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.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Some Summertime Scrawl

Well, it has just gone summer solstice and the last entry here was at the vernal equinox… I’ve been busy with a few things, teaching and trying to climb the mountain of paperwork that piles up this time of year (“Let the teachers teach!”) and also co-editing the re-launch issue of questing beast’s Scrawl e-zine – I must say I think the quality of the content matches, or surpasses, previous issues!

I was privileged to talk to Jonathan Meades for the lead feature – a fascinating fellow. We resurrected and revised Laurie Dale’s earlier interview with Sir Christopher Lee – just in time for his 92nd birthday! Inspired by the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum, and a visit to the British Library, I wrote a new article about the Beowulf saga – or should we sympathise with Grendel? We also caught up with an old friend of Scrawl, Thomas E Sniegoski, who will not leave Vampirella alone – and who could blame him? I had the pleasure (a kind of fan-boy thrill) of interviewing Graham Masterton, one of my very favourite horror writers and Aaron Stainthorpe, singer-songwriter of one of my very favourite bands, 'My Dying Bride', and Liesel Schwarz was also brought to book by co-editor, Kim Vertue. Thanks to all involved!

You can read all this in the Summer Solstice issue of Scrawl...
Contents:

Jonathan Meades en catamini
The Horror… The Humour… of Graham Masterton
There’s No Stopping Thomas E Sniegoski
The Prince of Darkness Himself: Sir Christopher Lee!
Brought to Book: Liesel Schwarz and Aaron Stainthorpe
Beowulf versus Grendel – the Rematch!

…enough for you? You can expect more, this Yuletide, in the up-coming Winter Solstice issue of the questing beast Scrawl

Friday, 21 March 2014

'The Race Glass' by Remy Dean - now available

Good morning equinoxed world!

To celebrate its release today, a retrospective collection of three short stories, titled The Race Glass, is being offered as a free direct download via amazon Kindle. 

Check out the publisher's blog, Scrawl for this Special Launch Party Promotion and more info... (The e-book will be priced at £1.85 in the UK.)

The photograph used for the cover artwork on The Race Glass is currently being exhibited at Gwynedd Museum and Gallery, Bangor, until 19 April. It will then be exhibited at  Oriel Pendeitsh, Caernarfon, from 2 May until 22 June, and can be purchased from the venues.

I wrote this piece as the 'Author's Introduction':

The idea was to put together a retrospective collection of short stories. Initially, this was to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the novel, Scraps. I was asked to suggest a set of titles that spanned those two decades – as it ended up, the stories showcased here go back beyond that, the earliest being from the mid-1980s. I justified this by pointing out that although Scraps was not published until 1994 (two years after it had been completed) I had been writing it for some years before. Also, as is often the case with fiction, Scraps is a highly stylised form of autobiography - in the same way that dreams are - and some elements that remain in the finished version also date back more than three decades.

Memories can be strange and mercurial… for creatives in general and writers in particular. We are custodians of our own memories, and for the memories of characters we have created. Usually they are very different indeed. Sometimes they are the same. I selected the three stories here because they are linked by being strongly autobiographical. Some of the characters represent adolescent aspects of myself that have been jettisoned with age, though I still love them enough to allow them to live on in this form… and they remain part of me, and I am still part of them. The past remains present and never more so than in the human mind. Places, now changed beyond recognition remain untouched, people now dead are still alive in our memories of them.

Many of the key characters you will find in these pages are ‘lost’ or incomplete souls, obsessed with finding their individual purpose, or a path that leads back to the ‘self’. They are part of what I was or what I could have become though did not. Some of the people and places are real, and although the stories are entirely fictitious, they are all true. (I know this because I made them up myself!)

