Wednesday, 9 January 2019

The Art Deco of New York

The Art Deco of New York

Part Five of Kitchen Table Writer's look at Art.

Shortly before I discovered I was going to New York, my son gave me a birthday present, a book called New York Art Deco, by Anthony Robins, with a map of locations and street walks that found the best examples of Art Deco in Manhattan.  ‘How nice,’ I thanked him politely. ‘I didn't know you realised I was interested in New York Art Deco,’ while I couldn't help thinking, yeah, lovely; shame this book will be no actual use as I'll never GO THERE, will I? A few moments later my family was treating me like a TV show guest, raising their Uncle Sam top hats, popping confetti and singing along to Sinatra's New York, New York. Yes, this book was going to be of actual use!

So, with this special book in hand, we traced our way around the Big Apple's glug…its veritable deluge…of Art Deco. To quote from the book…The style is instantly recognisable but hard to pin down. It takes its sources from European flowery and zigzagged crafts and Art Nouveau, with African influences, and has become the collective name for all that is brash, polychromatic, geometric, whizz-bang…with a motto of ‘Beauty with Utility’ it was part of the Roaring Twenties, the Depression Era, the Jazz Age, and prohibition. Its hallmarks could summon up a skimpy dress, a rakish look, and a glass of champagne. These include vertical columns of windows to take the eye up, powerfully-built and scantily-clad figures of both men and women, the iconic sunset patterns, and loads of streamlined curves, speed-lines, chrome and gold leaf. Its chosen colours are red, black, white and gold.

We were fated to always seeing the Empire State Building from various distant views; first as we entered Manhattan in the Limo, later that day from the New York Bateaux. Later we saw it again from the top of the Rockefeller. But today, we walked closer and closer to the Empire State Building until we were so close we could no longer see its grandeur, which explains why it’s better to see it from afar. We also took in the Chrysler Building, which has an amazing rising sun symbol worked into its architecture. My particular exterior is the Brill Building, which we discovered via the book, but on every street corner, down every block, there are examples of the Art Deco style, each demonstrating 
 that iconic NY Art Deco look, the ‘wedding cake’  or ‘stepped’ design. These buildings explode up into the sky, narrowing as they climb. But this wasn't just art or architecture – by 1916 Manhattan streets were dark, narrow corridors between increasing amounts of new build, and a regulation, the  Zoning Resolution, was brought in to force planners to reduce the footprint of a tall building as it rose, depending on the width of the street. The idea worked; light came back into New York and Art Deco was handed its most iconic statement.

Art Deco had really taken off by the time the US was deep in the depression. Not every tycoon had lost their wealth, and they began to compete with each other to offer the jobless and near starving ordinary New Yorkers construction work building taller and taller skyscrapers. Apparently, W H Auden’s reply to the question ‘Why are the public buildings so high ' was... 'because the spirits of the public are so low.’  

Tall buildings symbolize hope, power, achievement. Already the Chrysler and the Empire State stood, taller than tall, and John D Rockefeller, who had made his millions in oil, wanted to beat them all. He built a large complex consisting of 14 original Art Deco buildings covering 20 acres, split by a large sunken square, which becomes a skating rink in winter, and a private street called Rockefeller Plaza. 

Rockerfeller was a Baptist, and was often shocked by the scantily clad maidens clutching half-naked men that were incorporated in the Art Deco designs he was commisioning. When Lawrie Lee created a 45ft bronze statue of Atlas,  he postitioned it right outside St Patrick's Cathedral. The story is told of how the archbishop came out of Sunday Worship one morning to discover the heroic pagan god staring down, holding the world, butt-naked but for a slipping loin cloth.Both Rockerfeller and the bishop was incensed. The artist, mollified the bishop by asking them to walk around and view the statue from the back. There, the symbolism changes dramatically. The Titan looks like a crucified Christ, gazing at his own place of worship. 

Rockerfeller Centre is filled with Art Deco masterpieces, every building's facade a hymn to the art form, including Christies auction house, which, at the time we were in Manhattan, was exhibiting a collection of pieces donated to charity by the Rockefellers. Rather like you and me, when we empty the attic, but while we take everything to the local tip, David and Peggy Rockefeller sent their cast offs to Christies, where they raised eight hundred million dollars for good causes.

