Friday, March 20, 2009

Off the Beaten Track - Boston and Excursions

We have visited Boston many times ever since kids’ college days. Most of top attractions like Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,
Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, Glass Flower Collections of Harvard Museum of Natural History, New England Aquarium, etc. have been seen more than once already. On this recent trip, we decided to see some new and off-the-beaten-track spots. Below are some of the highlights.

Near the wonderful Children Museum in downtown, The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) new and beautiful building sits on a Pier and is architected by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (who are also responsible for the recent and ongoing re-development of Lincoln Center in NYC) and opened its door in Dec 2006. We went for the Supply and Demand exhibit of street artist Shepard Fairey’s work. If you haven’t heard of Shepard Fairey till recently, you are not alone. But you may have seen subliminally his André the Giant Has a Posse stickers in many city streets across the country for a while without knowing who created and distributed them. His tremendously popular and viral Obama Hope poster (now with Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery) from early 2008 changed all that. What also kept him on the media (and thus free promotions) were fist, the legal dispute with Associated Press about the “right to use” of the original photo owned by AP for his creation of the famed poster, and second, Boston Police’s arrest when he was on his way to the opening night event of the very ICA exhibit. Yes, he was charged for illegally posting his artworks on streets.

To see more of him and his work, you can click Images of Shepard Fairey and his work found from a Google search. As you can see, the influence of Andy Warhol on his work is clearly visible. Overall, Shepard Fairey’s techniques and expressions are nice but limited. However he seems to be more a rebellious activist with some art talent than an artist in his own right at this point. It remains to be seen if he can rebel against his own arts and find richer ways to express his thoughts and sense.

Traveling north of Boston about 16 miles to Salem, Massachusetts off Route 128, you will find Peabody Essex Museum (P|E|M) in a nice new building, one of the oldest museums in New England. Of course, Salem itself was a popular seaport turned into a successful tourist town in modern days; thanks to its claimed biggest Halloween party in the world and the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 by the Puritans where dozens of innocent people were wrongly accused of witchcraft and subsequently executed or died in jail. Currently a special exhibit MahJong of contemporary Chinese Art is being held where a significant number of collections in paintings, sculptures, photos, videos, etc. are in display. Many are provocative and reflect the search for freedom and independence of expressions since the end of Culture Revolution over three decades ago. Some of the portraits appear to have the influence of Andy Warhol as well and echo the questionings of authority like Shepard Fairey’s to some degree.

One unique exhibit of P|E|M is Yin Yu Tang, a 200 years old Chinese House from Huang Village 黃村 of Hui County 徽州, 250 miles southwest of Shanghai. This old house has two stories of 16 room with a courtyard in famous Hui-style Architecture (If you have seen An Lee’s movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 卧虎藏龍, you may recall the scenes of the lead characters flying over water with houses in tall white walls in the background. They were shot in this region). Few obvious observations: the rooms and halls have high ceilings and tall, carved hollow windows facing the courtyards. It suggests the climate of the area could be so hot and humid that excellent air circulation is paramount. Windows on outside walls are small with heavy wood panel. There is a passage door upstairs leading to the neighboring house. There are also solid wood doors that allow one seal the stairways to upstairs. It turns out Hui merchants 徽商 are well-known and prosperous traders throughout china. Men often are away from home for long period of time. All of these might suggest that this hilly region of China probably had some serious security concerns?

16 miles northwest of Boston, there is the DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park at Lincoln, Massachusetts. Art works and a number of sculptures by contemporary artists are on display in the gallery and scattered over this tranquil 35 acres woody area that was donated by Julian de Cordova, a local Boston business man over 50 years ago. One particular sculpture caught our eyes was Two Big Black Hearts by Jim Dine in 1985. We thought the embedded objects all over the hearts are both symbolic and creative. Don’t our hearts get scarred, deeply imprinted and overwhelmed with so much memory of our past? Isn’t it hard to even find some of them sometimes?

Driving 75 miles south from Boston, one will reach Newport, Rohde Island, where you can find traces left from the Gilded Age of American History, a far cry from those estates we saw earlier in Boston neighborhoods. By the way, the term "Gilded Age" was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 novel entitled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The novel was a satire of the greed and corruption of the post-civil war period (under the watches of the incompetent President Andrew Johnson and then the corrupted President Ulysses Grants who succeeded Abraham Lincoln from 1865 till 1877). As Thomas Gannon put it in his 1982 book Newport Mansions: the Gilded Age, "if the Gilded Age were to be summed up by a single house, that house would have to be The Breakers."

So, the first stop got to be The Breakers, a Vanderbilt house overlooking the Atlantic ocean to the east in Newport. To give you some idea, the mansion has 5 levels including basement and attic with a total 65,000 sq ft living area and has 70 rooms and 23 baths. The rooms are filled with mostly French furniture and decorations, designed and built in Paris and surround a huge Great Hall of 50x50x50ft in the center. If this is hard to picture in your head, just imagine after putting two average size 2 story colonial houses of Northeast on top of another two in this Great Hall, there are still spare space! With the one hour guided tour, one learns a lot interesting stories of the house and Vanderbilt family. For instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt, II who built this house as a summer cottage in 1893 (how modest!) and used it for less than 2 months a year. The first patriarch of Vanderbilt family was his grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt, a ruthless self-made business tycoon in transportation business, first ferry and steamship services and later in railroads. According to stories, he started his ferry business with a sailboat purchased using $100 borrowed from his mother (it seems many successful men started with loans from their mothers!). He undercut the price and engaged in fierce competition against a government granted monopoly. Even though his business was illegal, he prevailed and made it into a very profitable one that allowed him to expand rapdily and amass tremendous wealth.

To give you some idea how rich he was, Cornelius Vanderbilt is the 2nd richest person ever in U.S. according to a 2007 New York Times article, measured by % of GDP (by the way, John D. Rockefeller is number 1 and Bill Gate is Number 5) . By the time of his death in 1877, his fortune was over 1% of the total U.S. GDP and is comparable to countries like Israel and Singapore in today’s scale. You can imagine the parity and concentration of the wealth during the Gilded Age. Of course, the backlash against the excess of that era had led to the reforms of progressive ideas and establishment of anti-trust laws. The anger and sentiment against the lack of oversight by government and the excess of greed by the financial institutions that led to the current severe recession may be a repeat of the history?

Another worthwhile activity when visiting Newport is to walk the 3.5 miles Cliff Walk on the Atlantic shore. Although the natural scenery is not nearly as impressive as the cliff walk of similar length at the Bondi Beach near Sydney, Australia, it does have the bonus of seeing some of these fabulous mansions including The Breakers.

Well, can’t close this blog without saying something about food. There are many excellent restaurants in Boston area. If you are looking for a memorable fusion food experience, there is the famous Blue Ginger in Wellesley, 16 miles southwest of Boston. It is owned and run the Celebrity Chef Ming Tsai 蔡明昊 (haven’t you heard of him or seen his popular TV shows?). He had a formal training in Frech culinary school and experiences with various kitchens of different cusines. His creative use of Asian material, sauces and flavors from his Chinese heritage and Asian experience offers a different level of appreciation for fusion food. Judging from his recent expansion of the restaurant, the crowd and how hard it has been to make a reservation for weekend dinners at Blue Ginger, he seem to be doing really well. Personally, I like his classic Sake-Miso Marinated Alaskan Butterfish and Vegetarian Soba Noodle Sushi the best. It is a perfect example of how a grilled fish can compete favorably against Cantonese style steamed whole fish in both moist and flavor.

Talk to you soon!

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