The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
OCEAN OF PEARLS
In the six months since the last–and first–edition of our newsletter, the level of activity at the Vilcek Foundation has increased dramatically. We see this as a clear indication we are well on our way to accomplishing the overarching goals Jan and Marica Vilcek identified in 2001 when they founded the organization, as well as nearer-term objectives we set last April.
As we planned and hoped for, the completion of our new headquarters on East 73rd Street gave us the ideal venue–in terms of both space and ambience–to expand the scope of our programs and events calendar. We are pleased to already have welcomed many of you to film screenings, panel discussions, and artist exhibitions.
But more important than the number of events, and even the diversity in the range of our offerings, is the quality of their content–especially as they lend credence to the importance of our mission, to increase public awareness of the contributions of immigrants to the sciences, arts, and culture in the United States. When experienced firsthand, the brilliance and creativity–in concert with the tenacity–of this too-often underappreciated sector of our population, there can be no doubt how much this country owes to the foreign born who have chosen to come here to live and work.
In October, I was privileged to gain greater insight into the experiences and talents of a very special group of foreign-born artists when I traveled to Honolulu to attend the 2008 Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF), an organization whose objectives complement our own. I was especially pleased to be on hand for the preview of one of our programs, "American Immigrant Filmmakers on Profile" (AIFP).
In this second edition of the Vilcek Foundation Newsletter, you'll learn more about the AIFP program, which has its New York City preview this month at our headquarters. I hope reading the article will encourage you to join us for one or more of the screenings, held November 12-18. Admission is free of charge, though we do ask you to call and reserve your seat(s).
We've already showcased two other fascinating films earlier this fall, which you'll read about here, too. One, The GateKeeper of Enmyoin, is a documentary about a ninety-five-year-old female priest in a male-dominated Buddhist sect. The other, Learning from Bob & Denise, describes the professional life of 2007 Vilcek Prize winner Denise Scott Brown and her husband and business partner, Robert Venturi.
The sciences are represented in this edition of the newsletter by biologist Michele Pagano, who conducts research into cell division–in particular, how it relates to the growth of cancer cells. I think you'll find his approach to his work, as well as to his status as an immigrant, compelling.
Finally, you'll read about Hongsock Lee, the sculptor and jewelry designer awarded a commission by the Vilcek Foundation to produce an artwork for permanent installation on our rooftop terrace. When you come to attend one of the film screenings or other upcoming events, be sure to venture upstairs for a look.
Until then, I look forward to hearing what you think about the newsletter or any of our programs and events.
A Sikh doctor, desperate to fit in at his prestigious new job at an American hospital, forsakes his integrity, along with the traditions of his culture and religion. When the compromises he makes result in the death of a favorite patient, he turns to confront the self he rejected.
A highly ranked Samoan chief drives a taxi in Honolulu, trying to outrun a past he believes cost the life of his young daughter in his ancestral village. Going in circles day after day, he eventually arrives back where he started.
Those are just two of the six compelling storylines told in the films chosen for inclusion in the Vilcek Foundation's "American Immigrant Filmmakers on Profile" (AIFP) program, which has its New York City premiere November 12–18 at the Foundation's headquarters, following a successful run at the 2008 Hawaiian International Film Festival (HIFF), in October. The first, Ocean of Pearls, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature Film at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival; the second, Chief, won Best Dramatic Short Award at the same event.
AIFP is part of the Foundation's year-long arts focus on filmmaking, which will culminate on April 2, at the annual gala, when the 2009 Vilcek Prize and the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in the Arts will both be awarded to immigrant filmmakers working in the United States. Rick Kinsel, Executive Director of the Vilcek Foundation, said, "The filmmakers chosen for this program exemplify not only the great value of immigrant contributions to this country's culture, but also serve as a testament to the ability of film to expand our understanding and appreciation for the unique and diverse stories and experiences of immigrants."
Developed in partnership with HIFF, "American Immigrant Filmmakers on Profile" has a twofold purpose: to showcase the work of talented foreign-born directors and actors–this year, representing Cambodia, China, India, Samoa, and Vietnam–and to advance the complementary missions of the Foundation and HIFF. The Vilcek Foundation works to increase public awareness about the contributions of immigrants to art and culture in the United States, and HIFF seeks to increase understanding and cultural exchange among the peoples of Asia, the Pacific, and North America through the medium of film.
