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Friday, 23 December 2011

A Poetry of Light

If it becomes necessary at the end of the year to become retrospective, then it is Tacita Dean's colossal film in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern that I will choose for my meditative space. This reel of flickering light is what I will picture in my mind's eye as I reflect upon the year of art.

The year has ended with a confessional of denouncers of video-art; Charles Saatchi dismissed it in his attack on the art world, and Waldemar Januszczak added 'please no more video art' to his Christmas wishlist, using Dean's giant film as the most irksome example of all.

And yet for me Dean's film is a beautiful tribute to a passion for her medium. Pure visual luxury. A poetry of light. A series of hypnotic images spliced together, saturating and shifting through filters. Uniquely accessible above all, not elaborately conceptualised or filled with the cold intellectualism which makes video art only briefly bearable. There is only a soft murmur above the film's visual soundtrack and tones of silence. The delicious hush of a captive audience.

In the Turbine Hall, dark except for the warm, drowsy luxuriance of Dean's video, there is something of the cinema. People sit on the floor in perfect silhouettes. Children totter up to the screen only to be shooed away again. The best manifestations of the Turbine commission are about interaction, have the power to transform the vacuous space into theatre and theme park.

It has the melancholy of obituary about it; Dean is painfully aware that her medium is dying even as she celebrates its richest qualities. Yet there is a joyous buoyance too; growth and regeneration, giant balls float gently in the Turbine Hall. The Turbine Hall projected onto the Turbine Hall, seems like a generous thank you to the commission itself.

Waldemar ends his Christmas wish list by requesting that at least, there will be a time limit imposed upon video art of 2 minutes maximum. But I sit on the cold floor letting Dean's visual poetry wash over me like the cascades of the waterfall in the film. I could give all my time to its entrancing assault on my senses. For me Dean's films is one of those legendary Turbine commissions, like Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds or Carsten Holler's slide, that I will always be able to say that I saw. It is a lyrical affirmation of the importance of video art in a year of dissent.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


I am not going to make this another lament about the decline of my blog. Today I went to my favourite charity shop and found treasure.
'For surely they are not only lovely pictures of fragments of a lovely creation, they are patterns of things we all know if we have ever really lived: they are Figures of the True.'
'one never knows where a book may wander'

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


*Please note, the photos are borrowed!*

We arrived in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore as a man and a woman emerged from a trap-door in a grey painted platform beneath the Dome. We took our seats in anticipation as four walls of fans whirred to an exhausted stop and left only an eery silence. We had arrived at Anish Kapoor's Ascension at the beginning of its lunch break. On the Venetian island of San Giorgio there was plenty Biennale to keep us entertained while we waited for Kapoor's installation to siesta: a photography exhibition of Real Venice, an exhibition of developments in tapestries, Penelope's Labour.

At 2.30 there were crowds of people on the white-hot stairs of the Abbazia waiting for the doors to open on Kapoor's miracle. Even if you see the mechanics exposed; the invigilator disappearing to switch on, the fans warming up and Kapoor's ghost struggling towards ascension; the installation retains the quality of miracle. Smoke or mist,spirit or ghost; Anish Kapoor has created the perfect illusion. Installed here in the dome of
San Giorgio's beautiful church it takes the viewer's breath away. A twist of dusty air curls up towards the heavenward cupola; a spirit ascending to the highest heights of religious experience.

Monday, 8 August 2011


On our last night in Venice we left St Mark's after seeing Sting perform. Water had filled the square and was puddling beneath the cathedral. Chains of people splashed through the growing lake as they walked home. We took the ferry along the Grand Canal where the Venetian facades were softly illuminated in the starry dark of La Serenissma. The night waters were rising above the level of the city; crashing against squares where people sat at tables drinking, lapping at the feet of buildings, nudging at doorways. At the steps of the Natural HistoryMuseum a giant crab now floated in the quietly menacing black of the water. I felt the wonder of Venice under threat.

The waters of Venice must have seeped into my imagination and soaked its liquid impression upon me. That night I had a waking dream in which the rippling springs of my mattress metamorphosed into a Traghetto on the unsettled waves, the room was filled with a shimmering blanket of water and our rucksacks became a ferry navigating the narrow passage between the bunk beds. I quietly gasped and pushed my things beneath the bed to make room for its journey. Che bello sogno Venezia! In one night I had become enrapt by La Serenissima's buoyant magic.

The Illuminazioni signs with a map to help you navigate the events.

Being in Venice during the Biennale was fabulous, our wandering of the streets was punctuated by the discovery of pavillions, installations and parallel exhibitions. The black and red signs became beacons. We were travelling across Europe on a budget so we couldn't afford to pay to get into the pavillions at the Arsenale or Giardini but enjoyed tripping up on the smaller, free exhibitions we found. I like to think we found the hidden treasures of the Biennale; the underrated and underappreciated pavillions on the fringes.

