Archive for the ‘Czech Republic’ Category

Festivus

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Well folks, Chatsilog is up and running which is nice, and the holidays are upon us, which is nice. Christmas and New Years the P and I will be out of Prague, then back again for a bit in January, and then I leave again in mid-January for a few months, so things are about to get a little hectic. This week, I’ll post some recent photos and stray GHOTCZs, for your entertainment.

First off, I’ve been working on a photo book, which I’ll be publishing via Lulu: don’t know that it will be print-ready for Christmas, but I’ll keep you updated as to when it’s available and where you can order it:

This publication may be of no use to anyone besides me and 3 other people, but that’s probably enough for now. For those who may have missed it earlier in the year and who could use some clarification, you may enjoy going back and reading this post or viewing these photos.

Anyway, I’m all fired up about yet another photo series I’ve just begun, at present titled “Worst Souvenirs of Prague” or “Poorly-Crafted Matryoshka Dolls” or some such. Haven’t quite got the title down, but the subject matter speaks for itself.

In my estimation, they’re not so much bad as good, of course. (And what is value, anyway? Go ask Robert Pirsig.) Mediocre souvenirs are a dime a dozen: I’m a rather exacting connoisseur, so it takes a lot to impress me. What I think I’ve identified that I enjoy so much about the novelty matryoshka dolls are these factors:

1. They’re incredibly poorly-made. Like slapdash, someone’s-mentally-ill-cousin-chained-in-a-basement-closet-made-these, poorly-made. The art brut aspect fascinates me.

2. Sloppy geography. Matryoshka dolls are not really a Prague thing: they’re a Russian thing, but are still lumped into that generally fuzzy touristic-geographical category of post-Eastern Bloc whatevercloseenough.

3. Surrealist Dinner Party. They’re often grouped indiscriminately, which is how you end up with Che Guevara next to Obama and Berlusconi but below Dirty Dancing and Madonna but above Kate&Will. It’s a lot like the way I used to love going to Longs Drugs in Oakland and finding the rubber dragons next to the american flags next to the japanese bread crumbs next to the Tupperware next to the hot dog stand. Juxtaposition makes everything fun and new again!

4. They’re disposable indicators of culture. which makes it really fun when they become passé. There’s something very poignant and abject about the matryoshkas that have outlived their relevance, and go on sale: the P just bought a set of discounted Cleveland Cavaliers nesting dolls (LeBron James edition), as a bittersweet remembrance of what might have been. And I just got John Kerry, at 80% off! (I almost bought John McCain too, but the dolls nesting inside him were not more sad John McCains or Sarah Palins, but rather, a rogue’s gallery of Former Great Republicans, which was neither desirable nor abject enough).

Sigh.

Poor John Kerry.

GHOTCZ#12: pošta noční přepážky

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

This weekend’s big discovery? That Prague’s main post office on Jindřišská is open from 2 am to midnight, 7 days a week. This is the greatest thing I think I’ve discovered yet in Prague (you know, besides hot dogs and the žižkov tv tower).

I had an application for a program that had a postmark deadline of Oct 31, which we all know was a Sunday, and therefore impossible. And in most of the Czech Republic as with the U.S., most post offices keep limited Saturday hours, and I had to work on Saturday, to boot (I’ve had a part-time gig here for a few months now). Rumors had drifted my way that there was a magical late-night post office in Prague, but it seemed too good to be true. I made some inquiries with friends here, and Jana, of course, sent me a link to the PDF that changed my life, with lists of ALL the post offices in the Czech Republic that keep late/Sunday hours.

Every artist I know has to periodically mail off an application to some program or grant or another, and will invariably do this at the last possible minute. For me, my saving grace was often the West Oakland main post office, which kept slightly later hours, and was particularly fun on Tax Day: I’ve always liked being out doing things at odd hours (hence my longstanding obsession with wandering the aisles of Longs Drugs in the middle of the night), so there was always some little thrill at the prospect of getting to do something at a time one isn’t supposed to.