The Race Glass - three short stories
Snail Racing (1987): This was adapted from an original script written a year or so earlier and filmed in 1986. It was shot on splendid Super8 with a budget of fifty pounds. I held the camera most of the time and later did the editing on an old Elmo with razor-splicer and celluloid cement. In this naïve venture I was assisted by my two best friends at the time, Robin and Frank. Some young volunteers from the local amateur dramatics society bravely stepped in as the cast. Thanks to all involved, especially the snails who remained true to their nature despite being removed from their natural habitat. (‘No snail was harmed during the filming of this short motion picture.’)

I wanted the experience of doing a ‘proper film’ with real footage, and boom mikes, and cans, and processing, and cutting, and screening in a dark auditorium with a projector softly rattling in the background. We managed it all… sort of.

It all went as well as could be expected, except for the last reel which had to be shot at twilight. I miscalculated the exposure… There was no second chance of a reshoot or of reassembling the cast, so I faced a choice: leave in a final scene of Lynchian darkness with just the merest hint of movement in a grainy void – which probably would have been the better choice – or cut in some footage of roadside shrines I had filmed during a visit to Austria. I went for the latter. Well, at the time it made sense to me, though after the first few screenings I realise that it only made sense to me – that meant I must be a true auteur! 

The film never got shown beyond the front rooms of those involved and one college screening to an audience of five, including its auteur director – all sounds very Nick Zedd, but he should remain unconcerned about the competition!

I rescued the script from oblivion by adapting it into a short story, which is presented in this volume for the first time. Whereas the film-making process is filled with compromise and ‘team-working’, the writing process is unencumbered by any of these considerations and remains truer to the original creative concepts. (Auteur is French for author.)
Illustration for Guitar Hero
(appeared in Scrawl, 2000)
Guitar Hero (1999): “That’s me… That’s me!” I recall the scene in Todd Haynes 1998 masterpiece, Velvet Goldmine, when the central character, played by Christian Bale, points at Brian Slade / Maxwell Demon on the television screen, emphatically indicating that the glamorous, outrageous, rock star represents aspects of himself that others will not acknowledge. For many of my formative years, music was hugely important to me. ‘My bands’ were my bestest friends – they talked to me more than anyone else, and I spent most of my mid-teen free-time alone in my room with them.

At school there were two tribes: the sporty-types who talked football and kicked things around at break time, or the kids that were seriously into music, read the NME and decorated their exercise books with doodled logos of their favourite bands, preferring to stay in the Library over lunch time. I was certainly of the second species. To this day, music and song lyrics are hugely influential. Many of my very favourite writers work in song: Scott Walker, Gordon Lightfoot, Kate Bush, Nick Currie, Dave Graney, David McComb, Michael Gira, Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Claudio Sanchez, Serj Tankian, Dani Filth… the list could go on and on and on.

I had realised my boyhood ambition to become a film director… sort of. Next was the being-in-a-band thing. So, I formed ‘BrainDeath’, which was really more of a solo effort that a true ‘band’ – I wrote the ‘songs’ and ‘played’ most of the ‘instruments’ – guitar, synthesiser, sequencers, shaver, with some help from friends and family – my Dad provided the drills and other power tools. A 'live' show would have been me on guitar and microphone and the rest played back on tapes. At the time, I had access to the sound studios in the audio-visual department of the college so we recorded, and mixed a few tracks and put out a cassette single, No Way, with an instrumental ‘sound sculpture’ on the B-side.

I shared a house with a good bunch of young chaps, one of them was in a much more successful band and had been signed to a record label and did tours and everything… ‘BrainDeath’ was short-lived but did all that an indie band should: recorded and put out a DIY single, performed in student houses and made a proper pretentious promo video (this was a must in the 1980s). Written with hindsight, Guitar Hero was based on a delirious mismatch of thoughts, feelings and memories seeded at this time and deals with that life-stage when adolescents venture out from the environment of their up-bringing and begin to take fuller control of their own destiny. It concerns the concerns of growing up – transitioning from childhood, finding yourself amongst others, the angst often concealed, within, under the surface… because we, as adults, sometimes chose to forget that the ‘folly of youth’ is often a brave front.
Homunculus title page illustration
(from the SUTEKH's GIFT anthology,
  The Fearsome Dark, 2004)
Homunculus (2002): Our desire for unity is countered by our inherent duality, or even multiplicities. We are unable to become one within the self, whilst maintaining our humanity and identity, so ironically we attempt unity with others, as a ‘couple’ or part of a ‘cult’. The drive is strong, as it stems from a biological urge, but in order to unify with others, we have to embrace their differences! By doing this, we run the risk of suppressing valuable aspects of ourselves, or we can learn how to better unify our selves within… and this has been the focus of Magick and Alchemy for millennia and is now expressed in every aspect of ‘social media’ where we increasingly exist as digital versions of ourselves. It also forms a thread that runs through the stories presented here.

