Saturday, February 3, 2018

Super Bowls

The other day I came upon a small book of poems on the shelf by the Argentinean surrealist Julio Cortazar, and it reminded me of the value of letting one's associations roam—fun for the writer, maybe not for the reader.

Bowls have been on my mind, for some reason. We stopped over to the American Swedish Institute the other day, where an exhibit called CraftBowls is in full swing. In the modern showroom near the door more than a hundred bowls of various shapes, sizes, colors, and materials have been set out, each with a story told on a little card from its own point of view. Some are ceramic, others are made of metal, glass, felt, or wood. Some are fanciful, others "primitive." Among my favorites were a pair of Sami bowls that look like spoons; and also, of course, many of the hand-thrown pieces.

In the lobby restaurant I felt the urge to order a bowl of tomato-basil soup (though I hated tomato soup as a child). It was the highlight of the lunch, far better than Campbell's, though the duck terrine was more picturesque. When eating at Fika, the smell and crunch of a single piece of toast can inspire rhapsodies of appreciation.

Next door in the mansion, works by several contemporary artists from Scandinavia were on display. But here the attempt to combine modern craft technique with ancient lore and tradition was on shakier ground.

Bertil Vallien, identified in brochures as "Sweden’s leading figure in international glass," has made some peculiar glass vessels that may be technically brilliant but struck me as toy-like and juvenile rather than mythic in conception. Videos give us glimpses of the man philosophizing about the thin membrane of the vessel upholding its contents against the mystery and danger of the surrounding depths. It sounded poetic, indeed, but the pieces themselves, though spectacularly lit, looked rather makeshift and obvious.

Then again, if I actually owned one of those glass boats, and had it expertly displayed on the mantle above the fireplace, I'd have more time to examine it and feel its presence; in time, I'd probably warm to its subtler meanings and emanations. 
In a nearby room a selection of wooden spoons, chairs, "shrink-boxes," and objects d'art by Swedish woodworker Jögge Sundvkist are on display. He often crafts them with nothing but an axe and a knife, and can whip one out in half an hour or less to the pounding rhythms of Swedish rock'n'roll. He was in town a few days ago to show us how he does it—or so the docent roaming the galleries told me.

Sundvkist is sort of a rock star himself, at least in the eyes of Hemslöjden, the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies. Yet I'm not convinced that his approach to craft is in any way philosophical or deep, as it's being described in the promotional material. I have seen better utensils on display recently at the Swedish Institute that were crafted by local Minnesota artisans—better because more delicate and utilitarian, and with a greater appreciation of the nuances of the wood.

And they don't cost $400 apiece, either. 

Don't get me wrong. All of these small exhibits are well worth seeing. But they raise questions in my mind as to whether "mythic" or traditional themes can be revived or preserved at will, rather than developing naturally out of the midst of a community for whom such stories and artifacts are essential elements of survival and meaning. 
One small room was devoted to the work of Ingegerd Råman, who carries the official designation of a Swedish National Living Treasure. Her plates, cups, and glasses look a lot like the things we might buy at Ikea, but they're a little bit better: simple, lightweight, elegant. There is unquestionably something commercial about them, but nothing of the faux-folk or the faux-mythic, and in her vases she gets to create one-of-a-kind pieces in which years of practice result in flowing, unostentatious vessels.

 A few days later we wandered down to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see a very minor exhibit of ceramic bowls thrown by twentieth-century Japanese masters of the art. The Institute has become so labyrinthine—so full of small, square, interior spaces with numbers like 232 and 434—that I had to ask a guard where the "exhibit" was. (I had tried, without success, to find its location on the iPad sitting on a bench in the lobby that now serves as an introductory guide.)

The "bowls" were nice, and more than nice, though technically they weren't bowls but water jars used to bring in the water to be heated for a tea ceremony and also to clean the utensils after the ceremony is over.

On our way through the Asian wing we stopped at the exquisitely recreated scholar's study, and also the small display case containing a dried mushroom (good for longevity) and two ceramic trays about the size of my fingernail that were once used to feed pet crickets. I couldn't help thinking of that long tradition of scholars and writers (until recently almost invariably men) who derived great satisfaction from sitting alone in a room reading the thoughts of others or recording their own thoughts in the hope that others would read them, or recording them merely to focus, reflect, and get their heads on straight.

Finally, so as not to ignore entirely the bowl that's come to our humble village of Minneapolis, we went downtown a few nights ago with friends to experience a little of the Superbowl hysteria in which many segments of the nation have been gripped for a week or two. We rode the train in from Midway, and as we traveled west I had a tough time determining where we were, exactly, through the frosty windows. Dinkytown? Stadium Village? The West Bank?

I reminded my friend that in 1972 we'd lived together with seven other young women and men in a three-story house on that street—a "house" later known as the Zoo. I had ridden my bike down that street, day after day, or hitchhiked, or walked. 

We eventually arrived at Nicollet Mall, got off, and wandered south through various security check-points, listened to snatches of the New Power Generation (or was it Mint Condition?) performing in their thick parkas, and saw bored sportscasters we couldn't identify getting ready to broadcast on ESPN (or whatever) in the Crystal Court, where, in an earlier era, we had once seen Andy Warhol walk by.

It was fun. But the liveliest element of the scene was the brightly lit ski sprint competition running back and forth over the Birkebeiner Bridge.

Corporate sponsors were everywhere—Target, Verizon, Doritos—but the event had the feel of a county fair, where everyone is enjoying the flashing lights and the community vibe but there isn't really that much to DO. You could get your picture taken in a snow-globe, or step briefly into the Anderson Windows warming house. The line to get into the Target Bull's Eye Lodge was too long, and the free skate-rental at the rink on Peavey Plaza required a lengthy sign-in that seemed to augur a life-long relationship with Hyundi vehicles. 

One block off the mall, we grabbed a quick dinner at a sports bar called the Union Grill, where all the TVs were tuned to basketball games. It started to snow, and on the way back to the light-rail station my face was unpleasantly lacerated by tiny icy crystals. We skipped the NFL merchandise mart and were not even aware of the pop-up Prince museum nearby, but the good news is, I found a student rail pass lying in the street which got me on the train free of charge. 

Not that anyone was checking.

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