Unfortunately, even West Oakland failed me on occasion, as they reduced their late hours a bit, taking some of the fun out of things. Plus, they caught on fire once, a few years back. Sigh.

Anyway, Prague’s post office is truly amazing, even by day: it’s like everything the DMV wishes it was, but will never be, in terms of efficiency, organized waits, and, oh, fin de siècle loveliness. Plus there’s a great Turkish restaurant near by. Also, the Mucha Museum. The train station. And the theater where Mozart debuted “Don Giovanni”. Take that, DMV.

The night office is a small room off to the side of this main hall, however. After my drop-off, I was so excited about it that I took this picture of the sign on the door (which, as it turns out, is the quickest way to get a septuagenarian security guard to freak the hell out on you: whoops, honestly didn’t see the “no photos” sign):

Not a particularly riveting image, but for me, it’s like a Sasquatch sighting, so the blur is apropos.
And anyway, Henri Cartier-Bresson stated, “Focus is a bourgeois concept.”

I think I’m going to organize a small holiday studio sale this year after all, now that I’ve got a whole new  post office fetish.
More on that soon!

Game on

Monday, October 4th, 2010

M.O.B. hard at work from 3 different locales this past weekend.

One of us looks suspiciously like Mikhail Gorbachev was thrown in a blender with Imelda Marcos and Raggedy Ann.

Maybe that’s all of us, actually.

in the interim

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Man, these breaks from this blog aren’t getting any shorter. Not for lack of material, either. Maybe there’s something to the art of the annual Christmas Letter, where one just does a massive free-associative dump of all of the year’s news in one fell swoop. David Sedaris, of course, wrote one of the finest fake examples of this in “Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!”. And for years, my friend Nick has sent out an entirely real, and entirely strange and smart, holiday letter worthy of framing for its beautifully inscrutable, textual perfection.

But it’s still only September, so I better get off my ass and get things up to date, yet again. One thing that’s been pulling me elsewhere has been my other website (yeah, I’m like that guy who dies and everyone discovers his other secret family, one town over): I’ve mentioned it periodically, but since I was trying to keep the identities of my two sites fairly distinct, I didn’t trumpet about it too loudly.

See, the thing about moving here and 1, deciding not to teach in Prague, plus 2, the slow-going nature of building professional fine arts connections in Europe, is that this left me with no immediate sources of income in the fields in which I’ve been trained.

Teaching would have been the easy thing to do, but I’ve never been too good at “easy” (which is kind of a paradox, since I’m also lazy). I absolutely love teaching but I didn’t want to teach English (the most direct path to employment in Prague) enough to pay for TEFL certification, and to get into teaching art in the Prague university system would have taken more time than I’ve felt committed to being here for. On the fine art front, even if I were to meet a gallerist tomorrow who wanted to give me a show, it would be at least 6 months to a year before said show might materialize, and there would still be no guarantees that my work would sell. I’m not trying to be a pessimist or an excuse-maker here: just trying to set the time-and-money conditions which made freelancing a more practical income-earning decision.

So. For these reasons, I figured I’d try to build up some other related skills and see if free-lancing as an illustrator and designer might be something I could do in a more-than-occasional capacity. It’s slow-going, but getting better all the time. (That said, I’m always cruising for more gigs, if any of you have projects or referrals for me.) It’s forced me to learn some new skill sets, which I feel painfully behind on in comparison with friends who have been doing this professionally for years now, but I will say it’s actually been pretty fun flailing my way through the newbie thing. Beginners’ enthusiasm can take one far.

Some recent work for Hyphen Magazine:

For Engine 43:

For MSMGF:

The fine art thing is still happening as well, of course. It has not been abandoned.

Stephanie “Sisig” Syjuco invited me to participate in her “Shadowshop” project at SFMOMA, so I’m working on a few pieces for that.

The Eartha/Imelda project went on hold for  a while there, but I’m back on it.

There are some applications for other residencies, shows and other arts programs that I’m about to crank out.

