Wednesday, 2 December 2009
There was mixed response to the selection of buildings and to the buildings themselves. One woman liked the Oxford Museum and said she felt the combination of gothic shapes, the cathedral like scale and the use of glass and iron were pleasing, but someone else said it looked like something from a nightmare. Someone else liked the scale and sense of calm radiating from a photograph of one of the rooms at Webb’s Clouds House. The early drawings for the British Embassy provided a starting point for a discussion about the job of a draughtsman and one of the tour said he had been a draughtsman and described how his job had been to interpret such sketchy drawings into comprehensive and usable technical drawings, a job now done on a computer. The economy of form and the relationship to the site of the Royal Mail Mechanised Letter Office was admired and we talked about the difference between seeing such a building in isolation and then in relation to nearby houses and what it might be like to open the curtains and see such a building on a daily basis.
The Economist Plaza model provided a focus for talk about the mix of old and new architectural styles and there were lots of questions about the Smithson’s style and their ideas about communal living, their ideas about streets in the sky and in particular the Robin Hood Estate in London. One question was ‘Why is mass housing so ugly ?’ not an easy one to answer …. we talked about post-war housing problems and the influence of the austere style of modernist of architects like Mies van der Rohe who said ‘I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good’ ….which made me think that maybe a building could be interesting without being good but a good building would intrinsically be an interesting one.
The exhibition opened the way to discuss buildings in general and some that weren’t in the exhibition. The Gerkin or Swiss RE building was much admired by one of the tour, he said he loved the way it looked from different places and how the light made it look different every time he came across it. We also had a conversation about a TV programme about the construction of The Bahrain World Trade Centre with attached wind turbines and how tricky it was to put the turbines in place because of the high winds. The addition of wind turbines seems an obvious solution to problem of creating clean and efficient forms of energy. Fosters Lloyds building was also a favourite with all the services on the outside creating a deconstructed and futuristic feel.
There was a notable lifting of the spirits when we went up to look at the Matthew Houlding
pieces. Many people find these architecturally inspired sculptures imaginative and enjoyable, often projecting their idea about futuristic living on to them. I did come across man who was both confused and slightly annoyed by the fact the structures had no stairs or proper doors and that there was no sense of scale – he hadn’t realised that they were not in fact architectural models but an artist’s response to a particular sense of time and space. There were also some young children who were enchanted by Houlding’s pieces and we had a brief chat about doll’s houses and what kind of furniture they might put in these houses …they opted for decidedly old style furniture !
The Bahrain World Trade Centre www.worldarchitecturenews.com/index.php?fuseaction=wanappln.projectview&upload_id=935
Lloyds building http://www.thelondontraveler.com/2008/05/modern-icon-the-lloyds-building/
Swiss RE www.eikongraphia.com/.../wp-content/SwissRe.jpg
Monday, 16 November 2009
As my interest in architecture has grown over the past few weeks, I've picked up on some projects which have recently been in the news - Masdar, the eco-city in the Abu Dhabi desert, which Sir Norman Foster is currently involved in developing; The Darwin Centre (mentioned in my earlier blog), the Bird's Nest Stadium and "Bubble Building" built for the Beijing Olympics, and just this week, the "Digital Cloud", a huge futuristic steel mesh tower topped by a "cloud" of transluscent bubbles proposed as a tourist attraction for the London 2012 Olympic park.
Are these amazing buildings evolving as a result of new materials, design and building techniques? Is this the way that architecture is going to develop for the 21st century? What did the architects in the group think of these buildings with a big "Wow" factor?
It was suggested that architects have a responsibility to design buildings for people - not for the "Wow" factor - a point which was much considered in Alan Powers' selection. And yes, of course, funcionality is key to a successful building - we all know buildings which are a pleasure to be in, and those which are not, but equally, we acknowledge the inspirational effect which amazing buildings can have. But how will architecture develop now that architects are not limited by the need to use brick or stone or timber? Instead, will new designs be limited by environmental issues and the need for careful use of resources, or will these problems lead to new, inspiring and imaginative design solutions.
There were some strong opinions about the influence of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and the design possibilities offered which can not be achieved through traditional drawing methods. There were also strong feelings about the "loss" of drawing skills and the trend towards extravagant design "just because we can". One of the architects explained about the intuitive qualities of drawing and the importance of transforming first thoughts into lines on paper during the earliest parts of the design process, a point which I can appreciate as an artist. I know from experience how very quickly the act of drawing raises questions and highlights problems concerning structure and form. It would be interesting though to hear the other side of these arguments from architects who have been brought up with CAD as an essential tool.
Masdar - http://www.fosterandpartners.com/Projects/1515/Default.aspx
Bird's Nest Stadium - http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/beijing-birds-nest-stadium-wins-coveted-lubetkin-prize/5205134.article
Bubble Building - http://www.inhabitat.com/2007/02/27/bubble-building-national-swim-center-in-beijing/
The Digital Cloud - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8350770.stm
Sunday, 15 November 2009
During our walk through the exhibition we thought about ways in which we explore spaces using all our senses, touching the cold smooth surfaces of the marble used in Tony Fretton's British Embassy and the De La Warr's brass bannisters, imagining the smell of old wood on the staircase at Clouds House, the breeze blowing around the square of the Economist Plaza, the sound of footsteps echoing through the vaulted spaces of St Marys, Wellingborough. I remember how blind friends have told me of their strategies for getting to know their way around buildings by counting their paces between rooms, by listening to changes in the sound of their footsteps or feeling variations in texture under foot and hand.
