Sunday, March 13, 2011

Proof

"The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us.  "
~Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes


"Dating," says the skinny girl on the end, checking her hair for split ends as she and her friends sit down across from me, "is pointless. Impossible. Every time I go on a date I wonder why I'm wasting my time."

The doors close and the trees become a blur behind the trio of hipster girls as the train picks up speed.

"I met this guy online," says her plump friend, excitedly, "in a chat room. Apparently he's taken the algorithm physicists use to calculate the odds of extraterrestrial life existing and used it to try and calculate his odds of finding a girlfriend."

Her friends gawk at her like she's just morphed into a giant insect. Seeing that they don't understand the brilliance of this she tries to explain.

"There's a mathematical equation that's used to calculate the odds of life on other planets and he's manipulated the parameters to apply to dating and calculated that his odds of finding a girlfriend are less than .5 percent."

Her friends still don't get it but I have to stifle a laugh. If I remember correctly that's actually less than the odds of ever making contact with aliens.

She tries again. "Once you factor in variables like age range, availability, reasonably equal intelligence, language restrictions the odds become astronomically small."

Her skinny friend screws up her nose, "What a waste of time."

I want to agree, but then realize she means the calculating, not the dating.

The plump girl just sighs in answer and settles into her seat, both the search for intelligent life and a compatible mate having been proven futile in less than one subway stop.

What Else Can I Possibly Say

Chinatown

"To you your religion and to me my religion."
-Islamic Proverb

I spend the morning roaming around Little India but when a tropical downpour rains from the heavens I make a dash underground and take the MRT to Chinatown.

I lose track of time as I wander under the swaying red lanterns perusing the merchandise; everything from pickled snakes to fake Rolex watches. I duck into a tailor shop and get caught caressing some of the finer silks. I inquire about having an item custom made but after a ten minute discussion the tailor decides he could not make it satisfactorily. I admire that.

At another shop I stop to search for coins to cast for I Ching but the rather insistent shop owner ends up selling me actual I Ching sticks. I suspect that, despite having bartered her down to half of her original offer, I've still paid too much when she hands me one of the coins I was looking at. "You take," she says. "Will bring you good luck and good fortune. Put in your wallet, it will attract money."

I wander into the Hindu temple and watch the last rites of a puja being performed before continuing to a mosque with a welcome sign. I take advantage of this, as this is the first time I have been allowed inside a mosque. The walls are lined with historical accounts of Islam as well as information about the Muslim faith. I pick up a pamphlet titled: Women in Islam: Beyond Stereotypes.

It outlines in great detail how equitable Islam has been to women in the past, from the 7th century to medieval times, permitting women to, among other things; reject arranged marriages, own property and get divorced. Under Social Roles it reads:

Muslims often express sympathy for women in the West, who often suffer from sexual exploitation and abuse at home and in the workplace, while being unappreciated in their traditional roles. Western women who seek to be respected must often dress and behave like men, are expected in practise to neglect their children's needs for the sake of their careers. In Islam, femininity is appreciated, and Muslim women may seek a higher education, work outside the home or volunteer as long as their primary responsibilities are taken care of.

I can't help but wonder who decides whether these "primary responsibilities" are being properly tended to. Still, as much as I hate to admit it, I can't actually dispute this assessment of Western culture. But then I can't think of a single culture on earth where someone, male or female, isn't being oppressed in some way.

The pamphlet concludes somewhat chastisingly:

For women who enjoy being women and appreciate the differences (as well as common ground) between sexes, who would prefer to be respected for their intelligence and character rather than being chased after for their looks, and would like to pursue personal and spiritual fulfilment without having to neglect their families, Islam is a very appealing alternative.

 Personally, I would like all those things, without having to adhere to a laundry list of codes and regulations that determine what is and is not feminine and state that I don't deserve to be treated with respect if I don't happen to fit that mold. But that's me. Obviously I'm not signing up for any organized religion any time soon, Islam or not.

