Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ceci Ce N'est Pas Un Magritte

Last week I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's modern wing, where pride of place goes to Damien Hirst's stuffed shark:

called, swear to God, "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living."

Being a truculent old crust, I'd rolled my eyes at this one from reading its first description. "He put a big shark in a tank?" I'd said, "And somebody paid big bucks for that? Are there no VFW halls where art collectors come from? No taxidermists?"
Seeing it, I'm a convert. Here's why: The shark looks like utter crap. There's a hole through one fin with stuffing coming out, and the others (used to hold the nylon thread supporting this thing) not much better. The eyes look like they were rejected from a Godzilla movie, and the mouth of the thing is painted a pasty white. The skin is worn. Really, it's more beat up sofa than swimming shark.
And yet -- the object holds people longer than anything else. Men in their early twenties talked about how you'd need to punch the shark in the eye if it swam at you. An art student photographed it on the sly, and another woman had to be dragged away by her boyfriend.
The response, together with the utterly crap condition of the former shark, play well with the title: It's the spectators that are alive, and they are treating this extremely dead object like it's a vital creature. The proof of the title is right there before you.
Modern art is journalism -- it points at the world, making statements about it so we notice things again for a moment -- and this is actually a successful example.
Still don't like his damn boat to the Tate Modern though.

A Trip to Africa (2)

Older Accra, where shop house arcades look like Arab Street in Singapore, 1984. The same colonial architecture -- here the plaster is encrusted or broken, and there is trash on the sidewalks, and people seemingly idle in their empty time. The nearby buildings, instead of Singapore's air-cooled towers, are shacks of plywood scraps that stretch for miles. Looking at both places is like viewing two paths from the same start.

Stuck in traffic at the slums, hawkers of cigarettes, Kleenex, videos, plastic sacks of water, antennas, power cords and ironing boards, walk ceaselessly past. You are in one place, so why shouldn't the mall move around you? Their hope reflected in the shop signs over the converted cargo containers: "God's Time Fashion," "Why Can't I Thank My Jesus Videos," "Lord is My Shepard Saw Sharpening." Or, more starkly, on the rear window of the minibus ahead of me, "After Death Judgment." A large chalkboard at the entrance to the slum, next to yet another Internet café, has the final score of the Chelsea-Liverpool soccer game.

There are goats grazing in the medians of the roads, a cow foraging on busted concrete at the shoreline, chickens free to wander on the steps of the Trade Ministry. Life that might seem quaint and picturesque elsewhere is an antic threat when it comes here, the lunacy of a peasant village slowly taking over a city.

The Chinese are everywhere, buying oil and other minerals, building roads and government buildings, filling the markets with Chinese products. Local textile makers can't compete with the Chinese, same as in America. I note that Chinese foremen run their road-building gangs even on May 1. No one notices the irony.

A Nigerian booster tells me to tell my countrymen to come share the boom. "Americans just get here and talk about how the toilets don't work. The Chinese are already out in the villages." After he is done building six more television stations he will build a movie house showing only Chinese films.

Living in the modern world means embracing contradiction, moving through continual discontinuity, but one notices it better in places like this, or Mumbai, than in London or San Francisco. A telecommunications provider in Accra, K-Net, operates out of an office that seems closer to a quiet corner of a "Mad Max" movie than it does to a Verizon network operations center: the latest equipment is patched to gear 10 years old, and a shed in a back is floor to ceiling with parts cannibalized from even older systems. Some of Ghana's biggest companies rely on them. Supposedly incompatible software packages are hooked together by clever college dropouts, for the sake of putting through the signal. The signal is power.

I have dinner with a man from upcountry who now lives in Accra. Growing up, he sold tooth-cleaning sticks in a market, and dreamed of becoming a dentist. He saved his money and now teaches at a hospital, and runs a software company on the side. He tells me that five hours of sleep is a lot for him. He answers each of my questions with "Yes!" and "Very good!" before he answers. The new dreams tumble from him: An office complex in the country that is solar powered to avoid the terrible government grid, villages of children fed and educated, complex software projects for small businesses. He has no time for African business practices, African mismanagement, African corruption. As I am talking to him I am overwhelmed by the drive. I cannot decide if I am talking to a man on the verge of greatness or bitter disappointment. The dreams and mania of capitalism seem unstoppable.

