Archive for the ‘art’ Category

The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet

October 10, 2014

There’s a touring exhibition called ‘Unreliable Evidence’ at the Mead Gallery, University of Warwick.  We went there on a day of pouring rain, and drove around endlessly, searching for a place to park the car.  I was expecting to see the Manet painting of ‘The Execution of Maximilian’.  I’ve seen reproductions in books about art, but it’s always wonderful to see the full-sized reality.



No substitute for the real thing – but this gives you an idea.


And that indeed was what I saw – sort of.   In my inexperience I didn’t know that there are three versions of the painting, and the one I saw – part of the National Gallery tour – is incomplete.  Nothing like the painting represented above.
So I was a little disappointed not to see (for example) Maximilian’s face; or any part of his second General. (Actually, three people were executed by firing squad that day, but the painting’s title only mentions one of them.)


in pieces

in pieces



There were other installations and exhibits accompanying the Manet – some a little jejune, some repetitiously under-ambitious, but there was one that spoke to me. I’m still thinking about it now. On a small television screen, a nice-looking man – lean, bearded, slightly greying was seated in a room, richly-coloured like a library, all browns and dark reds. He looked perhaps fifty, but then, one thought, war must age people.



Not quite how I remember it - did he really wear a suit?

Not quite how I remember it – did he really wear a suit?


He was in the middle of reading (or reciting?) a story in Arabic, about a family whose apartment is bombed, turning a single sheet of yellowed paper, like a newspaper, over in his hands from time to time.



Rabih mroue 2

reading from a piece of paper.


His voice was smooth and deep – a dark brown voice – while the English subtitles (in white) were just a little rocky, and a fraction behind the beat. Or it seemed that way. How would I know? I have no Arabic at all. It was mesmeric. Of course, wandering round a gallery one actually hears such a story in pieces: from the middle to the end, and then from the beginning to the middle. Provided you linger in front of it for long enough, provided you pay attention. Then it turned out (how did I know this?) that real life had imitated the story, again and again, and so he never wrote another story. As I talk about this, I can feel accuracy slipping away from me. What did I see and in what order? When did I know these things? How? The reading was only a part of the installation. Near it on the wall I think there was a description of the story – or of the events that mimicked it. Or were they also part of the story? Maybe the mimicking events never really happened at all?

Near that again, there was a wooden set of card-holders attached to the wall, holding what seemed to be old-style file-cards for the books in a library – also in Arabic, so I can’t guarantee that they were indeed that. Beautiful, light wood, carefully routed out to hold each individual card separately;





beautifully written file card entries, all in fountain pen.





I have always loved the file-card indexes, and regret their passing. And I thought – do I like this piece because so much of it involves words and books? It hooks me where I care most. But there was more still. The file cards were out of order. The story around them was that they were devised to help the artist’s (storyteller’s) father to locate books on his chaotically unsystematic shelves. They worked efficiently for a time, but later they were themselves scrambled, and so became useless – yet, they represented the state of the bookshelves more accurately. I think it said that his Dad died somewhere during this process of organisation and disorganisation. See? I’m losing it again.


And then there was a third object, also part of the installation. In a glass case, laid out flat, about thirty sheets of ruled paper, filled with mathematical calculations equations and argument. Again the manuscript was neat and the penmanship beautiful.  Written on one side of the page and thus we can see it – complete.  (Do I begin to feel just a tiny bit suspicious?)  It was in English, insofar as maths is in any language, analysing aspects of Fibonacci’s work. Never published.





We are told that this was a work that his father had devoted himself to, and again I lost the thread: something to do with rabbits multiplying exponentially. Like the Arabic material, it was wondrously inaccessible to me.

Later, at home, I started to see how that installation only appears to say that reality can be built out of bits. More profoundly, it speaks of the fragmentation of reality through its reportage. It displays an understanding that the stories around the family’s experiences of war, and of life generally, are bitty and sometimes impenetrable. And also, certainly, untrustworthy – for who am I to say that a cluster of artefacts in a gallery was real, and not assembled – fudged up – by the artist for precisely this purpose? Or maybe some bits of it were more closely related to reality than others.


