Houston is stiflingly hot and humid in the summer. The city is sprawling, like Los Angeles but without Hollywood. The public transportation is lacking, so I need to drive 40 minutes to travel to a different place in Houston. Also, drivers here rarely use turn signals and drift out of their lanes. The good news is, there is ample parking everywhere. Property is plentiful and cheap. And the city is surprisingly green.
I’ve biked around downtown, Hermann Park, Discovery Green, Buffalo Bayou. I’ve surveyed downtown from the tops of different skyscrapers, ate at local favorites. And I’ve visited local attractions, both popular and obscure. Here’s my thoughts on them.
The main gallery is closed this year. We visited the satellite buildings, which featured works by modern artists that I am not particularly fond of. There are so many artists with more talent, but less fame.
First up was an uninspired neon light installation by Dan Flavin.
Next, we visited the Rothko Chapel, a dark, moody, octagonal space. The walls had Rothko paintings, and in typical Rothko style, the canvas was completely covered with black paint and nothing else. I’m sure someone would tell me to notice the different strokes and depths, the hypnotic effect of staring into a monocolor canvas. But to me, this is grasping for enlightenment where there is none.
Another gallery featured the works of Cy Twombly. There were large canvases of blank space and blotches of color overlain with moody poetry.
My favorite gallery was the Fabiola room, renditions of the same portrait of a shawled woman done by different artists, some amateurs, some experienced. The media varied: acrylic, beads, wood carving, stained glass.
The Houston Zoo
The Houston Zoo brought out my inner child. There were elephants caking their sensitive skin in mud. Warthogs frolicked by a stream. Indoor spaces brought the sweet relief of air conditioning.
The most exciting event at the zoo was a spontaneous, violent episode. A bird flew into the bobcat’s cage. The bobcat pounced, rendering the bird unable to fly. When the bird flailed or twitched, the bobcat would swat at it.
The aquarium is by far the most depressing place in Houston. Huge fish are in comically small tanks. There’s no room for the fish to swim, so they just hover in place. The eels coil themselves because the tanks are too small to fully stretch. Perplexingly, at the end of the linear aquarium route, there is a white tiger. But there’s nothing natural in its enclosure– no grass, no dirt, just concrete, stone, and a wading pool.
I took a tour of NASA’s campus. They raise Texas longhorns on their property. There are bikes scattered about that any employee can use. I saw Mission Control, where staff famously heard the line, “Houston, we have a problem.” The docent gave a rousing speech on the historical significance of Mission Control and the importance of space travel.
There is a replica of the shuttle, Independence, and the oversize plane used to transport it.
In the Rocket Park, the ginormous Saturn V rocket is housed.
At the boardwalk, lanky birds dive-bombed into the water. There was an amusement park. I rode the train, a dizzying spinning ride, the ferris wheel. I sat in the backseat on one of those rides that swings back-and-forth like a pendulum. Whenever the carriage swung backwards so that we were perpendicular to the ground, I felt as though I would fall out.
Museum of Natural Science
The museum was new, well-lit, superbly staged. The highlight for me was the prehistoric sloth, larger and stronger than a bear, able to fling a saber-toothed tiger with its massive arms. Its skeleton towered over me. What a contrast to modern-day sloths!
There was a pendulum that kept the time. Blocks surrounded the pendulum in a circle. After minutes of teasing the audience with near-misses, a block was knocked over, and everyone cheered.
Given all the local oil companies, there was a floor dedicated to energy and resources extraction, featuring immersive rides and projections. Information is presented without political commentary; for example, one display explains how fracking works with no mention of any controversy.
The Health Museum
The current exhibition features interactive art pieces on sound and the body. For example, there was a bed with speakers embedded in it. Anyone lying in the bed would feel the deep bass vibrating through their bones.
Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum had a large collection of classical European and Asian art. There was a two-story bamboo structure that looked like a giant nest. People could walk through it, though traffic was rather slow on account of all the septuagenarians taking selfies.
The hall connecting the two buildings had an installation by my favorite artist, James Turrell, who used light to create the illusion of walls where there were none.
The sculpture garden had an upper area that afforded a view of the surrounding blocks. Among the sculptures was a mirrored bean, Cloud Column, also by Anish Kapoor who made Chicago’s Cloud Gate. But Houston’s bean is vertical, raised on a pedestal, smaller, and less amenable to taking selfies, so that’s probably why I had never heard of it.
Contemporary Arts Museum
I was not particular impressed by the current exhibitions. There were canvasses with cheeky phrases painted on them, such as a row of paintings that each said “stop copying me.”
I biked along the bayou, and I could not help but smile at a duck speed-waddling towards me on the trail. Instead of mallard ducks, there are muscovy ducks, black and white-bodied with red bills. The strangely colored ducks are another reminder that I’m in the South.
Buffalo Bayou Cistern
The cistern was an underground water reservoir. Now the dark, moody space is used for art shows. When the perimeter lighting is shut off, the water is a perfect mirror, so that it appears the pillars are stacked on top of the reflected pillars. When we let out a yell, the echo reverberated for about 15 seconds.
The current art exhibit by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Spatial Chromointerference, felt absolutely surreal. The artist projected colors and stripes. White cubes floated in the water.
The Galleria is an upscale mall. At night, the palm trees lining the roads are lit with Christmas lights, and the gentrified neighborhood makes me feel like I’m back in California.
Art Car Museum
Elaborately decorated cars are on display in the museum, on loan from the artists. The cars are fully functional, and covered in all kinds of flea-market finds.