Finland, France, Norway, and South Dakota.

No, it's not my next travel itinerary. Just random bits of interesting things.

We recently watched Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (2011), a French language film shot in Normandy. Incredibly atmospheric, wonderfully unexpected. Highly recommended.

Jean-Pierre Darroussin and his anana.

Other films recently watched that deal with similar concepts of underemployment, illegal immigration, and acts of humanity: Rosetta, by the Dardenne brothers and Biutiful, by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Actually I couldn't get through Rosetta. Biutiful, while very good, was several hours of low grade misery. It really made me think closely about the overwhelmingly consumeristic tastes of the world. The cheap mass production and consumption of goods is so universally depraved. I could hardly enter a retailer today, jam packed with rabid customers and piles of stuff, without feeling sick. There's just too much being made and usually by people who are not necessarily regarded ethically. Do we really need all of these things? Of course not. No. But am I helping anyone but myself if I cut my intake of products (from Old Navy to Apple) newly made-in-China, India, Bangladesh, Tunisia, et cetera? I don't know the conditions under which most things are made, even those made in America or France or Italy. It's a difficult and emotional question. Best plan? Keep object based purchases down to a bare minimum, appreciate what I have, learn to make more things myself, and of course: travel! This must be the best way to spend money I think.

While doing library research, I was thrilled to find out that this amazing medieval stave church in Norway...

Early Christian Borgund church, Norway, 12th century

was copied by architects in South Dakota! It's well known that the northern states of the Midwest were heavily settled by Scandinavians. It seems that there were plenty of Lutheran Norwegians in South Dakota. These guys were granted the original blueprints of the medieval church and went for it! I have never, ever been inspired to take a trip to that part of the country, but now I find myself puzzling together an adventure that will lead us right there. 

In both the original and the modern reproduction, wonderfully carved wooden dragons alternate with crosses, marking the combination of pagan beliefs with Catholicism.


Art of The Jewish Ghetto, Venice, Italy.

The history of the word ghetto, in the modern sense, begins in 16th century Venice. The Republic there made an official decree that those Jews (Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe) coming in large numbers to the city must live and work in a restricted area. This area was the part of the city where metal foundries (geti in Venetian dialect) had been situated since antiquity. Since the Jews did not speak Venetian, the pronunciation of geti became corrupted and evolved into today's definition of marginalization, ghetto.

The Jewish ghetto is a small island in the Cannaregio sestiere. During the 16th century two bridges, which connected this island to others, were raised at dusk and gates were locked so that no one could enter or leave.  It was also in this area where we see the beginnings of tenement style housing. In order to fit as many people as possible on this tiny island, buildings were built to be up to eight stories high which was very unusual for Europe at that time. Even today there are few buildings this tall in most parts of Europe.

Tenement housing in Venice. 

On our second day in Venice we got up early for a guided tour of the Museo Ebraico and the five 16th century synagogues in the Cannaregio sestiere. These synagogues are located on top of pre-existing buildings. You can spot them, though they are understandably secretive, by a five window repeat on the facade and a small dome. 

Five window facade (top floor) denotes a synagogue.

The dome of the Canton Schola, side view.

Each synagogue is associated with a different community, such as Spanish, Levantine, German or Italian and each practiced different Jewish rites. The Canton Schola, which practiced the Ashkenazi rites and holds only 25 people, was founded in 1531. It was heavily restored in the 18th century which explains the ornate baroque interior. 

What really struck me as we toured around the Canton Schola were the eight wooden panels showing Biblical episodes from the Book of Exodus: the city of Jericho, the crossing of the Red Sea, the altar for the sacrifices, the manna, the Ark on the banks of the Jordan River, and Qorach, the gift of Torah and Moses that makes water flow from the rock. As we know, Judaism as well as Islam, prohibits the use of figural imagery in religious art. There are exceptions of course, ancient Dura Europos being one of the most famous.

Moses leads the Jews across the Red Sea. On either side of Moses and the hands of God, are Egyptian soldiers. On the left you can see that they are in order, however, as the sea is recombined on the right, they are drowned.
Wall fresco, Dura Europos Synagogue, Damascus, Syria, 3rd c.

Here is the same narrative, from the 16th century Canton Schola, boiled down to the absolute essentials.

The Red Sea sans Moses.

In these panels, the figures, which in most cases are important aspects of the narrative, are completely excised. I wasn't surprised at all by this, but my response was interesting. After looking over the panels carefully for several minutes it seemed to me that the absence of these figures only made their presence much stronger since my imagination was required to animate and fill in the missing elements (going back to Jacques Derrida's sous rature). This was such a thrill and for the rest of the tour I kept thinking about my experience with these Jewish panels and wondering if this kind of response was the intention of the artist or religious edict. My instincts say yes, in the case of Judaism where the literary device midrash encourages imagination and the Islamic use of geometry as a means to divine transcendence. I'm looking forward to learning more about these ideas as they relate to the intention and reception of religious visual art. 

Of course we weren't allowed to take photos, but luckily I found these postcards in the museum gift shop. Look closely at the modern, graphic articulation, reminiscent of tiny stage sets. These are prized objects of mine and I'm happy to share them.

Wait! There's an arm!