Reviews

Art Gawking at Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

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I’m lucky to be able to travel the world for work as a museum planner, but this sometimes means I don’t spend enough time checking out the cultural offerings in my own back yard. Last week I finally made the trek up to Toronto’s new Aga Khan Museum. The museum was designed by the low-key star architect Fumihiko Maki and his team at Maki and Associates. A couple years ago I worked with Maki and Associates on the Bihar Museum, for which they won the international architectural competition. Incidentally, I’m currently working with the amazing team at Moriyama and Teshima Architects (MTA) on a new museum in Dubai. It turns out that MTA were the architects of record for Aga Khan Museum – small coincidences that show how small this world really is.

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The architecture of the Aga Khan Museum is elegant, though we didn’t get a chance to explore the beautiful grounds as it was snowing like crazy the day of our visit. However, the building works well as a museum – a beautiful courtyard allows for natural light to permeate the space while the galleries are beautifully lit, with the exquisite collection thoughtfully displayed.

There are some awkward elements that a general public probably won’t notice or find disturbing such as the placement of a freight elevator that directly opens into the permanent collection gallery, or the location of ‘exit’ signs extremely close to wall mounted artifacts. Overall, though there is great attention to detail in terms of how the objects are mounted and displayed. Beautifully minimal glass vitrines, custom mounts and impeccable exhibit lighting (a combination of in case and ex case lighting) allow the collection of Islamic artifacts to really shine. A bit more interpretation around key artifacts would have been nice, but for a museum visitor like myself who just likes to wander around and look at stunning objects this was an excellent experience. As the winter chill sets in, I’d highly recommend spending a few hours wandering the galleries then getting a bite at the restaurant. It’s worth the jaunt up.

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Eating North Korea

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Okryugwan – Dubai Chapter

As I wind down this most recent visit to Dubai I’ve been really trying to get into the spirit of things, namely by consuming as much as possible. In my regular down-to-earth Canadian life I’m ethically opposed to over-consumption. But as they say, “when in Rome”. As a result, this has been a trip of reserved excess. Reserved because I’m not on vacation and therefore cannot simply surrender to the siren’s song of consumerism.  Reserved also because my consumption is, I like to think, an aesthetic one, which is to say it’s a slightly elevated experience than the all you can eat breakfast buffet or the tour bus that shuttles the British seniors between the hotel, Jumeira Beach, and Dubai Mall.

Yes, the only defense against the mundane is to put on an air of self-importance. This too I learned over the weeks, which seems like years, in Dubai. What’s the point of all this you might ask? Well, the point is precisely this: North Korea has a restaurant called Okryugwan which is apparently a global chain and the have a branch in Dubai and this is what Wikipedia said of it:

“Okryugwan has various branches throughout China, which help the North Korean government to earn badly needed foreign exchange. Okryugwan is thus well-known even in South Korea. Each restaurant is reportedly required to remit US$100,000 to US$300,000 to Pyongyang per year, depending on local conditions.”

The tour buses are sadly not stopping here. But as responsible global citizens and sympathetic to the Great Leader’s need for foreign exchange (who doesn’t want to diversify their cash flow?) – and more importantly, people curious as hell about a North Korean chain restaurant, we simply had to give it a go. We proclaimed yesterday as Great Leader Appreciation Day to make it more festive. Strangely enough, I was the only person out of our party of 5 who had any real experience with Korean cuisine (shout outs to my peeps at Paldo Gangsan Toronto!). As a result, I think I was the only one who realized that North Korean cuisine is pretty much what my friends and I back home like to call, “Korean food”. We ordered a variety of dishes and as we ate the reality of the situation in North Korea was not lost on us. The thought that kept creeping into my head was, “This has gotta be soft power gone wrong.”

The Experience

They ask your nationality when you make a reservation. Not sure what the wrong answer is, but so far I can confirm Norwegian and Canadian are ok. Overall though the ladies that worked there were lovely and hospitable. It was a strange experience though because everything is perfectly orchestrated, from the woman dressed in traditional costume guarding the door, to the impeccable manners of the wait staff, to how they insist on walking you to the bathroom. The experience is diminished by reports that potential defectors and asylum seekers working at the restaurant risk punishment on their families back home.

They claim most of the food is imported from North Korea…which I sincerely hope is not the case (how about feeding your people first?). Below are images of what we ate. Pretty basic stuff if you know Korean food.