The Rockefeller Building has a stunning viewing deck called ‘Top of the Rock’.  Becki had chosen this to be our view of New York; because, ironically, you have the best of the Empire State from there, not to mention Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and in fact, because it was a clear day, all five boroughs of the city. This was the moment Becki’s Selfie Stick came into its own. She’d already taken a lot of stick (pun intended!!) from friends. ‘Selfie Stick?’ came the general cry. ‘That’s so trashy, so stale, so  déclassé, darling!’ And that was just possession of such an item, never mind that Becki’s SS turned out to be the wrong sort for her phone, so she couldn’t plug it in (she used delayed shot instead), and it had already lost a screw so it flopped over at the top. In other words, a trashy, broken bad buy! But by the time we reached the Top of the Rock, she’d found the missing screw (holding it up in triumph in the hotel room) and it had its moment, as we laughed and waved with a backdrop of all Manhattan. 

I’d been particularly taken with some Egyptian-influenced frescos on one of the complex’s skyscrapers, and so we had our lunch on the pavement right beside these. Becki, finally had her dream come true; oysters and champers were on the menu! I had Eggs Rockefeller, which was a massive breakfast dish. As it arrived, the people on the table next to us leaned over to ask what I’d ordered. When I told them, they ordered it too. They were not New Yorkers, but from Denver. She was Swedish, but had lived in the US since marrying Tom, who was proudly telling us he was ¼ Welsh and ¼ American Indian. All his working life he’d been in the art world, and now he was writing a book about it. They were in town to bid at the Christie’s auction. ‘Have you seen the Rockefeller exhibition,’ they asked. We shook our heads. Fine chance. ‘Hey, I have two spare tickets. We thought our son would like to come, but he can’t.’ Tom passed us gilt-edged invites. 

We couldn’t believe their kindness, but we’ve been showered with such generosity from the start. Everyone in New York wanted to share a friendly moment with us, like the girl in the Campbell Bar last night, and the young man, as I was coming up some steps, who held the door open for me at the top.I sped up, to get there the quicker, ‘please don’t hurry,’ he called down. ‘I’m fine here. Don’t rush, you may trip and hurt yourself.’ On our first morning, we’d got into the lift at the Mandarin Hotel and struck up a conversation with some business women who were showing an English girl around their workplace. ‘Have a wonderful time here,’ they said. ‘We love our city and I do hope you have the most marvellous stay.’ And the moment, earlier today, as we walked towards St Patrick’s Cathedral, I remarked that they must power-wash it regularly to keep the brickwork so white in the grimy environment, and a city-suited man joined us as we walked to say, yes, he’d been thinking the very same thing at that instant, as if we were old acquaintances that he’d caught up with on his way to the office. 

Radio City is the jewel in the crown of the Rockerfeller Centre. Even the  the outside has amazing artwork, murals depicting the various arts and entertainments. Inside, the sculptures, frescos, furniture, and perhaps especially the gold-leaf wall coverings, were out of this world. We enjoyed our afternoon tour of Radio City for all those things, but thing we both remember most about that tour was our tour guide. I’m afraid his name escapes me now, which is just as well. I fondly remember him as Lanya.

‘Right,’ he began as we clustered together in the foyer. ‘Have you all got your lanyas?’
There was silence.
‘Lanyas, your lanyas,’ he piped at us. ‘Don’t you know what a lanya is?’
Admittedly, around 50% of us were not American, but there were sufficient US citizens, including a lovely gaggle of little girls, to demonstrate that no, no one knew what a lanya was.
‘Your LANYAS’ he screamed, holding up his own lanyard, with his own ID dangling on the end of it.
Oh, right, yes. We all had our lanyas.
We had a fair few guides to take us around New York, but Lanya took the crown. He was without doubt the most irritating of our guides - the most irritating guide ever - and maybe the most irritating person alive today.

Lanya only knew what he was supposed to know, not a fact more, and each over-emphasised factoid was accompanied by the work ‘indeed’. None of his jokes worked. ‘These ceilings need constant attention, almost slave labour. Indeed, I send my own five daughters in to do the regular job,’ he chirped.
No way do you have five daughters, I thought, looking at his skinny frame. But if you did, I bet you’d send them off for slave labour, indeed.
He seemed delighted to be able to tell us that they were preparing the stage for a performance so we wouldn’t be able to go into the auditorium. We started peeking through little portholes that showed us a poor view down to the curtains, but were finally taken to a view platform. ‘Ha-ha,’ gloated Lanya. ‘Now all of you who tried to peer in illegally are sorry, aren’t you?’

‘Are those boxes?’  someone asked him of the side-seats were in the auditorium.
 He threw the question right back in her face. 
‘Are they boxes?’
‘I don’t know, I’m asking. Are those called boxes?’
‘What do you think they are called?’
‘I thought they might be boxes?’
‘So you’re saying they’re boxes?’
‘No…I’m so sorry,’ the woman stuttered.

