WWII and Shoes

My biggest focus with the GLI program has been the question of what gets the point across the best.  In what way can one human being make a message really resonate with another. This trip made me realize that there can’t be one right way, there has to be many ways to get to many different audiences.

I did a lot of amazing things during my six week stint in Vienna, including visiting Budapest, Munich, and the Czech Republic. Each city had its own story to tell, and in most cases they had to tell me in under 48 hours. Some of these stories are familiar, and some with a new twist. For the longest time I’ve thought that stories were the best way to make things really stick. But since being back in the states, I’m starting to realize that the things that stuck with me aren’t the stories, it’s other various things.

In Munich, I visited Dachau, or the first work camp under Hitler’s regime. But somehow, even though I heard the stories of the horror that occurred in that place, it didn’t stick. I barely remember it. There were lots of places on that trip related to WWII, as most of the fighting was in that area of the world. But the only place that resonated with me was in Budapest. It was a memorial for Jewish victims in the city who were shot by arrow cross militia men into the Danube. The memorial is a bunch of shoes along the Danube bank. And though it was subtle, it hit me the hardest.

For the longest time I have always thought of WWII being much further in the past than it actually was. But this memorial was of shoes. Style and fashion and how it evolves has always been of interest to me. The only thought I had was that these shoes were so similar to ours. Half of the women’s shoes are styled pretty much exactly the same as some of the ones in my grandmother’s closet that I used to play dress up with as a child.

As it turns out, that was what I needed to make this story real to me. Not a story about the holocaust. Not a story about Hitler’s rise to power. Not a tour of the places in Munich. The thing I needed was to see an artist’s memorial using shoes.  This is why we need artists. We need musicians, painters, writers, story tellers, and everything else. We need these people to put emotion behind fact and turn facts into perceived reality.

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What an Atheist Learns at Corpus Christi

It was rather surprising when I found myself at Saint Stephan’s Cathedral on Corpus Christi. As a catholic turned atheist I hadn’t been to mass in years, and I did it while I was out of country nonetheless. Since I went with a group of music students, we were there to listen to Mozart’s Requiem along with a couple of Handel pieces being performed in the space they were originally written for. I found the entirety of this experience to be something much more than any mass could even hope to be in the United States….or at least the churches I’ve been to.

The mass started out with incense. Incense everywhere. The sweet smell filled the room and left no space for any other scent to be perceived. Next came a procession of families tied to the church, followed by all of the altar boys and officials of the church. All were in traditional garb. From the sectioned off area to the front of the cathedral was painted with costumes that could only be outshone by the architecture of the building itself. As stated in my previous blog post, Saint Stephan’s cathedral is of a Gothic style. This means that of course every inch of every wall is decorated with the finest of details. One could get lost in the details for the rest of their lives, if it weren’t for the gothic way of forcing the eyes to the front of the room. This ensured that we paid attention to the sermon.

Though it was hot, and we were sitting (and occasionally kneeling) shoulder to shoulder on hard benches, it was not hard to make it through the entirety of the program. The chanting filled the entire space with one vibration that we could feel. The sermon was entirely in German, but we could still generally get the gist. The music was absolutely gorgeous. Every part had enough space to really be heard, it wasn’t all cramped together in a tiny space where they only thing you can hear is the sopranos. Every part was allowed to flourish.  During greetings there was a sense of connectedness when you shook the hand of your neighbors. During communion it was something else to have the taste of the body and blood of Christ at the tip of your tongue.  At one point in time during the music you could see the incense’s smoke flowing upward toward the light of an open window and the only thing that I could think of was the smoke’s ascent to the heavens.

All of the senses were in overdrive. There was not one sense that wasn’t being utilized to create this indescribable feeling. Some people no doubt think of it as the presence of God. Many of us on the trip that I spoke to after said it was more unsettling than comfortable- it probably didn’t help that most of us are non-believers. Nonetheless, so many people made it their lives work to craft this feeling.  Many people expressed their love and/or fear of God through the format of the service.

And this lead me to the realization that expression isn’t just for communication. Expression brings feelings—whether that feeling be a cozy one or one that shakes you to your bones. It’s so much more than communication. While communication can bring you facts or opinions, it’s really the expression of these facts that gives somebody feelings of empathy. With no empathy, there is no real understanding. I can calmly state that the world is going to end for ages, but if nobody else truly feels the same way I do, then what good is it? People would continue on in their normal way if they hadn’t really internalized the message.

Expression, no matter the medium, is far more important than I have ever previously given it credit for.

Expression in The Walls

For the past three years, I have been studying in-depth one side of my theme-communication. So for this study abroad, I decided to leap into expression, as after much self-reflection I realized I had no clue really what expression was to me. I, for the life of me, could not figure out just why expression was important. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it was, but I wished to know why. What drives humans to express, and what is the purpose? For my study abroad, I chose to take a trip with 18 music students to Vienna. I thought I would learn mostly about music, but thus far I have been very wrong.

I spent the first couple of weeks not learning about music that much at all. My class did not start for three weeks, so I spent my time taking walking tours offered by another class and an Art teacher that tagged along for the first week, Dr. H. Rafael Chacón. Through his stories and insight, I have found a purpose to expression.

Vienna is an interesting city. I have traveled around Europe a lot and have seen many ruins and buildings that were made during the time that the style was popular. Vienna, however, displays many buildings that were built more recently when the particular architecture would be out of style, but with a purpose in mind (note- recently is still about 200 years ago). Take for example the Rathaus, which hosts the mayor and city council. It was built between 1872 and 1883 in a neo-gothic style. Why? Gothic style architecture itself flourished during the 12th century France and lasted into the 16th century. Around this time you see cities becoming more independent- almost to the point that they were independent city-states. So when making a seat for the mayor and city council, the architects pulled from a time frame that was reminiscent of city government. The architecture choice basically screams to the people (or it would, if people knew much about art history unlike myself) “Hey, this is the city government!”

The domes in Vienna also are very expressive. There’s the dome of St. Michael’s gate- the entrance to the Hofburg. This gate was never designed to be used for any other purpose than a gate- which is weird. Most domes in European palace architecture are placed over important spaces such as great halls or throne rooms. So why here? Dr. Chacón believes it to be a symbol of wealth and power. During the time this was built, it was ever important for the Hapsburg in rule to remain in power. This was one of the last monarchies. So putting the dome at the gate from the city to the palace was their way of reminding the people that they were in power.

Thus far I’ve been talking about the expression of the royals to the people. But what about the people themselves? That’s where this next dome sort of comes in. It is, in fact, probably my favorite dome that I’ve ever seen. It’s gorgeous, it’s golden, and it’s basically a big “Fuck you” to the art academy. I am referring to the dome atop the Secession building. At the point in time of its building, times were changing. Art was shifting. The artists didn’t want to be stuck in historicism, they wanted something new. So they started the Seccession movement. This dome, which serves no purpose as it is airy and does not change the inside of the building at all, makes fun of the other domes of all of the historicism buildings.

What I’ve learned from these three pieces of architecture (along with many, many more) is that sometimes expression is an enhancement to communication. Sometimes, simply saying you are powerful isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to build a dome to really prove your point. Sometimes, the action of doing something speaks much louder than the words ever could.