Friday 7 November 2014

Poppies Revisited

I went back to the Tower of London this week to revisit the poppies.  I went for a few reasons.  First, because I wanted to see how the installation had grown since I last saw it. Second, because the poppies have become a realio, trulio PHENOMENON of their own.  Everyone, from the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones (‘prettified’, ‘toothless', ‘inward looking’), to Boris Johnston (‘awe-inspiring’, ‘global visitor attraction’) has weighed in and every day, crowds of people stream across Tower Bridge and round Tower Hill to see for themselves.



The sea of poppies has indeed grown since September, and the poppies almost fill the space between the Tower’s outer perimeter and the main wall.  I was struck by how well the installation works as a visual statement: the sweep of vivid colour against the monochromatic stone draws your gaze.  It’s simple, powerful, and – crucially – looks amazing in photos.  But while simple, the installation isn’t simplistic and it’s doing it a disservice to suggest the poppies have been popular because they appeal to the lowest common denominator. Every time I look at this flood of red I remember the title of the work: ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’.  From a distance, it does almost look like the Tower is surrounded by a blood-filled moat. 






I think, too, that we are always moved when we see evidence of war narratives being shown to be composed of individual stories: a poppy for every dead soldier.  That said, the effect of this is, for me, diluted by the fact that the poppies do produce something of the effect of military graveyards: all those serried ranks of identical white crosses, all those identical red poppies.

I think Jonathan Jones made a valid point that a fitting testimony to the dead of World War I would represent all of the soldiers who died – not just the British combatants.  But that memorial would have looked very different.  Because what struck me as I walked across Tower Bridge this week is that almost every person was wearing a poppy pinned to their coat.  It is a quintessentially British symbol and this is a quintessentially British memorial. 




Given my general pro-poppy stance, you might be wondering if I’m also wearing a poppy this November.  I did consider it.  I thought that maybe in what politicians like to call the new era of British-Irish relations I could embrace a symbol that has a difficult and unhappy history in my homeland.  I thought that wearing the poppy might be a way of honouring my Great-Uncle Jim, who served in the Royal Artillery and died in Northern France in 1917.  I remembered my ‘your people shall be my people’ approach to ANZAC Day.  In the end, I decided it still doesn’t feel right for me.  But, on Sunday, the Irish Ambassador will lay a wreath on the cenotaph in Whitehall as part of the Remembrance Day service.  And that feels right.

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UPDATED TO ADD: even as I wrote about the Irish Ambassador taking part in the Remembrance Sunday service, I wondered whether I was right about him laying a wreath of poppies.  I was not.  In fact he laid a wreath of green leaves.  http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/irish-ambassador-lays-wreath-at-london-ceremony-1.1994009 

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Becoming a Bird

The Treachery of Sanctuary is an interactive installation by Chris Milk that combines motion capture and projection to create a sophisticated but beautifully intuitive update on shadow puppetry.

Stand in front of the triptych of screens and, as you watch, your shadow transforms into a great bird, gaining huge, Angel-of-Death like wings that respond to your every motion.







It's part mesmerising, part terrifying to see your winged alter ego rising up from the mirrored floor.




But before you can get too caught up in this shadowy persona, your bird avatar starts to disintegrate, each piece flying away and becoming part of the ghostly flock that hovers around the edges of the installation.



If you follow this link to the story behind the piece's creation, you can trace its origins back to the cave paintings at Lascaux.  We are fascinated with shadows.

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The Treachery of Sanctuary was on show as part of Digital Revolution at the Barbican in London and can be seen next at the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology.  

Friday 24 October 2014

Looking Back at the Louvre Lens

The Louvre Lens (a satellite of the Louvre Museum in the Northern French town of Lens) displays its main collection in one enormous 'grande galerie', more than 120m long.  The art is arranged in slices along a timeline, so that as you move through the space you moved through the history of art.  What with the white plinths, the strict geometry and the reflective walls, it's quite an effect …



But there's another effect, too.  As you walk through the gallery, almost all of the sculpture is facing you -


which means that if you happen, like Orpheus, to look back - you see a sea of naked bottoms.


