Saturday, 8 August 2015

A is for Cow - The Haus of Helfa Journals (part 1)

It was the 70th anniversary of the atomic blast that levelled Hiroshima.

The sound of the ceremonial peace bell still chimed through the world media.

It somehow seemed fitting that my first visit to the space that I have been allotted in the house, at number 26 Augusta Street, Llandudno, was on this solemn day of remembrance, 6 August... Because, along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firestorm created by the bombings of Dresden ranks as one of the decisive horrors of the Second World War.

RAF Marshall, Arthur William Tedder, 1st Baron Tedder, GCB, 1943
(picture courtesy, Imperial War Museum)
Dresden was suggested as a target for ‘strategic’ bombing by British Air Marshal Arthur W Tedder. This was the same man who was instrumental in devising the grid system for the RAF ‘low-level marking methods’ used to coordinate the carpet bombing so dreadfully showcased during February 1945. It was not only Dresden that burned, the very air in and around the city caught fire. The true number of casualties will never be known, but estimates range around 25,000 with some historians putting the figure much higher and into hundreds of thousands. The destruction of Dresden is often explained as a response to the bombing of Coventry... Number 26 Augusta Street is still locally known as The Tedder House, it was renamed in honour of Arthur W Tedder when it became an RAF servicemen’s club.

The building now stands empty, its interiors hacked back to the brick. Like an evacuated, gutted house evoking the emptiness of those buildings in post-bomb Dresden, or the ground zero monument of Hiroshima.  Now, that emptiness will be challenged by its antithesis: Creativity will transform the inner space once more. This year’s artists in residence are set to occupy those empty rooms and bring the dormant house back to life.

Ghost writer in residence at Haus of Helfa?
I have been placed on the ground floor, where big bay windows let the light stream through into the darkness. The room is a blank page, quite a big blank page. So, can they install a bar? Yes they can!

So what does it mean to be the first writer in residence for Haus of Helfa?

It is all about art.

There are to be twelve ‘artists’ in residence, plus one ‘writer’.

So, is a writer not an artist?

Or, are writers a special type of artist?

What is art, and what is writing?
Label Your Words by Remy Dean (photograph of assemblage, 2015)
Lines drawn with a pencil can be just simply that – nothing more than marks on paper – yet, through some intangible and subtle act of transformation, they can become art… and also, lines written on paper can be just simply that – nothing more than a bunch of words – though a collection of words can somehow become more that their collective meaning, sometimes they may transcend their basic code. A diagram is one thing, a work of art is another. A shopping list is all very practical, a piece of literature is something else. Same tools, same ingredients… different end results.

To confuse matters – a diagram can be elevated in status to become a work of art and a shopping list could become a poem… depending on the skill of the creator, the context in which it is experienced, the intended meanings and the perceived meanings. Something to do with, as Charles Bukowski put it, STYLE, or with what William Blake described as the POETIC GENIUS. The style and poetic genius of the creator or/and the audience.

Artists are dealing with something beyond their means, wrestling or dancing with ideas that cannot be fully expressed by the physical tools at their disposal. They are hinting at something, exploring ideas that cannot, or should not, be fully expressed. A piece of art is on-going, never fully finished. After it leaves the domain of its maker, it continues its journey and begins to consolidate its meanings in the minds of the users – a conversation ensues between the work (and its intended meanings) and the viewer (and what is understood from it)… Art, therefore is a PROCESS.

A butterfly, fluttering across a meadow of summer flowers, its colours flashing in the sunlight, stirs the senses in a way that a pinned specimen in a museum drawer cannot, and the memory of seeing it can be more beautiful than the experience. A few words can evoke that scene in a very similar way as a skilled sketch may do. I just caught a butterfly in my mind and I gave it to you – is your butterfly the same as mine? I think mine was a comma, but its flight was so lively and joyous that I could not be sure.

The pinned specimen was different – a blue variety, and something I can also do is carefully blow the pale dust from its delicate, iridescent wings, unpin it from the display tray and hold it in the palm of my hand. Watch closely and… yes! Its wings tentatively move again, part closing then opening like the pages of a book that will not lay flat. It is delicate and shimmering in the light from the open window, little legs grip the very tip of my finger for a moment before it takes flight, the blue of its wings flashing against the blue of the sky as it flies free and far… we smile, until the bird swoops and takes it. Are we now happy for the bird to have something to feed its nestlings? Or are we saddened that a specimen that had sat in a dark dusty draw for more than a century only got to enjoy its miraculous resurrection and new found freedom for mere moments?

Do not worry, the bird was not really there – I made that bit up – we watched as the butterfly flew away, a diminishing fleck in the vast dome of bright sky… and was gone.

'The Visual Arts' is an often used term of differentiation.

