Sunday, December 19, 2010

Midwinter Miettes 'n' Meanderings

One afternoon recently, I was hanging out at the English Corner Shop talking with Uncertain. He's a British expat here in town, and has been in France for over 20 years, so I pick his brain as often as I can for survival tips and so on. At any rate, he'd been reading this blog, and said, out of the blue, "It's not a hill, you know. It's an extinct volcano. There are two vents. The house I live in is on top of one of them, and the building The Globe is in is on top of the other. Unsurprisingly, they're the two oldest buildings still standing in Montpellier. I have no idea how old they actually are, however."

Wow, I thought. What a metaphor!

A couple of days later, though, something occurred to me. One thing the hill Montpellier's built on is full of is limestone, and the nearest mountains you can see from here, plus other assorted hills in the area, are also limestone. Limestone isn't an igneous, or heat-formed, rock. It's made up of the remains tiny marine creatures, which makes it sedimentary. And if the earth did poke a volcanic vent through limestone, the limestone would change into something else and have other qualities. Or...was I maybe wrong?

I happen to know where I could ask some actual real geologists, though, so I did. The information I was looking for turned out to be in French, and none of them spoke it. Well, some of it was nominally in English, but it was a scientific paper from the ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing entitled "SPOT Data and the Montpellier Igneous Rocks as Keys to a New Large-Scale Interpretation of the Bas Languedoc (Southern France)." I read all through this and learned from it that actually, there might be oil around here. I later learned that mines in the Cévennes Mountains just north of here once provided France with much of its coal, so the thought that there's oil nearby isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.

Another geologist pointed me to a whole website about French volcanoes, and this was an accident, because I'd mentioned that the two mountains nearest me, Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, were clearly limestone. No, the guy said, from what he could make out on this page, Pic St. Loup was an extinct volcano, although it wasn't where I said it was. Ridiculous! I see the goddam mountain off in the distance nearly every day! In all the years I've been coming here and the two years I've been living here, it's never been anywhere else! Ah, but when I looked at the page, I discovered the confusion. The harbor at Agde, about 30 miles down the coast from here, had been created when a volcano next to the sea had erupted and spilled hot lava into the ocean. And the name of the mountain was Mt. St. Loup.

On the way back from the cracker fair the other weekend, Peter swung around that way so I could investigate, and the mountain, much reduced, I would think, from when it erupted, is still there, and if you go down the right road, which we eventually found, you can see lots of dark black rocks -- clearly not limestone -- rising out of the Mediterranean.

Still, that left another question unanswered: nobody I know seems to know where Uncertain lives, but I certainly know where The Globe, Lawrence McGuire's used bookshop and cultural center, is, so I dropped by one afternoon and asked him if his building really was the oldest one in town, or even the second-oldest. "Naw," he said. "This place only dates from 1325. There was a woman who came through here not long ago doing some survey for the city, and that's what she told me. I mentioned it to the landlord and he said that he didn't allow them to put a sign on the building because then it would really restrict what he could and couldn't do to it." I asked him if he had any idea what the oldest still-standing building here was, and he wasn't sure, but he thought that probably it was over on the rue d'Argenterie, where that palace I mentioned some time ago had been for sale, the one where the guy beheaded his page for spilling wine on his doublet. (Sorry, folks, it's been bought.) I headed over there later, and there were trucks doing renovation, and a big iron gate blocking access. Some of the stuff in there, though, did look old. Investigation continues.

* * *

Investigation also continues into sources for ethnic foods, and after Mike's reading for his book Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results at Le Bookshop two weekends ago, sponsored by the Association to Save the Anglophone Library, Ed from Oz, one of the association members, started talking to Mike and me about Thai food, which led to his mentioning to me that there was a really great international market way the hell out in Castelneau-le-Lez, so we made a date to go explore this past Friday.

The place is called Mondial Market, and you can get to it on Tram #2, getting off at either Sablassou and walking away from Castelneau through the traffic circle, at which point it's on your right a bit along the Route de Nimes, or you can get off at Aubes Rouges and hit the traffic circle and go left until you get there. It's big, no doubt about that, and it offers sections devoted to Africa, England, the French West Indies, Argentina, Brazil, China, Spain, Greece, Mauritius, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Réunion, Thailand, and Vietnam. As you might guess, some of these are better provided-for than others. The Indian selection, as you might guess, pales before Sai Food's, and the British and Italian selections are nothing much. Where it's big is with a few cuisines about which I know nothing whatever, and, according to the owner and a knowledgeable customer we talked to, I won't find out about in any restaurant in Montpellier, namely the West Indian, Mauritian, and Réunionaise cuisines. I'm having a lot of trouble finding books in English about this stuff, too, or even websites, although this seems to be a good article about Mauritian food.

