Posts Tagged 'new york'

A monument of beauty and beatitude

By Harry van Versendaal

It will be dwarfed by the Manhattan skyline, but it will hardly go unnoticed – particularly at night.

Construction of the National Shrine, a Greek Orthodox church and nondenominational bereavement center at Ground Zero, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, began in December last year. When the long-stalled project is completed two years from now, it will feature a dome-shaped structure clad in a hi-tech translucent skin of white Vermont marble that will glow softly in the dark.

Calatrava has said that the 35-million-dollar design, which was picked from over a dozen proposals, was inspired by Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior – both in Istanbul. Evidence of those influences can be traced at a new exhibition at the Benaki Museum, in central Athens, showcasing sketches, drawings, plans, photographs and audiovisual material from the ongoing project.


Looking at the 3-D renderings, architect Magda Sgouridi sees the Spanish architect diverging from his trademark compositions.

“His architectural vocabulary is significantly different here. The slim and refined mechanical structures that look upward toward the sky have here given way to a substantial bulk pushing down in the direction of the surface,” she said.

It is a gleaming, modern design that will, of course, be better evaluated once the monument – and, very crucially, the interior – is completed. But in the case of Saint Nicholas, concept comes before form.

“It will be a beacon of faith, of all faiths. A beacon that will serve as a New York landmark and, at the same time, as a New York boundary with the open sea,” Sgouridi said.

Dark chapter

Heavy in symbolism, the only non-secular structure at the site will replace the nondescript 19th-century church – a former tavern – that was destroyed as World Trade Center’s South Tower came down in the 9/11 terrorist blitz. No one was inside the building at the time.

The new monument will overlook the 9/11 Memorial, sitting at the intersection of Liberty and Greenwich streets, on land once occupied by the Deutsche Bank Building.

Construction was stalled by marathon negotiations between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, until in 2011 an agreement between the two sides broke the deadlock.

For Eric Sessions, a Greek-American doctor who was one of the first responders on 9/11, the rebuilding of St Nicholas Church brings to a close a dark chapter in New York history while offering a great deal of hope.

“For Saint Nicholas, the protector of sailors and those who work with the sea which made New York what it is today, this has particular symbolism. For the Greek community of New York, and for all the Greeks who toiled on the waterfront through the years and whose faith sustained the church, this is a great tribute,” Sessions said.

“As a member of the parish which has hosted the Saint Nicholas church since it’s building’s destruction in 2001, this is a great victory and a hope for a future of understanding among all nations,” he said.


Calatrava, now 64, is also the architect behind Manhattan’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub, an awe-inspiring bird-like structure that has been hit by budget overruns and time delays. Calatrava, who is no stranger to controversy, became a household name in Greece ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympics for the design of the much-hyped roof structure over the Olympic Stadium.

In an interview about the project with The New York Times earlier this month, Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, said that although Calatrava had “done a lot to assist in keeping the budget down,” some overshooting was to be expected.

“We have to have a masterpiece of architecture. It has to be the best,” he said.

The exhibition “Santiago Calatrava: The Renaissance of the Church of St Nicholas at Ground Zero” will be on display at the Benaki Museum’s ( main building in central Athens from September 24 to October 25.

Retrospective on surrealist photography pioneer Arthur Tress in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

A retrospective on the Brooklyn-born photographer Arthur Tress, currently on display at the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, reveals the endurance and simultaneous freshness of the 73-year-old artist’s surrealist oeuvre that puts him among the masters of 20th century photography.

The exhibition, a selection of 145 images taken between 1956 and 2006, was organized in collaboration with Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse and Contrejour publications, and forms part of the museum’s “Great Masters” series.

“His work is an excellent combination of the realistic and fictional aspects of photography,” Vangelis Ioakimidis, the energetic director of the Museum of Photography Thessaloniki, told Kathimerini English Edition, noting that this is the first time the images are being shown in Greece.

Tress’s early forays at the Whitney, where learned about the surrealist paintings of artists such as Magritte and Dali, influenced his vision – as did his later traveling (which also kept him from being drafted for the war in Vietnam).

He started out as a street photographer, shooting in the heart of New York as well as the suburbs – the grey zones near the bridges that connect Brooklyn to Manhattan. Using a 2 1/4 square format, either a Rolleiflex or Hasselblad, Tress soon veered into more experimental territory with dreamlike staged and sometimes manipulated compositions: A boy claws his way out of the ground with hands made of tree roots; a grim woman in sunglasses sits next to a coin-operated binoculars at Coit Tower; a young man irons the arm of his terminally ill mother.

