Sometimes, the world is butt ugly. Eleven members of a synagogue dead in Pittsburgh while attending a bris, two African-Americans killed while grocery shopping in a Kroger’s, suspicious packages sent to politicians who disagree with the President.
Even before any of these events took place, I was feeling the oppression of living in New York City which, yeah, can be great but can also be an ugly, coarse place. I was working on a story at Criminal Court, a monolithic monument to all that is wrong with New York. Long security lines, frightened and nervous suspects and jurors unsure what’s in store for them, and burly court officers trying to make the best of a bad situation weighed down by bulletproof vests and a well-earned sardonic outlook on life.
These days, the streets around this gray building–which by the way is connected by skybridge to a jail called The Tombs (get the picture?)–is swimming in construction. I’m not even going to mention the subway system that got me there. Even on its best days, the subway is an ugly parade with peeling paint, moldy, water-streaked walls and commuters right out of a Diane Arbus photo. No one looks very happy.
Having said all this, I’m an optimist by nature so, when I feel overwhelmed by the only city I’ve ever lived in, I know what I need–I need beauty. Sometimes, it’s getting out the city and seeing nature and sometimes, it’s Paris! But last week, I chose to visit the Guggenheim Museum where I’d not been for ages.
Someone on Twitter had posted something about the museum’s current exhibition–wildly designed abstract paintings by Hilma Klint created at the turn of the 20th century. They were so arresting and colorful, so utterly different than my sad surroundings, that I went.
Klint was a Swedish feminist artist who took her art very seriously. She believed there was a world beyond this one and attended seances regularly. She believed in mediums and a lot of her art, she wrote in meticulous journals, was inspired by spiritualism.
Her greatest work “The Paintings for the Temple”–created around 1906–is breathtaking in color and design and way ahead of its time. You can read the above link which will tell you much more about Klint than I could. All I can say is that the exhibition did the trick. It showed me some beauty and art in a world sorely in need of it at the moment.
Klint lived in a different country and time but, standing in front of her art, I felt as though she was speaking to me from the beyond. I connected with her work–inspired by the unseen world and so far out of my day to day realm. If an artist can create works of this magnitude, all is not lost. Believe it.
Recently, I visited Lisbon and as I was walking through one of the oldest parts of town–a neighborhood called the Mouraria–I spotted plaques attached to the walls of the ancient buildings that featured senior residents of the block. The plaques are brilliant–stylized photographs designed to remember longtime residents who were there before the shops and restaurants.
One of the plaques at the end of the block explained what the project was all about. It’s called “The Tribute” and it’s a street exhibit by photographer/artist Camilla Watson from Britain designed as “a tribute to the elderly who live here. They walk this beco daily and their spirit makes this corner of Mouraria special.”
Doing a bit more research, I discovered Watson’s reason for undertaking the project in an article from the Evening Standard:
“When I began this project, the old part of Lisbon had not been renovated for at least 200 years,” says Watson. “The walls were full of holes and cracks – and the area had a high density of elderly so for me the old people were ageing together with the old buildings. They were one and the same. So I imagined their faces as part of walls in the streets. And I set myself the challenge of printing them onto the walls themselves.”
What a great idea! And it occurred to me that, since this exhibit is years old, at least some of these seniors must be dead and yet their images live on….on the very street where they spent decades. Watson has since expanded her project to other parts of the old city as she describes on her website:
“I am interested in people, communities and their history. How can we keep a communities history alive? How can we hold onto their memories in rapidly changing environments? I want to bring the past into the present in a way that is visual, creative and accessible to all; especially in historic neighbourhoods and in areas in a process of change.”
It struck me that this would be a great project for New York but with a slightly different angle. Too often, New York neighborhoods undergo changes due to gentrification that make it seem like people and businesses that existed on our streets just a year or two ago are part of prehistoric history. Wouldn’t it be great to do something along the lines of this project to help remember them? Of course the best thing would be to enact laws that prevent them from being forced out but, seeing how that’s not going to happen anytime soon, let’s at least remember them and not ignore our past.
Camilla, if you read this, maybe you can visit and make this a reality.