That brought me back to the fragmented painting. In the ‘Execution’, the painted reportage of the event is broken up as if the painting has been cropped, just as we do digitally nowadays with our out-of-kilter photos. And so our gaze is directed somewhere else, away from the centre.  The main character is missing, and another is there in his place. Frustrated viewers, we want to see Maximilian’s obscure face, as he looks at death, but the cut has spirited him away from those close-thrusting rifles. We grasp at history, and bits fall apart before our eyes, showing us instead altogether other things: the ambition of Manet starkly outlined in the soldiers’ trousers; the general who might (or might not) have held the tin-pot Emperor’s hand. The Sergeant with his focussed face, cut out, stands taller on the right hand side and becomes a separate subject in his own right.


This what we are told: this is the history.
The Execution of Maximilian depicts the fatal moment when the young Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, abandoned by the French colonial forces that had installed him there some three years earlier, was shot alongside two of his generals, Mejia and Miramón, on 19 June 1867. The left hand section of the canvas was lost during Manet’s lifetime. After his death it was cut into smaller fragments, some of which were sold off separately, eventually to be reassembled by Edgar Degas. The painting has been part of the National Gallery collection since 1918.

(Elsewhere we are told that Manet kept the painting in poor conditions and damp got at the left hand side, some portions of which could not be saved.)

Visiting Auckland – May 2013

August 11, 2013

I think I must be a sad disappointment to Ann and Colin.

Ann likes to begin the day briskly: “Well! What’s the plan?”  I so wish I could do that too, and be a person who could answer her properly – but I rarely have a plan, especially first thing in the morning.  My suggestions seemed to strike Ann as rather feeble and inadequate – she likes to do three or four different things in a day, and ideally have a fifth idea up her sleeve.

Ann is a powerhouse of energy.

Ann is a powerhouse of energy.

Even so, we did some lovely, if unlikely, things in 2013.

Last time in Auckland, we had visited the Arataki Centre centre hastily and at the end of a long day, so one of my goals was to go back and see it in more detail.


It was a chancy, wet-and-dry day, but we had a walk – Ann looked doubtfully at my sandals (they are strong sandals) and wouldn’t let me go on the longer walk over muddy terrain.

They came from a sale in Chateauroux, years ago.  Then, they were stylish. Now, just practical and comfy

They came from a sale in Chateauroux, years ago. Then, they were stylish. Now, just practical and comfy

She was probably right.  Our walk led downhill through the dense forest, past ferns and under tall trees – stunning New  Zealand native bushland.

it was a bit like this

it was a bit like this

We stayed dry-shod, and at the bottom of the hill we met some people in a car who were lost and looking for the Arataki centre.  We gave them careful directions, but never saw them again.  I said it was a complicated city.

That weekend, my wonderful English daughter emailed and told me that she would be having a baby in November – so Ann and I dashed out to buy knitting wool and needles, driving (as usual) miles and miles through Auckland.  (It’s a very drive-around sort of city – partly I suppose to do with its layout around two harbours and various mountains.)


Rome has seven hills – Auckland has more!)

Ann is a knitter too, and we went to a staggering kind of warehouse for craft, wool and everything, called Spotlight.  The name suggests stage ambitions; amateur dance competitions; pancake makeup; bring on the clowns – all that.

There are amazing and unimaginable crafts out there, especially in New Zealand and Australia.  (Turns out that Spotlight is also well known in Australia).  I felt as if I had discovered a pirate hoard of joyous colour and vulgar bizarrerie all mingled together – and wanted everything of course.  That’s what pirate hoards do – they bring out the greed in us.


But I managed to remember the size and fullness of my suitcase and only bought twice as much wool as I actually needed.  (What to buy?  What to leave?  – It has features in common with those ‘packing dreams’ – in which the house is burning and you have to grab only what you can carry.)


