Shortly after school ended, The Boy and I took a trip to Paris and Amsterdam. I’ll eventually get around to posting more of our travels, but this was easily a highlight if not the highlight.
Lonely Planet guidebooks are wonderful. Without them we never would have found Electric Ladyland and the absence of that experience would certainly have been a great poverty in our lives. With that said, I’m not sure the book fully prepared me for what I was walking into. Because I almost grabbed The Boy’s hand and walked away in the other direction quickly, without looking back.
Let me explain. Lonely Planet Amsterdam billed Electric Ladyland as “The World’s First Museum of Fluorescent Art.” It’s located in the Jordaan, which was easily my favorite part of the city with its rosebushes and quiet, winding streets.
The address provided by Lonely Planet led us to a tiny storefront with nobody at home. The door was open, unlocked, and we pushed it open tentatively. A man with impressive facial hair appeared. In a gruff voice of indeterminate accent, he instructed us to take off our shoes. He led us to a hole in the floor at the back of the shop and indicated we should descend, but be careful of the “very Dutch” stairs. Stairs was a massive overstatement. It was a glorified ladder.
It was at this moment that I began to wonder how being barefoot could potentially inhibit my escape abilities. Electric Ladyland seemed less like a museum and more like… some random bearded dude’s basement. But then I saw what was down there.
The bearded man is Nick Padalino, an American ex-pat and the sole owner, curator, and tour guide of the museum. Electric Ladyland is split into three parts. On one side of the basement you have the more “museum-y” aspects: his personal collections of organic and manmade fluorescent materials. All of these things look totally mundane in normal light, but once you’re ready Mr. Padalino flicks off the overheads and breaks out the blacklights.
“Organic materials” essentially means rocks. Apparently New Jersey is the Fluorescent Capital of the World, where exists the highest volume of these glowing minerals. If you’re so inclined, Mr. Padalino can give you some good advice about where to go rock-hunting in The Garden State.
Among the manmade materials you have things like paints and different kinds of glass, as well as various government-issue, high security materials like stamps, money and passports. In those cases fluorescence is used as counterfeit-prevention. Unfortunately, I cannot put those pictures on the internet for fear of federal retribution but if you have a blacklight handy you should take a look.
Mr. Padalino also has an awesome collection of retro artwork from the (mostly unheard of) fluorescent art movement of the 50s. Some of these are done with paints but others were made by crushing up different kinds of fluorescent rocks for a mosaic-y, sand art-ish technique.
As lovely and fascinating as those collections are, the real star of the show is on the other side of the room. This is what Mr. Padalino calls the “participatory” portion of the tour, and it’s what I saw at the bottom of the “stairs” that stopped me from bolting.
It’s a little hard to tell from the picture, but the sculpture (Mr. Padalino’s own) is approximately 7 feet tall x 12 feet wide. Museum-goers are invited to move around the structure freely, touching anything. There are many different parts to the sculpture: a stalactite pool, a crystal shrine, and endless tiny treasures are tucked into nooks and crannies, so easy to overlook.
My favorite, “The Crack between the Worlds”
My other favorite piece is “The Reactor,” a waist-high, hollow dome on the left-hand side. The surface of the dome is covered with peepholes made from different kinds transparent material. A drinking glass, for example, or a backwards pair binoculars. Peering through the each peephole gives you a different perspective on the scene inside the dome, which includes more shrines and a gorgeous piece of glowing fluorite.
I love this sculpture because it is so beautiful and fun, as well as deeply original and personal. Absolutely evident throughout my experience was the care, love, and attention that went into the construction of this magnificent structure. I recommend taking a look at Nick Padalino’s website, which includes a detailed guide to his sculpture and all of the dazzling mythology and wonder that he has managed to incorporate.
As we left the museum, I stopped to chat with Mr. Padalino for a second. I had been very profoundly affected by my time in the museum, and I was eager to repeat the experience. I asked if he had any other large format sculptures. He said no, and after a thoughtful moment added that he didn’t think he’d ever want to make another. He’d spent twelve years constructing the one in the basement and he felt as though he’d said what he needed to say. Respect.