Saturday, September 23, 2006

In Which We Know What We Like

Let it not be said that DK and I are not an artsy couple. Let it not be said that we are a pair of frumpy stay-at-homes who never venture forth beyond the safe bounds of our local citadel of culture, Waltham, Massachusetts (mentioned, I bet you didn't know, in the works of Nobel laureate J.M.Coetzee). We are artsy and we are well traveled, and I offer as proof this record of our recent trip to Williamstown -- about as far west as one can go and still remain within the cosseting arms of our blue momma, Massachusetts. (We will not speak of our nonWittgensteinianly unspeakable red daddy Mitt.)

It began, as such things do, one morning over breakfast.

"Damn," exclaimed DK, rattling the arts section of the Boston Globe. "We have to go see this !"

"What," I growled, barely caffeinated. I was trying to concentrate on the latest unsavory antics of the powers and principalities.

"Some dude's built a replica of Beijing out of pots and pans !"

"Say what ?" That got my attention.

"Beijing. Out of pots and pans. We HAVE to go see it. It's at Williams College."

He was, of course, correct. If there ever was a must see, this was it.

So, a few weeks later, we piled into the Corolla, popped Bartok into the CD player, and headed West along Route 2. DK drove, I rode snapshot, my Nikon ready for the untamed landscapes of our state's wild aesthetic west.

A few miles past the watchtowers of Concord State Prison, we drove through Acton, the hometown of Massachusetts' poet-laureate-at-large, Shameless O'Clawson. After a few more outposts of civilization -- viz. this lively roadside symposium --

things grew more bucolic. There were rustic inns,

venerable mobile home communities,

and purveyors of fine Massachusettserie.

Inevitably, our thoughts turned to lunch. Around a leafy bend in the road we spotted

what appeared to be a restaurant-and-hippopotamatorium. In addition to neon hippos, there were wall hippos

floor hippos,

window hippos,

and table hippos.

And, oddly enough, there were veggie burgers, bepob, and photos of weeds on the walls, so we were most content. But we could not linger in this most pleasant eatery. We had miles to go. Who'd have thought little Massachusetts was so big ?

Had we taken a wrong turn ?

We executed a hairpin correction

and soon saw North Adams nestled in a scenic vista of cloud, valley and hill. North Adams is the home of the new Museum of Contemporary Art, a fine museum indeed, but we were headed straight through to Williamstown, and the Williams College museum. We were in an artly paradise. So much art, so little time !

Our eyes

and my camera scanned the landscape for images.

Bring it on, I thought, walking the ice-cream-parlor lined streets of Williamstown,

bring on the art ! We shouldered through the crowds of newly-arrived students and graying parents

toward the museum, toward a kitchenware and cutlery Beijing, honing our eyes on accidents

and geometries

and regular, old representational art,

until finally we arrived at Zhan Wang's installation, Urban Landscape Beijing, gleaming under bright floodlights in a small, beige alcove.

This was, of course, also "representational." This was not just any city, it was Beijing, a replica of a real place, not in watercolor or oil, but in stainless steel silverware and cookpots.

We stared at the gleaming kitchenware.

"Take off your glasses," I whispered. "It looks better. Or at least more like a city."

"Yeah," DK agreed, staring into the blur. I put my glasses back on and approached.

The city disappeared, and a demotic display of restaurant supplies appeared.

I backed up and squinted: there were streets, towers, mountains. A palace. High rises. We consulted the key. There, apparantly, was Tieneman Square. I zoomed in again.

Chafing dishes. Cheese graters. Salt and Pepper shakers, none in the form of hippos,

althought that, I thought, might be a wry touch -- queerly meta, queerly recursive. Is that a hippo or a salt shaker or a news kiosk ? Well ? If a salt shaker can be a news kiosk, then is a hippo salt shaker in a kitchenware city a hippo or a news kiosk ?

Was there a theme to our trip, then ? It was culinary, and it was geographic. Florida that is not Florida. Kitchenware that is not kitchenware. A hippo that's a salt shaker. A salt shaker that's a news kiosk. What if Zhan Wang had used auto parts or surgical instruments or fruit ? What did this have to do with a Taj Mahal sculpted out of butter or a sugar cube Great Pyramid ? Or with the sheer joy of making things out of other things, a joy we all remember from childhood ? Or, for that matter, Maurice Sendak's In The Night Kitchen ? And what did the medium contribute to the meaning, if anything ? Was it a joke about western ignorance, a joke about Chinese food ? Or about all cities as being about consuming, about eating and being eaten ? Violence ? Eucharist ? But there was no food here. Only the means of preparing food. The antecedents of consumption. Or, maybe, the aftermath of the banquet, after all has been scrubbed clean -- the New Jerusalem !

Was there a clue to this whodunit ? Beijing in Williamstown with a Potato Masher ?

My head was spinning. The blinding, stainless steel city gleamed. It was a long drive back. I would have plenty of time to ponder these things.

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