Even so, he couldn't dim the glory of Radio City, where even the loos are a work of art. The highlight of the tour was getting away from Lanya to talk to a Rockette all kitted up in her fabulous costume and stage make up and able to make the little girls’ dreams come true by having a photograph taken with her. She told us it had been her own little girl dream to become a Rockette and she’d been dancing at Radio City for almost twenty years, even though she didn’t look much over 20 herself.
Although Manhattan is often thought of as the city of modern sky-high buildings, it became clear that not much that was lovely has every been pulled down; 18th Century churches and nineteenth century synagogs rub shoulders with the Beaux Arts library and Central Station. Art Deco scrapers nestle between towering shocks of glass plate and concrete. This is what makes the NY skyline so unique. No two buildings standing together are the same, and in their own way they are all beautiful…and acutely loved by New Yorkers.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Hatching Characters

I’ve just embarked on a new writing project but I haven’t written a word yet.  The story is in its first prototype, unformed and vaporous…just a muddle of ideas swimming in my head. My protagonist is pretty unformed at the minute, too – I’m not sure of looks, personality or even gender – it’s all a blank sheet I need to colour in.
It’s like this character has just hatched out of an egg, and that reminds me of the four chicks our broody hen, Ceredwin, raised this summer. The eggs cracked, and four fluffy heads poked out into the world, three yellow and one brown. They knew nothing, had no history and no expectations. As it’s impossible to sex newly-hatched chicks, we gave them gender-fluid names…Little Wings, Brown Wings, Yellow Wings and Pink Beak.
I've been writing about hatching a new character, and the lives of my hen and her chicks at, and you can read the rest of this post about writing HERE

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Manhattan, Old and New.

Manhattan, Old and New

Part Five of Kitchen Table Writer's look at Art.

I've just been treated to a trip to the Big Apple to view the art, history and culture.

In A Cultural Experience in Manhattan, I chronicled my adventures on our arrival in Manhattan; the ballet dancers in Columbus Circle…the nighttime boat trip under Brooklyn Bridge and around the Statue of Liberty…dinner at the Mandarin Hotel. The following day, we'd booked up a full tour of the history of Manhattan from the moment Hudson landed in 1607 to the building of the Memorial Towers.

We’d both read our book on the history of New York, so felt girded up for the five-mile tour of historic Manhattan that would take the entire day. We met our guide, Jessie, at The Battery, named after the artillery batteries that were stationed there in the 17th Century. While we were waiting, we enjoyed taking in a huge statue near the fortress. Made in the 1970s of bronze and red granite by sculptor Luis Sanguino to celebrates the diversity of New York City and the struggle of immigrants, by showing the different kinds of émigré who came into Ellis Island, such as European Jews, as well as a freed African slave, a priest and a worker Chinese. It uses heroic symbolism with facial and bodily expression to emphasise the struggle of the dislocated, clearly about to arrive at Ellis Island, straining to catch a first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, some reaching out, some collapsing with hunger and emotion. It reminded me of how I’d visualised such an event last night on the Bateaux.

The Immigrants
 Jessie arrived a bit late, which peeved my punctual daughter, but we were soon chatting away, as she turned out to be (like all the New Yorkers we met), very friendly and obliging. She was a Brooklyn girl who ran her own small drama company, but was excited about the MA she was about to start in drama…at the Old Vic in Bristol. ‘We come from Bristol,’ we said. ‘You’ll love it.’ Clearly, she was keen on local history, so we told her to search out the history of our native city. I’ve always believed that history is written in the brickwork, skyline and landscape of any place…you can see this in the buildings, waterways and green places of Bristol…now it’s becoming clear it’s also true of New York.

We started outside the Clinton Castle, the little fortress built by DeWitt Clinton – the inventor of the Manhattan grid system – to keep the British out of New York after the revolution. From the tip of The Battery, we saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time in daylight – this is where you catch the boat to Liberty Island. She looked just as regal and godly through the distant morning mists that she had close up and illuminated the night before. Jessie moved us on to the Bowling Green, where in 1765 New Yorkers protested against the British rulers by burning the picket fence. Doesn’t sound like much of a protest, but I doubt it stopped there. A new metal fence was erected, and Jessie showed us how the decorative tops of the posts had been roughly removed. This happened in the early days of the revolution, so no one knows what the missing ornaments looked like, or why they were sawn off.  

Charging Bull
On Wall Street, named because early settlers built a wall to keep the Native Americans out (don’t tell Trump, Beckie whispered), is the NY Stock Exchange, where we see the newly famous Charging Bull and Fearless Girl, two bronze statues that arrived like mushrooms blooming overnight. The artist DoModica created a larger-than-life statue of a bull in his art foundry and arrived early one morning to install it inside a ‘street works’ tent. The Bull clearly represents all that is belligerent about the stock exchange; flared nostrils and wicked sharp horns, ready to gore; its testicles are massively visible and the tourists ('specially the women!) are queueing to be photographed nestling them in their hands. The little girl arrived years later in 2017. She reminded me of Francie Nolan, the young heroine in Betty Smiths’ 1943 book A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, (a book, a film and a blogpost here)  The Girl faces off The Bull in button boots and a cotton dress, her hair blowing away from her face as if the snorting of the bull is creating a strong wind. She looks ready to take on the world. Both works are guerrilla art, and New York’s City Hall still insists they are on borrowed time. 