There are other threads, and there are codes and metaphors but these stories are sometimes simply what they appear to be. Which is which? That is for you to decide. The writing of a text is part of a process that continues with the reading of it, and the reader is in charge of that part…

So from here on in, dear reader, look to thy self!

Friday, 7 February 2014

A Day To Remember

The photography of Chino Otsuka, Jonathan Meades and Tom Wood

In the artist’s statement for the exhibition, Processed Memory, I made the observation that the photograph has become synonymous with memory. Adverts often use photographs and the visual language of the photo album to imply personal histories and tales of recollection. Lately, our memories have become increasingly digitised. Ferb (of Phineas and Ferb) made the point that, “Fame is fleeting, but the internet is forever”. Increasingly, digital pictures are the way that we remember and store our memories of people and places.

Recently, a very good friend of mine e-mailed me some pictures from our college days that he was about to upload to his facebook page. I saw them and the memories came flooding back, my mind’s eye could rerun some of the events depicted in crystal clarity including details of dialogue and gesture, but also there were a few people and places that I had no response to… Who? Where? Not a clue. (Perhaps if one can fully remember their student times, then they were not doing it properly! A bit like the 60s.) The point I am getting at, here and now, is that our culture is increasingly remembering more and more through stored images, or more exactly we are experiencing digitally and then storing digitally – occasionally sharing digitally – and perhaps our individual, organic engagements with these events are less deep and the memories less fixed in our actual substance – the ‘eye’ bypasses the ‘I’ and feeds directly into the ‘i-’. Are we becoming careless with our memories? (Was that a Duran Duran song?)

In the olden days, the photograph was a valuable thing. A film could hold 24 or 36 exposures before you had to take it to the chemist for processing, or – if you were an audio-visual student, professional photographer or hobbyist – unravel the spool in total darkness and work alchemy to develop the ribbon of film itself and then make prints from it. Each frame actually cost money, and the effort and organisation involved in retrieving those images added to their value. Because of these constraints, the taking of each photograph was a deliberate choice. The act of considering, deciding and taking the photo had already fixed the people and places in memory. The shared experience of shuffling through the pack of processed pictures with friends, or laying out a photo album to show to others, taking time to select the best and discard the boring… this was all part of a ritual of remembering. It made photographs more meaningful.

Now, we upload vast amounts of photos to ‘streams’ and ‘buckets’, fill gigabytes of hard-drive with stored images, we ‘tweet’, we ‘instagram’… teenagers, and ‘agers' in general, 'selfie' all day long and lean close to friends to pout at a tiny lens and… well, that’s that. Our culture is storing huge amounts of pictures in the form of visual data, pictures taken ‘in passing’ snapped almost at random then stored and at best glanced at once or twice… the majority of these pictures are never looked at again. Ever.

Who has the time to sift through thousands of pictures accrued over the last few years and do anything meaningful with them? When will we get round to selecting the best and discarding the boring? Sharing? “I just uploaded a picture onto facebook”, “check out my tumblr photostream”, “I just tweeted an instagram” – really? Well done. In the days of ‘proper’ photographs this would be the equivalent of pinning a picture to a tree in a forest – someone may even find it and slip it into their wallet to use later, just like some random stranger may download your most flattering ‘selfie’ to enjoy in their own particular way… is this now the measure of the value we place on our memories, and on ourselves?