Friday, 13 November 2009
"Outside the Natural History Museum, the new Darwin Centre is shown here from the Wildlife Gardenadjacent to the historic Waterhouse building. it's clear how the new building links the Grade I listed Victorian Waterhouse building and Museum gardens, bringing together the old, the organic and the new." http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/history-architecture/architecture-darwin-centre/architectural-slideshow/index.html
Sunday, 1 November 2009
What a pleasure to be indoors in a safe, warm and dry place.
Alan Powers' throughly informative timeline, running down the centre of the gallery offers some surprising information. Visitors to the gallery have added their own ideas of important events to a more personal timeline folder in the resource area of the gallery.
Yesterday I particularly enjoyed the insight given by Nigel Green's contemporary photographs of the buildings, commissioned specially for the exhibition. His glimpse through a half open door into a splendid room at The Reform Club reminded us all of the uneasy relationship between public and private, with the tantalising view of a place accessible only to a private membership. The notion of public and private came up again as we talked about Nigel's image of light flooding through the windows onto the landing and staircase at Clouds House. One of the group recalled childhood visits to a relatives home where, behind one of the closed doors on the landing (through which one would never dream of going), there was an aged aunt who had long since taken to her bed and was never seen - a strange experience which I can recall from my childhood too.
As we left the exhibition, the final discussion was about the photographs of Tony Fretton's British Embassy in Warsaw. The beautiful reflections of sky, trees and surrounding green areas belie the bomb-proof glass in the front skin of the building, the strangely "trapped" green inner courtyards, the office furniture arranged in precise military rows, the hostile spiked metal railings shutting off the outdoor passageways all acting as reminders of the times we live in.
Thinking Aloud comments from the group:
most disliked building - County Hall, Lewes
why they love architecture - the "wow" factor and
"Architecture is frozen music" (quote: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Referring to my constant companion, I Googled "special thinkers" and found that The Economic Club of Chicago was holding a Special Thinkers Forum to "address the questions and principles of complex adaptive systems and their lessons for business". Other "special thinkers" are portrayed as visionaries such as Will Marre, who, Google tells me, is founder of the "American Dream Project" purportedly a special thinker with "... a new vision for improving life at personal, local and national levels".
Architects, it seems, are a combination of many things - business man, mathematician, artist, philosopher, visionary and more. Alan Powers mentioned in his talk yesterday the Victorian architect A W Pugin, who believed that architects had a moral and social remit to change the world, a responsibility which continues to be taken seriously in the light of our changing planet and the challenge to re-think the way we live and use our planet's resources.
Sunday, 25 October 2009
Did the first walk and talk on Saturday for mind into matter. First thing to say is that I'm now really into architecture and doing the research for the exhibition has opened my eyes to what is around us - everywhere! There are buildings EVERYWHERE I've just not really noticed them before and they're amazingly interesting things to think about. I mean just look at those mock tudor fascias on the semis at the end of Hangleton Drive in Hove that I see every day on the bus home. What is that all about?
I introduced the tour by talking about how difficult I found it to think about architecture as a subject even though I acknowledge that we are surrounded by buildings and that for me my first experience of the exhibition was about finding a way in, literally, a door. The other question I kicked off with is something that I find particularly interesting to consider, which is: how can we visualise a building we don't know by seeing photos and blueprints of it? What do we do as we look at the exhibits and try to put together the building in three dimensions in our mind. Again, what are the ways into experiencing an imagined building?
Talking our way through the exhibition I really noticed subtle aspects of its clever curation e.g. that you enter straight into the display of the most contemporary building, the British Embassy in Warsaw, and then pass through that to the Reform Club. People noticed how the architect's drawings have changed over the years so that there are those really fluid and sketchy drawings by Tony Fretton compared with say, the beautiful drawing of the artichoke plant at Cloud's House. That is not to say that Fretton's drawings aren't beautiful, just less elaborate, I guess.
Loved the way the exhibition opens up when you get to the Pavilion exhibit so that you look, in effect, straight through a glass display case to the bandstand and the sea beyond, becoming aware of the building through its near transparency.
There was lots and lots to say. I particularly loved the story of the stonemason O'Shea brothers who carved their own animal and flower decorations into the capitals in Oxford Museum. That there is a picture of James O'Shea and that he has gone down in history for doing his own thing is, I think, a miracle of history honouring the creative courage of an individual.
My group enjoyed entering their own histories into the book of dates on the resource table and Wendy, one of the gallery invigilators pointed out how alarming it looks if you stand by the date of the year of your birth and look down the timeline up to the present day. To see one's age laid out like that in feet and inches makes you think. Buildings, birth, death, permanence and transience. It's not just bricks and mortar and blueprints, is it!
And thanks for Judith for coming along and lending your lively participation to the event.
Thursday, 22 October 2009
By pure co-incidence last week I was lucky enough to go to a discussion event where Sir Nicholas Grimshaw was one of the speakers, and to see Capturing The Concept, an amazing exhibition of his sketchbooks. The exhibition contains Sir Nicholas' sketchbooks from 1982 to 2007 (he averages about 2 a year) open at selected pages to show drawings and annotations representing his thoughts and ideas for ambitious projects like the Eden Project and the refurbishment of Waterloo Station, committed to paper for the very first time.