A drive along the coast to the Cape Coast castle, a processing fort in the slave trade years. All along the coast are slums, prisons, fishing villages and piles of trash. The better homes are inland. It is an older sense of the ocean, the fearful place where land ends. Our love of the shore, our value of it, is a mark of our security. There are a few hotels by the shore, however, where people enjoy the waves, and a few Ghanaian émigrés have retired home in seaside villas they build. Many more are under construction.

I ride with an American who first came here in 1973, and has been involved in USAID, diplomacy, and private business. He has traveled and worked in enough countries that he has strong opinions about Benin, Sao Tome, Swaziland. He has seen bitter disappointment, lost personal friends to political violence in several countries. I ask him what he has learned, and how he can stay positive. "I have learned that it is only a life," he says, and repeats twice, "It is only a life."

"I've understood the psychology if civil wars and coups," the American official, a black guy from Canton, says. "It's wrapped up in the broken promises of the expectations of people who start out with a vision for their country. One emerges as a leader, and 15 others are bitter. They think they are smarter. He starts making decisions as a strong man, without any checks or cooperation. It alienates them and shames them – there is a sense of betrayal, of personal rage."
Our SUV speeds past the shanties and the mud huts, the roadside hawkers of giant snails and roasted grass cutters, which a kind of rodent the size of a small deer. "We put civil wars around the power struggles of a country, but it's just about four guys really," he says. "It's a few individual personalities."

In other words, it's only a life.

He thinks the solution lies in paying off the politicians, guaranteeing them a life and an income after they leave office. We give them an endgame, just as we let our American leaders become highly paid lobbyists, speechmakers at $100,000 a pop.

Cape Coast castle is one of the best-preserved remnants of the old, mysterious Africa's trade in gold, ivory, spices -- and humans, a business with the Europeans that lasted from 1482 to 1807. People were one of the last big products incorporated into the network. They became a bulk of the wealth once the Europeans figured out that they could cut out the Arab middlemen who for centuries had been buying slaves from local people and transporting them across the Sahara.
The ocean is stunning, with 8' waves crashing on the rocks a few yards from the whitewashed castle walls. The site was chosen so that large vessels could not come close, and slaves and other goods were transported in longboats.
The holding rooms are 20x40 with three small openings to let in the rain, used for drinking and washing away the leavings of up to 60 captives at a time. In 1993 archeologists discovered that the dirt floor was 14" above the original stone floor – people had been walking on the composted food, leaves and human waste that accumulated over centuries of trade. The compounded lives.
Our guide, a Ghanaian, was at pains to minimize any local complicity in the trade. Yes, local people worked on the fort, but they did not know its use. The Europeans collected small numbers of people from lots of areas, so the cells became a Babel, and there could be no rebellions. At every turn, the Europeans tried to divide and conquer, he said. What unity there was in the kingdoms was not clear, however.
He often pauses in the monologue for self-examination. "So what I am telling you is…" "I am simply saying that…" "The very truth is that…" It seems like he is stopping to examine his own speech, eager to show its value. The tourists nod, suitably awed and shamed by the relics of suffering.

There is more contradiction and discontinuity. It is impossible to trust anyone who cannot admit the continuous life of evil in all our history, and fear those who believe we are just a few decisive steps from ridding ourselves of it.

Moonlight on the waves seen from the hotel bar, silver on the dark water and the sea spray. The humidity fills with salt and sea spray, and when it catches the moon we are in silver air. Back in my room, the maid comes to turn down my bed. She brings a chocolate bar and a can of Raid.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Trip to Africa (1)

The Johannesburg airport was very efficient. Within 20 minutes of arrival my driver had my luggage in the trunk of his Toyota. Charles was a very jolly and polite Afrikaner. As we drove aboveground told me about being shot by a white man and saved by a black, about being carjacked when he stumbled between a renegade Zimbabwean soldier and his payroll robbery (he'd had to tell the man how to start the car), and how his injuries and life had been turned around by ballroom dance.