Marshall McLuhan said that all media are extensions of some organic, human faculty and that photography is certainly an extension of the eye and the memory. New media is extending those faculties further still: this keyboard I am tapping on is an extension of my hands and my voice, this blog is a projection of my mind, the screen you are looking at is an extension of your eyes, the internet systems joining these faculties are extensions of the human brain. Or is that balance beginning to tip the other way?

These thoughts have been sparked off by seeing the work of three photographers who have really maintained the integrity and value of the medium. As creatives, their approaches are quite different – only really linked because they are important photographers and because I recently saw their work on the same day.

I discovered the work of Chino Otsuka via a tweet (look who’s talking, now!) and I quickly glanced at a selection of her images on-line… then I looked again, and again, each time for longer and longer. There was something truly poignant and poetic about her images that deliberately explored personal memory. The images were ‘haunting’. Though the places and events depicted were unlike anything from my own past, there was something that touched me deeply. It is difficult to put into words, as all successful art is… it was if I had just experienced her memories. The imagery struck a chord in me that resonated with my own experiences.
Chino Otsuka: Photo Album
From the 'Tokyo 4-3-4-506' series, a photograph of a silhouetted child behind a curtain, backlit by a sunny day – the shadow, the way the light gleamed on some wood, the patterning of plaster on a wall – the details were all meaningful to Otsuka, and I knew of very similar things, all be it a different window, the light of another day in another place… a different interior entirely. What’s more, this effect was not isolated in this single image, picture after picture resonated deeply yet softly. I think I was feeling hiraeth – a Welsh word that is difficult to translate – Wikipedia describes it as, “a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for … the past,” which is close to how the photographs affected me, although they showed images from, and reconstructions of, another person’s past.

I immediately amazon-primed her book, Photo Album. By coincidence, Pidgin Snaps, a Boxette  - 100 postcards by Jonathan Meades (which I had ordered a couple of months earlier but which had been ‘lost in the post’, returned to depot, cancelled, re-ordered, designated out-of-stock, eventually re-sourced and despatched) arrived the same morning…
100 postcards from Pidgin Snaps by Jonathan Meades
The format harks back to a time before we posted pictures to the internet – back then, we sent picture post cards to particular people, often with a personal message on the reverse. Perhaps with some irony, Meades (who has been known to use irony on occasions) has published this set of quirky images so that a multitude of individuals, not personally acquainted with the artist, can experience his ‘expo-in-a-box’ of un-sent postcards in the gallery of their own homes. We must also remember here that ‘those times’ are not ‘long gone’ – there is nothing to stop you from posting these cards to your friends, with the addition of your own personal message on the back, except that they are so beautiful/intriguing/educational/weird/wonderful that you will want to keep them to peruse time and time again…

I have not yet had sufficient time to absorb the collection in any depth, but a few really stand out on the first shuffle through. I appreciate the aesthetics of reflections that transform the surroundings into vibrant abstracts, distilling the essence of a place into colourful compositions. The ‘straight’ landscape photographs are also impressive, many with broody lighting that transform the familiar into dramatic, cinematic scenes.

One image shows a fence dividing a rugged hillside, something we may refer to as ‘countryside’. On one side of the fence the country is brown and rocky, on the other it is green and mossy. The land has become a record, a memory, of centuries of land management by two different owners. The weather, the soil, the climate, the longitude and latitude… none of these things have had a greater effect on the land than the actions of humans. It is a beautiful image with a profound subtext about our effect on the environment and reminds us that nearly all of the British countryside is artificial.

There is more about Pidgin Snaps here at the publisher's website. 

Jonathan Meades has built a career out of seeing things differently – finding the extraordinary in the everyday and sharing his childlike wonder and keen intellect with us so we may also pause and look around us to find for ourselves the fascinating stories hidden in a local colloquialism or in the pattern of brickwork on a shop front façade… he is a polysemic-semantic-Romantic and an expert archaeologist of etymology… (!)