In his foreword for Mind Into Matter, Alan Powers talks about "the architect's role as a special type of thinker", a notion which really became clear as I pored over the drawings and heard Sir Nicholas talking about the space we were sitting in for the discussion. His comments about its aspect and light, its situation in relation to its surroundings, the flow of people around and through it, all demonstrated his immersion in all things spatial. Add to this the technical knowledge and visionary qualities which make it possible to transform an idea from a few lines on paper into an extraordianry structure which is not only beautiful but functional too, and one begins to get an idea of the special thinking which our great architects harness.
(Capturing the Concept can be seen at the Royal Academy of Arts from 6th November to 31 January 2010)
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
We hope you'll join the debate around art, culture and life in general.
Our new season has just opened. On the cusp of its 75th anniversary year, the Pavilion - a building of unique design and function - presents two exhibitions that celebrate the ideas, form and purpose of architecture.
Mind into Matter, curated by Alan Powers
Sons of Pioneers, Matthew Houlding
See our website for full details, www.dlwp.com
On alternate Saturdays, you're invited to join a member of our interpretation team for a cup of tea and a conversation about art, culture and life in general. These conversations will be summarised here, so you can join the discussion online.
We hope you'll join us for some Thinking Aloud.
Thursday, 1 October 2009
A particular thank you to our Speakers' Corner contributers, who have given their time, ideas and energy for free. I have been amazed at how people responded to the opportunity to share and exchange ideas and opinions, and how a place like the De La Warr Pavilion seemed able to facilitate this exchange in a different way to many traditional forums.
Although Speakers' Corner won't continue in its weekly format, we hope to continue the spirit of exchange through our Thinking Aloud discussions that will continue bi-weekly, sometimes with invited speakers to stimulate the conversation.
Keep an eye on our website for full details.
Head of Education
De La Warr Pavilion
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Artists Ackroyd and Harvey were the guest speakers at Speakers Corner and they spoke about their project using acorns taken from the original Oaks used in 7,000 Eichen in Kassel. Beuys’s Oaks were planted 27 years ago and theirs are just 2 years old, yet the potential to spread the word about the importance of trees for the global community is huge. In his social sculptures like 7000 Eichen Beuys promoted the idea of regeneration, the passing of time and the connection between life forms on the planet and how they can be sustained and supported by the broader community in creative ways.
Ackroyd and Harvey posed a number of questions :
Why are we unable to find global agreement about the preservation of forests?
The creation of cities and civilizations, stretching back to the first city created by Gilgamesh to defend his people from outside threats , depended largely on clearing large areas of forest in order to both create the space to build cities and the materials with which to construct them. The Romans too cleared large areas of temperate forest to grow crops on and for domestic and industrial use. With ever increasing deforestation civilizations soon decline and the 20th century in particular has seen not only continued deforestation, particularly in tropical climates, but also an associated increase in desertification.
The suggestion was made, via an Antarctic survey and a meeting with comedian Marcus Bridgestock, that every small step that politicians and world leaders make to halt this destruction, should be supported and applauded by the rest of us (preferably whilst wearing a suit and tie !)
What do we need to do stop the drive for economic growth ?
This often means the wealthy increase their wealth at the expense of the
The drive to exploit the planet to create wealth is deeply embedded in the
west and increasingly in the rest of the world. Belief systems
that see-saw between Plato who lamented the loss of forests in his day and
Socrates who dismissed nature as kind of folkloric fantasy mirror similar
swings between a romantic view of nature and the thinking dominated by
logic, reason and the capitalist drive to make greater and greater profits from natural
We know that around 50% of forests are cleared for domestic dependence on fuel and that this rate of deforestation is not sustainable but there are some positive actions made by groups and individuals which could well lead the way to better understanding of how we might work together to ensure forests and other resources are sustained and regenerated for the future.
Manchester, for example, has a long term tree-planting strategy and has increased its stock by many thousands. This follows research that suggests that by increasing our tree stock by 10 % in urban areas we can lower the temperature.
In Turkey 2 business men have planted 850,000,000 acres of oak trees.
In the face of violent opposition 30 million trees in Kenya have been planted by women’s groups led by Wangari Maathai.
Ecuador recently voted on a new constitution that would give Ecuador's tropical forests, islands, rivers and air similar legal rights to those normally granted to humans.
China, the Philippines and Haiti have taken steps to preserve and maintain their forests.
Polly Higgins, a barrister and environmentalist, started a website and blog - Trees Have Rights Too which led to her going to Sweden to present the call for a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights at the Tallberg Forum and later at the United Nations UK & Northern Ireland conference on Climate Change.
Forests: The Shadow of Civilization by Robert Pogue Harrison
Monday, 21 September 2009
The afternoon of September 12th was one of shifting currents of thought and energy. In the gallery there was a steady movement of people looking at Beuys.
One couple had returned following an earlier visit and had brought friends back to show them the exhibition, even though they felt they didn’t really like it and thought it didn’t belong in the De La Warr Pavilion. They led me round the exhibition asking animated questions and demonstrated a deep fascination with Beuys’ choice of materials and sculptural arrangements.
The Fat Chair provoked quite a bit of discussion, which led onto talking about how art can be made out of anything and that rubbish can be recycled into artefacts.
I really enjoyed talking to them because they had what I can see, upon reflection, was a kind of constructive resistance to the work that allowed them to question, doubt and be opened up to possibilities of understanding.
