Amazing Alexander McQueen

Finally made it to the Alexander McQueen show at the Met. It was a total mob scene; I queued for over an hour to get in, and once inside you get swept along in the slow shuffle of the throng. But, oh my, what a beautiful exhibition it is.

Curated by the Met’s Andrew Bolton, the interior design was by Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, who have done a marvelous job of capturing the spirit of each collection without turning each room into a different theme park. And kudos to whoever wrote the descriptions and wall captions. Whenever it was possible to get near enough to actually read them, they were strikingly well-written.

Fashion often struggles to take its place in the art world, but this show demonstrates masterfully the exquisite artistry that is possible with needle, thread, leather and, well, myriad other materials. McQueen’s story is so tragic, but looking at his masterfully tailored and created pieces of couture, I couldn’t help but think of him as somehow otherworldly, too. This exhibition will make you think about fashion in entirely new terms.

All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Happy Story of Stellar Service

I recently helped to organize a trip to Miami, to celebrate a dear friend who’s getting married in May. The long weekend went well, a good time was had by all, etc etc. Yet I was particularly thrilled and gratified by the experience we had at Michelle Bernstein’s restaurant, Michy’s.

For some time now, service has been talked of as an important factor to consider within innovation. It’s one of Doblin’s “ten types” of innovation, and “service design” has emerged as an important discipline in its own right. Practitioners such as Hillary Cottam in the U.K. demonstrate what’s possible when you apply smart design principles to systemic matters of great weight, such as the justice system or healthcare.

This was rather more straightforward: a restaurant doing things right. Here’s what stood out for me during this lovely evening:

The menus
I’d had fairly involved discussions with someone at the restaurant before our group even showed up, and during one of these conversations I mentioned that we were celebrating my friend. “How lovely. Would you like us to customize the menus?” was the instant response. I hadn’t even thought of this, but it was a lovely touch that lent a carefully designed feel to the evening.

The food
Chef Anthony Bourdain once described vegetarians as “persistent irritants,” and declared that he’s delighted to charge a fortune to serve them a couple of pieces of grilled eggplant. Don’t think they, er, we don’t notice. We may not eat fish or meat, but we’re not stupid. Here, in contrast, there was neither huffing nor puffing about the one vegetarian in the group demanding special treatment. My friends actually wanted to try my food too. I can’t tell you what a rare occurrence that is.

The thoughtfulness
Giving a bride-to-be an unsolicited dessert with the word “congratulations” written on the plate makes her very happy. It also makes the organizers very happy that they went to that venue.

The service
None of us were driving so we relied on taxis to transport us back to our hotel after the meal. As we loitered outside the restaurant waiting for a car to arrive, the hostess came to check on us. “I’ll come and get you if one doesn’t arrive in five minutes,” I said to her. “No. I’ll come back and check on you in five minutes,” she replied. She did, too.

It strikes me as a bit sad that good service should still be a moment of wonder rather than an expected part of any experience. But as I’d bet everyone could attest, that’s not the way of the world. So hell, I’ll take it.

The real theater on display at Christian Marclay’s exhibition

If you didn’t hear about it, the artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock was on show in New York recently. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour abstract film: Marclay expertly spliced together thousands of excerpts from movies old and new, familiar and foreign. Each shot is somehow related to time–and the whole thing plays in real time. So if you popped in at 4.30 pm, you’d more than likely watch clips about afternoon tea. Visit one of the late night showings and see rather racier clips. (That’s pure hearsay: I turned up at 10 o’clock one Friday night and the line stretched a two hour wait around the block and I wimped out and went home.)

The show has received raves pretty much everywhere it’s played. See reviews here, here and from the London show, here. And for what it’s worth, I agree with the experts. The film is totally mesmerizing. I watched, spellbound, for three hours, and only reluctantly dragged myself back to life’s more regular programming.

What was even more mesmerizing, however, was the behavior of the assembled masses. As I waited to get in, one of the security guards regaled me with some excellent stories of the tantrums people had tried to pull in order to jump the line. (Just an aside, but if you ever hear yourself uttering the immortal phrase, “Don’t you know who I am?” it’s time to have a serious word with yourself.) This guy wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “I don’t care if you know Miz Cooper, Mr Marclay or the Pope,” he said vehemently. “I’m not ruining your life. I’m doing my job.” And do it, he did.

There was some even more amazing theater on display once you actually got inside. You can see the layout of the space below. What’s not so clear is that there weren’t enough seats to go round. At least half the crowd had to stand or sit alongside the edges of the gallery. Initially, for instance, I got a spot sitting halfway along the right hand wall—and I quickly realized that the subplot of the film was going on in the room itself.