You can read my extensive Scrawl interview with Jonathan Meades here...

On the morning that these wonderful photographic memoires arrived, via our cheery rural postperson, we had to satisfy ourselves with a very brief ‘scan’ of their content before heading off to attend an arts workshop hosted by Tim Pugh and then take in the Tom Wood exhibition at Oriel Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno…

The work of Tom Wood is deceptively simple: seemingly straightforward photographs of people and places. He is prolific, and has been so for decades, diligently photographing his surroundings and the people he meets. The people in these fixed images have changed, or gone, yet here they are, as they were. Insignificant moments fixed as monuments to their humanity, with all its terrible faults, heroic failings and trifling triumphs. These people may have a starring role in their own life, but are not celebrities – they are individuals made significant by being singled out from the masses. We see their faces and feel we may have known them, somehow our own memories of friends, neighbours and relatives surface and intertwine with these strangers, yet all we are shown is their surface, on the surface of a print.
Tom Wood is 'Photie Man' - an overview of his earlier works
Photographic exhibitions often tend toward the technical, almost clinical appreciation of composition and process – “ooh, the richness of the print”, “look how immaculate the window mount is”, “the exposure must have been such-and-such with a f-stop of thingy and I bet there was a lens”… Here it is the personal response of the viewer, and their own memories associated with each image, that lends these pictures their depth. There are subtle signifiers that spark off our own reminiscences – “my mum had an apron like that”, “my cousin used to have those shoes”, “I can imagine how she felt”, “remember that wallpaper”, “her hair looks so 1980s”, “y’know that picture of nan”… and that is how many of the viewers in the gallery were engaging with the work – as fellow humans. Talking to each other, entering into a dialogue with the people, places, past and present.

I once likened Tom Wood’s approach to that of a wildlife photographer: capturing naturalistic, un-posed pictures of the human animal in their habitats. Though he strongly resented those remarks, maintaining that he respects his subjects and often builds relationships with them that have spanned decades, I still had that (to me, positive) impression at the Mostyn’s current exhibition titled, Tom Wood: Landscapes. Tom is a ‘people person’ so we see quite a few townscapes and farmscapes – most of which are inhabited.

The photographs of abandoned interiors are amongst my personal favourites. The people were long gone, but we saw the space where they had lived. We were looking into what had once been personal spaces, reading an implied narrative of families growing and declining, times changing for better or worse… Those crumbling, cluttered rooms had borne witness to comings and goings, births and deaths. They were relics of lives lived with their measures of happiness… perhaps some deep sadness. Now they were preserved in the museum of the photographic image and their stories, real or imagined, could touch our own.

Otsuka, Meades and Wood all manage to make the mundane magical: Otsuka takes moments remembered from her own childhood and makes them resonate with our private memories – the minutiae become mythic; Meades transforms the familiar into wonderland stage sets – things we may walk past everyday become arresting and intriguing documents of our past; Wood allows us to take a longer look at things we may otherwise simply glance at, introduces people we would dismiss as ‘ordinary’ – he curates a museum of memories that catalogues people and places who could easily be forgotten… stories, theirs and ours, may have more in common than we first suspect.

Look longer at the moment, for the past remains present.

Friday, 13 December 2013

A Friday in Prague...

