Manuka tie decay in New Zealand

It is 2009. I am on a long, long flight. Needing to fill out an application for a visitor’s visa, I dig into my hand-luggage for a pen. I smile at what else I have brought with me. Carefully folded are three high-quality silk ties given to me by a friend who, on his retirement, swore he would never wear one again. I told him what I planned to do with them. He beamed.

Tie 1

I am lured back to New Zealand every year by the prospect of casting a dry fly over trout of memorable size in rivers of unforgettable beauty. This year takes me to the banks of a little-known creek off the Waikikamukau river. The creek is home to tiny trout that dart for cover as I approach. Only in the winter spawning season will the massive pink mama trout make their way up from the lake to await that brief and critical tail-flickering encounter with a hook-jawed male. However, I am not here for the trout. I am here for the manuka forest through which the creek tumbles. I want to install the ties and seek three trees of neck-size girth standing together.

Tie 2

In 2012, I pull on my hiking boots and return to my chosen manukas. I am amused by the way my carefully knotted ties with the naily tie-pins have maintained their business-like form but look like they have done way too many business trips. I wonder where this idea will go in the coming years.

Tie 3

2016 finds me back at the creek. I am always fascinated by decay of man-made things but my little project in entropy seems to be a bit of a flop. Let’s be honest, the whole thing looks like what it is: three ties rotting on tree trunks. I have a sneaking feeling that Andy Goldsworthy is watching over my shoulder with a wry smile.

Tie 4

It is 2019. The ties are now gorgeously decayed. Their strut has long gone. They are almost at one with the flakey manuka bark and so are becoming part of nature. Time is the “artist.” I like what I see.

I try to recall why I did this in the first place. It was something to do with my anger about the bank-induced financial crisis of 2008. Why the tie thing? A tie…. That symbol of the powerful smart man. That totally unlikely, brightly coloured, pants-pointing neck-wear. I realise that my anger is now redirected towards the Trumps, Putins and Johnsons of the world. Maybe my exposed tie experiment conjures up more than macho-corporate decay; perhaps it speaks to our daily-growing awareness of that biggest of human trade-offs: on one hand, we have our booming population living life-styles that are driven by manufacturing economies that in turn are driven by the business and political worlds (both lorded over by tie-bearing men.) On the other hand, we have our inevitable, massive and global impact on the environment. Whatever path humans take, nature will win in the end. Big mama trout will swim upstream to spawn long after us clever and exotically dressed hominids have been consigned to the archives of the planet’s natural history. I admit to finding comfort in this.

Tokyo through the lens of Lee Chapman

I’m in Tokyo for work. It’s my first time here. I’ve got a busy week ahead, but have booked a Saturday to look around and do some photography. Fuelled by my passion for games, technology and geeky stuff, the Japanese capital has always topped my list of places to go. I’m excited. I don’t want to get disappointed. I want to love this place.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

With its top-ten listicles and user reviews, Google advises me to check out the famous Shibuya crossing, the Sensō-ji temple and the Skytree observation deck. I’m doing nothing of that. Instead, I have arranged to meet with Lee Chapman, a local photographer, who has offered to show me around. There is no set theme, but we have agreed to stay away from the must-see sights and rather look at some older parts of Tokyo and for ordinary people doing ordinary things. I’m not sure what to expect.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

It’s late August. The weather app promises sun, heat and humidity. I grab my camera and a bottle of water, gobble down some breakfast and head to the subway. My hotel is located in Roppongi, a central district known for its nightlife and expat community. Last night, I found some good food and an interesting exhibition here, but it could as well have been in London or New York. I want local.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Lee and I meet at the subway exit. His handshake is firm and he greets me in a noticeable British accent. He travels light, with a small backpack and a Leica rangefinder. “This city is made for walking,” he tells me. “There are lots of interesting stuff you can only find when you’re on foot.” I tie my shoelaces and tighten my camera strap.

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Lee Chapman, 24 August 2019. Photo by: Isaac Griberg

Lee grew up in Manchester and made his own Brexit in the late 90s. In the search for change and adventure, he boarded a flight to Tokyo for a one-year gig as English teacher. He bought a camera, fell in love with the city and his wife-to-be. For over two decades, Lee has documented life in the megapolis he now calls home. “The longer you spend exploring this place, the more there is to find,” he tells me.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We make our first stop at a peaceful market in Minowa, an older district of Tokyo. It seems like this place hasn’t seen a lot of change in a long time – in particular when you notice the shop owners and their clientele. “I love this place,” Lee says with a smile. “Most people here are in their 80s or 90s, still running the family business as they’ve always done.”