From the very simple butterflies example above, we can see that text and writing are within the visual arts. See what I mean?

A is for 'Cow'
(a manipulated vintage illustration)
Reading, with your eyes, has an obviously visual element, yet in good writing that element vanishes and we see the evoked mind-images, instead of the visual text. Painting and drawing are much more ‘in your face’, yet often it is internal dialogues that have led to the creation of the piece and are then sparked off in the minds of the audience. The image creates words. Many artists will argue that they express only emotion and the response in the viewer is purely emotional – many writers will also claim this – though this is clearly not the case. Art deals with far more than emotions and, probably, if we could sum up everything a piece of art is or does, then it would be reduced to a document and no longer be art.

So, all visual arts are attempting to express something from the artist and elicit responses from the viewer. What differentiates each piece of work is the materials and languages used, and the codes conveyed. Writing began as the drawing of sounds, visually recording those sounds that make up words that are the codes of a language - and through the understanding, or at least an interpretation, of language a meaning is arrived at. Visual art also uses languages, such as theories of form and colour, there are codes, and through the interpretation of those codes a meaning is arrived at. Different interpretations = different meanings.

Let us start at the beginning, when drawing and writing were the same thing...

This meant ‘cow’:
A Cow
We can still understand the visual code here as a simple portrait of a generic 'head of cattle', the broad curve of its horns above the tighter 'U' shape of its head. Originally devised as a means of accounting to keep track of cattle, which were used as currency, and to aid with the introduction of taxation. The glyph was scratched into soft clay, which could be re-wetted and wiped clean for re-use.

“How much does that cow cost?”

“One cow, please.”

“I already have a cow…”

“Well that’s one cow you owe me.”

“Hang on a minute…”

When there arose a need for more permanently accurate records, ones that were harder to tamper with, clay was replaced with stone. It was more difficult to etch curves into harder materials, so the cow glyph was simplified and adapted into straight lines only.
Three Cows
Imagine reading one of these stone tablets upside down... perhaps this was the reaction to that first ever tax bill:

 " A A A "

The letter for ‘cow’ survives to this day as the first letter of the Alphabet - a testament of the central importance of cows to ancient western societies.

F is for ‘cow’

It is the same story for the letter 'F' – adapted from Fehu, the first letter in the Viking Futhark, the ancient Germanic alphabet.

This glyph started out as a simplified pictograph of a bull or cow, seen from the side: a horizontal line representing the body of the animal with two upstrokes for horns. I see it as a cow fording a boundary river, as it is driven from the territory of one owner onto the land of its new owner.

Lucky Cow!
This rune came to represent wealth and prosperity, and became upright when it needed to be used in conjunction with other runes in a row of writing. Later its form was simplified to what we recognise as our letter 'F'.

Words become pictures become words become pictures.

B C N U xxx

PS: The shortest SF story ever, written by Forrest J Ackerman and first published in Vortex Magazine during the 1970s, was titled Cosmic Report Card: Earth and consisted of a single letter…

NB: Due to copyright, I am unable to reproduce the story here.

& so with that, I shall F off ...until next time.

For more info about the Haus of Helfa Residencies, see the Helfa Gelf website

(this is art not academia, but if you are interested in more info on the origins of writing)

Origins of Writing at The New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts's Heilbrunn Timeline
Writing Timeline at the Ancient History Encyclopedia
The Story of Writing at
History of Writing at History World

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Remy Dean Joins The Residents

I am glad to announce that I will be the writer in residence at Helfa Gelf’s Haus of Helfa 2015.

Haus of Helfa is part of the 'Lost Spaces' project, a collaboration between Helfa Gelf, Oriel Mostyn and the Llawn03 Festival. It facilitates the use, by creative artists, of otherwise disused buildings. Haus of Helfa is the flagship of this project and is located at 26 Augusta Street, Llandudno AKA The Tedder House.

The Tedder House at 26 Augusta Street, Llandudno
 has been many things... now a home for creativity
Beginning in August, I will be joining twelve other artists who will be working in, and with, this unique and stimulating art space. Every weekend through September, the doors will be opened to visitors who can watch the work in progress and chat to the artists about their ideas, concepts and methods. The residency culminates in the launch of the Llawn03 Festival on the weekend of 18, 19 and 20 September.

I enjoyed Haus of Helfa 2014 and wrote a piece about it here on this weblog. It was a great success and I hope we can, at least, match its success this year.

I intend to develop work in collaboration with the other residents, and also with visitors and the wider communities. It is early days yet, Jack, so watch this space (or follow me on twitter @DeanAuthor) for more details!

In the meantime, YOU can get involved simply by sending me a postcard...