If poor Sam Chanse isn’t sick to death of waiting for me to edit it, there will soon exist the Greatest Video Ever from a little project she and I worked on when she came through Prague at the beginning of the year.

Still taking pictures of portapotties and piles of cubes.

Have fallen in love with Berlin, and am trying to make things happen there (more on that shortly).

The Mail Order Brides/M.O.B. are doing our first project together in a few years, and in collaboration with Carlos Villa! We’re doing this long-distance with our dear friends at Green Papaya Art Projects, in Quezon City.  Working remotely and collaboratively has its challenges, but we diasporic types are up to the challenge.

Especially now that we’ve discovered iChat.

M.O.B. meeting, last week

GHOTCZ #11: Koudelka

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

I discovered Josef Koudelka‘s photographs when I was probably 18 or 19 years old: the image below spoke, and continues to speak, volumes to me. As a young grublet, I had already developed an interest in (then-) Czechoslovakia as well as photojournalism, and the context for and composition of this photo, taken at the foot of Wenceslas Square (václavské náměstí) in August 1968, seemed so fraught, and self-implicating, it seared itself into my brain. So much so that I took many of my own variations of this image periodically over the years. (In fact, I just asked myself right now why I stopped at all, and duh–it’s because I stopped wearing a watch.)

Every time that I’m at this site in Prague, I still think about the intensity of this image, its political and temporal tension.

While I imagine most people are glad that the political aspects of the square’s function have changed since 1968, it does feel slightly ridiculous and highly ironic to stand at this same vantage point in 2010, surveying a landscape of sloppy tourists on Segways, drunks prowling the girlie-bar circuit, and the logo-littered gauntlet comprised of the H&M/Ben&Jerrys/Starbucks/Marks&Spencer/Hooters/etc chains now choke-holding the area. (I almost implicated the ubiquitous sausage stands in my quasi-critique too, but I love them too much to reject them.) Wenceslas Square to an outside observer just seems kind of dumb and tacky when one doesn’t know the many layered histories and dramas that have unfolded here.

For a long time, Koudelka’s two monographs (Gypsies and Exiles) were exceedingly difficult to find: out of print, and only available at a mercenary’s price on eBay or through specialist booksellers. I was lucky enough to have stumbled on to an affordable copy of Gypsies as a kid, and I treasure it beyond measure: I was dumb enough to have also stumbled upon Exiles around the same time, and couldn’t justify the expense (which was ridiculously cheap, relative to its current market value) and so didn’t buy it. Over the years, I’d routinely prowl bookstores, wistfully hoping for a stray copy of Exiles to magically appear before my eyes. I figured/hoped someone would eventually republish those 2 books, but it never seemed to happen.

I didn’t know that Thames & Hudson had finally put out a new Koudelka survey book in 2006 until last week, when we found a copy in a bookstore here in Prague. That, coupled with also discovering a Czech-language copy of his seminal Invaze 68 photos (only published in 2008),  was more than I could ever have dreamed of.

Perhaps if I’d been looking a bit more actively in recent years, these books would have come to my attention sooner, but no matter: I’m just so grateful to have them now, and so to have been reunited with Koudelka right here in Prague. I’m also glad that I now have a great deal more Czech history, context and language knowledge with which to appreciate them. The Invaze 68 book in particular (pictures below) is all the more thrilling, heartbreaking, tragic and special to me,  since virtually all of the photos are taken in Prague, on streets I know very personally.

Exiles update!
Dreams just came true: I was so thrilled when I got these 2 books that I wrote a nerdy Facebook status update about it last week. My old friend Trevor, a really talented photographer I actually first traveled to Czechoslovakia with yeeeaars ago, happened to see said update, and promptly offered me his extra copy of Exiles. I am beside myself with excitement.

GHOTCZ #10: World Cup Football

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

you: Whoa whoa whoa. Wofford, are you jocking out?

me: No. I swear. But.

