Friday, August 13, 2010

Highway to Hell... and Houston Museums

I'm on a highway to Hell. The only saving grace is that I'll never actually get there – perhaps it's more of a Limbo. If you've ever driven the beltways surrounding Houston, you're sure to know what I mean.

It doesn't matter if you have the best GPS you can get, the multi-leveled roads (ground level, upper level, and mid – sometimes flooding – level) all run the same path, with various exit points. Then you get two or three highways crossing at once and suddenly there are six or seven crisscrossing layers of nonsense that play havoc with your digitalized navigator, and don't really work with your mind all that well.

When I drive I look at the map more than the arrows, and try to pay attention to exit names and numbers. That it thinks I'm on a parallel road makes that useless, but even the map falls to pieces when there are no street signs letting you glean the slightest bit of knowledge. You're on your own, and it's more than a little frustrating. Each missed turn adds miles of additional highways to get back to where you were, only to try and fail once more. It's like Mega Man II, except without the cute sprite and the innate knowledge that the Japanese hate you.

In America where highways and street signs are top notch, to come to a place like this, it's disillusioning. Especially when you're on the road with people who drive as if they were in Beijing. I saw three accidents almost take place within twenty minutes. All of them pulled away last second, or remembered that driving off the highway into the ditch, guide rail, or whatever sidelines happened to exist at the time, would be a bad idea.

It is nothing short of terrible – getting anywhere around Houston. Once you're in though? It's a piece of cake.

I started the day by taking in two unique sights. The first was a house covered in and decorated with beer cans. There were wind chimes made with tops, and the walls were covered in an armor of flattened cans, laid out with the tops and bottoms removed. Everything shone silver, and the slightest breeze caused a musical renaissance. This was strange, this was bizarre, this was Texas. The next stop? Another buildings of modern art. It's called the Orange place. Think of discarded bicycles, and playground equipment. Now imagine they're all coloured oranges and yellows. Now imagine that they somehow come together and build a house. There you go – the Orange Place. It's an American historical building, apparently.

Houston claims to be the artistic centre of America. I'm not sure if other people are biting, but they o have a solid claim to the title. There are more museums here than I've seen in a long time. Not only do they have a number of museums and galleries, but they're all clumped together in one district, and a large number of them? They're free. I set out to experience all the free learning that I could.

The first place we went was the holocaust museum. Katherine pointed out that it was looking a little dead – turned out the museum wasn't going to open until noon. Back to the car, I checked the hours of operation for our next destination, and then we were off to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. There was an exhibit on dance. Pictures of dancers and videos. One film showed people looking as if they were having seizures – this is art. The staff in their suits, all done up, mocked the piece when they thought no one was looking.

There was another film that had a man dancing around naked in the snow. Of course he was from Toronto. He was probably naked in a park not far from my home town a few kilometers outside the city proper. The awkward part was when people were seen in the background walking their dogs, as he performed.

The real art in contemporary art – what I'd really like to see – is unfortunately not shown in the gallery space. The true art is the ability to convince someone to take the work seriously, and pay real money for it. What makes anything here better than the work people put up on YouTube? What makes it better than people who create pieces on their own websites? Nothing. I'd give the edge to the internet over a gallery any day – and yet, these people were paid thousands for their nonsense.

The gift shop was the real draw – and where most people hung out. It too was the internet come alive – notebooks made of bleached and recycled papers, glasses cases made from chip bags. Those weird plastic bunny toys that are storming the world these days.

This is where the best art lived, and here you could take it home yourself for far less than the pieces upstairs brought in.

With my cynicism in check we moved on to another gallery – The Menil. This was a real gallery that took itself seriously. You can see Warhol's work (I was shocked to find a piece by him that I actually liked – the Mao hanging there) and a Picaso. There's all sorts of other works. My favourite, I foolishly forgot to write the name of down. I don't even know the artist. But it's in the Surrealist section in the room just before the dead horse. There are a number of different ethereal colours all coming together like faeries in flight. That's what I thought of anyway. After a while looking, I could start to make them out.

That's when it was time to leave. But not before triple braiding my beard and posing with an African statue with the same braids. Sure you're not technically allowed to take pictures here, and I may have head butted the piece by accident – but I got a giggle from a girl passing through, and that made it all worth while. That and being back to normal when the guard returned from her rounds.

Next up was the photography gallery. The works here? Very good. Check it out. Top notch. And that's all I have to say about that. Then there's the two chapels. One is a bleak dark place for people of all faiths to worship. The other is a space aged Christian chapel where frosted glass windows create the walls, never quite touching, with ancient paintings somehow suspended over head. If Blade Runners were going to mass, this is where they would go. The androids? They'd be safe the one over.

And then, hours having past, culture having grown, we headed back to the Holocaust museum – obvious from the outside with its stylized wire fences surrounding a metaphorical smoke stake. Inside the entrance hall looks as if it were built with train tracks – the tone is set. With a tour just beginning we joined the crowd and prepared for knowledge.

The guide was given by a woman whose father lived in World War II Germany. He stole documents and sent them to forgers in an attempt to derail the Nazi movement, but as a Jew living in a time when that was far from a safe thing to be, he fled the country before things got terribly bad.

The tour lasted three hours, though you'd never have known it. It was captivating, informative, and focused on holocaust survivors living in the Houston area. It was one of the best holocaust museums that I've seen starting with information dating back nineteen hundred years, continuing to when the Jewish survivors broke through British blockades to illegally immigrate into the state of Palestine. For pure information this was the best – however the personal connections and tear jerking resonance of the Berlin holocaust museum makes it – by far – my favourite.

After the museums we headed off for more Texas Barbeque. Having learned the process of ordering at the counter, we didn't make fools of ourselves this time. The spicy pork, the jalapeño bread, and the jambalaya? Fantastic. The food here is something beyond. What a terrible place to be a vegetarian. Not because there aren't options – because there area – but here, with a long horned steer tied up outside, this is where meat meets perfection. Refusing to experience this part of the culture? Well – if you're a teenage girl, you might just call that ignorant. (Mind you, you'd be ignorant of the term ignorant, but never you mind.)

Each day in Texas will bring another tasty treat – and that alone makes this state an experience. I hate to spend money on food, but it's just... so good.

With late lunch / early dinner over with we made our way down to Kemah to experience their boardwalk. Parking, we waited for ten minutes to ride the ferry four meters across a small channel onto the boardwalk. With rides, and shops, and restaurants, it reminded me of Fisherman's Wharf lite. While we didn't spend much time there, especially for the ride we had to take back along Hell's highway to get there, it was something I'd not expected to see in Texas. Texas is supposed to be tumble weed, and cowboys – not ocean views, board walks, and carnival games.

Alright giant state, you've fooled me once, but in the honoured words of your favourite son, can't fool me again. Tomorrow we're off to Austin – lets see what that holds.

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