A selection of contributed postcards will be displayed within my exhibition area linked to this year's Haus of Helfa theme: Revisit / Reveal. You can write a postcard linked to any one of the three stimuli below:

1.  send a postcard to your former self (or to your future self, because one day you will be your future self's former self), imparting some significant nugget of information, or asking yourself a few questions - funny or philosophical.

2.  describe a place and time that you would wish to revisit but cannot ever again - poignant, pensive or polemical...

3.  or simply recount an anecdote of something that you have experienced when in, or near, Llandudno - be as straightforward or poetic as you like!

It is up to you what postcard you send, I would suggest one representing your local area (from whatever far-flung part of the world you live in), or your own original drawing or design. Suitable postcards will be selected for public exhibition at Haus of Helfa during my residency in September 2015 (I would recommend including no personal details apart from name and location, if you so wish). Postcards will be considered as donated, cannot be returned and will not be used for any other purposes other than those linked to this artistic venture. Some may be published on-line or in resulting printed artifacts. As I will not be able to reimburse you for the cost of postcard and postage, I will, on your behalf, donate £1 per card for the first 50 received, to local Llandudno charity Hosbis Dewi Sant.

Please send your postcards to:

Remy Dean
Haus of Helfa 2015
P O Box 1
Blaenau Ffestiniog
LL41 3ZB
United Kingdom

I look forward to receiving your contributions!

You can check out my Helfa Gelf homepage here...

Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Sunday in London: A Study in Sherlock

“Enter through the bookcase…” thus begins your adventure into the realm of Sherlock Holmes. One of the main missions of the weekend was to visit the major Sherlock Holmes exhibition currently at the Museum of London

The exhibition is divided into several sub-sections but is broadly divided in two, with the first half setting the scene and focussing on the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes, the London in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived and made authentically present in the stories. The London of the era is so well evoked in - and integral to - many of the stories that this has led many (particularly Americans, it seems) to believe that Holmes was indeed a real historical personage and not a fictitious character. Here you can see paintings and photographs depicting various aspects of Victorian London, often with a quote from a specific story next to it, highlighting the relevance of the artwork and the authenticity of the text.

Views of Victorian London - photogravure prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Amongst the well-selected works, which include Whistlers and Monets, I particularly enoyed a row of photogravure prints by Alvin Langdon Coburn, the American photographer who was a huge influence on the Futurist. He is one of the first photographers to make bold, balanced compositions of light and dark with the ‘modern’ city as his source material. The Futurists believed that he showed cities in a positive way and managed to capture their light and abundant energy (both physical and cultural). Futurists believed that cities were machines for living and were necessary to build the future, by facilitating cultural and technological changes at an accelerated rate due to the density of population enabling a rapid exchange of ideas. The images in the exhibition are beautiful examples of Langdon’s work and of the photogravure etching technique, with a very distinctive atmosphere. I have seen some of these images before, but looking at the real things closely is a different experience. The surfaces have a certain quality that cannot be captured through modern glossy printing and certainly not conveyed over a screen.

The immortal Sherlock Holmes
(click image for reviews or to purcahse catalog on-line)
The second half of the exhibition is about Sherlock Holmes, the character, and how he has changed and developed significantly, whilst remaining essentially the same. There is a filmed interview with Conan Doyle in which he explains much of his thinking and intentions behind the character and his motivations for creating the character in the first place: He enjoyed the genre of whodunit detective stories, but was frustrated because the crime scenario was always set up and then the detective, or inspector, would solve the case either without explanation - he would just know whodunit - or else there would be a torrent of clues right at the end as the case was solved that the reader had not been privy to. He would rather have had the challenge of ‘role-playing’ the detective character and working out the clues throughout the story, hoping to solve the case before the denouement and then waiting in suspense to see if he had it right. So this is what he always tried to achieve with a good Sherlock Holmes story.

On display are a few ‘holy relics’ of Serlockania, such as the original, hand-written manuscript for The Tangled Skein, with that title struck out and A Study in Scarlet added instead. In a cabinet opposite this, there are also some pages from Edgar Allan Poe’s original manuscript for Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring the detective, C Auguste Dupin, said to have been the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. So the story of Sherlock begins with the stories, then the exhibition explores how different illustrators have contributed to the enduring visual identity of Sherlock and Watson. It is obvious from portraits of Conan Doyle on display that, from the start, the appearance of Dr Watson was based very closely on the author. The visual identity of Sherlock Holmes developed quickly, though tentatively, until the illustrations for the stories appearing in The Strand magazine were commissioned to Sidney Paget who consolidated the aquiline features and accessories we still associate with the character.

Watson and Holmes as visualised by Sidney Paget for The Strand
After establishing the origins of Holmes, the exhibition climaxes with a chamber showing items form the Museum of London’s collection that would be identical to items mentioned in the stories: coats hats, shoes, canes, chemistry supplies, smoking paraphernalia, a violin, medical equipment, make-up and wigs worn by actors of the era that would have been useful for the master of disguises... There are also authentic props from some of the film and television production, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s unique coat.

