Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Time Bandit


Before I even saw her birth date, I had this very strong feeling that Hally McGehean HAD to be a Sagittarius like myself.  Her work is just way too diverse and consistently clever.  I was right: December 18th.  She also makes films, but was displaying work at the show under the company name Belles Lettres.

My impression of her work is that it mostly deals with the concept of Desire: materialistic desire, desire for status, desire for beauty, desire in the form of hunger, and of course, lust.  In each manifestation, the pieces confound their ability to satisfy the desire they create, in most cases by being no more than a superficial representation of what's being sought.  In this way, in her work as a whole, she's making a very profound statement about the consumerist machine, an endless downward spiral of supply and manufactured demand with an empty promise of personal satisfaction that it almost but never quite completely delivers.  It's at the very core of our consumerist way of life, because it's the aspect of it that's evolved in the interests of its own self-preservation.  In other words, if a consumer were ever allowed the possibility to think "okay, I've got every appliance and houseware and linen and garment and gadget I could ever possibly need, they'll last forever and they're doing just what they were advertised to do," the whole capitalist system would completely collapse.

So beauty first or perhaps the lure of traditional, dressy formality, here's a corsage/ boutonnière:

It's a photograph of a rose, laminated in plastic, to wear on your lapel.  It won't ever wilt, which is a good thing, and you won't have to keep it in the refrigerator.  But what's also interesting here is that it has no fragrance, since the wearing of a fragrant flower at this location on the body has its roots in a time when bathing wasn't as common.  But even if the wearer doesn't have B.O., it's still nice to lean in and smell.  What I think would be really interesting here is if she were to give this piece an aroma, but not that of a rose.  Not something specifically unpleasant, either, but something not particularly pleasant or interesting either, like the scent of grass (not marijuana, you druggies, just ordinary lawn grass).  I happen to love the scent of grass, but the idea being something common and ordinary instead of the sweet fragrance of the flower one might be hoping to smell.

Sort of combining more specifically fragrance with questions of Status this time are her "Grazie Miuccia" nesting dolls:
Miuccia, of course, being the designer's first name, for anyone who doesn't keep up with that stuff: they're all Prada.  The thing I love about the nesting dolls here is that the very thing that makes them delightful is the same thing that makes them useless.  They take the form of a container in which one could store things, but the only thing they're really intended to contain is themselves.  It's about the single most self-absorbed, self-centered group of objects one could imagine.  While I'll fault no one ever for wanting to smell nice, the purchasing of perfume--a product intended to be consumed for no real practical purpose (though some of the bottles have been shown to have lasting monetary value)--could be viewed very similarly. At the same time, the potentially infinitely repeating series of identical but larger figures is timelessly haunting.  They also connote hierarchies in a single family and other concepts that one could attach to class divisions based on economic levels and so on, like the fragrances of varying size--and therefore price--the images of which she's applied to the outside of them.

For Hunger, a bacon bracelet:
Speaking of smells, oh boy, do I ever love the smell of bacon in the morning!  I just think this is a hilarious idea for a bracelet, anyway.  What's also interesting is that real strips of bacon are practically two dimensional already, and if it weren't so gross, you could conceivably wrap one around your wrist and wear it.  But in light of some of McGehean's other pieces, I'm tempted to consider our culture's obsession with weight.  For anyone even slightly concerned with their diet or their weight, these fat-loaded strips of mostly nutrition-free yumminess would be about the very first thing to go, second only perhaps to those big rich, gooey flourless mmmmchocolate cakesmmmmmmmmm...sorry, got carried away there...after dinner.  The other thing is, you're wearing the perfect symbol for unchecked weight-gain on your body, but on your wrist, possibly the last place on anyone's body that would attract fat cells, instead of your hips or gut or butt or wherever.