But it’s really hard to resist the awesomeness of hundreds of fans from all over the world gathering in Old Town Square to watch World Cup Football. I tried to resist. I did. But as big world parties go, it’s just too fun to be my normal sports-curmudgeonly self. And it turns out, I’ve got a major soft spot for these massive global sports events (as evidenced by my equally out-of-character enthusiasm for the Beijing Olympics). Last night: Holland vs Uruguay in South Africa but watched in the Czech Republic on screen sponsored by Korean auto company. Layers upon layers!

Also, there’s a cinema-size screen in the middle of one of the most beautiful city squares in the world.
And, while said crass-corporate-marketing-ploy-screen is ludicrous and tacky, I kind of love that about it.

And hello: I’ve been so obsessed with the Zizkov TV Tower, I’d never even thought to go up the almost-as-excellent tower in Old Town Square. Which, as it turns out, is a pretty great place to be, at sunset, World Cup mayhem notwithstanding…

…and having Matt and Arlie in town for a different international sports event (Go Fury! World Champions!) has been a great influence. I’ve been going to their team’s Ultimate matches up at Strahov Stadium (see GHOTCZ 6) this week, as well.

We stayed up the tower as long as possible, just enjoying the sunset and the views.
Meanwhile, once back on Earth:

Such a great way to spend a summer night.

GHOTCZ: #9: Cubes

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

One of my favorite things about these summery months in the Ceezy has been all of the sidewalks under construction.  I started noticing these when we first moved to Brno last year, and then watched the projects continue on in Prague throughout last summer, and then begin again this summer.

Unlike California, land of asphalt and glitter lined with seismic stress fractures, this country is all about stone cubes, delicately and methodically embedded in sand. These people actually like to rip up streets, and reassemble them, by hand, with wee blocks. Hard core. Beyond old school. I love it.

Last month, I woke up to the sound of jackhammers below my window, and witnessed workers ripping up the ratty old asphalt flanking one side of our building. I figured that the city was just doing some repairs to pipes underneath or something like that, but it turned out that they had decided to redo the entire length of the block with ornamental effing patterned cubes. Seriously? Who does that?? No one in the 94608, that’s for sure.

I get a little thrill out of the piles of cubes. They’re really kind of magical: the facets bounce light in some extraordinarily beautiful ways.  The mounds also resemble super-sized, grey-ish, sugar cubes, which gets me wondering about the giant cup of coffee that they might go into.

update 7/7: holy MoG: new summer photo series about to emerge– cubes + portapotties, at the same time!

GHOTCZ #8: SAPA

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Vietnamese are probably the largest non-western immigrant group in the Czech Republic: in central Prague, they do an amazing job of running the late-night fruit and vegetable shops (and increasingly the nail salons, but I’d still say it’s about 50-50 whether a Caucasian is actually doing your nails, which is next to unheard-of in California…). Despite their long history in this country, Vietnamese don’t have much demonstrable presence or influence here, and largely keep a very low profile.

And, since they have yet to open any proper Vietnamese restaurants in central Prague, when I’m craving a big bowl of pho or bun, there’s really only one place to go get it, and that’s SAPA. I’d read a bit about SAPA when we first moved, but was a little retarded about how to actually get there, since it’s on the outskirts of Prague. Our friend Jason (who’s also from the Bay Area, and understood our cravings) graciously took us out there last summer, and I was immediately hooked. Here’s why it’s one of the GHOTCZs:

First things first. From the bus stop, it’s impossible to get a sense of what’s inside:

Once you pass through the gate beneath this sign, however, it feels as if you’ve just made something akin to the Tijuana border crossing (with no queues or cops, though). It’s as if the Czech Republic stops, and Vietnam begins.

SAPA’s primary function is as a huge wholesale market, supposedly the biggest in Europe. The bulk of what’s being sold seems to be clothing and accessories, but my personal fixation is with the phenomenal profundity of globalized tchotchkes available: plastic lychee trees. Wooden childrens’ puzzles–in Arabic. Virgen de Guadalupe disco clocks. Ninja throwing stars. Faux-jade Buddhas. The kind of wonderful schlock one is accustomed to coming across here and there, but not all in one location, especially when that location is the Little Hanoi of the Czech Republic.