It was at the gardens of City Hall that we had the best historic ‘buzz’.

I’d been reading about ‘The Collect’, a large pond that supplied the best tea-making water to the
The Collect Pond, copyright Wikipedia
settlers Quite quickly it was ruined by the growing meat industry (clearly, even early Americans loved their steak), when  it became a dumping for the waste products of slaughter. In 1800 it had become a stagnant mess and was drained, filled with soil from the small hills that had been flattened as the city expanded. Houses were built on the land, however, no one had noticed that The Collect was fed by springs. Very soon the buildings began to subside, losing their value. The entire area ended up as a slum, with hundreds of poor New Yorkers living in abject poverty in sinking houses. Jessie hadn’t been sure where the Collect was, but here was a timemap in the grounds of the City Hall, describing its position not far from where we stood…although it was several acres wide so we were probably on the edge of it. In delight at our discovery, we jumped up and down. I’m sure she thought we were quite mad.

NY public library
‘Where would you like to go for lunch,’ Jessie asked us.' Shall we eat like New Yorkers?' She took us to a diner where we stuffed ourselves to the gills on sandwhiches packed full of pastrami and other cold meats and cheeses, served with crisps and a gherkin before catching a yellowcab into the central area of Manhattan to look at more architecture. She explained that there were two main periods before the modern skyscapers of glass and steel; Art Deco in the Jazz Age, which was preceeded by beautifully ornate, colonnaded buildings, built during what we think of as the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Jessie described this as Beaux Art (although she annoyed Becki by pronouncing this ‘beaus-art).

We start our trail with the quirky Flatiron Building; 22 steel-framed floors of triangulation built in 1905, then on to perhaps the favourite of the older buildings we saw; the New York Public Library. As we walk around it, Jessie told us it had been built in 1908 for the people of NY and there are over 50 million books housed here. From the outside, it’s beautiful, with neoclassical pillars, bas-relief work and statues. Inside, the decorative motifs, murals continue, but what I loved was that the library has the smell and atmosphere of an ancient house of reading. Both of us could have happily stayed there for some time, perhaps in order to look at some actual books, and we decided to put it on the ‘last day’ list of things to do.

Whispering corner
Grand Central Station that took our breath away. Built in 1913, it’s more like a temple than a railway station. The architecture feels like ‘Beaux Arts meets Art Deco’, offering the best of both. The main concourse has a massive floor of rushing people, but if you look up, you’re transported to the heavens. The ceiling is painted with the 12 constellations of the night sky. This starry wonder is, however, astronomically inaccurate in a complicated way. While the stars within some constellations appear as they would from earth, other constellations are reversed left-to-right, as is the overall arrangement of the constellations on the ceiling. Jessie’s explanation was that the ceiling design might have been based on the medieval custom of depicting the sky as it would appear to God looking in at the celestial sphere from outside. It’s probably just an error, though! Always on the hunt of a good oyster, Becki was instantly taken with oyster bar, Central's oldest business, while I was enraptured by the ‘whispering corners’ which allow to people to stand at either side of an area of the main concourse and whisper secrets into the pillars of one corner, to be heard perfectly in the opposite corner. One imagines the Mafia of prohibition NY using this device a lot.

Ground Zero waterfall
Finally, we brought history up-to-date. No one would go to Manhattan and not want to pay their respects to the terror and horror of 9/11 by visiting the Memorial at Ground Zero.

Twin Tower Memorial
From a little way off, the 9/11 memorials look like two enormous holes in the ground; both so big you can’t see both at once. They are the exact footprint of ‘ground zero’ - the space made by each World Trade Tower after it was destroyed by terrorists on the 11th of September 2001. As I moved forward, I could see – and hear – the massive waterfalls that form an outer square of walls. The noise of millions of gallons of falling water drowns out traffic and pulled me in to the emotional intensity of these two enormous pools, which are titled “Reflecting Absence”. The water disappears into a simple, square hole at the centre. The noise, the beauty of the four walls of falling water (the largest man-made waterfalls in the US), and the black hole that’s sucking at the life of the water, moved us both incredibly and made think about life, and the way it can be snatched from you in a blink. Around the edge, the names of all the dead are deeply carved, including the firefighters who lost their lives, moving memorials in the world, small stars and stripes flags are tucking into some of the names. Rising above them is Freedom Tower. It’s a triangular column of glass, and on this brilliantly sunny day, it caught the light of the at the very tip of its 1,776 feet, the date of the American Revolution in New York. 