On a day of heavy downpours I walked up the hill to the slightly hippy, slightly gentrified suburb of Titirangi – a place of coffee shops and alternative small ads where I feel right at home.  There I found a second hand bookshop doing what bookshops do these days: closing down and moving online.  Sadly.

All Books Half Price

(crossed out) followed by

Make me an Offer

followed by

Closed for Lunch.

I came back after lunch, of course.  There ought to be a word for that intense greed that one feels in bookshops – again, I wanted everything, whether I really wanted it or not.  Nothing would fit in the suitcase, but maybe I could stash some around my laptop, in the carry-on bag?  And they wouldn’t be for me exactly – after all, I have been downsizing and throwing out sack upon sack of books – I could give some (lovely presents!) to family in Australia.  I came out with an early edition of The Saint (for my brother); a nice little compact copy of The 39 Steps (valuable once – ‘it’ll only go on the bonfire’ claimed the seller, a witty, somewhat post-prandial man of about my own age, attractive if you are into domineering intellectual booksellers); and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley.

Smiley is a favourite author, and this novel turned out to be clever, informative and funny – a real keeper, even though it was one of those oddly huge, heavy paperbacks that mimic hardback format.  And something else that I’ve now forgotten – more than enough to lug up onto the plane.  Then a peculiarly Antipodean event happened: I paid for the books, and realised that I had no way of getting them home dry.  The bookshop could provide an ecologically sound paper bag.  My borrowed raincoat was already soaked and tight-fitting, and the rain was getting even heavier (hard to believe).  So I left the books with him, to collect tomorrow.  Halfway home I realised that I had given away quite a lot of money (‘make me an offer’ turned out to be an exaggeration) and had neither books nor receipt to show for it.  Oh well – this was New Zealand, and it was all completely OK.  Next morning (he’s not at his best in the mornings) I dropped by and all was well – not exactly a pirate hoard, more of a dragon’s golden lair, but ’twas an honest dragon.

On Sunday kind and perceptive Ann had realised that I’d rather spend a long time in one place than a whole lot of short times in differeent place.  She kindly left me to wander around a fine old house-turned-Art Gallery, Pah Homestead, while she rushed off about her grandmotherly duties.  And came back in time for excellent coffee on the terrace.

Pah Homestead

Pah Homestead

All I had done was browse the house, while she had quartered Auckland by car, zipping to and fro through the weekend traffic. So much more to say about Pah and about the Auckland Art Gallery – I will leave them till a later post.

Next time I go to New Zealand I will have some plans prepared in advance.  So I’ve made a list of things I will take with me.

  1. enough money and time to go for a road trip down the west coast of the South Island and see the fiords;
  2. proper walking shoes so that I can cover distance and interesting ground – even though they are heavy, bulky things to carry;
    good walking shoes

    good walking shoes – don’t talk to me about style!

    These walking shoes are being modelled in Scotland – I wish I had had them with me in New Zealand.

    I said: 'Don't talk to me about style!'

    I said: ‘Don’t talk to me about style!’

    And a good pair of shoes will take you a long way –

    a long way - - -

    a long way – – –


  3. a  map of Auckland; (and a bus map)

    The map I take will be more detailed than this.  But you can see how complicated it is.

    The map I take will be more detailed than this. But you can see how complicated it is.

