Of Lovers and Diet Pepsi

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The range of reactions from the audience to Anne Imhof’s Angst II exhibition as durational opera during Berlin Art Week this year ranged from “Turner Prize” to “You could be one of the performers” [the equivalent of “I could have done this”]. The first reaction I heard came from two German girls standing behind me at the entrance waiting to get into the general public opening night, “Der Nebel! Ich liebe Nebel!” [Fog! I love fog!] I thought, has fog become the new sunset. Throughout the evening I heard comments like “This is lasting forever [when there was still 3 more hours to go],” “Berghain in a museum [Berghain several times],” “Just your average night in Berlin [Americans bragging to out-of-towners],” and “hahaha lets go.” The crowd was also a mixed, broad and diverse sampling of Berliners and visitors. I saw middle-aged and older museum goers, start-up CEOs, tourists, cool kids dressed in black and PR party girl types. This wasn’t an emotional piece but it made me think about it for quite awhile.

The smoke machines filling the main hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof offered a thrilling aspect for me as a lover of smoke/ fog. I spent about three hours walking back and forth taking photos and almost running into one of the main non-beings. The humans in the piece were not performing as humans but as the equivalent of objects. The gestures slowly performed by the non-beings were like tableaux vivants or living pictures with ready-made objects. The living pictures showed the postures and movements the bodies made with a mobile phone or a cigarette or shaving cream but blankly. Without the objects, their gestures were at times highly stylized and mannered, sometimes recognizable and other times not. Often the gestures mimicked exhaustion, death, boredom, fatigue or the audience. And the vacant looks of the non-beings were well-executed by this cast. They did however at times acknowledge each other. Almost immediately, I realized how gendered and almost Quattrocento my own postures and gestures were compared to these non-beings whose gestures were androgynous, desexualized, and highly anti-social.

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It’s difficult to be moved by the musical sound of a soda can going “pop” or for shaving cream to be used not for the non-beings, whose bodies no longer had any hair but so that the shaving cream could perform and the razors could have its moment. The roles were interestingly reversed but whether equality was achieved, that is harder to tell.

Although the piece had no narrative and the audience was told this, I still couldn’t help but try to follow a conventional narrative structure, convinced that if I stayed till the end, something might happen. I didn’t make it to the end but it was interesting to know that I kept on thinking it would. Even though the humans were non-beings, the regular humans still followed them around and gave them more importance than the objects because that was also an old habit to break. In fact, most of the drama was actually created by the drones, the falcons, the smoke machine, the shaving cream, the razors, the Coca-Cola/ Diet Pepsi cans and mobile phones. Once the falcons left the stage, it was fairly uneventful.

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That non-being had less of a role than a soda can

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My Neapolitan Novel Moment

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Wedding photos at Torregaveta beach

In Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel “The Story of a New Name,” Torregaveta makes an appearance when one of the characters tells her husband she wants to go to the beach with her small son, and her husband, who no longer loves her, tells her to take a bus to Torregaveta.

The bus ride starts from a Naples train station one stop removed from the main train station; the dead end last stop with rows of worn graffitied regional trains parked side by side almost in the dark. The seats in these regional trains are metal and miniature like cable car seats making them hood on the outside but dainty and refined on the inside. Once you leave Naples, the Naples-Torregaveta bus ride is almost entirely along the coast, like the Almalfi Coast route but less winding and less steep. This bus ride requires almost no attention from the bus driver, who frequently had his eyes off the road.

While I was stranded there for 20 minutes, I saw three different wedding groups having their photos taken and as the novel relates, it was not a Capri crowd. From a distance, I saw a little girl in a white dress constantly fluffing a bride’s gown. It was the best image I took in Naples, during my last few hours there. At the time, the only reference I had was to the book cover of the first novel, which I had not yet read, and so I had no idea the location would also signify something in the novel. What’s even more weird is that I had entertained the idea of being a mother with a child on this bus and wondered what it would be like.

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The Man who Lost his Wife at Caffè Al Bicerin

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Google image search

I could almost trace the place it was when Alexandre Dumas (the father), Nietzsche and Giacomo Puccini sipped a Bicerin there. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to walk in looking like another Chinese tourist unable to speak Italian and just shout out “Bicerin” (a coffee, cream, chocolate drink invented in this cafe and something you’re told you must drink before leaving Turin) but I did and I felt sorry for the historical cafe for doing it.

Who knew that red velvet bench seats, marble tables, little wooden chairs, and a mirrored and wooden wall paneling would not photograph well together. A materially rich environment was suddenly made cheap by its image. I had the whole place to myself for a good 15 minutes just sipping on a Bicerin, perfect conditions for some iPhone photography. I tried again and again but nothing, not even a cropped, Instagram filter could make it look interesting. The shadow was too illusive. (the photographs you see below required a second visit from another trip except for the first image)

As I sat there, I watched the other tourists stumbling in and one was a real Chinese tourist, a man with his family, a wife and a child I never got to see. He did something similar to me. He said the word “Bicerin” and then held up three fingers and then pointed outside. However a few moments later, he realized that the real experience of the cafe was inside and so he sat down and waited for his drink. His wife never joined him. I imagined it went something like this. She having never seen the inside wanted to stay out in the good weather or simply didn’t care for historical experiences and he felt differently.

Once his drink arrived, he slowly sipped his Bicerin while looking at his phone and I did the same. For awhile, it was just the two of us and a local Italian lady defiantly ignoring us as she read the newspaper, had an espresso and chatted with the proprietress.

Then a waitress went to the Chinese man and said that his wife had already paid for his drink. He didn’t seem alarmed by this in the beginning but then once he got up and found his wife was no longer there, the speed of his movements changed.

I also left around the same time and saw him later across the street, looking erratically around him, frantically texting, and speed walking to a place he didn’t know.

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Mafia: Bold, Brave, and Beautiful

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Palazzo Branciforte

While reading Helena Attlee’s “The Land Where Lemons Grow,” she wrote the most interesting thing that in Palermo dialect the word “mafia” originally meant bold or beautiful completely different from its meaning during the same time in Piedmontese or the Florentine dialect which meant poor, petty, and miserable. The meaning of bold, brave, and arrogant first appeared in the 1650s and then about 250 years later the added meanings of beautiful, perfect also took hold. As time went on, it continued to evolve in Palermo dialect to also mean something closer to a union or fraternity of brothers.

The area outside of Palermo known as the Golden Bowl or Conca d’Oro was where for centuries lemon trees had been cultivated and lovingly cared for amid palaces and later Art Nouveau buildings (I wish I could have seen it) which were all then demolished by the money the Cosa Nostra made from exploiting the lemon trees or the wooden slaves they had once protected- all to be replaced with high-rise buildings. But even after blind capitalist corruption, earthquakes, bombings, and volcano eruptions, Sicily is still bellezza, baldanza, perfezione, eccellenza or mafia from 1880. One can only imagine how beautiful it must have been when Palermo was one of the most dazzling, cosmopolitan cities in Europe. There are still a few street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic.

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Detail from the Church of Gesù
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Heaven as Palermo