One with Eternity

Reading this week:

  • Out of the Corner by Jennifer Grey

The other weekend, which will be a while ago when this post finally hits the presses (which I now note will be Christmas, merry Christmas!), my super amazing girlfriend and I went off to see the special exhibit at the Hirshhorn, “One with Eternity” about the work of Yayoi Kusama. The exhibit is remarkable for a variety of reasons which are helpfully detailed in the exhibit itself, but the most amazing one for the purposes of this post is just how absolutely instagrammable it all is considering that she started doing this stuff half a century ago! Extremely prescient. Or maybe humans have just always enjoyed mirrors

Anyways the upswing of it being instagrammable is that it has been in our friends’ instagram feeds for quite some time now. Doing some googling for this post I am discovering the Hirshhorn had a much larger display of her work back in 2017, but this smaller exhibit has been up since April. We hadn’t been able to go, because you had to show up early to get tickets and we just weren’t about that life, but now you can get them online and my super amazing girlfriend did so. So we arrived at the extremely reasonable hour of 1:30 in the afternoon and got to admiring.

It was a much smaller exhibition than I had thought given the density of instagram photos, but the major things on display were the pumpkin at the top (titled Pumpkin) which was very nice and vibrantly orange, and then the two other big things were infinity rooms. My first observation is that infinity is pretty tiny, fitting nicely as you can see into a large box of a small room with a door and a short pathway for you to enter. You are not allowed to bring bags or unworn coats inside, but there are cubbies for your convenience. There were not that many people in the exhibit the day we arrived so the Disney-esque lines they had set up were not really in use, but each group of two adults max got to see the art for 30 seconds. This was an interesting way to experience art, in regimented 30-second chunks where you are shut into the box that is the art with just yourself and your one other adult. I don’t think this was part of Kusama’s intention but it was a lot to fit all the desired contemplation into so short of time.

Also a major thing I hadn’t realized from the instagram posts is that this piece is titled Phalli’s Field, so this is a field of dongs, and an infinite one at that, all lovingly (I assume) sewed by Kusama herself. Fantastic. I hope she told the person at the fabric store what she was up to.

Anyways from the first infinity room you proceed to the next infinity room, which despite the fact it is just as infinite as the first it is about twice as big. This one you walked through instead of just into, both tricky things to do with infinity under normal circumstances, but since it was twice as big you got twice as long, a full minute to contemplate the uncontemplateable. My super amazing girlfriend liked this one, titled My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, a lot more because the big space balls meant you couldn’t see yourself as readily, though I perhaps disliked it by an equal amount for just about the same reason because I was also much less able to see an infinite number of her. For my camera it was moot in any case because the best picture of it I was able to capture is the below one, which is still a great picture though doesn’t manage to capture it exactly:

And so that was Yayoi Kusama, by far the most popular artist of the modern era if we only go by, as I have mentioned, my friends’ instagram feeds. I was glad we saw it. Worth the wait!

Harpers Ferry

Reading this week:

  • The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood

The other weekend my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Harpers Ferry! We had been meaning to go for a while. I have fond memories of Harpers Ferry. There are a number of hiking trails in the vicinity, not to mention the Appalachian Trail itself, and it is a convenient middle distance away from where I grew up (over by Annapolis) which made it an excellent destination for hiking back when I was in the Boy Scouts and I did that sort of thing more often. Meanwhile my super amazing girlfriend wanted to go because we both enjoy day trips and she is trying to go to as many states as possible. However she has strict rules for when it counts as to whether or not she’s been to a state; she has to do something substantial in that state in order to tick it off her travel to-do list. Spending the day in Harpers Ferry, which is conveniently in West Virginia, is substantial enough to count.

