Friday, November 21, 2008

Victorians, Post-modern architecture, Ikea, and Kung Fu. Not a bad night, if I do say so myself.

Tonight we went to a bar in Corso Sempione, near the park in Milan. The bar was an Indian bar, and it was beautiful, with elaborately carved wooden doors and golden pictures of elephants on the walls. We sat in a red, turquoise and blue tent to take our drinks. I wanted to order something off the “Indian Drinks” menu, but they had run out of the Indian liquor, so I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea instead. I am constantly ordering mixed drinks even though I know I don’t like them. I much prefer beer. Anyway, it wasn’t bad.

The night was that perfect temperature where it’s cold but not too cold. It felt like the wind was blowing warmer air into the night, but Federico tells me it’s going to snow. Tomorrow night we are going to the Chinese restaurant and wouldn’t it be perfect if it were snowing. I chatter along in Italian, pausing now and then to let Valentina help me with vocabulary. I know my grammar is awful, and I use that to my advantage in telling bizarre jokes. The jokes don’t have to be funny, but because I am clearly poking fun at my own ineptitude, everyone enjoys the comedic relief.

The area around Corso Sempione was built during the same time as the park and the aquarium, during that wonderful late-Victoria era that I love so much. The houses drip with an art nouveau sensibility—square and tall and with tall, narrow windows. The period has been associated with a stiff collar and stiff upper lip, but in the details of these houses we can see the truth of the aesthetic. The ornate window irons are not so formal and symmetrical as the Elizabethan, or even early Victorian, periods. Today we insist that ornamentation like this is formal, stodgy even, but there was a time when oriental rugs harkened to lush opium dens and hedonistic harems rather than our grandmother’s parlor. The patterns are inspired by leaves and vines, wrought into man-made materials, as if the wild lustfulness of nature could be captured in the windows and ushered into the house.

The Victorians planted aspens throughout their cities, planted rolling parks in the midst of their new industrial centers and populated them with quaking trees. Aspens may be planted in rows, but they nevertheless grow in a twisted dance. Their leaves may look like plate gold, but they twist and spin and show all their colors, colors which are reflected in the speckled smooth bark of their trunks.

Last weekend I went to Bologna and in the park were fantastic ferocious statues from the same period. There were two of lions and their prey. One showed the lion, his phallic tail stretching straight up behind him, snarling over the great body of a bull beneath him. The other showed a lion (phallic tail long-since broken away) battling a serpent with evil teeth over the victory of a massive mountain goat. Half the snake’s head had crumbled, but a full set of iron teeth remained. The other two statues were of busty mermaids in sensual, homoerotic (can we use that word for women?) poses, looking like stone representations straight from a Mucha painting. Their hair swirled around their nipples and the fullness of their flesh. Everything was pockmarked and vaguely green with a pervasive fungal life form.

In Parco Sempione is the Aquarium, built in 1906, with the hippo’s head spouting water into a tiled pool with poi fish and lily pads. The decorative tile around the perimeter of the building echoes the sensibility of the posh neighborhood it was built for.

I eat up the ornamentation, I who usually snub my nose at formal decoration. But the details here reveal whimsy. The artistry and revelry, which we now assume the Victorians brutally repressed, is revealed at every corner. Here, for example, is a fence in which every rung ends at a different height in a fantastical curlicue. Here is a white box of a mansion with a fantastic balcony busting with great drooping plants like it’s a portal to a tropical world. Even the lower level sports marvelous germanium plants—that red blossom that I once associated with domesticity, thanks mostly to New England watercolors, but now I see as a wild red-headed vixen in the midst of a grey city.

If I were in Grand Rapids, I would host a party. Art Nouveau Party, I would call it.

“Come celebrate those twenty years (give or take a decade on either end) from 1890-1910. Come dressed as your favorite buxom Greek goddess (if Mucha is your preference) or as your friendly Victorian couple on holiday (if Talouse Latrec is more your style). Come as Sarah Bernhardt or Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Come as a Baudelaire adventurer, eagerly conquering in the name of England, God, or Science. Come as a Bohemian, emerging from the darker alleyways of Paris or Prague. Come celebrate that, for the first time in human history, we have money to spend. Come pour green into your drink, whatever it may be, and pretend it’s absinthe. Come commune with those people who pretend to be sober at work and keep their private lives hidden behind tall, thin, iron-barred windows. Come and make merry, for tonight the show must go on.”

