chicks & ducks & geese better scurry

XoloitzcuintleBeyond art and tchotchkes, Senora Olmedo had a diverse interest in living animals, too, such as geese, ducks, and peacocks, which she collected and kept in the gardens of her museum. And who doesn’t love a pretty peacock? However what I found most fascinating was the handful of endangered Xoloitzcuintles, a 3,000-year old native breed of hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. (They believed the dogs were needed by their masters’ souls to help them safely through the underworld.) Initially I thought I was looking at a group of sleek and sinuous statues – until they moved.
xoloitzcuintlepea hens

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the fabulous life of dolores olmedo

Dolores-OlmedoDolores Olmedo had quite the colorful life. As a young girl from a working class background she caused a scandal when her family discovered that she had posed nude for the painter Diego Rivera. Forbidden to see the artist anymore, it wasn’t until many years later that their paths crossed again, by which time Olmedo had become one of the richest women in Mexico – both a successful businesswoman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts. Rivera was broke, close to dying, and concerned about his legacy. At his urging she went on a buying spree, amassing a major collection of the painter’s canvases in addition to works by Frida Kahlo, Diego’s wife, with whom Olmedo had a tempestuous friendship fraught with jealousy over Rivera’s affections. After Kahlo and Rivera’s deaths she bought a 16th century hacienda in southern Mexico City, which she later converted into a museum and shrine to her life of passionate collecting. Not only does the five-building complex hold her entire store of pre-Hispanic, colonial, folk, modern and contemporary art, but also the largest holdings of Kahlo and Rivera anywhere – and her private chambers, filled with extravagant displays of ivory and porcelain, showcase photos of Olmedo with virtually every famous person in the world.

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mucho mundo

muchoMucho Mundo Chocolate is the first museum in Mexico dedicated to enhancing the experience of chocolate – as if chocolate needed any help. But beyond the purely hedonistic aspects of consumption, the museum puts chocolate in a historical context, tracing its origins back to the Mayans, who first fermented the seeds inside cacao pods and used them to create a hot bitter drink we’ve come to know as chocolate. The favored drink of kings and priests, it was considered food fit for the gods. When the Aztecs gained control over the Maya, cacao seeds were elevated to the level of currency, making drinking chocolate a luxury few people could afford. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to a wider European audience, yet is still remained a product almost exclusively consumed by the wealthy until industrialization brought about the arrival of solid, mass-produced chocolates. Today we take the ubiquity of chocolate for granted, but a demonstration in Mucho’s test kitchen made clear to me how labor intensive making chocolate the Mexican way once was: first you heat the metate, a traditional grinding stone, while shelling as many roasted cacao pods as you need. (Hint: more than you think.  Roasted cacao seeds are as addictive as cocktail peanuts.) Then grind them on the metate by flicking your wrists with a mano, an elongated pestle. Add a handful of raw almonds to the mixture – their natural oils will slowly release and bind the cacao together – and a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar. After a bit of sweat you’ll have a crumbly paste, which can be added to water to make drinking chocolate, or serve as the base for baked goods and, after further processing and tempering, chocolate bars. I scooped up a bag of the crumble and munched on it as is; savory, slightly sweet and spicy, it was a tart reminder of why I hate milk chocolate: the fat in dairy dilutes the pleasing bitterness of the cacao. Which, I guess, is why the world is divided between devotees of milk and dark chocolate. On some things we must agree to disagree, however; after experiencing the effort involved, I won’t pop a truffle into my mouth with casual disregard again.

