I got shampoo in my eye in the shower of media attention

I'm at a loss to explain the astonishing lack of coverage of Olafur Eliasson's massive public art project in New York Harbor. One would think that at the very least the blogosphere would have something to say about the four towering waterfalls, conveniently positioned for maximum visibility off the south-eastern tip of manhattan, since this is exactly the sort of big, crowd-pleasing, innocuous and offensive-to-no-one-(except-hard-core-curmudgeons) sort of "art event" that usually brings in the bloggers in droves. Perhaps I need to improve my googling skills, but I haven't heard a word.

The free IKEA-contracted New York Water Taxi cruises past an Eliasson waterfall at the south end of the Brooklyn promenade. This a great way to get a look at the installation from the water, without spending a dime. On the whole, the evening view is far better than the daytime view, when the waterfalls are a bit lost in the city landscape.

Illuminated a much cooler color than the ochre skies above our incandescent yellow city, the waterfalls pop out of the nocturnal landscape, mysterious flowing blue diagonals detached from their almost invisible scaffolds. The last run on the IKEA ferry is about 10PM; I recommend a round-trip started from either end of the route about 9.


9th Street Lagoon

A torrential half-hour thunderdump turned 9th St. between the Gowanus and 2nd Ave. into a lake this evening, inspiring most traffic other than the always intrepid B-77 bus to divert through the Lowe's parking lot. Like Weegee with a squeegee, we were on the scene to capture this important moment in nautical history.

UPDATE: Gowanus Lounge, a favorite and prolific Brooklyn-centric blog, has four of our photos of the watery wasteland of lower 9th Street.


Bamboo Kayak Attack

It's a slow news week here in Red Hook, a perfect moment to delve into the history, personal and global, of the bamboo kayak. Arcane, you say? Perhaps. But once again the converging lines of conspiratorial coincidence lead us inexorably to our topic.

Years ago, before any thought of visiting Antarctica had ever entered my mind, I went through a phase during which I exhaustively researched home-made kayak and canoe construction online. It was rather like that moment 10, 11, or 12 year-old girls go through, when they can't get enough of horses. At the time I was living in my main man Alex's vacation hideaway, a simple frame cottage built atop a ridge in the highland forests of Puerto Rico. I was working on my book in the mornings, and luxuriating in free afternoons, and I had the thought that I might spend some of them paddling along the shores of the Caribbean, a twenty minute drive downhill from my writer's retreat.

There were many recipes for boats to be found on the web, even back in 2000, but most called for exotic ingredients like one-quarter inch marine-grade luan plywood, dozens of knot-free board feet of British Columbian cedar stripping, or expensive epoxies manufactured in northeastern sailing havens. None of these things were easy to find in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico at any price. In any case, my budget for the project was slim, and ideally, zero.

It was then that I stumbled upon Craig O'Donnell's The Cheap Pages, a blog about one man's personal passions compiled before the word blog had even been invented. Obsessed with home-made guitars, his dead cat, and, first and foremost, the construction and navigation of extraordinarily low-budget water-craft, this was clearly the production of someone after my own heart. Years before the emergence of the e-book and Google's scans of the entire contents of the world's libraries, O'Donnell sought out and digitally reproduced countless obscure public domain texts on small boating adventures. (Sadly no link, as at the moment the Cheap Pages are down; one can only hope that soon they will be restored.... UPDATE: Thankfully back online.)

I had never heard of Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian polar explorer, but there he was, visiting the Greenlandic Inuit in the 1880s and appreciating their magnificent kayaks, built entirely from driftwood in a land without trees. (It was probably by looking at kayak frames that Nansen developed his theory that the polar icecap actually has a directional flow, rather than being frozen in place. He identified the wood he saw in Greenland, most likely in the form of kayak parts, as having come from Siberian tree species, and hypothesized that they had drifted up and over the north pole to get there. He soon put this hypothesis to the test.)

Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen left their ship, the Fram, frozen in the arctic ice, and set out for the north pole on foot, dragging their bamboo kayaks behind them on sledges.
Photo of photo taken at The Fram Museum, Oslo

We will perhaps never know exactly where Nansen got the idea to build his own kayaks out of bamboo. Almost as intriguing is to wonder where he sourced it from, for he would have had to bring it to Norway from more tropical climes. He must have had something in mind for the bamboo he stowed in the hold of the Fram. I've already theorized that his bringing bamboo along with him might suggest he knew all along that he would eventually abandon the ship and continue on foot. He not only survived the experience but went on to win the Nobel peace prize for his work with Armenian refugees, making him one of the indisputable world's coolest humans.

Nansen, paddling a kayak he brought back to Norway from Greenland.
Image shamelessly stolen from The Nansen Photo Archive.

Bamboo, O'Donnell suggested, is an ideal material from which to build a kayak. It is strong, flexible, lightweight and easy to work; what's more, it is fabulously "green" and "sustainable." Timber bamboo reaches maturity in three years. On the property in Puerto Rico it grew in abundance, to heights of thirty feet and more, great culms as big around as my thigh. It was late spring, when bamboo sprouts, putting on all its annual growth in a short month. New canes were poking up outside the kitchen window, and they grew so fast that when I left my hillside retreat to go food shopping I would return to find the shoots a foot taller. I harvested some older, mature canes and set to work.

Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, early in 2001, the framing almost complete. Note duct-tape holding the glorious craft together, where the gunwhales meet at the stern end.

Aft cockpit view of one of Nansen's bamboo kayaks, which are on display at the Fram Museum in Oslo, but barely; this boat was under a diorama, beneath the guardrail, and difficult to get a good look at, let alone photograph.

Patch on the Nansen Kayak. Eighteen months of dragging these boats across icy pressure-ridges made for lots of frozen-fingered sewing to effect repairs in the field

Interior of Nansen kayak, including ancient polar dust, photographed by surreptitiously thrusting my camera down into the cockpit. The view towards the bow, where the paddler's feet would be.

Stern view

The author, demonstrating the whisper-light character of the SS Adjuntas. The skin is a tan polytarp, purchased at Wal-Mart and sealed with more duct tape.

The "swimyak," in action.

Maiden, and only, voyage, on a local mountain pond. Design flaws were immediately apparent; this kayak had literally half an inch of freeboard and required immaculate balance. From the way the bow protrudes from the water like a torpedo I also appear to have positioned the cockpit a good eight or twelve inches too far aft. I hadn't intended to build a bamboo "sit on top" kayak, and decided my lovely was not quite fit to brave the savage waters of the Caribbean.

Final three photos: Cynthia Kirkwood


Edward Hopper Rolls over in his Grave

It is difficult to agree with Mr. Rogers that today is a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Today marks the grand opening of Ikea, Brooklyn, a massive big box store that will irrevocably alter life in the formerly tranquil waterfront reaches of our beloved Red Hook. On weekends it is predicted that as many as 17,000 cars will come here bringing shoppers, and many of them will inevitably clog Red Hook's main drag, the formerly somnolent Van Brunt St., already much busied by traffic heading to the Fairway Supermarket. Last night we wandered down to enjoy Red Hook's last sleepy evening and have a look at the monstrosity.

The last days of emptiness

The owners of an equally vast lot next door are hoping some other massive retail developer will jump on the bandwagon, raising neighborhood fears that this district of ancient red brick warehouses and desolate pilings is destined to become a grotesque, gigantic shopping mall.

Hoping to generate some press and advance publicity, Ikea suggested that eager buyers camp out, competing to be the first lucky entrants to the store. The prize? A free sofa to the first 35 visitors, and an armchair for the next 70 or so. This is the first truly urban Ikea, and this promotional idea, while it might be cute in the suburbs, attracted a motley crowd who reduced the pristine facade of the new and massive structure to a squalid vision peopled by refugees and strewn with crumpled blankets.

Squalor and Pathos: The tragic blight of homelessness? The unexpected cancellation of a regional bus service? A pre-dawn ritual of chronic users awaiting the opening of the methadone clinic? No, it's the grand opening of Ikea!

