Saturday, January 31, 2009

What is it?

Sometime while I was in college, I heard the design doctrine of Form following Function. I didn't take it as a precept that designers should follow, but rather as a Truth about the world: that form WOULD follow function, even in cases where bad designers didn't insure that that was the case. If you can imagine, for example, a bottle opener with the outward appearance of half a pound of sliced Virginia ham; my question would be, can it in fact open a bottle? If so, then it must have an opening with the proper dimensions to grip the bottle cap. It must have the structure of a simple second class lever. These attributes might be disguised, but can't be hidden completely if the tool is actually going to be effective in opening a bottle. If these attributes are missing, it might just be the makings of a good sandwich. What follows from this belief is really pretty profound and has shaped my worldview in fundamental ways. In the Art World for example, many artists believe that they can control the meaning of their work after they have made it. They feel that they can explain, to those whom they take to be the duller viewers, what the artwork means by use of a text they hang next to the work. I believe that a work of art means only what is built into it. Hanging the "explanatory text" is like trying to convince someone that they can open a bottle with a half-pound of sliced ham.

An extension of this Truth is that if we consider the form of a thing, we should be able to intuit its function. It's the basic underlying tenet upon which I've built my pedagogical theory as a Professor of Painting. But it has also led me to a series of interesting puzzles and some pretty distinctive behavior, especially when I travel. While other people might rush to see the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal in a strange land, I always seek out second hand stores. If I see a thing that intrigues me, I'll buy it and then try to figure out what it is. Mostly I've had a series of stunning successes that do nothing but strengthen my belief in My Truth. Recently however, I've run into a brick wall.

I bought the object shown below at a second hand store in Essen several months back. Since then I've played with it, drawn it, dreamed of it, turned it in every direction and considered every possible configuration between the two parts. I still have no idea what it is. When I despaired, I started asking locals. Surely they would know. It must have something to do with that particularly German Kult of the Ordner... or it's a surface for slicing cheese for Raclett?

Nein. No one can help me. No one has seen anything like it. Lots of ideas and suggestions, but no convincing explanation. So now I turn to my readers. Has anyone seen one of these before? Do you know what it is, or do you have a suggestion that might help me? I've tried to photograph it in a way that would show each of its significant details, including the slight bevel at the edges of the long thin opening in the larger flat piece. You can even see details that suggest it might be handmade in the slight raggedness of the cut. But I'll be happy to take and post further photos or to answer questions about this object if there are any. I suggest we carry out the dialog using the "Comments" section of the blog posting, so all questions and answers will be public. The reader with the first correct answer will win an original gouache painting on paper by me, Chris Terry. I'll be the only judge of what constitutes a correct answer and my decision will be final. In the event that there is more than one person who contributes to a correct answer, we'll... Well, we'll work it out somehow.

Let the contest begin.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


It used to be that in the States there were cinemas in larger cities that showed what we called "Art" films. That meant that instead of showing main stream stuff like Die Hard XIV, films like La Dolce Vita were screened. I was a regular at the Avon in Providence, Rhode Island. On a typical Friday evening I'd watch a double feature of Wild Strawberries and Blowup. Saturday night I'd be back for Lina Wertmüller's The Seduction of Mimi and Seven Beauties. I don't know if cinemas like this are still popular in the US, because I've spent so many of the last years in Logan, Utah. It's not a typical American town.

In Germany these kinds of theaters are called Programmkinos and Essen has several. One of them, the Eulenspiegel, has a regular showing of silent films and we visited one last week: The Cameraman, with Buster Keaton. I'd never seen the film before and it was wonderful. Organist Dominik Gerhard played a live accompaniment while we watched. I loved the scene in which Buster Keaton, as a young inexperienced newsreel cameraman, covers the Chinese New Year's Parade for MGM. A marvel of racial stereotypes. There's also a great scene in which Buster has to share a tiny bathhouse changing room with a big lummox who is likewise trying to get into his bathing suit. I recognized it as a harbinger of the stateroom scene from a Night at the Opera and Keaton did, in fact, collaborate on the scene years later with the Marx Bros. Seeing this scene in The Cameraman was like lifting the hood on A Night at the Opera and seeing how it all works.