The Oculus
Next to the memorial is The Oculus. This is  extremely interesting architecturally… it’s  as bowed and compact as the Freedom tower is stretched and liberated. From outside, it reminds us both of a white bird, half in flight. Inside, where there is a terminus, it’s like we were in the body of a dinosaur. New York felt the destruction of the World Trade Towers strongly, took the deaths of its citizens very hard. They want to celebrate those lives, cut short, as well as proving to the terrorists who tried to destroy their way of life that life will go on.  
Grand Central Station cocktail.

There's a coda to our day of Manhattan history; that evening we returned to eat at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.  With its tramline furniture and vaulted ceilings, it really looked the part. One could imagine the Bright Young Things and flappers of the 1920s coming here for their oysters. Of course, back then they wouldn’t have been allowed alcohol with their shellfish, and to Becki’s horror, Champagne still wasn’t on the menu! ‘I can’t eat oysters without Champagne,’ she announced.
I didn’t fancy the menu at all…I was thinking that since the 20s, the clientele had deteriorated somewhat. Bag ladies rubbed shoulders with workers at the end of their shifts on the long communal tables. ‘Let’s try somewhere else,’ I said. So we wandered througj the Central Station Concourse until we reached an Italian Bar, where we ate at the counter. We had salads – Bex with her glass of Champers and me with the most eye-watering vodka martini I have ever swallowed down. Becki said later that she watched me getting more and more drunk over the course of this one glass.

It was ten when we left. I was keen for an early-ish night as we had another full day of sightseeing tomorrow. But as we left the Station, Becki spotted a sign. ‘the Campbell Apartment!’ she squealed .’I’ve read about that. When the station was being built, John Campbell, who was overseeing the work, lived here – he had both his office and his bed installed so he could keep a close eye on the work. And then in the 20s, it became a speakeasy. In fact, it’s the only cocktail lounge in NY that was originally a speakeasy. Inside, it was small, but perfect. It looks like the galleried hall of a medieval palace, but was packed with punters having a great, if noisy, time, squashed together round tiny tables.
The Cambell Apartment
The drinks, however, were not a patch on the Italian bar. My vodka martini was a diluted replica of the previous eye-blower. And Becki took one look at her Tatti and said, ‘it’s flat. There’s no fizz.’
‘Is your drink flat?’ The girl sitting on the next table heard Becki and leaned over to give advice.
‘I’m sure it’s from the dregs of the bottle,’ Becki said. ‘Tell the waitress, she insisted. ‘Go on. Call her over and tell her.’ Quite soon, Becki was in possession of a sparkling glass, and we had a new best friend in friendly NYC. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

How Do you Read?

 How do you read?
Do you focus on the author's message and line of argument, evaluating modes of writing, such as voice, theme, structure, plot, narrative point of view, character, use of dialogue? Or do you just get sucked right in, so that you’re there, in the writer’s world?

I love the way reading feeds and refreshes me, and I wonder if readers like me filter their reading through their previous experiences, opinions and misconceptions. But there’s also bring an ability to get lost in the narrative, even when it is patently nothing like your experience of life. Most people surface-read, which leads to superficial retention, and poor comprehension, of the text. Deep reading uses the skills of analysis, synthesis and problem-solving, but does it  'spoil the story'?

I've just read the Booker winner, Milkman, by Anna Burns, an Irish writer who has produced a clever and absorbing book about 'the troubles'. Set, perhaps, in the 1990s, and located, perhaps in a Northern Irish town locked in sectarian dispute, it's about an 18-year-old girl who is pursued…stalked, almost… by a member of the IRA looking for a bit of eye candy for his arm. There's hardly any violence described, and yet the atmosphere is heavy with the idea of violence and death. I loved it, and fully recommend it, but it would be an easy book to skim read, being rather dense and there are only six chapter over its 350 pages). None of the characters are referred to by their real names...our protagonist is 'middle sister', a previously rejected boy as 'Somebody MacSomebody, and her lover as 'almost boyfriend' But it deserves to be read slowly, with thought. It's subtle, but under its skin there is clarity.. What it tells you about the troubles, are the things no news report could tell you.  Don't take my word for this, though. Here's Claire Kilroy  in The Guardian… Milkman calls to mind several seminal works of Irish literature. In its digressive, batty narrative voice, it resembles a novel cited by the narrator: Tristram Shandy. It is Beckettian in its ability to trace the logical within the absurd. 

