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Venice: Guggenheim and Rauschenberg

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The trip to Venice was – how shall I say this? Let’s go with “chaotic.” Beautiful, impressive and chaotic.

I’ll get into the chaos another time; first, let’s talk about the Guggenheim. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was on the top of my list of things to see in Venice, right after “as much Palladio as possible”, but we didn’t get there until the afternoon before we left. In fact, I was so afraid we wouldn’t get there (because others – who shall remain nameless – were dragging their feet) that I felt the need to add a small motivational tantrum to the mix. I don’t know if it helped, but it seemed in keeping with Ms. Guggenheim’s eccentricity.

The collection is in Guggenheim’s gorgeous house which fronts on the Grand Canal but looks nothing like most of the surrounding Venetian palazzos: it’s white, it’s angular and it’s modern, modern, modern. (Not that I’d be averse to living in one of those other palazzos, mind you. If you’re offering, I’m in.)

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At the ticket counter, I saw the directions to the special exhibition space and – hooray! – they’ve got Robert Rauschenberg’s series Gluts for the summer. Have I mentioned how much I love Robert Rauschenberg? No? Well, allow me: I love that man. I also love that when I saw him speak at the Guggenheim in New York, he was wearing a flaming pink dress shirt. Not an, “I’m comfortable with my masculinity,” pink, but an, “I could pass for a yard flamingo,” pink.

I fell for Rauschenberg at the Guggenheim’s retrospective in New York in 1997. I joined the museum that year, even though I was a pauper, so that I could get the exhibition catalog and go back to meet Rauschenberg at the reception (and by “meet” I mean, “look at from the first floor while he spoke in the lobby.”)

I loved the Combines the most, constructions of found materials (including, infamously, a stuffed goat), original paintings, recycled print, and photography. A close second was the amazing Hiccups, a set of 97 segments of handmade paper printed with images and zippered together. The constructions struck me as imaginative and somehow dynamic (literally, in the case of Hiccups, which can be rezippered in any configuration). Rauschenberg seemed…happy, I guess. Curious. Conflicted, but funny, not tortured. His work noted what was going on around him not by representing it or reducing it, but by collecting it. It felt like he saw what other people missed – junk, goats, discarded newsprint, tires – and accepted it all into his work without shying away from its grime or rust, elevating it to notice by recycling it.

(Slideshow overview of some of his work, including that goat, here.)

A few years later, the Whitney bought Synapsis Shuffle, another moveable work. Rauschenberg created fifty two 9.5′ panels (each 5′ or less wide), each its own piece of art. When it came time to show it, he’d collect a set of people – mostly famous, all from different walks of life – and stage a lottery. Each person drew a set of two numbers: the first indicating how many panels they’d get and the other a rank denoting in what order they’d be able to select their panels. Then they’d construct what they liked from their panels or barter with the other participants to get different panels.

I love the flexibility of that idea. Every time it shows, it’s different but it’s still absolutely that same work underneath. It’s done – for now and until the next time it’s done.

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(The New York Times write-up here and a good piece on it in W here.)

Gluts is a series of sculptures (for lack of a better word) produced from the mid-eighties until Rauschenberg’s death last year. The Guggenheim Collection is exhibiting a fraction of the huge series. Over twenty-odd years, Rauschenberg pillaged junkyards for materials – twisted bumpers, discarded signs, bits of wrought iron metalwork – took them back to his studio and constructed these pieces – some enormous, some small – a testament to glut, to overproduction and the abandonment of the resulting goods. The pieces are a criticism and a resurrection all in one, a whimsical and substantial response to the issue.

(An excellent virtual tour through the exhibition here. A good, albeit very flatly lit, set of images from Gluts here.)

The standing collection at the Guggenheim house is wonderful as well. I love museums of personal collections – the Frick in New York and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are two of my other favorites. For me, there is something intimate and human in visiting a personally curated collection that is very different from visiting a professionally curated exhibition in a museum. There are always lovely surprises among the selections and combinations.

The Rauschenberg is up through September 20th.

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Incidentally, how good looking and cheerful was Rauschenberg? Lord, almighty. Check out this great picture of him (far right) with John Cage and Merce Cunningham from the Times‘ Cunningham retrospective. Also, this Avedon photo – currently up at SFMOMA through the end of November – of him with Alex Hay.

Apparently, he’s also a great father.