We drove to the Hilton in Sandton, the well-scrubbed and well-guarded enclave where people in my situation usually start. Dinner at a Thai restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square. My host, a Nigerian, displayed his countrymen's passion for meat, and their fearless ambition to shake things up. He has plans to build at least a half-dozen new enterprises in what he sees as a continent made new.

There is a growing consumer market here, and people keen to explore and exploit it. A market researcher named Hubert talks about the entertainment business, and the appeal that gangsta life, the guns and the coke dealing and the bling, holds for hundreds of thousands of young Africans. "It gives them a dream of something better." He meant a hunger for brands, products. I think he is correct.

Another visit, this one to manager at cellular phone company Vodacom. He discusses his company's business in Congo, where the armies of at least five nations are at war. Ten years ago there were 3,000 fixed lines in Congo, and less conflict. Now there are 2 million mobile phones. He taps his laptop and shows me a picture of Vodacom's Kinshasa headquarters: a tall glass buildings with an ugly black hole in the upper left corner. Three weeks before, a Russian-made tank pulled in front of the building and fired a round through it. It was the ruling power, looking for an opposition leader. "It was an honest mistake, they have apologized and they will pay for the damage," he says. "We are still friends."

You will notice, he says, that they did not shoot our switches. The army needs cell phones too. I also notice how calm he is about the whole affair, and wonder what kind of profits it takes for that to happen.

He taps another picture, a rural peasant in front of a big tree. The man had climbed 20 meters into the tree, until he was able to get a signal on his cell phone. He then built a treehouse at that height, and now charges his neighbors to climb up there and make a phone call. That, multiplied by 2 million, is why Vodacom wants to be in Congo, why he is humors a ruling power that shells him. This 45 year-old engineer, high in his Joburg office, is clearly having the time of his life.

One of new Africa's strengths may be individuality. "One thing is for sure," the Nigerian says, "at this point, nobody expects anything from their government.'

A famous restaurant in Soweto. As the center of the anti-Apartheid struggle, Soweto is Africa's most famous ghetto. We lunch in between busloads of tourists there to experience the slum that was the center of the struggle. My host, and Anglo-Ghanaian, was slightly embarrassed. At least, he pointed out to me on our way out, the second busload consisted of American blacks, not middle-aged American whites.

The nuisance bird here, the crow and the jay, is a medium-sized gray ibis. They tend to stay on the lawns, and off the high walls around every home and business – too much barbed wire and jagged glass. The birds have that same honking screech as our American birds, though they are even more oblivious and bold.

Business signs: "Security and house cleaning." "Firearms training and mobile phones."

It is 2 AM at a Johannesburg dance club. It is completely mixed black and white, everyone welcome and basking in the dream of unity and reconciliation, the best and most powerful part of the country's new political identity. The owner, a Frenchman, tells me that his club is South Africa's biggest importer of Veuve Cliquot champagne. One of the dancers shouts into my ear, barely loud enough to be heard: "You know what ended Apartheid? Brands. Nike. Coke. Everyone agreed on that." Brands, he thinks, will be the new music publishers, purveyors of all sorts of information. They are how we will organize out lives.

If brands unify the top of the New South Africa, poverty is the threatening source of rage. There is 27% unemployment, 90% in remote areas. It is the counterpart to the promise of healing, and it is not just a national problem, nor at a caliber most Americans understand. There are AK-47s left over from the horrible last years of apartheid, more guns from the wars in Mozambique and Angola, men with government-issued guns drifting down from the unraveling of Zimbabwe. And of course, guns issued to the many private security services. I go to dinner at friend's house and pass three security checkpoints and two spiked walls. At the heart of all the security is by all appearances a middle class English home, decorated with tasteful African carvings and baskets.

I ask my Ghanaian friend what it is like to be in a business that seems so promising, with the knowledge that 25% of his audience has AIDS. "Well, they will die," he says with a matter-of-fact seriousness. "Other people will take their place."