Then we get into the true status symbols, the jewelry:

I'm immediately reminded of some of the jewelry pieces by Mike & Maaike.  But while they do speak of questions of value, M&M's pieces are printed on scored leather.  So they're not the quadrillions of dollars of the originals, but they aren't all that ridiculously cheap, either.  M&M deal with other issues: originality and reproductivity, technology, ownership, and fame.  McGehean's pieces, on the other hand, deal with economic barriers and perceptions of beauty, status and consumerism.  The images she's chosen aren't of one-of-a-kind, famous or infamous pieces, necessarily.  Tiffany, Cartier, whoever, probably make them by the hundreds.  It's only the ridiculous cost of them that prevents most people from being able to own them.  Her, as she calls them, "fake" versions, in great contrast, are priced to be ridiculously affordable: the earrings $10, the bracelet $20.  Coming full-circle with delicious irony, despite being so reasonably priced, most of her "fakes" are one-of-a-kind.

And the watches, they're all ridiculous, like $50,000 watches:

Pictures of them, laminated in plastic: watch bracelets.  AWESOME.  She reminded me that they're correct twice a day.  She said I think it was her brother who's really into high-end watches and gets all these super thick, glossy watch magazines that cost $40 and come out quarterly.  When he's done with them, he gives them to her, and she uses the images for these.  I couldn't resist them, and they're also terribly inexpensive, I got this one for $15:
This one, in part, because she said it was the only vintage watch image left, likely from an old Playboy magazine--she ransacks a lot of those.  I love it.  Now it appears they're on sale for $10, so even luckier for you.  Anyway, same sort of thing as the jewelry here, but I said to her what I'd discovered long ago about watches: even the cheapest watches, without any diamonds or gold-plating--that is, moderately nice ones that aren't Swatches or whatever--are hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  I don't know.  I was surprised by that, considering that I know people who think spending more than $50 on a shirt or pair of pants is clinically insane.

Interesting factoid about high-end watches, though, like Rolexes, for instance: they're said to be an extremely good investment, because they hold their value very solidly not only through time, but also geographically.  That is to say, if you found yourself in a financial emergency just about anywhere in the world and had a Rolex on you, you could get a very fair price for it.

Here's another fun fact: I'm not sure if all computers now are set up to do this, I'm on a Mac because I'm artsy.  But go to the website for the Greenwich Atomic Clock, which is like the most accurate clock on the planet or something and the standard on which world time is based.  Then set your computer's clock to show seconds.  I was very impressed to discover that my computer was matching the time down to the exact second shown by Greenwich.

McGehean has also made a dress of 196 watches called "All the Time in the World":
That's Hally McGehean herself, by the way, modeling it.
It's a rather pricey dress, but it took her a very long time to create it.  She pointed out that detail at the bottom, with all the smallest watches.  Even so, it's 196 of them, so obviously it took quite a bit of patience.  Come to think of it, I can't imagine a more wonderfully perfect thing to wear to a fabulous New Year's Eve party than a dress made out of expensive watches.  Seriously, can you?  Unfortunately, I'd be shaving and waxing from now until next New Year's before I'd be ready:
OW!  Get that wax away from me!

This is really shockingly incredible, the "Dirty Dirty Dress":
It's a slinky, sexy mini-dress that shows off all the very best, most tantalizing parts of the woman wearing it, but it's made out of pornographic images of men, some of them quite explicit indeed.  Please be warned, the detail shot is not suitable for younger viewers.  This is absolutely brilliant, and for that gutsy, horribly hip celebutante, showing up at the latest MoMA or Barbara Gladstone opening night party, this would be an absolute sensation, hands down.  

The fact that the dress itself is so provocative is twisting the gender of the Gaze back and forth in the most confusing and argumentative ways.  Who is being objectified here?  Who is the dress sexualizing and who is it empowering?  The stereotypical sleazy guy presumably wants to objectify the wearer, but is confronted by the objectification of himself, his own maleness, simply by looking.  It's questioning and contemplative of profoundly interesting issues, but then, at the same time, it's just fun.  It's sexy and screams freedom.  I told McGehean that very few people could get away with something like this, and I think that's true.  For anyone with the ovaries to buy and sport a dress with this much behind it with your head high and your feminine powers proud, I whole-heartedly salute you with a tall glass of champagne.

Cheers to a great New Year!