Still, it does leave me wondering: If within group differences are greater than between group differences, when are we all going to stop trying to put each other in labeled boxes and get to the important matters of human affairs? Human affairs, mind you; not 'feminine" interests, not "manly" pursuits, not Muslim faith or Christian charity but simply "us" and "ours" because there is no "them".

I decide aliens are our only answer. Or zombies. I think the threat of some other "other" is the only hope we have of people finally accepting that, for all the infinitely unique ways there are to be human, ultimately, the only thing that matters is that we are.

On the corner of the street I duck into a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy to see if they might have anything to treat my persistent eczema. I take a seat at a wooden table and watch the two pharmacists prepare orders, pulling intestinal looking plants out of jars from the display cases and dried herbs from paper bags stored in the small wooden drawers that line the walls behind them, like the card catalogs in the libraries of my youth. Nothing is labeled but they seem to know where to find precisely what they need amongst what must be thousands of herbs and plants. Occasionally they measure using a balance scale but mostly they rely on experience. This twiggy plant they chop with a knife, those pods they crush with a mortar and pestle; some they toss together in individual tea bags, others get wrapped separately in paper.

The shop itself reminds me of a soda shop circa 1950's Elvis movies, but with wooden, rather than chrome, display cases that hold curiously pickled animal parts rather than home made pies. It's spotlessly clean and bright and feels modern despite the lack of a single computer or machine of any kind. One pharmacist pauses in her work, then confers with the other. Unable to agree they pull out a giant scroll and unroll it across the counter top. Their fingers and eyes scan, in perfect unison, from top to bottom, top to bottom until, "Ahhh," they both laugh and nod. Perhaps neither was right.

I am almost sad when it's my turn, I would love to watch them a while more, but I ask if they might have something for my skin and show her my elbows.

"Ahhh, yes, no problem." She calls to the girl at the cash register who leaves her post and returns with a yellow box covered in Chinese characters and a sketch of what looks like either a nut or a brain. I open the box and pull out the glass bottle filled with a cherry red liquid.

"Do I drink it?" I ask worriedly.

"No, no. On skin. It's very effective," the pharmacist assures me.

I pay $10 SD for the bottle and after a week I am not disappointed. It smells vile but it works.

I stop at a food stall and order a fresh mango and passion fruit juice. It tastes even better than it looks, and it looks so good no less than four people stop to ask me what it is and where I got it.

I seek sanctuary in the auspicious Buddha temple, where I search through their expansive collection of artifacts to gaze upon the relics of Buddha's tooth (and nose, and brain, and heart and lungs). Afterward, I sit on the cool marbled floor of the balcony for nearly an hour listening to the chanting below fill the ornate temple and wishing it would never end.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ahhhmenities

In the evening I go in search of Indian food and a glass of wine, then head down to the waterfront for the outdoor venue of the Mosaic Music Festival. The band is technically good, but utterly without soul, which is hard to endure in a blues band playing Neil Young and Eric Clapton covers.

The saving grace is another art installation courtesy of the Biennale. A voice activated laser show dances across the sky from a hotel across the river. Ingenius.

I catch the last train back to my hostel and find a copy of "The I Ching Explained" outside my room. Despite the rattling snore from the next room, I don't get very far in my reading before I fall asleep in my ant free bed in the mosquito free room.

It's the little things. Little, little things.

Sing Biennale

"Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one."
~Stella Adler

In search of a much needed reprieve I spend a weekend in Singapore, taking in their second Biennale. It was an impressive exhibition of, largely, installation art from around the world.

I managed to sneak in on the press junket. All the venues were free and I was the only passenger on the complimentary shuttle bus between venues. Maybe it was my notebook, maybe it was just my foreign face, but nobody asked to see my press pass at any of the sites. I got the benefit of  eavesdropping on the curators I found interesting without the hassle of being herded around by PR people. Singaporeans are accustomed to following rigid rules and are sticklers for order so I felt a bit like I'd staged a coup.

It's been so long since I've been confronted with uninhibited creativity, every work was a thrill for me. From the first piece I would determine that this was my favourite until I'd moved on and then that piece, yes, that piece was most definitely my favourite.  I still don't know which one would be, were I forced to choose, but I do know the Merlion Hotel was gravely over-hyped.