And he is right, I realize: Sentimentality is a luxury commodity. In the past 15 years, 5.3 million people have been killed in just six wars here – almost twice the number of slaves transported to North America from West Africa in all the centuries of slavery. To move forward, sentimentality is forbidden.

Before I left, many people who had been to Africa would at some point grow slightly misty and distant, and would tell me how it would "change" me. Meaning that my humanity would deepen by my witnessing timeless suffering; I would bear silent awe at the power to continue in the face of so much poverty and dashed hope. Such feelings are true, possibly even ennobling. But they came from people who were in this landscape by choice, and with their nobility was mindful of nearby air conditioners and potable water.

A farmer outside of Johannesburg is in some ways like a farmer everywhere: Business is terrible. The costs are killing him. He proudly displays an expensive and brand-new barn. Fearful of robberies, his field hands are no longer paid in cash, but instead now collect wages of about $200 via messages into their cell phones and ATM cards. The workers tell me the like it much better, though the illiterate ones have a hard time memorizing the prompting commands on the phones.

We fly north towards Ghana over tabletop land. Away from Johannesburg's hills of sand -- tailings from the mines, even in town -- the land is flat and empty. I look for habitation or a road as the sun goes down and we fly into Namibia. For more than an hour there is nothing. Later I spy a light in the darkness, a straight string of lights – a town, a village in the early dark. I imagine people gathering at the end of the weekend, the expectation of cars coming home. Then another string of lights, a perfect line, and then a crosshatch of orange lights with a green glow at each end. They are oil rigs, Angola's offshore oil bonanza. We are over the Atlantic.

We get off the plane in Accra at 10 PM to a punishing, puzzling humidity – such forceful heat that you want an explanation. Immigration officers display the storied national trait of hospitality and banter. A sign behind them encourages pedophiles to return home. Another reads "Smuggling? You will be caught – good luck," which seems excessively sporting.

I check into my hotel, a complex by the ocean with uneven Internet access. The phone rings at 2.30 AM. "Sir, I need the details of the woman you are with." -?- "…do I have the right person…sir, do you have a hat?" -?- "I am very sorry sir, I have the wrong room." The phone rings again a moment later. "Sir there is a woman who wishes to knock on your door. We have sent her away."

I lie awake for a long time, attuned to the meaningless and the sinister in a country I will not understand.

The morning radio leads with news of a trade fair – that Socialist-minded kind of prioritizing I remember from Singapore, and other remnant nations of the Empire. It adapted well from colonialism to self-rule. Still, it feels better than listening to the next station on the dial, a rapid and rugged French that I can't understand – signals from Cote d'Ivoire, now at the tail end of its civil war.

The hotel contains convention rooms, a business center, three restaurants, a bar, a business center, and twin guard towers flanking the beach side corners. Much of the time I am the only guest, and the guard is kind about letting me share the view from her post. A half-dozen of 20 tables are set at breakfast, and though the food is excellent we dine in slightly embarrassed melancholy. It is hard not to feel small and somewhat defeated, aware of the old expectations of important events, the commerce and celebrations expected as Ghana found its rightful place on the map.

The best people in places create a mood of waiting for the greatness so powerful that they themselves believe it. The staff responds to them instinctively. Black moths circle in the upper hallway, seeking refuge from daylight.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Aphorisms & c. (8)

The terrorist seeks to say “no” to History. Nothing more.

The market is a terrorist of necessity. All made new.

We are the creatures who wonder about “more.” It is around us, always.

A conversation you will never hear: “We have developed a new technology.” “Really? For God’s sake, keep it away!”

20 years ago I could read Pascal like a contemporary. Now I read him as if he is as remote as a classical Hindu. We have stepped into a new world.

Consider yourself to be among the dammed, and you assure yourself that the world was more than chaos.

Man is man and God is God. So all man’s logic must end in lunacy.

God is God, and not man. All God’s logic is comprehensive and infinite, and thus incomprehensible to man. Yet we would kill, based on our understanding of his logic.

Certainty is the greatest affectation.