  4. some more ideas of places to go for day trips in and around Auckland;
  5. a raincoat; (for more about my raincoats, see my post “Kindness in Adelaide“)


“Blood on Paper” at the V&A – 2008

July 8, 2013

– – – and so eventually I came to the V&A and walked through the exhibition ‘Blood on Paper: the Art of the Book’ .  How odd and appropriate that I had just felt so impelled to buy a notebook  (pretentious Moleskine – but my very first) and a pen.  The exhibition had much to say about the need to inscribe; to make art; to write as part of life.  It showed life, art and writing-as-printing all intersecting and feeding one another.  And so I write in my notebook straight away, here outside:

The exhibition made me feel really happy . – I felt understood, and full of understanding at the same time.  It shows that one can make (I can make) my life (my life’s artefacts?) into an art work.  There is an issue about how to display them, though.  I can display myself, but I can’t print myself off in copies. I liked the Rauschenberg:


Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925) ‘Traces Suspectes en Surface’ By Alain Robbe-Grillet 1972 – 1978 Published by Universal Limited Art Editions, Long Island, New York National Art Library, V&A, pressmark: 81 Drawer 13 © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2008 Lithographs

and the Francis-Ting:

The 1c Life


and, of course (but in a different way) the Bacon.  These are works that put words into a really assertively visual medium . . . and then both are intensified.  The chap doing a philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical?) analysis of colour was good too.

Daniel Buren

Daniel Buren (b. 1938)
‘Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal’ by Aimé Césaire
Published by Editions du Solstice, Paris
Courtesy Jean-Claude Meyer, Les Editions du Solstice
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2008

Silkscreen prints; letterpress


Outside, in the open air – children and fountains – I can’t help overhearing the quiet conversation at the next table: a father and daughter.  I wish it would go away.  The tottering children are so stylishly dressed – perhaps that’s another kind of life-as-art.  Soon I will go and look at the jewellery section.

Sorting and packing my own books yesterday has made me very conscious of beauties and possibilities – of how lovely these printed texts are.  At Northampton the art students’ showed a collection of  ‘Altered Books’ – books that had been cut, pasted, re-jigged.

from 2009 - but it gives you the idea

from 2009 – but it gives you the idea

The way in which they are altered adds to the story they tell – or maybe just changes it.

altered book - Northampton U. 2007

altered book – Northampton U. 2007

Northampton U. - 2007

Northampton U. – 2007

They made me think of the ‘prepared piano’ – relating to conventional narrative as such a piano relates to conventional music.

John Cage - Prepared Piano

John Cage – Prepared Piano

It also reminded me of the photos I had to take of my flood-damaged books, so that the insurance company would believe me. At first I was literal about it, but then I started to see their beauty, too.


a Loeb volume of Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ – expensive once – but the colours of the staining here strike me as subtle – delicate as a bruise


a little, cheap paperback – that strange green shows its age

a library copy that has been damaged in several ways

a library copy that has been damaged in several ways, not just by the flood


I wondered whether those art works at the V&A could strictly be counted as books – many were one-off works.  Certainly the ‘altered books’ were not replicable.  My son used to play a game called ‘Altered Beast’ – which makes me think again of deformity and mutation.  Why and how are we consciously mutating our books?  What is it in our culture that makes us thrill to these transformations?


This Moleskine is like a little machine of a book.  It has working parts: an ‘expandable inner pocket’ – what joy!  – a ribbon marker, and the elastic band to hold it closed.  So, insofar as a book’s need (and its duty, and its gift to us) is to open and close, this one does that very thing, that very essence of bookness, only in extra ways.   Like the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Postman it goes beyond expectations, and like the child reader, I delight in it.

Such generosity!



tea party with dog

May 22, 2013


Adelaide Art Gallery – really the ‘Art Gallery of South Australia’.  Tired, ratty and querulous, I prowl its incomprehensible galleries, searching for a way out.  No Exit.  Signage is non-existent and the floor-plan misleading.  Bouncing off the dead-ends, recoiling from the Turner exhibition, returning again and again to the truly upsetting flayed horse, I crave outside air, natural light, a loo.    The ‘sculpture courtyard’ has two sculptures – three if you count a low pocked concrete wall about a metre high, that forms a rough triangle around dry grass.  Drier and more beaten than the watered lawn outside it,  it looks neglected.  I’m starting to turn against sculpture courtyards.  But in the end there really is a cafe – and a gift shop: refreshment.

Amongst the slightly tedious assemblage of early Australian art, breathing darkly of a more decorous age, huge Hans Heysens glow with commanding reality.  They are wonderful – the reproductions in books give only the faintest sense of their effect.  I hear Heysen’s name in my mother’s voice: she is a big fan.  How is it that the greats are always astonishing in their greatness, no matter how much we would like to discover that others are just as good?

There are some lovely discoveries, though.  I haven’t heard of Clarice Beckett before: a Melbourne artist of soft light, tenderly captured.  Her works feel remarkably modern – they reach out and illuminate the heavy walls.  This one is called ‘Morning Shadows’.

Morning Shadows

Morning Shadows


The most intriguing moment comes when I see E. Phillips Fox’s ‘Alfresco’ – at first I mistake it for another Beckett – but it is older, and comes out of that altogether more narrative approach of the late nineteenth century.  It is concerned with light, yes, but also (and entertainingly) with composition.

"Tea Party with Dog"

“Tea Party with Dog”

Within a drift of light pastel shades, the central lady in the red dress attracts our attention, so that she and the dark-clad man seem to be the focus of the picture.  His dark suit ebbs away into the dark-and-white dress of the servant, whose back is turned.  At the same time, the intense black splash of colour that is the little spaniel is the more sharply focussed part of the picture.  Invisible to the chatting couple, two people on the edges of the group are engaged in feeding the little dog illicit tit-bits.  This action draws our gaze away from the centre, towards the periphery; away from the male-and-female couple’s interaction towards the animal – from speech to the senses.  One could take this further and think about a contrast between formality and subversion, but perhaps it makes most sense to go along with the witty insertion of distraction as a topic, and to note that the lady in the important hat may not be as important to this picture as she thinks.  Fox even offers us the servant’s detachment as a hint that we too can detach ourselves from the centre and indulge ourselves in a secret little game with the dog .

Animals and Art

May 7, 2013

It’s been a bad week for the wild beasts. Yesterday I went to the Art Gallery in Adelaide – a charming place, with excellent early Australian art, a cute gift shop and a lively café. And an unavoidable ‘sculpture’ of a highly realistic horse, strung up and partly skinned. The furry bits of dark hide asked to be stroked, it looked so real. I’m pretty good with intellectual horrors normally – I can look at that painting of Marsyas being flayed (see below), and I’ve watched ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’. Something about that horse, though, was deeply grotesque and disturbing beyond description. I had to scuttle past, repelled and diminished: it had turned me into a scared little old lady who just wasn’t up to it.

I wonder if that is a function of art: to show us ourselves in unexpected ways?  Perhaps the horse was successful, then.

Back in Canberra now, with the weekend papers still to read.

The Canberra Times for Saturday, May 4th seems determined to publish heartbreaking stories – all the sadder for the callous aura that its strangely upbeat tone supplies.

The main front page photo on Saturday shows a dingo gazing at the camera from the back of a ute, while the story  jauntily tells of how this dingo was domesticated (to an extent) years ago. Mick, who a professional Government dog-trapper (as well as other animals), ‘spared her life’, which seems to be code for saying that he slaughtered the rest of her family.  He named her ‘Jess’. She has spent her life endlessly seeking out feral dogs and dingos, whom Mick then traps and kills. The subtle brutalities of Mick’s matter-of-fact language are scarcely concealable. She howls when she sees wild dog packs and ‘is on a long lead because she won’t come back when she is called.’ How far the journalist (and sub-editor) are colluding when they speak of the ‘crack team’, I leave up to you.

Even Mick seems, by the end of the piece, to have achieved some kind of consciousness of his appalling work. Here’s how it closes:

“- – – the challenge still drives him. ‘I’ve been after a bitch for three years,’ he said, heading into Gudgenby before dawn. ‘I came close near Tharwa. I’ve caught her pups. She’s even stepped on the [trap’s] plate. She’ll slip up one day. But you’ve got to admire her, she’s bloody smart. It’s almost sad, really, when you catch them – it’s like the end of an era.’ ”

Reeling from that essay, we turn to the back page looking for recreation, only to find the headline ‘Sad end as lost lamb gets the chop’. Somewhere on a busy road in Canberra a truck crash killed ‘scores of sheep’ (actually lambs, we find out later) some of whom escaped and fled. (Wouldn’t you?) There’s no tension in this story, as the headline has told it all, but anyway – the lamb managed to cross busy roads and hole up near the café on Regatta Point. (Sorry – don’t know where that is exactly – I’m a stranger here myself – I think it’s a pretty spot by the lake.)

When it was found to have a broken leg – well, naturally, (‘unfortunately’) they put it down. Shame on you, Mr Scott! Lots of animals survive with only three legs! Some nameless member of the public brought the lamb in – well, next time, member of the public, you’ll know better. Don’t phone the authorities, but take the lost lamb to your own vet and spend whatever it takes to get it mended. Keep it in your back yard with water and grazing and household scraps, and in dry weather give it some hay. A creature of courage and sagacity, an escapologist, a lucky chancer – surely it will be worth your trouble.




Titian’s painting of Marsyas:

Titian: Flaying of Marsyas

Titian: Flaying of Marsyas

WOW! . . .

May 24, 2011

. . .  stands for ‘World of Wearable Art’ – it’s a museum of clothes in which theatrical costume meets Lady Gaga.  And for some imponderable reason, all this shares space with a Museum of Classic Cars.  The style is wonderfully surreal and joky.

outside the museum

I was a bit dubious, not really being into fashion.  But the first sight of the museum was promising. The car appears to float on water –

this improbable creature reigns by the entrance

the labels are lovingly detailed

This tells us that the glamorous white beauty is an Excalibur.

Model              Four door touring sedan.
Year                 1988.
Engine             350 Chevy V8
Car stylist Brooks Stevens designed the first Excalibur as a show car for Studebaker, using an Avanti engine and a Lark chassis.  When Studebaker pulled the plug on the project, even though the car had been a huge success at the show, his sons decided to set up their own company to produce the neo-classic which was originally based on the 1930 Mercedes-Benz SSK sports car.
. . . a Chevrolet rather than a Studebaker power unit, and all production Excalibur cars have been fitted with Chevrolet Corvette engines, though the Studebaker chassis was retained until 1970.

So it seems as if it’s ‘classic’ in a fairly modern interpretation of the term.  (There’s more on the sign, if you care to enlarge it and read on.)
To my great delight, you are allowed to sit in some of the cars.  Memories of childhood: the smell of leather upholstery, the satisfying complex crunch of the doors closing – part sound, part sensation.   Like a little kid I played at driving – moving the gear stick, holding the wheel, pressing the pedals in.

There was a De Lorean (dolled up as the ‘Back to the Future’ car’), a thirties gangster car (with fake shotgun holes), a ‘before restoration’ example which made the gleaming beauties even more impressive – and too many more to name.
There was also an abandoned black backpack by the entrance door.  I thought – here I am in a temple to American wealth and consumerist display – and there’s a lonely bag just next to me.  But then again, I am in New Zealand.  All those railway station and airport announcements about ‘unattended luggage’ had their sway: I could phone the cops and have it eliminated in one of their ‘controlled explosions’.  Instead, I accosted some mild individuals, just a little way further around the room, who looked glazed.  Next I found a good-looking young man with a tripod, taking sophisticated photos of the cars – yes, it was his bag.  He was amazed to hear that he was doing sinister and scary things with it.  And slightly amused, too, to find the modern world impinging on him, borne by a grey-haired worrier-type.  “We are in Nelson,” he pointed out.  “Not many extremists here.”  I was only slightly abashed – after all, even if there is no threat, making people nervous should perhaps also be avoided.
A tantalising selection of random bits of three different vehicles, and some unreadable labels.  My childish technique of non-composition at work again, I guess.

this one is called a 'Commander' - that's a dummy standing next to it.