At a cost of nearly half a million Sing Dollars (SD) and approximately a month to build, the luxury hotel suite constructed around Singapore's most notorious landmark, the Merlion (yes, it's a fish with a fierce lion head) this installation was completely lost on me. I understood the marketing value of the gimmick for the luxury hotel that provided room service for the guests who paid a remarkably low rate of $150 nett per night for the privilege of sharing a bed with the beast (comparatively, a private room at a hostel costs about $70 SD, a night at a mid range hotel will set you back anywhere from $150-180 SD) but, if the artist was making trying to make a statement, or sharing a vision, it was lost on me. The only impression it left upon me was one of an architectural vanity whose 8 week existence was an environmentally wasteful atrocity.


Fortunately there were hundreds of other works that impressed me as witty, funny, beautiful and/or thought provoking. Among the most memorable was a twenty minute short film by Danish collective "Superflex" which so perfectly evokes the often devastating social, environmental and economic impact of our Coca-cola culture while forcing you to witness the absurdity of it all. I mean try not to laugh as an almost Christ like Ronald McDonald is toppled by waves, in a way not unreminiscent of the toppling of Hussein's statue in the early days of Iraq and pictures from the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

There were also the breathtaking tapestries by Chinese artists Shao Yinong and Mu Chen. Each of the large scale replications of obsolete bank notes, eight in all, took four months to complete. striking in their detail, they seemed the perfect reminder, as if we needed one in our current economic crisis, of the ephemeral and shifting nature of seemingly absolute economies and social structures. While Stalin was undoubtedly my favourite for sheer iconic irony, the intricate subtleties of a Prussian note as well as some of the Chinese notes were stunning.


Equally memorable was the engaging installation by the Indonesian collective "ruangrupa" who spent two months in Singapore collecting objects to create artifactual museums for fictional characters whose stories were at turns whimsical, hilarious, shocking and heartbreaking.

I had to take a break for my afternoon glass of wine, before continuing on to some art house films that reminded me of Cinematheque. I feel a bit sheepish admitting I took a nap but I'd been up since 4 am so I can't say I'm ashamed, but I woke up in time for a melancholy work documenting Singapore landmarks. A narrator, as though reading community obituaries, recounts the final moments of people who have died at these familiar places. Simultaneously touching and disturbing, this piece irrevocably changed how I thought of the city itself, but also how I view our impact on the spaces in the world as we move through it.

It was not the Biennale exhibits that stole the day for me though, but rather a concurrent exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum titled: Negotiating home History and Nation: Two Decades of contemporary Art in South East Asia (1991-2011):



 Nothing more than an optical illusion Briccio Santos' "Heritage Tunnel" excited the bibliophile in me. At the center of this piece is the "I Ching" which played a recurring role in my weekend. This is actually a six foot high tubular bookshelf with mirrors installed at the top and bottom, giving all the knowledge contained on the shelves the impression of being infinite.


At once shocking and heartbreaking Vasa Sitthiket's piece titled "Committing Suicide Culture: The Only Way Thai Farmers Escape Debt" embodies completely what I value most in art. Political and social commentary but also the artists role as a completely biased historian unwilling to obscure the records with clinical facts and figures.





Stumbling into these in the stairwell I was simultaneously delighted by the whimsy and disturbed by these futuristic hybrids of Teletubbies and Flying Monkeys ala "Wizard of Oz".

video

I was completely mesmerized by Suzann Victor's work with motion, light and sound. There was a much larger work by her on display in the atrium of the National Museum.

Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of one of my favourite exhibits of Thai artists. There was an entire room with stunning photography on the walls. There were also rows of old wooden school desks. In a work of genius interactive art titled "History Class" Thai artist Sutee Kunavichayanont has carved scenes from Thai history into the desks and provided paper and pencils so you can take the images home in the form of a pencil rubbing.

By the time the museum closed and kicked me to the curb, dusk was settling in and I was mentally and physically exhausted. My mind was spinning with concepts and ideas but my soul only sighed, "Sated."