Cabbage Kim Chi

Cabbage Kim Chi

Marinated Raw Beef

Marinated Raw Beef

Mixed Mushrooms

Mixed Mushrooms

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Braised Beef

Ox tail soup

Ox tail soup

 

Sideways view of cold noodles

Sideways view of cold noodles

 

What happened after the meal was totally unexpected…cue karaoke night. Yes, we were the only ones in the restaurant and we ended up having special juice singing terrible renditions of songs ranging from the Backstreet Boys to yours truly belting out Eminem’s Stan to the applause of our sweet and very hospitable hostesses. Internal ethical considerations aside I would highly recommend going to Okryugwan. It’s definitely an experience to remember.

First song of the night.

First song of the night.

Strangely fun.

Strangely fun.

 

For more about Okryugwan see:

http://www.npr.org/2010/12/31/132491605/dubai-restaurant-offers-a-taste-of-north-korea

http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/asia-pacific/n-korea-serves-up-everything-but-politics-in-deira

http://www.fastcompany.com/1713872/karaoke-espionage-haute-cuisine-adventures-north-korean-governments-restaurant-chain

Return to The Square

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A few weeks ago I saw a film at the Toronto International Film Festival called The Square, a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim. It’s about the Egyptian Revolution as experienced by those who occupied Tahrir Square. The footage takes you from the start of the revolution up to the very recent events that happened after the downfall of Mohamed Morsi — the President elect who was deposed by the Egyptian military in July 2013. I could not believe how recent the footage in the film was. It seemed like news items I saw a week or two prior was edited into this beautiful, moving, and at times heart-stopping documentary. The film is, in a word, extraordinary.

I’ve been following the Egyptian Revolution on and off since it started back on January 25th, 2011. I still remember sitting in my Arabic lesson in Dokki on January 24th struggling to make my tongue work with the alphabet. Some co-workers had told me earlier that I should stay home the next day because there would be some protests happening on National Police Day. I had wanted to hang out downtown since it was a public holiday. I remember asking my teacher Ahmed if he thought there’d be trouble and if I should stay home. He smiled and told me it was just rumours, and that there’s always whispers of agitation but nothing really happens. A few people might try to step up, but those few usually get put back down. He told me to practice the alphabets over the week and that we’d pick up our conversation the following Monday. The next day all hell broke loose.

I never made it to Tahrir Square during Revolution Part 1. I was on the other side of the Nile in Giza when it all happened. The days were strangely quiet. The sun shone bright as ever with not a cloud in the sky aside from the plumes of black smoke rising in the distance. Twilight falls and I’m locked down, windows covered, eyes glued to CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. Then, tired of the news and unable to reach friends downtown, I’d lie awake listening to the gunshots announce the night.

We were evacuated February 2nd the infamous Day of the Camels. We’d eventually return after Mubarak resigned, and I’d make it to Tahrir, “The place of pilgrimage” a friend would tell me.

 

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As I sat watching The Square, I was reminded of how powerful a place can be. The truth of physically occupying a space together, especially one as iconic as Tahrir, can be overwhelming and you can’t help but be moved by it. But, as the film manages to capture, so beautifully and brutally, the truth of being together in a place can change. Tahrir, a beacon of hope, a promise of solidarity, and shelter from the shadows of the streets can be corrupted. It can be perverted and violated. There’s a scene in the film when Ahmed Hassan, the young revolutionary, decides to walk in the middle of the street of downtown Cairo, exhausted and I think a bit heartbroken.

That scene underscored the power of Tahrir, because if the sanctity of the Square can be broken, then what the hell is the point of walking on the sidewalk? Space would no longer have, or need to have, meaning. The pacing of the film was perfect. The story carries you along as you meet each individual united by Tahrir. It manages to capture the rage, the pain, the sorrows and the hope that keeps the revolution going. In the end, although Tahrir can be taken and physically transformed, it’s the spirit of Tahrir that keeps people standing tall. I loved this film. And I’m so happy it won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

If you’ve read this far then please, go see this movie…and invite me because I’d definitely see it a few more times.

 

#WhiskeyFriday & MRE Saturday

My fellow people. Today’s the day. My first foray into the fascinating world of MREs. The nondescript utilitarian brown package that contains the “most technically advanced food in the world”. If you’ve been following along you might be wondering why now? Why in the name of delicious brunch places in TO are you opting, on a Saturday, at prime brunching hour, to dive into MRE wonderland? You’re also probably wondering how it tastes? Let me tell you. But before I do, remember that episode of the Simpsons called Homerpalooza?

Remember when he was driving the carpool and was teaching the kids how to rock n’ roll like a goddamn king?