I looked at my last two pieces of reading and asked did the reading hold me? Did I feel the passion of the writer? Did it explain itself to my satisfaction? Did the story increase reading pleasure? Or did my mind wander away from the page? However, this might be true of viewing story too. I read  The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  in1985and now I’ve watched the TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale.  This was faithful to the story, but included other character’s perspectives in the episodes, dedicating some episodes to quite periphery characters like the husband and the wife. 

Reading a novel alongside a play or film demonstrates how differently prose fiction and dramatic script can be. I’ve done this too with the film Arrival; it blew me away and I immediately got the book of short stories it comes from on my Kindle. The original,  Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang, is basically the same story, but the screenplay reimagining the landscape and made more of a final twist.  

Arrival  (2016 screenplay by Eric Heissere) is a film that had its genesis in short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang 2002, Tor Books) I saw the film, watched the ‘extras’ on the DVD and bought the book of short stories, I was so enamoured with the film. Having read the story on the page, I asked myself about the way the adapting writer approached the challenge of taking a long short story into a movie. For instance, there is a massive, esoteric plot twist at the end of the film, which in the book, is known by the reader almost from the start. The theme of both is linguistics and precognition, which is slowly revealed in the film, but fully apparent from the start of the story. The filmmaker reimagined the sci-fi element so that it was far more pleasing, visually. The poster does not give away any of the subtle of story, the theme or even that there will be a mystery within it, revealed at the end. It is focused on its stars, in the hope they will sell the movie. The ET spaceship, which is visible to the left, is not clarified, except as an UFO which is being threatened, or attacked, by the US helicopters. The film is a complex emotional drama, and very beautiful in both script, structure, and art work, but it’s almost as if the poster wants to hide this, instead giving the wrong impression that this will be like most sci-fi movies. Which it is not. 

May Angelou said in her autobiographyI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. 
I can identify with that. Story is massively important to humans. Lisa Crone has been re-examining the human experience of story, demonstrating that the brain craves story, not for ‘entertainment value’, but because it allows us to plan for the unknown. She believes that very early man listened to stories and processed them as ‘simulators’ which might point out ways to approach and survive the unknown and unexpected. The reason we get so ‘lost’ in books, storytellings and dramatisations is a deliberate ploy on the part of our brain…it’s a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine that’s triggered by the intense curiosity that that an effective story instantly engenders…we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality because story translates big ideas, dry facts, abstract concepts, into very specific scenarios… watch her TED talk Wired for Story here.

Everything we read isn’t story, however. I noted down everything I’d read (and written and heard) in a 24 hour period, from 6.30 am to 10.30
All the stories are in red.

READ emails on phone
READ Weather  “ “
READ Cookbook for recipes
READ some of  The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig
WRITE shopping list
WRITE emails online
HEARD The Radio 4 Story of the Week

READ Guardian (some of it)
READ seed packets
READ plant food box
WRITE My Welsh Homework
READ the Welsh handbook at Welsh class
READ The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, first chapters
READ internet info on The Power
WATCH the news at ten
READ (in bed) The Waves.

In Death of an Author, Roland Barthes argues that readers should ‘liberate’ their reading, from the ‘interpretive tyranny’ of the critical reader, who first looks at the writer, their ethnicity, politics, religion, even personal attributes and relates these to the read. For instance, if the writer was a known 30’s fascist, then that would be immediately taken into consideration to be part of gaining the meaning. As we’ll be doing textiles later, I liked this quote…text is a tissue of quotations, drawn from innumerable centers of culture, rather than from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the reader, rather than the passions of the writer; a text's unity lies not in its origins, or its creator, but in its destination, or its audience.

I like the idea that the reader is as important as the writer. And in a way, I think most people do believe the reader can and should interpret what they read, in just the same way as one interprets modern dance, a sculpture or artwork, or even an installation or video art, such as Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller, which I talked about in a previous blogpost review. I can certainly be swayed by what people say about a book, and often don’t buy one if there are bad reviews (although I might borrow it). 

The approach in Death of an Author works well for literature written by people we’ll never known or have chance to understand, possibly because they are long dead, or a recluse like DJ Saligner. He seems to argue that a writer's views about their own work are no more or less valid than a reader’s interpretation, as real as the author's intention. It certainly eliminates an issue of reviewing/discussing/interpreting books – how anyone can ever know what the writer intended? It also makes a point with regard to the way women in the past had to publish under a male name, like the Bronte sisters, or anonymously for other reasons, as JK Rowling did, when she wanted to see how her crime novel would be accepted. Of course that ‘rouse’ could only work once the real name of the author was revealed, otherwise The Casual Vacancy would have dropped like a stone. On the other hand, readers don’t seem to be interested in this as a literary argument; they don’t really ‘utilize it’. Otherwise, the Radio 4 favourite, Book Club, wouldn’t be so loved. In this programme, you are told in advance which author will be attending with a studio audience, who will ask questions about the author’s recent work. For the same reason, Book Festivals, are massively attended. We all want to hear what the author says about their own work.