None of those waiting claimed to be in desperate need of a new sofa, although many agreed that Ebay and Craigslist would next week be full of cut-rate deals on brand-new seating, offloaded by winners of this perverted "contest." Instead the campers suggested that they were excited to be part of an historic event, as if being one of the first to enter the new Ikea was akin to meeting Obama, or shaking hands with the pope. Many shared a sense of fleeting celebrity that seemed for them to obscure the desperate lack of imagination and shuddering boredom manifested in this simultaneous embrace and indictment of consumer culture. (There were also greasy-haired and bleary-eyed fellow bloggers, irate at being herded about by Ikea security guards. To which we can only say that if you join the line waiting to go into the corral, expect to be treated like cattle.)

Object of desire: the elusive sofa, glimpsed through the still-locked front door of the Ikea store.

If the grimness of this waiting game and our anticipation of the traffic horrors to come weigh more heavily on our minds than the easy access we will now have to cheap candles and furniture predestined to collapse, we must admit being impressed with the public esplanade, which has many massive benches, waterfront views, and abundant landscaping. Ikea seem unaware that they have moved into the ghetto, and have dotted the walkway with numerous chaise longues perfect for taking in the afternoon sun, with none of the usual bumps and "armrests" designed to prevent actual sleeping. There is room for many people to live here, and it could be quite comfortable, particularly if the port-o-potty near the ferry terminal remains unlocked and in operation. Here Laura takes a quick catnap. We're considering renting out the house for the rest of the summer and moving to Ikea plaza. After all, it is Ikea itself that is promoting the idea of stopping by and camping out.

UPDATE: Although the free water taxi shuttling to Lower Manhattan every ten minutes certainly eases the sting, I'm afraid this post, more heartwrenching than the smartass postcard to Ikea I wrote above, really nails it.


Homage to the Bechers

"...no one can claim to have truly seen something unless he has photographed it." --Emile Zola

Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German industriologist-photographer couple known for their "typologies," have had a broad influence on the contemporary practice of photography. The typologies, spanning the bulk of the duo's career, are selections of images of various classes of building, arranged into formal series. There are several ways to look at this work, which sits firmly at the intersection of documentary and art photography.

Their relentless cataloging, the obsessive focus on building type, each with its limited and specific use, be it industrial or agricultural, acts to preserve in the historic record a vernacular expression of function; there will never be a better resource for future historians researching, for instance, the shape and construction of the water tower once it has faded into obsolescence.

In the context of photography and the (perhaps flawed) historical conception of what the fundamental artistic essence of that medium is, however, the Becher's work is far more than a visual list of inspirational architectural elements, like a collection of butterfly wings. Beyond the evident care with which the Bechers chose, composed and exposed, there is, in the tireless repetition of subject, a firm commitment to the modernist project. (My photographs here, quick stop-and-snaps, were made with considerably less attention to composition and light, additional layers of coherence in the Becher oeuvre.) After looking at ten grain elevators one appreciates their common elements; spending time with twenty-five one begins to consider what makes each unique; and after fifty one ponders what it is that makes a good photograph, with the subject becoming almost peripheral. Certainly you will never look at a real-life grain elevator the same way again. Is it possible that your relationship to the photograph itself has changed as well?

In this way the Becher's work reminds me of Giorgio Morandi, who repeatedly painted the same collection of empty glass bottles, from time to time gently rearranging them on a tabletop in his studio, for decades. Looking at these paintings, content, what there was of it, slips away, evaporating entirely. In his resolutely figurative canvases, repetition begets abstraction.

But the typologies are also the narrative of a couple spending life on the road together, in that they may be read as a kind of a travel journal. The images, annotated with the date and location of their capture, trace journeys through the Ruhr valley or the American high plains. With a certain facetiousness Hollis Frampton is said to have disparaged the very notion of "non-narrative" film as practiced by his contemporary Stan Brakhage, who was focused on inventing a non-linguistic visual poetry, by remarking that every film includes within it the narrative of its own making. While edging towards a reductio ad absurdum, in the case of the Bechers, the notion, especially for fellow-travelers unwittingly following their footsteps across the great northern plains decades later, adds an interesting dimension to the work.

