I've been loading up on culture this past week. First up was a visit to the Rijksmuseum Oudheden in Leiden for a gander at life in the ancient Assyrian capitol of Nineveh. For those of you who know their Old Testament (and who doesn't?), that's the place Jonah should have gone instead of getting himself swallowed by a whale.
Next up was a six hour long string quartet concert featuring three world class quartets (Doric, Danel and Casals) playing quartets composed respectively by Beethoven, Shostakovitch and Britten. That insane line-up was called The Impossible Journey, complete with disco lighting (see photo). The poor musicians were trapped in a kind of go-go dancer's cage that, when lit, looked like a giant undulating jellyfish. Meanwhile, we the audience got to lounge around on ottomans strewn about the room.
Lest you worry about all this highbrow activity, rest assured. I can go low, too. In this case, the kiddie matinee to see Coco, the latest Disney / Pixar animation film featuring a young aspiring musician and lots of skeletons. The action takes place on El Dia de los Muertos, the one day in the year when the dead can visit the living. I love the idea that you're not truly dead until there's no living person left who remembers you.
Coco is loaded with inside jokes and a degree of cultural authenticity you wouldn't normally expect from a Disney movie. There are the basics like the ofrendas where the portraits of the dead, their favorite foods and objects are displayed. The cameo appearances of Frida Kahlo (in multiple guises) and El Santo, lucha libre wrestling star! Plus Cheech Marin voicing the customs officer. It felt like home! But in case all you white boys and girls out there are getting lost, here's A Gringo's Guide to Coco.
The way a society treats its dead is supposed to be a mark of its civilization. There are ofrendas in China too, though we use them to place ancestor tablets instead of photos and incense rather than candles. We too give our dead food and drink, bring them gifts to comfort them in the other world, ask for their blessing or guidance.
But sometimes the dead become forgotten. The ancestor tablets are smashed or the children move away. We forget them and they abandon us. I suppose that's when museums become relevant.
Propaganda is this week's blog post topic. How museums can tell us about the way propaganda was used in the time of Stalin and Mao. And, unfortunately, how we can see it in action with our very own eyes today in Xi's China. If we could still commune with our ancestors. They might have a warning word or two for us.