Itinerary: Old Town Hall and City Gallery, Museum of Communism, Mucha Museum
See also A Tuesday in Prague + A Wednesday in Prague + A Thursday in Prague
The Pavements of Prague...
Just off the Old Town Square, a ‘fake’ wedding is being photographed by an array of very well equipped photographers. The bride and groom are intermittently primped and pampered and arranged in relation to a stretch limo decorated with white ribbons. The bridesmaid models are brought on and off for the shoot and the happy couple repeat their kisses… We suppose it is a publicity shoot for a car-hire company, or a wedding package company as the gallery we are here to visit shares its entrance with a visitor centre and the town hall - often used for grand weddings…

There is some irony here as the City Gallery is currently hosting the 2013 Press Photo Exhibition. Two floors of professional reportage photography from around the world, showing almost every aspect of human life (and a bit of death, too), natural and artificial disasters, extreme moments in sport, candid peeks into subcultures and cults… all very impressive and a few truly affecting. I appreciated the human visual stories, but enjoyed the land and wildlife sections more (see my personal favourite below). Any visitor who could look away from the wide variety of powerful, glossy pictures, would see some of the building’s original C14th and Renaissance features, including wooden beams, painted with twining vines.
A cute what? It is a new parrot hatchling at Zoo Praha
by Thomas Adamec (photograph, 2013, Prague)
Then an interlude for shopping and for me to help Sparky seek out his old friends, Abby and Cynthia. On our way to their last known address I manage to track down a bottle of the most potent absinthe on the market, a measurable 34 grams per kilo of 'active wormwood' (or so the label claims), and at seventy-two percent alcohol this could be classed as a fuel. Maybe there is a reason why it is in what looks like a big aftershave bottle.

The shop where Sparky’s friends used to reside has been replaced by one that exclusively sells glass souvenirs. It looks like our mission to reunite him with his little soft friends of old is destined to fail. Then we spot another shop further down the same street that specialises in traditional wooden marionettes and we decide to give it a try. Amongst the puppet cast of what must be every well-known fairy tale or nursery rhyme, who should we see, put aside on a table of reduced ‘surplus stock’? 
L - R: Abby, Sparky, Cynthia - the happy-ending hat-trick!
Abby and Cynthia! They had waited four long ears (sic) for Sparky’s return. Finally they were free and were looking forward to a special screening of Harvey on our return to the UK… Mission accomplished! (There’s a bigger back story here: on my last visit to Prague I had run out of money and failed to purchase Abby and Cynthia, settling for Sparky instead, who was an instant hit and family favourite back home… but what kind of cuddly could possibly follow the distinctive little dog? Perhaps his little magical friends from the city of magick could do the trick…)
'Tesla girls - electric chairs and dynamos...'
Prague's Museum of Communism is worth a visit regardless of your political stance. The three rooms are cluttered with a wealth of retro chic, Constructivist graphics, propaganda and works of Socialist Realism. On show you will also see chilling remnants of the cold war, chemical warfare environment suits, grainy black and white photos of research establishments that look like something from Quatermass or a Kate Bush video, gulags and prison cells. There is also a cinema showing informative and visually interesting films from, and about, the (not-so-long-gone) Czech communist era. The whole gallery strives to give 'both sides of the story' all be it from a post-communist Czech context. This museum of living history reminds visitors that a great many of the people you meet in Prague will remember this period all too well, some will have been part of the Communist Coup in 1948, and many would have played their part in the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Fittingly, we round off the art tour with the Mucha Museum. Though a small museum, this is a must for any visitor interested in the cultural heritage of Prague, or in the life and work of this important artist. The collection here is small, but well-selected with a cross section of his print work and some fantastic glimpses of sketchbook pages. The life-studies are simply amazing, and his life is inspiring. It is worth sitting through the short film biography that loops in the little viewing area - informative and ultimately very moving. 

The film briefly explains his colour theories: he stated that, “Black is the colour of bondage. Blue is the past. Yellow, the joyous present. Orange, the glorious future.” With knowledge of this code, we can re-evaluate the stained glass window in St Vitus Cathedral and the wonderful Slav Epic. Mucha is far more than an illustrator of history; he is a mediator and master story-teller… an important influence on the development of the narrative image through to modern advertising, comic books and cinema.

Prague has proved to be a most pleasing city. This 'art tour' has been full of contrast and satisfying surprises and I will now look to the glorious future and enjoy an orange on the flight home.
Homeward bound - Sparky enjoys his crisps.
...Another successful arts tour! The visit went without a hitch, thanks to the help and support of Travelbound.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Thursday in Prague...