After experiencing the Speaker’s Corner discussion all about energy led by Steve Martin, physics teacher, I could describe their engagement with the exhibition as manifestations of kinetic, potential and elastic energy:
They moved enthusiastically from work to work, with an attitude of boundless enquiry bursting through a thin veneer of mocking deprecation of Beuys. This was their kinetic force.
They were keen to have their minds opened and find out more, I felt we could have talked all day. This was the potential energy they exhibited.
And they were willing for their minds to roam, for us all to take part in a spirited and lively conversation that took us in many directions. And in this way they showed what elastic, mind-energy can be like. (I apologise to Steve for stretching an interpretation of his explanation of the forms of energy to its limits.)
Steve’s talk was well attended by up to 25 people. He was very energetic in his demonstration of seven types of energy: kinetic, potential, thermal, gravitational, sound, light and elastic, using an elastic band as a prop. He communicated his enthusiasm for his subject very well to the gathered group.
His basic thesis was that the universe, having been created by a big bang was full of energy and that energy cannot run out, it can only be transferred. Therefore, on the one hand, there is nothing to worry about in terms of an energy crisis because energy is readily available everywhere if we only harness it sensibly. On the other hand, however, humans are constantly showing how wasteful we are of energy and seem incapable at the moment of properly investigating and implementing sustainable forms of energy.
The discussion turned around ideas of how to plan more constructively
for our future energy use and despair at how we, as humans, let greed and profit motivate us in the short term instead of acting sensibly in the present to conserve our future energy needs.
There was a sense in the group of shared interests and some irritation at the actions of others. We formed a kind of microcosm for that moment of people bonded by a common need for rational approaches regarding the production and consumption of energy.
Many thanks to all who were present on the afternoon of the 12th. If any of you would like to add anything here do make your own contribution to the blog.
Sunday, 20 September 2009
Leo Powell introduced some reflections on his personal experience as an art student today. In particular, he is interested in how our environment affects the way we work and think. He described the problem of certain kinds of seating, for example in a pub, where individuals can find themselves excluded from the conversation. For him, a round table is not just a table but a philosophy. Showing us a series of images, he traced the historic development of art school environments beginning with a seventeenth-century, amphitheatre-style arrangement. From students seated at easels, each working from the model, there was a radical departure in the 1960s when dialogue rather than instruction took centre-stage. In today's art studio, the laptop - portable technology - is a key component of the working environment.
In today's art school, the communal, studio space is often empty with many people preferring to work at home where they have easy access to the kettle/internet. Whereas Leo had looked forward to the freedom offered by the art school experience, with the emphasis on the student pursuing his/her own interests independently, he found it a challenge to work in a vacuum. His conclusion was that the most important thing an art school can provide is not studio space or tools but a community. Developments in technology mean that this community can be constructed in different ways. For example, his tutor answered a question sent by email, responding using her Iphone while on the bus. What do these experiences mean in terms of the student-teacher relationship?
In the imagined art studio of the future there are, for Leo, 4 key points to be taken into consideration:
Access to information
You no longer need to physically visit the library and much course work can be delivered virtually. Open access to knowledge means that the traditional authority of the teacher is undermined - and this is a good thing! The teacher becomes a facilitator/catalyst.
Online learning environments make you focus on the content rather than the mode of communication.
The computer used to be seen as an an additional tool in the learning environment - now it is the environment.
If you consider the way Microsoft Office is structured, does being forced to organise everything into files and folders make us work and think like office workers?
The group discussion focussed on notions of time, play, the encounter with real objects (books) and focus. If the teacher-student relationship is irrevocably changed as a result of open access to knowledge, is the 'inspirational' teacher still something to hope for? What about the example of Beuys as shaman? What is the role of passion and the emotions in the teaching of art? Are one's peers the most influential teachers?
Thursday, 10 September 2009
Sue, her friend and their two sons were whispering about the strange use of materials when I joined them. Looking at Fat Corner (Process) we talked about energy and warmth, making a connection to social sculpture and environmental change. But the work looked so simple, the materials everyday, it seemed to the boys as if anyone could do it. Maybe that was the point, if everyone could be an artist, using found materials might be part of that message?
In the spirit of Beuys, Rohan Jayasekera, Associate Editor for Index on Censorship, held Speakers Corner standing in the gallery where people were free come and go. There was strong language from the start, which Rohan neatly identified by raising a hat in the air shortly before it’s arrival, giving spectators the chance to leave, or to stay and gauge whether the offense was worth the knowledge imparted.
It was fascinating to hear him speak about the reasons why we censor others and ourselves. Here are just a few of the many aspects of censorship and freedom of expression that he talked about.
Setting rules and “bad language”: Individually, we all set our own rules about what language we are prepared to use and tolerate and our reasons are various. Rohan addressed the importance of considering context when deciding what is or is not offensive and to guard against the temptation to be politically correct. As one example, he cited the renaming of Guy Gibson’s dog in the classic WWII film The Dam Busters, and the continuing debate around its racial offense. Some words, once overwhelmingly abhorrent are now considered by some to have lost the power to harm, having been ‘reclaimed’ by the intended victims.