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European Tour 2009: What Worked

The tour included business and theater in London (humid, grey), a wedding in Switzerland (formal), a couple of sweltering days in Milan, holiday with family in Venice, a little down time in Zurich, a lot of time in flight, a couple days on trains, and short trips on trams and boats. That’s a lot of different climates and even more transitions from flats to hotels and back and forth between countries.

Across all that, there were a few things that stood out as being incredibly handy to have and made the trip’s insane logistics so much easier to manage.

The Best Bag Ever (especially on the road): Marghera Convertible

I, like most of you, have spent an undisclosed portion of my adult life seeking the perfect bag. Luckily for both of us, I’ve found it. Aside from its excellent green-ness which works for day and night, the features I love the most are its ability to switch from a handled bag to a shoulder bag (it folds over) and to contain my laptop without betraying its presence.

To be fair, that laptop is a Mac Air (which, incidentally, I love like my unconceived children), so its weight doesn’t put a strain on the bag’s leather shoulder strap and its unusually slim form allows it to slide horizontally into a bag like this that wouldn’t accommodate either its Apple bretheren or any other standard size laptops. Don’t look at this as a draback though: this is your opportunity to justify both a new computer and a new bag.

When not housing your ‘puter, the capacity is generous enough to hold small purchases in addition to the usual wallet, iPhone, keys and assorted cousins. Two flat outside pockets are exactly the size of your airline ticket and one small one inside will hold your passport.

Where to get it: Sundance Catalog. Currently on sale for $250.

iPhone

R talked me into an iPhone the day before we left the country, mainly so I could make international calls and send text messages in Europe without buying a just-for-international phone with a different phone number everybody then has to remember. I was ambivalent. Did I really want to get worked up about something so many people are already worked up about? Wouldn’t it be more fair to the coolness marketplace to get worked up about something more obscure? And wouldn’t I look cooler if I did that second one instead?

Also, I liked my little Blackberry Pearl and the consistency of Verizon. Why move to something bigger with AT&T’s terrible coverage?

Because it’s pocket-sized awesomeness, that’s why.

Really, though, the main thing was having a phone and text messaging which meant we could split up for the afternoon and still coordinate keys, dinner, and so on. I don’t know what we’d have done without it.

Where to get it: Apple.

iPhone App: Hi Converter

It converts things. Correction: it converts EVERYTHING. Do you want to know how many hectares are in a bunder? How many ngarns are in a square angstrom? Did you know there was such a thing as a square light year? The area converter can help. When you’re done there, the distance converter will turn your miles into gnat’s eyes (.00000007761). You can do electric current and digital image resolution conversions in your spare time.

Aside from its clear entertainment value, it will also convert your euros into dollars based on today’s exchange rate, your size at Bloomingdale’s into your size at Harrod’s, and 40 Celsius into a more comprehensibly crispy 104 Fahrenheit.

Where to get it: App Store.

iPhone App: Collins Italian-English Dictionary

Since I speak German and a chunk of Spanish and can get by in French, I’ve been arrogantly cruising around Europe for quite a while without having to feel like a complete tourist. Those days came to a jarring end at the Italian border. Enter the iPhone (again).

Of all the dictionaries I tried, the $25 Collins was the best. It covers a lot of ground: direct translations, peripheral usage, colloquialisms and common (or, in the best cases, not at all common) phrases.

$25 is a lot for an app and I know no one wants to pay more than 99 cents, but the frustration of looking up a word and finding no results repeatedly on other apps gets old fast. You spent $1200 to get to Italy, you can spare another $25 to pull up with, “L’ho gettato nel water,” to explain the whereabouts of your passport/hairbrush/traveler’s checks. (Translates to, “I threw it in the toilet,” by the way.)

Where to get it: App Store

Hideo Wakamatsu 20″ Viewer Trolley

The day after we got back from Barcelona in June, I biked over to the Hideo Wakamatsu store to check out superlight international carry-on sized luggage. I biked home with a silver 6.5 lb., 20″ Viewer Trolley hanging from my handlebars.

Why the post-trip rush? Because you have to seize the moment when your shoulder still hurts from schlepping a non-rolling bag and your ego still smarts from looking like a hands-full-of-stuff schmuck, and solve your problem.