©2008, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Vain in the Neck

Last week I found out about the first ever Brooklyn Lyceum Craft Show from a friend who had a booth there.  It was a bit less earthy/crunchy than I was expecting, but there was an unusual amount of kids, baby clothes, baby hats, baby t-shirts, baby, baby, kids, baby, baby items that I wasn't expecting.  Aside from all of that, there were some pretty cool things to be found.  In no particular order, here are some of my favorites.

Many of the sellers seem to be represented by The (New New) York Etsy Street Team, and I'll start with a few of those.  The first of them is a Brooklyn husband-and-wife team making jewelry under the name Caja Jewelry.  All their pieces are totally cut by hand.  Some of them are a little edgy, like this high-heeled leg:

They also do custom name pendants that would make beautiful gifts.  Even better, they have a very cleverly literal "vanity" pendant in the same style:

But most interesting to me are their interpretations of themes from nature:

This one was my favorite:

It's only a little over an inch wide, so the detail is extremely fine and precise for hand-crafted work.  I thought it was extremely classy and interesting.  I might have gotten one, but I was supposed to be shopping for presents for other people.  Almost all of them appear to be offered in either gold or Sterling.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Monday, December 22, 2008

Park It

There are a couple of greenings in the works at the moment that I'm particularly happy to hear about.  The first one is a competition for designs to create a Hudson Park between Thirty-Third and Forty-Second Streets on the west side.  Anyone who doesn't feel the need to take a cab the three blocks over to the Javits Center knows that that walk is probably one of the least pleasant of any in Manhattan.  Long stretches of high blank walls, warehouses, auto body shops, dangerous intersections with tunnel traffic speeding every which way (and you never quite know from which direction the next vehicle is coming), sidewalks strewn with garbage and broken glass.  It's a real mess.  

So aside from the fact that a park is almost always a good thing, many of the plans seem to address the pedestrian nightmare that is that section of the city.  To have a nice, pleasant corridor over to the west side would be more than welcome.  I think my favorites are this one by Work Architecture Company:

--Images courtesy Architectural Record.
It would have rolling hills with spaces underneath them for cafes and so on.  Very smart to include various different uses to make for a vibrant, living park.  Work also did that garden installation in the courtyard of P.S. 1 CAC.  Their park would harness solar power and clean the water, have a working farm and apple orchards, but it's also really cool because it would extend to the roofs of the surrounding buildings, not just ground level.

And this one by Hargreaves Associates/ TEN Arquitectos, because I love the grass loop-de-loop:

Very suave.  There's also an entry from Allied Works Architecture, who should be banned from ever doing anything in New York again after what they did to Columbus Circle, and their entry was not unexpectedly bland and uninspired anyway.  Let's not discuss them.

The other thing to be pleased about is that a section of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is getting a major cleaning up by Rogers Marvel Architects:

--Images courtesy Curbed.
The first apartment I had in New York City was a ginormous--and terribly ugly--three-bedroom for $1000 a month in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Let me tell you, Red Hook was no picnic back then.  I haven't really explored much, recently, but all signs seem to indicate the neighborhood has come a very long way since then.

I used to cross over the Gowanus Canal to get to the huge supermarket.  It was fairly obviously more industrial waste than actual H₂O in there.  The "liquid" looked putrid and didn't particularly smell much better.  I always considered it such a completely tragically unexploited resource.  I imagined the canal with green park on either side, boat docks, crystal clear water, little cafes and restaurants on a boardwalk type of path overlooking the canal.  It had the potential to give the entire surrounding area an incredible boost and make it a truly delightful place to live and hang out.  Basically, just exactly what you can see they're planning to do.  It was about time, really.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bridge Over Troubled Water