That’s exactly how I felt last night at the Twin Shadow concert at The Phoenix. I had injured my Achilles tendon earlier in the week so didn’t intend to rock out. In fact, the plan was to have a reasonably good time, no dancing – only gentle swaying. For a while my gentle-sway was totally on point. But it was #whiskeyfriday, the vibe was good, the music was good, and the drink was in me. When he finally played You Call Me On I was totally channeling Homer Jay, “Now when I listen to a really good song, I start nodding my head, like I’m saying ‘yeeess’ to every beat. Yes Yes Yes, this rocks. And then sometimes I switch it up like. No, No, No! Don’t stop-a-rockin’!”

It was a great night so let’s be real, gentle swayin don’t cut it! You can’t contain this! So, as a result here we are, and here I am, sitting on the sofa on this gloomy Saturday staring into a tall glass of carbohydrate electrolyte beverage powder, orange, natural and artificial flavour.

How’s it look? Orange. How’s it taste? Like powdered orange Gatorade only a bit saltier. Overall assessment? Last night, GREAT. Fake Gatorade? Welcome. Now off to get some real grub.

 

 

Spilling Ink for Terrible Food

“Good food deserves stern treatment”. These words were written by Welsh author Richard Llewellyn in his book How Green Was My Valley. The line has stayed with me over the years and I recall it often when I’m lucky enough to be seated at a table, mind-racing, the presence of others barely registering on the edge of perception because all I can think is, “Shut the fuck up and bring on the food”.

Good food deserves stern treatment. Such a simple sentence that can be appreciated by “foodies” and epicureans the world over. We live in an age where people are more educated about the culinary delights of the world than ever before. I often find myself thanking the gods that I live in times such as these where bone-marrow and foie gras have become almost pedestrian. You think Gordan Ramsey can offer sharp critique of a sub-par Yorkshire Pud? You haven’t heard me complain when the pacing of Sunday lunch at my aunt’s is not quite as desired. I mean, would it kill you to warm the plates before plating? How about timely maintenance of the table between courses?!

Come on! I’m trying to eat here!

Truly we live at a time where expectations for good food are at an all-time high. But, as expectations go up so too do standards (it is hoped). The number of Yelp! or Urban Spoon reviews I’ve read that wax poetic over a perfectly al dente bolognese, or a beautifully composed salad of seasonal herbs, fresh greens, goat’s cheese and poached pear (though a touch more citrus would have brightened up the plate) is enough to make one pause. Good food is all around us. And it has been given stern treatment.

But, what about mediocre food? What about the really god-awful shitty food? Don’t such dishes deserve some attention? Will noone spill some ink for the dishes left unfinished?

Well, I’m sure someone’s blogging about it already, but the point I’m trying to make is simply this: I came upon some army rations that look totally disgusting so I’m going to eat them and write about it here.

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Meal, Ready to Eat (photo: Christopherlin)

 

I have in my possession what feels like at least 2 pounds of random Meal, Ready to Eat rations. They look kinda like the ones in the picture above. The task before me is to eat them (and drink some of them) and then apply all of my years of learnings from countless hours spent watching Food Network to try to describe the experience of eating rations. In a condo. In downtown Toronto. Mostly because I’m bored.

Some of the key questions going into this experiment are: Does a not-too-shabby view of the CN Tower enhance the flavour? Are the rations more palatable if I’m wearing green, or some kind of camouflage? All this and more will become clear in the days to come.

Stay tuned gentle reader and follow along as my life takes an unexpected turn on this culinary journey.

P.S. For those who want to eat along you can order them here. Leave a comment to let me know you’re eating in solidarity.

P.S.S: The thought just occurred to me that I’m basically ripping off the movie Julie and Julia in which case I’m the Julie-equivalent and Meal, Ready to Eat is Julia Child. Not sure who’s got the short end of the stick on that one. Anyways, anyone looking to sue – too friggin’ bad, I’m claiming fair use, but am open to future film adaptations.

 

Mami Kataoka – Articulating the Invisible

Last Friday night (March 15) I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario for the Mami Kataoka lecture. She’s the Chief Curator of the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, one of my favourite museums.