We bask in the tyranny of the click, television channel and website, to concentrate away from the invisible worlds around us. Abandon fear, the information is at hand.

Embrace fear – it is information that your life may be about to change.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Aphorisms & c. (7)

Without our words, the world is a single event.

“When I was young…” a tragedy begins.

“When we were young…” a hundred comedies begin.

Everything speeds into the past, or rushes into the future, depending on whether or not it is alive. Nothing more.

In sleep we make a common brotherhood.

At a traffic light: One man eats cereal, a woman gestures at her phone, another driver curls her lashes, another man stares at a crucifix. Then all separate.

Before I go to Africa, everyone assures me that I will be “changed.” Meaning that my humanity will be deepened by the inhabitants’ poverty and suffering, the soulfulness of their deprivation. Which is possible, but only for those who you know they will return to air conditioners and potable water. Sentimentality is a luxury item.

A veteran diplomat, three decades in Africa: “We create an idea of civil wars in the context of a country’s history, the power struggles of an emerging nation. But it usually comes down to three or four guys, and the fact that there are no ‘winner take all’ situations, ever.”

A venture capitalist invests, believing his objective is 100% true. Until it is not.

We seek the work that affirms why God put us on Earth. That will also affirm God.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Aphorisms & c. (6)

The Traveler: I wake in the quiet morning, amid fog, with a sense of living in a diminished world – fewer species, fewer languages, few people who can talk with each other about one thing for longer than 15 minutes. The weather is said to be growing stranger every year. In its silence, the world around me shrieks.

Meaning is information combined with experience.

People are finally disappointed by most scientific breakthroughs. After all, they are about the world. There is no claim on our inner selves. That was the province of Art, which became more interested in a market value derived from shock and disapproval. The more disapproval Art aroused, the more money it made, guaranteeing ultimate approval.

Today’s artists, like celebrities, have become filters of data. They exist because they are seen, and their personalities are compelled to explain something. Or they are journalists, pointing at things and moving on.

We all end as Alexander, weeping at the frontier with no more to conquer.

The Traveler: A Kurdish cab driver in Jutland, Denmark: “Before, I had many plans. Now is not. Making a plan, any second it is a bomb.” He dropped me off and drove away past midnight at Legoland's hotel.

There was a beggar outside the billionaire’s compound in Delhi, pounding the limousine window while he dodges a delivery elephant. To live in our world is to embrace the contradictions of other worlds.

A Greek newspaper on the ferry to Pireus. “Gossip” is the only word in English.

Thermopylae, Nanking, Dresden, Shiloh, Da Nang, Stalingrad – if we had enough memory and language, the entire world would be a series of memorials for the folly and waste that once ended there.

God is infinite, We are not, in any way that we really understand. The struggle to connect those two realities has created most of our art and warfare. What if we are wrong? What if the infinite is here?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Aphorisms & c. (5)

I knew a highly accomplished American pair. Filled with the times and their excellence and love, they decided to adopt a child from a world's hellhole, and take on the world's evil. they did, and so the world showed them what evil was.

When we cannot remember having loved each other, we become ordinary. The world is shattered. The world does not care.

“She broke my heart.” Really, she handed it back to you. It was nothing personal; it was merely that she was done with it. Besides, you might need to give it to someone else.

We’ve stopped staring at the sky in dumbfounded wonder – did anything change? The city lights to smother them, of course, but the decision not to decide, the triumph of indeterminacy. A choice of cowardice.

There are colors bees know, sounds and patterns birds know, emotions we only feel when are brains reach a certain stage of physical development. Yet they say this is our one world. In fact, in our time similar things are emerging around us.

We are like a people in the middle of a great and long war, numb to our feelings. Like them, we will not even know we were numb until it ends.

Our work is the recognition and manufacture of ghosts.

The job of the world is dreaming. When we conceive of God, we think he cares about what we do when we are awake. What if he does not care about that, but wants to harvest the dreams?

The dream of artificial intelligence: Someday we will build machines with their own consciousness. And of course, they will be interested in us. What presumption!

Compassion is not finite. Nor, fate teaches, is grief.