Friday, December 18, 2015

Gare Du Nord

Gare Du Nord

Poem for Christmas

( Written on the train between Brussels and Waterloo 16th December 2015)

Masked gunmen of the state patrol our transits where
Homeless migrants huddle, shelter and brood like birds.

 Bright neon lights windows, frames on prison-like walls,
Which advertise desire,  drugs of comfort and lies.

Workers worry their way along, blinkered donkeys
To the promised carrot that will never arrive.

The smell of anger and fear lingers about the
Hallways in fetid air. What look unlocks the ‘self’

That binds the box of dreams and ignorance, what word
Awakens from the spell, un-makes this mind and world?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Venice revisited.....

Its not surprising perhaps, given my previous comments about surfaces and spaces, that this year my attention in Venice was drawn as much to the walls and brickwork of the city in all its wonderful decay as to the art. 


 In the biennale itself, however, places like the Austrian pavilion, with its subtle re-modelling by Heimo Zobernig of the floor and walls, caught my attention. The 'frame' and the 'context' became both the 'picture' and the 'subject', quietly asserting the presence of light and space held by the interior architecture and complemented by a small courtyard garden with its delicate trees shedding autumnal leaves.  On entering the seemingly 'empty' space we are confronted by our own expectations and desire to search for something to 'fill' the space. 

'His architectural intervention, whose isometric plans recall Mies van der Rohe’s Nationalgalerie in Berlin, together with the garden and rear wall of the courtyard, constitutes an enclosed site where one can linger and reflect on art’s modes of presentation and on human presence in space.   

La Biennale di Venezia itself, no less than the specific site, is the starting point for Heimo Zobernig’s deliberations. How can one adequately contribute to an environment based on nation-state representativity where individual voices constantly compete for maximum attention? What phenomena are meaningful in such a context?'

 'Apotheosis' by Jiri David at the Czech and Slovak Pavilion used the overblown rhetoric of a 19th century painting, Alphonse Mucha's 'Apotheosis of the Slavs: Slavs for Humanity', in a conceptual installation that incorporated a large mirror in a carefully contrived space to engage the viewer as a participant in an emotionally engaging deconstruction of national identity. Juxtaposing contemporary minimalism with academic figuration, he sharply contrasted the 'emptiness' of the large open space with the 'fullness' of the narrow and constricted passage between the black and white painted transcription and its reflection in an opposite mirror.  In an interview in the artist said,

'I sought answers to questions related to transformation of semantic terms, such as nation, home, homeland, myth, collective and individual memory, identity, or politics.'

In 'Darwins Room' at the Romanian pavilion, all the visceral qualities of oil painting were on show. Adrian Ghenie shows that, handled with virtuosity, it has an extraordinary power to deal directly with our complex emotions and contemporary reality by bringing the full weight of historical practice to bear on our current cultural conditioning in contrast to the all-pervasive yet fragile and ephemeral infrastructure of electronic media that passes between the fingertip and the retina. By processing memory, desire and experience, physically and emotionally in this almost primordial way through the artist’s mind and body, he leaves rich and multi-layered accretions on the surface of the canvas which resonate with a viewer attuned to their visual calibrations and act as catalysts for complex reactions and responses to meanings embedded both in the material and the context.  According to the website below,
'expanding upon Darwin's 'laboratory, Ghenie proposes an interpretive path into the notion of survival. He reads into the theory of biological evolutionism and the ways it has been skewed to transform societies. He also draws upon other historical sources in his updating of this image (fundamental to our self-perception), ‘contaminating’ it with a keen reflection on neo-liberal competitiveness, extending across all areas and folds of social and affective life.'

Burning Bush 2014 Adrian Ghenie, Darwin's Room

Photograph looking from outside into 'mothertongue' at the Danish Pavilion

I discovered this quote from the Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo about his exhibition 'mothertongue' with its curious and eclectic collection of seemingly totemic objects that explored strange juxtapositions between objects charged with historical and political significations.

“As we are in Venice, I wanted to structure the exhibition around the idea of all these journeys: discovery of America, exploration of space, trade with China. All these itineraries that are connected in weird ways, often out of simple practicalities. There is just something beautiful about the material trail left behind by all these fallen Empires. In a way, the exhibition is a kind of travel through various time periods and cultures. This is an important point when one is in a position of national representation: that’s the moment when you have to make a statement that culture is not native; culture is cross-pollination, cross-contamination. It’s not only geography but time too.”

The delightful part of visiting the pavilions at Giardini in autumn is the possibility to look upwards vertically towards the zenith instead of horizontally whenever you need a change of perspective. 

Reflections on Bellini

Still pondering Venice after reading John Julian Norwich's long litany of war, intrigue and diplomacy in his history of the city and republic and came across this poem I wrote in 2012 that came about after seeing once again the Bellini Madonna's in the Accademia although the poem is based on a small reproduction of a painting in Bergamo.

