Reporting live from Anywhen

It is 11.10 on 2 November 2016. I lie on a carpet in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. (How I love this place!) I am here to experience “Anywhen.” Nothing much is happening. A mother feeds her baby. Some schoolchildren scrap and roll in the enormous space.

11.20 The lights go down. There is the sound of rain falling. Massive white screens hang enticingly from the ceiling. The screens move. Bright white light is projected onto one. There is the sound of waves breaking.

11.25 There is a flicker of excitement from the children. A large plastic fish is spotted moving high among the wires that suspend the screens and multiple loud-speakers.

11.30 I wait. I read the promotional blurb. “Prepare to have your senses activated and stimulated by a spectacular choreography of acoustics, sound lighting, flying objects and film, each connected to the other and playing their part in a far bigger score. Tate’s Turbine Hall becomes a universe of inter-related and connected events and parallel realities. Events will unfold anywhere.” I am indeed prepared.

11.35. I wait.

11.48. Something is about to happen. There is the sound of machinery. Vehicle reversing warning beeps take over. The screens descend to near-ground level. The hundred or so people waiting with me move with interest. A businessman in very smart pin-stripe suit and tie with poppy plants his brief case next to me and lies down.

11.52. Ah! Something flickers on-screen. A beautiful woman ventriloquist starts to talk into a microphone (without moving her lips!) about perpetuity, eternity, opportunity, complexity, cosmic inevitability and neuronal connectivity.

12.04 Her voice continues in the same vein. On screen is a watery surface. There are splishy. sploshy splashy watery sounds.

12.08 A non-human eye appears. This turns out be the eye of a beautiful cuttlefish-squiddy beast that swims around elegantly. It changes colour in dimply blue-yellow waves. The woman’s voice dies away. The businessman departs shaking his head.

12.10 The lights go up. The lights go down. The speakers crank out a kind of Darth Vader on Ecstasy voice.

12.15 Big lights strobe. The now-fed baby cries in confusion. The screens are still hanging there. The lights go up.

12.16 Nothing happens. I return to the blurb. “Anywhen is a site-specific exhibition that changes throughout the day and that will evolve during the six-month period of the commission. The exhibition is conceived as an automaton which guides the public through a constantly changing play of moving elements, light configurations and sound environments. The artist states that ‘the exhibition is a construction of situations or sequences in a non-linear narrative’.”

12.20 Still nothing. “The commission responds to the Turbine Hall’s position at the centre of the museum, an open space connected to the city itself. The artist combines aspects of chance and control: the sequences of events are triggered by software which is informed by micro-organisms. These react to and activate elements of the commission through a bioreactor visible at the far end of the Turbine Hall.”

12.22 The lights and screens go up together. The music of a not-so-talented busking guitar player- singer fills the hall.

12.25 His voice is drowned out by what sounds like an underground train passing.

12.26 He stops playing. One person claps.

12.28. The screens descend again noisily. Big machinery sounds. The screens go up.

12.30 I take a photo. I’m not sure why ….. or of what.


12.32 Another fish passes by. A little lower this time. Airplane sounds. Lights flash.

12.35 Electronic buzzing. Ticking noises. I read more.Philippe Parreno is a French avant-garde artist who came to prominence in the 1990s and is perhaps most widely known for his feature film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Parreno works across film, video, sound, sculpture, performance and information technology and collaborates extensively with musicians, scientists, architects and writers.”

12.40 Just sound. Wait! The screens are moving again.“The Hyundai Commission is a series of site-specific installations by contemporary artists in Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Halll. It is made possible by a unique long-term partnership between Tate and Hyundai Motor.” I remember the mind-boggling work of Abraham Cruzvillegas.