My new personal favorite find: Hugo Chavez action figures. In two different fashionable ensembles.

The food is, of course, what the inital draw to SAPA really was: divine, classic little hole-in-the-wall style restaurants, serving up beautiful, simple dishes that haven’t been watered-down for Europeans.

The only catch is that the smaller places tend to specialize in only a few particular dishes (ie, there’s the pho place, or the bun place), and don’t tend to have menus. Jason took us to a place that specialized in bun cha, which was fine by me. I’ve tried other places since then, but I’m a big fan of the place above. In general, however, unless you speak Czech or Vietnamese in these littler places, it can be a bit of a mystery as to what you’re actually going to get… but it’s always an adventure, and always delicious.

The other things I tend to notice about SAPA are the diaspora markers: the remittance centers on one hand…

…and the South-east Asian “TP goes in the basket not the toilet” traditions on the other…

It’s not all Western Unions and public toilets, though. There’s also a huge, modern Buddhist temple, lots of shops offering services like plane tickets home or hairdressers/barbers,  and fantastic little food markets selling hard-t0-find Asian produce. And it’s really so nice just to see Vietnamese in their element, relaxed, horsing around, being more gregarious and social in all the ways that I never see them comfortable doing within Czech society.

Back in January, I brought a crew of friends out to SAPA, as well: it was a kind of alternate-universe Vietnam experience, with below-zero weather, freeeezing toes,  and snowdrifts that did not compute with the tropical cuisine and tarp-covered vendor stalls.

Having now enjoyed trekking out to SAPA for 4 seasons now (I’ve been here a year! whoa!), I do have to say that muggy summer days are still the best time to go.

image making

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks, I finally got around to adding a couple of ridiculous new image galleries to Wofflehouse, in the PHOTOS section. It’s a section of the website that I’ve semi-neglected, largely because it’s more for personal amusement, less for professional advancement. Also, I’ve increasingly used this blog, as well as my Facebook account, for sharing photos instead.

The galleries are both pretty deadpan:

GREAT MOMENTS IN OVERHEAD LIGHTING

PORTA POTTIES OF THE WORLD

Anyway, I got more pleasure than anticipated out of putting together these 2 series of photos, and plan on doing much more of this soon. I’ve been reflecting on  a few things, due to this.

First, I take for granted how integrated photography is into my life, and often forget that it is its own creative endeavor due to this. I took my first photography class at an art college in San Francisco when I was 15, and continued taking photo courses and educating myself about the history of photography throughout high school and college. I also worked in one-hour photo labs for ten years of my life. While I’ve rarely exhibited my photos, every Mail Order Brides/M.O.B. project was dependent on both Eliza’s and my photographic expertise. And somehow, I’ve still never taken my relationship to photographic image-making too seriously.

Second, something happened during the shift from film to digital. I stopped working at the photolab in 2000, which ended my many years of getting to purchase and print 35 mm film cheaply and easily. Also, this era was the beginning of the demise of many photolabs, due to increased consumer interest in digital. I had a beautiful Nikon SLR that suddenly stopped getting employed as regularly due to this. While I continued taking it on trips, it was far too bulky to justify carrying around for casual daily use. Also, I was unenthusiastic about compact snapshot cameras, disdaining them as something for amateurs. It wasn’t until I got my first little digital camera in 2005 that I could tote something with ease anywhere and everywhere, but this was still basically just a digital version of aforementioned-disdained-snappy cam. Given my latent photo-snob tendencies, I fell into my own trap for a little bit of not taking my own use of them as anything other than amateur, despite how many more images I was actually making. (And what’s wrong with amateur, anyway?)