On Contemplating a reproduction of Giovanni Bellini's  Madonna and Child 
in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

Forever young, fifteen, sixteen,
Perhaps, eyes downward, modestly
She balances the baby, still
Contemplating him after five
Hundred years; the marble ledge, the
Pear, and trompe l'oeil folded paper,
The virgin of chiaroscuro,
Of gold and ultramarine blue.

The rounded vessel rises like
A stable pyramid, azure
Mantle of sky and yellow
Earth awaken in the pallid sun
The painter's incarnation, word
Made flesh, womb and tomb,
Oil, wood, the mirror of the eye
kaleidoscope of time and space.

Between the architecture of
Picture frame and painted damask
Silk curtain, opens a window
To other times, distant places;
A hilltop village, slender tree
And blue infinity where clouds
float dreamily towards unknown
futures in the eternal now.

Monday, November 16, 2015

brick by brick, breath by breath....

Lime rendering and plastering exterior and interior walls in the unusually mild autumn weather gives some relatively strenuous exercise and provides an opportunity to focus on the preparation of surfaces in layers that reflect a softer hand modeled quality in their less than perfect line. P has finished restoring the chimney using the platform and hooked ladders that the contractor left after installing the wood-stove. The view from the roof looking down to the new bathroom and kitchen roof and across to Sint Salvators was certainly exhilarating and the smell of the woodsmoke from burning recycled wooden pallets like incense. The wood-stove has become the heart of the house.

With the boiler and radiators installed and the shower and basins in bathroom and kitchen and new doors and windows on the way the focus of effort shifts to tiling and plastering walls and floor. In the hallway I plan to create a herring bone pattern floor using salvaged 18th century bricks donated by P on top of the 'lime-crete' slab made from an insulation layer of expanded clay balls and a mix of lime, sand and aggregate. Once cleaned and installed I plan to treat this traditional brick floor with linseed oil eventually.

The process of stripping right back, reconstructing and consolidating the structure and then slowly building surfaces back up to reflect the nature of the materials and construction simply and honestly is very satisfying but requires patience and endurance and there is much still to do. With each bucket lime plaster and sand that is mixed another patch of wall is covered. It will all be accomplished with each present moment, breath by breath, step by step, tile by tile, brick by brick.  

I want to create some modest surfaces that tend towards the experience of space itself, for itself, rather than as a neutral background or a vacuum waiting to be filled with something. Through the appreciation of the changing qualities of form, pattern, texture, colour and light and the simple nature of the unadorned materials themselves it is perhaps possible to create a contemplative and meditative place both inside and out. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ars Longa Vita Brevis

Just taken down the work from the exhibition made with colleagues at school as part of the Waterloo Parcours d' Artistes. It is always delightful to discover that particular works in very different media resonate with related or corresponding themes or concerns and individual internal quiet reflection and contemplation supplemented by critical discussion with students over time helps one to gradually apprehend the initially invisible fine capillary connections, or neurological pathways toward meaning, that the works makes in the mind of the viewer who makes an effort to understand.

So much of this meaning depends on the medium and the context of the space which includes the plinth or the frame as well as the gallery. Michelle Cornez's black burnt out burnt seed pods or hatched egg like structures with their white crackled glazed skins suggest something mysterious that has just been born or just died, an organic or biological life and death cycle that has fused the metamorphoses of earth, air, fire and water into something fixed and permanent enough for us to contemplate.

Marianne Beheaghel's 'Healing' installations of delicately bandaged bone like wooden branches and twigs twinned with their carefully drawn trompe l' oeil mirror image and incubating like religious relics inside a clinical perspex box suggest the power of modern science and medicine to heal a fractured limb as well as the mummification and embalming process of the Egyptian's designed to secure a place for the dead soul in a happy afterlife

My own work both in the elegiac autumnal landscape with it's panoramic horizontal and vertical geometry and long evening shadows suggests the cyclical nature time and the small oil paintings from the fugitive image series are a homage, if you like, to the transience of paper and the image itself, which ironically is 'frozen' in an artistic form, an illusion of stable unchanging reality created to staunch the inevitability of change yet subject to the same three marks of existence, 'anicca', 'anatta', 'dukkha'.


Just back from the Venice with the school trip for biennale exhibition, this year curated by Nigerian born Okwui Enwezor. We visited various venues including the national pavilions of the Giardini, the renovated shipyards of the Arsenale and Corderie and collateral events throughout the city including the Academia to see the collection of historical Venetian painting from the middle ages to the 17th century as well as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum’s collection of modern art and the Thyssen Bornemisza contemporary art collection and exhibition at the restored Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana

The title ‘All the Worlds Futures’ encompassed a vast array of exhibitions, topics and themes many of which were thought provoking, challenging and powerful and gave a deep insight into current global social, cultural and political situations as well as posing timeless existential questions.