Who Tress is – a gay Jew – naturally influenced his work. Operating from a state of “melancholic alienation,” as he put it, his clicking often became political.

“As with many photographers of my generation, I saw the camera as a means of social satire and commentary with the goal of them becoming mechanisms for political change,” Tress said in a 2012 interview.

“I was inspired by the work of the photographers of the ‘social landscape’ – Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Danny Lyon – who used their cameras as media weapons to expose injustice and inequality.”

Tress’s photographs have been shown worldwide and many of his works are housed in permanent collections, including those at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. He has published more than 25 monographs – some of them on display at the redbrick seaside structure that houses Thessaloniki’s Photography Museum – while his archive includes more than 700,000 negatives. Tress still works as a professional photographer today.

The Tress retrospective wraps up the museum’s “Great Masters” cycle which was launched in 2007 and has featured photography giants such as Duane Michals, Bernard Plossu, Andre Kertesz and Joel Meyerowitz.

The exhibition runs until the end of March.

Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Warehouse A, Port Complex, tel. 2310.566.716,

Staring at the big picture


By Harry van Versendaal

Photo-sharing app Instagram last week announced it had reached the 100 million-user milestone. Jennifer Trausch is one of them. But the Berlin-based artist much prefers to make her instant photographs using a refrigerator-sized vintage Polaroid camera.

Trausch, 36, can normally be found operating one of the five such machines, built in the late 1970s by the former US tech giant, at her studio in Berlin, where she moved this January after spending a year in Paris.

Before moving to Europe, the Ohio-born artist lectured and made photographs at the 20×24 Polaroid studio in Manhattan, where she was director of photography for about eight years. In a daring project that spanned from 2006 to 2011, Trausch, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, took the vintage camera out of the comfort zone of the protected studio environment and onto the rural roads of the American South to shoot poster-size, black-and-white pictures of fairs, auctions, bars and rodeos – a project that gave birth to her well-received “Touching Ground” exhibition.

From Germany, Trausch is currently trying to spread the love for instant photography, putting much of her time and energy into Impossible Works, a Berlin-based nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, a company that manufactures new instant film for Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films.

Trausch was recently invited to Greece to participate in the jury of the 4th Cedefop Photomuseum Award – a 5,000-euro prize granted to photographers from all over the world by the EU’s European Center for the Development of Vocational Training and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography in the context of its PhotoBiennale.

During her stay in the northern port city, Trausch delivered two two-hour workshops at the museum on the basics of working with Impossible Project instant films with a variety of cameras and film types.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Trausch discussed her love for large-format photography and the particularities of her work in the digital era.

What drew you to large-format photography? What do you think is special about the 20×24?

I started out in photojournalism / documentary photography, so I really began my career shooting with small- and medium-format cameras. In 2001, I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to use the 20×24 Polaroid camera, and I have been working almost exclusively on large format ever since. I like how laborious shooting with big cameras is, how much attention you end up giving to each image.

Large cameras, especially the 20×24, also demand much more out of their subjects. The 20×24’s grandiosity makes people look into it in a different way, perhaps because it commands a certain kind of respect as a human-scale object. With the 20×24, there’s always a limited depth of field, and the way the world falls off behind the focal plane can be quite surreal, soft and graceful.

The 20×24 instant prints also have a material, painterly quality that is all their own; it is the sharp detail of a 20×24 negative in a contact-print, mixed with the softness of a print made by the diffusion transfer process.

How are you able to carry around and work with such a big and heavy machine that was meant for indoor use? Is it a hindrance?

The 20×24 Polaroid cameras – there are five original units built in the late 1970s – each weigh 105 kilos, so I had no choice but to find a way of working that was relatively easy. For my “Touching Ground” project, I chose B&W film since the film is fast enough that I could work in most conditions without extra lighting or equipment. I tried to simplify the shooting process so that it was just the camera, film, black cloths to keep the light out, and my assistant Kimberlee Venable and I.

I tend to not like when too much credence is given to the technical side of photography, as in what equipment or techniques were used for a certain effect, but I have to admit that in this case the camera had a huge influence over what we could and couldn’t do. Sometimes it held us back as the camera couldn’t always go where we wanted it to go (on a rooftop or on an oil rig) and other times it was exhausting to push it up muddy hills or to lift it over train tracks. Taking the camera out and setting up always took a lot of effort, which added a certain pressure on each shoot to get things right.