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jose clemente orozco

san iledefonso collegeIf you think of Mexico and 20th Century painting, it’s only natural that your mind gravitates toward the power couple, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their politics and personal stories have become a mythology entwined within their art – often superseding it. (And much more about them later.) Yet amongst Rivera’s contemporaries, Jose Clemente Orozco was often considered the more gifted artist. A social realist painter, Orozco specialized in bold murals that established the Mexican Mural Renaissance along with Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet before my arrival in Mexico City I had never heard of him.  That changed rather fortuitously at San Iledefonso College, a museum and cultural center in the historic center of the city, where the painter’s epic frescoes grace three floors of courtyard walls and stairways. In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes centering on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era, but Orozco – in a marked distinction from Rivera – was highly critical of the Revolution, and used his art to examine the bloody toll the movement took on ordinary Mexicans as it lined the pockets of both the upper classes and the church. Influenced by Symbolism – and satire – the politically committed painter takes on the history of human suffering from the time of Cortes’ conquest: the landscapes are somber, the working classes are oppressed, death is dignified and anonymous, the privileged bourgeois is distorted, the revolutionaries are blinded by revolution. Beyond form and composition these are not necessarily always aesthetically pleasing works of art but, wow, there’s no denying their power.

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Stairwell Orozco

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sweeping up at the denver art museum

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finding the reclusive clyfford still

20130520-074951.jpgThere are unknown artists and there are legendary masters. Rarely could one man be described as both. Abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, however, was one and the same. After a retreat from the art world in the 1940’s, he controlled who got to see his canvases – and how. But his influence on Pollack, Newman, and Rothko was profound. An eponymous museum in Denver maintains some 2,500 of his works – everything in Still’s possession at the time of his death. Seen collectively they give rise to the idea that Still was not merely a painter of individual artworks but the architect of a grand symphonic vision.

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titanic town

Titanic Belfast is the city’s new “must see” attraction – and it’s a wonder how it took the city leaders so long to exploit the worldwide fascination with the most famous maritime disaster of all time. Rising on the slipways where both RMS Olympic and Titanic were built, the distinctive building takes obvious inspiration from both a ship’s prow and the refracted gleam of ice. Drawing together special effects, full-scale reconstructions, and innovative interactive features across nine galleries, the Titanic story is explored in a fresh and insightful way; from her conception in Belfast in the early 1900s, through her construction and launch, to her infamous maiden voyage and catastrophic demise. The journey goes beyond the aftermath of the sinking, too, to the discovery of the wreck and continues into the present day with a live undersea exploration centre. We all think we know the Titanic story but to a large extent we are well acquainted with only a very small sliver: the ill-fated maiden voyage. What I found most interesting at Titanic Belfast was context so often missing from any modern retellings: in the early 20th Century Belfast was enjoying the greatest boom in its history. The city was a global leader in engineering, ship-building and linen manufacturing, and Belfast’s Harland and Wolff had become the largest shipyard in the world. It was this thriving local industry along with innovations in design that led to the creation of RMS Titanic and it’s sister ship, Olympic. Special effects, animations and full-scale reconstructions bring to life the reality of shipbuilding in the early 1900’s: a superhuman undertaking of skilled labor, brute force, and engineering prowess.  Beyond that it delves into the ship’s launch - a large window overlooking the actual slipways is fitted with state-of-the-art glass containing electrodes that switch from the normal view to a superimposed image of the Titanic on the slipways for a unique perspective of how the ship would have appeared – custom fit-out, the sinking and the aftermath. It even finds time to explore the multitude of myths and legends surrounding Titanic’s story before depositing visitors in a gift shop burdened by extraordinarily bad taste. But no bother, Titanic Belfast isn’t so much a story of tragedy but one of triumph: after all, once upon a time Boomtown Belfast built the largest and most luxurious ship in the world.

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back to belfast

It seems like I was just here about, oh, five minutes ago, but I am headed back to Belfast this weekend for the wedding of a friend and a few days of playing tourist. The city has undergone massive (mostly positive) changes in the fifteen years I’ve been coming here, so it is usually a pleasant surprise to see what the place has gotten up to in my absence. A new museum? Boutique hotel? Michelin-starred restaurant? Yeah, I pretty much expect I’ll chance upon at least two out of the three. And that – as the song goes – ain’t bad.