This stuff is all available on DVD now, clear evidence that in spite of all the horrible things going on in the world, Bluetooth headsets, reality shows, and so on, things really are getting better. But seeing a film like this in a real cinema is an experience that can't be matched by home video. I need to soak up as much of it as I can before my carriage turns back into a pumpkin on August 15th.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Just north of Essen along the banks of the Rhine is the site of a former Roman settlement. The town is now called Xanten but at one time, the camp, Castra Vetera II, was the largest military camp in the Roman Empire with two full legions of soldiers. A Roman city grew up around the military camp and it flourished for several hundred years until it was finally sacked and destroyed by the Franks in about 250 AD. The present day Xanten was built not on the site of the former city but at a site on a hill about a twenty minute walk down river. Stones from the Roman city were used as building materials, but the otherwise the site remained largely undisturbed. Now it''s been thoroughly excavated and a fabulous museum has recently opened there.

Naturally, Thore came along for the visit. Together we strolled through a marvel of planning, design and inventive display techniques. Visitors follow a specific path which winds through the museum and ascends through several levels. As you walk along the path you begin at the earliest years of the military camp and move through time as the city develops into the metropolis of Colonia Ulpia Traiana. Artifacts are displayed in a way that is striking visually, but also brings the former inhabitants to life. A good example was a vitrine filled with small articles thrown into a pool dedicated to a local god of war: coins, buttons, jewelry and other small treasures. Other artifacts included gravestones that are displayed at "kid-level" and a friendly museum guard had to point out to Thore that if every visitor touched the exhibits, the natural grease (and in Thore's case, Kartoffelbrei) on their hands would damage them. She directed us to an area where some "hands on" items were displayed that we could pick up and examine.

There is also a covered Roman bath house excavation adjacent to the museum and a large archeological park that we decided not to visit, given the fading daylight and chill wind blowing off the Rhine. The nearby town has a beautiful cathedral and will be worth a visit when the weather warms up. We'll check out the park then too and have an ice cream cone, assuming Thore is allowed to eat ice cream at that point. Maybe we'll have to celebrate with a Vollkornbrötchen instead, but either way, I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

dumpster diving

I grew up in a tight little neighborhood where one of the families owned a refuse service. It was a rural town and the city didn't provide much in the way of services, so private companies took over. My dad worked in Manhattan and left everyday in a suit and tie, but the kids with all the cool stuff were the garbage man's children. Almost weekly they'd show up to play with a new bike, a pogo stick, or lightly used catcher's mitt and when asked where they got it, the answer was always the same: "My father found it at the dump." Needless to say, I never developed any feelings of shame about dumpster diving. It's a handy Weltanschauung to have if you've moved to a foreign city with nothing more than what you can pack into one large suitcase.

Along the route I take to the studio every morning, there's a location for collection of paper & bottles for recycling. People show up there with a car full of boxes, some stuffed with old paper or bottles for recycling, but often with other stuff. Stuff that doesn't really belong at the recycling drop off point. But if no one is looking, they might just dump the odds and ends around the bottle containers. Many of these people are totally schlampig, schmuddelig and down right unordentlich, and they just throw their junk on the ground, but more often than not, they display the best stuff on top of the containers, almost like a self service junk shop. Almost every morning I can count on finding something here, but I need to make a decision quickly. If I come back an hour later, the good stuff will be gone. I've grabbed several items impetuously and then regretted my choice a minute or two later, but what can I do? Throw a detailed model of the Millennium Falke in the bushes? I've got a lot of stuff in my studio now that I have absolutely no use for, a frame pack from the 1980's, a pressure cooker, children's books...

Recently I scored with a collection of napkins decorated with Easter images. One package (and for those of you who are a little squeamish, the packages are sealed) held a stack of napkins with a reproduction of Dürer's Junger Feldhase. Perfect for a painter who plans to entertain at his atelier. And the rest of the junk? It will make for a very eclectic yard sale come July.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Krieg' ich 'ne Zeuge?

On Thursday evening we took in a performance of Gospel music in Werden. I saw the poster back in November and bought tickets right away. I thought it would be a unique opportunity to see some real Gospel music while in Europe and a group with a name like "The New York Gospel Stars" seemed promising. What I didn't know, was that Gospel is really heiß in Germany right now, and over the course of the next four weeks I saw posters for ten different Gospel groups in ten different venues. All the groups seem to use a combination of "New York, Gospel, and Harlem" in their names. Since the group I had bought tickets for didn't mention Harlem, I was worried I might have thrown in with a second rate Gospel group. They might hail from Gramercy Park, Tribeca... I might be about to attend a concert of the only Gospel singers from Sutton Place, for goodness sake.

