Roundabouts in Martigny

I am in Martigny, le Valais, Switzerland. The small town sits comfortably in the Rhone valley surrounded by precipitous mountains. Travelling to ski in Zermatt, Verbier or Crans-Montana, you are likely to pass through here. Historically, it is a gateway to the high passes that access southern Europe. There are the remains of an old Roman fort. It is the hub of a centuries-old wine growing tradition. It is also a surprisingly rich centre for “modern art” (whatever the phrase means) and is home to the Gianadda Foundation.

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Rudolf Blattler

My first impression is that of a clean and quiet town. It seems that the inhabitants of Martigny go about their business quietly and in an orderly fashion. Careful drivers of German cars respect the speed limits, each other and those on foot. The first impression lasts. A stroll around the streets instills a feeling of calm. For a moment, I thought I had come across the Big Luggage People from Amsterdam!

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André Ramseyer

The major difference between this Swiss town and others is the roundabouts. In Martigny, each is a carefully maintained grassy dome on top of which sits an intriguing if not beautiful contemporary sculpture.

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Josef Staub

Josef Staub’s massive ribbon of twisted stainless steel catches my eye. It reminds me of Gayle Hermick’s “Wandering the immeaasurable.”

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Hans Erni

The streets provide a unique big sculpture exhibition that’s worth a visit. You can find this work by Hans Erni only fifty metres from the railway station.

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Yves Dana

More gratifying than finding these wonders so well presented in the streets of such a town is that the brave sculptors who have allowed their souls to be bared are adequately acknowledged with handsome little signs bearing their names. These signs face the traffic coming into each roundabout; I imagine this is so the names can be read by drivers and pedestrians alike. Fantastic! Such thoughtful practice is rare in the domain of big public sculpture. Bravo, Martigny!

It’s her day!

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Andy Denzler “Liquid Walking Woman” 2016 Bronze

I stroll through down-town Geneva. It is hot. Very hot. Every-language tourists swarm the luxury shrines to chocolate and watches. A stunning new bronze sculpture in Place de Longemalle stops me in my tracks. It is a young woman in hoody, cut-off denim shorts and trainers walking with confidence. She holds a smartphone. Like her living counterparts, she seems unaware of her allure or the conveniences brought by smartphone culture. She is constructed of horizontal segments re-stacked. The texture contrasts effectively with the smooth skin of the presumed model. Somehow, this sculpture captures the young woman of today. It is very beautiful and very gratifying.

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Andy Denzler “Selfie” 2016 Bronze

I look around for the plaque that names the genius behind this work. Instead, I spot the same young woman only forty metres away. She has both feet firmly planted and her smartphone held up towards her other self striding to meet her. She has that small-screen look of concentration. Is she photographing her twin, taking a selfie, recording the street scene or checking her make-up? I am captivated by these works individually and as a pair. Finding them makes my day. I wander round them admiring the poise, youth and statement that the sculptor has accomplished here. Eventually, I find a little sign that tells me these are recent works of Andy Denzler from Zurich. They are presented by and just outside the Opera Gallery.

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Andy Denzler “Selfie” 2016 Bronze (detail)

I did not grow up in the internet era nor even with a mobile phone. Denzler’s subject cannot possibly know existence without a smartphone. It is also her camera, her street map, her address book, her pen and paper, her mirror, her compass, her library, her photo album, her stereo, her shopping mall, her magazines, her cinema and much more besides. Her friends and friends’ friends, real and virtual, are connected, categorized and communicated with by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Whatsapp and Instagram. As for all of my generation, what mobile technologies bring to humanity is both fascinating and intimidating. Were I to find myself in conversation with Denzler’s young woman, I’d be interested to know whether she could conceive of life before smartphones. And if I said something stupid like “Well, in my day, we didn’t have such technology.” I am certain she would simply look up from the screen for a second or two, look my squarely in the eye and say politely “But it’s not your day!”

The poet who saved St Pancras station

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Copyright: Hufton & Crow

St Pancras station, London. It’s many years. I had forgotten just how huge it is. The exterior is now impeccably maintained and inside there are clean brick walls and arcades of shiny, stylish boutiques. I wander around marvelling at the elaborate Victorian architecture and the massive iron vaulting of the train-shed roof. In its day, it was known as the cathedral of British Railways and would have been full of the noise, smoke and steam of the great trains of that era.

