Down South: Roadside Alabama

A quick change of pace and locale. Even though I live in beautiful Astoria, Queens, my husband is currently homesteading in the wilds of Alabama. That makes it sound much more dramatic than it is — he’s a lawyer, and he has a fellowship with an incredible organization in Montgomery. He’s been there since June, and has settled in nicely. The pace is slower, the air is thicker, and the sun sets a little earlier than up here, which is to say that he’s pretty pleased.

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Montgomery’s riverfront on the Alabama River.

We drove E down to Alabama when he moved: 17 hellish hours in a tiny car over two days, with two drugged out cats in the backseat. It was one of the least fun things I’ve ever done. BUT! We did get to do one awesome thing, and it’s all thanks to one of my favorite websites, Roadside America. If you’ve ever been on the website, you know that it’s an amazing wonderland where you can learn about things like the World’s Largest Ten Commandments or Trundle Manor.  And, when we were dragging all of his personal effects down to Alabama the Beautiful in my tiny, beat up Hyundai Elantra, we used it to find Foamhenge.

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Foamhenge is a roadside attraction located in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is, as the name suggests, a full-size replica of Stonehenge made entirely by one man, completely out of styrofoam. The foam is painted with a faux stone finish, and there is a fiberglass wizard keeping watch over the whole site. It. Is. Amazing. And when you’re six hours into a road trip where the cats won’t stop meowing directly behind your head, it’s even better.

My last trip to visit E was over Labor Day weekend, and I was there for nearly a whole week! We had a pretty jam-packed agenda of stuff that E wanted to show me after spending a month and a half getting acquainted with the place. One day, we drove up to Birmingham to visit the inspiring Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and see some of the nearby historic sites. On our way back, I got to thinking that we must be passing some awesome sites that we just didn’t know about because we weren’t locals, and that’s when I found my new favorite app: the Roadside America app!

It can use your phone’s GPS to figure out where you are and recommend attractions in the area for you to check out. Our first stop was Alabama’s Statue of Liberty, a one-fifth scale replica of our copper gal striding above the highway near Birmingham.  Originally built to perch above an insurance company’s offices in Birmingham, it now has its own park near the headquarters for Alabama’s Boy Scouts of America, which is also in an interesting building. Seeing Lady Liberty peeking above the trees almost made me forget I wasn’t in New York. And! Her torch is actual fire, lit by Alabama natural gas. (Sidenote: There are SO MANY replica Statues of Liberty! I want to see them all.)

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Our second stop on our drive back to Montgomery was this amazing water tower in the form of a peach in Clanton, Alabama. This sucker holds half a million gallons of water, and is placed within sight of the highway, near an extensive peach and peach-products market. It is a thing of beauty.

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As we were getting back in the car after one of these stops, E asked me why I love stuff like giant peach water towers and replica Statues of Liberty. I suppose that I love them because they are completely absurd, but are usually taken totally seriously by their creators. Often, I feel that we’re all falling into that trap — we take our lives, our decisions, our needs so totally seriously, but in reality there is a certain absurdity to this world and to this life, and as humans we’re just lucky that we have brains big enough to notice the absurdity of others, but rarely of ourselves. That sounds really cynical, but I actually really love that about our species. We can impart importance even when we suspect that the test of time will render us all rather absurd.

(Post Script: I just found out about Bamahenge. Rest assured that a visit to this will happen, too.)

Complex Beauty: Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

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I haven’t been to The Cloisters in about a million years (scientific!), and Sunday was a glorious early Autumn day in the city, so I figured it was about time to make the trek to Fort Tryon Park. An additional draw was the chance to experience Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, a work I loved at PS1.

The piece is considered Cardiff’s masterwork. She recorded each member of a 40-part choir singing their individual parts of a 16th century motet and plays each recording on its own, dedicated speaker. The effect is gorgeous when you’re standing amongst the speakers, hitting you square in the chest in a way that most recordings of the human voice just don’t. And, as an additional layer of the experience, you can walk to each speaker and listen to the individual parts. I haven’t been to a choir performance in a while, but I don’t think they welcome audience members to walk from performer to performer.