Whenever someone got up from a sofa, it sparked a quiet, fierce, intense and entirely mean-spirited free-for-all. I saw two women lose all sense of decorum as they pelted towards one spot, one of them throwing her bag onto the seat, the other throwing up her hands in silent disgust. I even got caught up in it myself. I moved to take a seat that opened up right next to where I was—but moved way too slowly. Suddenly, some guy came out of nowhere, skidded past me and plonked himself down. I stammered unintelligibly—I’m excellent in a crisis—and then he played a devilish joker card. “Do you mind?” he said as he settled in. “I don’t feel at all well.” (Later on, of course, I came up with all sorts of witty comebacks as to why he should clearly go home and I should get to sit down. At the time, I meekly slunk back to the wall again, throwing up my own hands in silent disgust.)

I’m not sure it’s quite what Marclay had in mind when he put together his masterpiece, but the additional elements of musical chairs and Benny Hill actually enhanced the experience. Not to mention provided a useful reminder: never hesitate.

Images © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

In which I become a Badly Drawn Boy Chicken

Last week I went to Martha’s Vineyard, where my attempts to hang out with President Obama and his family were rudely thwarted by the terrible weather. Luckily, the first family wasn’t actually my reason for visiting. Instead, I went there to stay with an entirely different family, of musicians and artists, whose spare room is an old school bus (shown, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a(nother) storm) in their driveway in the middle of the forest in the middle of the island. At times, it was a bit like staying on a boat, as when the wind and the rain really got going I felt like I might simply float off, never to be seen again.

While I was there, I was co-opted into helping with an art project. And I should be clear, despite my many years writing about design, I myself can barely draw a stick man. So when I offered assistance to Sam, one of my hosts, who’s been commissioned to create an animation music video for the new single by British musician Badly Drawn Boy, I thought he’d realize I was just being polite.

Instead. he promptly said he “needed creatures”, and before I knew where I was I was being daubed in thick clown makeup and filmed against homemade green screen, blinking and trying to act like some kind of weird woodland being. (That’s me in the picture, trying to make sure we were filming correctly, as Sam wasn’t actually there to oversee proceedings, what with being too busy, you know, trying to create an actual animation video.) “Peck slowly! Like a slow chicken!” shouted my friend Mara, herself a fabulously accomplished singer and video artiste, who was fully immersing herself in the role of camerawoman (and who’d applied the make up that converted me into bizarre other world oddity). “Now… Teeth! Nothing! Teeth! Nothing!” The whole scene was completely surreal and ludicrous and hilarious… and try as I might, I couldn’t help but think that even as we’d tried our best and had a lovely time fooling around and laughing like maniacs, nothing would ever come of it.

Then I saw what Sam did with our amateur footage. And I really have become a chicken. A flapping, animated, completely weird chicken. And I couldn’t be more proud. It’s still entirely possible that I won’t make the Badly Drawn Boy cut, and I won’t be either sad or surprised if I don’t. (If I do, why, I’ll post here, of course.) But in my heart and for all eternity, I’ll now always be a Badly Drawn Boy Chicken. And I can’t lie; I think that’s pretty fantastic.

UPDATE: I made the cut! And, truthfully, I’m less BDB Chicken and more BDB-Blinky Bird. Still, see what Sam made below. I’m honestly less impressed with my own performance than I am with the beautiful, luminescent colors of the shots with singer Damon in them. Gorgeous.

On the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima: 08:15-August 6-1945

I didn’t realize I was going to be in Hiroshima in the week of the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. And I suppose it doesn’t make any difference to my thinking that I was. Yet birthdays are always a ripe time for reflection. And 65 years is both a long time and a mere heartbeat. To my mind, the event for which Hiroshima is renowned feels like it took place in another world, and I find the fact that there are still survivors left to tell the tale of what happened to them when the bomb landed somehow astonishing. The hibakusha, as they are known, are a dying breed, of course, as are the veterans of every nation involved in that particular world war, but it’s so old school. We’ve come so far since then, right? Oh. Right.

What struck me as I toured the permanent exhibit at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima and the various installations that make up the city’s Peace Memorial Park was a theme I’ve touched on before and one I’ve thought about in this context ever since Ian McEwan published his devastating op ed in the Guardian just after the awful event of September 11, 2001. As McEwan put so beautifully, what makes any of us matter in this world is our relationships with other people. As he wrote about the people on those planes on 9/11, their desire to reach out to those who meant the most to them is essentially what elevates the human being. “Those snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defiance,” he writes of those last, anguished phone calls.

Yet the decision-making process leading up to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima effectively stripped the city’s people of their humanity. Take this excerpt from the June 6th 1945 entry of the diary of Ally Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, highlighted at the Peace Memorial Museum exhibition: “I was a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength.”

Through propaganda, a fervent belief in the Allied cause, or whatever it was, Stimson had dehumanized the Japanese nation to the extent that bombing them didn’t mean the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of people, it meant a delightful emphasis of firepower. It’s a common strategy in war. By all accounts, the Japanese had so dehumanized the Chinese that an event such as the Nanking Massacre in 1937 saw its soldiers sink to depths of terrible savagery (Chinese estimates put the death toll there at 300,000). The 9/11 terrorists surely weren’t thinking of individuals or families as they flew planes into buildings. Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, sadly the list goes on and on. One effective way to motivate an army is to turn the enemy into caricature subhumans.

