walking to art

I’m lucky to live within walking distance of both Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Neither is a short walk – about 40 minutes to Tate Britain and closer to an hour to Tate Modern – but if the weather is fine it’s great to combine mild exercise with some culture, and along the way take in the ever-changing Thames riverfront.

The Sunday before last we walked to Tate Britain to see the Queer British Art exhibition. I enjoyed this show a lot, and found it both moving and uplifting. It’s a mix of art and sociological history, telling an important story of the gradual and often painfully won changes that have led to a greater valuing and acceptance of different gender identities and sexualities. The curators don’t claim the exhibition is comprehensive – much queer art has been lost or destroyed – but part of an ongoing conversation to recover previously hidden artworks and life stories of queer British artists.

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Rainbow flags on the railings outside Tate Britain

As far as the art itself is concerned, I was particularly drawn to the semi-abstract paintings of Keith Vaughan, a new discovery for me. The show is on until 1st October, so I’m hoping to visit again.

Then on Thursday afternoon, we sauntered in the heat to Tate Modern, and feasted our eyes on the stunning work of Fahrelnissa Zeid. I’d never heard of her before, and the exhibition is a revelation. She was a major 20th century artist, whose work draws on a number of traditions, including Western, Islamic and Byzantine art. Her life was nearly as colourful and kaleidoscopic as her art, spanning most of the last century, with periods spent in Istanbul (where she was born into an Ottoman family), Berlin in the 1930s, London, Paris and finally Amman in Jordan, where she taught painting to young women and encouraged their involvement in art.

She painted huge abstract canvases that pulsate with colour and energy. Towards the end of her life she moved away from abstraction to paint a series of very striking portraits. I love an exhibition which gives me goosebumps and makes me smile – this show did that in spades. I will definitely be returning, more than once, before it finishes on 8th October.

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post art drinks on the terrace

Time then for a debrief and refreshing drink on the southside roof terrace of the members’ room, before wandering slowly back to Battersea along the riverfront.

a week in the Thrive Hut

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This hut, in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park, was my home for five days last week. Well, between around 10 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. No sleeping over!

In the run up to Thrive’s Chelsea Fringe week of events at the end of May, invited  local artists have had the opportunity to use the Hut as a base for producing new work, which will then be on display during the festival week.  Mel Barry, who’s curating the Art Hut, asked if I would like to make use of the Hut ahead of my reading on Friday 26th May. A small space, away from day-to-day distractions, and a chance to gather material and hopefully write new poems. Yes please!

So, last Monday I headed over to the park with a few essentials: dictionary, thesaurus, scrap paper, notebook, pen and pencils, a few gardening themed books, ground coffee and a coffee plunger. Thankfully, I could use the kitchen and loo in Thrive’s office, and once I’d signed for the key to the Hut I could come and go as I pleased.

I wrote or made notes in the mornings, went for walks, chatted to some of the staff and volunteers, read extracts in The Writer in the Garden and random poems from Flora Poetica – sometimes out loud, on my own in the Hut. I welcomed a couple of visitors. I took photos on my phone, and resisted checking emails. Every day I had a tasty sandwich for lunch – thank you, Nick!

Mel mentioned that some of the artists whose work will be on show in the Hut have incorporated found objects or foraged material in their pieces. I thought this might be an interesting approach for me to try, so I jotted down scraps of conversation I heard as I was walking round the park as well as phrases and texts from signs and notices. I’ve written one poem which is a partial collage of words selected from two of the books I had with me – a variation on a challenge set for my next Stanza group meeting. Another is a mix of overheard snippets, found text and visual juxtapositions. More ideas are bubbling under.

At the end of the week, I packed up, tidied the Hut as best I could and returned the key. Then I met Mel and some of the local artists she works with, including a couple of talented teenagers, in a nearby hostelry, for an hour’s conversation about nature, art and poetry. Mel had brought some small art works to show me, and I shared a few poems with the group. All in all a stimulating week, and one which should yield more poems in the coming weeks.

I’ll be reading new and nearly-new garden-themed poems in Thrive’s main garden on Friday 26th May at 1pm. Come along, browse the art, eat cake and listen!

My thanks to Thrive for the use of the Hut, and to Mel at Popsy Set for facilitating this.

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The poet hard at work

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what I told the canvas

I tell myself I can’t draw, that I’ve got no visual sense. So what was I doing in an art workshop called Tell the Canvas on Saturday morning? Testing myself a little, and enjoying myself quite a lot.

