Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

It hurts me to post this, but here you go:

Eugene Hutz and and Sergey Ryabtsev backing up Madonna doing the traditional Romany song Lela Pala Tute to the tune of La Isla Bonita at the bogus Live Earth performance at Wembley Arena:

Hell has frozen over.

I am a fan of Gogol Bordello, and I admit to adoring Eugene Hutz more than a grown woman should. I saw them live before they got big, and it was the best live show I’d ever seen. The band created a rare and transcendent temporary autonomous zone that I will never forget. Hey, I guess Hakim Bey says they’re temporary for a reason.

But Eugene, why’d you have to go out like that, as Madonna’s organ-grinder monkey? Madonna is infamous for her parasitic relationship with authentic others, using them for her own mediocre ends– don’t you know this? If you start believing your own hype, you’re going to be the next lame Borat punchline.

On the Gogol Bordello fan sites major fights are erupting, and the whole band was not behind this decision to play with Madonna. There’s a camp of fans that’s saying it’s stupid to be upset about the Live Earth performance– more fame and exposure is good for the band, and there’s either good music or bad– the performance with Madonna changes nothing. I can only think that people voicing this argument grew up without understanding music as a subversive political force. Music isn’t just “good” or “bad.” In a time when voices of dissent are marginalized in the press and news media, often the most subversive information can be coded in a song or live performance. And music, poetry and fiction are the only mediums that can really capture the emotional ambiguity of struggle. I was radicalized by the Clash, way before I picked up a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll and learned that the Clash were sellouts. Gogol Bordello’s music was political– subversive. I thought Gogol Bordello’s “Underdog World Strike,” and “Gypsy Punk” were more than just poses, but maybe I was mistaken.

As the band became more popular over the last six years, the shows were packed with new people– many of them hostile, “world music mosh pit” idiots. This was the case at the oversold Astoria show where at certain points it was so crowded there, thanks to a write up in Time Out, that I was so crushed between people that my feet were not even touching the ground, and I was bruised for days afterward, and I was nowhere near the front. So my jealousy of the band, which I’d listened to since their first album in 1999, began. Why couldn’t I just love them in peace with this tribe of people who “got it”? Why did I have to share them with boneheads?

Why did Gogol Bordello cancel shows in Prague to do this favor for Madonna? Why did I have to hear Lela Pala Tute mungled with a Madonna song I hated as a teenager, a song that represented every empty thing about pop music I had come to loathe?

Eugene’s erotic power and magnetism is significant, and that he now has hoards of pissed off fans only testifies to the passion he and his band have inspired in so many. I leave you with this– Eugene singing Lela Pala Tute to Pavla Fleischer, director of The Pied Piper of Hutzovina. (The film is, according to Fleisher, a kind of lovesick ode to Eugene.) There’s intimacy in the way he sings to her. We are voyeurs. I know the look in his eyes– that singular boyish attention, and it’s the kind of thing that can make the heart into some fluttering creature that will betray itself. He surely knows this. Fleischer posts a long diatribe along with this youtube video, with the vehemence of a jilted lover. “But to think that [Madonna] also wants Eugene to sing Pala Tute to HER – that’s a bit too much of a territory invasion :)! Madonna, with all the respect I have for you, I was there first!! :)” And this has gone beyond gossip for me. Pavla’s impulse to make a film based on a romantic obsession is creepy, and her possessiveness of Eugene’s iconic presence is a bit pathetic, but I see myself in her.

Eugene, come back. I’m wearing purple.

Train Spotting on National Gallery Grand Tour

I had just emerged from swanky dim sum in the subterranean aquarium of Yauatcha with my friend Liza when I was startled to find that we we in front of a large-scale reproduction of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. The anamorphic skull at the base of the painting confronted passers by– a distorted momento mori at their feet.

When I was studying art in school, I had a bit of a crush on this painting. It made me feel warm and fuzzy, and not just because the men in it were dashing, but their range of possessions fascinated me, and the skull, which my mind could see by turning the painting widdershins inside itself– it was magical. Seeing it on Berwick before me, I was wooed all over again.