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

I can see that Lee has been here before. As we walk through market, he stops to chat with the people we meet, points out interesting stuff to photograph, and explains how the area demonstrates one of Japan’s greatest challenges – an ageing and shrinking population.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

As I move around, compose my shots and press the shutter, I realise how Lee’s presence, acceptance by the community and fluency in Japanese are giving me both confidence and access to snap photos of people and places I would not have discovered on my own.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We leave the market and continue our walk towards Ueno. I notice a difference in the shape and state of the buildings we pass. Some look patched-up, others deserted. An old bicycle embraced by nature invokes a feeling of tranquility and loneliness. “It’s expensive to inherit a property here,” Lee tells me while showing a photo of an elderly woman standing on the porch of the now-abandoned house in front of us. “So, when someone passes away, the house might just be left as it is.” Is this really Tokyo?

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Some would probably describe Lee as an urban explorer and street photographer, but I think there is much more depth to his character and to what he does. His photos commit moments to eternity. By returning to the same streets for over two decades, documenting the people living there, Lee is a preservationist of life and his work is a longitudinal study of the ever-changing Tokyo. I’m impressed.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Evidently, his work has been published in several top-tier media, most recently in The Guardian. I ask Lee if he ever thought of exhibiting his photos in a gallery. “If I did that, I’d like it to be in the setting where they were taken,” he answers. “Perhaps in a small shop or bar, providing context through the people working there, the ambiance.”

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We grab a quick bite, stroll through the remnants of a post-war black market and make our last stop in Golden Gai. Tucked away in a corner of the red-light district, this maze of tiny bars connected through narrow passages is a relic of the past. “The area rose from the ashes of the Second World War,” Lee tells me. “I hope it won’t be bulldozed to make room for another skyscraper.” I peek into a few bars and notice how guests laugh and trade elbow space for drinks. Despite the rather dodgy feel, this seems to be a happy place.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the human impulse to create. You find beautiful stuff in people’s homes, in galleries, by the roadside and – sometimes – where you least expect it. When I woke up this morning, I thought I’d spend the evening writing about some jaw-dropping installation or an eccentric street performance, not about the photographer who would show me around. By sharing his wealth of experience and eye for photography, Lee has helped me discover a Tokyo I didn’t expect. I feel privileged and I’ve made a friend.


All photos in this blog published with kind permission from Lee Chapman himself. You can find out more about Tokyo photo walks on his website. Should you like to see any of the photos I shot during our walk, please check out my Instagram post.

Saving the ocean, one plastic bottle at a time

It’s summer holiday and we’ve just arrived in Indonesia. We’re on our way to Labuan Bajo in the eastern archipelago, but we’ve decided to spend a few days in the capital to beat the jetlag. I’m not too fond of the bustling and congested megacities of the Far East, but Jakarta is the hometown of my wife and a good reminder that life is not always as comfortable and peaceful as in Geneva. This time though, the reminder is a little starker than usual.

Photo credit: The Jakarta Post

The Big Durian has just been hit by a massive power failure, with big parts of the city completely blacked out, paralyzing the traffic and forcing buildings to run on back-up generators. As we enter a mall to buy some necessities for the kids, Twitter tells Sari that “the blackout has affected some 30 million people in Greater Jakarta” and that the “recently established metro system was evacuated this morning.” Should we be worried? I’m not sure.

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As we venture deeper into the mall, a rather odd-looking installation catches our attention. Squeezed between Guccis and Pradas is a little shop, with its ceiling covered in odd-looking, colorful and sparkly stripes. At a closer inspection, we learn that the stripes are made of plastic waste recovered from the Indian Ocean, and that the shop is the entrance to an exhibition. How exciting!

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Benji finds the installation amusing. He pulls and rattles the plastic bottles, treating them like an instrument. Josi looks rather concerned and tries to curb her little brother’s enthusiasm. I take a few photos. The ocean-like glittering caused by cold light meeting plastic translucence reminds me of a dive in Bali. Just after rolling off the boat, we found ourselves looking up at a surface covered by a thick layer of plastic bags and trash, probably dumped by a nearby boat. At the time, we didn’t do anything about it. Today, I feel embarrassed.