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On the upper level of the concourse, I find a wonderful bronze statue of my very favourite poet, the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjemen (1906-1984.) He is depicted as a friendly, academic, rather paunchy figure in a well worn three piece suit with tie askew and coat tails flapping. He has to hang onto his hat to gaze up in awe at Barlow’s girdered sky. He foregoes a briefcase for a canvas hold-all in which, I imagine, there are reams of paper with all sorts of lines about seaside golf and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. He looks like such a nice old guy. I am sure that a conversation with him would have been a life-enriching experience. Here, he stands on a flat disc of Cumbria slate inscribed with lines from Cornish CliffsAnd in the shadowless unclouded glare / Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where / A misty sea-line meets the wash of air. 

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Betjemen was fascinated by the architecture and railways of Victorian times. In the 1960s, a plan to demolish St Pancras station was unveiled. He referred to this as “criminal folly.” He is now considered instrumental in the campaign that saved this great London landmark. In 2007, when the station became the international terminus for Eurostar, the sculpture was commissioned as a tribute to him.

This beautiful and touching sculpture is the work of Oxford-based Martin Jennings. His figurative style has led him to undertake similar public works of other great names including Charles Dickens and Philip Larkin. His subjects are not exclusively from the literary world, he has also commemorated in bronze the lives of two people who in different ways have advanced care for people wounded in conflict; namely, the Jamaican-born nurse, Mary Seacole who assisted wounded servicemen in the Crimean War and the World War II plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

On leaving St Pancras, I notice that a bar in the corner is called…. guess what….. “The John Betjemen”! To be remembered by a fabulous public sculpture and to have a bar bearing one’s name is a double honour. Then I guess you merit both if you wrote wonderful poems and saved a station.

Nuts in Marrakesh!

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I arrive at the Sofitel in Marrakesh. I am here for golf! Helpful porters haul my luggage and clubs into a sumptuous lobby. The welcome is warm. The receptioniste is charming. To help me through the formalities of check-in, she offers me a glass of refreshing green tea. A plate appears at my side with cashew nuts, pistachio nuts and little sweet coconut cakes covered with almond nuts. Lots of nuts! I am shown to my room. It is charming and comfortable. I relax on my small balcony. On the small table are some peanuts. More nuts! In the distance, I hear the call to prayer. Allah-U-Akbar!

Something caught my eye at the hotel entrance. I have to go back and take another look. I stare up at a magnificent black bull with bright red testicles. I can’t help being amused as such an overt display of masculine gonadism might be just a tad out of place in this town.

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This is the work of French designer, painter, sculptor (and golfer!) Alain Gerez. His sculptures are particularly popular here and many of them make manifest a rather naughty sense of humour. This big black bull is a bald, tongue-in-cheek tribute to testosterone. The beast seems to dance with Y chromosome-driven joy. His left horn, blood-stained, has just done in the matador that tormented him. Poor dumb animal that he is, he doesn’t realise that the meatworks await him nevertheless. His only present thought is that, free of his tormentor, he can now waltz off to give his cows a good licking and then fill them with the output of those two great swinging red orbs.

Testicles: the family jewels, balls, bollocks, knackers and, of course, nuts. Whatever, I can’t help suspecting that Monsieur Gerez finds great amusement in his contribution to the variety of nuts in Marrakesh!

Art Geneva 2017 opens on a frozen lakeside

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Geneva’s waterfront is blisteringly cold. A bruising north wind still blows off the water after last night’s storm. Swimming is definitely forbidden!

Well, it’s that time of year… but, exceptionally, it’s -6 degrees. Some hardy souls struggle to set up the fabulous lakeside big-sculpture extension of Art Geneva 2017 that opens next week. What I see enthralls me; imaginative, meticulous and outsized beautiful stuff.

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A massive white orchid turns away from the dull grey waves. Despite its pure glacial whiteness, it is delicate and bi-sexually erotic. I search in vain for a little plaque bearing the name of the master-sculptor.

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Just a hundred metres away is a  timber-diamond construction with windows (as yet unattributed). Again, somehow this gels with the subzero settings. I feel I am invited to climb into the mineral heart of this absurdly large wooden gem for shelter and to peer out. An after-thought arrives; whilst inside, I might even be able to make it roll in a semi-circle by a kind of lop-sided hamster-wheel effort.

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Really! How do people think these things up? I can only admire the fantasy-addled mind that created this three-chimneyed hobbit house with its five rooty entrances. If I was rabbit-sized I would hop in without doubt. What I love about it is that the invoked fantasy places me as the in-dweller observing today’s vicious elements from behind the thick glass of a ship-style port hole that, with arrival of the year’s first warm days, could be opened for the spring clean. Brilliant!

After ten minutes my frozen hands can no longer take photographs. I head for cover in a nearby café. I trust other works will appear when the weather permits. Give it a few days and take a stroll by the lakeside. Just admire the creative spirit behind this stuff! Wrap up warm!