Censoring extremists and Freedom of Expression: Should those who speak to offend as well as those who offend while speaking have the same freedom of speech? What about extremists such as David Irving and Geert Wilders? Someone asked about the row concerning Rohan’s decision to appear with David Irving at the Oxford Union, declining to comply with the “no platform rule” refusing fascists the right to a shared public forum. As Rohan supports the general principle of freedom of speech, he believes that principle should be extended to extremists also. The Oxford Constabulary decided to cancel the event, citing concerns regarding public order – censorship or real concern?
Rohan turned our attention to the restriction the individuals right to Freedom of Speech, particularly when expressing political dissent near Parliament and the restrictions imposed by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. But what about fundamental freedoms found within Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights?
Interpretation of the rules and fear of prosecution: Rohan argues that Human Rights Act 1998 is open to selective interpretation. Obviously, the Act can be and is used to good effect, but there are times when it can be seriously misused to control information to serve personal or commercial interests. The case of Mosley v News Group Newspapers Limited came up, in which Max Mosley challenged an invasion of his private life.
Freedom of the Press: Journalists around the world face serious danger for simply doing their job. Rohan spoke specifically of the jail sentence recently meted out to J.S Tissainayagam, found guilty on terrorism charges after criticising the army’s treatment of Tamil civilians. The Government interpreted his reports as false, accusing Tissainayagam of stoking ethnic discord, sentencing him to twenty years hard labour.
These are just some of the many aspects of Rohan’s presentation. We ended with a discussion exploring how complex the issues surrounding censorship are and how important it is to defend the right to freedom of speech. Context and interpretation of rules and law seem to be the central issues. The advice Rohan gave us on parting was: consider the context, consider the rules, but watch the law.
Just as I was leaving the gallery I bumped into Jean, whom I recognised from an earlier talk. She told me how she loved the Beuys season and had visited on several occasions. Jean wasn't sure we need to understand everything we see, 'getting it' can often be illusive and transitory; the most important thing for her is to keep coming back and allowing the work to take effect. We discussed how the show taps into what matters generally in life; the importance of connection, to other people and the consequences of our actions, be they personal, local or global.
Thanks once more to Rohan, and all those who were involved in the gallery tour. Apologies for omissions. You are very welcome add any comments if you weren't at the discussion but are interested in the themes.
Monday, 7 September 2009
We cannot create or destroy energy, just change its form. What is here now, will always be here… so why all this worry about an energy crisis?
Science teacher Steve Martin will be exploring our understanding of energy, from Big Bang theory to the nuclear question, via wind up torches!
Wednesday, 2 September 2009
From ‘good manners’ to ‘prevention of terrorism’ – the many reasons why people censor themselves and others and what it costs free expression. Parental Advisory: Strong language and occasional legal references, from the start…
Index on Censorship
Sunday, 30 August 2009
Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline. JB
Our focus in the gallery today was very much on politics and Beuys’ concept of social sculpture, in which society as a whole is seen as one great work of art to which each person can contribute creatively. We talked about 7000 Oaks, Beuys’ action involving the planting of 7000 oak trees in the town of Kassel, Germany. And we wondered whether those trees - now 27 years old - and the basalt rocks positioned next to each of them, have survived the plots and schemes of town-planners and developers to ‘improve’ the town! We thought that they probably have survived because their status as ‘artworks’ gives them a kind of protection that ‘ordinary’ trees don’t always enjoy. It's a strange world we live in!
Talking about trees, I told one of my favourite traditional tales about a greedy landlord who threatened to evict an old woman from her house and the field next to it, where every Spring she grew beans or corn. “Please let me plant just one more crop,” said the old woman. “Very well,” said the landlord. “But when the crop is ready, you must go.” After harvest time, the landlord returned to claim his property. “But my crop isn’t ready yet,” pleaded the old woman. “Look!” She took the landlord out to the field and triumphantly showed him what she had planted: acorns!
In the context of planners and developers, I mentioned an adamant Bexhill taxi driver I recently met who told me that the DLWP was “a waste of public money” and should be immediately pulled down! He was also convinced that the local council shouldn’t have spent public money on refurbishing the town’s Edwardian train station and that what the town really needed on that site was a car park! I thought of a verse from American singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi:
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
On a more positive note, in the gallery today we stopped in front of Rose for Direct Democracy (1973) and Capri Battery (1985) to talk about how Beuys’ political/environmental ideas chime so well with contemporary movements focused on direct action and localised campaigns. This took us very neatly into the subject of today’s Speakers’ Corner - the Transition Towns movement, which is trying to find new, community-based solutions to the issues of climate change and the depletion of oil supplies.
In the middle of this discussion - and as a kind of aside - one person was very keen to know what happens to the red rose, when it needs to be replaced in Rose for Direct Democracy. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I’d really love to have one,” he said. “As a kind of souvenir.” “You’ll probably need to write to the Exhibitions department and make a formal inquiry,” I said. But just then one of the curators appeared in the gallery holding in her hand ... a fresh, red rose. “What are you going to do with the old one?” I asked, after she had removed it from its scientific-looking vase and replaced it with the new one. “Throw it out,” she replied. “Can we have it,” I asked. “Why not?” she said.
So the man got his red rose and left with the biggest, beaming smile I think I’ve ever seen.
A smile for direct democracy.
It is impossible for human beings to bring their creative intention into the world any other way than through action. JB
I find the concept of politics increasingly impossible. JB
transition: from the Latin transitionem, meaning ‘a going across or over.’ A noun of action from transire meaning ‘go or cross over.’