There is also a very interesting ‘thread’ to this section of the expo demonstrating, with the use of actual artefacts of the time, some of the observations and deductions made by Sherlock Holmes. Such as the spatters on the cuffs of a typist’s blouse made when re-inking a ribbon for the, then new, writing machine. The cuts and cracks in the sole of a shoe which could be matched to a cast of a footprint left in mud at a crime scene. The discovery of finger-printing techniques placed in context with the contemporary, and the now debunked, concept of the physiognomy of criminal types.

Numerous screens showed the many and varied actors who have portrayed Homes and Watson, including some of my favourite versions - Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, Christopher Plummer and James Mason, and for me the definitive pairing of Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke… The whole exhibition brought back poignant memories of seeing them both perform in the two-man play The Secret Of Sherlock Holmes at the Wyndam’s Theatre back in 1989(!?). I had interviewed Jeremy Brett over his pre-performance steak dinner and he had made a note of my party’s seat numbers… and during the performance he delivered a key line directly to us… a lovely gift and a treasured memory.

(An extract of this interview first appeared in Outlook Magazine and here you can read the fuller interview with Jeremy Brett as it later appeared in The Scrawl.)

A fascinating exhibition that manages to stay focussed on meaningful content and examines the many elements that have contributed to making a man that never lived into an immortal. Elementary, of course!

Tom Hunter's photography beautifully showcased on this scale model
of Ellingfort Road in the early 1990s
We then had some time to spend in the main collections of the Museum, so we started in the Twentieth Century and I was particularly impressed with the beautiful fusion of model-making and photography that forms the piece titled The Ghetto. This 3D artwork authentically documents Ellingfort Road in the early 1990s when it was scheduled for demolition. It is a collaboration between photographer Tom Hunter and model-maker, James MacKinnon. The walls and doors and shop-fronts of the model, along with interiors glimpsed through windows, are surfaced with photographs of the actual doors, walls and wallpapers. Look in through some of the windows and you see back-lit miniature transparencies showing some of the people who lived there at the time, in situ. This is a loving personal monument - Hunter was, and still is, one of the street’s residents - to what could have become a forgotten part of London life.

From the 1900s, we then travelled back in time via the Victorian Walk, to before that era of Holmes and Watson, exploring the London of the past… the Great Fire, the Globe Theatre and the Great Bard, the Great Plague, the Danelaw, the Romans… we finished with artefacts excavated from the Temple of Mithras discovered in the City. The cult of Mithras was an early Roman religion with many elements inherited from Ancient Egypt, it was a dominant cult at the time of Jesus and there are many parallels with Christianity. All very interesting, though Mithras' traditional Phrygian cap does make him look rather like he was balancing a guinea pig on his head …and did Serapis, the god of the Mithran underworld, balance a pot of yogurt on his? No that is his modius - a corn measure representing the fertility of the earth above him...

Mithras and Serapis - once you see the guinea pig... 
As we were leaving the museum, there was an added writer-related bonus: a mini Paddington exhibition with his famous hat, case and duffle coat as realised for props in the recent film adaptation. The attention to detail was impressive, with the toggles bearing (sic) the scratch marks cause by little fumbling claws. What thrilled me the most was seeing the typewriter used by Michael Bond to write some of the early books. I was born in the year of its manufacture and some of my earliest bookish memories are going to the children’s section of our local library, with my brother, to borrow the latest Paddington adventure. We read them as they were published and then had to wait impatiently for the next.  The first few were out before I could read, so I have cherished memories of listening to my older brother read them to me – oh, how we laughed and laughed at the antics and adventures of the funny little bear... He was as real to me as Sherlock Holmes!

Michael Bond's 1965 Olympia typewriter
A hugely enjoyable and educational weekend in London rounded off with a Sunday spent at the Museum of London before heading back up north, stopping for a welcome KFC at Oxford Services, minutes before they shut down for the night… much needed coffee was consumed.

A Saturday in London: Dickens and the Dawn of the Modern Age

After an excellent full-English breakfast, courtesy of the Goodenough College taken in its grand Georgian dining hall, it seemed fitting to venture on into the Victorian era. Just a five minute stroll from our well-appointed rooms in Mecklenburgh Square we found the understated façade of 48 Doughty Street, former residence of a certain Mr Charles Dickens – an author of some repute…

Despite the busyness of the half-term holidays, the Dickens Museum was an oasis of calm. The townhouse has been mostly restored to how it was when the Dickens family lived there and is also partly a museum-style exhibition, laid out over five floors with shop and small café. The set-up is very evocative and aids the visitor in imaging that they may be a guest at one of Charles Dickens’ famous dinner parties, perhaps rubbing shoulders with the ‘literary lions’ of their time, and to be treated to one of the after-dinner readings in the second floor drawing room, hearing the great writer practice the recitals from his work that he would later take on a theatre tour.

We spent a good hour in the modest museum and learnt more about Dickens than most of his friends and family knew of him in his day. He was very secretive about his early years and his workhouse childhood due to his father being in debtors’ prison. He also concealed the fact that he wore spectacles, though here you will find an intimate portrait of him wearing them. The story of his own early years is told through a selection of artefacts displayed in the nursery, where his own children were stored during social functions.  Here you will also see a glass cabinet displaying a rather handsome stuffed raven, presumably one of Dickens’ series of pet ravens (or representing them) but not the famed raven named Grip who was the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven (according to Poe, he had originally considered using a parrot before the 'Dickens Intervention', though this would never have had the same Gothick import as the big black wound-grouse).

The writing desk those famous words flowed across... (and a waste paper basket where other words ended up)
Although I would not consider myself a ‘huge fan’ of Dickens, or any kind of aficionado, it was a thrill to stand before the actual writing desk of the great author and consider the worn leather surface with its contours that may have diverted his pen strokes. Not sure of the historic accuracy of detail, but the waste paper basket at the side of the desk was filled to overflowing with discarded drafts…

Before visiting this charming museum, with its intimate atmosphere and very helpful staff, I did recognise Dickens as an important author and particularly admired A Christmas Carol and The Signalman, though now have a deeper understanding and admiration of the man. Amongst the many things I learnt during the visit, one of the most memorable was that hedgehogs were often employed in Victorian households as kitchen maids…

Hedgehogs were sometimes kept in Victorian kitchens
to help control the slugs and bugs...
Then a tube journey to South Kensington and a long underground walk via the tiled, Victorian underpass, past the ‘secret entrance’ to the Victoria and Albert (next time!) and on to the heart of the museum district, emerging right outside an entrance to the Science Museum, where we would spend the rest of the afternoon.

It was too busy to really engage with many of the exhibits, but so many of the items on display are of such historical importance than any engagement is rewarding. After leaving the evocation of the Victorian era at the Dickens Museum, we stayed with this narrative and tracked the Industrial Revolution, Watt's Rotary Steam engine, Stevenson’s Rocket, Babbage’s Difference Engine, an original Daguerreotype camera, lovingly detailed models of ocean going steam ships… then suddenly we saw the modern age come into being and above us were rockets and communication satellites… Dickens was alive during a period of great change and political upheaval in the world, he saw steam power and the dawning of the modern age, but in less than a century after his death we had satellites!

This particular visit was of great personal benefit because we discovered the 'flight' room on level 3 - which we had never seen before - packed with huge antique aeroplanes including the Hawker Hurricane and the even more beautiful Spitfire: an engine of death, but also a symbol of hope, and a rare example - along with the Dazzleships - of creative art having a tangible, quantitative effect in the real world. Apparently, the curve of the wings and their rounded tips were added by a concept artist for aesthetic reasons in some sketches and only then did the engineers realise that this would allow the wings to be shorter whilst retaining their structural integrity, enabling the Spitfire to execute its famous tight turns and increase its manoeuvrability at speed… There was also a cabinet displaying lovely detailed scale models of First World War planes and this helped me correct a potential error in one of the current stories I am developing. Time spent in the Science Museum sparks many creative ideas.

An inspiring detailed model of the DeHavilland DH4 (1917)
After taking in a 3D Imax film of the wonders to be found under the sea – including fantastic, shimmering cuttlefish and close up grey seals that you feel you could have kissed – we reluctantly left the building with an extended list of what to spend more time with next visit.

So, it was time for dinner and we had a table booked at the legendary Mr Kong’s in Soho’s Chinatown. We received the usual warm, friendly welcome from Edwin and the staff and enjoyed the best Cantonese food to be had outside of Canton! It was a table of five, so we were able to sample a good variety befitting a celebration of the new Year of the Goat.

We started with the house special of steamed scallops, served on a half-shell with glass noodles and a fantastic sweet and hot chilli-garlic-coriander sauce that changes every time, adjusted to balance the character of the shellfish according to their seasonal variations – if I had to name a favourite food… The plain fried noodles were a fantastic culinary backdrop to the sizzling king prawns in garlic sauce which cook on an iron skillet as they are brought to the table. The fried, shredded, roast pork with garlic sprouts is another recommended order – the pork delivers the salty satisfaction of good bacon and the garlic sprouts have a fresh sweetness similar to green beans in garlic butter. The duck with mango and spring onion was a balancing act of richness, tang and fresh sweetness… The old standard of sweet and sour chicken is anything but standard… The Chinese tea and Tsingtao beer tasted much better than they should! Perhaps it was relaxing and chatting with friends after a busy and fulfilling full day out in London, in a great restaurant serving world-class cuisine at very reasonable prices – what better way to round off the Year of the Horse and a Saturday in London?

Happy New Year!

Next: A Sunday in London

Saturday, 21 February 2015

A Friday Evening in London: The State of Tate

By mid-afternoon, the bookish business was done with, so we looked for somewhere that would stay open late and, with very little discussion, quickly decided to visit one of our regular London destinations: Tate Modern. Recently, it has been the special temporary exhibitions that have attracted us - Matisse followed by Malevich - so this time we decided to have a good look at some of the permanent collection that we had either overlooked or not seen for many years.

We entered through the 'side doors', stepping directly into the famous Turbine Hall - the biggest art space in the world – that is not including… the world and the large scale earthworks that exist elsewhere, constructed by artists like James Turrell and the founder of eARTh, Robert Smithson …and not forgetting the original Norse Danavirki - but it is a huge space and was once a main attraction of the gallery. Some spectacular, huge, challenging work would welcome visitors and really make a statement that you had arrived at a Modern Art Museum with a BIG difference.

I’m getting nostalgic now, recalling earlier visits when we experienced Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas that filled the space, while leaving much of it empty, Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Projectaka 'the indoor sun', that had people basking on the concrete beach of the hall, Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth that truly used the structure of the building and influenced people's movement through the vast emptiness (short video below, courtesy of The Guadian). All impressive, innovative works that really engaged the audience and used the space to best effect. Since those early days, when the Tate was obviously rising to the challenge and making a real effort to utilise the huge void, the Turbine Hall has been repeatedly disappointing.

This time, Richard Tuttle’s huge structure of exotic fabric and marine ply was suspended at the far end of the hall. The sculpture itself was intriguing and a good conversation point - making use of the two viewing angles, from the ground and the mezzanine, but had no harmony with the space it occupied. Perhaps the awkwardness was the point, as it tried to fly yet remained contained? Or was it the aerofoil forms in opposition to the Brutalist, earthbound squareness of the old power station architecture? It did not seem like a sculpture that used this unique space, just one that would not fit anywhere else. For such a monumental work, its dialogue with the surroundings seemed surface and slight. I suppose the difference is that this was a sculpture, not an installation... Perhaps Tuttle was not so sure himself, he did title the work, I Don’t Know. (If the Tate curators are stuck for works that can fill the space effectively, I would be very happy to negotiate! Ohh, get him! The arrogance of the lad!)

Tate Modern houses a truly world-class collection of the Modern that will never disappoint. This time, highlights included re-discovering Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres - the elegant form of a tree reclaimed from within an industrial wooden beam, by carving back from the surface following the knot-patterns in the grain to reveal the branch pattern of a younger version of the original tree. Most sculptors visualise a form within a mass and carve away material to reveal that imagined form. Penone has used a very similar approach, but here the form he has revealed did actually exist within the mass and the materials guided his carving. This reflects his interest in materials and processes: the natural process of growth, followed by the industrial process of the saw-mill and then the artistic process of wood carving, serving here as a sort of time travel. This focus on Process Art led Penone to be linked with the Italian Arte Povera movement of the 1960s and also aligns him with the approaches of other important artists including Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys.

My favourite room in Tate Modern would be the Joseph Beuys set-up including the installation Lightning with Stag in its Glare, but on this visit I discovered what may well be a new favourite room: Level 4: Room 7 - here you can surround yourself with Cy Twombly’s monumental series of paintings celebrating Bacchus. The energetic and enigmatic, brush-on-long-stick gestures of running red paint evoke the blood and wine of a Bacchanalian orgy and the Romantic Peak Experience.

Cy Twombly's invigorating Bacchus paintings (2008) dominate the room.
These huge paintings form a vivid backdrop to the more subdued sculptural work that look as if they have been unearthed from some archaeological dig. They seem both solid and fragile, ancient and modern, very personal and of a wider culture. Twombly’s art often explores an individual response to mythic themes, ancient archaetypes re-appropriated as personal talismans. This Twombly room is filled with the joy and energy of the hugely expressive paintings, and this is tempered by the sculptural pieces with their invitation to calmly contemplate – emotion and intellect in conversation. I can see a very strong correlation between Beuys and Twombly.

The small Nam June Paik room was also worth some time. I particularly enjoyed the twin television set playback of Nixon talking as electro-magnetic tori alternated their power, causing the screen images to distort and split into rainbow interference patterns, fascinating to watch and a poetic representation of media distortions of the ‘truth’.

Nam June Paik's radio assemblage, Bakelite Robot (2002).
Do we see ourselves in our technology?
The ‘centre piece’ was Paik’s robot built of defunct radios that had been gutted and then had small TV screens installed inside them, showing films of toy robots. It has a sense of fun and fascinated the child in us all whilst commenting on our relationship with technology and how we tend to (now more than ever) anthropomorphise the mechanised. Then, the perspicacity problem of the egg and the image of the egg on a screen and a model of the egg placed in place of a second monitor screen, along with the flickering of analogue tellies in the dimly lit space reminded us that it was getting late…

Just off Russell Square in the Neo-Brutalist Brunswick Centre we dined at Carluccio’s. As always, great atmosphere with lots of people chatting to create an informal, noisy ambience that makes your own un-guarded conversation easier – fine for relaxing with friends and for family gatherings. The food is traditional Italian, as you may expect, prepared quickly to a good standard… great value for great quality. There is a good children’s menu that comes with a generous fun-activity pack while you wait. We started with the chicken liver pâté, possibly the best I have tasted! Then there is a variety of pastas and sauces on offer as well as alternatives to pasta… I went for Milanese-style (flattened bread-crumbed and fried) chicken breast, sided with rocket and baby gem lettuce and accompanied by the crisply refreshing draught Peroni in its trade-mark tall glass... a small piece of Italy.

Next: A Saturday in London

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Two Decades of 'Scraps' by Remy Dean

As we approach the finale of 2014, I looked back twenty years to the publication of my 1994 debut novel, Scraps - you can read the interview in the Yuletide edition of The Scrawl. (I would like to thank Winston Dominic and my colleagues on The Scrawl editorial crew for granting me this opportunity.) In the conversation, I mention the author's note that I added to the 10th anniversary edition of Scraps, which you can read below:
20 years of Scraps - a novel by Remy Dean, from left to right:
the 'First Impressions' limited edition, a 1990s paperback, and the current edition
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Music was an important part of the writing process for this novel – it helped me to create and capture certain moods and atmosphere. I was writing as if describing a film I had dreamt, and I had music in mind for the dream soundtrack of that film. The sounds that were playing as I wrote, and in various ways filtered through into the text, included music and lyrics by the following artists, to whom I wish to extend my gratitude for their positive influence upon this piece of writing and upon my life, then and now: Dave Graney (The Moodists / The Coral Snakes), Lydia Lunch (8 Eyed Spy), Gavin Friday (Virgin Prunes), BrainDeath, Slab!, Eric Serra, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Go Betweens, Hunters and Collectors, Scott Walker, Gordon Lightfoot... If you really listen to this book, you will hear them all.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Meet the Residents of Number 26, Past, Present & Future...

You may think it looks like an empty house, but we found out that such an assumption would be incorrect. Venture inside and there is not a lot to see at ground level: bare floors, walls hacked back to the brick, some architect’s plans on the far wall showing the layout of the building back in its Victorian heyday… and some paper aeroplanes suspended on slanted nylon chords in the bay window, almost too white in the sunlight and carpeting the dusty floor with their patchwork shadows.

Number 26 Augusta Street, Llandudno, has sheltered many diverse people in its life, including hostel boarders, hotel guests and former RAF servicemen (ah, the paper planes...) and is now a temporary haven for artists, and their art... part of the annual Helfa Gelf Art Trail.

Go up the first flight of raw wood stairs, still smelling of the sawmill, and the dereliction starts to give way to things of interest… in one room there is what looks like a collection of Victorian vitrines awaiting badly needed restoration by some careful museum expert. The ‘bell jars’ contain specimens that appear to be part of an ongoing experiment involving the reactions of fungi with wires and different materials. This is an installation-in-progress by Morgan Griffith aka sonomano. The walls are hung with a few collages that look like they could be from the scientific sketchbook of whatever amateur naturalist, or ‘mad scientist', is conducting the experiments. Their imagery is related to the contraptions on floor and tables, including some more mushrooms. The mushroom metaphor could be a comment on the house, fungi are part of the cycle of decay and new life – the house is stripped down to its ‘bones’ awaiting its rebirth in another form for another purpose…

In the small room opposite, we find Pea Restall and her team constructing a primitive clay cavern, big enough to get inside – this, she explains, is the early stage of an installation that will be enhanced by a low frequency sound sculpture. It is reminiscent of a wood-fired clay oven and also has very wombic, earth-mother connotations…

The big room at the front that links these two spaces has an exhibition of junk sculptures displayed on rough wooden chests and unpainted shelves: bits of broken things and charity shop toys arranged in an abstract way that become more than a sum of the parts.