This was a one hour drawing and collage session facilitated by Mel Barry, and held in Thrive Battersea’s main building as part of their open day. The workshop was a taster version of a session Mel has run for a number of different groups. Mel is curating the Locals Art Hut pop-up in partnership with Thrive for their Chelsea Fringe week of events in May, when I’ll also be giving a reading on Friday 26th May around 1p.m. So by way of warming up for my participation I thought I’d sign up for the workshop. One hour didn’t seem too daunting, and nor did the session feel rushed.

The broad theme of the workshop was to think about collective needs and imagine a positive change in any community – from local to global – with the aim of communicating that vision via a drawing or collage. Mel had asked me if I’d like to write a haiku in response to the theme, and this was posted on the wall along with quotes from artists Gerhard Richter and John Baldessari and some images to get us thinking.

A vision for our neighbourhood

pavement crack daisies
win prizes. we serenade
birds. sun burns through cloud.

It was a small group and relaxed atmosphere. Mel provided all materials including scrap paper, coloured pencils, pastels, paints and magazines and newspapers to plunder images from. We started with some quick warm up exercises and by the third I definitely felt freer in my approach to filling the page. I had fun trying out pastels and charcoal and not worrying about trying to make a perfect image. Then we were ready for the main task – composing a picture or collage that would convey a vision of a beneficial change to a community. No small task. We had half an hour and a piece of art board each. I started with a few images from magazines of nature in an urban setting, and built up a collage from there. A bit of green and red paint, some colouring in, a couple of phrases. A sense of achievement in making something that is broadly coherent (I think!).

collage

And there was time at the end for conversation about our ideas and how we’d found the process. Overall a positive experience. Deep down I know I have a visual sense (it’s there in my writing, after all) but the long-held belief that I don’t is hard to shake. Mel’s workshop is more than a start.

workshop table

If you’re interested in hosting your own workshop for a group of neighbours, friends, colleagues etc you can enquire with Mel about booking a 1 hour or two hour session at a location of your choice: buy@popsyset.com It could be for a private or public group, for a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 participants. Ages 6+ up to any age. Workshop fee applies.

Mel will be running Tell the Canvas for under 10s on Saturday 20th May, 11am until midday, at the Locals Art Hut in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park. £5 each. All children must be accompanied/supervised by a parent/guardian for the hour.

strung

On Wednesday afternoon I witnessed a thought-provoking performance, strung. It took place in the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital, and tied in with the opening of the Bethlem Gallery‘s Reclaiming Asylum exhibition.

strung was devised by artists Jane Fradgley and Shane Waltener and performed by dancer Laura Glaser and sound artist Zoë Gilmour. A video iteration of strung is showing in the gallery, created with the videographer Antonia Attwood. One element, then, of strung is collaboration.

Another element is the magnificent cedar tree, site and heart of the performance. The Reclaiming Asylum brochure refers to it as a ‘Lebanese cedar tree.’ I’m not an expert, but having checked my RHS Encylopedia of Plants and Flowers, I’m inclined to think it’s a Blue Atlas cedar, with its silvery smoky blue foliage.

The sound element of the piece was provided by Zoë Gilmour. Beneath the wide skirts of the cedar tree, to one side of the trunk, she’d set up with her cello, a small amp, some effects pedals, microphone and minimal percussion. For the two hours of the performance she created a subtle slowly changing soundtrack of looped cello phrases and percussive sounds. Plucking, strumming, brushing her bow on the cello strings; shaking a rattle; whispering into the microphone. Sometimes the sounds carried and sometimes they didn’t. Wind blew through the tree, dislodging clouds of fine dust. Traffic passed on the nearby hospital road. Under the tree Zoë responded to the movements of the dancer or was it the other way round? How much was improvised, thought out on the go, and how much choreographed and mapped out beforehand?

On the other side of the tree trunk dancer Laura Glaser – dressed in white trousers, white plimsolls, white long-sleeved top and wearing her long straight brown hair loose – moved back and forth between the lower branches, weaving a net with red twine. Her hands made small quick skilful movements, tugging, knotting, testing and stretching the twine. She seemed purposeful, focussed. I walked around the circumference of the tree, glimpsing the performers between the spreading branches. The tree gave off a spicy scent. And then unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Laura climbed through an opening in her woven net and began clambering over it. These were slower, tentative whole body movements as she navigated and extended the net structure. Rolling, grasping, tumbling into the cocoons and hammocks of the red twine web. Stretching and contorting herself, like a cat exploring and inhabiting a confined space. Lying along one of the branches. Climbing higher and continuing to unravel the twine and twist and knot triangular pockets between trunk and branches. As Laura tested and stepped from one spot to another the lower branches rippled like the hem of a flamenco dancer’s dress and the tree released another waft of dusty spicy scent. The cedar is also a performer.