Underneath the Palazzo Ducale in the Palazzo delle Prigioni we found the The Heard and Unheard: Soundscape Taiwain. The Sound Library/Bar was one of the highlights of our chance discoveries. Kuo-Chang Liu had collected pieces of furniture from hotels and Karaoke bars in Taiwan and filled the elegant Venetian interior. Beneath the chandelier hanging from the ceiling faded leather armchairs became platforms for Taiwanese music. The circular bar in the centre served sound and video projects and the back room hosted emerging bands. The idea of a 'soundscape' is an exciting and immersive project and it managed to communicate something of popular Taiwan (with artists such as Ming-Chang Chen and Blacklist Studio) as well as an emerging, experimental art scene.

The Taiwanese Pavillion's melding of a stunning Venetian interior with its authentically evocative furnishings perfectly captured the Biennale's success. Modern galleries with their minimal white walls which give Art 'space' can never compete with Venice. Like the waters which seeped into my dream, Venice leaves its impression upon the art, it infects it with its magic.

I had seen Erwin Wurm's Narrow House in Beijing's 798 factory complex, but it looked different in the sunlight on the grass in the gardens of the Glasstress. The illuminated dancers on the Canal would not have had the same waltzy joy if their shadows hadn't glittered on Venice's waters. I wasn't really gasping at the dancers as we passed either, but at the ornate balconied Venetian facade now a kaleidoscope of green, blue, red and yellow windows. I regret not being able to see Song Dong's parents Beijing house transported to the Giardini, but have at least seen something of the atmosphere which the Biennale gives Venice and Venice gives art.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Trains in Europe

Hello! I think it is about time that I returned to the blog for good now that I have graduated and the summer has well and truly arrived. I have just returned from an interrail trip across Europe. My friend and I traveled by train to Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, Lake Bled, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Split, Venice, Verona and Milan. It was an amazing trip and I succeeded in talking my friend into art galleries, exhibitions and Biennale pavilions throughout our European tour. So expect stories very soon. Here a few photographs as a teaser, evidence that there is art everywhere in Europe if your eyes are open.

A pop-up installation of blue sheep in Berlin which had been travelling all over Germany.

Alfons Mucha's stained glass window in St Vitus' Cathedral, Prague.

Medieval carvings in Verona.

Zagreb's answer to the Berlin Wall.

Cloud Arrangers, an exhibition of music photography in Tivoli Park, Ljubljana.

Art Nouveau apothecary in Vienna.

On the roof of the gothic cathedral in Milan.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Precious: Paula Rego and Siobhan Wall, New Hall Art Collection June 5th-July 3rd


Free samples of Natracare tampax and female genital mutilation. For an exhibition in an all girls college within the second largest collection of contemporary women's artwork in the world, the combination of polemic and promotion is awkwardly comic. All ironies aside, this is one of the most exciting exhibitions I have seen at the New Hall Art Collection. Paula Rego, powerful feminist dialogue, political intent...This is the kind of exhibition New Hall should be stripping its grey brick walls for, and which commands a visit.

'Precious has been organised to raise awareness about sexual violence against girls, in particular the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in countries like Ethiopia where WOMANKIND worldwide is active in trying to eliminate this harmful traditional practice...After watching a documentary about FGM, Paula Rego was so affected by what she saw, she produced the series of etchings in this exhibition. A few yeards earlier, Siobhan Wall travelled to Mali and learnt that FGM is still widely practiced in the country...she decided to raise funds for organisations that support attempts to end this traumatic practice.'

Siobhan Wall's paintings are small portraits of African women. They remind me of art therapy projects from communities of silenced women in Africa and of Chris Ofili's watercolours of diversity. They have an understated but powerfully resonant voiec. They remind us of the reality at the root of Rego's elaborated grand narratives. This is the major fault of the exhibition; the disproportionate nature of Rego's etchings and Wall's paintings, only exacerbated by their display on alternate walls. Wall's work needs the cavernous space of pointed silence. Rego's etchings clamour with indignation, they fill all available space, they rupture all silence. I find myself ignoring Wall.

Rego's narrative is etched with a painfully beautiful skill. The legacy of her 'Nursery Rhymes' mean that all her etchings appear to me to be fabulous, fable-like, a complex work of visual storytelling. This is the comfort, the richness of ink, that makes the reality all the more difficult to bear. Rego has created a villain of FGM; starved of voluptuous feminity, wrinkled gourds for breasts, gnashing teeth for a vagina, a living corpse. She is the bogeyman of little girls' nightmares. But worse than this, this is a purposefully female narrative. It is women who perpetrate and perpetuate and perform abuse. Grandmothers, Nannys, Mothers all lead the little girls to their mutilation, restraining and holding their hands over mouths as the little girl's legs are spread, because 'Mother Loves You'. There is no patriarchy or misogyny, none of the expected and accepted forms of oppression.

