Increase Your Quality of Life: Good Stuff in Houston and Los Angeles.

The last three weeks have been full of cultural adventures. Here are some recommendations and interesting things to inspire you.

This weekend we met up with a friend of mine from Philadelphia. We go way back to pre-graduate school German classes on Spring Garden Street. These days, she's in a PhD program close by in Austin. Hooray for old friends together in new cities! Together with her sweet Texan boyfriend, the four of us (two art historians and two mathematicians!) wandered around H-town.

On the stereo:
Dave "Diddlie" Day / Tony Ray Combo - Blue Moon Baby, 1957. Love that organ.

Pliny’s Tonic with Gin, Lime, Cucumber, Mint, Habanero Tincture. In my favorite neighborhood, Montrose, at Anvil. I love spicy drinks (recall my ongoing obsession with chai). For great Mexican and a KILLER spicy drink, I also recommend Ninfa's On Navigation for a spectacular mango margarita with habanero. There are no better drinks anywhere.

We were excited to catch The Artist is Present, a documentary on the artist Marina Abramović, at the MFA Houston. Claire, Alex, and I had seen, and were stunned by, her retrospective show at the MoMA in 2010.

It's an incredible documentary, she's an incredible woman, and everyone should watch it. I still can't believe I witnessed this art historical milestone. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. 

Afterward we looked at Constructed Dialogues: "Concrete, Geometric, and Kinetic Art from the Latin American Art Collection." The mathematicians loved it. Thanks to our awesome curator, Mari Carmen Ramirez, Houston has a super, fantastically extensive Latin American art collection. Read more about dynamo Ramirez and her career trajectory here

Next stop: the Menil, one of my favorite museums, for the Silence exhibition. This show had a kind of connection to the Abramović doc. Her idea for the in-museum performance, "The Artist is Present" at the MoMA, came from an earlier ongoing performance piece, "Night Sea Crossing" from the 1980's. Together with her collaborator and lover, Ulay, Abramović sat for days on end, in different locations, with no talking, no eating, no moving. One of the major points in her most recent performance was to maintain silence and stillness in order to slow time down and enhance and uncover the feelings created by the experience. The sustained eye contact and shared physical presence of another person, with no talking or moving or any other diversion, has the potential to shock the human system. At least those humans that are accustomed to short attention spans and overindulgence in sensory exploration. For me, even watching the performance on video is viscerally jarring and moving as it intensifies the minutiae within silence and stillness. 

Night Sea Crossing, 1981.

The curated works at the Menil, with the theme of Silence, often evoked Jacques Derrida's concept of sous rature (under erasure) in which words or images that are crossed out are even more enhanced. 

Many of the artists represented wished to include silence as a valuable medium, especially the composer John Cage. The exhibition coincides with and celebrates what would have been his 100th birthday. Cage thought that the absence of sound or conventional music opened up a deeper perception in listening. So the partial excision or layering over of text, music, imagery, places a greater focus on the experience of reading, hearing, looking. In paintings Jasper Johns called this as "additive subtraction." 

I was thrilled to see and interact with Robert Rauschenberg's seminal White Paintings from 1951 which inspired John Cage's 4'33" and perhaps Abramović as well. Works by the three artists involve the participation of audience.

As usual taking in all this creative output made us hungry. We drove a few minutes downtown to Bombay Pizza. Yes! Italian and Indian together. Best pizza: Mr. Nehal's (tandoori paneer with bell peppers, red onions, mozzarella and Bombay pizza sauce, topped with fresh ginger). The pizza crust was thin and crispy and coated with black sesame seeds. I'm obsessed with sesame seeds in all iterations from Japanese to Middle Eastern to NY bagels. 

Last week we visited Los Angeles mainly for a wedding, which included a mariachi band and Brazilian dancers, but of course we fit in some cultural explorations. I love LA so much.

Curious X-ray Giraffe Deli in LA.

On the stereo: 
Nothing. Our super cheap rental had no radio at all. 

On our first night we stopped off to see the Walk of Fame and all those handprints at Grauman's Theater. I'm glad we went after dark, that's when it gets really atmospheric. We agreed that walking around those old prints and signatures was totally creepy. 