Not to worry. The concert was fabulous. The location, a beautiful protestant church in Werden has the acoustics of a roomy bathtub, but the New York Gospel Stars more than made up for that. The Jungenstil painted decoration and Gothic/Romanesque architecture contrasted well with the lighting and driving rhythm section. We had great seats and enjoyed our status as ringers. During a short quiz section, we were the first to shout out, "Rev. James Cleveland!!" or "Mahalia Jackson!" depending on the questions asked.

I particularly enjoyed Kumbaya, a song I performed with the Our Lady of Fatima Boys Choir in the 1960's. We were a small choir, white robes, pointed hoods... when I did my solo part in Kumbaya, I think I must have looked like a particularly wimpy Grand Wizard. The NY Gospel Stars started the number quietly, but it built to an intensity we never managed to achieve at OLF. The audience was probably a little hesitant compared to a congregation of African Americans in Manhattan, but ultimately das Publikum loosened up and sang and clapped as well as any white folks can. It was another evening to remind you that it's great to be an American, and I'd be willing to bet I wasn't the only one thinking that as The New York Gospel Stars came out and did "Oh Happy Day" as their encore. For my money, I think we could replace the entire State Department with a troop of R&B, Blues and Gospel musicians. We'd probably come out ahead. It's a policy I'd like to ask the President-elect about, but I'm afraid he'd say, "No, we can't."

Friday, January 9, 2009


We're all familiar with the line from Sly & the Family Stone's recording of Dance to the Music, in which, Cynthia Robinson shouts out, "All the squares, go home!" If the Family had been performing auf Deutsch, then it's likely she would have said, "Alle Spießer, geh na' Hause!" Luckily for German partygoers, Spießers are almost always eager to do just that. I mentioned The Spießer, in a previous blog posting and promised to reveal more about this very German concept. The Spießer archetype may be the key to understanding the German mind at it's deepest level. It's a practical skill if you're in the checkout line at Kaiser and want to pass through unscathed.

It's a gross over-simplification to say a Spießer is a square, but it gives us a starting point. If you grew up watching Dobbie Gillis on television, or James Dean on the big screen, you need no definition of "square," but a recent survey revealed Forschungsjahr readers under 35 are dissatisfied with references to the pop culture of the 60's. So think of it this way: to be a square is to be uncool. The opposite of square is hip, and its apex is reached in the person of Miles Davis. On the other end of the spectrum would be Captain Kangaroo. That's another 60's TV reference, but I think we have to live with it.

But a Spießer is more than just square. He or she is one who has narrow and limited scope to their thinking and behavior. They are controlled by society's expectations for them and its definition of what is right and proper. Nonspießers are comfortable defining their own rules. The Spießer is always looking over her shoulder to see what someone else thinks. So, while a square is defined mostly by style: clothing, music, dance moves or a lack thereof, Spießers are defined more by substance: what they do, how they act in a given situation. Clothing can be spießig, but clever Spießers are potentially everywhere, disguised by a Bundeswehr backpack or an Ärzte tattoo. It's best not to rely too much on personal style to detect them.

And there's another essential difference between the American square and the German Spießer. Between the square and the hip there is a wall that is seldom crossed. If you're hip, you remain hip, because you're, well... hip. But in the German cultural universe the phrase most often used is "Spießer werden." Type this phrase into a reliable search engine and you'll see what I mean. My hits included a story about a hard core, leather clad Berlin rapper, pierced within an inch of his life, who told an alternative magazine writer, he hoped someday to live in a house on the water. "Ganz schön spießig... " was the writer's comment. I also found book titles: Spießer werden, leicht gemacht, Wie spießig sollen wir noch werden? and Die neue Spießer. After many years I have come to the conclusion that many Germans see the qualities of Spießertum as essentially German characteristics. If that is true, then to be a German is to become, inexorably, a Spießer.