The afternoon was warm and sunny; the eve of the autumn equinox. People lingered, soaking up the golden light and immersing themselves in the unfolding performance. We wandered through the hospital grounds for a bit, holding our thoughts, as far as the small orchard where apples lay quietly rotting in the long grass. Heading back towards the performance, I could hear the mellow tones of the cello carried by the wind. I liked the correspondence of the plucked cello strings with the rhythmic weaving. The dancer’s agility and fragility. I thought about trust – as a performer, trusting the twine, trusting her skill, trusting the tree will hold her. Tree climbing as emblematic of childhood freedom; innocence. The woven structure reminding me of cat’s cradles and also a safety net. We stood and watched the end of the performance, as Laura climbed down through the net one last time and walked out from the sheltering reach of the cedar tree. Something quite beautiful and moving happened that afternoon.

The video version of strung is showing at the Bethlem Gallery until 11th November.

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strung 21 September 2016

 

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strung 21 September 2016

 

 

strong stuff

Clothes can change your state of mind. Imagine you live in late Victorian times. You are in a state of extreme mental distress, and have been admitted to Bethlem Hospital. Perhaps you believe your soul has been lost, or all your organs have been removed, or some great harm is imminent. Early in your stay, you are dressed in strong clothing — a heavy dress, lined with felt, laced at the back, and with sleeves that enclose your hands in mittens. How does that make you feel? Safe and comforted? Cared for? Or restricted, controlled, imprisoned?

The current exhibition at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, held, is a series of photographs by Jane Fradgley, portraying some of the items of strong clothing from the Museum’s archive. Fradgley’s tender photographs capture the ambivalence of these garments, resulting in portraits — rather than clinical documentation — that are beautiful and haunting, or haunted. The mostly life-size photos hang in the new gallery space, and when I visited last week, I was struck by the calm and contemplative feel of the show, despite the troubling nature of the subject matter.

I got to know Jane last year, and we’d had a couple of long conversations about her held project, and some of the issues that strong clothing raises. I was fascinated to learn that very little is known about the history of the garments — who made them, the circumstances in which they’d been used, how much compulsion or consent was involved. With a background in fashion, Jane’s interest is also in the fabrics and the details, such as a frill around the neckline, which make these more than mere instruments of restraint. We discussed how the idea of being held encompasses both comfort — being hugged, for example — and enforced restraint. When Jane asked if I would consider writing a poem for her proposed book of photographs, I accepted what felt like a rather daunting challenge.

The resulting poem, Strong Medicine, had a long gestation. Jane emailed me copies of her images, the clothes floating against a white/cream or more often black background — disembodied, voiceless, yet speaking a mixture of delicacy and pain, something like a husk or shadow of accumulated anguish. Jane had lent me Presumed Curable, a book of photographs taken in the late 19th century of Bethlem Hospital patients, with brief accounts of the circumstances of their admission and eventual discharge — though some patients initially ‘presumed curable’ ended their days in the hospital. The acute distress of most patients is palpable even in the short accounts, with many expressing a feeling that their soul was lost or had died. When I came to write the poem, I was thinking about how many individual crises each item of strong clothing had contained — the specifics now vanished — and tried to bring out what might have been healing and hopeful in that experience.

My poem is included in the handsome booklet that accompanies the exhibition, along with reproductions of a number of photos and a short essay, all for only £2.00. A limited edition hand-bound book featuring 36 photos, my poem and other texts, is being launched at the gallery on 19th August. held, a thought-provoking and poignant exhibition, is on until 21st August.

eight week review

It’s just over eight weeks since I quit my job and time is doing that weird thing it seems to do of speeding up and filling up the more ‘free’ time one has. So I thought it might be good to take a step back and reflect on what I’ve done in that period.

I’ve written six new poems and reworked two old ones into much better shape. I’ve submitted a couple for an anthology and I’m deciding where to send the others. I’ve also written three short prose pieces, each in response to a specific call for submissions, so they’re out there now and time will tell whether I’ve hit the mark or not.

Joolz Sparkes and I performed a bunch of our London Undercurrents poems at March’s Fourth Friday and were buoyed by how well they were received. Since then, I’ve been researching ideas for new LU poems, including reading a lot of, and about, Angela Carter.

On Easter Saturday I attended a one day poetry workshop in a small group with Ruth O’Callaghan, around her dining room table, partly fuelled by mini gold-wrapped chocolate rabbits provided by one of the other participants. I’d booked back in January, and didn’t know what to expect, but came away with a handful of rough drafts, and a burning desire to read more Alice Oswald. One of the poems we’d looked at was Oswald’s strange and powerful Autobiography of a Stone.