These days, though of course soldiers are still only too present in many a warzone around the world, the disconnect from the battlefield is only growing. When the plane doesn’t need a pilot, it’s even easier for war to be both entirely abstract to the perpetrator and utterly devastating to those on the ground. After all, there’s no need to rally robots. Just set them to “destroy”.

Anyway, back in 1945, Stimson got his wish. The new weapon showed its strength and the era of disconnected warfare went up a gear. 140,000 people are estimated to have died in Hiroshima by the end of 1945.

I thought I was coping pretty well with the exhibit, which is filled with the bloody rags of the clothing people had been wearing when the bomb went off, along with their battered possessions. And then I watched the video testimony of one survivor. I’m not sure when it was filmed, though clearly fairly recently. She described how her son had died in his bed, the buttons of his pajamas burned into his skin. A few days later, her daughter died and last, a few weeks after that, her husband. Her lip trembled as she spoke to the interviewer. “We used to be such a happy family,” she said quietly. “The A-bomb destroyed my life.” And that did it. Her simple, quiet recognition of what had happened to her was a gut-wrenching reminder of the human devastation wrought by an event that the records of the industrial military complex have sought to classify as just an interesting landmark on the path to progress.

And so, on the anniversary of Enola Gay flying to drop her deadly cargo, I have the awful sense that even as we’ve come so far, we haven’t really come anywhere at all. But in an effort to use the sadness of this depressing anniversary as the catalyst for something positive,  a word for all my own extensive support network of amazing people: thanks and love; you rock.

Pictures: the 08:15 time of the bomb blast is used as a motif throughout many of the installations in the Peace park, including graphics in the Peace Memorial Museum and a fountain in the Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. My hotel was right beside the A-Bomb Dome, which pretty much took a direct hit from the bomb. Everyone inside was killed, while the walls and roof were blown out. The structure stands, and has now been shored up as a physical symbol of the day’s events. The skeletal dome itself is lit at night. I didn’t take pictures of much of the exhibit; it felt wrong, somehow. The glass bottles were fused together in the blast.

Zen perfection

I don’t mean to become one of those people who waxes way too lyrically about the beauty of Japan. As it happens, not everything in the country was designed by Naoto Fukasawa. But check this out, a fountain I spotted tucked away in a corner of a remote Zen temple in Kyoto. See it? The water spout is a leaf. I repeat: The. Water. Spout. Is. A. Leaf. I mean. With attention to detail like that, you just can’t go wrong.

Kyoto: A Random Act of Kindness

I loved the Random Hacks of Kindness event that happened last year, sponsored by tech heavyweights including Microsoft and Google, to bring together a community of developers and geeks to work on the Big Problems of our time.

I’m not actually sure where the concept of “random acts of kindness” first came from (anyone?), but I just got recruited to the cause, after an elderly angel came to my rescue in Kyoto.

The thing about tropical weather, see, is that it can pelt it down without so much as a by your leave. You might think I’d be somewhat prepared for this, what with living in increasingly inhospitable New York. And as it happens, I was very proud of myself for traveling with an umbrella. Only I didn’t actually have said umbrella with me on the morning in question. In fact, I was a number of miles away from it when the heavens opened and I found myself doing an extremely convincing impression of a drowning rat. (The picture above is not blurry because I’m a bad photographer, but because it was pouring with rain.)

Anyway, skip over the part where I attempted to find out where the nearest train station was, only I’d overlooked the fact that I don’t know the Japanese words for either “train” or “station,” which led to a supremely awkward encounter with a man who’d clearly have loved to help if only I could tell him what in god’s name I needed. And skip to the bit where I’m squelching down the street in a state that’s by now bordering on hysterical laughter at how ridiculous this is/I am.

Suddenly, a woman passing by grabs me by the arm, yelling at me in Japanese. Then she points at her umbrella, at which I nod and agree that it’s a lovely umbrella and she’s very lucky. Then she drags me about 100 yards up the road, yelling all the way, which if universal body language/tone are anything to go by includes telling me I’m a very silly girl to get caught in this storm and what the hell do I think I’m playing at, which isn’t really a sentiment I feel I can argue with, to be honest, so I agree busily. And then we get to this hole in the wall alcove, which has a glass counter but not much else, and she drags me under the awning and promptly reaches underneath the counter to pull out a bucket of umbrellas, the big show off. And then she hands me one. At which point I do have a phrase that works: “How much is it?” at which she shrieks again and shakes her head and near enough shoos me out of her shop and back into the rain. At which point the language breakdown happens all over again, with me repeating incessantly, I think, “I’m very well, thank you very much” and heading on my way, squelching off down the street, warm in heart that people really are, in essence, pretty great. I was too bedraggled, befuddled and other words beginning with “be-” to get a photo of my rescuer, but instead, above, a shot of my very beloved, very most favorite souvenir, very pistachio-colored umbrella.

All a long way of saying that I clearly have some karma to repay. So watch out random tourist in distress in NYC. I surely won’t have a bucket of umbrellas on me, but I’ve totally got your cab fare.