Any exhibition here is going to suffer from the limits of the exhibition space; the light from fountain court flashes across the picture frames, I have to dance and dodge about to admire the rich depth of Rego's etchings and aquatints, and there is little opportunity to step back and survey in an exhibition which demands our consideration. Stark and sparse; such a bold curatorial statement extrapolates beyond the limits of the narrow corridor.

When I first came to the college it was Rego's etching 'Encampment' locked away in the Fellow's Drawing room that I sought out and coveted as the treasure of the collection. The steely stars glimmer in the sky above, stories are told in the shadows, and fires quietly illuminate the surreal camp of dancing animals and children. Why didn't the New Hall Art collection have more of Rego, I wondered. This exhibition is the one I have waited for, for three years.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Sunday Selections

Time for Sunday Selections again! It seems that this is all I am getting time for! However, I am making a Sunday trip to see a living hand-press today, so some photos might be in order!

These photographs need to be introduced with a little story. It was approaching 3am on our final night in Craiova, Romania, before our holidays. We were in the smoky depths of Pub's Pub crowned with tequila sombreros, dancing and singing, when a student suggested we might get on their 3.30 train to the beach. In a tequila-fuelled panic we rushed home, packed our bags, woke up our friend and fellow traveller and bought the last standing seats on the train to Costinesti. The train was 11 hours long. Without a seat, tripped over like a piece of luggage in the aisle, our adventure began to seem less and less like a good idea.

But it was worth it, for the story and for the memories. These photographs are from the first night when we went to a big concert on the beach to see some Romanian music stars. That is the longest I may have ever gone without sleep and by the end of the show the strobe lights were lulling me in to a dance-floor-dream. I think the strange abstract catches of light recreate the sense of excited exhaustion. It's a shame that so many arms and heads manage to get in the way of the magic.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Sunday Selections

Here is the ebb and flow of my contributions to Kim's Sunday Selections. I felt particularly inspired by her architectural photographs this week, but got distracted by other things when I was looking through my own photographs. Sometimes the devil is in the detail, see something from slightly off-centre and a new perspective emerges. These photographs reveal the strange focus of a trip to Rome. Strange details found at familiar sights. An odd collection of tourist shots.

From the roof of San Pietro the sculptures signal.

Mussolini's name, partially erased from a monument. Still etched in stone if not in red.

The view from Castello d'Angelo across the city of Rome and the headless bust which oversees it.

The stairs in the Vatican.

Crowds at the Trevi Fountain, observed.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Trumpington War Memorial

It has been too long. I have been getting very slack, or perhaps just busy. The dissertations are winding down but I have been sneaking in a few last field trips as a reluctant goodbye. When the sun appeared in the afternoon on Tuesday I cycled to Trumpington in the manic winds. In this small village is a war memorial designed by Eric Gill.

In full view of the incongruous cars I took a few photos on the dying batteries of my camera as I circled the War Memorial. It turned out to be a longer trek into the suburban backs of Cambridge than I had imagined so I made a careful and ponderous loop of the memorial to justify the trip.

It makes me wonder how many monuments and memorials designed by Eric Gill lie forgotten in the unassuming rural fringes of Britain. I wonder now if I have passed sculpture and carved stone without realising what I was seeing, and, if in the future there will be recognition.

My various pilgrimages to seek out the work of Gill have proved how deeply embedded he is within a not so distant, still influential, British culture. The mark of Gill is there on some subconscious level, a lens through which we view sculpture, inscription, typography and architecture.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Book Design

I should be finishing up my first dissertation but I keep reading and this continually opens up new angles. Over the past few days I have been following up a few ideas about the significance of fully-integrated book design in Jones' poem The Anathemata. Part of my argument is that the physical book of The Anathemata becomes a sign in itself, an object which the reader uses to perform an 'anamnesis' , like the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. It suddenly occurred to me that treating the book as a utile sign in itself has its roots in a far deeper history. Gill and Jones were involved with the private printing presses of Hilary Pepler and Robert Gibbings; The St. Dominic's press at Ditchling and The Golden Cockerel Press. Anyway this has led me down the criss-crossing history paths of further research. This further 'research' mostly involves requesting the most beautiful books from the stacks and absorbing every minute detail of its design. I have been reading about the history of these two presses, feeling the quality of its paper choices beneath my fingertips, seeing carefully selected typefaces which have been handset, and perhaps best of all admiring the specially commissioned wood cuts and engravings which revived a dying art.

Eric Gill, Four Gospels

There are two masterworks I have been studying. The first is Eric Gill's Four Gospels for the Golden Cockerel Press. Gibbings gave Gill the typeface as a framework and the engravings grew from this. As I looked through the pages I could sense the perfected unity which this process of working had produced. The letters are interwoven with the designs, so that story and illustration are an integrated and fluent whole.

