Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Our Colonies, Our Selves

 These are some images from the Museum of America, which is not so much an anthropological museum that covers American civilizations, but rather a museum that is an inadvertent anthropological study of how Spain views the Americas. It's another one of these museums that began its life as a cabinet of curiosities (part of the royal one, in this case) and very much maintains that outlook.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Culture at People's Expense: Convivencia and Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Spain

The university city of Alcalá de Henares, most closely associated with the personal confessor to Isabel I, is now a suburb of Madrid that, like many other small Castilian towns, presents itself as part of the heritage of the "tres culturas" of Spain, a place where Jews, Christians and Muslims forged a kind of coexistence, uneasy and inconsistent, but also vibrant and fruitful.

There is even a badly-proofread plaque in the "trilingual patio" of the historic site of the college commemorating a "three-faiths" encounter there.

But there is also this anti-US, anti-war mural that buys very directly into the Jewish-cabal-behind-it-all conspiracy-myth, right in the heart of the historic barrio judío. It's quite striking in its details, with a six-pointed Jewish star in the upper right-hand corner of the American flag where the 50 five-pointed stars (or even one large five-pointed star standing in for the tiny ones) should be.


It is a striking contrast as civic art in a city that is actively playing up its Jewish heritage, perhaps cynically to encourage tourism or perhaps in earnest as a real embrace of its past. But it is also a contrast that draws attention to the phenomenon of Jew-as-historical-artifact. Society at large is happy to embrace its Jewish past. After centuries of a different kind of national narrative, it has suddenly become a bit of a cool thing to do, and a path of liberation from the country's own fascist 20th century history. But it doesn't particularly seem to know what to do with actual, flesh-and-blood Jewish people.

Madrid itself is a city covered in swastika graffiti. I'd estimate that there are just about as many that are Xed out as a statement of general anti-fascism as there are that are painted on in earnest support of neo-Nazi or general fascist ideology, but that small and diffuse gesture doesn't inspire a lot of confidence against such an onslaught. It is a city that is, at a minimum, deeply ill-at-ease with its own position in relation to the whole of the twentieth century.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Alcalá de las Cigüeñas

There are cranes that nest all over the roofs of Alcalá. That is pretty much all. (Except for the fact that I think I did a pretty good job, if I don't say so myself, of taking photos of wildlife with a long lens and no tripod.)

19th-Century Kitsch in Alcalá de Henares

 My first stop in Alcalá de Henares was the Palacete de Laredo, the former home of the Duke of Laredo, done in the monstrously wonderful neo-Mudéjar style that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century in Spain and in England (and, in a largely more restrained way, in the United States as well). The only way I can think to describe the aesthetic is to say that it is a compete hoot. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Images from the Cervantes Dig

There is a small exhibition of photos from the Cervantes dig currently being displayed at the Museo de la Historia de Madrid.  So these aren't my photos. Well, they're my photos of somebody else's photos. Jaime Balaguer was the photographer with the archaeological group and they are his. 

It's really too bad that the museum didn't even see fit to mount this as proper photography exhibition and show real, good prints of the images; it gets back to what I said earlier about nobody wanting to be bothered about cultural patrimony but wanting everyone else to be super excited about it.

The exhibition is presented like a philological exercise: the photos are organized by lemma — niche, exhumation, laboratory, etc. — and each begins with a dictionary definition of the term, explaining how the concept it names was an important part of the exhibition with that depressingly misleading tactic of making it seem like the dictionary is the artiber of all meaning.

This one reads: "Even though the convent isn't the ideal location for this purpose, since the terms in which it is defined specify that it is is the 'the place that is set up with the necessary equipment to carry out investigation, experiement and scientific and technical work,' the crypt and sacristy had to be used as make-shift laboratories." The convent isn't an ideal location for investigation not because the dictionary says that a lab is something else, but for all the actual practical reasons that a lab isn't an ideal location for that kind of work. It's a small distinction, I know; but it betrays a very rigid approach to things. An approach that says that the dictionary is the final arbiter of meaning isn't the kind of approach that makes concessions to practical usage or public concern.

The consequence of this is that I saw some cool photos (and realized that the room I was kicked out of the convent for entering is the one with the trap door down to the crypt) but still don't really have a good sense of what the real purpose of the dig was or what the scientists believe that they have accomplished. It still seems like disturbing human remains for the sake of a badly mishandled PR whim.