Back in my Boy Scout days we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the museum portions of Harpers Ferry, not that I really had enough American historical context to really appreciate the message they convey anyways. Being young Boy Scouts who by the time we were visiting the town would have been hot off the trail, we were more interested in the touristy candy shops and the like. I therefore learned a whole lot on this visit. Harpers Ferry is a very old town (in American terms) and I was surprised to discover what a center of industry it had been, being one of the major producers of weapons for the United States. There is little evidence of that today, given that they tour down all the gun shops, though just by the geography it is evident there is a lot of potential for water-powered works. If you haven’t been it is an extremely picturesque town on the point of land bordered by the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, surrounded by the Appalachian hills and exposed bedrock that speaks to the ancient nature of the site. Plus we managed to time it so we arrived on perhaps the peak fall day of the year, as I am sure the picture at the top attests to.

Within its long history the main claim to fame for Harpers Ferry is all the ties it has to specifically Black history. This is probably the aspect I’ve only relatively recently acquired to the tools to grasp. The single most well-known event is of course John Brown’s Raid. The “museum” portion of Harpers Ferry is actually a number of different buildings all focusing on different things, and they have an entire building dedicated to John Brown. I learned a good chunk about the raid. For example, I had always imagined it has John Brown as the only white guy along with a handful of formerly enslaved people, so I was surprised to discover he had a relatively sizeable group with him. I think that goes to show that for all the discussion about the abolition of slavery being a difficult choice for so many people in the United States pre-Civil War, there were always a lot of people who knew the right answer and were willing to act on it. Violence is usually an ineffective way to promote political goals, as I think actually the history of the Civil War shows, and I condemn it, but people like John Brown and his compatriots willing to do what they did shows that moral clarity was to be had even in that era.

A lot of the museums displays are probably ripe for an update or at least a sprucing up, but Harpers Ferry also does an excellent job I think of contextualizing the history it presents. A good example is the above stone that is displayed on the street in Harpers Ferry with a sign next to it. The stone is a monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy that tried to rewrite the history of slavery (as all these monuments try to do), claiming that Black people were somewhere between content and happy with being enslaved. The sign next to it calls out their bullshit. I know it is hard to read in my picture but it talks about a woman named Pearl Tatten speaking up during the ceremony to say that the story was untrue and the enslaved people were always fighting for their freedom, to the astonishment of the people there to celebrate slavery. Probably still better to take the stone down entirely but it is an excellent moment to explain the false narrative these monuments try to impose on American history as part of a political project.

A final note on the Black history on display at Harpers Ferry was a large exhibit on Storer College, a school and college founded originally to educate those recently emancipated in the Civil War which found a home at Harpers Ferry. It was a pivotal institution and I was extremely interested to learn about it during our visit.

Besides the national park site we also explored the environs of Harpers Ferry. There is a place called Jefferson’s Rock, which is a rock that Thomas Jefferson stood at, and in the above picture I am standing near the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church. I liked it because it reminded me of Niamkolo Church. Our biggest adventure of the day was hiking up to Maryland Heights for the view. To get there you have to hike a fairly easy but unfairly steep trail which takes about two hours round trip. It was a gorgeous day as I mentioned and maybe even a little hot for fall and we utterly failed to bring any water with us. We pressed on though and were rewarded with a stunning view of the river confluence and the town itself and that Appalachian fall foliage which my super amazing girlfriend would never admit is anywhere as good as what you get up in New England. It was great though and after we managed to get back down we quenched our thirst at one of the local bars which also had a pretty excellent spinach dip. Then we drove home, happy to have had a wonderful day and learned not a little about history.


Reading this week:

  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (beautiful)

Winterthur [“Winter-tour”] is a very nice place. I have been writing this blog post in my head for a few weeks and I have a few critical points to make but I want to be clear up top that I very much enjoyed my visit! It was a stunningly gorgeous fall day and me and my super amazing girlfriend were off to see our friend get married but it was conveniently an evening wedding and we had a few hours in the afternoon and were in the neighborhood so we went to go see Winterthur. It is apparently (so my super amazing girlfriend tells me) very big in the museum business as being a particularly thoughtful and well-run museum. This was the major draw for us. Whatever there was to actually see was somewhat secondary.