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“Laut Kita” (“Our Ocean”) is an installation by Sejauh, an Indonesian fashion brand, attempting to educate the general public about the importance of reducing the use of disposable plastics and protecting the environment. The curator has juxtaposed images of Indonesia’s coastal beauty with stacks of plastic waste and recyclable bottles installed to mimic a kelp forest. “Indonesia is the second largest plastic waste producer with a total of 3.2 million tons per year,” Sari reads on the info board. “About 40% ends up in rivers and the ocean.” Ugh.

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At the end of the installation, a group of kids has stopped in front of sign posts equipped with catchy slogans and data on how plastic pollution is destroying the ocean. I wonder what they think. Are they contemplating how to save the world, or are they just appalled by the extent to which their parents and friends have lived their lives at the expense of the environment? Perhaps a bit of both. I don’t dare to ask. As we leave, Josi writes a note about sharks in the guest book and Benji adds some color. Proud papa moment.

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I didn’t expect that our trip to the mall would turn into a cognitive journey from consumerism to sustainable living. I’m glad it did. As the fluorescent lights of the mall continue to flicker and the ventilation system struggles to keep us cool, most shops and restaurants remain empty. The setting reminds me of a scene in Dawn of Dead, where people are looting the pharmacy for medicines, scavenging the supermarket for food and arming themselves in the hardware store. Let’s hope our current path of destruction won’t take us there. In the meantime, we can all do something to save the ocean. Why not start by recycling one plastic bottle at a time?

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The Standing Stones of Callanish, Isle of Lewis

The Standing Stones of Callanish 1

I am reunited with a long-lost Hebridean cousin. She suggests that, despite the weather, we visit some nearby standing stones. On the road to Callanish, the suggestion becomes less appealing as the wind speed rises, the temperature drops and the rain becomes horizontal. We pass bus shelters huddle-full of drenched and exhausted cyclists. At the well-organised visitor centre, the cafe is hung about with cagools and anoraks all dripping on the floor; their owners dawdle in the very informative exhibition wondering whether to brave what has to be the worst of Scottish weather. Cousin Rona can’t see what the fuss is about. During a brief pause in the downpour, she grabs my arm and force-wades me up the path to a series of crudely – if at all – hewn monoliths. It is bleak all around. We lean into the wind trying to orientate ourselves. Photography is near-impossible. But then no photograph conveys the massive, raw, resilient beauty of this 5,000 year-old collection of standing stones. Something here nudges my soul. I am surprisingly moved. Did our ancestors pass here? What did they do when the weather was like this? Then I think of the making of this place. These pillars of Lewisian gneiss weigh up to 50 tonnes. Did stone-age (wo)man split the stones and, if so, by what method? How were they brought here, positioned and placed upright? How long did it take? What role did the immense task and its outcome play in neolithic life?

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Aerial view of the central ring of the Callanish stones. Copyright: Shutterstock

The whole consists of a centre stone within a circle with lines of other stones radiating out to the south, east and west. There is a longer “avenue” or double line of stones to the north. There is also an exposed chamber just east of the central stone; it is thought this might have been built later for ritual or habitation or both.

This particular collection of standing stones is just one of eight in the Callanish area. It is one of the oldest of more than one hundred such sites found across Scotland. What is so intriguing is that these not-so-primitive people must have had a very important reason to expend so much time and energy in the construction of these sites. Information on display at Callanish and on-line makes evident that nobody has a clear idea about what was in these people’s minds. It seems likely that there is a religious importance and these were places of ritual. It is claimed that different sites have similar alignments with the paths of the sun and moon. Were these earliest Hebrideans trying to make sense of how the movements of the sun and the moon change throughout the year so cementing in their culture notions of night versus day, dark versus light, cold versus warm and winter versus summer? Or is it as simple as respect for the dead? Life then would not have been as super-sanitised as our’s today; we have virtually no contact with dead bodies and recoil when we do. Were these sites some kind of welcoming gateway to an imagined after-life where the dead would begin their onward journey? I can’t help feeling that the importance of answering these question goes beyond the academic. One thing is clear: the question of “why” comes down to humans’ universal capacity to believe in something abstract and the power of such belief when held in common with others. These magnificent standing stones therefore must represent an essential element of humanity.

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The central ring of the Callanish standing stones. Copyright: Visit Outer Hebrides

Later, by a warm peat fire with a cup of tea, I find a picture on-line that tells me that blue skies do happen here. My desire to return, however, is not fired by hope of fine weather; something calls me from way back in time.

Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.