The Holidays from the Opposite Ends of North America

From Toronto in the northeast of Canada to Hawaii, in the Pacific, this year my family celebrated the holidays on the opposite ends of the North America enjoying both extremes of weather too. Here are some of our pictures.

Snowfall in the suburbs of Toronto
Festive scaffolding in downtown Toronto

Western shore of Kauai at Sunset
(*Pictures of Kauai were taken by Peter R. Fischer)
Coastline of Kauai

Happy New Year!!


Pictures from around the Neighborhood

This weekend, I spent Sunday morning strolling around Abbot Kinney in Venice, California. Here are a few things that caught my eye...


How Religion Evolves into Ideology & Some Musical Harmony

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his work on culture and Islam in Sefrou, Morocco. Various scholars from around the world came to speak and expand on his research. While many of the presentations required a more in depth and intimate understanding of Geertz's work (which I do not have), there was one talk that peaked my interest. Hassan Rachik from Hassan II University in Casablanca, gave a talk on how religion turns into ideology. It is something I have pondered fleetingly when I am reading the newspaper and there is another story about a questionable political act done in the name of religion. Rachik attempted to explain this transition using Morocco as the basis for his thesis.

According to Rachik, in Morocco, the creation of ideology has very little to do with theology and much more to do with sociology and politics. Ideology is used to change society. More often they are a set of ideas that are used to support a political process. In the past, Islam was a religion loosely embedded in the political process. However, when it is transformed into an ideology, it becomes a belief system that is deeply embedded in the political process. In Morocco, a loss of orientation in the past led to the creation of an ideology. This was especially the case in the time of colonialism, when old road maps, according to Rachik were no longer valid; or more recently, with globalization.

For a religion however, to evolve into an ideology requires a more secular, plural society that allows for a breakage from past beliefs. For an ideology to gain traction, old norms, social, local and tribal standards lose importance. Rachik states, that according to Clifford Geertz, for those who lose their traditional society, ideology helps them make sense of the change.

Those who manipulate religion into an ideology are often using religion only to serve their own political agenda. Rachik argued that religion is often used for political aims because it is merely convenient and effective in capturing attention in a volatile society. He concluded by stating the danger of reducing religion into an ideology. Especially since religion can be transformed into an ideology and then morphed again into a new alternate religion - as we commonly see now in many parts of the world - where horrific acts are done in the name of religion.

...On a brighter note, later that evening, as part of the same conference, I attended a musical performance of Moroccan musicians. The group of musicians, most of them professors at the Conservatoire of Sefrou, flew in from Morocco for this event, as was explained to us by the mayor of Sefrou. Before the musicians took the stage, the mayor passionately expressed first in broken English and then in Arabic, the importance of cultural collaboration and peaceful co-existence. He emphatically stated that the Jews and Muslims lived for centuries side by side in Morocco. The Orchestra of Sefrou, he stated was a perfect example of this unity, since it was made up of Jewish and Muslim musicians making music in harmonious unison.


As American As...

The month of December has been crazy busy, as I am sure it is for most people. With all the holidays and the approaching end of another year, there always seems to be too little time. Anyway, as I go about my days, there are some random things I notice or find appealing or interesting that I thought I would share...

So the other day, we went to pick up our Christmas tree - a beautiful 6 foot Fraser fir tree. What made this particular
experience special to me was that we bought the tree from Boy Scouts who were raising money for their organization. They were a group of really helpful hardworking kids. I felt like I had just partaken in a slice of pure Americana.


The Art of Zhang Huan: Pushing All Boundaries

While in New York this past November, I visited the Asia Society to take a look at their current exhibitions and was fortunately introduced to the art of Zhang Huan, a contemporary Chinese artist who now makes his home in New York City.

While I can't say that I completely understood all of his art, or the exact message he was hoping to convey in some of his performance pieces, I found his work nevertheless, extremely powerful and thought-provoking. His statements, whether they be political, social or cultural were very potent.

The following text is taken from the website of the Asia Society:
Zhang Huan is one of the leading artists if the Chinese new wave art movement that emerged in China in the 1980s and 1990s and combined avant-garde practices with new internationalism. Zhang Huan (born 1965, Henan Province, China) began his career as a performance artist, using his body to create unique responses to specific environments; he has since moved on to photography, video, sculpture and installation. He wide-ranging career has spanned over 13 years, during which time he has lived in three cities - Beijing, New York and Shanghai.