Evidence of the law of unintended consequences or a deliberate decision?  I'm not sure which would please me more, but these photos still make me laugh.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Nellie's Flat


Last weekend was Open House weekend in Dublin.  For anyone who doesn't know, Open House happens in cities all over the world around this time of year and, for one weekend, buildings that are normally closed to the public open their doors.  This year, there was only one building I really wanted to see: the Iveagh Trust Museum Flat in Dublin's Liberties.

The flat is in a building complex owned by the Iveagh Trust, a philanthropic body set up by the Guinness family in the late 19th century to build social housing for the poor of London and Dublin.  I've always been a bit fascinated by these distinctive red brick apartment blocks in one of the oldest parts of the city (sandwiched between the two cathedrals, just up from the old Viking settlement) so when I heard one of the flats had been preserved as a museum, I waited for the opportunity to visit.  Thank you Open House!  

Henry and Anne Molloy moved into Flat 3B in 1915, having previously rented two other flats in the building.  Their daughter Nellie was born in one of those flats in 1907 and lived in 3B from 1915 to her death in 2002.  There's a film on the Iveagh Trust site all about Nellie - and a photograph of her is one of the first things you see when you enter the flat.


When Nellie died, her family agreed with the Trustees that the flat should be preserved as a museum - a reminder of how these flats looked and how people lived here in the past.  

The flat has three rooms: a general living room and two bedrooms.  The original design provided for four flats accessed from the same landing to share two toilets and a big sink.  Although other flats in the complex have been modernised over the years, Nellie resisted offers to add a bathroom or a proper kitchen.  When you look at these photos, please consider: at one time there were EIGHT people living here.  Six children sharing one bedroom, their parents the other, with the third room serving as living room, dining room, kitchen.  And this would have been considered a pretty good standard of living at the time.  

No space in the living room is unused.  In a space about 9m2 there is a range set into the fireplace, a kind of pantry/cupboard in the corner,




a long leather sofa, a table with four chairs, two easy chairs, another folding table, a sideboard and sundry photos, holy pictures, ornaments.


Oh, and a piano.  Did I mention the piano?


One of the bedrooms has space for two twin beds, some hooks and a chest of drawers.  The second now only has one brass bed, but this is where, once upon a time, the six children would have slept.  You can still see a curtain rail running across the ceiling - a curtain was used to divide the boys' side of the room from the girls' side.


Tucked behind the door was a small, slightly more modern, stove.


The washing facilities:


What struck me most about the flat was not the size (although it's hard to imagine how it worked when everyone was at home - squeezing past the piano, taking it in shifts to eat meals ...), nor the decor (though you have never seen such a range and variety of holy pictures and memorabilia) but the  quality of light which gilded everything like in a Dutch Golden Age painting.  While I'm sure the atmosphere in the flat wasn't always as serene and lovely as it was last Saturday afternoon, I think I can understand why Nellie might have wanted to keep it as it was - a kind of illuminated shrine to her family.


Visiting the flat can be arranged by appointment, by contacting the Iveagh Trust.

Friday 17 October 2014

The Poetical Walls of Leiden

For the past year or so, I've been working on a project in beautiful Leiden, home of the oldest university  in the Netherlands.

A couple of weeks ago, we went out for an evening stroll along the canal and I spotted this house.


I assumed the residents were just big Shakespeare fans.  Why NOT paint Sonnet XXX on the side of your house?  Good idea.

But then I also saw this house and realised that it wasn't just a once off, but a project to transform buildings into outsized pages of poetry.


And here's another one.


It turns out these 'wall poems' are part of an ongoing project, and rather than being temporary, they remain for everyone to find and enjoy.

Lovely idea, no?

If you should find yourself in Leiden, the project website has a full list of the poems (107 and counting) and a map, so you can design your own walking tour.