All this, and I was less than halfway round.  G. was waiting for me outside – how much can one really try a hosts’s patience?
The WOW! really is amazing – and more and more convincing as you work your way around through it.  The centrepiece is a video screening of the fashion parades that have displayed these pieces over the years – but they are more like athletic/gymnastic/dance shows.  Quite stunning and amazing.  Many of the costumes perform (or represent) ideas derived from myth – animal legends, bird myths, Maori and other cultures – all feature here and are interpreted in extraordinary and challenging ways.

Eos - a bird god

The displays are static – you need movement as well, really, to see how they worked when they were new and fresh.  I couldn’t resist buying a copy of the DVD for my mother, who loves art.

Ornitho-Maia (bird mother) is made of leather - one thinks of Boudicca, or maybe of Britomart again.

Amazingly, the gift shop also sells little bits of the Ornitho-Maia.  It’s like a talisman to have something tactile like that to keep – but how can they possibly do it?  Maybe the designer made a lot of spares? It’s a wonderful small gift shop: full of variety, interest and good taste.

luminous costumes, circling the dark

You are allowed to take photos of the cars but not of the costumes – but I only noticed the sign as I left (having entered in the wrong direction, and exited through the entrance door).  (I must have been fairly disorientated that day). So I had already taken lots of photos.  Anyway, I mentioned this to the lady behind the desk, and she said it was OK.  I don’t know how moral it is to put them up here – but maybe it will bring more visitors to the Museum, rather than fewer. Here are some more:  The annual fashion show of Wearable Art became so popular that it started to swamp Nelson with visitors, and had to be moved away to a larger venue – (possibly Auckland?) – but the Museum remains.

Nelson, South Island – 21st-22nd February

May 5, 2011

Nelson was like another world.  My friend in Nelson  (I’ll call her G.) has a remarkable talent for integrating her houses with their surroundings.  Any work of art requires more than just talent, and G. has studied and thought carefully about architecture, art and function as well.  Her style is about ideology almost as much as it is about taste. Books on her shelves include the inspiring How Buildings Learn by  Stewart Brand (1994).  He made a six-parter with the BBC, based on the book.  Beware, though: this clip is half an hour long:
 Just now, looking him up on Wikipedia I discover that this is same man who was responsible for the famous Whole Earth Catalog (sic) back in the seventies, well known to anyone interested in self sufficiency at the time.  At G’s, over time, one notices more and more of the details that she has wrought into her home.  The bathroom floor of this seaside house swims in the sea: a subtle linoleum (specially imported) in complex shades of dark blue-green – the colours of the deep.  It’s not Brand’s ‘low road’, but it is immensely thought-filled: effort that creates a relaxation.  The house is bedded into a hill at the back, and looks out over the broad expanse of  Tasman Bay to the mountains on the opposite shore.  Windows everywhere make it wonderfully light and construct fabulous views.

view west (?) to the mountains behind Nelson

(Unfortunately these photos below don’t show the mountains across the bay too clearly – it was a misty day.  But it’s my first ever attempt at a collage panorama! Should look good when enlarged, I hope. That’s how to see the mountains.)