The Mexican selection, weirdly enough, is pretty interesting, with a large selection of premade sauces in Tetrapak boxes and some made-in-Mexico salsa picante which I was unable to resist picking up. Likewise, the Portugese, Spanish, and African sections are pretty good, the latter well-supplemented in the freezers. The Chinese selection, though, was pathetic, to the point where I think I may have to go to Amsterdam or Berlin once stocks of some stuff in my Chinese larder start vanishing. (Maybe not: I keep hearing about a chain called Paris Store, the local one of which is totally on the other end of Tram #2, and Ed from Oz has indicated a willingness to go out there after the first of the year). The owner is amenable to requests, apparently, as long as he can find a way to get the stuff, and he and Ed talked long about obtaining Conimex, the Dutch brand of Indonesian ingredients. I haven't cooked Indonesian food in ages, so I hope he scores. Another oddity of the place is that every Friday morning, a Japanese woman drops by some sushi, which, at €12, is expensive enough for me to believe Ed's claim that it's the most authentic in town -- not that that would take much doing.

Anyway, I'll be back to check the place out some more as the seasons bring more fresh produce in. Hell, the salsa alone might bring me back soon.

Mondial Market, 700 Route de Nimes (RN 115), 34170 Castelneau le Lez, Open Mon-Sat 9:30am-7:30pm. Phone 04 67 52 45 76. 

* * *

I was rather hoping to have a picture to post here, and remembered that I had one or two in the camera, but wasn't sure what they were. Yesterday, I tried turning the camera on and the on-off switch, which is also the shutter, popped off. I'm hoping to be able to get it fixed, but it'll be a while. Fortunately, this happened at a time of year when there isn't much to shoot, so if there's something really interesting, I guess I'll use the phone camera. You have been warned, then, about impending image degradation.

* * *

One thing I was going to take a picture of was the horrible blue-and-white Christmas tree out on the Comédie that impedes my trip to and from the supermarket, and is part of the Hivernales, the annual Christmas fair that's a companion to the Estivales in summertime. The similarities are mostly in the kiosks in which craftspeople try to sell stuff you would never buy if you were either sober or non-desperate, and the difference is mostly that it's cold out there instead of warm, and there's no sipping of rosé at night while leisurely consuming oysters. There is a small food court, though, and one stand has some decent-looking cheeses.

But all in all, the way the French do Christmas makes me a bit nostalgic for either Germany or Britain, which are the sources of the American Christmas celebrations. Until the mid-19th Century, Christmas wasn't a big part of the church calendar, but a whole combination of various secular forces which arose about then, including the wooden toy industry in Seiffen, Germany, and the packaged food industry later in the century, changed things around. German Weinachtsmärkte can be truly wonderful to walk around, even if you can't get to the one in Nürnberg which is kind of the grandaddy of 'em all, or the one in Dresden, where you have your choice of about 700 kinds of Stollen. I was always a sucker for the wooden stuff, and made a pilgrimage to Seiffen one year to do a story for the Wall St. Journal.

The French, however, don't have as many outward displays of Christmas. Instead, I'm told, it's about feasting, and I do know that my local supermarket has sprouted a sizeable foie gras department (that's right: department), since consuming diseased goose liver is one of the traditions. I have no idea if there are local Languedoc traditions, but given that this has historically been a Protestant enclave in Catholic France, and what Christmas celebration France does is Catholic, I kind of doubt it. My own research into foie gras has largely been stymied by its price, and given how expensive it is, I'd actually rather let someone who knows what they're doing deal with it. And maybe some day I'll get invited to one of these gastronomic orgies I've heard expats complaining about. "All they do is eat, drink, and talk." Sounds good to me, depending, of course, on what there is to eat and drink and talk about.

So joyeux Noël to all, and I hope to be back before the first of the year with a recap of the whole thing in pictures. None of which, barring a miracle, will be new, but many of which will have been previously unseen.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Others See Us, Part 2 (And Last)

The end of the year celebrating Montpellier's relationship, such as it is, with the U.S. draws to a close, but not without one more big deal art show. This one is labelled "The Deep South of America," and draws together three American photographers, Alex Harris, Clarence John Laughlin, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, over in the  Pavillon Populaire.

On first pass, I thought it was a mess. I still do to some extent, but I was happy I was so overwhelmed the first time through that I forgot to take notes. It's nowheres near as offensive as the first one. As you might expect, there are some huge problems here, starting with the fact that Meatyard, who figures as a major photographer in American art-photographic history, lived in Lexington, Kentucky, which is hardly the "deep South."