That’s what I would say.

We drove away from the neighborhood of dreams and on through the city. The last beautiful thing I saw out my window was the porticoed Italian mansion with Michelangelo’s great horse rearing on copper legs in front.

Then we passed the stadium, which looks like a monument to communist-era architecture. An unwitting monument, the type that thinks it protests cement soviet blocs by using cement to make turrets instead. Great round, striped turrets that were either parking garages or nothing at all except a pitiful post-modern attempt at design.

“When was this built?” I asked.

“The early nineties, I think.”

Of course. I had guessed a few years earlier, before the fall of the wall, but the early nineties were the same. The cement of cities was upheld as gritty reality. That proletariat, industrial glorification is so communist in origin, yet there we were as “free western countries” promoting the exact same aesthetic. It makes me shudder as much as the green-tinted glass, brick and exposed metal beam omnipresent CAD-program aesthetic of today. In 2002, my high school was featured in an architectural magazine for it’s cutting-edge design. The library which faces the entrance drive is reminiscent of a lantern shape, green oxidized exposed metal making up the bone structure for the large glass windows and ligaments of brick. By the time I left college in 2008, every new bank, hospital and office park in Grand Rapids utilized the exact same idea. Puke.

Since arriving in Italy I have visited my first Ikea. This experience would be almost exactly the same anywhere in the world, but I had to come to Italy to finally discover the joy of mass-produced homeware fashion. At least here is something we can’t blame on the Americans. The Swedes are to blame, although we can always point to Ford or McDonalds as the originators of the cookie cutter model that has been applied so ubiquitously. Many thoughts (probably not original ones) ran through my head as I followed the school of shoppers through the store’s current. Is Ikea bad? Is it wrong to have our aesthetic handed to us on a plate? I found myself attracted to many things in that store. Was I attracted because Ikea has hit on the common current aesthetic and now offers it to us at affordable prices? Or has Ikea in fact /created/ this aesthetic, which has pilfered into my brain because it’s on tv and in my friends’ houses? If Ikea didn’t create it, then some other designer did. Is there a problem with that? Is a designer for Ikea no less an artist? Must everyone create their own living aesthetic instead of picking and choosing from those offered commercially? Is it even possible to live outside of a commercial identity?

As I said, these aren’t original questions, but there they were in my head. I have an itch when it comes to aesthetic tyranny. We can’t escape it. What the stores tell us to like, we like. At least those chains like Ikea, Pottery Barn or Anthropologie (oooh, I love their aesthetic) have an intentional aesthetic. At least there is recognition of the artistry of life. What’s worse is the tyranny of aesthetic that we experience every day without even being aware: the color and font choices in advertisements, for example, affect how we think and view the world. Advertisements, at their core, are intended to manipulate. Thus, for the last 100 years (since the period I have already exalted), our social aesthetic has been moved forward primarily by manipulation, sometimes really shitty manipulation at that.

I suppose that for this reason, someone has argued that the impressionists were truly the only artists unaffected by manipulation. Prior to that, it was religious purposes. Afterwards, it was the bas-cultural trends. I’m sure I don’t agree with this at all, but whatever. It’s something to think about.

After the bar in Milan we drove to Andrea’s house and watched Kung Fu Panda. I think there must have been a drug in my Long Island Iced Tea, because I felt sloshy-headed yet somehow hyper-attuned to everything. The daoist philosophy shining in the movie was reassuring, even if it was a cartoon.

As I’m applying for internships and jobs back in the States, I find a lot of solace in stoicism. By non-resistance, my path will take its natural course. By trusting in God, I know that He will bring me to the right place. By working hard to follow every opportunity that seems good, not getting too attached to any particular one, and leaving decision-making until the time when decisions must be made, I can balance fierce excitement about my potential futures with calm reassurance that what will be will be.

And all these thoughts thanks to an Iced Tea. I wonder what the Indian liquor would have done?

No comments: