Below is a link to a lecture I gave back in 2016 at Swiss L’Abri called Conceptual Humanity. It was a difficult lecture and has taken me this long to get around to editing it, complete with dozens of photos and videos for illustration. Since one of the key subjects in this concerns the problematics of a new view of dolls and robots, both subjects adjacent to puppetry, I thought I’d go ahead and risk putting it up here for your delectation. I didn’t make this lecture to get on anyone’s list of politically/non-politically correct topics. Don’t expect to agree with me. Go in very skeptical, see if I prove my points.
I came up with this lecture because over the years I’ve been noticing the long term effects of living in a narcissistic culture where following your dreams, your desires, your heart, ends up in a chaos meanings and identities. This is a probe of some of the further reaches of identity where the traditional notions of what it means to be human no longer apply. Where everything can be deconstructed and reconstructed according to only one principle… I am myself.
To be clear I am motivated by something quite different. Obviously as a 21st Century person (who can remember the last century with clarity) I am an individual as much as anyone else. But I agree with late great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky who wrote in his book Sculpting In Time:
Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art. Modern art has taken the wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for his own sake. What purports to be art begins to looks like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalized action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self-will. But in an artistic creation the personality does not assert itself it serves another, higher and communal idea. The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.
In other words life isn’t about me, my vision, my self expression, important as it is to express a personal vision. And the same goes with how we move through this world. It isn’t about the mirror, the photo, the selfie, the ‘Likes’. It’s about what we see in the world and choose to give to others. And in our desperation to prove ourselves (I am certainly no stranger to this temptation) we find ourselves diminished in the paucity of the substance of our own identities. Hence we, rather than simply being whatever it is we are (a truly terrifying idea), we adopt masks, that, as in the old 1964 Twilight Zone episode called The Masks, shape our faces to our self-absorbed disguises and desires.
So take some time if your are so inclined. Get ready for something that, I think no matter who you are, will give you pause to think. And, if you can, download it. I suspect I may have material in here that someone may want to claim for copyright purposes.
More puppet stuff coming soon!
And support this work through PayPal. Keep me afloat out here in Georgia.
Pretty please with honey on top?
And for the first essay where I dealt with these strange issues go here:
What’s happened to the documentary Gravity From Above? What happened to Byrne? We haven’t heard much about puppets or Georgia since the beginning of the year.
I’m wondering the same questions. The truth is that I guess I’m recovering from the double shock of losing whatever funding I had hoped to get for the documentary and then finding the work that I was supposed to do in Georgia not only endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy but also paying me far less than a living wage for the work that I am doing causing me to lose money every month.
Or to put it another way reality has set in.
Now to put a little more meat on the bone let me explain a bit. First of all I am quite hesitant to say much at all publicly. At this moment the details would be less than helpful. (Privately I can explain anything if interested.) And the situation has never been dire. But essentially I am only receiving about a third of what I need to live every month. Which is a drain on my personal economy, which can’t go on forever. Then there are expenses that I have to make to actually live here as opposed to being a transient. Things you need to buy simply to be a resident from frying pans to curtains. More catastrophically my computer has died twice on me. I now live in a strange twilight world of used MacBooks and external hard drives. (I’m waiting for a new hard drive to arrive through a tortuous path of mailing services.) And I have spent a fair sum just to keep myself running. And then there is the much larger question of how I will get my belongings shipped here. (Which had seemed quite possible when I left, but now more doubtful.)
The practical minded person would say something like this to themselves: “Well you’d better get back to Alaska where you can make money and forget about all of this. Admit you’ve been beat. It was an interesting dream, but it’s time to face the truth. Better get back while you still have the money to get there.” (I can hear the worried voice of my late mother here.)
Yet I know I haven’t made a mistake. Every time I have made a radical change in my life, from California to New York City, or from New York to Alaska, I have gone through exactly these moments of wall-smashing reality. In New York it took me multiple beds and floors for 4 long months to find an apartment. And that was beyond my means. I ended up leaving it after a year. Not to mention having one of the worst fevers I’ve ever had in my life during that first Christmas time. Narrowly escaping being beaten to a pulp by a street gang. And essentially finding that most of the folks I met during that period receded as friends. And then again in Alaska. I arrived without the job that supposedly was waiting for me, a container load of my library and other junk which then immediately sucked up all of my money on overweight freight charges, and I was renting a house for more than I could afford, especially without a job or money. The radio station work did eventually kick in. So did comments from certain members of the community about the music I was introducing to the airwaves. And I discovered the rather petty and vicious nature of otherwise friendly Alaskans during public board meetings, which I had to take part in as a part of my radio duties. Within six months I had to move everything again because the house I was renting was being sold out from under me. In both New York City and Alaska I knew I should be there. And eventually they became two of the most important places in my life.
So my thoughts now? What’s new? I expected the brick wall of reality. I look at these confrontations as the real test of my faith. If it’s worth it then it won’t be easy.
So I am very slowly learning kartuli, a language that has been very difficult to read and to pronounce. And I do not mean difficult to pronounce the way French and German are difficult to read or pronounce. We are talking a different order of experience here. And the besides the language there are the many cultural misunderstandings between the Georgian mentality and the Western European or American. The sense of time here is something I am still struggling to understand. It isn’t that it is loose as in many cultures, it’s erratic, inconsistent. Now slow, now fast. It has the irregular rhythms of its language.
But overall I haven’t felt let down, as much as puzzled. And hopeful. And cautious. Sometimes at home. Other times like an alien. Yet never in danger. I don’t feel that I’ll fall through the floor. It feels like there is a net somewhere below me. So apart from the drain on my economy and the moments of bewilderment, how are things really going?
Well I do feel at increasingly at home more than foreign. And I think what it comes down to is this… the conversations. Whenever I am feeling a little too distant from my own culture I end up having conversations that allow me to breathe in a way I normally can’t back in the USA. I find an openness to art and culture that is far more serious than I have found back in the states in a very long time. And that is why I am here.
Or I meet someone doing something creative that just takes my breath away. For instance seeing the animation that Mariam Kapanadze is working on for two years. Just to produce ten minutes of footage that hardly moves at all. Then she explains what she is trying to achieve and I am left speechless by the depth of it. (I’ve already interviewed her and will be sharing it very soon.) Or meeting Giorgi Apkhazava and the other members of the Tbilisi Chamber Theatre and realizing that they have the best perspective possible on why they are puppeteers. (Also coming soon!) Or the again being surprised at an intimate piano recital by the depth of music played by Eter Tskipurishvili. Words would fail me entirely here. And it is in moments like these and dozens more that I find myself more than feeling at home; it is something far more spiritual.
And it’s not that life here is in anyway convenient… for anyone. There is a sense of total chaos at times. I have been without electricity or water many times. I have lost the food in my freezer and then gotten sick on the food that wasn’t cold enough. I have found myself hunting endlessly for something as simple as thread or tape. The summer heat is not something I am looking forward to. Yet as I walk beneath endless grapevines on tree shaded lanes passing children who still play in the streets I find something human and humble here. And when I look around I see an intriguing future, both for the Georgians, and for myself.
And so that is where I am right now. I don’t need assurances that everything will work out. I just need to keep walking and see where this road goes and why I am here.
Well I’ve got three or four essays due to be written very soon. So no (!) I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m just looking around, catching my breath, taking stock, and uttering quiet words of gratitude.
And I haven’t forgotten about Gravity From Above, the documentary!
Thanks for your patience my friends.
June 3rd 2019
And thanks April Harding!
It occurred to me as I was arriving by train at the Aigle Gare looking for the bus up to Huémoz Switzerland that it was pretty much exactly 40 years since I first arrived at this same spot to find this remarkable Christian institution called L’Abri (the Shelter). During the current two weeks I would be here I would certainly be crossing the threshold of that anniversary. Yet I couldn’t check it exactly since my journals were buried in a storage unit back in Alaska. And just as certainly the Rhone Valley did not look the same on this day as it did back in 1978 when I first set eyes on Suisse, being so mesmerized by the effect of the bus ride ascending endlessly, it seemed, up to arrive at what was then an unknown future. The weather now was unusually hazy on this warm mid-October day obscuring both the valley and the great line of mountains usually dominating it. Curiously enough that first journey was also the last time I bought a one way ticket to Europe and did not have any clue about what I would find when I got there. Ever since I have always had well planned trips with distinct return dates to return to my American life. But that time, like this, I was stepping into the unknown. And that journey was ultimately responsible for this one in dozens of ways.
Since I had last visited about a year ago in 2017 I didn’t have any specific set of emotions to bring to my own table this time. Last year I was coming off of an emotional time, having just moved all of my belongings into Storage Unit 3. Last year I had pains in my heels from recurring bursitis that dogged me through most of my Western European trek last year. Last year felt like an act of assertion that I had much more to do in life. But this time we would see.
I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon. No one official seemed to be around. But I had a fairly good idea that I would be staying in Chalet Les Mélèzes again. A student, a dancer as it turned out, named Heather showed me the way. Eventually Steve Bullock found me and everything was confirmed. I was sleeping in exactly the same bed as last time. And Sunday dinner was at 7pm down at Chesalet. Per-Ole and Amelia were preparing the meal and I was introduced to more students. I was particularly glad to run into L’Abri’s tech worker, the Dutchman Folkert, who liked to give long rambling retellings of famous books. (Later in the week he would unspool half of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.) Word got around that I was the ‘puppet man’ and was introduced to Julie a puppeteer who had brought her own carved Czech style marionette named Peter, who was treated as a celebrity by Per-Ole and Amelia’s young children. P-O read Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s Nightingale after the meal. It was as if I never left.
I was due to give two lectures while I was there. As I told students the subject of the first, Texture, I tended to get inquisitively puzzled looks. What would I say about that? What would anyone say about texture? And in fact that was exactly the reason for my choice. Last year while visiting the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières I gave a presentation on Gravity From Above and the work achieved so far. I contended that puppetry was an antidote to much of the contemporary sterility in the design and ambience of the age. And I particularly contrasted the texture and tactility of the puppet with the flatness of the screen. That caught the attention of a few of the folks there. I had assumed that puppeteers were well aware of the contrast between the smooth modern surfaces and the rougher features of the puppet. But in reality not much thought had gone into it. As I searched the archives of the Institute I found very little on the subject. Maybe a book on fashion. Then as I extended my search I discovered very little indeed had been written on the subject at all. And as I pondered it I realized that the the transition from a deeply textured world to the flat junky plastic textures surrounding us at every step had largely been accompanied by no fanfare whatsoever. No one realized what they were getting rid of when they moved from, say, natural fibers to synthetic or from wood to vinyl siding. And so I had decided to dig a bit more deeply into the fallow ground. The lecture went well sparking several thoughtful comments that helped me look in new directions.
But my second and related lecture on the Need for Beauty was even more provocative. As I assumed it would be. Especially the hot and touchy subject of human beauty. It was my contention that we had created an increasingly ugly world with art, commerce and philosophical underpinnings all joining in. And the worst culprit of all being kitsch, all of that cute cuddling tacky shite that seems to infest our lives at every turn from household decorations to geekdom. I quoted Andrei Tarkovsky concerning beauty in art, Jordan Peterson on how true beauty is actually frightening. And then there was this quote from Roger Scruton’s book Beauty – A Very Short Introduction : “Simply put, kitsch is not, in the first instance, an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture.” Indeed I think the hottest part of the talk is when I mentioned that there must be a connection between appearances and the interiors. I think many people have been so conditioned to say that everyone is equal that to point out the physical beauty of a person was tantamount to saying that such obvious disparities could only be a form of bigotry. No one said as much, but the thought hung in the air. Per-Ole, an artist himself, made an astute observation that beauty just might be found in the truth behind those appearances. And later as P-O and I discussed it we both agreed that it was a thorny and needed subject for discussion.
I made the rounds meeting old friends Richard and Karen, Gian (A friend for 40 years!), Greg and Lisby, Steve Bullock whom I had met once before. Katrina and Aaron were new workers. Katrina I had met before, since she was Gian’s granddaughter, and was glad to spend more time getting to know her better. Her husband Aaron was a welcome addition to the mix as well. Marnie from New Zealand was also a new worker lending a bit of Kiwi pizazz to the affair.
I was impressed by the students. I was a little curious about how the polarizations of modern life would be reflected by them. And fortunately the answer was very little. They seemed largely open to discussion and only a couple of times did I hear any vaguely political or partisan language. And even then not with the kind of vehemence one finds in other settings. Though I suspect if one scratched the itch too much it might bleed. But most of the current crop of students I think had been affected less by the rhetoric of the times than by the desire to transcend it. I had good conversations with Paul, a Brit with Ghanian roots, Kate, a Dutch/American cellist, Melody from Germany, Tasha from Australia Dukjoo from Korea and especially Folkert. It was also excellent to come across another writer with similar interests in Lee Pryor, currently a ‘helper’ at L’Abri. And I had a heart to heart talk with Per-Ole before it was time to leave.
I did take my favorite cogwheel train ride from Bex to Gryon with Paul and Kate. Then ambled along in fine discursive form until we arrived in Villars where we sat outdoors at a patisserie sipping tea and eating opulent desserts. And I joined most of L’Abri on an outing up to Bretaye at 1,806 m (5925 ft) by another cogwheel train, where we all shared a simple picnic by a small glacial lake on the last nearly summery day of the season. Snows descended on the higher elevations of the Grand Muveran and the rest of the Alps the next day. Eventually it was American Halloween, which was celebrated in the casual guess-what-I-am style common in many US colleges. Jack-O’Lanterns were carved. We even had two young trick-or-treaters with bags coming through the students quarters. And I had a chance to show a few short European puppet films for the curious.
Eventually it was time to drift down to Aigle on the 9:07 bus and as I waited a few souls saw me off in fine L’Abri style. And as I rode the sharp winding road down to the Rhone Valley floor I pondered upon this visit. It was a memorial of sorts to my many treks back to this place over the years. And it was the first trip to Huémoz that I took knowing that my home was not ‘back there’ somewhere but ahead of me. The next stop was back in Charleville-Mézières in France where I had been granted a month long residency. But first I would have to sling shot my way through Paris briefly again.
More to come.
The Centenaire of the Armistice of 1918
And hey! While finances are not a problem. I’ve been looking more seriously at the cost of the few film rights I’ll need for the film. Let’s put it this way. Every financial gift will help. I still don’t know the status of my support from the International Institute of Puppetry. But I suspect I should have made the budget higher than I did. Also I have a medical bill that has managed to surprise me and follow me. Again PayPal is a great way to send me contributions. And thanks to the gift (you know who you are) that recently came through as I’ve been traveling. It really helps.
Okay. Let’s start writing about Georgia again. Sakartvelo. საქართველო. I arrived here a couple of weeks back on the 22nd of December just a couple of days before Western Christmas. And I checked into the same guesthouse I’d stayed in during my 2016 stay. Mostly for continuity, to say hello to Tamuna and Shako and young Mariam again. I would within five days change to my long term apartment. But for now it felt good to have the same map coordinates and to have some familiar faces to start my sojourn of more than three months.
After arriving in Tbilisi at 6:30 in the morning I slept in till noon, and being this was Georgia I did not feel like I had slept in too late, eventually I went out to find the lari (Georgian money) I needed. Connect to the Georgia phone system and buy a metro card.
The next evening I found myself wandering past the Kachueti Church on Rustaveli Avenue. I heard sounds coming from a loudspeaker outside the church, so stepped down into it. An evening service in progress was full of people standing before the altar. (The Georgian Orthodox stand, believing that sitting before God, unless one has a physical condition, pain, age, etc. is a bit disrespectful. Sitting denotes rest. One stands before God.) They were dressed mostly in street clothes. The words of the scripture were being read in a definite musical key. The language was, of course, Georgian, and at specific moments with reference to Christ or the Trinity many Georgians would cross themselves. At one point there was a gesture of touching the ground, which puzzled and touched me simultaneously. Candles of the congregants, very thin tapers, were also being lit during the service. I was standing behind a large column. After the reading stopped I heard voices arising from a group of seven or eight men, who were dressed in gray robes standing before the opposite column from the one I was near. They sang an excruciatingly beautiful hymn in multipart harmony. As I absorbed it I was struck by the need for such beauty in my own country where it seemed that so much of our society had been rendered empty by our pop cults and cuteness fetishes. And just as they stopped singing and my heart was ready to enter a moment of rest, suddenly from directly in front of me on the other side of the column I was standing behind, another male choir began to answer them with an antiphonal song in an alternative key. And this just gripped me. I could scarcely take it in. Nothing in my life had ever sounded so evocative of the mystery of God’s world. And then the other group sang again! And then were answered again! In contrasting swirling harmonies. And finally the voices all came together before returning to their antiphonal chanting one last time. And all of the Georgians around me took this as normal.
As I continued my wandering down Rustaveli Avenue towards Liberty Square (or is it Freedom Square?) I came upon something I had not noticed before. In the place of the empty lot that had been there back in April 2016 the Galleria Tbilisi had just recently opened. And I stared at it with an open mouth at the gaudiness of the new mall. I walked into it to experience the strange deja vu these glossy beasts always elucidate and the vertiginous sinking feeling I had as I rode the escalators up six floors to the food court and then finally the movie theatres on the top floor. The place was illuminated pretty much in the standard Christmasy manner. And Santa Claus had children on his lap beneath the Levi’s and Calvin Klein stores. I suppose it had to happen. I walked outside where a Georgian boy was playing a drum and singing for a few lari. It was the perfect metonym of the country being caught between two worlds and two Christmases. The multitudes near him entered the mall as multitudes do all over the world, like Mister Toad from the Wind and the Willows, eyes bulging, caught by the shiny newness of the thing. I couldn’t blame them. They just want what they think everybody else has. They just don’t understand the trade they will make to get it. And that in the end you don’t get very much.
Western Christmas came, which didn’t feel particularly like Christmas to me, since Shoba, Georgian Orthodox Christmas, doesn’t come until January 7th. But on December 25th I did meet up with Sophie Zhvania a friend and translator from my last Georgian visit. And we had an excellent conversation at Fabrika, which proved to be hipster central for Tbilisi, and she helped me gain a bit more needed realism about her country. She was glad to be leaving for Berlin for the New Year. But she will be back soon, and we have film work to discuss.
Eventually I said nakhvamdis to Tamuna’s family and met up with Mariam and Kote, also friends from last year. I would be staying in their Airbnb apartment in the Saburtalo district for my next three months. They carefully explained to me the way the apartment worked. Mariam had artistically decorated the large room. We would be seeing each other again soon. And now I felt I could begin to settle into Tbilisi.
I began to look around my neighborhood to see what was available. I soon discovered many things including dried persimmons, tarragon soda, cheeses made with wine and honey, the delicious smoked scrumbia fish and much more. I often found myself saying “I have no category for this.” Tarragon soda was like that. Sometimes I see faces on the metro that are like that. And I have talked to people who are like that. (But we’ll save these encounters for another time.)
New Year’s Eve was upon us. Unfortunately I had picked up an annoying but noticeable sniffle. And since this was my third such attack since I first landed in Europe I decided to play it safe and stay home for New Year’s Eve. A thoughtful mood descended upon me as I reflected back on the year. But I decided I would fulfill my usual tradition of eating and drinking something new after the stroke of midnight. This wasn’t hard to do. I had the purple wine infused cheese and a three dollar (in US dollars) bottle of Georgian ‘champagne’. Quite sweet. I imagined that what would happen was when midnight came was that somewhere off in the distance I would see fireworks. With some sort of echo on the street. I had been seeing firework sales everywhere. Well for one thing you couldn’t tell when it was midnight whatsoever. An increasing roar had been developing throughout the evening. With one hour to go I looked outside to seeing the city erupting in fireworks everywhere you looked. I was completely thunderstruck by this. And as the clock approached the New Year I just heard it getting louder, I even thought I heard rounds of ammunition being fired. And so I recorded my envelopment for posterity. The next morning was the quietest I’d ever seen Tbilisi. Busy Vazha Pshavela Avenue beneath my sixth floor apartment was dormant until well past noon, only interrupted by the occasional firecracker explosion.
On the 4th of January I went to the Nutcracker at the Paliashvili Opera House on Rustaveli Avenue. It was the first time I had ever seen it performed as a ballet live. I was thoroughly enthralled. The afternoon audience was at least one third children. And it was clear that the Christmas season was still continuing strong here as I walked up the brilliantly lit Rustaveli on my way back home.
Finally came Shoba, and I found myself unprepared for the way that Christmas is celebrated here. Christmas Eve was not the still time it is even in New York City (the only quiet moment in that city). Not much seemed to be closed on Christmas Day in Tbilisi. And yet there was indeed a huge event taking place. In a feat of civil planning all of busy Rustaveli Avenue was shut down for the Alilo Procession. (Alilo means hallelujah.) Near Rustaveli Square hundreds of people prepared for this religious parade. Orthodox priests mingled with children in white robes. Real buffaloes and donkeys pulled carts. And puppet camels and elephants, even a giraffe (?) pulled up the rear. (Finally puppets!) Some people wore traditional Georgia costumes. Some held Georgia flags. The procession began around 14:00 (2pm).
Unlike any parade I’ve ever seen, you could walk completely around this procession as it went, which I suppose is quite Georgian. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. But eventually it was clear by the time we hit the halfway point to Liberty Square that thousands upon thousands of people were on the street. And this was very much an Orthodox event. Priests controlled the movement of the crowds. Thankfully the whole thing did not end with or even include a Santa Claus figure.
And so the introductory slice of my Georgian journey had come to an end. Now I’ve emphasized the new and unusual things as I saw them. And you might be tempted to see Georgia as some magical dreamscape through my description. But fear not. I am not in anyway blinded to the realities of Georgia in the 21st Century. The Tbilisi Galleria was one thing. It was like the mothership had landed bringing with it the big thing. Even the Alilo Procession was somewhat diminished by cars with loudspeakers above them playing almost Disneyfied versions of an Alilo song. (But also traditional Georgia songs.) And I had read descriptions of this parade including singing from the streets. The amplification stopped anything like that from occurring. And this is Georgia. And of course there is the poverty, the lack of anything like recycling, the endless smoking, and one could go on. And my own state of mind was not one unbroken stream of wonder and discovery. Although often something would come along just when I needed it. Whether finding problems with my bank back home, concerns about how far my dollars would stretch , unresolved issues in my life, and illness, why it was in many ways just like being home.
But truthfully I’m in the best place I could be right now. Led here by more than circumstance. And I already have made contacts amongst the puppeteers. And I have had excellent conversations and met new people. I look forward to my submergence in this surprising culture. I have had other experiences that will eventually probably work their way to the surface. But since I will be here until the end of March my reporting back will be different than at the other stops on this Gravity From Above journey. I will allow some stories to develop over time. So you might not hear from me quite as regularly, then without warning there will be an avalanche of ideas and observations. So this is a good time to catch up on my older essays. More will come. And feel free to write your thoughts as well.
(Update from January 14th: Evidently I wrote this too soon. Last night there was a second Julian New Year’s Eve blow out. Not nearly as crazy as the first. But far more fireworks than most of us see all year! Happy second New Year!)
And just a reminder. There really are needs I don’t want to elaborate on. But any contributions to this journey at this point would be deeply appreciated. Someone recently gave $25. That’s more than two days of living for me. So use that PayPal link right here and below. It’s simple and efficient and I get more of your gifts than through any crowdfunder. Thanks for all of the support in so many ways thus far! I hope I’m doing you well.
My road did indeed lead me to Rome on a 13 hour train ride from Palermo, which also included driving the train onto a ferry to get it across the Strait of Messina. I arrived, late of course, at night in the Eternal City at my hotel a few blocks from the Vatican, where a woman, whose accent I guessed, much to her surprise, as Ukrainian, was waiting for me and late for her dinner. And soon I was back on the streets of Roma where I discovered that everything near a tourist site is expensive and nearly everything seems to be a tourist site. But I strolled over to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the dark and reflected on the fact that I was truly in Rome for the first time in my life.
Now the reason I had never come to Italy before was mostly out of (a perhaps not misplaced) humility. There’s just too much history here. And I love history. Researching this trip I discovered that state of Tuscany alone has more cultural and historic treasures than any other single country on earth. And while you are rereading that line let me then add that Italy in total has more historic and artistic treasures than the rest of the world combined. That’s why I’ve never been here before. It is impossible for me to consider Italy as a quick vacation stop. And for that reason I didn’t even consider going to Florence or Venice. There’s just too much to see. There’s even a Florentine Syndrome that relates to people trying to squeeze in too much of Florence in too few days. The eyes just get clogged and one is unable to take anymore visual splendor. So Palermo Sicily was my specific introduction to the Italian world. And this would be an introduction to Rome. And if I was fortunate I’d be able to see a puppet show while I was here.
First things first. I wanted to go to the Vatican museum. I needed to see the Sistine Chapel. I almost bought a ticket the night before online. But I decided against it for practical and budgetary reasons. I decided to take my chances and stand in line. Curiously the line was less than 15 minutes long, I guess that’s what you get on December 1st. That isn’t to say it wasn’t crowded inside. It was 11:00 and pretty much like a cattle car. I learned long ago how to visit museums from a lecture by Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, you don’t mosey and look at everything. Especially in crowds like this. You save your eyes, avoiding Florentine Syndrome, and go straight to what you want to see. And so I passed up as many gawkers as I could, dodging in and out of the human traffic, using mi scusi and permesso often to push my way passed the bovine hordes. And at last I arrived at the place. And even with the relatively crowded room, the museum guards regularly saying ‘No Photo!’ to the selfie addicts I was able to find enough space to pause and explore the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for ten minutes and the ceiling for another twenty. I was completely impressed by the life sized figures being sent off to judgment. Having seen them largely in coffee table books. Even the grandest off them does no justice to the size and intensity of the work. I was also caught off guard by Michelangelo’s various uses of trompe l’oeil, which did literally deceive my eyes.
I spent another couple of hours in the museum, basking in the statues and Raphael’s The School of Athens among many others. And I ended up walking through the Sistine Chapel once again. And I was glad I had gotten there early. Now it was so overcrowded that the assemblage were standing shoulder to shoulder. But at least I had had my time for reflection earlier.
The next morning was Sunday and so I walked the few blocks to Saint Peter’s Basilica to see Pope Francis give a short message at noon. While there I decided to walk through great church. It was indeed more than suitably impressive. Massive. Yet light as though floating somehow. I came up to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great Baldacchino. Far grander than the photos had given me any notion of. And I continued making a loop along with many others, though it felt much less crammed with tourists than the museum had been. I almost left St. Peter’s when I noticed a group of people gathered around something. I was looking for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. And then I realized I was standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This depiction of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, with young face and aging body is easily one of the greatest works of art ever made. Carved in marble, or should I say revealed in marble, for the carver’s art is not like the painter. The carver removes pieces very carefully to find this image. And as I was standing in front of the Pieta I was suddenly moved so deeply by it that I almost burst into tears. There was something in the face. That Michelangelo had found somehow the perfect face of tenderness and sorrow in the beauty of his Mary. And also knowing what it meant to my mother, one of the few artistic visions to haunt her, maybe because I was her only child, her son. But also the consolation in the face of Mary and that stark need we often crave when confronted by some of life’s darker tidings. I had to control myself so as not to be reduced to tears in public.
A little later it seemed anticlimactic to be out in the piazza with thousands of others as the Pope, the size of a postage stamp, gave his message. But it was good to know that on some level this journey had received the Pope’s blessing. And as I passed among people from so many countries again I choked up a little at the sight of Germans who were singing and dancing.
My task for the rest of that Sunday, perhaps a bit too ambitious, was to find two more Bernini sculptures hidden in obscure churches and find the burattini (Italian for both puppets in general and also hand or glove puppets) featuring commedia dell’arte characters. So I hopped on bus from near the Vatican and ended up somewhere further up the Tiber River. I was looking for the Church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere with the funerary statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. I arrived to find the church locked for lunch. (!) And since this was Rome lunch would take over two hours. So I decided, sensibly, to find my own lunch. I wanted something authentic. And I found it. A little pizza place called Don, which served Napoli style fried pizza. (?) And that was a bit like a small round calzone that was fried on both sides in hot oil. Absolutely sensational. Biting into it released steam, everything completely fresh. Overwhelming satisfaction. (Not a pineapple to be seen anywhere on the premises.) Eventually I went back to sit on the church steps. A mother and daughter from Connecticut and New York City respectively came to wait, another half hour, with me. The daughter worked at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. And she was here exactly for the same reason that I was. Bernini!
When at last, late in traditional Italian fashion, we were let into to see the Bernini it was indeed as awe inspiring as imaginable. The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni reclined in a nook of the church. A euro turned on a lamp to illumine her. A fence kept us a few yards/meters away. But I also appreciated the statue without the light. Cloaked in shadows. Exquisite. Profound. Bernini’s work has the ability to say many things at once. And this mysterious statue is a prime example of that.
As is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which I was also on my way to see in another church in another zone. A steady rain began to wash the streets, making it all the more meaningful to step into the dry Baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria. This Saint Teresa is a little more well known than the Blessed Ludovica. Simon Schama spent an hour discussing it on his British documentary, The Power of Art. And there were a few more visitors. And indeed the image of the angel plunging the arrow into Teresa is potent and sensual. Beautiful beyond a mere description. My photos hardly doing it justice. The whole church was indeed a dark Baroque masterpiece on ornate emotion.
But sadly I realized that my camera battery was nearly dead and I had left my spare at the hotel. Thus I had to forego the puppets I had come to see. And they weren’t performing the next day. Alas…
On my last full day in Rome I walked among the ruins of the Colosseum, but didn’t go in. The tourism seemed too thick, too much like a theme park. I eventually walked by a far too bustling Trevi Fountain, where my coin dutifully disappeared and made haste to leave the area. But not before seeing the Pantheon. And this proved to be the highlight of my tourism day. This really was the greatest Roman building from ancient Rome. After being converted into a church it had remained in use since its construction. It was the largest structure made of unreinforced concrete in the world. And completely majestic. And because it was free the crowds weren’t too oppressive. And just as I left the area I found one last great Bernini sculpture, a great Baroque elephant in a small piazza. And my esteem for his work grew with my discoveries. (Not too forgot his contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica itself!)
Over all while I was made many crucial discoveries in Rome, Palermo really was the highlight of my time in Italy. Yet I can fully imagine coming back here and making another round of aesthetic searches. My understanding of sculpture took on a new depth, having stood before Michelangelo’ and Bernini’s works in the ‘flesh’. I saw that sculpture in many ways was the noble cousin to puppetry. But for now I was tired. I had picked up a little sniffle from the Metro while I was there. I would be happy to return on an overnight train to Paris.
17 / 12 / 2017
(Note: If you are reading these journals mostly for puppets you can probably skip this one.)
And, almost as if crossing the border into Switzerland had curative powers, my fever and any lingering symptoms seemed to vanish as I entered the land of clocks and chocolate. But there was one thing very different this time. As I emerged from the SNCF train from France into the station, I was corralled through a customs check point past soldiers with automatic weapons. And while they didn’t check passports, they certainly symbolized a change coming to the Schengen Group of countries with its open borders. And frankly I will be happy to see the whole Schengen concept go. The three month limitation for staying in all of Europe has been a hassle since it began. I much preferred the old separate countries, separate borders approach. But that’s getting a bit political for these essays and is based more on personal experience than any ideology.
Nevertheless I was back in Switzerland, not for puppets, but rather to check in with my friends at L’Abri, a study center in a small village called Huémoz. L’Abri Fellowship is a Christian place engaged in trying to understand the times and to provide honest answers to honest questions. They tend to shy away from the kind of Christian propaganda that infests too much of the Church as well as everywhere else these days. They downplay the use of tech devices and focus instead upon study and practical work. It is in a small measure a way for me to gauge the temperature of the times by meeting the students who happen to be staying for various durations in the course of a three month term. I went there back in 1978 and if you want to know why I treat things the way I do in puppetry, music, history in general, L’Abri probably takes the biggest credit.
Yet things change over time. And L’Abri has gone through several phases over the years. The 80s were not an especial highlight. The 90s were an excellent period. The 00s were interesting as well. On my last visit in 2016 I was a little worried that L’Abri would not be able to stem the tides of politically correct oversensitivity and the increasing juvenilization of practically everything. My visit this time left me feeling much better about the state of the institute. And the students. And so much depends upon the mix of students who come. Last time I was here there were possibly too many students coming from a similar mindset. And in order for L’Abri to work there really has to be a mix. The politically correct need to rub shoulders with the homeschool students who need to meet some Europeans who need to be a bit shocked by a few wild card students. And that’s what I found this time. Though there could have been a few less Americans and couple more men and it would have been perfect. But there’s no telling who’s going to come. And age-wise it was a good mix. Students as young as 18 mixing with twentysomethings and a few in their 30s and even a couple of men in their 60s passed through. One in particular, Clint, was looking for the L’Abri he wanted to visit in the 70s. I helped him interpret the present state of affairs.
One thing I was wondering about, given my thoughts about Geekdom, was how much pop culture fantasy and science fiction would dominate the conversations. These subjects certainly had been present last time. Shortly before I came a guest lecturer had given a talk comparing Voldemort to the Islamic State terrorists. And when it was finished the students general attitude seemed to be “What was the point?” And that gave me a hint of hope. Maybe, just maybe, these students are beginning to see that the insanities left to right of the tragi-farce of contemporary life can’t be easily bottled into trendy fantasy references.
And so I arrived with a little bottle of historical question marks in the form of a lecture with aural and visual examples of Blackface Minstrel music, the most taboo subject in American music history, just to see if the easily offended mood had increased or decreased since my last visit. And also to make the point that American musical style was defined by both it’s black and white elements, with other cultures adding a little spice here and there to the Anglo-Celtic/Western African stew. I didn’t pull any punches. I don’t think either the doctrinaire on either left nor right would be happy with my explanations. But the whole point was this: history is always, unfailingly, much more messy than our ideologies. And in the midst of racism, flattery, opportunity, stereotyping, confusion and entertainment one of the greatest bodies of musical heritage was born. Like it or lump it. (What does that mean?)
But it was in discussions with the students that things came alive for me. Jessica, dealing with the unraveling of her life, had come to try to put things together and find a new direction. She became a friend through several honest conversations. Connor, who left shortly after I arrived, nevertheless impressed me with the sincerity and depth of his questions. Soo Min from South Korea, also pondering new possibilities, was quite curious about making films. Olivia seemed to just enjoy being there having come from a stable family, fishing in Alaska during the summer, not dealing with anything in particular. She decided to stay to be a helper (low paid worker/student). When I asked why? (Usually students want to keep working of their issues longer as was the case with Jessica.) She simply said “I want to help out.” In a ‘Big Five’ personality test I’m imagining she’d score fairly low on trait neuroticism. Then there was the wild card of the term, a current helper named Jim, a psychedelic ranger investigating shamanism and lysergic experiences while also holding, somehow, onto his faith. We ended up having a talk one evening that I wished I’d recorded. An honest guy seeking, maybe finding too much, but a truly memorable soul all the same. I mustn’t forget Kristy who came to my attention when she discussed regretting a tattoo she had gotten. And had another of a tree that in discussion revealed a deep artistic outlook. And then there was Ashley, almost archetypically blonde Southern Californian girl, and uniquely talented in her challenging paintings. And then there was Tiffany with her head shorn like a penitent and her outlook sober and penetrating, not given to playing the kinds of games she’d played a few years ago that had brought her house of cards tumbling down. And lastly I’ll mention Sophia, who had come to spend time with her sister Clara, as well as ask a few questions of her own. During a walk our words ranged across a depth of subjects as this 25 year old was revealed to have purposely tested herself by coming to Europe, spending a year in Iraq, and basically wrestling with maturity. And that was a theme I saw over and over this time. That juvenile spirit of the times was finding an answer for a few who weren’t content to live in this overly protective world we have worn as mask. And that gave me hope. (My apologies to all of the students I didn’t mention… but you were part of this too!)
Finally a word about my older friends, workers and helpers, former workers: Jasmine, Cindy, Richard and Karen, Gian and Prisca, Greg and Lisby, Per-Ole and Amelia, Becky and Rodman, Dave and Anna (who are moving in December). Coming back to Swiss L’Abri always has a touch of a return home to me. Not that it has ever been my home. Yet many important people and ideas stem from this place for me. This has been my 8th visit since my time as a student back in 20th Century. Each time, while different, has been a taste of something larger in my life. It is the place I circle, returning in different moods, experiencing a slightly different place each time. Enlarging history, L’Abri’s and my own along the way.
My stay ended fittingly with a grand Thanksgiving dinner, a former student having donated three turkeys in memory of someone donating a Thanksgiving turkey during his stay. This brought everyone together in a swirl of talking and laughing and sharing. Pies were made. Amelia’s parents from the states had come to help with the festivities. And everything was underscored by fond memories and meaningful friendships.
An old friend I hadn’t seen in several years dropped in to give a lecture. Ellis Potter, former Buddhist monk, then Christian convert back in the 70s, during the central moment of L’Abri’s influence, now pastor in Basel, nevertheless always retaining a certain je ne sais quoi from his Zen monastery days. He speaks in unusual measured rhythms that can veer from calm seriousness, to fart references, to deep emotion within the span of a few minutes and somehow it all seems of a piece. (He critiqued Christian filmgoers as being ‘shits and nipples counters’. Rather than attend to the meaning of work, they tended to count curse words and body parts.) He spoke about and played parts of Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend, which had been composed following the death of Krzystof Kieslowski in mid-90s. Ellis accomplished the difficult feat of bring the beauty of that music into the room, as well as reminding us all of the much more elusive meaning of beauty in this sad world. And that is the kind of thing that L’Abri does on its best days.
From a train leaving Palermo in Sicily on my 12 hour journey to Rome
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Also you can click on either of these to titles to read about my other stops at L’Abri:
Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE have been curious about the journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the fifth part. More will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. (Follow the link below to read the story.)
The Tbilisi Airport at 4:00 in the morning was chaos incarnate. It wasn’t until I was actually in the air on my way to Paris via Warsaw that I had a small fraction of rest to even begin to reflect on the last three weeks of my journey in Georgia as the lights of Tbilisi vanished in the dark skies. But I was also a bit concerned about making my connections to France. On the way to Georgia the EU customs lines at the Warsaw Chopin Airport (who decides to name an airport after a composer?) were unbearably long and this time I only had an hour instead of nine. And then I discovered something about the Georgians that I hadn’t noticed before.
When I exited the plane I obviously wasn’t the only person concerned with getting to a connecting flight on time. At least half of the flight was filled with Georgians on their way to Europe. As we followed the signs and ramps to our flights a confused airport employee told us to wait and then closed an electronic glass door, which cut us off after letting a few of our throng through. She swiped a card and it was locked and we were in the middle of nowhere. She kept motioning for us to turn around. Some of the Georgian family members had been cut of from the rest of us. Now I had been in Tbilisi for three weeks. Georgian men seemed rather low key most of the time. I had been told that they were an emotional people. But it didn’t register the way it would if we were Italy or Spain. And also I was told that they were descended from fierce mountain warriors, as was clear in many of the folk dances. But I hadn’t seen much to confirm that. Suddenly these men were cut off from their wives. Families were separated. And then I heard them speaking in voices, voices well schooled in strong singing, stentorian voices, lungs filled with anger over the rather strange and ultimately stupid move by an airport employee. Her swipe card would not work. She was reduced to tears as the Georgian men behind me were preparing to save their families. Finally her supervisor arrived and chewed her out in fine Polish style. And I looked at these men behind me and said ‘Aha!’ That’s how they managed to stay uniquely Georgian in the face of centuries of outside aggression.
I made it through the line in mercifully good time and was soon winging my way to Paris with Warsaw in the window below me. Paulette Caron met me at Charles De Gaulle Airport after I negotiated a bomb scare and took me back out to her parents house in L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the southern outskirts of Paris. I prepared my final return journey and was taken by Paulette to a local market. Paulette and other friends have often commented on how Alaska stops you in your tracks when you visit. That is how I feel about wandering through a French market filled with perfectly fresh produce, cuts of meat rarely seen in my neck of the woods, cheeses (I can’t even begin.), savory tarts and too many other edibles to discuss. And I won’t torture you with descriptions from the pastry shop. (O if only the wild nature of Alaska could just have a smidgen of French cuisine!)
The windy weather prevented us from visiting my friend guignoliste Pascal Pruvost. But we did have an appointment with a respected and inovative hand puppet artist Brice Coupey. We met him at a cafe and I had an excellent discussion with him about his puppetry and about a possible interview in the future for Gravity From Above. He was quite receptive to the project and agreed. Obviously that interview along with many others would wait for the future.
Paulette also took me for a walk over to Place de la République which had become a shrine to the victims of terrorism from November 13th and now Brussels, which had occurred since I had passed through. And simultaneously the doomed carnival atmosphere had become a staging grounds for a French style series of protests, which sadly had adopted the confused Occupy Wall Street trappings, in other words there was no specific goal, and which have since occurred to no particular avail, except adding to France’s woes.
As I walked through the square pondering the dead and looking at the kids playing at revolution I mused on the many problems facing Europe: Immigration/refugees, the old walls from pre-EU days beginning to be erected again, terrorism, economic uncertainties, Islam and Europa, the lack of faith and the near terminal decline of Christianity, the influence of the worst aspects of American pop culture, the rise of right wing isolationists and fear-mongers, the insane utopian dreams of the left as now constituted less by any concern for the working classes and more by gender politicking. And here were the youth practicing what to do if sprayed, if clubbed, ready for endless demands and no wisdom to draw upon. I confessed to Paulette, who could only agree while rearranging some of my details, that the European future looked stark. And the near future would bring Brexit, Munich, Nice and the tides of Islamic conspiracy to Turkey. And meanwhile America continues it’s long course following the dwindling laws of diminishing returns as we prepare to vote again for the lesser of two evils. And I suspect fewer Americans care about Europe than ever in my lifetime. How can anyone care about anything when they are staring into a screen in their hands?
Eventually it was time to say fond farewells to Paulette and her family and to spend my last night in Paris at my usual Hôtel Saint André des Arts, where I had the perfect final conversation with the manager Fred, whom I’ve known since 2000. We wondered at the strange shape of a world where people more and more were disappearing into wireless devices. We wondered at the worrisome fate of France and Europe. And likewise America. But we agree that at all costs we must remain human and to continue thinking without paying heed to the barrage of various propagandas beating down our ears.
On April 19th I boarded the first leg on my journey back to Alaska on British Airways. I then left London for an excruciating flight smashed into a seat near the toilet stall for nine hours. I missed my connection on Alaskan Airlines and spent the evening in a truly depressing American hotel near SEATAC. I resumed my journey the next morning to Juneau, where actor, teacher and clown Roblin Gray Davis put me up for a couple of nights with his family and graciously drove me to the early morning ferry. And finally I got to the ferry. As is the custom I talked with many friends, walked around the deck in the cool air and was picked up by Scott Hansen and delivered to my doorstep. I wish I could say I plopped down on my bed and slept. But I had to crawl under the house to turn the water on, spend the afternoon trying to get the heater working and try to get my life back in order before finally achieving the goal of all journeys to rediscover my shower, my bed and home.
Kote Marjanishvili was a famous Georgian theatre director from both the late Imperial period through the early Revolutionary Era in Georgia, Russia and the Soviet Union. I was visiting a theatre named after him on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi on the appropriately named Kote Marjanishvili Street. I was there to see Nino Namitcheishvili, a name I’m still wrestling with. Tinatin Gurchiani had come through again finding the theatre’s puppet mistress who was glad to invite me up to her office in the stately building.
Nino was a friendly curly black haired woman, a bit quirky (as puppeteers often are) and dedicated to her craft. As I set up my camera for an interview I couldn’t help noticing the bird in a cage behind her next to a couple of similarly sized puppets. Somehow it seemed fitting. Once you start seeing things through the eyes of puppetry everything begins to have connections with the art. On the wall was a piece of colorful fabric that had once been used for the backdrop of a puppet show. Behind me rested a community of puppets that all looked like they had been prepared for a barbecue, with skewers sticking out of their backs, as they laid face down a table.
Puppets and Bird
We spoke about her connection to puppetry.We spoke about her connection to puppetry. She had discovered it almost by accident as many others had having already embarked upon a theatrical career. But had been enchanted by world of puppets. We spoke of Georgian theatre, Obraztsov, rod puppets, and the Georgian reaction to puppet performances.
After the interview she showed me the puppets individually all of which had somewhat blank faces yet with plenty of features to make them possible to be read in many different ways during a performance. There were many parts of a Georgian village present. Men, women, a priest. And obviously these were not hastily made creatures. Georgia was indeed connected to the traditions of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world in terms of puppetry. One of my prized possessions gathered on my scrounges through Georgian used bookstores was a large photographic book in Russian on the great puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. And clearly his effect had been felt from Poland to Georgia. As I thanked Nino and prepared to leave she told be that she could get me into the theatre’s play the next evening, which was to be my last day in Georgia. And the play was being done without words, so how fortunate for me. And so why not? The day was already busy but why not make it a day to remember.
My last day in Tbilisi was indeed full. At ten in the morning I met Tinatin Gurchiani for breakfast. Our words drifted from subject to subject as she checked in on my progress in an almost proprietorial and concerned way. She apologized for not connecting me with the busy puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. And it pleased her to know that she had been of service to me. And I felt honored to have had made another good Georgian friend. She spoke of her current documentary project. Her earlier film, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear, had had as its theme the dreams and confusions of youth. Her new documentary focused on the longings and reflections of the aged. I told her more of Alaska and my observations on Georgia. Eventually it was time to go. We bid farewell as though old friends. (And I didn’t remember to take even one photo of Tinatin!)
I then moved over a few blocks to the Sukhishvili dance troupe where I had my interview with Nino Sukhishvili and had my second chance to watch the dancers practice. (See my last entry.) A bit later in the afternoon after my last Georgian meal I arrived at Budrugana Gagra to say farewell. Again another fond farewell by Gela Kandelaki, with ‘Medium Elene’ translating for me. After he left I stayed a little later to show Elene some of my other creative work. And then it was time to go to the theatre.
The Marjanishvili Theatre was a classic Soviet style building similar to what I seen in Poland and the Czech Republic: gray, columns, stately. I was seated in a spare seat. And watched the play, which had been based on the same Sholom Aleichem source material as Fiddler On The Roof. It was called Begalut (In Exile) and developed fragments from Shalom Aleichem’s and Georgian writer Guram Batiashvili’s novels. At first it seemed like a comedy. But by the end after a brutal pogrom it indeed proved to be utterly tragic. Told in a somewhat abstract wordless style the play ends very differently than Fiddler On The Roof, which has notes of hope in a voyage to America, with the final image of a grandmother holding the last surviving baby in her arms among the dead villagers. It wasn’t a stretch to feel that the Russian villains in the piece had a special meaning in Georgia of today, a country with fresh memories of the Five Day War in 2008. I left the theatre walking back home along Marjanishvili Street with many, many thoughts of my time in Tbilisi. Returning to the city was foremost on my mind. It had been stimulating for me in the best possible way. Not as a touristic frantic search for experiences. But in the way seeing new possibilities, sparking new ideas, even challenging my American notions of order.
(The following 25 minute video is my reflection on my time in Tbilisi. Enjoy it at your leisure.)
I was awoken early at four in the morning. Shako purposely came home to say goodbye to me. I had said fond farewells for my host Tamar to Shako’s girlfriend Aneta and especially to my Georgian teacher, the seven year old Mariam. The silent man, whose name I never did get, though I know he is Tamar’s husband but not Shako’s father, drove me through the dark nighttime streets again. This time the music was slightly louder. I looked out at Tbilisi thinking about all that had happened since I arrived. There is much I haven’t even mentioned: Meeting photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote, time spent in museums, meeting American expat Steve Johnson and his wife Tamara who own Prospero’s Books, many serious food experiences, time spent scavenging Georgian music on the Dry Bridge flea market and art bazaar and so much more. Finally my silent driver drove me up to the Tbilisi Airport, I took my luggage, now bursting with Georgian artifacts in a new travel bag purchased at the endless Georgian bazaar by the train station, and said to my driver “Didi madloba.” which means ‘big thanks’, whereupon he suddenly smiled for the first time and responded something in Georgian I didn’t understand. And that made the trip complete.
It was time to get back to Paris to finish up this journey. I had puppeteers waiting for me and memories to share.
And when you have the time go back and read all of my Georgia adventures…
Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
Later the second week of my sojourn in Tbilisi I met up again with singer Mariam Elieshvili. This time I was treated by Mariam and her mother Ia to a Georgian meal of khachapuri, a covered sour cheese pizza without the sauce, and khinkali, a dumpling filled with meat, cheese, mushrooms or other stuffings, along with a goodly portion of savory juice. I shared a bit about my Alaskan life, complete with photos from Haines featuring bears, moose, mountains and puppets. In turn we discussed Georgian music and how Mariam had at the tender age of 18 already become something of a national celebrity with her own national folk music show. (For a sample follow this link.) Mariam also told me that she had arranged a meeting for the following Sunday with the band Chveneburebi, a word that translates into ‘our people’.
When Sunday, April 10th, came I spent the morning visiting the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral to hear music and to experience a Georgian Orthodox service. After a trek up a street passed more entropically weathered structures I found myself at the largest church in all of the Caucasus. I was familiar with many aspects of Orthodox Christianity but had never attended a church before. And when I did I experienced many new emotions. This is not the place to unfurl my thoughts in much detail but the music was indeed quite special as a quintet of girls punctuated the liturgy with a deeply beautiful polyphony. And as I watched the congregants come and go during the service I suddenly realized the reason why Georgia seemed to be organized on such different principles of social life compared to anything I had seen before. The difference between Eastern and Western Christianity was now tangible to me.
Later that day I met up with Mariam and Ia again at Marjanishvili Square. We took the metro to the old Griboedov Theatre building. It was on the border of a recent demolition site where a new edifice would soon be occupying the hollowed out lot. After clearing security we traveled to the top floor and a found ourselves in an old recording studio with the members of the male folk singing group Chveneburebi. Again here were men you wouldn’t have noted if you’d seen them on the street or on a construction site. They strummed on the panduri, a three stringed instrument with plastic or gut strings, and it’s slightly larger bass relative, the chonguri, as well accompanying themselves with frame drum and accordion. And they waited for me to let me hear their lively version of Georgian folk music.
Again moving quickly, musicians are always ready before the camera is, I was introduced by Mariam to Giorgi Gobejishvili, Jege Sakhokia and the other members of the group. They practiced a few tunes as I figured out the best set up in the cramped studio space. When Chveneburebi perform they usually dress up in traditional costumes with a show that includes singing, instrumental music and even a bit of dancing. Finally everything seemed in order. Mariam and Ia sat back in the corner as I tried to adjust the sound. And then they began to sing.
This music was quite different from what I had experienced at Giorgi Ushikishvili’s National Folklore School. And I was fast coming to realize that styles in Georgian depend greatly on where the music originates from. There isn’t one Georgian style. There are many styles depending on which part of the country it originates from. Compared to the mysterious style I’d heard earlier Chveneburebi played a stronger earthier style. (No doubt they knew many of the other songs as well.) They asked me what I wanted to hear. And I regretted not being familiar enough with Georgian songs yet to name many. But I did manage to remember Rachuli! They sang with a strong collective voice that then diverged into repetitious patterns that were sped up by hand claps and a strong shouts. Obviously many of these songs had been work songs. Not only that they also knew the yodeling technique unique to Georgia as well. Sometimes they would put their hands on each others arms and move in circles. I could only imagine this music in its element back in the mountains.
And one thing I have come to realize over time is that Georgians not only have a strong sense of melody, a powerful propulsion of rhythm and a deeply moving harmonies, but perhaps above all they possess an unerring dynamic structure to most of the music they perform. They know when to add new elements to the song that they excel in above all. Chveneburebi was no exception. Neither was Mariam Elieshvili. When Mariam performed her classic song Chven Exla Erturts, she effortlessly modulates up a key halfway through the song. I think the idea of a simple verse chorus verse chorus pattern without dynamic escalation would never occur to the Georgians. When America had a folk revival in the 1950s and 60s most performers simply played the songs. Much American pop music merely follows the song with instrumental breaks. Nice arrangements, yes. But I have heard recordings of Georgian music that simply left me gasping for joy at the development of the tunes.
Eventually Mariam joined Chveneburebi for a quieter more introspective song and then I got her to sing three songs by herself: Lale, that starts as a haunting slow plaintiff song, Chven Exla Erturts, which she had composed around a poem with the help of her school mates and had already been adopted as a classic Georgian tune played by many others, and Shenma Survilma Damlia, another deep folk song. (The first two of which I did ask for specifically.) I had wanted to film her simply singing, without all of the jitteriness of the usual home video or cellphone video. Or without the backdrop of a Georgian television stage.
Mariam Elieshvili’s type of music is certainly folk music by American standards, but it is a newer form of folk music by Georgia’s much stricter standards. Whereas Georgian folk music is seen as having no author, simply being passed on. What Mariam does can include those older songs, which she certainly knows, but it can include more recently written songs and tunes in Georgian style. This music is often passed on through YouTube videos, especially since Georgia’s music industry has a great deal of difficulty in policing its recordings. I view it as a highly healthy musical development, as opposed to merely imitating American or Western European styles. The shared videos are themselves a form of folk sharing in the digital age.
And in a way hearing Mariam sing in person had been one of the goals of this whole journey. I had originally discovered her YouTube videos back in early 2012. In the first video I discovered she was sitting in an unpretentious room with her brother Sandro. She sang and he was playing a panduri while singing harmony. The song was called Ayvavebula. I had looked and thought okay here are a couple of kids singing, she was 13 or 14 then, her brother younger, but as soon as she opened her mouth I knew I was in a different musical universe. And that led me to make hundreds more discoveries in Georgian music. And so sitting here now listening to her sing in my presence, especially considering the success she has had since then, was a profoundly privileged moment. I thought how I had bridged the vast gulf between my virtual introduction to a singer and a land almost exactly halfway around the world to the reality of hearing such a pure voice sing in my own presence in a small studio in Tbilisi Georgia. I could rest easy after that.
And not only that I had made a new friend in Mariam, or should I say several friends. I bid the men of Chveneburebi adieu. And I said very fond farewells to Mariam and Ia. I knew I would meet them again someday.
(And I’m waiting for Mariam to finally finish recording her album so that I can invite her to America!)
Next we enter the world of Georgian folk dance when we visit Sukhishvili.
Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
Another appointment Tinatin Gurchiani had made for me was to stop by the National Folklore School to visit with Giorgi Ushikishvili. What I didn’t know at the time was that Giorgi had had a nationally televised program on folk music back in the Saakashvili administration. (I also discovered along the way that many projects seemed to come and go with governments.) And Giorgi really was the national guardian of the deep well of Georgian folk music.
Not too far from the Tamar Guesthouse I strolled along the busy streets near Marjanishvili Square until I arrived at an older building along Jansughi Kakhidze Street. I was told to enter where I heard the sound of singing. And indeed as I approached I could hear a group of young boys forcefully chanting out a Georgian song. I opened the doors to enter a fairly undistinguished room, and unremarkable school rooms, with several girls waiting in one place and a closed door with the boys behind it. I stood by the door happily imbibing the glorious sounds while keeping my eyes open for someone who might be Giorgi or introduce me to him. After about ten minutes a women approached me and suggested that I wait in an office. She didn’t speak English really, but I found myself sitting. I kept mangling the name Giorgi Ushikishvili as I pointed to a clock. Eventually someone walked through the door, it was Giorgi’s sister Nino. She did speak English and told me that Giorgi had been held up at a previous engagement in another city. She suggested that I come back on Friday evening when the men would be rehearsing, implying that the boys singing were nothing special. I thanked her and explained that listening to the boys practice would really be interesting to for me. She told me to wait as she stepped out of the room for a moment. I stared at Georgian Orthodox ikons on the walls. Nino stepped back in and said I had permission to watch the boys rehearse.
And so I finally stepped behind that beckoning door filled with voices and nodded at the boys. They stopped somewhat self-consciously for moment until the choir master snapped them back into focus. I movedt to the back of the cramped space and sat. Then they began to sing. And when they did it the last thing on my mind was the dullness of so many youth group choirs. One boy belted out a refrain the boys echoed back with a chorus, call and response. The toe-headed boy sang out again and again. The other boys answered back and back again. Soon they were clapping in double time and the pace picked up and the song began to change. And the melody was strong, but the harmony was unpredictable to me. And it seemed to reach into some deep place of courage and joy. I eventually got out a camera to try to take a few still shots as the songs flew out of their mouths. When asked who wanted the lead on the next song several boys would shoot up their hands up. It was an honor for them. Eventually a couple of older teenage boys dropped in and immediately added bass notes to the boys ensemble. At one point they formed a ring, put their arms on each other shoulders, and began a series of steps with a song. I can’t even begin to describe this.
I left that evening to dutifully return on Friday evening.
On Friday, as I was walking down the street, I saw a woman begging who had been there several times before. I decided to drop a couple of coins in her can. Behind me I heard a young voice. “That was very kind of you.” I turned to see a boy about 12 years old walking next to me. I said “You speak English well.” He thanked me and offered me a small grape-sized fresh fruit that was very sour. I accepted and he said “I know you.” he said, “You were at my class.” He was one of the young singers. And so we walked down the street talking together until we arrived at the door to the school again.
This time I met the stocky Ushikishvili: an earnest man, very serious about folk music. Nino came in again to translate. Georgian folk music by his reckoning was that music that had been passed down without an author. I remembered that there were discussions about this sort of thing back in the early Sixties in America, most of which faded from public consciousness after Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar. But Georgia had a good reason to be strict in its definition of folk music, it still had a living folk culture. In fact that was one of the things that so attracted me to the music here. Unlike the USA or Canada, Western, Central and even most of Eastern Europe, where folk music is like some relic kept in a back closet or brought out for the tourists and on special occasions, in Georgia the natural music of the Georgians was still alive. I pointed out the music of Mariam Elieshvili, or the many YouTube videos that seemed to give evidence of the continued folk traditions Giorgi firmly said “No. That’s not folk music.” It was as far as he was concerned pretty much pop music. But I countered it is still firmly based in Georgian folk traditions. I mentioned that my own thought about what was folk had more to do with regions. He listened, but I certainly didn’t convince him. He looked visibly pained when I mentioned the effect of technology upon music. And yet when I asked him if folk music in Georgia was still healthy he quickly said yes.
His school was proof of that. He took me into a humble classroom filled with chairs. Standing there were men of such character that if you walked by them in the street you’d merely think of them as fairly typical Georgians. They seemed to range from about 60 down to their early 20s. He introduced me. They were glad to meet me. I set up my equipment and tried to work as quickly as I could to get ready. They arranged themselves in a semicircle. Giorgi took the lead vocal. There was a moment of silence. And then they began to sing.
The sound that washed over me connected me back to something ancient, the real depths of time, not some Renaissance Fair reconstruction. This was a living memory of the past embodied in contemporary souls. Giorgi told me later that some of the songs could easily be 2000 years old, given the subject matter. I’d never stood in the presence of such songs being sung. I was utterly haunted. No wonder Giorgi held such intensely strong convictions.
And to make his point he gave me a serious stack of CDs of various vocal groups and a book of Georgian Orthodox church music to aid in my beginning to understand this music. Even now as I write I can only say that as I begin to listen and explore this musical world I feel I am walking across a gem field.
Next time we meet the folk ensemble Chveneburebi.
And more puppets will be coming up…
(With a Detour into Alaska)
I recently edited together the lecture with slides which I gave while traveling through Europe in 2012 interviewing puppet people. The lecture was entitled Puppetry As Antidote Art. It was given to the students at the L’Abri Fellowship in Huémoz Switzerland.
This lecture is an in depth introduction to serious puppetry focusing mostly on Europe. It is both a general survey of puppet history and styles in Europe and it is also gives an account of my personal journey into puppetry. The discoveries described in the lecture under-gird the structure of Gravity From Above.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to include the students questions with the video. The presentation itself lasted nearly an hour and a half. Obviously it contains great quantities of information on the subject of puppetry and is not suited to the casual YouTube surfer. My suggestion, download it and watch it in the best available format. (And by the way it is my experience that you can download it easier by going to the actual YouTube page rather than viewing it here.)
If you have any questions about puppetry or the forthcoming documentary Gravity From Above please get in touch here or through the YouTube page. (I hope to know something from Switzerland by the end of April this year.) (I still need more support for the documentary so don’t feel shy about that either.)
Meanwhile stay warm and stay creative…
I was awakened by the sound of the BBC coming from the kitchen. It turns out that heavy downpours of rain had flooded many parts of the U.K. And it seemed that my travel north towards Durham might be interrupted by the waters. Nevertheless as I have learned in past moments of uncertainty, you commit yourself to a course, even if it is doubtful. And so I arrived at King’s Cross Station an hour and a half early. And it’s a good thing I did. Because as I sat there waiting I heard a sound on the public address system that definitely announced that the train to Durham, my train had been canceled. So I got up, dragged my weighty bags and got on a different train also heading north. I figured that I would at least get as near as I could, which in this case was Newcastle. As I passed field after flooded field north of York the train announced that there would indeed be a stop at Durham. Evidently many of the people aboard had the same idea that I did and since they had just cleared a fallen tree we would be the first train to pull into the station.
My main reason for going to what would prove to be the smaller town of Seaham, on the North Sea Coast, was to meet Lenka Pavlíčková, a Czech carver who had made my own Nimrod puppet for our Great Ziggurat show back in 2009. We had only communicated online and I thought it would be good both to meet her and to interview her on carving for Gravity From Above. When I arrived at Durham I was met by George, Lenka’s affable English husband, who gave me a guided tour as we drove and quite a bit of the history English labor relations, since he was also a union representative of long standing. He considered himself a socialist, which was interesting on many levels, especially since Lenka, being a good Czech girl was anything but. Yet I enjoyed seeing a relationship where political agreement was not the glue. (One rarely sees this in America anymore.)
In Seaham and vicinity I was taken to a spot on the coast that had had so many coal slag heaps once that it had been used by Ridley Scott in Alien to stand in as the foreboding planet where the creature was discovered. On this day though the North Sea was boiling in stormy anger as waves created fifty foot sprays as they crashed into the pier. We visited the old town of Durham and saw St. Cuthbert’s tomb in the old cathedral. I was also taken to see the Angel of the North, a strange statue near the motorway of an Oscar©-like giant with wings like an old biplane. We ended up at a classic fish and chips joint on the docks of Newcastle as the ferry to the Netherlands plowed through the nighttime waters lit like a Christmas tree.
I did interview Lenka for the film and watched her carve her curious puppets in her little studio. Her actual craft is a bit worrisome looking to the casual observer since it features her turning a block of lathed wood into puppet parts all the while digging the blades into her body, which is loosely protected by a leather apron and some rather gauged out flat piece of wood. Has she ever missed? Does she have scars? Certainly. But she’s also the total professional. She was currently working on a year long project of making many marionettes for a Czech music video. She also showed me a clip of one her other customers from Costa Rica a man named Randall Gutiérrez who performed an extremely lively dancing puppet show. (This reminds me of how much puppetry there is besides what I’ve seen on my European exploits.) I also had a chance to see many of her current crop of figures hanging up nearby. After talking with her I had a sense of accomplishment. This was my last official interview on this trip. I could now relax and just enjoy the rest of my time in Europe. (Or so I thought.)
My last stop in the U.K. was a trip up to Aberdeen Scotland to see my close friend and erstwhile Reckoning Motion puppeteer Carsten Hyatt who is studying systematic theology at the University of the same name. Carsten was staying with another theology student, David, in an apartment not too far from the campus. In a way I felt as if we were all contemporary monks keeping the coal fires low to conserve resources while having meaningful discussions about the nature of faith and humanity in the 21st century.
I did have a chance to see some Scottish folk music at a local club. Well to be precise the band called Amos was from the Shetland Islands, far north of Scotland, almost, and at times in its history actually, Norwegian. Between jaunty fiddle tunes the band members told extremely droll stories in a quirky accent that pronounced house as if it rhymed with goose. Carsten also took me around the town and campus and to an ancient Presbyterian Church, which was going through the same kinds of political/moral issues as Presbyterian churches in North America. All in all I found Aberdeen to be an intriguing town, though devoid of puppetry. I also spent yet another hundred dollars to mail back some of the film equipment I had borrow from my Swiss producers. But the relief to my back cannot be over stated.
At last it was time to go. Carsten saw me off at the train station. I arrived in Edinburgh, regretting that I couldn’t look around. Eventually I was packed into a cheap air flight and sent back to Paris for the final leg of my journey. (You may wonder why the extra flight? I actually saved money by flying out of Paris. Instead of Edinburgh or London. Plus Paris is a great place to do a little shopping before exiting the continent.) But the flight itself contained something I wasn’t quite wanting. One more little bug circulating in air, which my travel weakened system, nearly finished with its other symptoms, wasn’t strong enough to fend off.
And I wasn’t quite finished with puppets yet!
Next time we arrive back in Paris for the third time…
For more information about Lenka Pavlickova go here:
If you are following this story primarily interested in puppetry you can probably skip this chapter without doing much harm to the narrative, seeing that it is more of a pause or detour into something else. Nevertheless in a way it is precisely the issues being dealt with here that feed back into my own interest in the value of puppets. For this is still on the journey searching for a stronger sense of reality. Exactly the reality that the malls and iPhones I keep running into seem so desperate to avoid.
Someday you might find yourself in the French canton of Vaud riding a bus up hairpin curves towards the tiny village of Huémoz in Switzerland towards a place called L’Abri. And if so its a good place to stop as many folks from all over the world have done for over fifty years. And as I originally did back in 1978. L’Abri means shelter in French. And in many ways this place has been and truly remains a shelter today. I have been back several times over the years and have far too much history here to actually convey in any short description. But I will say this: This is one of the formative places in my thinking and worldview. And so every few years I drop by and visit friends, give a lecture or two, meet the new students and have endless and fascinating conversations.
L’Abri is a Christian place. But it hardly comes down as either fundamentalist or liberal in its emphasis on faith. It is neither hidebound nor trendy. It is a place for questions. Difficult questions. Honest questions. Any questions. There are students who came here and the only thing that really happened is that they left knowing that they weren’t Christians. There are atheists who came here through some whim or recommendation who came to realize that not all who professed to believe in Christ were the narrow-minded folks the media loves to display. Every time I come it is a different world. The students of each period, not merely college aged, yet often refugees of the excesses of contemporary Christianity and modern alienation, come with different questions. And this time was no different.
Last time I was here in 2005 was a time of many subtle rebellions. It seemed that a majority of the thirty-five students smoked as their way of proving some sort of rebel cred. They were passing around Paul Tillich books, flirting with postmodernity. There was a certain amount of emotional damage causing a few students to freeze up or break into tears when discussing why they had come to this place. This time felt quite different. The students often felt a bit more secure in what they believed. Yet in a strange sort of way technology seemed more dominant in their lives, as it is in most of our lives. It was hard to find students who were doing simple tasks without something plugged into their ears. Yet I felt the quality of their questions was often quite impressive. At the same time they could easily be drawn into seriously abstract ideas, from which it was hard to find any sort of resolution. But involving give-and-take about the nature of reality circa 2012 abounded, dovetailing perfectly with my thoughts about puppets.
I had an excellent conversation with Caitlin, an artist from British Columbia, who had a very deep understanding of why she was doing what she was doing in this world. Daniel I found to be quite an honest fellow in his moments of clarity, which was most of the time. Aaron and Melissa were a couple slightly older than the average who were drifting through Europe and brought a wealth of ideas to the table. Jakob from Berlin was an eager participant in just about everything. Bethany had come in a state of confusion and found real peace and meaning. Then there were a couple of philosophical cats from Virginia, Kyle and Josh. Not to forget Becky also from BC who did an excellent imitation of a hockey player. And Oliver from Wales who had come to rethink some personal issues and asked some of the more thoughtful questions. Susanna from Philadelphia was like some bohemian prep school girl filled with a serious sense of art and life and yet had an imaginary joke fiancé named Juan. And somehow a truckload of Arizonans all descended on the place together. They brought plenty of questions and lots of bonhomie. And one of them, Austin, made an interesting filmed summary of his time at L’Abri which you can watch online if you want an excellent sense of L’Abri in the late autumn 2012. (Click here.) And whenever you turned around there was a card game, but hardly any smokers… times change.
Meanwhile L’Abri students went on as they have for years. Studying for half a day. Working around the various Chalets for half a day. Meal times were also full of conversation both formal discussions and more rollicking fare. They checked in with their tutors who asked how they were getting along with their questions and courses of study. Students dressed up for Halloween. Someone always seemed to be strumming on a guitar. Cows wandered the fields. Students wandered the trails. Bells rang in the mountains.
I was able to give two lectures while I was visiting: One on puppetry, which seems to have caught the students by surprise. There was silence after the lecture. At first I didn’t know what it meant. But the consensus appeared to be that the subject was so unusual and I guess what I was saying was new enough that they didn’t know quite how to react at first. And then they did. In the end decent discussions were to be had all round. The second lecture was something I made up pretty much on the spur of the moment about recovering a sense of reality in this very unreal age.
Besides the students I saw old friends, workers and family members and was reminded why L’Abri is a place where I feel at home, in a profound way. I left in the late morning to catch that bus down the hill. I had a train to catch to take me over the Alps to Chamonix. Or so I thought. But more on that next time.