In elaborating on the collaboration between the two organizations, Kinsel said, "Historically, New York City has been a major point of entry for immigrants; the city's culture has been undeniably shaped by its multiethnic background–indeed, it cannot be separated from it. Similarly, today, Hawaii serves as a major gateway for immigrants, primarily from Asia and the South Pacific. It has become America's only truly multiethnic state, encompassing more than forty different groups, none of which is a majority. Together, HIFF and the Vilcek Foundation can shine a bright light on the importance of the immigrant influence on this country, past, present, and future"
The four other films on the 2008 AIFP program line-up include Vietnam Overtures, a documentary about the rescue of the centuries-old classical music tradition in Vietnam; Prince of the Himalayas, an intriguing adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Tibetan landscape; Someplace Else, a moving self-portrait of director Kai-Duc Luong's journey through the blues, his own personal version and the music of famed soul-blues singer, Vance "Candylicking" Kelly; and Long Story Short, a daughter's film record of the lives of her parents, a pioneering Asian American vaudevillian couple of the forties and fifties.
Visit www.vilcek.org for more information on the films and the artists behind and in front of the camera, and to reserve tickets (free of charge). All film screenings will be followed by a Q&A session with the directors and/or lead actors.
A seven-year-old girl, Teijun Ogawa, is given by her family to a Shingon Buddhist temple. Entirely cut off from her family, she does much more than survive; she triumphs, to become a niso (female priest), a rare achievement in this male-dominated Buddhist sect. Over time, she single-handedly builds her own temple, Enmyoin, in southwestern Japan, and as she reaches the end of her long life, is empowered enough to choose her own successor–another woman, Seijun Baba. Some eighty years later, a third woman, Reiko Tahara, a Japanese filmmaker, seeks out the remarkable Teijun, in hopes the elder's extraordinary journey can provide some insight into her own, as she struggles to balance her roles as an immigrant, wife, mother, and artist. But Teijun steadfastly refuses to address the gender issue, raising more questions and surfacing some disturbing revelations.
That is the intriguing backdrop to the documentary The GateKeeper of Enmyoin, which was shown in New York for the first time at the Vilcek Foundation on September 30 and October 1 and 2, and sparked a lively exchange during the Q&A session that followed the screening.
Told through Reiko's voice, the film–nine years in the making–weaves interviews with members of the Shingon sect and its parishioners together with the stories of the three women, Teijun, Seijun, and Reiko. Footage of the symbolic mountain gate and the stairs at Enmoyin Temple lend an ethereal quality to the themes, as does the soundtrack, composed by Reiko's husband, Max Uesugi, who also co-produced and co-directed the film. Reiko explained the importance of the staircase and the gate: "[They] reflect the life of Teijun. It was a gateway from her world to ours." And Max described his goal for the music, which was to accommodate the chanting. "I tried not to bother it," he said, simply, adding, "I wanted to include everything with the melody; I wanted it all to have meaning and to give depth to the storytelling."
Reiko first learned of Teijun and Seijun, as well as the intricacies of Shingon Buddhism, while on a visit with Max to his hometown, in Tamano-city, Okayama where his family had been long-time parishioners of Enmyoin Temple. He recalls seeing Teijun at his house chanting, but he had never had a personal conversation or relationship with her. But when seen through Reiko's eyes, he began to take a new view on his past. "I grew up with Buddhism, said Max, "and it was all natural to me. But when Reiko [a Tokyo native] came into my family, it was very different–it was as if she learned Buddhism from a book and now saw its reality." As the stories of the three women unfolded, Reiko said, "We kept pondering, what's happiness, what's freedom? In this film, I tried to put one of these endless cycles of self-questioning into shape through looking at Teijun's life."
Audience members, too, were clearly pondering questions of their own after seeing GateKeeper. Fortunately, they had the opportunity to ask those questions and share their reactions with the filmmakers themselves, who were on hand for the panel discussion, as was Seijun, Teijun's successor at Enmyoin. (Teijun died before the film was complete.) The Q&A was moderated by Deborah Howard, the language consultant on the film.