Last Monday, I went along to my first local Stanza group session, and found it welcoming and stimulating. It’s still fairly new for me to share work in progress, especially with a group of people I’ve never met before, and I’m also not terribly confident in giving feedback on others’ work – it’s hard enough being articulate about my own! – but this feels like something I need to expose myself to. I left with my sense of myself as a writer still intact, and intend to go along to next month’s meeting.

As well as all this, I’ve been to a number of readings and events, one of the highlights being the private view of the Prunella Clough retrospective at the Osborne Samuel Gallery. Clough is one of my favourite painters. I love her muted palette and her subject matter – industrial spaces, overlooked detail, the scraps and discarded elements of mid to late twentieth century England. I’d been excited to read in Frances Spalding’s excellent monograph Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped that in the 1950s Clough had spent time sketching in the Peek Frean Biscuit factory in Bermondsey and later worked the sketches up into paintings. That sparked an as yet unpublished poem for the London Undercurrents project. In the current exhibition, two of the Peek Frean Biscuit factory paintings are on show, so it was very special for me to see these.

Inevitably, there have been some niggles and frustrations. Much of it is about balance and discipline, keeping on top of emails without allowing them to dominate, not giving in to the distractions of social media, and reminding myself that it’s not possible to fit in every cultural event in London. Not if I want to write. And there’s an ongoing plumbing issue (domestic, not medical), which is tedious but is taking up a certain amount of time and mental energy.

Overall, then, perhaps I’d give myself 7 out of 10. Room for improvement, but on the right track. Now, get back to that poem!

hippo haiku

Late yesterday afternoon we walked up towards Vauxhall, along the narrow and uneven pavements of Battersea Park Road and Nine Elms Lane, construction sites lining both sides of the road. Then tucked in to follow the river path and soon spotted up ahead, in the cloud-darkened waters, a large curved honey-coloured structure being towed towards the south bank at Nine Elms. The new floating sculpture from Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, commissioned for the Totally Thames festival, the marvellously named HippopoThames. We joined the crowd gathering to greet London’s latest interloper, and before long the sun came out to bathe her (I think this hippo is female) in golden September rays. There were a few stands set up with activities for kids, some free refreshments, and a river archeologist showing some of the objects, both ancient and more recent, found along the length of the Thames. London’s writer development agency Spread the Word were there, encouraging people to write haiku or other pieces inspired by Hofman’s installation. We picked up an exercise sheet each and found a bench slightly away from the hobnobbing hubbub, and set about our homework. That’s what it felt like. And then this is what I love about writing: despite the doubting voices in my head – I’ve never written a haiku. I feel exposed. All my ideas are trite and obvious. – a phrase formed, I groped around at the outer edges of my brain and dredged up another, I wandered over to gaze at the river and the friendly hippo; and finally, there in my notebook, a haiku took shape.

tethered river horse
smirking from tidal massage.
a sunburst of wows.

 

HippopoThames, Nine Elms, 2 September 2014
HippopoThames, Nine Elms, 2 September 2014
Sunlit rear view
Sunlit rear view

Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery

Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded. This quote from Virginia Woolf is printed on the back cover of Frances Spalding’s Virginia Woolf Art, Life and Vision. How true, how true, I want to say. I recognise this sentiment; it’s the source of my early and on-going compulsion to write a journal. To write. So I will record here what a marvellous, moving and inspiring experience it was to visit the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition about Virginia Woolf, curated by Frances Spalding, exploring Woolf’s life and work through photographs, paintings, letters, manuscripts and books. The photos include childhood snaps of Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket; four dreamy portraits of Virginia aged 20; some striking shots by Gisèle Freund of Virginia and her husband Leonard at home in Tavistock Square in 1939; a sequence taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in 1926 that reveals a relaxed, cheerful and elegant side to Woolf; and a rather odd photograph of Virginia Woolf with T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne, who stands slightly to one side and appears to hover an inch above the grass, her eyes a white blur. The exhibition is a reminder that Woolf was right there at the centre of Modernism, reading Proust and Joyce’s Ulysses as they were published, engaging in a literary dialogue with Katherine Mansfield, bringing out an edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land via the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard founded. Indeed, Eliot performed his long poem to the Woolfs over dinner at Hogarth House, which Woolf subsequently recorded in her diary: ‘He sang it and chanted it and rhythmed it.‘ Her most productive years, in terms of novel-writing, seem to have been those spent in London from the mid 1920s until the outbreak of the Second World War, the great metropolis providing stimulus on many levels and, as Frances Spalding puts it, ‘made her aware of the mutability of the self’. At the heart of the exhibition is Woolf’s writing, her letters and voluminous diaries and most of all the novels. There are first editions with beautiful jacket designs by her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. But it’s what inside, of course, that matters, that lasts. The words and ideas, the exploration of consciousness, of our fleeting time in this world and the marvellous brute continuance of nature and the universe. I’m currently immersed in To the Lighthouse. And I’m excited that there is still so much more for me to read and discover, including Frances Spalding’s handsome biography.