The next morning we headed straight to Malibu (or Pacific Palisades) to see the Getty Villa. 

Ancient Greek Vase with proto-animation style, Getty Villa.
Fayum Period Sarcophagus Portrait

The Villa, filled with thousands of antiquities, features reproductions of ancient Roman architecture and gardens. They had an interesting exhibition called The Last Days of Pompeii. The show mixes works from all over the timeline, including Warhol, B movie footage of ancient Rome, and paintings from the turn of the century inspired by the novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer Lytton (1884). I also learned about Gradivaa novel by Wilhelm Jensen. The concept behind this is fascinating and I'm looking forward to reading his book

Written in 1903, Gradiva is the story of Norbert Hanold, an archaeologist who becomes obsessed with the image of a young woman in a classical marble relief that he sees in a Roman museum. Harold names the woman in the relief Gradiva, the girl splendid in walking.

Overcome by longing for this woman and consequently in a delusional state of mind, Hanold travels to Pompeii in search of her. In Pompeii, believing that he has traveled back in time, he locates the woman whom he believes to be Gradiva, but who is actually a childhood friend of his from Germany.  This woman, understanding what is happening to Hanold, helps him by accepting it fully and playing the role which he has assigned to her. 

The concept of Gradiva served as a muse to many of the Surrealist artists and writers. It reminds me of some of the Latin American magic realism books I've read by Julio Cortázar and Márquez and that other one about the mysterious gypsy girl. I can't refer to my library because my entire collection is STILL in storage. Fine.

I haven't seen Ruby Sparks yet, but it looks like a cute, modern version of similar concepts. Compelling. Plus, Steve Coogan! I'm in.

Ruby Sparks, 2012.

Toward the beach! Culver City: The Museum of Jurassic Technology. 
This place was highly recommended to me by a Tufts colleague/LA native. I had no idea what to expect and my mind was blown. It's the kind of thoughtful, genius museum that I dream about and obsess over. I don't want to say too much about it because the mysteriousness is part of the experience. Amazing. Amazing. Go.

In one room we saw The Floral Stereoradiographs of Albert G. Richards. On the wall were several pairs of special glasses which when worn made the floral images 3D. All the while dramatic music played. I was the only person in this claustrophobic gallery draped with black velvet. The combination of the waving ghost flowers, reaching toward me from all around, and the music, scared the hell out of me. I loved it. How many times have you ran skittishly from a gallery? Not counting the Mütter Museum with its saponified lady.

Star Magnolia.
Once you make your way through the absolutely fascinating galleries, you are rewarded with a staircase ascent, lit by sconces with actual candles (fire in a museum gave me a shock), leading to a cozy tea room with a samovar and plates of cookies. Totally charmed, we took our tea and cookies out into the aviary courtyard. WHAT. 

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, LA.
Just go, you'll be so happy. Afterward, go to Santa Monica for tacos drenched with spicy red sauce at Tacos Por Favor and pumpkin pie and decadent chai at Urth Caffe. 

We also fit in some important tourist sites: Little Tokyo for some streetside Japanese octopus balls and fresh red bean cakes, the house where Nightmare on Elm Street was filmed, the house where Michael Jackson's Thriller video was shot, a late night, first time visit to Amoeba Records (where I found one very special rare LP, which I am so so so excited about)...

Together with a couple more formerly Philadelphian friends, we finished the evening at the Silent Movie Theater for a midnight screening of Argento's Inferno.

Incredible underwater scene in Dario Argento's Inferno, 1980.

Probably my favorite was Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village. I tried their house made black sesame soy milk and wished I could swim in a sea of it. The other stuff was great too, white fish with turmeric (a delicious anti-bacterial wonder spice) and noodles, jack fruit everything, tofu bahn mi. I really wanted to go back another time, but there were too many places to try. We had exceptional Japanese, Thai, Mexican, six times, and Californian cuisine. Also LA has the best tea selection and presentation of any other city so far, but I still haven't been to England or Asia (Major), so maybe my opinion will change. 

Tomorrow we're off again to another wedding, this time in New York. Planning my art/food tour (and wedding speech for an audience of 350, yikes). Ciaociao.

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