“Whatever there was to actually see” is broadly split into three major buckets at Winterthur. Bucket one is the grounds. Winterthur is the former estate of an astoundingly rich member of the du Pont family, the sort of astoundingly rich where you have “grounds” along with a whole model farming community to provide you nice views and where you can raise prize-winning dairy cows as a hobby, as opposed to you know because it’s your job. We arrived at the visitor’s center where we paid our admission fee and then hopped on a bus for a guided tour of the grounds which was extremely lovely. It is pictured above. The lady both driving the bus and giving the tour was bubbly and enthusiastic about the grounds and extremely knowledgeable.

A diversion. There is no such thing as a natural forest. That’s only a little bit of an exaggeration, and the exceptions are some parts of Africa. Worldwide, forests evolved over eons as part of an ecosystem that were inhabited by megafauna, like gigantic sloths or wooly mammoths and all sorts of gigantic creatures. The forest evolved to take these creatures into account, but then whether a coincidence or not humans started going out into large swaths of the world and all of these megafauna died off, with the exception of some of those elephants in Africa because they evolved alongside humans and knew how to handle themselves. So the forest ecosystem lost a huge part of itself in both a literal and figurative sense and exists in an unnatural state. The lack of megafauna I think was compensated for in some ways by the humans themselves however. It is a very recent development to think of anything as “nature,” that is separate from like, just the world. These days people know what you mean when you visit nature, but like 200 years ago and for the rest of human history before that you wouldn’t go into nature, it would just be another part of the landscape, where you also lived. Forests were actively managed to provide food and fuel (done better in some places and done worse in other places) and I think the felling of trees and active management but in a way that tried to sustain the forest (because you wanted to keep using it) went to some lengths to replace the megafauna. I bring this up because du Pont there practiced the tenants of The Wild Garden which, so our bubbly guide told us involved making your grounds look like a natural forest. So like, while I acknowledge that in fact all forests to more or less degree are a product of human meddling, this still feels like I dunno cultural appropriation from nature??? I didn’t know how to feel about it. The trees were lovely though and the landscape is designed so all the colors change throughout the year rewarding revisiting and careful contemplation which does indeed sound like the bees knees. Anywho.

The tour drops you off at the museum, which represents bucket two. The museum, and this du Pont himself, focused on Americana material culture. While we were there they had a big exhibition about how du Pont helped Jackie Kennedy remodel the White House. That was neat to see and was very informative because I had seen all the rooms they were talking about in the exhibit. They also had a very intriguing display of an old clockmaker’s blacksmith shop which was extremely neat. But the picture above was some even more quintessential Americana, a bunch of imported ceramics from China. I really enjoyed this display. The picture above is just a tiny fraction of all the stuff they had, including just buckets of ceramics that were centuries old and had all sorts of cool designs. Of course I like the ones with boats on them the best but they had stuff of all flavors. A chunk of the ceramics had been salvaged from old shipwrecks which is also pretty neat.

That brought us to bucket three, the house. Like I said above the du Ponts were astoundingly rich, the type of people with “grounds,” but to have grounds you typically have to have a house in the middle and boy did they ever. There was a glimpse of the outside of it in my forest picture, but that is just a tiny fraction. This house they lived in was nine stories tall and had 175 rooms! What do you do with all that space? Why do you have it? I assume you have a house that big because your rich friend has like, a 150-room house and you have to one-up him because that is how rich people measure dick size. But also you are astoundingly rich and old money to boot so you can’t be too ostentatious so you try to fit the house into the landscape so it looks like you are only living in a 50-room mansion or something. In fact they made the house into a museum during their lifetime and so to retire they built said 50-room mansion next door and called it a “cottage,” hoo boy dude I am ready to start the proletariat revolution via this here blog written by a government knowledge worker who has time to go visit rich people’s grounds. You only get to see a tiny fraction of the house, approximately the portion that Jackie Kennedy toured when du Pont was trying to convince her that she should remodel the White House using American stuff instead of French stuff. I saw a lot of similar rooms? Like they had different themes, but it seemed to be a lot of sitting rooms? I liked the bold colors, and the oil paintings of ships, these are two things I like and du Pont had that decoration style right for sure.