I don't get a terrible amount of sunlight in my apartment. It's not bad in the summer, but these days it's mostly just ambient, nothing direct. But one of the things I really love about my place is I have a fantastic view of my favorite bridge in New York, the Hell Gate Bridge:
--All images ©2008, Ryan Witte, except where otherwise noted. As always, if you're interested in using any of them, please feel free to contact me. I'm not unreasonable. Click them to see higher-res.
Nice, huh? So you see the workers working on that apartment building or whatever it is up the street. Some idiot developer is putting up this atrocious pile of barf:
I have no idea who the architect is, but he or she must have been a high school dropout. I've said before that I think to some degree aesthetics are innate. At the very least, almost all human beings have a sense of what other human beings are attractive or not. I think it can all extend from there, but many people who aren't indoctrinated into artistic modes of thinking lose the ability to see beyond a limited scope. As far as anyone who actually went to architecture school and I assume had an art history class here or there along the way, I just don't get it. I just don't understand how there can be so very much butt ugly architecture out there.

Anyway, I guess it has a roof deck, but there's also this chimney or ventilation shaft thing on the roof. Guess where it's located as seen from the other room. Yep. Perfectly situated to block only my view of the bridge and nothing else:
Isn't that awesome? No, seriously, they couldn't have done a better job of blocking my view if they'd been specifically trying to do it. You should have heard me muttering to myself, "you had BEST not be putting another layer of bricks on there..." But they did. And did again. And again. And by the way, what is up with those ugly little windows and those bannisters at the top? They have absolutely no relationship to one another at all. Didn't this moron even do any elevation renderings? Baffling.

So I decided to go up and see the bridge in person once and for all. I'd been watching the weather forecasts and knew what was coming, so I'm glad I went when I did. Here's what I see out my window right now:
YAY for snowstorms, though!

The bridge rises up over Astoria Park at the northern edge of Queens. I'd been to Astoria Park before but was doing something else and never really explored. It's a rail bridge that serves Amtrak trains. It was really cool to see the silvery trains going by overhead, but they were fast and few, so I never got lucky with my camera. It connects Queens to Ward's Island, then turns north and connects the island with Port Morris in the Bronx. It's really extraordinarily beautiful, click this:

It was designed by architect Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961) and engineer Gustav Lindenthal (1850-1935), completed in 1914, and is said to be their masterpiece. Hornbostel operated an office out of Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other city in the world besides Venice. Building bridges was not only a way for the steel industry to showcase the magic of their product, but they would also test out engineering principles at a small scale on Pittsburgh roads crossing this creek or that before applying them to larger structures elsewhere. Hornbostel designed the campus for Carnegie-Mellon University there. One of Pittsburgh's many bridges, the Smithfield Street Bridge, was designed by Lindenthal in 1883.

Lindenthal was appointed New York City Bridge Commissioner by Mayor Seth Low in 1902, in response to public outcry over early proposals for the Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges by R. S. Buck that would have been a blight on river views. He would be in charge of submitting future bridge designs to the Municipal Art Commission for their approval. In 1903, Hornbostel & Lindenthal had taken over from Buck the design of the Manhattan Bridge, the next bridge north of the Brooklyn Bridge. But the newly appointed Mayor McClelland fired them a year later and Carrere & Hastings and Leon Morsieff replaced them. They were also responsible for the Queensboro Bridge in 1909, another gorgeous piece of civil engineering and the first New York bridge to break from the use of cable suspension.

Hell Gate Bridge was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad and has been called the New York Connecting Railway Bridge and also the East River Arch Bridge. It was the first land connection between New England and Long Island and was the longest and heaviest steel bridge in the world, 1017 feet long and using 80,000 tons of steel. If the human race disappeared, it would be the last bridge standing in New York; according to Discover magazine, it would take around 1000 years to fall, 700 years more than all the rest. Lionel even made a miniature replica of it.

The name "Hell Gate" comes from the Dutch "hellegat," once applied to the full length of the East River. I've always found it very interesting that the East River is not actually a river at all, but a tidal strait: the current flows back and forth. At peak tide, the water flows remarkably fast, and until 1876, the river bed had numerous dangerous rock outcroppings. It was constantly sinking ships. In 1780, the HMS Hussar and its $5 million of British Army payroll sank because of the treachery of Hell Gate. Evidently the treasure is still down there somewhere near the Bronx. Scuba, anyone?