My Rome

2005, performance, Capitoline Museum, Rome
Zhang Huan

My Rome
2005, performance, Capitoline Museum, Rome
Zhang Huan

The following text is taken from the website of the Asia Society:

In 2006, Zhang Huan established a studio in Shanghai, where he began to seek greater connections with Chinese heritage and history. This marked a new direction in his work, as he turned from performance art to sculpture, painting, and installation. Through creating large-scale sculpture in diverse media, such as ash from local Buddhist temples, and with found objects, such as doors from the Chinese countryside, Zhang Huan has explored new ways to render his interest in the body and its language.

A significant aspect of Zhang Huan’s new work revolves around his interest in Buddhism. Although Buddhist themes had figured indirectly into his early work, they took on a more prominent role after a visit to Tibet in 2005. There, Zhang Huan began to collect fragments of Buddhist sculptures, which he then used as models for massive copper sculptures, some of which are displayed in this exhibition. Upon his return to Shanghai, Zhang Huan began to collect ash from local Buddhist temples for use in sculptures and paintings. The use of burnt incense, the product of religious offerings, strengthens the link between his art and Buddhist practices.

Long Ear Ash Head2007, Ash, Steel and Wood
157 x 133 x 146 inches(400 x 338 x 370 cm)
Zhang Huan

Fresh Open Buddha Hand
2007, copper, 252” L x 56” W x 67” H
Zhang Huan

This sculpture of the hand was created in reaction to a visit Zhang Huan made to Tibet where he observed that the arms and legs of Tibetan sculptures were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

The following text is by Eleanor Heartney, "Zhang Huan: Altered States", published by Charta and Asia Society, 2007:
The paradox of Zhang Huan ’s work is its marriage of violence, self-inflicted pain, and physical transgression with a Buddhist-inspired quest for peace and enlightenment. This is body art of a specifically Asian variety, in which oppositions dissolve, mind and spirit meld, and inside becomes inseparable from outside. Through acts centered on his own sensate and often suffering body, Zhang Huan hopes to bridge the gap, not just between mind and spirit or nature and culture, but also between individuals and societies. He remarks, “I often get the impression that people do not understand who they are nor do they know what leads them to act as they do. But in the end we are all equal. We all love life and fear death.”


Bouncing Around the Northeast Part III - New York City

The last leg of my trip was spent in New York. On my first day back in New York City, I took F-train back to Brooklyn, like I had done so many times in years past, and visited my old neighborhood of Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens. I lived in this neighborhood for close to seven years; which is perhaps longer than I have lived anywhere. Undoubtedly, it has changed some over the past year and a half...but it will always have a very special place in my heart.

In December, in preparation for the winter holidays and Christmas, New York City comes even more animated and alive with color. The streets are packed with people. Department store windows offer elaborate theatrical festive displays to entice even more shoppers. Bare trees are suddenly brightly lit and multicolored. Huge candy-canes hang off high rise buildings. And different sizes of Santa Claus', wreaths and ornaments are just around every corner. Even the most serious and stern adult becomes giddy with childlike anticipation.

This year for the first time, I also witnessed the lighting of the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. (This apparently is a tradition that started in the early 1930's, when Rockefeller Center was under construction). Luckily for me, I was able to do so from the festivities and warmth of the 24th floor of a building in the Center - high above the crowds and away from the cold. This year, the 84 foot Norwegian spruce is lit with energy-efficient lights. In January, at the end of the holidays when the tree is taken down, the wood from the Norwegian spruce will be used by Habitat for Humanity to build homes.

(The picture with the 'blue' ice-skating rink is with the tree unlit. The picture with the 'red' skating rink was taken just as the tree was lit on November 28th, 8:50PM).

Bouncing Around the Northeast Part II: Connecticut

These pictures were taken in the Historic District of Mill Cove along Long Island Sound in Westport, Connecticut. It was a chilly but sunny winter's day. The sky was unbelievably blue and you could see miles into the distance. There was not a drop of rain but rainbows dotted the sky. I took it as a sign of good fortune....


