived in situ. Read more of this post

The Bassae Reliefs

By Rob Packer

Centaurs and Lapiths on the Bassae Friezes

It also seemed a geeky London fantasy to use the city’s free museums to fulfil those whims that ambush you at 4pm in the office or 3pm on a Saturday in Oxford Street: an uncontrollable itch to see—I don’t know—a Gandhara Buddha (British Museum) or an El Greco painting (National Gallery). In this fantasy, you then leave immediately desire satisfied, although more likely is you stick around, flitting from the Indus to Korea to Mesopotamia to the Hebrides.

I think I’ve only ever done this two or three times and, since I left London, I only have Wikipedia. My most recent trip to the British Museum, though, had purpose and schedule: to see the Bassae reliefs. Read more of this post

Yayoi Kusuma at the Tate

By Rob Packer

Apart from friends and family, the best thing about being back in London is just the range of cultural options. Each one of the seven arts is here in force: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance and cinema. Sunday was the turn of sculpture and painting and my first trip to the Tate Modern in more than a year to see the Yayoi Kusuma retrospective (continuing until 5 June).

I’d not heard much about Kusuma (1929—) before the exhibition probably because this is the largest exhibit of her work ever in the UK. My friend, Albert, was on hand though to give me a one-sentence rundown just before going in: “When she reached 50, she checked herself into a hospital and has been living there ever since.”

Kusuma moved to the United States in 1957, returning to Japan in 1973, and there is a complete transformation between the painting of her early years in Japan and her more expressive installations in the US. For me, her formative works were some of her most interesting: she originally apprenticed as a traditional Nihonga painter but gave it up and taught herself European and American avant-garde painting instead. In one painting, she draws you into the claustrophobia of post-war Japan: as you look at the circle of bodies transformed into ropes surrounding two leafless trees, you realize that instead of looking into the painting, you’re actually looking out at the world outside the prison walls. In another, she represents a heart as a red splodge with black lines that makes it look like she’s inside the body with a torch. And a series of similar-looking, diversely coloured round objects that represent germ cells, sunspots or flower buds, suggest universality between astronomical and biological.

Her move to the US looks a clean break with Japan, as she became involved with the New York art scene of Andy Warhol. At the same time, two symbols came to the fore that would become her trademark: the polka dot and the phallus. And they go everywhere: fabric phalli on shoes, a canoe full of phalli, phalli cooked on a baking tray, polka dots on a horse, polka dots on people at a naked 1960s happening, etc. So much so, I was half expecting to hear a five-year-old (there were plenty in the gallery) ask: “Mummy, what’s a phallus?”

After Kusuma returned to Japan in 1973 and checked herself into a hospital in 1977 (where she also set up an atelier), her style changed again with large paintings, some with spermatozoa shapes—that one prim commentator called “sprouting polka-dots” or “tadpoles”. Her recent years in Japan also produced the most spectacular and approachable installations of the show: a darkened family living room with everything covered in fluorescent polka dots and a mirror-covered room with tiny, round lights flashing in different colours.

For an artist active for over 60 years and covering a wide range of media, it’s difficult for any retrospective to be representative of the entire opus. Her early painting was fascinating and her two recent room-sized installations hypnotic. While interesting and influential, her US period with its polka dots and protuberances actually ended up feeling repetitive after a while and we did end up leaving with something approaching phallus fatigue.

Yayoi Kusuma, Tate Modern (until 5 June 2012)

Buenos Aires Cultural Battles

By Rob Packer

Three blocks from Buenos Aires’ Retiro station, and round the corner from a couturier for polo, lies a beautiful colonial-style palace that immediately stands out from other buildings in the city that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris. Today the Palacio Noel houses the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco” with its collection of Spanish colonial art, seen from the context of a fin de siècle intellectual debate for Argentina’s culture.

Buenos Aires' neo-colonial Palacio Noel, now the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano “Isaac Fernández Blanco”

The museum’s introduction paints a picture of a 19th-century Buenos Aires dominated by French-influenced eclecticism and immigration from Europe that was Europeanizing the city’s Spanish colonial cultural influences and by 1914 made up half of the capital’s population, forming a large part of the poorer classes. In the face of these changing circumstances, the creole elite “tried to put a brake on this subjugation”; the museum calls this Hispanicism the “first nationalist movement” and mentions a group of intellectuals around Ricardo Rojas, Rubén Darío and Manuel Ugarte, forming “a counterpoint to the imperialist advance of Europe and the United States”. I am unsure, however, how European immigrants could have been both poor and imperialists. Read more of this post


By Rob Packer

I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere like Sarajevo. No other country that I’ve visited has seen war as recently as Bosnia, no other city a siege. I was ten when Bosnia declared its independence and was immediately consumed by war. It’s the first conflict that I remember well and I think that the memories that I do have will always be connected with the names of the country, the capital and several other cities in the country—a sign to Travnik or a bus to Srebrenica bring back memories of news footage of the war. These won’t go away; but now that I’ve been there, they’ll be mixed with my own memories of the country.