If you'd like some help with reading more widely, deeply and passionately try these books; 

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud 

Jacob's Room is Full of Books: A Year of Reading by Susan Hill 

Maps and Legends; Michael Chabon
Reading like a Writer, Francine Prose
The Child Books Built by Frances Spufford.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Grayson Perry – The Most Popular Exhibition Ever

 The Most Popular Exhibition Ever:

 Part Four of Kitchen Table Writer's look at Art

I've been a fan of Perry's for a long time, probably since seeing a TV programme about the journey he took by motorcycle across Bavaria with his childhood bear Alan Measles. And then I listened to his Reithe  Lectures which were both anarchic and academic – a mixture of belly laughs and perfect truths.  So when my friend Liz asked me to accompany her to his retrospective exhibition, along with a bunch of Open College of the Arts students, I jumped at the chance. 

As soon as we arrived at the Arnolfini (Bristol's 'Tate Gallery'), I spotted the bike, a pink and pale blue Kennelworth called Patience; it was pride of place in the gallery with a backdrop of an Alpine scene. I loved the way Perry managed a huge number of themes and metaphors all in one go; travel, biking, masculitity, feminity, childhood memories (and long-lasting affection for teddy bears), cross-dressing, the strangeness of strangers, acceptance, humour, exploration and pushing boundaries. Now, as an exhibit, devoid of Perry in mauve leathers, and with only a photo of snowy mountains instead of the cold air and crunch of the real thing, the bike felt a bit out of context. Did that make it even more ‘a piece of artwork’ than when it was roaring along a Bavarian autobahm? I tried to visualise how people might have felt, standing outside their chalets and watching it appear on horizon, when it must have been more like the talking point of the week (year!), rather than an artwork.

We toured the exhibition slowly until lunch, each taking our separate ways. There were over 25 works in several rooms and corridors throughout the gallery, so it was sensible to zone in to the ones we felt drawn to. I started on the ground floor, which was dedicated to the idea ‘what is a man’, a concept Perry uses a lot in his work, and has written a book about, The Descent of Man, reviewed in October 2016 by the Guardian…  As Perry says…Maybe there is room for all kinds of masculinity, including tough guys, as long as everyone is kind to each other.

The major artwork downstairs was a massive woodcut, a self-portrait of Perry, lying back on a couch in his studio, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his work. He’s naked, but has given himself breasts, and assumed the sort of attitude taken by female artists’ models of
past centuries. In conventional art, the female naked form is so much more idealised than the male, which might echo the way the patriarchal societies across the world and down through centuries function, and I think this is part of what he was trying to say. This woodcut  remained my favourite piece, even after seeing all the exhibits. It spoke directly to me as a woman, but I like to think it can speak directly to men as well, suggesting ‘we are all androgynous’, although others might find a more aggressive message and some might be forced to look away. Perry said about this work, People seem as interested in me as in my work, so why not make a piece about that idea, that here I am, in my studio, in the nude or in a fantasy version of myself in the nude.  

I stood for a long time, looking into the woodcut, Animal Spirit, (you can view the artwork here) in which an aggressive 'horned and horny' bear stands over a naked baby in a wasted industrial landscape. Sometimes, what Perry says is a bit obvious, but the imagery here stopped me in my tracks. However, he uses words a lot, something I’ve never been sure of in his work because this is the obvious bit, too ‘readable’ by half, he’s almost telling you what to think. The bear’s guts are filled with abstract nouns, never the best of words if you’re aiming for metaphor…Sensible  Rational, Prudent…etc.

Brexit Ceramics, with thanks to
I like the ceramics, such as the two Brexit pots, one 2 % larger, one 2 % smaller. In a video viewable at the exhibition, Perry’s talked through his ideas behind this – to give visual voice to both sides of the argument by asking the general public to send in images of themselves…and the way they voted. “I thought it would be an interesting experiment to make a work that involved, to use the fashionable term, crowdsourcing via social media. The two pots have come out looking remarkably similar, which is a good result, for we all have much more in common than that which separates us”. Commonalities found on both pots, include: bacon and eggs, the local pub, walking the dog, family, David Bowie and Marmite. However, I’m wondering if these  images were successful in delivering the message he hoped. They did look awfully similar…does that mean we are all the same? Was that the message he intended? I don’t think so, but what I like about Perry’s art is that he doesn’t mind if what he might have said can’t be interpreted as he wanted it to be, but rather reinterpreted, again and again.