Rubens on Ganton

Next, we stumbled upon Samon and Delilah on Ganton street– Ruben’s dimpled and generous flesh at eye level— and I knew something was up. I was in Soho– a place full of ad agencies, fashionable clothing stores and porno dens. Samson saited with sex on Delilah’s generous lap– this was really out of place here in the bastion of mechanized sex and silicone, air brushing and size zero dresses.

After returning home and doing some Googling I realized this wasn’t just a fluke, it was an actual show. The National Gallery has hung replicas of several paintings from their collection throughout the streets of Soho and Covent Garden, with surreal and fantastic results. I made a list of all the paintings I wanted to see, drew myself a map and headed back into Soho.

Some, unmapped, thrust themselves upon me. Others came with an Easter-egg hunt satisfaction– their gold frames an eye-catching give away. Some, like the Rousseau that I most wanted to find, eluded me.

Madame Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, Drouais.

She would die a month before this painting was completed. Blamed for the Seven Years War and called the “Godmother of Rococo,” here she sits beside a queue of taxis, outside the Picadilly station, working at her needlepoint with her little black dog.

Caravaggio’s Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.

Someone curating this has a sense of humor. Painted while Caravaggio was on the run for killing a man– he used prostitutes and criminals as models, so in many ways this painting is at home in Walker’s Court, a narrow alley of sex shops. I would have liked to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes here, but all the same, the choice of Salome is inspired. Much has been written about beheadings in art history as metaphors for castration, but I will leave that up to the Freudians.

Despite generic chain store take over and general sleaziness of much of London streets, many corners remain elegant, and this show seems to prove this. As I was walking I saw many perfect naked spaces that wanted an image.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Jospeh Wright of Derby.

I found this one by surprise, meandering off Wardour. Wright uses chiaroscuro, usually a technique used by artists like Caravaggio to relay a spiritual dichotomy of dark and light. Here the dichotomy is presumably in the service of science– enlightenment or ignorance. Only the picture’s moral ambiguity saves it from being pedantic.

The cruelty of the spectacle was heightened for me– on the sidewalk before the reproduction lay a disemboweled bird, and a few feet away a nutter followed what looked to be its mate, speaking to it as if it were an acquaintance, and periodically reaching out for it. Why the bird didn’t fly away is troubling to contemplate. Of all the reproductions, this was the only one that has suffered a vandal– somone had keyed the surface beneath the gentleman on the far left. I wondered if it was the same man that was tormenting the birds there, performing his own cruel experiment beneath the candle lit scene.

The show, sponsored by Hewlett Packard, is supposedly graffiti proof. The blogosphere has called it a “challenge to Banksy” and “two fingers up to Banksy.” But in many ways, the National Gallery has learned a trick or two from Banksy. Musuems in London are free, so this lesson is not so much about accessibility but recontextualization. Does the art elevate the street? Or, more happily, does the street change the art, humanizing it so that the paintings become mirrors for myriad Londoners. Ironically, the public display makes the work more intimate, private.

Grotesque Old Woman, attributed to Quentin Massys, Foubert’s Place.

I saved the Grotesque Old Woman, one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, for last. Sure, the intention is mysogynist, but she is such a fabulous creature– more memorable than the hundreds of portraits of beauties hung about her in the museum. But here she is alone on a brick wall, above some plumbing, holding her own. I stood there saying my silent hello, as a old man on a ciggie break sitting on the bench beneath the painting became increasingly annoyed at my presence. From what I could tell he had no idea what was behind him– a typical, incurious Londoner– sitting in front of what could be a suitable beau for him! He soon had enough of my hovering and wheeled his rolling suitcase away, cursing under his breath.

The treasure hunt aspect of the Grand Tour made me confront my shifting topography of Soho, the place I frequent most in London. I’ve gotten lost in the most familiar of streets there. Soho is infinite and mazelike, a meeting place of shifting landmarks and furtive delights. It seems fitting to me that the National Gallery has secreted away these surprises here.

A map of the paintings as I found them.