Arts and Culture

Culture in Unexpected Places: Look Closely or You Might Miss It

Filed Under: Asia, Japan, London, New York, Vancouver

Like finding change down the back of the sofa, except culturally rewarding (and memorable).

The Cloisters
New York, New York
Atop its perch in Fort Tryon Park, in the northern Inwood district of Manhattan, the Cloisters Museum houses the best of medieval Europe (well, that which could be transported).  Covered walkways connect a group of authentic medieval French cloisters, and their courtyards. (On a sunny day, a visit really does make you feel like you're in France!)  The beauty of the architectural anomalies are well matched by the tasteful landscaping of the Cloisters' 66-acre plot and the gorgeous views across the river. 

However, you might spend more time inside, as some of the greatest works of the period are on display. Four works in particular display a level of skill and absorption that simply defy comprehension. Both the detail in brushwork and narrative will amaze in Robert Campin's divine 15th-century altarpiece, as will the microscopic carving present in the 16th-century boxwood rosary bead. Next, the mysterious story described in the famous 'Unicorn Tapestries' will literally bemuse, as will trying to comprehend the level of concentration needed to create what is perhaps the most beautiful of all Western books, Pucelle's 'Hours of Jean D'Evreaux' (Queen of France). 

Shunt Vaults
London, England
Most people, by now, know about the secret passage in London's King's Cross station, thanks to Harry Potter. But do you know about the one in London Bridge? The Shunt theater collective, a group of local artists, has taken over the row of vaults under a set of train tracks at London Bridge station, and regularly stages a variety of performances, concerts, projections and exhibitions in them. The space, coined the Shunt Vaults and accessible through an unmarked door next to the underground station's ticket barriers, is huge and pitch-black inside. 

You never know what's going to be happening or where - you just have to follow the light, or the sound. Past events have included DJ sets, immersive theater, experimental film projections, hypnotic light installations and projects that let you  experience the spinning of the sun's core through the medium of sound. 

Miho Museum
Japan
One look at the Miho Museum from an adjacent mountaintop (or the Web site's homepage) will tell you that this is no ordinary setting, nor is it simply 'off the beaten path.' The only way to get to the entrance is to follow a tree-lined path, pass through a tunnel and cross a bridge; two-thirds of the museum are buried deep within the mountain. When designing the architectural plan for this unearthly complex, I.M. Pei -  the architect famed for the Louvre's glass pyramid - took inspiration from a classical Chinese poem, which tells of a fisherman who stumbles upon a  paradise village deep in the mountains. When he leaves the village, he can never find it again. 

The collection, which cost a fortune (unsurprisingly), focuses on ancient art and artifacts: Buddhist and Egyptian statuaries  (the latter including pieces deemed noteworthy by Howard Carter - the man responsible for the discovery of King Tut's tomb), Assyrian reliefs and complete Roman frescoes.

Kulturen
Sweden
Lund is an old Swedish city. Once a main religious center (evident by the extant cathedral), it is now home to a thriving university and research community cycling daily along the quaint, charming cobbled streets. A peek over the pastel walls on either side of one such street will give you quite a surprise. You'll notice a jumble of rooftops  - some ancient - all certainly very different. 

These are the tops of the grand cacophony of buildings huddled together in the historic village (the second oldest in the world) of the Kulturen, a 'living museum' that tells the story of human society and practices, from the earliest peasant inhabitants of Scandinavia through to the present day. In the rooms of the original buildings (collected from all over Scandinavia) beds are unmade, fires flicker and radios blare -  they are full of atmosphere. A range of temporary exhibitions accompany the superbly curated permanent ones. They cover such diverse themes as Lund in the Middle Ages, women prisoners in Ravensbruck concentration camp and modernism in Lund. 

The New York Earth Room
New York, New York
We're not sure what's more surprising: the fact that 280,000 pounds of earth are lying in a gallery space in New York's fashionable Soho district, or that, in this city of flux and ADD, the New York Earth Room has been there for 30 years. The piece, which covers the room's floor and is about 3 feet high, is a sculptural work by Walter De Maria. It was commissioned and is  maintained by the Dia Art Foundation. 

If you speak to the staff, they'll tell you that color was the most important quality when choosing which plot of earth to gather for the project.  Whatever your experience of galleries in the past, a trip up to this surreal second-floor will likely raise a  reaction. Two other 'Earth Rooms' have been produced in the past, both of which no longer exist. 

Dr Sun Yat-Sen Chinese Garden
Vancouver, British Columbia
Chinese craftsmanship cropping up in Chinatown isn't particularly surprising. However, it is stunning to realize that the only authentic, full-scale Chinese classical garden built outside China is in Canada. The Sun Yat-Sen gardens are an oasis of serenity - the trickle of water, the tap, tap, tapping of bamboo and the soft rustling of reeds in the warm summer breeze - at the foot of Vancouver's boisterous Chinatown. To ensure authentic work practices while building the garden, the builders and artisans (52 of them flown in from mainland China) worked with 950 crates of raw materials they brought with them -  everything from the large limestone rocks to the tiny pebbles in the path. 

They  were forbidden to use power tools, screws, nails or glue, relying instead on their eyes to join the walkways and partitions precisely together. Amazingly, it took just a year to complete. Based on a  14th-17th-century Suzhou Ming dynasty model, the garden adheres to the yin/yang  balance of elements. It also features carved wooden seating beside the pool, which was traditionally intended only for women to use. The position requires the sitter to recline at a most agreeable angle to enjoy the sounds and reflections of the adjacent pool. 

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