Reiko expressed the hope that the discussion would mark the beginning of an ongoing dialogue, saying, "We had a very emotional conversation with Seijun after she saw the film for the first time. I hope it will continue to evolve organically." To Seijun, the film was "Reiko and Max's story about the temple, and parts of it are different from my actual realities of life."
As expected, viewers were captivated by the unique subject matter of GateKeeper, in particular the issue of womanhood and the politics of the Shingon sect. Marek Lis, for one, said he found the film to be enlightening on several levels. "This was a beautiful and profound story. It was so interesting to see this culture. What I liked most was that I was both gratified and disappointed. Despite the culture, all the human frailties were still there–the jealousies that are found in every community."
Yoshinobu Yonekawa, a member of the United Nations and a Buddhist, also commented on the complexity of the subject, noting, "The film clearly illustrates the multiple aspects of personality of Buddhism in Japan, such as local politics among temples and the policy of the Shingon sect towards women. The biggest challenge we need to overcome is to revive the spirits of the founders, and this film gives innocence and encouragement to start this restoration."
The future of Enmyoin Temple appears to be in good hands. Seijun is planning to restore the main temple, as well as the mountain gate, which was accidentally torn down by a piece of machinery. "For any temple, the gate and main temple are extremely important," she emphasized. "The temple is where the souls of the dead live and rest, and where their families can find peace."
Fittingly, Seijun made the closing remarks to the evening, by way of offering her philosophy on restoring the human spirit: "All human beings, from birth, possess a quality called bussho. It is like a diamond that exists in your heart, and as you live and encounter events such as jealousy, it stops shining. To realize you have bussho, and to polish it and take care of it: this is the shortcut to enlightenment."
The GateKeeper of Enmyoin, which premiered in Honolulu at the 2007 Hawaii International Film Festival, is currently being distributed by the filmmakers; it is available for purchase at www.mrex.org.
Photos © Claudio Papapietro
Some fifty hearty souls braved a steady downpour on September 26, 2008, to attend a preview of Learning From Bob & Denise, a feature-length documentary about two of the most influential architects and thinkers of the twentieth century, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, winner of the 2007 Vilcek Prize in the Arts. Hosted by the Vilcek Foundation, the film explores the groundbreaking and often controversial views of this husband-and-wife team, partners in the Philadelphia firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.
Produced and directed by the couple's son, James Venturi, the film will be a tribute to his parents, whose design philosophy, theoretical writings, and teachings marked them as outsiders, challengers to the status quo–the so-called modern idiom. Using interviews with architects, historians, and critics–among them, Fred Schwartz, Vincent Scully, Paul Goldberger, and Ada Louise Huxtable–mixed with archival footage and photographs, Jim Venturi presents a balanced account of his parents' pioneering approach to urban planning, architecture, and teaching. The film, he said, "is about Bob and Denise as innovators, and as outsiders. There is Bob. There is Denise. And then there is Bob and Denise. They have a synergetic effect on each other."
Although the film will focus primarily on the professional lives of the couple, it does not shirk from addressing some of the more troubling aspects of their personal lives, in particular that of Scott Brown's experiences as an immigrant to the United States and as a Jew and a woman, forced to cope with both anti-Semitism and sexism. As late as 1991, for example, when Robert Venturi was awarded the Pritzer Architecture Prize, often referred to as "architecture's Nobel," Scott Brown went unacknowledged.
Following the screening, a panel made up of Jim Venturi, architects Fred Schwartz and Harry Bolick, and sociologist Harvey Molitch expanded on the ideas and topics covered by the film. A theme of special interest was sexism. Schwartz commented, "There is overwhelming sexism in architecture. The fact that Bob was awarded the Pritzer Prize and she was left out of it completely–there is something very wrong with that." Jim put it more bluntly: "Women [in architecture] were swept under the carpet."
Also much talked about was Robert Venturi's and Denise Scott Brown's famous 1972 book, coauthored with Steven Izenour, called Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, from which the film takes its title. The book reveals the results of studies of the Las Vegas Strip conducted in 1970 by members of a research and design studio taught by Venturi and Scott Brown at the Yale School of Architecture and Planning. Considered revolutionary, the book called attention to the "ugly and ordinary" buildings and iconography that predominated on the Strip in the 1970s. Now, more than 35 years later, even though the Strip they wrote about no longer exists, the opinions and ideas Venturi and Scott Brown expressed at the time continue to inform the work of architects and urban planners today.