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 At PS1, the speakers were arrayed in an empty, white-walled former classroom, with large windows letting light pour in. The work was surprising and interesting, and it was a delight to wander among the speakers after a beer at WarmUp last summer. At the Cloisters, Forty Part Motet is placed in the “Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain.” The chapel is impressive, and has wonderful acoustics, but I actually found the setting distracted from the work. It put it into a religious context that, for someone who does not identify with that religion, made me feel like I should not be enjoying the piece as a work of art, but as a religious work. And it also pushed the piece into the realm of the heavy-handed and, dare I say, a bit cheesy.

That said, I still found the work inspiring, and admit that I probably wouldn’t have made it up to the Cloisters without it as a draw. The chapel was bustling with visitors on Sunday, and the galleries were well-attended. And even though I preferred the experience at PS1, there was some magic in hearing strains of the music filtering through the labyrinthine rooms and courtyards of the museum. It was a reminder of the lives many of the objects on display at the Cloisters had before they were in a museum, when they were in use, and that is a powerful thing.

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Forty Part Motet is the first contemporary piece to be shown at the Cloisters, which itself deserves more thought than I am qualified to give it. It will be on display at the Cloisters until December 8, and is definitely worth the long subway ride to northern Manhattan. After you visit, consider jumping on the M4 bus for a scenic ride down to the Met, same-day admission to which is included with your Cloisters ticket. (A slightly stranger spot to visit near the Cloisters is the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, where the remains of Mother Cabrini, who was canonized in 1946, are displayed.)

New Favorite: #AskaCurator Day! Today!

TODAY, September 18, 2013, is #AskACurator Day! Jump on Twitter (and find me at @heyshaelyn!), where you can use the hashtag #AskACurator to reach scores of curators from almost 600 participating museums who are at the ready to answer your questions about the field, their collections, their interactions with visitors, their favorite colors – anything you’ve ever wanted to #AskACurator!

I opened the Twitter app on my phone this morning, intending just to browse, and couldn’t help but ask some questions of the lovely curators in Europe who were online at that time. The response has been incredible, even to my sleep-muddled, lame questions. I can’t wait for curators in the US to join the fun any minute now!

More info, from the day’s organizer here.

A list of participating museums here.

Quick Hit: The Unisphere!

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Unisphere, taken between 1980 and 2006 – Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I have gushed before about visiting Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of both the 1939-40 and 1964-65 world’s fairs. One of my favorite fair remnants is, of course, the Unisphere, which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Queens, though few people get out to see it in person. 

The structure is huge, and it’s very, very difficult to get a feel for its scale in photos. Standing 140 feet tall (that’s 12 stories!), it’s the largest globe structure in the world. It was built for the 64-65 world’s fair, the theme of which was “Peace Through Understanding”. The Unisphere itself was dedicated to “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe”. I love that dedication — I think it’s entirely relevant today, nearly 50 years and several paradigms later.

The structure was built on the foundations of the Perisphere, the centerpiece of the 39-40 World’s Fair. It was donated by the US Steel Corporation and built by Mohawk ironworkers. The three rings represent the paths of the three satellites that were in orbit during the fair, and at night a light glowed from the site of each capitol city on the globe, including one for the Kahnawake Indian Reservation, in honor of the Mohawks. In order to prevent any of those lights from going dark during the two fair seasons, there were three bulbs on a rotating base that could be rotated out if any light burnt out.

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Nowadays, the Unisphere mostly looks like this photo, taken in April – sort of sad. The fountains at its base are usually empty (or holding some stagnant water if there’s been a rainstorm lately), and kids are usually playing on its base or skateboarding around the edge of the fountains. There is one glorious time of the year, though, when Flushing Meadows-Corona Park takes the national stage, and the Parks Department decides it’s worthwhile to turn those fountains on.

In late August and early September, the US Open tennis tournament enlivens this end of the park with scores of people hanging out all day long to watch tennis matches. AND the Unisphere has its pools full and fountains on, spraying water joyfully into the air! 

If you’re heading out there between now and Monday to catch some tennis, definitely stop by the Unisphere for a gander and a photo. And, if you’ve been meaning to get out to Corona to explore the World’s Fair history there, it’s as good a time as any. Unfortunately the Queens Museum is closed for renovation until October, but there’s still plenty to enjoy – including baby sea lions at the Queens Zoo, also located in the boundaries of the park!

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