September 11, 2008

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Today I interviewed Lu-Hsiang Huang who is heading back to Taiwan today. Lu-Hsiang came here with a program I had never heard about: The Work and Travel Program. Foreign college students apply and if accepted get a J-1 visa for some nasty four-week summer job at $7.00 an hour (for Lu-Hsiang it was flipping burgers at a MacDonalds in Wyoming!). Then, with the money earned, they travel in the U.S. It’s a win- win situation for the American economy (cheap labor and then reinvestment in American tourism!), but it does make it possible for students to visit who otherwise would not have the means to come here – let’s just hope that their first contact with American culture wasn’t making Nike shoes at ten for fifteen cents an hour!

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Lu-Hsiang had visited San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and was ending his trip in Chicago. He is a mechanical engineering student in Taiwan and doesn’t visit art museums much. I asked him to meet up with me after a few hours to tell me what paintings had appealed to him and why. We met at 2:30 in front of Seurat’s Grande Jatte (a group of thirty or so Japanese tourists were standing in front of it, I thought about taking a picture but decided that it was too much of a cliché to even appear real). Lu-Hsiang told me that he had been overwhelmed by Luca Giordano’s painting The Abduction of the Sabine Women. Not a favorite of mine. The painting is a veritable in-your-face Renaissance tornado of fighting, writhing figures; enough to make you sick and dizzy if you look at it too long. Lu-Hsiang wanted to know the story behind it. I’m such a color hedonist when it comes to painting that I forget many people are attracted to paintings because of the stories they tell. When I was in Chartres Cathedral this summer I spent most of the time saying, “Wow, look at the blue!” like I was on some LSD trip while my friends spent the afternoon peering through binoculars to study the artistic rendering of the biblical stories. Anyhow. I explained to Lu-Hsiang that the Roman men needed women to breed with so they invited the Sabines, a neighboring group of people, to a festival and then abducted the ladies to make them future Roman citizens (and moms). He wasn’t too satisfied with the answer and then told me that it had made such an impression on him because it reminded him of 9/11. Wow. I was totally unprepared for that one. I asked him why and he said that it was because of the struggle and also because the buildings were destroyed.

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I went back to the painting after we said goodbye, feeling all goosebumpy and looked at it. There were absolutely no destroyed buildings. If anything, the buildings are eerily stable and eternal, giving us the message that despite struggles, despite shifting populations, we can somehow count on the presence of buildings and (by extension) the creations of man – the antithesis of 9/11. I was about to walk away but I wanted to understand Lu-Hsiang’s opinion and reaction, so I stood there looking at the painting for awhile. The painting is organized on a center vertical axis by one of the Sabine women whose leg is wrapped around her captor and whose face is coiling away from him (talk about a mixed message!). The painting depicts the “union” of opposites: men and women, the opalescent color of the Sabines with the swarthy color of the Romans, the eternity of the Roman world (its architecture) and the ephemeral nature of life. And then I saw it. Framing the central Sabine woman, two big, white columns. Columns that have such a feeling of permanence that one imagines them still to be there (perhaps with a pizza vendor in front of them). There is a diaphanous cloth connecting the two, which made me think of Philippe Petit’s logic-defying tight rope walk between the towers in 1974.

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Lu-Hsiang thought he saw destroyed buildings. In fact, he saw buildings that look unassailable. Isn’t that what so many people felt about the World Trade Center? Certainly the people of Dresden must have felt it too. And the people of New Orleans. Don’t we all feel it about our homes, despite the fact that in so many war zones today people see the landscape that they trust destroyed in a moment? It is this human characteristic (faith or folly?) that keeps us going despite setbacks, that keeps people going despite tragedy, and that kept Sisyphus going up the hill with that damn rock. I wish Lu-Hsiang luck in his studies! I hope that he sticks to mechanical engineering. Something tells me he wouldn’t be so good in structural engineering…

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