What I really loved was the way he'd address issues by representing a person as icon. To the left is his 'working-class boy'. I imagined a street gang member, stuck in his life and unable to see his way out of drinking, drugs and violence, was depicted by this  youth, peirced (with his own and other people's) sharp impliments, badges and beer bottle tops. 

At lunch in the querky Arnolfini cafe, we downloaded our thoughts. We talked about some students disappointment in discovering that he does not create his work 'from scratch'. For instance, he'll ask a potter to throw a ‘naked’ pot, rather than taking the clay and throwing a pot himself, then paint and transfer in his designs. He also sends his digital designs away to be made into a tapestry, rather than doing the weaving. I was surprised this was an issue with anyone, it didn’t worry me. I’m thinking that people might as well ask the painter to mix his paints from basic ingredients, as they did in Holland in the 17th Century, or for photographers to go back to film and developing…I know some do, and are, but that’s not the issue. The art isn’t in making two pots, 4% different in size. That’s a craft, and bit of science, perhaps. The art is in covering them with what you want to say about something. 

Liz had brought with her, an article by Adrian Searle about the exhibition  ( . Searle took exception to the title (The Most Popular Exhibition Ever), which he clearly did not, or could not, fully accept as ironic. Instead, his article berated most of the exhibits; the jokes become laboured and the Brexit Pots were better on TV…

I decided to put this to one side and make up my own mind.  Okay some of the imagery was not so appealing, and I have to admit that Searle had a slight point; I did prefer the pieces that made their point more subtlety.

I wasn’t initially so keen on Death of a Working Hero(You can view this artwork here)
simply because the imagery he used wasn’t attractive to me, imagery associated with the banners of the trade union movement, and reminiscent even of the Orangemen marches in Belfast. These symbols are signifiers with strong and clear meanings but there are often deeply personal emotions reactions in people (as there was in me) which wouldn’t be expected by the artists, perhaps. I have no idea why I take against these symbols because it goes back to at least my teens. Maybe it goes back as far as the church and chapel banners of my childhood, although I have no distressing memories of any of these, I think I’ve always found them a little to ‘shouty’. For me, they also signified strongly, the boredom of being in church.
After lunch, we went round again, trying to spot the things we'd missed. I wanted to watch the people going round. The gallery was filled with families, okay, a lot of them were gallery-going families, but even so there were a huge amount of kids enjoying a Saturday outing – clearly in the week, the schools are coming too. Every age group seemed to be enlivened by the work, and by loving or hating, or not understanding, or by understanding by a process of osmosis – that moment when you take in an artwork and know you know something.

Our Mother
I wrote two poems, there and then, sitting on a bench in the gallery. The first is about Our Mother, which affected me deeply. She is doing what women all over the world do…holding on, and holding up, and this 'holding' is represented by everything she loves and cherishes and needs being attached to her bending body. Made of cast iron with string and cloth, she's a moving indictment of poverty. I feel it brought into life the images of stateless people worldwide, but wierdly the image also reminded me of a TV children's programme from the sixties, which included a quiz called Double or Drop:

So, what you had to do, 
Was step up and stand on the stool,
Say your name and where you came from,
Laugh when he made a joke, 
Answer when he fired a question.

So, when you got your question right, 
Meccano boxes and Dinky cars were pushed into your arms,
Dollies dangled from your fingers,
Toys and games for every right answer--
Cauliflowers and wooden spoons for every wrong one.
The pile growing, 
People laughing, 
Soon, you couldn’t see over the top.

So, the idea was, never to drop a prize.
But every time you got a question right, 
There was another thing, tumbled upon the others…
Exam success, qualifications, jobs,
Sex, boyfriends, parties,
Unaffordable fashion,
LIving in flats,
Wedding rings, mortgages, DIY,
Babies, children, families,
Holidays on credit
Until it was all impossible to hold!

So, what you couldn’t ever do, 
Was drop the baby.

I also tried a poem on a theme suggested by Liz, that we should try 'climbing into a ceramic vase. I climbed into The ‘Remainer’ vase of the Brexit pair.

She dreamed that she peered through the little door 
And saw a landscape filled with starry circles
And two people kissing like it was all the world
But she was too tall to get through the door
And there was no little cake to eat
Or potion to drink.
The white rabbit,
Marching down and down the vase,
Dangling his fob like a hypnotist,
Frightened her so much 
She ran past all the people with jaded faces and deadbolt eyes,
Past swallows and a woman holding a sad cat,
A guitar man, 
A box of nesting sparrows
And a falcon with a fierce stare.
When she landed at the bottom, all she found was an earthen pot.
It had all been a dream.