Here, the grain elevator is not defunct. It still rises over the prairie, often the only prominent architectural feature to be found piercing Big Sky country. But where did the Bechers stop for lunch? Not at the strip mall. It wasn't there yet, at least not on the first trips they made, of many. Did they stay at the Hi-Line motel? Perhaps they packed picnics and ate them in the shade of the grain elevators. How were two Germans received, some thirty years after the close of World War II, as they drove from one dusty feedlot to the next, spending endless hours installing their large format camera on its tripod, searching for the perfect angle, waiting for the perfect light, the perfect sky? What did they explain to the county sheriffs, and the predecessors of the Department of Homeland Security?


Coincidence, or inspiration?

Given that the Suddeutsche Zeitung ran my photo of the gasoline infrastructure being swallowed up by the jungle on Monday, and that only one blog post earlier I signaled Camilo José Vergara as an important photo-chronicler of collapsing American architectures, I'm wondering just where the New York Times came up with the brilliant idea to run some of Vergara's photos of defunct gas pumps on the op-ed page today, Friday, the 13th.

"I have often been amazed by the ways harsh and aggressive forms are taken over by the natural world," Vergara writes. Amen to that, and boy do we love scooping the Times.

Also in the NYT today, our nomination for humanitarian-of-the-year award goes to one Mr. Louie Brundidge, mentioned in the final graphs of a story about flood devastation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the Cedar River is as much as 17 feet over its banks and the entire city center is below the surface. A guy named Demenick Ankum "drove to his house on 19th Avenue to save anything he could. By the time he finished packing, his car was underwater. He had to pay a neighbor, Louie Brundidge, $10 to rescue him from the house in Mr. Brundidge's red aluminum boat."

How's that for your fabled midwestern hospitality? Thanks so much, Louie, you are a gentleman and a patriot, valiantly upholding the values our great nation is known for. We're sure your mother was proud to have you.


I knew this whole blogging thing was going to pay off eventually...

One of the many sharp-eyed antarcticiana-reading newspaper editors around the globe thought this image from our recent travels was too good to pass up, and slapped it on the front page of Monday's edition of one of Europe's major dailies. Well, at least one section of the paper, the uniquely European "feuilleton." What's more, instead of simply stealing it, they actually contacted me and purchased it, in cold hard euros, the new dominant world currency. If anyone has enough German to offer a translation of the photo caption in the "comments," it would be much appreciated. We're getting something about the ruins of an obsolete culture, but by the time we muddle our way down to what seems to be the mention of a Croatian engineer, we've pretty much lost the thread...


Transcontinental Gas Guzzle, part 5, Blighted Industry edition

The final installment of the transcontinental marathon took us down through Michigan, around Ohio's shores and across northern Pennsylvania, areas firmly situated in the rust belt, the faded industrial heartland that was the United States' steel and auto production epicenter and blue-collar paradise. Definitively outsourced, downsized and globalized into obsolescence over the last thirty and more years, this region now offers an abundance of unique fixer-upper opportunities for those willing and able handymen still able to get a home-improvement loan during this time of difficult credit.

Saginaw pawnshop awaits your TLC and weed-killer.

Bring a sheet of plate glass and some merchandise to this breezy former pharmacy in Saginaw and you will be back in business in no time!

Civic pride in Flint

Detroit has the only abandoned skyscrapers I'm aware of, classic gems standing tall and empty. See Forgotten Detroit for photographs and histories of these ghostly buildings. The photographer Camilo José Vergara has also been making images of many of these buildings for years.

This mural fantasy, of a sylvan glade butted up against the cerulean waters of Lake Erie or Lake Michigan, was probably originally painted here to bring some cheer to this dismal block of abandonment. Unfortunately the dilapidated police barricades, meant to prevent the use of the sidewalk, and the fallen and falling shattered slate cladding peeling off the building, rather diminish the effect.