Her talk, Contemporary Art in Japan: Visions and Views of the Universe, was part of the Asia Contemporary Speaker Series organized jointly by the Canadian Art Foundation and the Asia Pacific Foundation. For me, there were three big ideas of the evening:

  • Japan is an uneasy presence in Asia: In some ways, Japan is still struggling with modernity, for as Mami pointed out, “Japan modernized without becoming Westernized”.  This has shaped the national consciousness which in turn impacts the work of Japanese contemporary artists;
  • The possibility of a pan-Asian aesthetic is circumscribed by Asian sensibilities based on Asian philosophy, religion, and  values: This seems to be what makes Asian contemporary art unique – Mami was careful not to overstate any formal or stylistic qualities in the works she spoke of;
  • The rest of Asia is going through what Japan went through over 100 years ago (and is arguably still going through): by tracing the trajectory of Japanese art production as it evolved behind, beside, in front of, and at times in a head-on collision with modernity, she traced the contours of her curatorial vision and her views on contemporary Asian art. If the rest of Asia is now going through the process of modernization as Japan has done what then are the implications for the region? And how are Asian artists responding to modernization?

 

I found these concepts to be quite interesting especially as they relate to the topic of her lecture Contemporary Art in Japan: Visions and Views of the Universe.

Some of the artists that she briefly touched upon were: Haruo Mitsuta, Makoto Aida, Sachiko Kazama, Meiro Koizumi and Chiharu Shiota. According to Mami these artists are, “trying to articulate the invisible”. This idea stayed with me as did the notion that they are grappling with the “operation of the universe in a larger view”.

 

Sachiko Kazama, 風雲13号地 182×412cm unique woodblock print (panel, Japanese paper, sumi ink) Image from: Image from http://www.mujin-to.com/artist_kazama.htm

Sachiko Kazama, 風雲13号地 182×412cm unique woodblock print (panel, Japanese paper, sumi ink) Image from: Image from http://www.mujin-to.com/artist_kazama.htm

 

From my untutored perspective, these artists seem to explore a broader relational view of the world. The works she discussed seem to explore phenomena or concepts without insisting on the work’s visibility in and of itself (though of course the work exists and is sensible). The works seem to call forth a hidden essence, whether exploring unseen natural phenomena, social relationships, the hidden world of dreams, or recovering the past through traditional production techniques.

They evoke something that exists horizontally and beside the realities of what is already known and present. By trying to articulate the invisible these artists make visible the continuities of tradition, philosophies of interconnectedness/interdependency and balance.

If there is such thing as a pan-Asian aesthetic or sensibility then it is rooted in the ties the bind us to the past, and because modernity doesn’t necessarily come with outright Westernization then the patterns of artistic production that are emerging in Asia might well show us visions and views of a universe that is yet unknown (which I understand as not colonized by Western modernity and the world that emerged from it).

I think this is what she meant when she spoke of the urgency for contemporary Asian artists to continue to create side by side and to respond in their unique way to the changes on the continent and around the world.

As with all good lectures, I left feeling enlivened by the ideas Mami espoused, but also unsettled because there was so much to grapple with and to think about. I look forward to August when she’ll be back to install Ai Wei Wei: According to What? (August 17 – October 27, 2013) at the AGO.

 

 

It’s not about running away. It’s TOTALLY about running away.

This weekend was exhausting, but in a good way. In addition to my unofficial, Toronto version of Cultivated Wit’s #whiskeyfriday (unofficial because it was really just a regular TGIF hangout session, super unofficial because I forgot to mention to the group that it was #whiskeyfriday), I went and checked out a film at the Canadian Art Foundation’s Reel Artists Film Festival at the TIFF Lightbox.

The documentary I saw was about photog. Alex Soth called, Somewhere to Disappear (directed by, Laure Flammarion & Arnaud Uyttenhove). The tag line for the film, “It’s not about running away, it’s about the desire to run away.” basically sums it up. I guess I was expecting a film that explores a romantic notion of escape – the flaneurs of the world losing themselves in vast expanses of space and time – dreams, cities and endlessly winding streets. This was not that.

It’s an interesting film though – slow, meandering, handheld, choppy. Somewhere to Disappear is a meditation on the desire to escape through a series of encounters orchestrated by Alex Soth as he travels around the U.S. is his minivan documenting various places of escape and the people who have effected their own escape.

The encounters that unfold are sometimes unsettling and often moving. On the one hand there’s the reality of (troubled) individuals who have chosen to foreswear society  for various reasons. On the other, there’s this artist who claims time and again that his project is not about actually escaping, only the idea of escaping. And yet, as the film ambles on the viewer gets the sense that Alex is himself on the cusp of disappearing.

As we follow him on his creative journey we are witnessing his actual escape into the world he constructs. You realize that although motivations for escape differ the end result is not romantic, rather, it’s lonely, isolating and ultimately that there may be no return.