Bouncing around the Northeast - Part One: Toronto

I haven't been as diligent about keeping up my blog the past few weeks as I have been doing some travelling around the northeast region of North America - specifically to Toronto, Connecticut and New York City. Luckily for me, it was just before the cold really settled in and the snow arrived. I took some pictures along the way and like always I have some opinions about what I saw.

There has been much hoopla in Toronto regarding Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), otherwise known as the "Michael Lee-Chin Crystal." In my opinion, this is due in large part to the fact that Toronto is in dire need of well designed, thoughtful architecture (and good urban planning). Just drive around the waterfront or suburbs and take a look at the barrage of condos and commercial buildings under construction and you will know exactly what I mean. Earlier this summer, this $135 million ROM addition opened up finally to the public. So while I was in Toronto, I thought I would take a trip downtown and take a look for myself.

At first glance, the 'Crystal' seems intriguing and it does add some vitality and excitement to the stodgy, dark appearance of the ROM and the street. Unfortunately, that for me is where the value of this building ends. Inside the building, the angular spaces and oddly shaped slits of window are suffocating; that coupled with the angled walls, I felt like I was wandering through a structure that was in the process of collapsing. While this building maybe an interesting experiment in the correlation between different types of spaces and the emotions they evoke; for a museum, these interior spaces do not promote the viewing and appreciation the art. Instead I was eager to exit the building. The slanting walls, I would imagine, must also be a logistical nightmare to hang and exhibit art. Well designed museums should be rich with spaces that are uplifting and open and allow the art displayed to be the primary focus. However, in Libeskind's Crystal, the shape of the building and oddly formed spaces dominate. And as the ROM is continues to struggle to pay the steep bill for this design, the building has started to leak and the cost of cleaning the windows is sky-rocketing.

I guess, Torontonians in search of thoughtful and responsive architecture will just have to wait for Frank Gehry's addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) to be complete. But then, his buildings are also often flashy on the outside, weak on the inside and they leak too - just ask MIT.


Attack of the Giant Street Scultpure

From the land that brought us Godzilla...

Aaahh...a rose lamp-post....

Just another day in Tokyo.


The Winds of Change in Dubai - Not Quite Strong Enough Just Yet

For the past ten years now, I have been an avid observer of the development and changes in Dubai. Their growth has been staggering - its urban environment transforming at hyper speed. Having visited and written about Dubai on several occasions - I am mesmerized by this city and I continue to study it, analyze it, with equal parts of awe, amusement, incredulity and dismay.

Looking towards the construction on Palm Island from the exclusive Jumeirah beaches

The leaders of Dubai are on a mission to build a mythical tourist haven and an indispensable global financial and media center with the intention that these new industries and businesses will ensure Dubai's success and longevity long after the last drop of oil has been pumped out of the Gulf. And despite all the skeptics, they seem to be accomplishing their goal. Tourists are flocking to this desert city. They come for the shopping and the variety of environments they can experience. The financial and entertainment sectors are also flourishing. Multi-national corporations, media outlets all have a presence in Dubai. Their burgeoning art scene is also gaining prominence with respected auction houses setting up offices in Dubai.

And while I have often criticized the endless stream of skyscrapers and islands that are all under construction simultaneously in Dubai - these environmentally suspect projects continue to garner global media attention for Dubai. The Burj al Arab, the Burj Dubai and the Palm and World Islands are continuously being featured in newspapers and magazines around the world. Dubai is so successful with their current strategy that not only is their economy booming, they are also influencing and transforming the economies of surrounding Middle Eastern, North African and Asian countries - all eager to get a piece of that sumptuous pie.

There is however, one big pesky problem that just doesn't seem to disappear and continues to gnaw away at their image of this lush welcoming desert paradise - their questionable legal system that only seems to cater and serve the 15% local Emirati population, ignoring the 85% expatriate and migrant population that actually facilitate the smooth operation of the economy.

Over the past couple weeks I have come across several news items highlighting this problem - which will only continue to escalate with their expanding population and growing importance on the world's stage. Early in November, a bridge under construction in the Dubai Marina collapsed and killed 7 workers and injuring 15. This was not the first deadly accident on a construction site in Dubai. Independent organizations actually consider Dubai to be one of the most dangerous cities to work construction, with hundreds of deaths attributed to poor working conditions. Unfortunately, since there is an over-abundance of workers and no labor laws or unions, nothing changes. Any protests of unjust and inhumane treatment by the workers have resulted in instant deportation. In March of 2007, workers went on strike, blocking traffic, demanding better working conditions. They were all deported. On October 28th, 2007, thousands of workers persisted and went on strike again for two days demanding first to be paid and secondly higher pay. The 4000 workers who went on strike this past October will most likely be deported - UAE ministers have implied no less. However, in an attempt to keep workers in check, the government has agreed to minor changes. Instead of being paid cash by their employers, these workers will now be paid through a government run electronic system.