As panelist Harry Bolick said, "Their endurance is inspiring; their humanity is remarkable." Harvey Molitch agreed: "It is a tall order to ask someone to be inventive, groundbreaking, radical. It is extraordinary that it ever happens. Bob and Denise's insights are still radical and their techniques are just beginning to be understood." Audience member Patricia Tees added, "I was fascinated; I am old enough to remember when Learning From Las Vegas was making waves. It was very stimulating to see the emotions stirred up among the panelists."
Whether or not Venturi and Scott Brown, who continue to live and work together in Philadelphia, regard themselves as radicals today might be answered in their more recent book, published in 2004, Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time. In the Introduction, Venturi writes: "An architect was heard to observe, after one of our recent lectures, that we had not had a new idea in forty years. ... I have come to realize that what he said might be partly right, and not totally bad. Denise and I have had a few ideas, not a lot, and not completely new, but we hope they were good ideas. They have evolved over time, rather than changed with the fashions. We have not tried to bring out something new every month. Rather, we have acknowledged evolution as well as revolution within the development of architecture and its ideas."
Photos © Althea Yau
For many immigrants, the concept of home is often cause for personal conflict, sometimes long after they have settled in their adopted countries. Not so for biologist Michele Pagano, who has found a universal home in academia no matter where in the world he has lived. As careful about the words he chooses to describe his personal experiences as he is about the highly sophisticated research he conducts on cell division, Pagano is reluctant to use the word "immigrant" in relation to himself, preferring to think of himself as a citizen of the world. He has found it particularly easy to adapt to New York City, where he believes most people can feel at home. "Everything they left behind is here. It is a very familiar city; you have seen it so many times in movies, so it is 'in you' at a subliminal level." Certainly Pagano's sense of "world citizenship" is enhanced by his current work environment. The Pagano Laboratory, part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, at the Department of Pathology and New York University Cancer Institute, is staffed by members from Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, China, Israel, Argentina, Korea, Pakistan, and the United States.
At the laboratory, Pagano and his team are carrying on the kind of basic scientific research that has captivated him since he was a child–though it would seem anything but "basic" to the average layperson. This penchant put him on a different path from his father, a clinician. Instead, Pagano has always been drawn to the logical and linear thought processes involved in research. He does not hold with the current philosophy that all research be dictated and directed by the pressure to produce practical applications. The danger of that approach, he believes, is that it can lead to "mediocre translational research"– as mediocre, basic research cannot be converted into anything other than superficial practical applications. Instead, solid, basic research needs to drive and spur the translational aspect of the work. In fact, Pagano's first goal appears to be knowledge (rather than a product), with his primary directive being the exploration of human cells to discover their basic principles. Of course, he hopes that his work and that of his colleagues will one day contribute to human health, but, "honestly, this cannot be the only incentive," he says. The search for knowledge can represent a common currency for both basic and clinical scientists committed to understanding why the human body and mind do not work properly in human diseases.
That is why Pagano feels especially comfortable in, and grateful to, the research environment in the United States. Here, the amount of investment dedicated to science enables research institutions to attract the best minds, and at the same time, the less hierarchical nature of the universities encourages a healthy competitiveness. In the typical American university, Pagano points out, assistant professors run their own labs and conduct independent research, enabling them to work on a greater variety of problems and to claim greater ownership of their work. In contrast, he describes a university science department in his native Italy as resembling one large lab, in which the head professor oversees all research and the assistant professors have little autonomy.
Pagano also chooses carefully the words he uses to explain the specifics of his research to most people, having learned firsthand how difficult it is to simplify such complex science yet avoid making it sound trivial. When he was younger, in certain circumstances, when he realized the futility of trying, he opted instead to invoke a fictional persona, such as saying he was a palm reader or an Italian ranchero. The reality is much more intriguing, even if the details are not always easy to understand. Pagano investigates the mechanisms of cell division and the abnormalities that occur in this process. Cancer cells, in particular, multiply uncontrollably, and Pagano seeks to identify the enzymes involved in controlling the degradation of tumor suppressor proteins. To that end, his laboratory uses an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates cellular biology, mouse genetics, and biochemical methods. He and his staff "have begun to integrate basic research with an understanding of malignant transformation, [and they] anticipate that the results of these studies will have a broad impact in both basic science and translational cancer biology."