Itinerary: Dvorac Sec Gallery, Riverside Walk, Veletrzni Palac, DOX Arts Centre
'Signifier' by Remy Dean (photograph, 2013, Prague)
We are sitting underground, in the C14th cellar now occupied by the AghaRTA. The tall glasses of beer are chilled and the soundtrack is way-cool. Prague is probably the most ‘happening’ city in Europe for jazz, and the jazz that is happening here is smooth and moody and just on the right side of cheesy. It is perfect to round off an intensely busy day with a crammed itinerary. If a director wanted to set a scene in an intimate jazz club – this set-up would fit the bill in every respect. The band are spot on:  the twenty-something drummer has a sense of time that glues the music together and there are intervals of pure percussion where he lays down some real solid beats, daddio… the thirty-something keyboard player is Ondrej Kabrna, and this is his trio, his style ranges from smooth to showy… and the forty-something double-bass player mediates between keys and skins with deep rhythmic flourishes and subtle interludes…

The day started with a walk through the chilled sunshine streets around the Old Town and a visit to the classy, private gallery, Dvorac Sec, showing the new Uber Ego collection from Prague’s very own ‘bad-boy’ of contemporary art, David Cerny. I think he would have had a laugh with Jake and Dinos Chapman and he had even appropriated an image of one of their skinless charred Gestapo grinners... very current! The first room of the exhibition was ‘ruled’ by a little red London bus that groaned loudly with the strain of exertion as it went through a repeated routine of press-ups and panting respites. The endless cycle of labour and effort as it strove to carry others on a daily basis…. It was funny, with a political punch-line, like much of Cerny’s post-punk-modernist oeuvre.
Sparky thinks the Cerny-bus wants to play...
The rest of the show was dominated by conglomerations of various bright objects cast in clear resin – a bit like those novelty toilet seats with starfish set into them… There was a big erection that threw colour-dappled shadows in the shape of butterfly wings to each side. On closer inspection, some of the profiles created using this technique upped the cool factor when I recognised who they were ‘portraits’ of… To set the tone, Alfred Hitchcock (no mistaking his famous profile) looks in the opposite direction to Quentin Tarantino, and across the gallery David Lynch looks at everything from a different angle… and is that Jim Jarmusch? These ‘behind-the-camera’ Pop icons look on as a chrome Titanic sinks into the floor and a larger-than-life, though emasculated, muscle-man with a military-copter-head approaches to… well, either effect a rescue, or finish the job, I suppose.
David Cerny's Hitchcock and Tarantino face-off
So, after that kick-start to our planned day of Modern and Post-Modern, we take a leisurely stroll across the river and along its elevated north bank, heading for the huge Veletrzni Palac – the Museum of Modern Art and Design, housed in the suitably Modern, trade palace building.
'Primary' play park
On the way we enjoy hazy views across the city and pass a play area populated by cheery ceramic creatures in primary colours that could easily be mistaken for Pop Art… perhaps vice versa?
Sparky charms this bronze lady
The Veletrzni Palac is great – in size and in quality. An extensive collection of ground-breaking, Czechocentric works spanning the C2Oth century and delving further back into history to put the Modern into context. It is too big to take in during a single visit. Seven or more floors of varied and stimulating stuff… industrial design, rubbing shoulders with nouveau fashion, set-designs next to theatrically expressionistic sculptures, the Minimal conversing with the Romantic, photography and video art across the hall from decorative ceramics and abstract glass… it’s all here and much of it is a refreshing surprise to anyone used to the other big galleries found in European capitals and their ‘usual suspects’. The collection showcases some world-class, highly influential creatives, whose names may well be unfamiliar to you! Perhaps, the initial reaction is to dismiss some of the works as ‘derivative’… but not after you have read the date on the label. Some of the Czech artists who appear to be, ‘a bit like the Paris Cubists,’ or, ‘similar to the Italian Futurists,’ were producing this work at the same time, or even earlier, than their more famous colleagues…
Kurt Gebauer's 'Dwarf - Dog' dwarfs Sparky... it's all relative.
In their own, semi-permanent gallery, the vast canvases of Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic are beautifully displayed. This is the highlight of the entire trip – and that is certainly not a claim made lightly, because some of the other lights of the trip have also been very high indeed. The Slav Epic was Mucha’s masterwork, a series of 20 linked paintings that tell the story of the Slav people and their heroic, noble struggle through historical trials and tribulations. These paintings, produced over the last two decades of his life, represent a spectacular achievement for any solo artist and easily matches the grandeur of Renaissance masters. Perhaps I speak in hyperbole to draw a comparison to Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel - both are fine examples of the graphic novel on  a grand scale. Well, go see the Slav Epic and judge for yourself… it is really difficult to overstate how beautiful, moving and technically accomplished Mucha’s final (and partly unfinished) masterpiece is. Mucha is a real hero of art, certainly recognised as such in the Czech Republic, and it was to those people he bequeathed this truly epic labour of love.

