POLITICALLY-CHARGED PUBLIC ART

Milan, 4 November 2016

There is a quiet square not too far from where my wife and I live in Milan which goes by the name of Piazza Affari. As the name suggests, this is meant to be the pulsating business and financial centre of Milan. That certainly was the idea when the square was fashioned back in the early 1930s by demolishing a whole block of buildings in front of the just completed stock exchange, the Palazzo Mezzanotte.
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This quite handsome building clad in white travertine is often considered “typical” Fascist architecture because of when it was constructed, but in truth it is actually a nice exemplar of the Italian architecture of the turn of the century, most famously exemplified by Milan’s main train station.
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Another building opposite the stock exchange, finished in 1939, closed off the new square.
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Well, the war came and went, this corner of Milan survived the intense Allied bombing of the city, Fascism fell, and life went on. Then, in 2011, as part of a plan to make Milan a centre of contemporary art, the-then municipal government wanted to hold an exhibition of the works of Maurizio Cattelan, a famous Italian contemporary sculptor well known for satirical sculptures. As part of the deal, the city commissioned an outdoor work from the artist. After some back and forth, it was decided to place the piece in Piazza Affari and Cattelan came up with this.
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Of course, everyone immediately decided that the artist was giving the finger to Italy’s financial sector – this was a few years after the near meltdown of the banking sector worldwide, whose impacts on the Italian economy were then still being felt (and continue to be felt). The denizens of the stock exchange hated it, everyone else loved it. What was meant to be a temporary exhibition has turned out to be permanent. It has been pointed out, and the photo above shows it clearly, that the hand is not actually giving the finger to the stock exchange but, if anything, to the anonymous building on the other side of the square. And the artist himself has said that the sculpture was actually a commentary on the fall of Fascism – some complicated explanation to the effect that the hand really represents the Fascist salute, and the chopped-off fingers represent the fall of Fascism; its positioning in front of a building seen as Fascist is what links it to Fascism. Others have commented that this finely sculpted hand (look at those veins!) in lovely white marble, in a square with its vaguely Roman look (look at those arcades attached to the 1939 building), reminds them of a De Chirico painting.
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None of this matters. What is important is what people think. And people think the finger is being given to all those goddamned bankers who screwed all of us over, and they cheer the artist on.

Statuary in public places has always excited intense emotions. Staying in the world of white marble, consider the statue of the naked Alison Lapper, a British artist born without arms and only stubs of legs, and eight months pregnant when the statue was made.
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In 2005, this statue was placed as a temporary exhibit on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London, which has been empty ever since the square received its current look back in the 1830s.
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Many people hated it (because it was ugly; did those who said this realize the judgement they were passing on handicapped people?), many people loved it (because of its optimistic message about the handicapped and because it brought handicapped people more into the mainstream). A much larger replica was used in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
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But what about that granddaddy of white marble statuary, Michelangelo’s David?
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(another statue, I note in passing, with lovely hands)
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Today, we look at it simply as a glorious work of art, but at the time of its unveiling it was also a highly charged political statement. Already, David had a special place in the heart of the Florentines. They identified with the puny boy who destroyed the huge, nasty Goliath (seen to represent Rome, the French, the Holy Roman Emperor, or any other power threatening it at any particular moment in time). A committee of notable artists, including Da Vinci and Botticelli, was charged with deciding on its emplacement. They chose to have it stand in Piazza Signoria, at such an angle that the statue glared defiantly towards Rome.
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A statue whose unveiling in 1992 had particular resonance for me was that of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander-in-chief during the Second World War of Britain’s Bomber Command.

As the picture shows, it is the typical statue of some Worthy Person which dots every public space in Europe, nothing terribly exciting artistically. But Bomber Command was the group responsible for the so-called area bombing during the War which wiped out entire German cities, many of no military value. Dresden is perhaps the best known.
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There are many people, and I include myself among them, who believe that these bombings were a crime against humanity, so I have difficulty feeling any disapproval for the person who did this to Harris’s statue.
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To be fair to Harris, he was not the only person in high circles (Winston Churchill included) who thought that area bombing was a good idea, but he implemented the plan with particular relish.

