“There’s no place like New York. It’s the most exciting city in the world now. That’s the way it is. That’s it.” - Robert De Niro
Since I was a kid, and even later as an adult (who loves watching art films by directors such as Woody Allen; has a keen interest in early 60s folk music, namely Bob Dylan etc.; not to mention art and art galleries), I have always wanted to go to New York. In fact, probably since Sesame Street, as there seemed to be more of a similarity between the homes and street life of the Sesame Street set and New York then there was of my 50s bungalow neighborhood growing up in Calgary, Canada in the 1970s. I just wasn’t ever sure when or in what capacity I would get to New York. So I have been waiting…
Lo and behold, the opportunity presented itself in real a few weeks ago when my daughter’s father proudly announced that he was having a solo exhibition in Chelsea, New York on May 7th, 2015. It would be his first and I had always told him since we left China in 2011 that if he had an exhibition in North America, that we would come. At first, I was trying to arrange to have my other friends who live in the vicinity or would be there at the same time to go, sort of as a representative of us. However, one night about 2.5 weeks in advance of his opening, I had a very compelling dream about going to New York… waking up the next morning, I headed straight to the computer to book tickets. Ok, so not the best deal, but we bought a package deal (flights and 4.5 star hotels in downtown Manhattan) through a travel agency. I mean, how many kids have a dad who is having a solo art exhibition in New York? Not a lot, me thinks... There was no looking back, we were finally going to New York!
I am not going to give a play by play of our time in New York, but I would like to briefly share with you some of the highlights, as they are remarkable in themselves, North American history and spring up in so much of our art and popular culture, hard to not to mention them. Here goes:
1. 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero - Financial District in Lower Manhattan
When the first plane slammed head long into the South Tower on September 11, 2001, I was living in Beijing, China and it was past midnight Beijing time. My roommates, an Italian girl living in the other room with her Mauritian boyfriend, hurriedly knocked on my door. In my sleepy stupor, I answered the door and followed them down the hall to their TV set, perched at the foot of their double bed. It looked like a joke, and I think I actually asked if it was… clearly not. So began the largest single most change to the global security as we knew it. Up until that moment, I was working as a photographer for ChineseArt.com, an online platform for exhibiting, archiving and selling Chinese contemporary arts, mostly traditional Chinese works and photography. I went in to work the next day, Wednesday September 12th and assumed (wrongly) business as usual. However, I could tell something was up as our boss, Robert Bernell, was stressed to the max, rapidly talking to several people on his cell phone. Something was up and not long after I arrived, he herded us into a room and announced that this site was going to face drastic cut backs - as the sole funding agents had been wiped out in the attack on the World Trade Center. Within 36 hours of the attack on the South and North Towers, I also found myself out of work - despite being a world away in Beijing. I didn’t really think of what this meant or was like in reality for those actually working in the World Trade Center or living in Manhattan. I was focused on my reality, which was staying in China and finding more work.
When the plan to go to New York was cemented, I was intent on visiting the 9/11 Memorial, as it had been presented to me as a worthwhile thing to do. As usual, I didn’t really do too much pre-travel research and so just bought tickets on line, thinking it would be an outdoor venue to visit, and then just pop inside to experience the interpretive center. I mean, how much would there be to see in a space that used to house the World Trade Center?
Again, I was wrong… we ended up staying there for four hours straight and probably could have spent another four… it isn’t huge in the sense of space (perimeter and area), but it is huge in the sense of overwhelmingly emotional and in terms of the attention to detail. The ‘pools’ that they created in the spaces left behind by the fallen towers, are basically a tribute to those 3000 or so who fell on that day. Yes, they all pretty much all died within 2 hours of each other. 3000 people. The museum itself is not above ground, but all below… you enter many stairs that lead you down to where the structural anchors held the buildings in place and the wall that shielded it against a water table that needed to be dealt with prior to building the World Trade Center, as it was actually built on reclaimed land from the harbour. All very interesting and then throw into the mix the 9/11 event and it is pretty colossal, in fact.