What is unique about the Venice Biennale is the way the present is framed by the past. The historical city has been a cradle of world civilisation, a meeting of East and West, in both Byzantine and Ottoman empires and a crucible of mercantile capitalism, at its height with a powerful mediterranean maritime empire and a form of democratic republic governed by an aristocratic oligarchy, that made Venice rich and independent through trade secured through diplomacy and war.

This historical context provided a contrast for contemporary artists to explore current global issues and extrapolate meanings in relation to the present and future.  The city’s extraordinary infrastructure and the temporary exhibitions housed in national pavilions specially built for the biennale as well as many  historic architectural spaces, explored both by vaporetti along the canals and on foot in the many narrow passageways, thus acts as a  sort of labyrinth which can be ‘read’ as a cipher for our own times. Venice is like a giant shiny bauble of both desire and loss that reflects the many contradictory facets of the world, past, present and future in its glittering surface.   

Shakespeare’s tragedies, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, help us to see the city and its Black and Jewish identities through the eyes of the 16th century playwright as an early modern melting pot of religious, social, cultural and ethnic differences were prejudice was rife, intrigue and jealousy could thwart ambition and justice could be either harsh or tempered by mercy
We still see the crumbling palazzi that flank the grand canal through the eyes of artists like Canaletto or Pietro Longhi who created souvenirs for the 18th century aristocratic grand tourists  or  through the hazy sunlit mists of romantic 19th century artists like Turner or writers like Ruskin who, in his ‘Stones of Venice’, helped to create the modern vision of Venice as a threatened artistic heritage needing to be saved for posterity or Thomas Mann, whose Belle Epoch city is doomed and decadent and full of beauty and death.

Venice in myth and reality represents both a giant ‘collective unconscious’ imaginative place as well as a very real ‘momento mori’, challenging our own current culture's complacency about sustaining both built and natural environments in response to apocalyptic scientific climate change predictions. Set amid the rising waters of the lagoon that once guaranteed Venice’s security, keeping both historic enemies and the modern world at a safe distance, it now threatens to drown the sinking city both literally and metaphorically in the vast global currents of popular tourism, on which ironically it depends for survival, as gradually the locals migrate away to the mainland. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

An Art of Emptiness?

So emptiness isn't getting rid of anything; its not total blankness, but an infinite potential for creation to arise and to pass without your being deluded by it. The idea of me as a creator, my artistic talents, expressing myself-it's an incredibly egotistical trip, isn't it ? "This is what I've done, this is mine". they say, "Oh, you're very skilled, aren't you? "You're a genius!" Yet so much of creative art tends to be regurgitations of people's fears and desires. It's not really creative; its just recreating things. It's not coming from an empty mind, but from an ego, which has no real message to give other than that it's full of death and selfishness. On a universal level is has no real message other than " Look at me!" as a person, as an ego. Yet the empty mind has infinite potential for creation. One doesn't think of creating things; but creation can be done with no self and nobody doing it - it happens. 

Mindfulness: The Path to the Deathless. The meditation teaching of Ajahn Sumedho 

 When painting, one should sit cross-legged with loosened clothing, as if no one were around. Only then will one hold the powers of metamorphoses in one's hand and the yuan- ch'i (primal breath) will abound. Unfettered by earlier masters, one will then be able to roam beyond the established rules. Shoup'ing inscribed 

Written on a landscape by Wang Hui ( 1632-1717)  in the style of Wang Meng ( d. 1385) ink on paper

Wang Hui Landscape, 1679.  Shanghai Museum

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Brief History of the Future......

Just back from a trip with 30 students and 3 colleagues to the Royal Museum of Fine Art in Brussels for the exhibition 2050, A Brief History of the Future inspired by the book of the same name by Jacques Attali.

In the afternoon we had an hour or so scheduled in the ancient art collection of old masters so we could make by way of contrast 'a brief visit to the past'. It strikes me that one of the things that links both the past and the future together is myth.  We are hardwired to project our imaginary worlds, either 'real' or 'fantastic' into the past as historical narratives, myths  or legends and into the future as utopian dreams or dystopian science-fictions. 

The ancient or pre-modern world seems to have been more oriented towards the past as the locus of projection for wisdom and moral discourse, as in biblical stories or classical mythology, whilst in the modern era the compelling myths or narratives of an evolving scientific and technological progress are firmly fixed on future horizons.

If we compare the works below we can find so many remarkable continuities despite the apparent dissimilarities.

The world is a creation of the mind.

'Fiction' 1998 C-print on dibond Ryuta Amae Aeroplastics Contemporary                  

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Black and Gold

'Agnes Martin' at The Tate Gallery ends on October the 11th 2015.