Michele Pagano, a native of Napoli, Italy, received his MD and research degree in Molecular Endocrinology from the Federico II University there. He was subsequently a postdoctoral fellow at the Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, where he began studying cell division. In 1993, he made a brief foray into the corporate environment when he followed his former boss to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work at Mitotix, Inc., a biotechnology company founded to discover and develop products to diagnose and treat cancer and other diseases. It was a defining experience for him, in that he learned he was most happy and effective working in an academic environment; so, in 1997, he joined the NYU School of Medicine, Department of Pathology, to pursue his long-term research goals. Today, Pagano is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the May Ellen and Gerald Jay Ritter Professor of Oncology and Deputy Director of the NYU Cancer Institute, at the NYU School of Medicine.
Since the opening of the Vilcek Foundation's new headquarters building last June, visitors have enjoyed completing their tour of the landmark carriage house on East 73rd Street by stepping outside onto the rooftop terrace. But something was missing. Throughout the building, Jan and Marica Vilcek's interest in and support of the arts is apparent–from various selections on display from the couple's own collection to changing exhibits that bring the work of immigrant artists to the attention of the general public. But on the rooftop terrace the only artwork was the streetscape–what the eye could see looking out and beyond. That all changed on October 6, 2008, when "Complementary Geometry," a three-part sculpture by South Korean-born artist Hongsock Lee, was installed permanently in the welcoming space.
Awarding the commission to Hongsock "was in perfect harmony with our mission of supporting foreign-born artists," said Marica Vilcek. Of particular relevance, she added, was Hongsock's willingness "to immerse himself in an environment that fosters an open-ended dialogue that is the wellspring from which meaningful new art can emerge." His work is inspired by geometry and nature, often featuring angular shapes and streamlined forms.
For the artist, the opportunity was one he had been dreaming about since coming to this country, for although he has earned a reputation–and his living–as a jewelry designer, Hongsock Lee wants to be known primarily as a sculptor. Fortunately, the one is leading to the other, for it was his jewelry creations that ultimately led to the Vilcek commission: it was while leafing through some craft magazines that Rick Kinsel, Executive Director of the Foundation, first learned of Hongsock.
Hongsock created "Complementary Geometry" during his recent stint as Artist in Residency at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he had access to one of the best-equipped sculpture studios among such programs, where he was trained to use a pneumatic forging hammer, a pipe bender, and a plasma cutter. Ce Scott, Director of Residencies and Exhibitions at the McColl Center, recalls "picking up a few of Lee's small sculptures (3 to 5 inches tall) and saying to him, 'I can see these being 3 to 5 feet tall.'" In response, Scott remembers, "Hongsock laughed and said that he would like to try, but wasn't sure how or where to begin." Nevertheless, he did begin, working almost nonstop, says Scott, on a series of large-scale sculptures in steel, which he eventually had painted a coal black.
In "Complementary Geometry" traits of Hongsock's jewelry designs can be seen, but they become more architectural at that scale. The individual units comprising the work are fabricated of 10-gauge mild steel (1/8-inch) using Tig welding, and colored with a powder coating. Hongsock says he chose to produce three sculptures because "the number three is the most beautiful and important number, indicating our past, present, and future."
Hongsock Lee received his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Kon-Kuk University, where he studied metallurgy and discovered his talent for goldsmithing and silversmithing. He earned his Master of Fine Arts with Honors from the Rhode Island School of Design. His work has been showcased in many exhibitions, including SOFA Chicago, the Smithsonian Museum Craft Show, and the Palm Beach International Sculpture Biennale. He has won numerous awards including the Award of Excellence in Metalwork at the Bellevue Art Fair in 2007 and the Award of Excellence for Display at the American Craft Council Baltimore Show in 2006. He lives with his wife and son in Providence, Rhode Island.
Photos © Paul Temmerman