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live blog: going to graceland

If Disneyland can lay claim to being the happiest place on Earth I’d like to nominate Graceland as one of the most depressing. Full disclosure: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Graceland. I went because that’s one of the things you do when you go to Memphis: you go to Graceland to observe the people who are making a pilgrimage to Graceland. You go to Graceland for the spectacle. And the irony. In that respect I was far from disappointed: a busload of Japanese tourists photographed absolutely everything in sight; two tour groups of Scandinavians stood slack-jawed over every pre-recorded recollection of the infanta, Lisa Marie; and a super-sized parade of the lame, the halt, and the obese reinforced everything I’ve come to abhor about America. So on the one hand, it was a roaring success. A lodestar of American overconsumption, Elvis’ estate is but the tip of the iceberg. For one, Graceland is – as everyone who’s ever visited is quick to point out – much, much smaller than expected.  It’s just a house. A good-sized house but a house nonetheless. It’s not Memphis’ answer to Versailles – though the extreme examples of 1970’s chic give it the feel of a too-groovy time capsule: the all-white living room, the carpeted kitchen, the basement pool room enveloped in a circus tent of fabric, the “jungle room.” A pair of out-buildings house Presley’s office and what was once a racquetball court – now home to a display of the infamous late-Elvis jumpsuits – before you come to a small swimming pool and the family graves. The entire self-guided tour takes an hour at most.  (Elvis’ upstairs bedroom and the toilet he expired on are off-limits.) Shuttled back to the central base station, the true assault begins. You can visit a museum dedicated solely to the King’s cars, tour his private planes, the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog, or shuffle down the block to Graceland Crossing, where the exhibits – and shopping options – continue:  Elvis on Tour, Elvis’ ’68 special, Elvis Lives. Of course if this is more than you can handle in a single day you can buy a multi-day pass and stay at the Heartbreak Hotel or Graceland RV Park and Campground, which are – you guessed it – down at the end of Lonely Street. Now I don’t begrudge Lisa Marie her legacy. And god knows, nobody wants her to put out another album. But Graceland is little more than an ugly exploitation of a man who – despite the caricature that may have marked the last years of his life – was one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. For all the coin Graceland is pulling in the artist is only vaguely in evidence. That man has left the building. What remains isn’t in any way a tribute to Elvis but an embarrassing example of our country’s collective inability to separate idolatry from shopping.

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live blog: air/craft

Standing at the end of a runway, Jeffrey Milstein captures images of aircraft moments before landing. Carefully positioned and using a high-resolution digital camera he photographs them from below as they streak past at speeds up to 175 miles per hour. A professional photographer, graphic designer, and architect, Milstein’s trained eye and steady hand produces images of pristine clarity, 33 of which are currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. In this photographic analysis, or typology, the neutral background and precise symmetry focus attention on the design, color and symmetry of each aircraft: razor-sharp lines reveal technological complexity; spread wings evoke the form of birds. The arrayed images bring to mind a scientific study of pinned butterflies. Elegantly distilled, each of Milstein’s super-sized prints seem to pull you into the air, as though you’re going along for the ride.

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victoria and albert

The National Portrait Gallery may make for a favored hourlong stroll but for more substantial peregrinations the Victoria and Albert Museum is pretty close to perfection. Less a proper museum than a Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, the V&A – as it’s commonly called – is an ode to Empire and a monument to the benevolent side of the Industrial Revolution. (The side that believed technology would, if not save us, at least pull us up out of the gutter.) Cherry picked from the furthest reaches of the UK’s sphere of influence, you’ll stumble on everything from medieval French tombstones and Spanish altar carvings to German stylings in wrought iron and English adventures in chased silver and blown glass. There’s an entire chancel and transept installed from a church in Perugia, majestic carpets which once graced the palace of Ottoman Sultans and the whole of the Music Room taken from the 18th century London residence of the Dukes of Norfolk. The Cast Courts, two great halls dedicated to the uniquely Victorian penchant for plaster casts, are unlike anything you’ve ever seen: yes, that’s Giovanni Pisano’s great pulpit from Pisa; yes, that’s Trajan’s Column in striking detail; yes, that’s Michelangelo’s David towering at almost 17-feet tall; and most outstanding of all, yes, that really is the late 12th century Portico de La Gloria from Santiago de Compostela. Before the internet, before photography, this was as far as many a Londoner got to seeing the treasures of antiquity and the Renaissance. Today the plaster casts are rightly viewed as stunning achievements in their own right. Despite the current fad of grave robbing claims and calls for the return of cultural patrimony, so, too, is the endless curiosity on display at the V&A.