 The house is reached by a steep-ish winding path, through wooden gates painted bright red – the colour of a Japanese tori-i.  They form both a boundary and a welcome, she says.  The garden, burgeoning but welcomingly slightly scruffy, mingles flowers and vegetables.  The slightly New Age garden sculpture wouldn’t be my choice, but its tone does feel appropriate to New Zealand.  Somewhere in the middle of all the moments of delighted appreciation, I realised that the house follows feng shui principles.  Maybe that was the source of its profound sense of peace and order.  It may have broken the bank to renovate this little old house with such care and attention to detail, but it was surely worth it.
And then the structures fell apart, because Tuesday was the day of the earthquake.  Christchurch heaved and tumbled while we, trivially unaware, scooted around Nelson’s art galleries and coffee shops, in and out of random showers.  At least, this was until G. (who knows everybody) ran into a friend in the street who said: “There’s been a quake in Christchurch.”  We took this calmly – a quake can mean something quite small, after all – and then she said: “It sounds serious – there’s been deaths.”  That was obviously worse, but even then we went on with our lightning-swift tour of the lovely Victorian gardens (the Queen’s Gardens), the Suter Art Gallery Museum, and its cafe.  
Only when we were back at home and turned on the TV did we understand the scale of the disaster.  I can’t begin to rival the descriptions given by others, or the footage that was shown at the time.  Camera crews were showing us events in real time.  We sat and watched the darkness of dust clouds, wrecked buildings still toppling and moving, the fires and smoke that were impossible to put out.   We watched for hours, G. weeping, while I (as always in troubled times) felt nothing.  That’s my survival mechanism, I guess: the feelings come later, once the emergency is over.  It grew dark and the news crews started repeating the most dramatic moments.  Eventually the same clips had come round once too often, and we switched off, saturated, to make contact with friends and family, and donate online to the Sally Army.  Nothing else to be done for the moment, but deal with the helpless agitation that television coverage creates.

animals in public life

November 14, 2010

A friend’s blog post mentioning the Lake George zebras made me think of various other animal installations that I have encountered.  (It is    So far I know of the travelling cows that went through various European cities in 2006, and the toads in Hull this year.  I would love to hear of more. 

I am calling them ‘installations’ because they are not quite sculptures: they don’t have that feeling of permanence and marmoreality.  Instead they are engaged with reality in a different way – they address our experience of the animal, and our human myth-making about the animal.  Often, too, they are playful, but not in a naff or whimsical way – once one gets into the kittens-and-puppies-and-pink-bows area, one has left this category far behind.  On the other hand, not everyone has a taste for this kind of art.  The zebras, after all, attracted vandalism of a quite nasty nature, reminiscent of the attacks on horses in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. 

Here are the fibreglass zebras in their original habitat:

Zebras and cloud at Lake George

The toads in Hull were rather different – very much an official civic installation, celebrating Hull’s famous citizen and poet, Philip Larkin. 

Summary toad

Psychedelic toad

There is a marvellously detailed description, with pictures of the toads and their locations, at:

 But isn’t there something quietly ironic taking place when the Council uses an image from a disgruntled, rebellious and ultimately rather sadly resigned poem?  As so often, only the first two lines are widely known, and they certainly sound strong and angry enough to give any city mayor pause.  Nevertheless, perhaps we should admire their courage –

Why should I let the toad work
  Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
  With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
  That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
  Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
  They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
  With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
  they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
  Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
  No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
  To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
  That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
  Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
  And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
  My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
  All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
  One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
  When you have both.


The first time I saw one of these animal installations was in Budapest, in 2006.  There, the city of Pest was dotted with large – full-size, really – statues of cows.  Each one was differently painted and I think some had rather different stances.  They were enchanting and enigmatic, just standing on pavements here and there throughout the city, surprising and challenging interpretation.  It turned out that they were a travelling show – being moved from one city in Europe to another throughout the summer – and so there was also some kind of statement about pan-Europeanism to be found in their presence.  They had a past, and a vagabond-like casualness, that their clean obstinacy of form quite hid. Also, each cow would seem differrent in different locations (or at least I suspect so).  A mad desire to follow them around from country to country swept into my mind.  Alas – impossible – but Pest was amply enough, really.

cow near the Danube 2006

same cow - front view


More pictures can be seen at: and in looking for those, I’ve just found an explanation of the whole deal.  If you would rather not see a slightly mundane/worthy website, avoid this one, but if you are curious, here it is: 

Just to finish off, here is Big Blue – yet another clever, fine piece that causes art and humour to teeter into a complex alignment.  I love the way the smooth curves of the animal blur the sharp almost cruel linearity of the building:

a bear in Denver, USA

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