Then there is the rape of the 15 year old French-Swiss boy by 3 Emirati men that has made headlines globally. The boy's 3 hour testimony was initially disregarded by police. The police doctor claimed there were no signs of rape and instead threatened the boy with imprisonment. The Dubai police also concealed the fact that one of the Emirati men had AIDS. It was not until the attorney from the French consulate intervened that the police finally took note and arrested the three men. Veronique Robert, the mother of the boy has charged that the "whole political system" in Dubai tried to dissuade her from seeking justice. She has instead started a campaign to 'boycott Dubai.' In April of this year, Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum acknowledged that their justice department was 20 years behind other government departments and called for the "highest standards of transparency and accountability."

Unlike the hyper-speed of construction and urban development in Dubai, legal changes are slow to advance. Meanwhile these incidents continue and global attention becomes more focused. And since Dubai's economy is utterly dependent on migrants, expatriates and tourists, the city-state cannot afford to continue to let these concerns slide. The momentum for change is building little by little. Dubai cannot continue to market itself as a luxurious, carefree destination where the sky is the limit while continuing to ignore that the human toll for this paradise is just too high.


Photographs So Vivid It Aches: The Work of Luc Delahaye

I love it when you go somewhere, expecting to see one thing and find something else simply incredible. That is what happened to me last week. Fascinated by all aspects of cultural exchange, I went to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to check out an exhibition titled "China on Paper." This exhibition demonstrated through various documents, prints and drawings the exchange between China and Europe starting in the late sixteenth century. There were interesting images of European villas and pavilions designed with a Chinese twist for the emperor of China. This collection of work demonstrated for me very well how long ago globalization really started.

Since I was already at the Getty, I decided to take in a few of the other exhibitions. Fortunately I wandered into the room housing the work of photojournalist extraordinaire (or now "artist" as he would like to be called) Luc Delahaye. The exhibition was called "Recent History: Photographs by Luc Delahaye." A handful of his photographs were on display covering the wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chechnya and Bosnia. Each of these images spanned the entire of wall on which they hung. Each image capturing a quiet but horrific moment in recent history. They were powerful in their subtlety and profoundly moving. Beauty in despair.

Luc Delahaye born in France in 1962 and became a photojournalist in his early twenties. In the 1990s he was recognized for his coverage of the wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chechnya and Bosnia. A member of the Magnum agency from 1994 to 2004, he worked either independently or was commissioned by Western news magazines such as Newsweek. Since then he has won numerous awards globally for his work.

Unlike the often sensationalized sound byte that we get on the evening news, he attempts to present these raw human stories from a different perspective than that seen in the media. While many of these news worthy events are familiar to most people, Delahaye's focus is on the ordinary or mundane within these events. [If there is such a thing in many of these locations.] Near life size, these images draws the viewer in, leaving the viewer struggling to grasp and fully comprehend the sight before them.

[I apologize that these miniaturized images do not convey at all the impact of the actual pictures.]

132nd Ordinary Meeting of the Conference
September 15, 2004. The 132nd meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Conference at its Vienna Headquarters.
[© Luc Delahaye]

A Mass Grave near Snagovo, Bosnia
November 16, 2006. A team of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) at work at site #SNAO4ZVO

[© Luc Delahaye]

Jenin Refugee Camp
April 14, 2002. The Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank, after the battle between Palestinian militants and the Israeli Army.
[© Luc Delahaye]

The Registration of Internally Displaced People in Eastern Chad
May 27, 2006. Near the Chadian village of Koubigou, close to the Sudanese border; the registration of internally displaced people for the distribution of non-food items.
[© Luc Delahaye

The following are links to interviews with Luc Delahaye.

"A Conversation with Luc Delahaye" by , Pop Photo (June 12, 2007).
"The Big Picture" by Peter Lennon, Guardian (January 31, 2004).