Third, the digital camera thing has done a couple of things to image-making by both liberating it and cheapening it. Making a pile of photographic images is now next to free (unless you print it, which is done less and less): you’re only limited by the amount of memory your camera/card has. It also comes with the instant gratification of reviewing images on the display immediately after taking them. This is great, but has also led to a sort of bloated, un-edited glut of images. And it has removed the mystery, and delicious anticipation of what might lie on a roll of film. Anything truly special often gets lost in the shuffle, or not appreciated as much, as it once might have. (This is, of course, both good and bad, as it’s also weeded out the over-fetishization of actually-kind-of-mundane images.)

Fourth, I’ve had an often-difficult year creatively since the move, insofar as making other kinds of art (painting, drawing, video–the things I usually exhibit), and even blogging, at times. I’ve struggled with what to express, at times. But what I’ve only just realized is that I’ve been doing an extraordinary amount of photography instead, and its function has subtly shifted to become more diaristic and expressive. Also self-entertaining. It’s also very much used for “note-taking”: for quickly recording something that I may want to address in a different medium, later down the line. For the many moments where I’ve been at a loss for words, or been unable to figure out how to make a drawing of something I’ve been feeling, the camera has been my immediate, often taken-for-granted companion, instead.

In Bogliasco, I think I figured a bit of this out. My shutter-bugging got truly excessive there, given the circumstances. And the other Fellows trusted/tolerated the presence of my camera at every meal and outing: I became the de-facto embedded photojournalist for our group, and put together a big Flickr archiv of images- sort of a collective visual diary of our time there. In the prior couple of entries here on Wofflings, I also realized I was using the camera differently: not so much documenting the world-at-large, more using it to give a different visual voice to things I’d been really thinking about.

I woke up this morning, thinking about it, so I thought I’d write out a few thoughts before they evaporated. It’s not all so serious, of course: I think any woman driven to compulsively document porta-potties can’t really get too Susan Sontag about her photographic endeavors.

GHOTCZ 7: buried treasure

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Old book stores in the Ceezy are really pretty remarkable. Partly because I’m completely illiterate in them.

Since I can barely read the language at hand, however, it tends to make me notice different things.  Last week, the P and I were just nosing around in one near our apartment when we discovered an amazing little group of  home-made scrapbooks, one of which I had to have, immediately.

Each one was just a simple collection of photos cut out of magazines, but organized thematically: one book was pictures of European cinema stars, one of Hollywood stars, another, photos of the Kennedy family. What made them so special for me was the context: it was clear that each book was collaged together by some young woman, growing up in post WWII Czechoslovakia, well into the Communist era.

None of the images in the book I chose were any later than the mid-50′s, many being of movie stars and pictures from the 40′s. Each page was carefully noted with the stars’ names: Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert, Ida Lupino, Lucille Ball, Orson Welles…I’ve been on a classic film kick ever since Bogliasco (renting movies on iTunes), and so I’ve been falling in love with a lot of these stars for the first time, myself.

But there’s something implicit in the Czech history of this  book that I found really fascinating: the sense that this was created by a girl growing up under state control, but still dreaming of the glamorous, fantastic worlds she saw in fan magazines and movies (perhaps imported well-past their show-dates in the US). And the creation of the book was so tender: the perfect script employed to write out the stars’ names, the care in organizing and gluing the pictures down, enclosing all of these treasures in a simple little book. I imagined it tucked under her bed, or on her bedroom shelf.

There was one Czech actress in the book (Libuše Zemková), whose picture on the page below was so lovely, it made me immediately curious about the Czech film industry post WWII and about the lives of, and opportunities for, actors and actresses in that era. Given how many theatres Prague still has, and what a thriving performance culture there still seems to be, it made me realize how little I know about something so vital. It made me want to know more.

Growing up in Malaysia, I absolutely fetishized American culture, and collected little scraps and images from magazines in similar ways. Later, going to community college in suburban California, aspiring to be an artist but not knowing anything about the larger world of art yet, I kept my own nerdy little scrapbooks of art I liked and cut out of magazines, too.

These days when I’m saving images, I just drag them off the internet and put them into folders inside of folders on my computer. It’s definitely still a continuation of my magpie-esque image-hoarding practice, but books like this one remind me how much more special, and enduring, a scrapbook is over a laptop.