Upstairs again, and you enter a different world, perhaps we have stepped through some sort of time-space portal, a la Doctor Who, into an alien domain where a stranded stranger attempts to reconstruct his space capsule in order to return home – this is the alternative universe of Mark Eaglen (or at least a quantum fragment of it). In one chamber a circular disc pulses with psychedelic patterns that look like time-lapse bacteria multiplying in a petri dish, until you look closer, then the installation assimilates you into its process. Your shadow is captured and, through the inventive use of a video feedback loop, is split and multiplied in an ever changing mandala of light. It is technically baffling, but that does not stop it being huge fun to play with. Toddlers, that have to be steadied on a chair by their parents to reach the beams of light, chuckle with delight whilst the adults impatiently wait their turn.
Welcome to the alternative universe of Mark Eaglen
In the anti-chamber a large light box displays an image of a sphere with an intricate surface. When viewed through the red/green 3D glasses provided, the sphere seems to float free of its surface and inhabit a space a few feet from the wall. What is it trying to show us? A diatom? A grain of pollen, magnified, thousands of times? A cheerleader’s pom-pom? An image of the entire cosmos reduced, billions of times?

You can read my review of an earlier exhibition by Mark Eaglen here...

In the room across the landing, there is the beginning of an on-going response to the building itself from Lisa Carter. War-time photographs are displayed on one wall and a plumb-weight hangs from a long line, suspended inches from the floor, looking rather like a tiny bomb halted moments before impact... Apparently, the house was once home to Baron Arthur Tedder, who devised the method of saturation bombing, known as 'carpet bombing', where large target areas are systematically bombed using grid coordinates.
Building Debris
In the bigger room that fronts this floor of the house there is nothing but bare boards and an empty plinth, on which I elevated a humble piece of the plentiful builders' rubble.

On the top floor, beneath the exposed roofing rafters, we find a room containing some work by Emrys Williams, whose studio is just a few doors away. Here a world of childlike exploration is evoked, model galleons, toy zebras and games are in dialog with his characteristically naïve paintings of quixotic figures and surreal houses. A model duck looks very much at home sat on its nest of straw in the painted fireplace. Text butterflies liberated from the pages of old books are attracted to the light of vents and windows…
Come and play in the wonderful world of Emrys Williams
The room encourages imaginative play, an exploration of an abstract world – we can visualise travelling to far away, exotic places that we may have heard of, but never seen for real. From this bare, unfinished interior, we can know the world in the way we used to as children – our own world inside our heads, almost as real as the world we make up from the memories of places we might have actually experienced…

Crossing the landing, we find a room with some inert audio-visual equipment. A projector, a monitor, some headphones. Still being set-up. For now we can but imagine.

Another small room has a collection of brass fittings and a circle of model railway track laid out in an almost ritualistic way. A light bulb hangs at shin-level from a cable wrapped around a rafter. It could be anything… perhaps some sort of psychic compass to communicate with those spirits that may yet linger in the bricks and mortar… only the artist, Angela Davies, knows what this may become.

In the corner of what would have once been the attic, we find Helen Jones working away on a huge swathe of white material. It looks a bit like a traditional quilt, though she is using distinctly non-traditional methods involving tile-spacers and cable-ties. It resembles a long christening gown, or perhaps the plentiful undergarments of a Victorian lady. There are also some rather ‘inquisitional’ metal structures hung from the ceiling. What is it all about? Helen explains that the metal pieces are based on chastity belts, and the material is meant to evoke Victorian dresses, underwear and the laundry that would have been dealt with, day-in-day-out, by the servants that would have lived in these attic spaces. The white drapery will provide a backdrop to a projected audio-visual piece that will explore and clarify these connections… So for now, I shall think of it as the ‘christening gown’ of the new work, and look forward to returning further along in the residency to see how it all develops.

So, what appears to be an empty derelict house, is actually the birthplace of some fresh and fascinating art installations. The contemporary, high-tech take on materials and processes is beautifully counterpointed by the ‘building-site’ aesthetic of their surroundings. Works by fresh and fascinating local artists that will grow and develop over the next few weeks to become what they will be... in time for the Llawn02 festival.

Reflecting on this, I find my thoughts exploring the many other closed-up empty spaces in Llandudno. Business are closing, buildings stand empty – what a huge waste of resources! Wales has - always has had - a burgeoning creative community. This is showcased by the Helfa Gelf Art Trail, when local artists open their studios and welcome people in to witness their process, and even have a go themselves. It would make sense, would it not, to use more of these spaces creatively? What better way for an estate agent to draw attention to a large property than to allow its space to be used, temporarily, to display locally produced art? Or, even better, to allow up-and-coming (sorry, emergent) artists to work and display in such places… So, kudos to Mostyn Estates for setting this fine example. Surely, there must be other estate agents and property developers that are not really as lacking in imagination as their popular image suggests…

Perhaps we do not have to make space for art and creativity in our lives - the space is already there, standing empty, yet filled with potential, awaiting some creative thinking.