Beuys’ 1974 lecture tour in America was called Energy Plan for the Western Man. Of course, he wasn’t just talking about energy in the literal sense - nuclear versus solar, etc - but also about the creative energy of individual human beings and their potential to transform society. This is the orbit of politics which seems to have interested Beuys the most: the politics of personal transformation or transition from one state to a better one.
Our speaker today was Martin Grimshaw, who spoke about the Transition Towns movement and in particular the movement’s work in Brighton & Hove. Martin explained that this work is based on a wonderfully positive premise: that the skills and energy which have brought us to this stage in our evolution can take us forward to face future challenges and opportunities. Transition Towns is about very localised initiatives that seek to harness the skills and expertise of individuals for the greater good of the community - creating a kind of ‘collective genius.’ It’s about imagining positive visions of what kind of society we want to live in and then thinking backwards - ‘backcasting’ as opposed to forecasting - about how these visions can be realised. Above all, it’s about enabling a kind of ‘personal alchemy’ which acknowledges that meaningful transition can best take place when an inner transition has paved the way.
That’s why the Transition Towns movement looks to the world of therapy and personal counselling - as much as to the world of political activism - as a paradigm of effective change. Martin put it quite simply: let’s look around and see who’s actually making a difference in our communities and then let’s learn from them. What is it that drug counsellors or Alcoholics Annonymous or psychotherapy is doing that manages to change peoples’ lives? Isn’t it all based on building personal resilience so that individuals are stronger and better equipped to face change? So let’s use this model of building personal resilience but then extend it to help us face the two big global issues that have to be addressed now and in the coming years: climate change and peak oil.
Peak oil is the point at which we reach the maximum amount of oil that we will ever be able to pump. The beginning of the downward slide may already be happening. The point is, as Martin said, that the repercussions of climate change and peak oil can’t be fixed by a wish or the fantasy that someone else will magically fix it for us. It’s not about them. It’s about us.
How did previous generations negotiate radical changes in their lives? What can we learn from our elders? These questions yield another source of inspiration for the Transition Towns movement and Martin gave several useful examples. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist and its oil supplies to Cuba dried up, Cubans found ways of bringing agriculture into the cities - digging up areas of concrete, growing food in gardens and window boxes - so that they weren’t reliant on tractors and oil-derived fertilisers. Closer to home, in recent flood situations it was often the older people who knew what to do because they’d faced the problem before.
Martin kept his account of the Transition Towns movement brief as he wanted to hear about the ideas and experiences of the group. We had a wide-ranging discussion in which we tried to focus on the small, practical things that we can do to change our towns and our experiences of living in them. Of course, it’s sometimes easier to cite examples of how NOT to improve our environments and we heard plenty of examples of incompetent or insincere initiatives! Some of us felt that the financial pressures on younger people to conform to the standard, ‘business as usual’ model mitigated against involvement in movements for positive change. Towards the end, however, somebody raised the question of how the arts can help to generate transformative ideas or give sharper focus to issues and this seemed particularly appropriate as the discussion was taking place in the entrance to the Beuys is Here exhibition!
According to Beuys, the inner needs of a human being should be met not through ‘things’ but through the “production of spiritual goods” in the form of ideas, art and education. We didn’t change the world today. But the air was filled with exciting ideas that made us think about our small place in it. And that's a start.
Monday, 24 August 2009
The speaker later in the day was Salma Nathoo who gave a presentation on 'Consciousness as material in ecological art'. The event began with a few minutes of silent concentration, made tricky (but interesting) by the noises rising up through the building. The presentation and subsequent discussion was wide-ranging, from the 'butterfly effect' to 'the secret'. One of the main questions seemed to be (at least for me) how far changes in individual consciousness have an effect on the collective.
I'm hoping that Salma will comment on this post so the conversation can be developed further through an online dialogue (rather than a very partial monologue)!
Tuesday, 18 August 2009
The first image as you walk into the gallery is both powerful and an ideal starting point and I explained that it was the complexity of the man and his ambitions that interested me. Beuys had a breadth of knowledge and understanding about the natural world, the world of politics and education and it seemed important to say that some of his ideas and beliefs were simple to understand but sometimes they were confusing and difficult – but it really didn’t matter whether you understood them all or not. I wanted to suggest that knowing things in a factual way is not the only way of appreciating art and that by shifting the emphasis back to the viewer they could open their mind to what things might mean to them.
We looked at some of the materials Beuys used – iron, steel, felt. He strongly believed that materials were not neutral – that they always had strong associations with the past. In connection with Speakers Corner we looked at how he used various substances, such as honey and fat as a means of healing or nourishment and whether his idea was to start healing western Europe after the horrors of the Second World War or maybe, as one of the tour suggested, to heal himself too ! For me the appeal of his choice of materials is the avoidance of anything arty and his desire to re-use and reformulate his materials or even to use ready made items such as a water bottle or a sled. I like the way he pushes the materials into strange ways of being – like the honey pump – which raises lots of questions - what does 2 tons of honey look like how do you get it to move through a pump ? Hope I remember to ask the speaker !
Fat chair is an extraordinary piece of work and we talked about the qualities of fat and lard and their mutability. We tried to imagine how bad it might smell once out of its air conditioned box. The idea that anyone could put two different materials together and create something so strange and compelling seemed magical – an idea that sits happily with Beuy’s belief that he was a transformer and trickester – changing things, mixing things up to create meaning and then, sometimes, changing his mind.