In fact, while not definitely a victim of dangerous waters, the burning and sinking of the General Slocum steamboat in 1904 was the disaster with the most casualties to hit New York City until September 11th.
--Photo courtesy the National Archives.
Around 1021 people lost their lives. There's a fountain in Tomkins Square Park in memory of them. I wasn't sure if this would be legible, but it turns out it is, if you're interested, the plaque in Astoria Park:

So in 1876, the Army Corps of Engineers went through with dynamite and blasted away many of the rock formations to allow for safer boat passage. A single blast at Hell Gate was the largest man-made blast in history prior to the Atomic Age. The river was also known as the Sound River, being connected to the Long Island Sound, and was later named the East River. But this narrow passage, dividing the lower section initially formed by glacial flow from the upper section formed by resulting tidal flows, has kept the name Hell Gate.

Wikipedia keeps saying the bridge was completed in 1916, but I always need to trust Robert A. M. Stern over all others, especially a source as flimsy as Wikipedia. Stern's New York 1900--Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890-1915 claims the year was 1914. Furthermore, it was evidently--and somewhat obviously--the inspiration for the Sydney Harbor Bridge by John Bradfield, which was designed in 1916 (completed 1932), requiring at least a little time in between:
--Photo by Greg O'Beirne.

In any case, there's still something very odd about the closest train station, Astoria-Ditmars, said to have been completed in 1917. It's that it goes under an arch in the Hell Gate Bridge viaduct:
It's odd that 31st Street would just coincidentally happen to have an arch in the viaduct tall enough that an elevated train of relatively normal height could just slip right under it. Although very likely, whatever the exact years of completion, both were being planned very much around the same time.

But on the other hand, one has to wonder why they even bothered, since Astoria-Ditmars is the last stop on the N & W line. There was no need to allow for the possibility the line would continue any further; the shoreline is less than a mile to the north, and half of that is all industrial wasteland anyway.

It's kind of a shame that for my visit, the arch was all coated in scaffolding, but it makes for interesting texture.

Truly the viaducts are beautiful in their own right.

And I love the way it soars out over the borough of Queens like a wonderful strip of embroidery.

I'm almost tempted to wonder whether, if Robert Moses' highways and expressways had been built this beautifully, they'd have completely destroyed as many old neighborhoods in the Bronx as they did. Here's where the viaduct meets another trestle further east into Queens:

The eastern approach to the bridge:

It looks almost ancient.

At last, the beautiful Hell Gate Bridge. Here's a drawing from 1907:
The wondrousness of pure engineering was what was being celebrated, however, and much of this was rejected by the Municipal Arts Commission as being useless frivolity. What they ended up with was far more pragmatic. The eastern anchorage:

The western anchorage and Ward's Island viaduct:

Eventually I'd like to go explore Ward's Island. I did drive around it once, but I don't think I got down to the southern tip of it. That wasn't going to happen on this trip, though. Just for fun, let's look at what it would take me to get from the foot of the eastern anchorage to the foot of the western anchorage, shall we?
--Hike up to the eastern corner of Astoria Park and nine blocks to the Astoria-Ditmars subway station.
--Seven stops on the N or W to Lexington Avenue and transfer for the 6.
--Five stops on the 6 to 103rd Street.
--Six block walk over to FDR Drive and into the housing project.
--Meander up, around, and over the FDR Drive overpass and cross over the Ward's Island Pedestrian Bridge, which I'm not even entirely sure is open to the public, although it is a drawbridge, which is pretty cool.
--Hike over half a mile across Ward's Island Park.

Yeah. Really not going to happen. Maybe in summertime it'd be a nice day trip.

The trestle:

Also in the park, by the way, is the largest pool in New York City, built by Robert Moses for the 1936 Summer Olympics:

You can see my latest compositional fascination with riding the frame in narrow slivers. Don't ask me.

Above it are these terraces, no doubt for Olympics spectators, now presumably used by sunbathers, with these deliciously 1930s bannisters:

Hell Gate Bridge
Hornbostel & Lindenthal, 1914

©2008, Ryan Witte