This also meant that when I didn’t “get the shot” I hoped for, it felt much more devastating because of the extreme physical effort it took to set it up in the first place. Perhaps if I had had more hands to help we wouldn’t have felt this pressure and disappointment so much, but I really preferred to work without a giant crew so that the process with my subjects could be intimate.

What are your favorite themes? What kind of things do you like to photograph?

I am interested in the idea of place, the culture and traditions surrounding a particular place at a particular time, and whether I can take you there to feel it.

For me this is always a mix of portraits, landscapes and activities that are indicative of that place. Sometimes it is specific to one environment, such as my “Skateland” series, or in the case of “Touching Ground,” it’s about a much broader portrait of regional American culture.

I also am interested in the idea of sensations in photography – whether images can elicit the physical sensations of being there for the viewer standing in front of the final print. It is always my goal to make images where you could almost feel the heavy humidity on your skin, hear the leaves rustling, or taste a swamp’s scent wafting through the air.

Could you tell us a few things about the Impossible Works project?

Impossible Works is a nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, the main manufacturer of instant films today. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films. We accept proposals from anyone looking to use and challenge the instant medium.

How does it feel taking photographs with a huge, slow and hard-to-move analog camera in an age when people upload thousands of pictures a second on social media that it takes them all of a second to frame, and their friends all of another second to “like”?

The process of working at 20×24 definitely creates a different kind of image, in the attention that you and your subjects inherently end up giving during a shoot.

The final prints can be shared as you work, in all of their incredible scale and detail, which transforms the building of an image. While this can partly be equated to sharing digital files online or during a shoot, it’s pretty easy to lose the fine, subtle details of an image looking at it on a glowing screen or on the back of a digital camera.

I do share some of my images online in similar ways to many digital photographers, but only as a teaser, not as an end to themselves – I don’t think you can really experience the work until you’re in the room with the original full-size prints.

Do you own any smaller cameras, and, if so, do you like using them?

Yes, quite a few. I use them mostly when I am traveling, which these days is quite often. When I am traveling, I test a lot of Impossible Projects small-format materials on Polaroid SX-70, 680, and 110B cameras, mostly for sketching out ideas.

But in general I’ve gotten quite accustomed to working on a larger ground glass and seeing my images upside down. I think this is the way my brain is wired these days.

Disappointed in the sun

Photo by Todd Kesselman

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to be philosophical about the situation in Greece these days, but if Simon Critchley is right that “philosophy begins in disappointment,” then maybe we should give it a chance.

The 50-year-old philosopher was born in Britain and is an exponent of so-called “continental” philosophy – a bit of a rarity in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is famously allergic to the esoteric and nonanalytical explorations of their continental peers. Author of, among others, “Very Little… Almost Nothing,” “On Humour,” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” Critchley currently teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the man behind “The Stone,” the New York Times’ extremely popular philosophy forum. “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying,” a collection of interviews with Critchley, was recently released by Polity Press.

Recently, Critchley visited Athens to give a brief lecture on violence at the industrial premises of EDW, a brand-new multidisciplinary venue in the up-and-coming Kerameikos district. He talked to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, violence and, one of his “top 5 philosophers,” Friedrich Nietzsche.

You visited Greece in the midst of a major economic, social and political crisis. Does philosophy have anything to offer to someone who has lost their job or house?

Absolutely. I take no pleasure in people losing their jobs and homes. But the fact is that people and in particular their governments in Greece and all across the European Union and elsewhere were living a lie, a kind of dream. It is sometimes extremely painful to wake up. The wisdom of ancient Greek philosophical traditions is essential here. Diogenes the Cynic threw away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Pleasure for Epicurus was a barley cake and a beaker of water. “Give me a pot of cheese,” he said, “and I will dine like a king.”

Do you see liberal democracy as a successful project? What are its main failures? Are there any alternatives?

I am not a very good liberal and the wrong person to ask about the success or otherwise of liberal democracy. It’s main current failure is the massive disconnection between the political class and those who that class are meant to represent. My alternative would be small-scale federalism based on direct democracy, or as close to that as possible.

What do you think of the EU project?

Not that much. It has prevented a war between France and Germany for the past 60 years, but I remain skeptical of its political ambitions. I agree with Paul Krugman that Greece’s entry into the euro effectively undermined national sovereignty.

You have lived in the United States for seven years now. How does it compare to Europe?

I don’t really live in the US. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. I love this city because it is a city of foreigners where everyone is a visitor, a metic and no one is a native. I can’t speak about the US as a whole.