I am very tempted to take this page and head my dissertation with it, at the moment I have a simple quotation 'In the beginning was the Word [...] The Word made flesh.' but perhaps this invokes so much more?

It is clear from these pages and excerpts the extent to which Gill was experimenting with typography, layout and the relationship between visual and linguistic arrangements of meaning. This is one of the side effects of my dissertation, that suddenly I have this overwhelming appreciation for typography. Typography which once seemed the most incidental of things has become this vessel of resonant meaning.

I read somewhere that copies of Gill's The Four Gospels now sell for around £5000. This moment in the University Library, touching vellum and hand-pressed paper, is the closest I will ever get to such essential perfection!

For David Jones' masterwork of Book Design I looked to the Chester Play of the Deluge which he produced woodcuts for in 1927 for the Golden Cockerel Press. The collaboration with Robert Gibbings on this project enabled him to take more of an interest in layout and to produce woodblocks of an even greater complexity. The engravings are dark, compact knots of energy. They capture the chaos and power of the biblical story of Noah. My attention was directed towards The Deluge mostly because of a scholar called Thomas Dilworth who writes that Jones's Anathemata takes its spatial structure from an artistic development that Jones made in these same woodcuts.

The Deluge, David Jones

Building the Ark, Jones

After the Deluge, Jones

While I agree with Dilworth's description of the spatial structuring in these woodcuts, the point I want to make about David Jones' and his involvement with book design is something very different. But I'm not going to give anything away in that regard...

This remains as a glimpse in to my afternoon of discovery, I hope you have a feel for something significant and exciting in this.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sunday Selections

It feels lovely to decide to return to Kim's Sunday Selections even if in England I find myself a little late. This week I have chosen some photographs from a very vivid memory of a walk in China. One evening I went to get fruit and food from the nearby village. It was a short walk away from the school along a road, through emptiness to the eventual buzz of small, local streets. It was so incredibly humid outside that my camera lens, directed at the hazy scene, immediately was coated in a shiny layer of wetness. This short walk became an intrepid adventure and the poor quality of the photographs capture something of the magic of the feeling, the hesitation and curiosity.

Shop front

Passing cart

Street Scene

Shop Front

Grocery store

Saturday, 12 March 2011


Two months ago I worked at the private view of Lucia Noguiera's exhibition at Kettle's Yard. While serving drinks to Noguiera's beautiful daughter, various essayists, curators and organisers of the exhibition and Cambridge's most cultured crowd I had a few minutes to tour the exhibition. As I left, clutching a copy of the exhibition catalogue, I promised myself that I would return to think about the exhibition properly away from the excitement of the evening. Today I finally followed the promise back to the gallery space of Kettle's Yard.

'My way of thinking is very much from Brazil: my way of picking up objects comes from there too. It is something connected with childhood and also with the Brazilian psyche. Our way of thinking is not as linear as it is in Europe ... In art you obviously have a background in art history that is very rich. We don't have that in Brazil at all ... We just do everything in a very empirical way, even art.'

The gallery has been filled with Mischief now for a long time but the trails of red cord have not lost their sense of play. Noguiera's work asks, what can we do with material? And more pertinently for the current curatorial climate, what can we do with sculpture? As I follow trains of carrier bags, fibres, salvaged furniture and wasted materials the answer continually evades me, disappearing in to a hole in the floorboards or fading in to white wall space. However this is Noguiera's strength. She can lead us on this sculptural dance, this trail of discovery, which leaves cupboard doors ajar and unsettled, but never need offer us that final release. She is the cruel parent who leaves her children hiding in the game of Hide & Seek. Left in the dark alone we begin to doubt our purpose, we forget the point of the game and eventually come out in to the light with only our questions reaffirmed. As Adrian Searle wrote with such precision 'Her work reveals, it does not explain.'

If there was one sculpture which came closest to lucidity, to elucidating, then it was this Untitled sculpture (1989) made from metal, glass lenses and gauze. Through the lens on the left we see nothing more than what is there. In the right lens a deep tunnel has been created, a small glimpse in to the creation of an otherworld. As people view the exhibition they creep up close to the gauze and wire and peer in to this limitless abyss held in the small, round eye of the lens. The two possibilities are juxtaposed; sculpture that means and sculpture that does not. But if we are led towards a clear judgement here how do we apply it to the rest of our experience? The answer is that we can not, there is no one formula for interpretation and comment.

The watercolours were poised in an expert tension with the brutal, barrenness of the sculpture. Bright, fluid shapes performing a dance of a different kind on the walls. Still a search for incidental and intentional forms persists, introducing a new means of mischief and continually stretching the capacity of its audience.