I have to confess a prejudice, however, before proceeding further. I hate "made" photographs. This is, of course, hypocritical: any photographer who has any options whatsoever with a photo plays with it, alters it, and changes it before printing it, which only makes sense. What I'm actually objecting to is as old as photography itself: the predilection of people who want to be artists and photographers to set up posed situations to Make Art out of a few models standing in awkward positions. I'm much more comfortable with people like Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank than I am with, say, William Wegman and his dogs. So when two-thirds of this show turned out to be painfully self-conscious Art Photography, I was going to react.

Let's start, then, with the least-known of the three, and the only one shooting color, Alex Harris. His work here is from his "Pilgrimage to Katrina" series, all of which may be seen here. It's pretty straightforward: with the exception of the two Mississippi triptychs (and a single shot of a devastated amusement park) it's three photos of the same house or location, shot six months after the hurricane. I'm not at all sure what's gained by presenting things this way, but the effort does focus your attention on one location at a time and, thanks to the three different angles, the context in which the devastation stands. It's decent reportage, but I'm not sure it's good art -- nor am I sure it's not. In their own ways, although posing as documentation, these are every bit as "made" as the photos by the other two.

On opposing walls from Harris' work are some of the 17,000 photos taken in New Orleans by Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985), "the eye which never sleeps," which range from evocative documentation to hyper-romantic balderdash. A book on him calls him a "prophet without honor," and it is claimed that he was the first American surrealist photographer, but I don't think his more outré work has worn well.

This one's called "The Mask Grows To Us," from 1947, and is one of an almost endless succession of pictures of women, usually veiled head-to-toe in some gauzy material, against some ravaged textured wall, or, even more clobber-over-the-head, in a graveyard.

This one, from 1940, is called "Where Shall We Go." There are some very nice photos of children in the poorer sections of New Orleans, burdened with titles like "A 'Lost' Boy," "The Disastrous Gate," "Figures From a Forgotten City" and "We Have Turned Away From Nature #1." I wonder if the work he did for Vogue is this pretentious. 

But it's Meatyard (1925-1974) who's the real puzzle here. A successful optician in Lexington, he bought his first camera to photograph his kids, and then, in the mid-’50s, found himself attracted to Zen, which resulted in a bunch of odd photographs of light on water and his famous "no focus" photos, which attempted to impose abstraction on recognizable objects by shooting them without focusing. An interesting idea, and the few of these in this show are worth looking at. From there, he moved into a series dubbed Romances, which are more posed pictures of his family, some of which are very nice indeed: 

Towards the end of this series, though, more and more of the subjects start wearing masks, which at first -- an obvious 3-year-old boy wearing an old man head -- are sweetly ironic, and then suddenly start looking more and more like Art. His culminating masterpiece, according to his fans, is a long series based around models -- Meatyard, his family, and his friends -- wearing a grotesque pinhead mask with a huge nose. This is the series he called "The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater," and boy, did it wear me out fast. 

Everyone in the pictures is masked, and each bears a caption matching Lucybelle Crater with her friend/son/daughter/cousin who is also named Lucybelle Crater. Cindy Sherman (whose name is misspelled in the wall caption here) has said that Meatyard "is the only photographer who had any role in my artistic roots," but when it comes to "made" photos, I prefer hers, since the pretense of authenticity is much stronger, resulting, I think, in a more powerful artistic statement. I certainly got very tired of Lucybelle early on, and if that's because there's something disturbing there, it's not unconnected to the fact that this huge collection was what Meatyard was working on when he died at the age of 46. I'm willing to admit his mastery while also admitting to not liking it much. 

At any rate, between this and the previous show, I'm tempted to tell the locals I'm Canadian, if these two exhibitions are what's informing Montpellierians about America. But if I were curating a show about the American deep South, I'd have headed straight to William Eggleston, who's surrealistic, Southern, disturbing, classically contemporary and big in Europe. I wonder, however, how the people who curate this odd building would respond to him. Not intellectually rigorous enough? Not trading in enough stereotypes? Not grotesque enough? 

Anyway, next year they get to pick on another country. To be honest, this show isn't that bad, and just because it's not to my taste doesn't mean it won't be to yours. And hey: we're getting showers these days, and the Pavillon Populaire is dry. 

Les Suds Profonds de l'Amerique, at the Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, open Tues. - Sun. 10am-6pm. Show runs until Jan. 30, 2011.
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