You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What is the meaning of that phrase? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Would you argue for a Nietzschean-style re-evaluation of values, as it were?

I remain very close to Nietzsche, in particular on the question of pessimism and optimism. For Nietzsche, rightly I think, there was something deeply nihilistic about the naive scientific belief in progress. Ancient Greek tragedy, by contrast, is an affirmation of life that succeeds by staring the worst in the face without flinching. Philosophy might begin with disappointment, but it doesn’t end there. It culminates in ethical commitment and political resistance, in my view.

On violence

In your Athens talk, you discussed violence. Most people in the audience seemed to suggest that the world we live in is a more violent world, compared to the past. Do you agree?

The world is a dark and violent place. Is it more violent that in the past? it is very hard to tell and it is also unclear what is often meant by violence. There is physical violence, of course, but also what we might call the “soft” violence of language itself and the violence of what often passes for peace.

You also said violence is never justified, but it is sometimes necessary. Can you explain further?

My view, but this is part of a much longer argument that comes out of a personal commitment to the ethics and politics of nonviolence, is that violence is sometimes necessary, but never justified. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Notre musique” puts it, “To kill a human being to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”

Left-wing discourse in Greece likes to justify physical violence as a rightful response to systemic violence, as it were. Do we risk losing the meaning of violence here?

Like I said, violence is sometimes necessary. But I am not one of those people who supports virile, heroic acts of political violence. But it is always important to remember that violence is a phenomenon with a history and that history is one of the cycles of violence and counter-violence that seems to catch subjects in a repetitive loop. My hope is that this loop can be broken.

Raw history in the making

By Elis Kiss and Harry van Versendaal

What is history made of if not big and small moments experienced by those who live them? Take the people of New York, for instance, for whom city life is a fast-paced work-in-progress, defined by plenty of highs and lows, especially in the last decade.

Greek photographer Alexandros Lambrovassilis and compatriot journalist Achilleas Peklaris sought to capture the city’s tireless spirit and the result of their joint effort, “Hopes, Dreams and Hard Times,” is currently on display at the Benaki Pireos Street annex.

From Pulitzer winners to those who survived the Twin Towers attacks, through single mothers, war veterans-turned-homeless, Upper East side lawyers, detectives patrolling the streets of Harlem, hot-dog street vendors and Wall Street golden boys, Lambrovassilis and Peklaris record life in the aftermath of  9/11, the election of the first African-American president and a country going through a recession.

While Lambrovassilis points his camera at 150 people living in the city, capturing their portraits in their location of choice, Peklaris’s accompanying texts provide insights into their thoughts and situations.

Now a journalist, Peklaris has also served as a bartender, a kibbutz worker, a speechwriter, and a party promoter, among other professions, while Lambrovassilis, is a trained musician who turned to the medium of photography.

“Hopes, Dreams and Hard Times”, which came about when the two found themselves living in New York working as correspondents for Greek publications, is accompanied by a book published in Greek by Estia publishers.

The duo recently shared their thoughts with Athens Plus.

How did the project come about? Are you capturing moments in history? A country in transition? Do you feel that you achieved your goals?

A.L. Timing was the definite factor of  this project in all aspects. Our own personal timing as persons who could look into matters and at the same time as professionals able to deliver such a demanding project, matched with the historic times we and the rest of the world were witnessing.

A.P. We both felt that we’re witnessing some historic moments for the city – and also the whole American nation. Moments when everybody starts to doubt if the American dream or the American lifestyle are still valid. Or if they have to be redefined. Hard times for the people. Hopes that Obama’s election gave to everyone. We felt that we needed to capture this, in order to understand and realize the historic situation around us. And we feel that we did.

A.L. I feel so too. I think we did achieve our one and only goal. Democracy and equal representation of all social backgrounds and ethnic groups in our sample. We met and talked to almost every different character that lives in this city. From the homeless to philosophers and from bankers to pimps, all were interviewed and photographed keeping also in mind the demographics of NYC so that we came up with a documentary and not a tale of fiction about the city.

Was the project as spontaneous as it feels?

A.L. I would say yes, no and yes, meaning that, yes it was a spontaneous idea, which however came through discussion. No, to the extent that we worked really hard in order to define and then stay with our methods till the end. And again yes because we both approached this whole thing with our individual/personal solid interest in New York and its people. We needed to look and find first of all for ourselves and I guess to some extent we did.