The placement of politically-charged art in public spaces continues. Banksy’s painting in the Calais “Jungle” of Steve Jobs as an immigrant trying to get in shows this.

In a rare statement on any of his art, Banksy commented that he wanted to remind people of the value of immigrants. If Jobs’s father, an immigrant from Homs in Syria, hadn’t been let into the US we wouldn’t have Apple. In this day and age of heated debates, especially in Europe, about refugees and how many to let in, Banksy has very publicly taken sides. It’s a pity that his high mindedness has been subverted, first by an entrepreneurial inhabitant of the Jungle demanding to be paid 5 euros to view the painting and then by a nihilistic vandalizing of the painting.
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I presume that the vandalizer was doing no more than celebrating The Clash’s third album. Such is life.

Let’s see what this year will bring us in politically-charged statuary.

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Palazzo Mezzanote: http://www.newsly.it/braxit-ultime-notizie-borse-europee-in-rialzo-scommettono-sul-si-1
Stazione centrale: http://www.milanoguida.com/visite-guidate/altri-monumenti-milano/stazione-centrale-milano/
Palazzo on other side: https://ripullulailfrangente.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/ancora-per-milano-al-mattino-presto-targhe/
Il dito: http://www.manageronline.it/articoli/vedi/3359/il-dito-medio-in-piazza-affari/
Giorgio de Chirico: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Eventi/visualizza_asset.html_1741131230.html
Alison Lapper statue: http://www.arupassociates.com/en/projects/trafalgar-square-fourth-plinth/
Alison Lapper statue close-up: http://albertis-window.com/2014/01/
Alison Lapper statue Paralympic Games: http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/wellbeing/galleries/34626/london-2012-paralympic-games/41
David: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/430234570629286662/
David’s hand: http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/
David’s head: https://www.pinterest.com/almetrami/renaissance-david/
Sir Arthur Harris: http://www.fotolibra.com/gallery/1172664/sir-arthur-harris/
Dresden bombed: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/dresden-bombing-70th-anniversary-interactive-then-now-photos-show-scale-destruction-1487817
Harris statue defaced: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2166966/PETER-HITCHENS-The-heroes-Bomber-Command-deserve-memorial–unlike-butcher-led-them.html
Banksy’s Steve Jobs: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/11/europe/banksy-steve-jobs-graffiti/
Banksy’s Steve Jobs defaced: http://www.zeroviolenza.it/component/k2/item/74240-alto-4-metri-e-lungo-un-chilometro-il-nuovo-muro-antimigranti-è-a-calais

HOT PASTRAMI SANDWICH

Bangkok, 12 August 2015

Last weekend, my wife informed me excitedly that she had discovered a restaurant downtown which claimed to serve Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. Goodness me, we chirruped to each other, it had been years since we’d eaten either. We had to go back to the late 1980s, when we lived in New York for a while, for our last Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. The seminal initiation event was in a small deli to the south of Central Park, one of those places with booths where you slide into your seat (although unfortunately it didn’t have the really cool little juke box that you can see in this picture).

diner booth

We had actually gone in there because we happened to be in the neighbourhood and it happened to be lunch time. Since it also happened to be a Jewish deli, we found ourselves scanning a menu listing Jewish delicacies. After some rumination, we plumped for this thing called a Reuben sandwich and this other thing called a hot pastrami sandwich. What an experience! The deli owner looked on amusedly as we oohed and aahed over our two sandwiches. Thereafter, we ate them regularly during the rest of our stay in New York.

So even though we had had a traumatizing experience two months ago with coq au vin, we decided to risk it. This time, we were not disappointed. We were served very creditable Reuben and pastrami sandwiches. I have a picture of the Reuben sandwich we ate.

reuben sandwich

But in our haste to devour the pastrami sandwich we forgot to take a photo of it. Which is a pity, because if I have to choose between the two, I would plump for the pastrami sandwich, and in fact the rest of this post is about pastrami.