One lady, who has attended every talk, said how she had never heard of Beuys until recently and exclaimed how excited she is by his work and how privileged she feels in being able to see some of his wonderful sculptures and drawings locally at the De La Warr Pavilion.
We held Speakers Corner on the north staircase today – it was light, airy and gave ample room for people to sit and listen, join in or drop in and out of the session. As the sun poured in Angie Biltcliffe told us about her passion for bees and beekeeping. After a short course on bee keeping at Plumpton College she has spent the last 5 years building up a series of hives dotted in and around Hastings.
On the table in front of her was an old observation hive containing bees … lots of bees seemingly squished into quite a small space …. but they seemed quite happy in their waxy home. Also there was a jar of pale honey from one of Angie’s hives made from apple blossom, a lump of hardened wax, and some cleaned combs – beautifully constructed and smelling sweet and flowery. A member of the audience wanted to know how much honey a bee makes and the surprising answer is - about one to two teaspoons of honey in its lifetime. A bee might make ten trips a day and visit 100 flowers per each trip and probably does this every day of its life, which is about 4 weeks. Angie said that her hives this year were doing very well with one probably producing 60 lbs of honey.
Angie described how sensitive the bees are in response to human behaviour – so if you are jumpy and nervous the bees will be too. She explained how initially she was rather nervous of the bees, worrying that they might sting her, but with time she found them very restful and calming, suggesting that the humming they make is soothing. She also put forward the belief that bee keepers are rarely ill – so enhanced are they by their activities that they stay healthy.
A hive might contain between 20,000 and 80,000 bees. At the core is the Queen bee which may live up to 3 years and lay around half a million eggs. She is raised in the normal way but fed more royal jelly. A disussion broke out on the subject of royal jelly and how it is found in cosmetics – which does seem rather wasteful of the bees efforts. Once the queen has developed she takes flight and begins mating, with several or many drones. The mating takes place some distance from the hive and several hundred feet in the air. The drones are the largest bees and exist soley to mate with the queen, after which they are a bit of a burden. The workers are mainly female bees and they work hard to ensure the hive thrives. At each stage of their life they have a specific job to do whether it is cleaning cells and incubation or later being entrance guards and nectar and pollen foraging.
Questions from the audience indcluded ones about swarming, Angie assured us that a swarm of bees is quite safe, they are not in a defensive state and will not harm you. The audience was very keen to get up close to the bees and study the honey, the combs etc and at the end of the talk there was a surge of people wanting to know more about bee keeping and Angie offered to help anyone who was interested.
Sunday, 9 August 2009
Beuys is a catalyst.
Today in the gallery I decided to record what people told me about Beuys. But what they mostly told me wasn’t about Beuys. It was about their lives.
I never found out the name of the man who didn’t want to talk about art. At least he didn’t want me to record his thoughts. But he did tell me that he and his wife were in Bexhill to see a 100 year old relative. “Her life has spanned all of Beuys’ - and more. I wonder what she’d think of all this. She’s very alert and vivacious.” As we gazed out the gallery window at the gleaming white colonnades in front of the Pavillion, I thought about this old woman and her long life. She was already 2 when those colonnades were built in 1911. I thought about all the things she’s seen and heard. I thought about the contributions she has made to the world around her. I thought about her creativity.
I never found out the names of the 2 grandparents or their 2 grandchildren, who stopped in front of Rose for Direct Democracy. “If only I’d known this was here,” said the woman. “I was searching for a red rose to look at for an embroidery I’m making.” I told her about a piece of embroidery I have, made in Ireland by an elderly relative of mine in the 1950s. “That sounds beautiful,” she said. “I do all mine by hand you know. It’s all hand-stitched. Not like lots of people these days who want to use machines.” “You must be very skilful,” I said. “Oh I don’t know,” she said.
I asked the children if they thought Beuys’ rose was real or not. “How would you find out without touching it?” I asked. “Wait until it dies,” said the boy. ‘Then you’d know.” He was about 8 years old.
His grandfather pricked up his ears when I said something about Sled and Beuys being in the German air force during World War II. He started talking about the experience of being bombed out 3 times when he was a youngster in Kensington. He described being evacuated and all the schools having to close down. His grandchildren liked the sound of this! They asked him to tell them more. He did. When he talked about the great loss and pity of it all, I pointed out Beuys’ Samurai Sword, a sword-like length of iron ‘safely’ wrapped in felt. The man paused for thought and then quietly said, “This is very different from the kind of art I was brought up with.” But we hadn’t really been talking about art, had we?
WENDY who invigilates in the gallery told me this: “Most people are mystified. Many deride the work and laugh at it saying, ‘I could do that.’ So I sometimes say, ‘Yes, you probably could.’ And then a conversation begins and life-stories emerge - like the man who said he couldn’t understand these objects but then went on to tell me all about his collection of stones from every place he’s ever visited. For him, it was about the journey of his life. Or the man who scoffed at Neapolitan Ladder but then described in great detail all the technical challenges he had faced in fitting a recycled old garden gate into its new position! Once you help people find a way in then ... then they realise that the work chimes with something in their own life.”
GARY is a total Beuys fan! He said, “I work in a gallery in London. I’m what they used to call a gallery warden but then they decided that sounds too much like a prison. So now I’m called an attendant. I’ve followed Beuys around for years. Madrid, Paris, London ... all over the place. It’s my birthday tomorrow and my wife said, ‘What do you really want to do?’ Well, we both love Bexhill and we both love Beuys. So it was an easy choice! It’s an absolute joy!”