After the house tour it was more or less time to get glammed up and go to that wedding, which was awesome. Our friend got married and she looked so beautiful and the ceremony was beautiful and it was in an art museum and we got to see art though of course it paled in comparison to the sublime and timeless beauty that is love. Also they had a live band that exclusively covered the hits and lemme tell ya they had range. Maybe I should learn to play the bass so I can get weekend gigs playing weddings. I think that would be fun and my bass playing wouldn’t annoy my super amazing girlfriend at all. The point is like I said at the top Winterthur was quite nice and I would love to go back in the spring to see the different colors and explore the grounds a bit more. And maybe steal liberate a gilded candlestick or two.

White House Garden Tour

Reading this week:

  • The Voltage Effect by John A. List (Chicago school…)

On the appropriate day my super amazing girlfriend and I got to go on the White House Garden Tour! It was interesting. We arrived in the line at the appropriate time and waited to be let in. The Secret Service had set up some metal detectors in the middle of a field and a dude in gloves carefully looked at my phone and keys to decide they posed no threat to the Rose Garden. Then we were on the tour!

Branded traffic cone. I had to take a picture. Who decided they needed branded traffic cones? Why weren’t the orange ones good enough? Who is in charge of the traffic cones? How many did they order? When do they order new ones? Who approves this?

What the tour was, specifically, was a self-guided thing where you walk along the paved ellipse (Secret Service agents were on-hand to tell anyone who strayed to get off the grass please sir) and then to the fountain they got there. I had previously gone on the interior White House tour so this was a whole exciting new perspective on the place. The outside perspective, specifically. There was also music, provided by an Air Force band on the portico. They alternated between light jazz and military marches.

Most of the highlights of the tour were various trees planted by various presidents and/or first ladies. This is a thing that you do, apparently, when you’re president, at some point you plant a tree. And then forever afterwards twice a year on the garden tour days they have a sign with a picture of you planting the tree for people to look at. I am writing this to sound very silly but I took several pictures of trees. The oldest trees they have were planted by Andrew Jackson in 1830 and are held up by wires. The other exciting part is looking at the kitchen garden that Michelle Obama planted, and the coolest part about that was the White House Beehives, in which there are Presidential bees. Besides the sign, however, they did not get special branding:

Anyways I was going to not write a whole blog post about this but then I noticed in the booklet they gave us that the south lawn is designed to create “a setting that gives the impression of a rural landscape, with winding paths and private spaces.” There are some other design features, like “a series of low hills that appear natural, but were created to provide security” and how a lot of the trees are planted in order to hide and further secure the perimeter, but I want to focus on the rural setting thing. That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean isn’t it? Here is the President in the very heart of Washington, DC, surrounded by a whole dense city full of people, and the White House is designed so the President can pretend he is in a bucolic setting somewhere? I mean the hills I get, that makes a great esplanade so you got a nice field of fire, but why are we going for rural? What I am getting at here is once I read that the view outside the White House reminded me of James Madison’s Montpelier, which was built at just about the same time and most importantly here was a plantation house. So is the White House going for a plantation vibe? Not great! Very ick. I didn’t like it.

But like I said the tour was fine. Besides the bees and the music and the trees, they also had “the Beast” out on display, which was probably the single most popular thing on the grounds judging by how it held up the crowd as people were taking pictures. It does indeed look pretty nice and I assume that no one ever minds that it is parked right across the road. After we had checked everything out we exited via the open-air gift shop, where my super amazing girlfriend got a bookmark and an exclusive Christmas ornament, and I got the exact same Christmas ornament, but for her mom. Then we hiked back around the White House to visit the White House Visitor’s Center where they had the centerpiece of my dreams.