No matter, I can throw in here a photo of a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli.

pastrami sandwich katz deli

This deli, which is on Houston Street in New York, is claimed in certain quarters of the internet to be “the keeper of the Jewish culinary flame” in the city.

katz deli

katz deli inside

Strong claim indeed! Never having been to the establishment myself, I can’t tell you if this claim is reasonable (although I will note that my daughter has been there and was not that impressed by their pastrami sandwich – but then, she doesn’t much care for pastrami in the first place).

Before I get into rival claims, of which there are many in this field, let me quickly review the making of pastrami (something which I’d always vaguely asked myself about but had never bothered to check until I decided to write this post). Start with a cut of beef from around the animal’s navel, the so-called plate cut (you can also use brisket – more of this choice in a minute). Cure it with salt and saltpeter and let it dry for several weeks (you can also throw some herbs into the curing mix). Once cured, rub and coat your meat with a mix of herbs (as you can imagine, the precise make-up of this coating is a trade secret, jealously guarded by rival delis, but onion, garlic, black pepper, coriander seed, possibly sugar, all seem to be common ingredients). Once nicely coated, smoke it at low heat for several days (the precise wood used for the smoke being again a closely guarded trade secret).

So far, so good. This is no different from the preparation of many dried, cured meats around the world, and before the advent of refrigeration these methods had been used by human beings in one combination or another for thousands of years to preserve meat. It’s the next steps where it gets interesting. After smoking, you first boil the meat to cook it, and then steam it for some 15 minutes. These last steps seem to have to do with the cut of beef used. Initially, pastrami was a poor man’s dish. People used the plate and brisket cuts because they were the cheapest, and they were the cheapest because they are fatty and gristly. Boiling and steaming was used to soften both the meat and all those difficult-to-chew parts in the meat.

Then you serve it, fresh from the steamer, on rye bread; actually, it’s a wheat-rye bread, of a kind that the not-too-poor people used to eat in Europe (wheat bread was only eaten by the rich, while the poorest people ate horsebread, so called because it was made of the cheaper grains fed to rich men’s horses). The sandwich should always be served with a pickle (or two or three) on the side. To me, this is capital; the sharp astringency of the pickle offsets nicely the fattiness of the pastrami. It’s often served with coleslaw, but frankly that can be left out, at least the kind of commercial gooey coleslaw that tends to be served nowadays. It adds no real value to the dish that I can see.

The alert reader may have noted a stress in the last couple of paragraphs on poverty. This allows me to segue smoothly into a discussion of pastrami’s history. Pastrami researchers have concluded that its roots are to be found in New York’s community of Romanian Jews, who emigrated to the States in the late 1800s. They were escaping from Romania’s increasingly organized and ethnically-tainted anti-Semitism as well as looking for better economic opportunities. Like millions of other people, they would have transited through Ellis Island

immigrants at Ellis Island

and then been sucked into the slums of New York.

Mulberry street NYC

There, like all immigrants everywhere and at all times, they would have tried to maintain their culinary traditions, and one of these was a dried, cured meat called pastramă (in the early days, New York’s version was called pastrama, which was then changed to pastrami so that it could rhyme with salami, the idea being that this would help people remember it – an early form of the marketing jingle). But as is also often the case, they would have had to modify it to fit the ingredients they could find in their new homeland. And here the change was radical. In Romania, pastramă tended to be made with mutton or goose or even veal (but that must have been a rich man’s version; poor people didn’t eat veal). But what Romanians found in New York was beef (pork also, but that was non-kosher), so beef-based their pastramă became. And because they were poorer than poor, they used the cheapest cuts of beef, the plate and brisket. I suppose it was the fact that pastramă made this way was really chewy that led them to take the extra steps of boiling and steaming. The common Romanian way of eating pastramă is grilled. In fact, pastramă sounds to me like the Romanian version of bacon. Bacon, which is also a cured and dried meat (pork in this case), is also grilled before eating, and it is often eaten with eggs, as is grilled pastramă.

pastrama and eggs

Or was it maybe this gentleman (at the back with the white headgear) who introduced the boiling and steaming steps?