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dames and divas

London’s National Portrait Gallery is one of the capital’s great free museums. Just off Trafalgar Square, it’s a mecca for Anglophiles and devotees of period drama due in large part to the historic paintings of Tudor and Stuart royalty that fill a handful of galleries. Yet it’s also a museum very much rooted in the present - eclectic and embracing multifarious media: from tempera and photography to LCD monitors utilizing integrated software. It’s one of the best places to wander without a map – you’d be hard pressed to find a room that doesn’t lead you off on a flight of fancy involving both artist and subject. It strikes at the heart of what I love so much about Britain: you can’t turn around without having your curiosity piqued.

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loving the langham

I’ve spent so much time waxing rhapsodic about the dizzying heights of the Ritz that I forgot to mention I have since moved on to Langham Place, Mongkok. No slight intended, because this hotel is amazing. Rising 42 stories above the heaving heart of Kowloon it boasts the authentic sights, sounds and shops of old Hong Kong right on its doorstep. (As you’ve been reading about – I hope – for the past week.) And yes, it’s all sleek and modern and smells nice and wears its cheeky monkey on its sleeve, but what sets it apart from inferior chains – hello, W Hotels - is the substance beneath all the style: first and foremost is the X-Team, a handful of the friendliest, best-connected concierges I’ve ever put to the test. Then there’s Chuan Spa, as warm and welcoming as an opium den – from which the decor seems to take some inspiration. Treatments are guided by principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine – Wu Xing, or the Five Elements; Yin and Yang; and Jing Luo, the Meridian System – and it doesn’t get more authentically indulgent as this. The hotel also has one of the most impressive collections of contemporary Chinese art in the world, let alone Asia, including pieces from Wang Guangyi, Yue Minjun, and Jiang Shuo. Comprised of more than 1,500 pieces – some provocative, if not downright controversial –  you can explore highlights of the multi-million dollar collection via an interactive iPad tour narrated by the hotel’s curator. As for food, I don’t think I can sing any more praises for Ming Court than I already have. I’m going to miss it here. (Not to mention Hong Kong.) If the Ritz felt more like a mistress, over the top flashy with legs for days, Langham Place is the wife you’d like to have: smart and sexy, with just the right amount of wrong to keep you coming back for more.

 

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puttin on the ritz

From the vantage point of Hong Kong island, across the water from the Kowloon mainland, the International Commerce Centre tower which houses the new Ritz-Carlton juts out of Victoria Harbor with all the subtlety of a Louboutin stiletto. It’s as imposing as it is incongruous: the world’s fourth-tallest skyscraper stranded in the middle of a barren parcel of reclaimed land called West Kowloon. In a few years it will be the centerpiece of the city’s “cultural quarter,” with high-speed trains linking mainland shoppers to a host of new museums, concert halls and malls all entwined and master planned by Sir Norman Foster. But until then it remains a bit of a desert oasis – at once removed from the surrounding city while still very much embodying its ethos – with the Ritz its ultra-stylish sanctuary in the sky.

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une maison hantée

Just in time for Halloween, Paris is suffering a brand new scare: the haunted house. Part living museum and amusement park attraction, Le Manoir de Paris is luring lurid visitors to witness 13 reenactments of haunting Parisian legends. Housed on the rue de Paradis in the 10th arrondissement, two floors of a historic monument have been transformed into a showcase for some of France’s most notorious tales of terror – that’s terror, not terroir – including Quasimodo and Notre-Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, as well as mysteries surrounding Père Lachaise, the Catacombs, and a host of gruesome murders and puzzling deaths that still remain unsolved. Inspired by the classic American haunted house, creator Adil Houti, a Belgian-native, is mindful of the once-ubiquitous Halloween tradition – going so far as to source his menacing robotic figures stateside. Even more faithful, all 20 actors speak English – so you can enjoy the fright fest without having to suffer the scariest phrase of all:  comprenez-vous?

 

 

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