Unlike Mostar, Sarajevo feels much more alive: the city is much bigger and the far-wider rebuilding effort makes you feel that it’s looking towards a normalized future, rather than just towards the past. Having said that, however, history bears its mark on the city: if you simplify things, Sarajevo’s tramline runs from east to west, passing from the Ottoman-era market of Baščaršija through Austro-Hungarian Ferhadija to the Yugoslav city built for the 1984 Olympics, which later became known as Sniper Alley during the Bosnian War where snipers from the Serbian army were able to shoot Sarajevans as they crossed the road.

The Sebilj, a fountain at the centre of Baščaršija, Sarajevo's Turkish quarter.

Ferhadija, the main drag of Sarajevo's Austro-Hungarian centre.

Zmaja od Bosne, a.k.a. Sniper Alley during the war. The yellow building on the left is the Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

As I walked through the Sarajevo Under Siege exhibition at the city’s History Museum, I was reminded of the hardship that people had to go through 15 years ago—a lot of which I’m also ashamed to say passed me by at the time. Read more of this post

A rainy afternoon in Coyoacán

By Rob Packer

The plan for today was to meet up with Alexandra and Érica, two friends visiting the D.F. from Medellín, and head to the pyramids at Teotihuacán. They’d managed to get an amazing deal with a taxi driver to take us to the pyramids for the day for next to nothing and had arranged to be picked up at 10:30. After he phoned me at 10:50 to say he was stuck in traffic and would be another 20 or 30 minutes—he was probably at home—we gave up and decided to spend the day in Mexico City: after all, climbing pyramids in the rain isn’t most people’s idea of fun.

In the end, we decided to head to Coyoacán and to the Frida Kahlo Museum, which is excellent, although I’d forgotten how zealous the attendants are at enforcing the rules they have in there. No touching is perfectly understandable and no photography is fair enough, but even though I understand that the no mobiles rule is to stop people having their experience spoilt by other people’s conversations, it seems a bit heavy-handed to make people text outside in the rain.

Once we’d left the museum, I took them back to the plaza for a mango and chile paleta—I hope it changed their life.

Graffiti in Coyoacán

A sculpture by Mardonio Magaña in the garden of the Frida Kahlo Museum. An amazing sculptor

Another sculpture by Margonio Magaña.

Pre-Hispanic sculpture on Frida's pyramid.

Sculpture and shells in the fountain.

Frida Kahlo's house and now museum, la Casa Azul.

Car in Coyoacán.

A very damp Mexican flag, one of countless flags around the country hung out for Independence Day on 15th September.

Coyoacán streets.

A balcony in what could be one of my favourite buildings: at the corner of Melchor Ocampo and Francisco Sosa.

More graffiti, this time in La Condesa.

Saturday afternoon anthropology

By Rob Packer

I’m now starting my fourth month in Mexico City and I’ve been an embarrassingly bad tourist in the city. It’s not that I really feel that I should be spending my weekends with guidebook in hand, ticking off the sights; but if anyone ever comes to visit, it’s a little awkward if you don’t know where anything is. In my defence, I have visited the city several times before, but with one trip to the Centro Histórico and zero visits to museums, I was starting to feel a like a bad visitor. To make up for lost time, I went to the Museo de Antropología (Anthropology Museum) yesterday for the first time in four years. The museum is enormous and, in my opinion, one of the best in the world in terms of ancient, and some modern ethnological, artefacts. Here are the photos:

Two Museums in Bogotá

By Rob Packer

Bogotá’s Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) is one of the biggest in the country and although the name is deceptive—there is a fair amount that isn’t gold—it gives a very thorough, if poorly explained, rundown of Colombia’s pre-Columbian cultures. Rather than trying to explain, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.

The balsa muisca, the Muisca raft, one of the museum's most famous exhibits.

These (tiny) figures reminded of Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis.

The other museum I’ve visited in Bogotá is the Botero Museum, which is a showcase of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. Just like the Museo del Oro, this museum is run—rather strangely—as a subsidiary of the Banco de la República, Colombia’s central bank. The overwhelming feeling you have while looking around the museum is that nothing’s thin in there: his “proportional exaggeration” (podginess) extends beyond the body. Until I’d seen his still-lifes, I never knew that fruit could be fat. The reason for it is beyond even the artist: “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”

After rooms of proportionally exaggerated men and women, I couldn't work out it this was a podgy hand.

There was something beautiful about this very curvy Leda and Zeus.

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