My problem is that we have a bunch of stuff – some of it heavy – that I won’t check. R’s 35mm camera, my jewelry, things I’ll want on the plane (sweater, megaphone, another sweater, snacks) and essential clothing (an extra T-shirt and undies, plus whatever we would die without if they lost our luggage, like a swimsuit if we’re going to be beach or my dress for the wedding we’re attending). That pile of stuff always ends up being more than I want to carry in a shoulder bag, but I don’t want to drag around an actual suitcase with all the rest of my non-essential stuff too. (Besides, most American 22″ roll-on suitcases are too heavy, once packed, to meet international flight restrictions.) What to do? Until last month, I chose “suffer” rather than add another suitcase to the mix.

That was the wrong choice. The Viewer kicks ass. It’s super light for getting in and out of bins, and its four wheels allow you to roll it next to you with your computer bag on top. It’s like walking a very quiet, rectangular pet. Your hands are free, your shoulder is relaxed, and you look like the seasoned traveler you actually are.

Quick warning: the lovely matte finish on the bag will mark, so brace yourself for that before you check it (if you ever decide you need to, that is). I haven’t checked it yet myself, so I’ve no idea how well it holds up to airline abuse, but it’s done beautifully inside planes, trams, and trains.

Where to get it: Currently out of stock at the eponymous shop but available – albeit inaccurately described as having two wheels and not four – at Flight 001.

Business Class

Traveling in business class (or above) is the way to go. I know there is no one (except possibly this jerk) who is in favor of the turn that air travel has taken in the last ten years. These days, the coach cabin on a long-haul flight looks more and more like the back of a Central American chicken truck. Between the the addition of bad things (longer lines and delays, ineffective security, fees for everything) and the elimination of good things (space, food, customer service), there’s pretty much nothing positive to say about flying except that you will get where you’re going not dead (mostly).

R travels for work, which rots but has a significant up side: he accumulates crazy numbers of miles and little stacks of upgrade certificates. We use the former to get me where he’s already going and the latter to get us there, occasionally, in business class. I don’t need warmed nuts and real china, but the quiet and the space bring the airborne experience back from the brink of catatonia into the land of, “I might not maim someone first thing when I get off the plane.”

Where to get it: Get a job where you a.) travel a lot (our way), b.) make a lot of money or c.) can commit a lot of untraceable financial fraud.

Questions About Tourists

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  1. Have they no shame?
  2. True or false: Having a picture of yourself in a place is more essential than actually having seen that place.
  3. What exactly does a pictogram of a camera with a red line through it mean in Japanese?

Venice: Brace Yourselves

Venice is next.

I know: it’s absurd. We just got back from Spain. Don’t say it. The planning seems lacking, if not downright ridiculous, but it was unavoidable. Trust me: I tried to avoid it, but there it is.

London for three days (business for R, theater for me), then Zurich for four days (wedding), then Venice for ten days.

July – well, summer in its entirety – is not the time to go to Venice, but we’re doing it anyway, because that’s how our particular cookie crumbled. Given the summer heat (which I hate) and the summer crowds (which I hate), I’m going to need a plan to make this work. Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

    1. Buy my own gondola. Live in it for ten days. Refuse to come out.Pros:I will not have to pay to get anywhere, thus avoiding the $176/hour fares for private gondola rides. (For $176/hour, that gondola better be made of gold and taste like frosting.) If I want company, I can charge other people for giving them a ride.Cons:
      • I do not know how to, er, gondol.
      • I get seasick.
      • Gondolas cost $35,000.
      • Gondola insurance might be required to transport strangers.

      Con mitigation: air bags, shock absorbers, gondoling classes, win the lottery.

  • Go out only between the hours of 1AM and 7AM.

Pros: No crowds. No heat.
Cons: No light. General suspicion that I am a vampire.
Con mitigation: Flashlights. Avoid drinking blood. No capes.

  • Navigate based on crowd density: if there are more than ten people already in a street, take a different street.

Pros: I will not get claustrophobic.
Cons: I will spend most of my day standing in the middle of an intersection.
Con mitigation: Step 1: Get very famous. Step 2: Hire assistant to clear streets ahead of me.

  • Invent the human hamster ball I’ve been meaning to get around to inventing.

Pros: Air-conditioned comfort. Personal space. Floating transport.
Con: Generator required for air conditioner + intercom system for communicating presence of oncoming hamster ball to crowds may weigh too much to allow for floating in canals.
Con mitigation:Also invent floating generator. Take megaphone.