A.P. I would say that I functioned as spontaneously as I do when I randomly meet some new individual out there, in real life, and I try to connect, share and see life through my new friend’s eyes and learn things from each and every new acquaintance. That’s what we did with all 150 participants. We tried to become friends with them, as we do when we meet people in real life.

How would you describe the enduring appeal of New York City?

A.P. New York City is an active energy volcano. Everybody’s running to stand still. Everybody tries to give his/her best. To do more, achieve more, test your limits. History is being made every single second, on many different levels, such as art, science, business etc. It’s the hub of our planet.

A.L. People are coming to NY from every possible place on earth to pursue dreams and ambitions, trying to make something for themselves and to prove to the rest of the world that they made it. This is kind of common sense in NYC that everybody respects. Respect has been and will always be appealing.

Do you feel that the city represents the United States in general?

A.P. Not at all. This is not America. It’s the “New York Republic” or “the capital of the world” and it’s totally different than any other place in the USA. Frankly, I could live my whole life in New York and be happy, yet I doubt if I could live for more than a month in any other state of the country. Maybe Hawaii would be my second choice.

A.L. My second choice would be New Orleans, also San Francisco or L.A., but still New York would be first, simply because New York moves at such a fast pace that I haven’t seen in any other place. This in addition to the city’s ability to incorporate diversities makes this place unique not only in the United States but also in the rest of the world.

The diaspora element is evident in the exhibition. How would you describe the city’s Greek-American community?

A.P.-A.L. After discussing again and again the way we would approach Greeks in the project, we figured out that the Greeks of New York are divided into three main categories. Number one is the immigrants of past generations who all live in their own communities, they’re everyday, ordinary people, with a genuine American mentality and lifestyle, in everything totally different to the Greeks of Greece. Number two is the young people who were born in Greece and moved to New York to study or work and they mostly act like any other European youngster in New York, mixing with the multicultural crowd, trying to keep their national identity on the side. Number three is the world travelling, fortune-seeking, ambitious Greeks (or people of Greek descent), who have no specific origin and they just act like cosmopolitans, having their own unique identity and trying to conquer the hub of the world, in a very romantic way.

Given the speed at which everything happens, do you think that the city and its citizens have already moved into another chapter since your project?

A.L. We need to understand this first before we attempt an answer. New York is a city more than any other city in the world in which millions of people move in and out every year as part of their personal interests in education and career mostly. This provides us with two directions of thinking. The first has to do with the pace that the city maintains given the limited time that one has to achieve one’s goals. Lying on the couch is not one of those goals. The second is that as people move in and out, this keeps the city in a state of constant motion and change and that is one of the main characteristics of New York, renewing and reinventing itself.

A.P. It’s true. I would add that in this particular period, running is not the thing, as the paths have changed dramatically. You need to adjust first and open or create new paths. And then run again, faster and faster, on those new paths. This is the situation in New York today: Adjusting to the changes.

The debt crisis has taken a hefty toll on Greece and Athens in particular. Do you see any patterns emerging here?

A.P. Fear. Pessimism. Insecurity. Embarrassment. Unfortunately, I believe that this is what the majority of people feel today in Athens. We Greeks, just realized that for 30 years now we haven’t adjusted to the European reality and lifestyle, despite the fact that we joined the EU and the eurozone many decades ago. Obviously, we must now do it the hard way in order to survive. So, hard times are here, undoubtedly. It’s going to be rough. Hopes and dreams, though, for the time being are not yet here. I hope they’ll come soon.

A.L. It seems to me that we do not comprehend the seriousness of the situation. We know that something is wrong here but we want to respond to it in our own good time and manner in order to maintain our pride, as we understand it. This might not work in this case.

Are the two cities – New York and Athens – similar in any way?

A.P. Undoubtedly, it’s the same DNA – the DNA of a big city, but New York is a tiger and Athens is a cat.

A.L. Athens has been the kind of place that New York is now. Democracy, arts, science and business have been elements of human life that the city of Athens promoted a few thousand years earlier, with great results too, I think. As to what happens now I would add to the idea of Achilles that cats can also turn out very nasty.

Your work seems to convey an individual-centered interpretation of history, in the sense that it’s people who make history. Is that so?

A.L. I will refer to “The Stylistics” a 70’s band from Philly and to their song titled “People Make The World Go Round”. New York is all about the people and if this comes through as an idea in our work then I can say with satisfaction that we succeeded.

