Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus’s sad capital, is one of the most terrifying public spaces in Europe. It is nothing but concrete, steel, glass and fearsome horizons—no benches, shelter, or anything for people who might wish to do something so normal as to assemble and speak together. Where anything vertical rises from the ground, it bears a video camera, ensuring that any gathering can be observed by the Belarusian KGB. And yet, when Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory by an improbably large absolute majority in the presidential elections on December 19, people came, in the tens of thousands, to protest the official results.
“Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. But there are many unofficial historians like me.”
In “The Last Irascible,” my new essay in the The New York Review, I write about the idiosyncratic life of the hundred-year-old artist Hedda Sterne, drawing on an interview I recorded with her in 2003. Born in Romania in 1910, Sterne fled German-occupied Bucharest and eventually settled in New York, where she became one of the few women in a circle of Abstract Expressionist painters that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. But Sterne thought of herself as an anti-Abstract Expressionist, someone with no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture. Rarely did she paint a pure abstraction. In the 1960s she drew lettuce heads as crazy mazes, as if she were a worm inside, investigating. She pointed out that even her webby white-on-white drawings—made in the 1990s, when she was practically blind—represented the “floaters and flashers” across her field of vision. Although major museums acquired her work, and despite having one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist (seventy years), she is hardly well known. Here is a selection of her work.
On November 29, a conservative website posted an 11-second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix from a 4-minute video made by David Wojnarowicz, an artist who died of AIDS in 1992. The video, Fire in My Belly, was part of a show at the National Portrait Gallery called “Hide/Seek,” said to be the country’s first national exhibition devoted to gay and lesbian themes. Wojnarowicz made the video in 1986 and 1987, as his lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS, and as David himself learned that he was HIV-positive; it is an eerie meditation on life, death, violence, and nature, featuring imagery from the Day of the Dead. David later explained that he saw Jesus as a symbol of someone who willingly took on the suffering of the world. A self-appointed conservative guardian of public morality, William Donohue of the Catholic League, saw it differently, and attacked the video clip as blasphemous and demanded that the piece be taken down. The Smithsonian—which runs the National Portrait Gallery and which is funded by the US Government—promptly removed the video from the exhibition, effectively granting Donohue a “heckler’s veto.”
Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, opening this month in New York twenty-five years after its original release, is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. As it begins, Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who was one of two survivors of Chełmno, returns to the death facility at Lanzmann’s request, and sings a song of his boyhood—about a white house, a house that is no longer—in the language of a country that was his homeland as it was of millions of Jews for centuries, a Poland made wretched by war. Mordechai Podchlebnik, the other survivor of Chełmno, in another conversation with Lanzmann, remembers human smoke against blue skies. The work of the stationary gas chambers began in German-occupied Poland on December 8, 1941. Here is the beginning of Lanzmann’s nine-hour reconstruction of the Holocaust, and in commencing with the faces and voices of Chełmno’s survivors, he has chosen well. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders.
I arrived in Rangoon at the beginning of the monsoon this summer after 36 hours of travel from New York, with a stop in Tokyo and a second change of planes in Bangkok. There I boarded an old Air Myanmar jet, and it was immediately clear that I was traveling to a country that lived in semi-isolation as the plane filled with migrant workers, many of whom were awkwardly toting large, makeshift bundles of carry-on goods—clothing, medicine, electronics, and other items that were either unavailable or unaffordable back home.
Officially, I had come to Burma—ruled by one of the world’s most opaque and repressive regimes—to teach a one-month documentary photography course to local photojournalists. But it was the only country in Southeast Asia I had never managed to visit and I was very eager to explore the place for myself.
On December 10, I attended the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize, which the government of China had a few days earlier declared to be a “farce.” The recipient was a friend of mine, the Chinese scholar and essayist Liu Xiaobo, whom Oslo was now referring to as a Laureate and Beijing as a “criminal” serving an eleven-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power.”
The first film by Frederick Wiseman I saw was Titicut Follies (1967). It was the fall of 1969, my freshman year of college, too long ago to trust my memory scene by scene. What I mainly remember is the festive mood in the dining-hall-turned-theater as the lights went down and latecomers ducked under the projector’s cone of bluish light as they made their way to sit with friends across the room. A very cool senior had made introductory remarks to the effect that what we were about to see had been “banned in Boston” (always promising), and I think we half-expected the local police to show up as if we had gathered in Rick’s gambling den in Casablanca (1942). I remember a little snickering during the opening pan across the expressionless faces of the inmates singing “Strike up the Band” while they wave—tentatively, almost spastically—their pompoms. But once the film started, there was only silence in the room, interrupted now and then by a gasp.
Today, as we gather in Oslo for the award ceremony of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, we take note, with surprise and regret, of the Chinese government’s foolish responses to the granting of this distinguished prize to Dr. Liu Xiaobo. These responses—which have included restricting the freedom of movement of Liu Xiaobo’s family and prohibiting Chinese citizens from expressing their congratulations—are examples of serious government abuses of universal human rights.
The word “information” has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for. It is a word, they tell us, “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity,” a word that “both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change,” therefore a word crying out for their attention. In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for “information” is utterly overhauled. (The OED, in case you hadn’t noticed, has evolved into an enterprise of cyberspace, rather than a mere book.)