not a football in sight

Sunday afternoon. The previous night, England lost. It seemed a good idea to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air, and an even better idea to take advantage of the fact that in under 45 minutes we can walk to Tate Britain. Grey skies and a stiff breeze hurried us on, through Battersea Park and then along Grosvenor Road, beside the Thames, and the rapidly changing riverfront. Then up the steps of Tate Britain and ahead into the Duveen galleries, pitched straight into Phyllida Barlow‘s breathtaking installation dock. Immersive isn’t quite the right word. Overwhelming is nearer. Teetering ramshackle structures of rough planks and spray painted cross struts dominate the first gallery. From these, huge rusty-looking freight containers dangle precrariously. The fact that the containers are actually made from polystrene and foam doesn’t diminish their impact. I still ducked as I walked beneath and around them. Some are burst open, revealing a splurge of messy stuff inside, like crushed meringue. Mess, excess, waste. As you move through the galleries there are more large scale sculptures: accumulations of wooden posts like a giant pile of pick-up-sticks; a towering column of cardboard held together by slapdash bandages of yellow, orange and pink tape; more knocked-together wooden structures, rather like the underside of a pier, topped by overhanging bundles of carpet and roofing felt, plastic sacks stuffed with scap material; a giant cardboard cylinder suspended from the ceiling; plywood panels daubed in muted pastel colours are tacked to something like a spectator stand gone wrong. The more I looked, the more I saw. I thought about flotsam and jetsam, about low value and no value materials, about consumption and overabundance. About unconventional beauty, and finding aesthetic pleasure in the ordinary and the discarded. dock is more than something to behold, it is something to experience and be inhabited by.

Meanwhile, back in defence

Friday evening. Fifty or so people gather in a corporate art venue, the Bloomberg Space, for Errors Hit Orient. Nick and I are here because I saw a tweet from Studio Voltaire about the event, mentioning B.S. Johnson. We’re not quite sure what to expect. The idea sounds a bit mad, but definitely unmissable. Someone is going to read football reports written by B.S. Johnson, accompanied by live electric bass. We mill about in the auditorium, sipping our complimentary beverages, and speculating about the other attendees and what drew them to this event. Football fans? Lovers of experimental literature? Art buffs? City workers beginning their Friday night with a bit of culture and a free glass of vino? The performance is one of a series of events for DOES THE IT STICK, curated by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. There are brightly coloured foam sculptures, like children’s building blocks writ large, arranged in the auditorium; a mural of some distant planets and stars on one wall; and a giant cartoon-like house front, that looks like it belongs on the set of Play School. All very cheerful.

Eventually, we’re let through to the performance space, overlooking an atrium with views up into the Bloomberg offices proper. I’m glad to see that most of the staff seem to have left by now. And soon, Chris Evans plugs in his bass, Will Holder picks up a cordless mike, and this odd marrying of elements begins. As well as Evans’s noodling bass, there’s a looped soundtrack of vinyl record surface noise (I think!), rhythmic hand claps, and a whirring that rises in pitch and speed and then slows, builds and fades, creating a hypnotic tension. Layered over this soundscape, Holder reads eight match reports written by B.S. Johnson for the Observer in the late 1960s. In a word, it’s brilliant. It works. Johnson’s reports are mordant and subversive. One starts, roughly, ‘The political truism that it is easier to maintain the status quo than overthrow it was apparent when [football team] met [another football team]…’ In another report, Johnson compares West Ham’s repeated unsuccessful attempts on goal to the repetitive blurred pattern of a carpet. He uses litotes liberally, and Holder’s reading brings out the gritted-teeth feeling just below the surface of many of the reports, Johnson sitting through tedious games and wringing what fun he can from his turns of phrase. ‘Meanwhile, back in defence. . .’ being one memorable instance. In his account of an FA Cup tie between Canterbury and Torquay, there’s a lovely detail of two cranes rising into the Kent sky at the start of the second half, quickly punctured as Johnson goes on to say this was not an omen of a reversal of fortunes for for the home side, who were roundly beaten. Errors Hit Orient – a mad idea and a truly inspired event.