A.P. Who else makes history? In fact, I think that only people do. And what is history? It’s what people face in their everyday life, their feelings, their hopes, their fears. That’s raw history and that’s what we’ve captured in this documentary.

The full Monty

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

“I like the idea of living your work, writing your life. My life is like a text I can endlessly correct,” Bernard-Henri Levy said in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Joan Juliet Buck some years ago.

He could definitely do with some whiteout right now.

France’s star philosopher, with his trademark unbuttoned white shirts, has really embarrassed himself this time. In his latest book, “De la guerre en philosophie” (Of War in Philosophy), Levy takes potshots at 18th-century German heavyweight Immanuel Kant calling him, among others, “raving mad” and a “fake.”

To add to his firepower, Levy, known in France by his initials BHL, employs the devastating critique of Jean-Baptiste Botul — more specifically of his lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, where Botul once and for all debunks their hero as “an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance.”

Save for one little problem: Botul is no more real than a Greek budget surplus. Botul, the intellectual founder of Botulism and writer of, well, “The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant,” is a fabrication of Frederic Pages, a French journalist. Far from unbuttoned, the emperor appeared to be wearing no clothes at all.

It’s hard to see how BHL fell for this one, given that even Wikipedia describes Botul as a fictional French philosopher. Still, Levy tried to put on a brave face. “As it turns out, it was a hoax. It was a truly brilliant and very believable hoax,” the author said last week. “Hats off for this invented-but-more-real-than-real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pages or John Smith, seems to be in harmony with my idea of a Kant who was tormented by demons that were less theoretical than it seemed.”

But few people would buy that one.

Leaving his bedroom habits aside, biographers agree that Kant lived a rather mundane life. He was born, lived and died in Konigsberg, a Prussian university town that is now Kaliningrad, Russia. He was so regular in his habits, legend has it, that locals used to set their clocks by his afternoon walk.

BHL, on the other hand, is not exactly what you call low-profile. With his wind-swept hairstyle, golden tan and designer suits, Levy is the modern-day reincarnation of left-bank philosophers, that peculiarly French breed of celebrity thinker. Before turning into a regular fixture on France’s TV panels and Paris Match weekly, Levy was the founder and main voice of France’s “nouveaux philosophes,” an anti-communist and unusually pro-American movement in the 1970s.

His media savviness, perceived hollowness and narcissist know-it-all style have won him many enemies, including late philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Gilles Deleuze. BHL is probably what inspired sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s bashing of “les fast thinkers,” the instant experts endlessly parading on the nation’s television sets.
In their book “Une Imposture Francaise” (A French Imposter), journalists Nicolas Beau and Olivier Toscer paint an elaborate profile of BHL; and it’s not a very flattering one: “A philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible and the totally false, a patchwork filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre, he is the icon of a media-driven society in which simple appearance weighs more than the substance of things. BHL is thus first and foremost a great communicator, the PR man of the only product he really knows how to sell: himself.”

Not surprisingly, his enemies prefer to call him BHV after France’s department store: It has something for everyone.

Worse, perhaps, Levy has been accused of cozying up to socialists (Francois Mitterrand) and conservatives (Nicolas Sarkozy) alike, depending on the political zeitgeist, partly in order to push the career of his feline actress wife Arielle Dombasle, whether as head of the commission for the promotion of French cinema or, later, as president of the state-owned Arte network.

So many were delighted with BHL falling for the prank, even though it was not directed against him. In that sense, it was different when author William Boyd pulled a scam in the late-90s with the aim of exposing the pretensions of the art world’s glitterati. For years, Boyd had been crafting the portrait of Nat Tate, a supposedly talented albeit forgotten American painter. A friend of Pablo Picasso and a lover of Peggy Guggenheim, an abstract expressionist suffering from depression, Tate killed himself at the age of 31 after destroying all, or in fact (pun intended) “99 percent,” his work.

On the eve of April Fools’ Day of 1998, Boyd launched his biography of Tate by throwing a party that attracted the typical New York art crowd. He was not alone in the trick. David Bowie read extracts from the book which included endorsements by Picasso biographer John Richardson and author Gore Vidal — “an essential dignified drunk with nothing to say,” the latter recalled on the dust jacket. The funny thing is more people that night recalled their own meetings with Tate.

Ironically, Kant held that we cannot grasp the world as it really is; we can only know the things as they appear to us — yet it’s doubtful that BHL or other prank victims will turn to the German for comfort.

Poor Levy, would have been better off trusting the words of Monty Python instead: “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant, who was very rarely stable.”

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