Struck initially by the similarity between the strong but understated abstract expressionist grid paintings of Agnes Martin and the regular patterns of brickwork that are such an integral part of both the emotional and built environment in Bruges I found her recently published biography, 'Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art' by Nancy Princenthal in the Raaklijn bookshop. Her practical interest in Zen Buddhism and Asian philosophy is clearly present in her statements about getting rid of intellectual 'ideas' and being 'empty' to respond to pure emotional inspiration not as an expression of personal ego. 

After leaving New York she appeared to renounce the comfort and security of more conventional artists, painting 'with her back to the world' and living a largely spartan solitary life in an adobe house she built herself in New Mexico. She abandoned painting for seven years but this period of transition, along with her closeted homosexuality and periods of mental turbulence were also perhaps important springs of independence and inspiration - her 'voices'. Later in life she enjoyed considerable success, fame and cult status ironically perhaps given her self-effacing self-imposed reclusive lifestyle.

'The beauty is not in the rose the beauty is in your mind'

The context for this statement can be found in the link below.
Tate Shots: Agness Martin

Agnes Martin, Friendship, 1963, incised gold leaf and gesso on canvas.
Still working on a series of black and white paintings for F which keep changing as further layers 'subtract' earlier layers by a process of 'addition'. This is their current status below.


Agnes Martin felt that music was the best and highest form of art because it was completely abstract and drew a powerful emotional response from the listener.

During the summer I was able to hear three concerts which formed part of the MA festival of early music in Bruges. The Vox Luminis ensemble's perfomance of Giacomo Carissimi's counter reformation oratorio Jepthte and Vanitas Vanitatum alongside compositions by Luigi Rossi, Domenico Mazzocchi and Kaspar Förster at the Sint Jakobskerk was the most moving and powerful for me.  The others MEDIA VITA Stile Antico at the Sint Walburgakerk and  IL TRIONFO DEL TEMPO E DEL DISINGANNO by G.F. Handel with Dunedin Consort ensemble at the concertgebouw which presented an allegorical duel between vanity and transience. 

The following three paintings from the fugitive image series are currently on display at the Raaklijn bookshop in Bruges.

Gothic Revival......

My formative years, between the age of 11 and 18, where spent in Lancashire in the North of England in a largely late Victorian Gothic Revival building. We followed a rather monastic daily schedule that included morning mass and night prayers.  This pre-computer world included the old classical tradition of naming year levels by the subjects studied at these various stages; middle school 6th, 7th and 8th grade were called, 'underlow', 'low figures' and 'high figures', whilst high school 9th and 10th grade were, 'grammar' and 'syntax' respectively, and 11th and 12th grade 'poetry' and 'rhetoric'. Whilst I endured five years of Latin with only moderate success, I focused on English Literature, Art and Ancient History at 'A' level passing with As, although by that time I was rebellious, disenchanted and disengaged by a system which felt like it was out of touch, at least with my emerging view of reality, and ready to escape to London and art school.

The Chapel.
The South Wing from the Upper Lake.

In retrospect is it possible to see how in the 1880s such a pile of masonry could have grown as a visual and material embodiment of strongly held identities, values and world views, particularly in Lancashire, which since the reformation had remained staunchly Catholic with significant pockets of resistance in the local recusant gentry and large influxes of Irish poor into cities like Liverpool following the potato famine.

The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, (1844-1889) which I studied at this time, remain as vivid individual expressions of feelings and perceptions transformed into art and language of one who lived through these transformations. This one is particularly poignant. 

Spring and Fall

to a Young Child

   Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
   Ah! as the heart grows older
   It will come to such sights colder
   By and by, nor spare a sigh
   Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
   And yet you will weep and know why.
   Now no matter, child, the name:
   Sorrow's springs are the same.
   Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
   What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
   It is the blight man was born for,
   It is Margaret you mourn for.

Criticism of the worst excesses of a materialistic, 19th century commercial, industrial, capitalism, crystallize in the writings of John Ruskin, who championed amongst many other things, public libraries and drawing classes for working men, and William Morris, whose socialist utopian vision was expressed in 'News from Nowhere'. The Arts and Crafts movement spreading out from Britain would later influence the Bauhaus. Augustus Pugin's Gothic revival architecture pitches his version of the middle ages against the facades of commercial 'classical' Georgian architecture, and the romantic medievalism and social insight in the paintings of the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood provided an aesthetic background to John Henry Newman's conversion to Catholicism and The Oxford Movement, which articulated voices of dissent from within the English establishment, with their focus on social reform, spiritual renewal and revival. 

From Pugin's 'Contrasts' published in 1836
The demographics of history, economic and social life in the growing cities of the North of England provided a fertile soil for such ideas to grow into. Some of the building's which followed survived only a hundred years into the late 20th century, as in the case of my old school, and are now abandoned and falling into decay and dereliction, awaiting perhaps their own renaissance in a future cycle of regrowth and regeneration?