Deep below the surface, the museum has an area that dedicates itself to artifacts, stories, pictures, recordings, and details of what going on exactly at 8:30 am through to about 10:30 am on that fateful Tuesday. The part that takes a lot of time and mental energy, is the tributes to the individuals… so instead of grouping them all as the 3000 victims, they have created photo montage and videos and personal effects of each of the victims, detailing who they were as people, where they worked and with who, what they were doing on that day, and artifacts provided by the family. You get a sense of the person, not just the fact that he/she was one of the 3000 who died that day. They museum also has an entire section on those who committed this crime, the 16 or so men who rode the four planes and who essentially masterminded the assault. Very informative, very moving, very strong.
Once we had had enough, we climbed the stairs of the museum, exiting the hole where the buildings used to stand, and headed up town, not really with a focus as my thoughts were still in the museum. We stopped at a plaza and had the quintessential New York lunch - a hot dog! The take away was powerful, but somehow it feels that this could happen again. Time will heal, time will also tell.
2. Empire State Building - Midtown Manhattan
We could see her from our hotel room at night, a colorful beacon in the sea of the city lights. Somehow, though, she looked really familiar, I guess I have just seen her countless times in movies and TV programs. Not to mention, when I studied art history, she was a subject of study during the Art Deco movement, to be sure. I was also expecting crazy crowds, but I guess we picked a good time - dinner time for most - and so the crowds were manageable. You could see evidence that it isn’t always like this, as there were ropes indicating channels of human movement for lining up for tickets, getting on the elevator, etc. On the way to the top, there was an interesting photography display, detailing her history, who she was built and by who, who and what funded her, and how she stood out (and still stands out) as an architectural marvel. Very impressive, even today.
At the top, New York finally made sense - all the buildings, the water ways, the bridges, the parks and the life down below; again, looked familiar but possibly because of films like King Kong and such. The whole time, I was imagining a giant gorilla clinging to the side of the building (New York carries that with her as the epicenter for Western pop culture). I also enjoyed looking down on the streets below, the many ants rushing around. The views in all directions are very impressive, as was the beautiful architecture, many older buildings still standing and made entirely out of sandstone. Neat stuff.
We continued to view The Empire State Building during the remainder of our trip, as she is pretty much within sight from many locations and angles around the Manhattan area. It was fun, especially at night.
3. Statue of Liberty - Off the Coast of Lower Manhattan Island
This was the first item on the agenda of what to see, as stated by my daughter. I bought the tickets in advance, kind of edu-guessing when we would have time to do this attraction. In fact, as it turned out, her father wanted to join us, so on the day of his exhibition, we picked him up from his hotel and took him with us. It was a good day and fun for Hannah to be with both of her parents, something that hadn’t happened since November 2012 when we travelled back to China for a 3 week visit.
What is impressive of the Statue of Liberty is her size, attention to detail when you get up close, and the color. Having not really paid my attention to her other than an icon and symbol of ‘freedom’, I was drawn to her when we got to the island that she is located on. Again, she seemed familiar, most in part due to seeing her in so many films, TV shows, and iconic impressions of New York City. She really does seem to greet you when you enter the harbour and appears to be friendly. I can only imagine what that would have been like for millions of immigrants who entered the US through Elis Island, passing by Liberty on the way to dock.
At the base of her there is a quick interpretive center that describes who designed her and why, what she is made out of and why, and basically how she was created. Very interesting and for anyone who has studied art history, there are some definite links to the distant path. Her drapery, face, body rendering, and hand and foot positioning all hark back to the days of Greek gods and statue building. It is all there, clear as day, but something I hadn’t noticed until I visited her upfront and in person. The color? She is blueish green due to her outer skin being made out of copper, so over the years she has oxidized, giving that beautiful coloring that she has. The color is just as much about her as her crown or torch.
A day later, when Hannah and I were walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the historical references to the Liberty statue were starkly presented right in front of us. We were on our way from the special presentation of “Chinese Fashion through the Looking Glass”, a study fashion and clothing in film and TV as influenced by the history of China, to the Impressionist Art floor and had to pass through the art and sculpture of Greece. Before our eyes, undeniably, we could see the historical influences on the ‘modern’ Statue of Liberty. It was a moment for both of us to share.
We have decided to make an annual trip to New York, just the two of us, to take in the atmosphere, architecture, life and next time a show!