Semi-permanent? There are plans to tour these huge canvasses internationally, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo… so if you possibly can, see them here in Prague where they belong. No scan or print can convey their monumental power, they have to be experienced first-hand. We had the entire gallery to ourselves, which was a luxury and a lovely opportunity to really engage at a deeper level often denied in our more popular galleries… where timed entry tickets allow us to shuffle, shoulder to shoulder, from exhibit to exhibit as if on a conveyor belt… These deeply poetic and moving works deserve more respect than that. And so do you.

After this Czech C20th saturation, we pushed on, through some urban sprawl, to a newly converted building in the middle of a huge housing estate to have a look at what is happening right now. This is the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.

Regardless of the art on show, this is a great space, with very welcoming and well-informed staff and a relaxed atmosphere. On the second floor, there is a freely accessible research library (mainly, though not exclusively in Czech) that you are encouraged to browse.

The majority of the ground floor gallery space was given over to the exhibition titled, ‘Where is my Home?’, including a good variety of photography and graphic works. A video installation about the life of a ‘tramp’ was the one that captivated me the most - oddly moving and filled with sound philosophical propositions. After watching the short film, there was a second chamber with some portraits of those he met ‘on the road’. There was great humour and humanity.
Volker Marz figurines (L - R: Donkey, Che, Marilyn, Joseph)
Volker Marz had populated the upstairs gallery with hundreds of tiny, painted clay figures. The overall effect was disturbing in the same way as grotesque illustrations for children can be disturbing. There was some overt ugliness, some restrained weirdness, some Freudian-pseudo-psycho-sexual-innuendo, and some other attempts at humour. Sparky quite liked the red-eared donkey, but was not sure at all about the rest… and I was feeling a little illified too, until the Joseph Beuys figurines cheered me up a bit, particularly the set of three where he slept next to Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe… So, then I needed a good coffee in the old-meets-modern cafeteria, with its seductive cakes, angle lamp ‘chandeliers’, mismatched tables and chairs. The doors opened onto a roof terrace with patio furniture and views of some large scale sculptures, including a Christ made from lost trainers and a huge crimson skull in orbit around the ‘little tower’.

The night breeze was refreshingly cool and the tram took us on a ‘fairground ride’ of blurred suburban streetlamps back to the golden lights of the Old Town centre… Before 'all that jazz' gets under way, there is just enough time for a meal of rustic cabbage soup followed by slow-roasted pork knuckle - served on a wooden 'sled-plate' with freshly made coleslaw, pickled vegetables, green-beans, mustard, horseradish... probably the best meal of the trip, thoroughly enjoyed in the relaxed and tasteful (literally) U Dvou Sester (Two Sisters) restaurant - when in Prague...

Then a short walk to the inconspicuous AghaRTA club …that’s jazz!



Ondrej Kabrna Trio - same venue, different bass-player.