PETER talked about Beuys’ fantastic eye. “It’s the real thing. Every object is beautiful. It’s top, museum-quality stuff. He’s a fraud of course. But he’s got such a good eye!” I asked what he meant by that but he didn’t want to say any more. Just this: “Every object is magnificent.” Peter’s friend wanted to know how the posters were mounted on to their backing. I said I didn’t know. But in the space of a few exchanges I felt I knew something about their lives - that like Gary, they live and breathe for art! You can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm and attention to detail.
GEORGINA has observed all sorts of extreme reactions to the work in her role as invigilator. “Beuys is like Marmite,” she said. “You either love it or you hate it! But I think it’s better to provoke strong reactions than just be all on one level. Some people are coming back again and again.”
STEPHANIE was very self-effacing about her own creativity. But standing in front of Beuys’ Sled, she told me this: “The other night, I put together on a table a little collection of my own things - things that mean something to me: my glass, a CD from my son for my birthday, found objects from the beach, all sorts of things. They say a lot about my inspirations. They’re a snapshot in time. In Majorca, I collected bits of broken glass on the beach. The sea had polished them like jewels. The sea did its job. Then I played a role.” I said, “So you’re an artist, are you?” Stephanie laughed shyly and said, “No no. I ... dabble. Isn’t that what they say?”
Is it? Why?
Please feel free to add your comments here. How does Beuys connect to your life-story?
Just because a story isn’t true, doesn’t mean it lacks truth!
Julian Porter is curator at Bexhill Museum and author of Bexhil-on-Sea: a History as well as a collection of archival photographs of Bexhill and the surrounding area. For Speakers’ Corner today, he took as his theme the fine line between truth and fiction that circumscribes so much of what we think we know about local history. This linked very nicely to Beuys' famous tendency to blur the boundaries between ‘real’ biography and personal mythology.
According to Julian, even the science of etymology is a little hazy when it comes to the place-name Bexhill. It might mean ‘a wood or clearing where box trees grow’ or it might be derived from words meaning ‘windy hill.’ Nobody really knows.
Linking to Beuys and the German connection, Julian talked about “the barrack phase” of the town’s history when, in the early 1800s, thousands of Hanoverian soldiers were billeted in the area. There’s plenty of historical evidence for this. But he also mentioned the local belief that during World War II, a German spy lived in the roof spaces of the De la Warr Pavilion and at night opened the blackout blinds so that the German pilots could see their targets more clearly! It’s a great story. But is it true?
I particularly liked Julian’s account of the ‘discovery’ of coal in the Bexhill area during the early 1800s. In fact, it wasn’t coal at all but that didn’t stop the promoters of this venture insisting that it was! In the end, they lost all their money but not before they’d persuaded many otherwise sensible and rational people to invest in a seam of coal that didn’t even exist!
Most of this fascinating conversation centred on the theme of smuggling - a form of ‘alternative’ economy that I can’t help thinking Beuys would have applauded. But as Julian pointed out, it’s easy to romanticise a trade in contraband goods that in reality was underpinned by violence and intimidation.
There’s plenty of hard evidence for the existence of smuggling networks in the Bexhill area. Some of the main smuggling families even kept account books, which can be seen in Bexhill Museum’s collection. (I couldn’t help thinking about our contemporary Banking trade with it’s meticulous records and dodgy principles!) But there’s also a good deal of folklore surrounding the subject as well as plenty of just plain nonsense! Julian was careful to emphasise that local folklore is a precious thing and should be recorded and celebrated. Actually, the word lore means ‘knowledge.’ But it’s a very different kind of knowledge than the stuff we derive from documentary evidence.
On the question of the complex network of secret underground tunnels that are said to have enabled the traffic of contraband goods from place to place in the Bexhill area, Julian said that he has yet to see one with his own eyes! A woman from the audience said, “We have a passage leading to and from our cellar but it’s been filled in.” Julian pointed out that Bexhill’s geology wasn’t conducive to the digging and maintaining of extensive tunnels but the woman wasn’t deterred. “Our house is built on sandstone!” she said. Interestingly, she described deeds she has in her possession which name the owners of her house in the Old Town going right back to 1733. She wondered whether any of these names might match the names of known smugglers as recorded in the Museum’s collection of records. Julian thought this was worth looking into but he also pointed out that some of these so called ‘tunnels’ might well be the remains of a sophisticated system of drainage channels in the area.
Smuggler’s tunnels or drainage channels? Rescued by nomads or found by a search commando? Which makes the best, most resonant story?
Beuys claimed that his 1961 series of drawings Ulysses Extension was carried out “at James Joyce’s request.” Joyce died in 1941!
As the Irish storytellers used to say at the start of a story, “I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s a lie. But if it’s a lie, it wasn’t me that made it up. So you can’t call me a liar!”
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), a major influence on Beuys’ thinking wrote that we can only contribute to the progress of humanity when we give up our dependence on ‘proofs’ in favour of ‘the unfathomable dreams of truth.’ On the other hand ... if you DO know of any hard evidence for the existence of a smuggler's tunnel in the area, please get in touch with Bexhill Museum immediately so that Julian can see it with his own eyes!
Please feel free to tell your Bexhill story here. Don’t worry if you can’t provide evidence!