I don't believe that the Spießer archetype is the inevitable Endstation for all German character development. I know many Germans who are thoroughly non-spießig in their thinking and behavior. The fact that in the process of growing older they buy a car, shave more than once a week or tolerate the odd Gartenzwerg doesn't make them Spießers in my mind. But the quality that defines the culture isn't the actual Spießerwerden, it's the deeply rooted fear, an Urangst, of that destiny. Unfortunately, when Sly calls upon us all to get up and dance to the funky music, many Germans worry they'll be too busy ironing their bow tie collection to hear his organ, playing Ride, Sally, Ride. I don't pity the real Spießers. But for those Germans who's only problem is the fear of Spießerwerden, it's a real tragedy.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Tale of Two Wohnungen

In a May 2006 survey, German citizens were asked to name specific qualities they associate with Germany and the German people. Here's a list of the most frequently mentioned qualities with my translation:

fleißig = industrious
pflichtbewusst = dutiful
gut organisiert = well organized
pedantisch = pedantic
genau = exact
akribisch = meticulous
akkurat = precise
pünktlich = punctual
ordnungsliebend = tidy
sauber = clean

I'm not particularly meticulous and my sloppiness causes me some anxiety living here. When we first moved in to our Wohnung, I immediately saw a notice posted by the mailboxes giving information about the waste receptacles. Building residents share one for package materials, one for recyclable paper and one for garbage. Each must be brought out to the street on a specific schedule. Bottles need to be taken separately to a recycling center. I wanted to be well organized and dutiful. I was afraid I might make a mistake with my trash responsibilities. And each time I read through the notice, I was confused. The dates seemed wrong and the notice mentioned bringing out the Verpackung on Thursday, but I saw the containers on the street on Tuesday. Finally I asked our downstairs neighbor, I'll call her Helga, for an explanation. "What notice?" she asked? When I showed it to her, she said, "Oh, no one pays any attention to that. It's two years old. The people on the second floor usually bring out the trash. I'm not sure of the right days."

So, it's clearly not a super precise building and Helga doesn't have an overabundance of the above mentioned characteristics. Phew! What a relief. Since then I've had the honor of meeting a man (we'll call him Fritz) who lives in a building whose residents could easily be described as tidy, and now I know the difference. The basement laundryroom in his building is SPOTLESS. The entryway is immaculate and woe betide the resident who mounts the stairs without wiping his/her feet. Fritz neglected his Treppendienst (cleaning of the common stairway) during the first week after he moved in and immediately was blessed with a visit from a neighbor who informed him of his negligence. I wouldn't last a week in his building.

So which of these two buildings is "typisch deutsch?" The answer is: my building is typical. The ordentlich building is not exactly rare, but it's not particularly common either and it's getting rarer. This is my opinion. Not everyone agrees with me. And I think I'd have to agree, if I'm right, it appears paradoxical to say the least. But here's the catch. The characteristics listed above aren't really typical at all: they're stereotypical. Anyone who has ever looked for a cherry yogurt in a German supermarket knows I'm right. The dairy case is about as precise, about as well organized, about as meticulous as the Augean Stables.

But the characteristics listed above aren't wrong. I don't feel they describe the average German, but they're an excellent description of the archetypical German, who is as familiar to the average German as archetypes such as the Child, the Hero, the Great Mother, the Trickster are to the rest of us. To Jung's list, we could add another archetype: The Spießer! And what is a Spießer? That's a topic for another posting. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Day After

The pyrotechnic display last night was astounding. I read just recently that Germans use a total of 100 million candles during the holiday season. After last night, I think I'd make a conservative estimate that the number of Feuerwerkskörper used during a 15 minute period right after midnight on December 31 is about the same.

Today, with almost all stores, museums and restaurants closed, I decided to walk to Gelsenkirchen. Along the way, I saw the aftermath of the frenzy from last night. It wasn't particularly ordentlich and provided just one more paradoxical piece of info to be reconciled with the stereotype of "typisch deutch."

I did get to try the Lebkuchen. Not bad. Sort of a sophisticated ginger bread.

And the blog poll to find out how many Forschungsjahr followers have read one or more of the Tintenwelt books? A complete failure. Only three of more than 250 visitors voted. Clearly blog readers do not care about interactive content. I'm not blaming anyone here. I didn't bother to vote either. Of those that did vote, 33% had read all three books. 66% hadn't read any of them. Not particularly exciting results, but thanks to all who participated.