sussman volk

This gentleman is Sussman Volk, an Orthodox Jew of Lithuanian ancestry. He is credited with having introduced pastrami to New York, and through New York to the rest of the world. He had emigrated to the States and had eventually opened a small butcher’s shop on Delancey Street. One day, so the story goes, a Romanian Jew came in and asked if he could store a trunk in the shop’s basement while he went back to Romania. Rab Volk agreed, and in return he got the recipe for pastrami. So Rab Volk started making pastrami, and then people wanted it on a slice of bread, and then he put chairs and tables in, and suddenly he was running a delicatessen. And the rest is history, as they say (just to close the circle, the following year Katz’s Deli opened). It could be that the recipe given to Rab Volk already included the boiling and steaming steps, or it could be that Rab Volk – reaching back into his Lithuanian culinary roots, or maybe other immigrant culinary roots – introduced the boiling and steaming steps himself.

Who knows? In the end, it doesn’t matter. This is the way pastrami is made, and that’s that.

If readers were to think that the story ends here, they would be wrong. Because Romanian Jews also emigrated to Canada, settling in Montreal. And there they also introduced Montrealers to another son-of pastramă, in this case just called smoked meat. The two – relatively small – differences between the two products are the cut of beef used (smoked meat tends to use more brisket) and the mix of herbs used to rub and coat the meat (the fact that both boil/steam the meat suggests to me that these were introduced by the Romanian émigrés rather than by Rab Volk). Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal seems to be a good candidate for “the keeper of the Jewish culinary flame” in Montreal, so I’ll throw in a photo of the deli.

Schwartz deli

And here is the product

smoked meat Schwartz deli

Mmm, that looks gooood!

And now the Montrealers have boldly brought the fight to New York. A Canadian couple has set up a new Jewish deli in New York, the Mile-End deli. They’ve opened one shop in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan, in Bond Street.

mile end deli

Well, the next time my wife and I go to New York, we (or at least I) will forget about visiting the Metropolitan Museum or any other worthy institution. First stop will be Katz’s Deli and then Mile End Deli. To compare and contrast the two products.

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Empty booth in a diner: https://hautevitrine.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/empty-booth-rockin-johnnys-diner-ottawa-2007.jpg (in http://hautevitrine.com/page/17/)
Reuben sandwich: our pic
Pastrami sandwich, Katz’s deli: http://ilovekatzs.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/pastrami1.jpg (in http://ilovekatzs.com/)
Katz’s Deli: http://animalnewyork.com/wp-content/uploads/katz_artgalll.jpg (in http://animalnewyork.com/2013/katzs-deli-opening-an-art-gallery-and-pop-up-shop/)
Katz’s Deli inside: http://www.sheilazellerinteriors.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/00-20-Inside-Katz.png (in https://carileee.wordpress.com/2011/11/05/dining-101-new-york-katzs-deli/)
Immigrants at Ellis Island: http://history105.libraries.wsu.edu/fall2014/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/08/Ellis-Island.jpg (in http://history105.libraries.wsu.edu/fall2014/2014/08/28/jewish-immigration-in-the-1940s/)
Mulberry street NYC: https://theselvedgeyard.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/mulberry_street_new_york_city_loc_det-4a08193.jpg (in http://piedader-letspractiseenglish.blogspot.com/2011/11/jacob-riis.html)
Pastramă and fried eggs: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_GzvYAGoAhKY/TH5bioNE7PI/AAAAAAAACW0/bto1mheJNDM/s1600/oua.jpg (in http://elenamutfak.blogspot.com/2010/09/pastrama-cu-oua-ochiuri.html)
Sussman Volk: http://astro.temple.edu/~bstavis/family/oldstavins.jpg (in http://astro.temple.edu/~bstavis/family/oldstavin.htm)
Schwartz deli: http://gottakeepmovin.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/20130914_151229.jpg (in http://gottakeepmovin.com/classic-montreal-schwartzs-smoked-meat-sandwiches/)
Smoked meat sandwich Schwartz deli: https://travelloafers.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/montreal-schwartz-deli-680×680.jpg (in https://travelloafers.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/celine-dion-is-the-queen-of-cured-salted-meats/)
Mile End deli Manhattan: http://mileenddeli.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/photo-for-web_SANDWICH.jpg (in http://mileenddeli.com/)