12.50 I am caught between mild intrigue, mild irritation, mild boredom and mild disappointment. Has the last hour enriched my life? Not really. Have my senses been activated and stimulated? Not really. Phrases from my yesteryear school reports come to mind: “Could do better.” “Room for improvement.””Has difficulty focusing.” “Shows occasional encouraging signs,”

12.59 I think maybe I am missing something. Caffeine maybe? But I’ll give it another go tomorrow.


Northumberlandia 1

I have a meeting with a lady. She is, apparently, very beautiful. She is called Northumberlandia. Although we have not met before, I know I am about to become one more admirer. I drive a long way to our rendez-vous in Northumberland, England. The weather gods have served up the vilest of British weather for our first encounter. I emerge from a dripping beech forest and catch my first awe-inspiring side-view of her face and breasts. She takes no notice of the lashing wind and rain.

The full extent of her beauty is revealed when, later, I go on-line and find an aerial view taken in unimaginable sunshine.

Northumberlandia 2

Ol Batten’s award winning drone photo of Northumberlandia, 2015

Northumberlandia, seen from above or explored at ground level, has the air of some ancient pagan queen. She is immense. She exudes fertility. Her coy pose and raised right index finger indicate that she is at once inviting and admonishing. Her vital statistics are impressive. She is four years old. She is 400 metres frown crown to toe. Her nose is 40 metres above the ground. She weighs 1.5 million tonnes. Her features are drawn by six kilometres of sandstone paths. She is beautiful stuff on a grand scale. I am smitten.

This is one more dazzling project conceived by architect-sculptor Charles Jencks who took inspiration from the feminine forms of the distant Cheviot hills. Today, these hills are lost to view.

Northumberlandia 3

Big public sculpture doesn’t get better than this. The whole enterprise was sponsored by the BANKS Group. They run the adjacent Shotton surface coal mine from which the rock and clay for the construction were transported. DEFRA provided additional funds. The land was donated by the Blagdon Estate. The site is co-managed by the Land Trust and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. It warms my heart that such co-operation is possible in the spirit of creativity and environmentally conscious development.

Northumberlandia 4

I stand atop her right breast. I can’t help thinking that the undulating green of her right hand could have been the work of Old Tom Morris.

I am alone. The wind blows harder. I struggle unsuccessfully to keep my camera dry. I decide to take cover in the visitor centre. I meet Wayne, Northumberlandia’s warden. Today, he has time to chat. Nice guy. He makes me a warming cup of coffee. He is justifiably proud of his charge. When the weather is fine, he tells me, the place is heaving. Last year saw 90,000 visitors. I buy a post card, say goodbye and trudge soddenly back to my car.  I am cold, wet, enthralled and enchanted. I am determined to see Northumberlandia again.

Fame and fortune in Vevey, Switzerland

Vevey 1

It’s said that, after Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin‘s tramp is the world’s most recognisable character…… ever. I think it’s true; the little black and white figure with bowler hat, tiny moustache, tail coat and cane is everywhere in Asia and Africa. I guess this is because his fame came from the era of silent film; language wasn’t necessary to generate wide appeal.

Chaplin was barred from America in 1951 because the FBI believed he was communist. Vevey in Switzerland became domicile for him and his family. If you know where to look, you can even find his grave. It is something of a paradox that a statue in the memory of someone who identified with and highlighted the plight of the poor and oppressed can be found on the shores of Lac Leman in Vevey, Switzerland; just about the wealthiest little town in Europe.

Vevey 2

This is a much loved statue. The shabby-comic-sad air is captured. If it moved, there is no doubt the walk would be immediately recognisable. Note the left arm and shoulder burnished by thousands of hands; everyone wants their photo taken arm-in-arm with “Charlo.” Holding the flower-girl’s rose to his heart, he looks out onto the calm waters of the lake. Something seems to have caught his eye. Maybe he is reflecting on why Vevey is so wealthy?

Vevey 3

A massive eight metre stainless steel fork is embedded in the water’s surface. It is pristine, clean and intriguing. It is arresting for sure. This is the work of Jean-Pierre Zaugg. It is the lakeside showpiece of the Alimentarium; a food-discovery museum steeped in the history of one of Switzerland’s best known – and Vevey based – multinational corporations: Nestlé. I look at the fork. I take a photo or two. And yet, my enduring fascination with Chaplin’s genius inevitably draws my thoughts away from a celebration of food to the spaghetti scene in Chaplin’s “City Lights.”

Big luggage people at Amsterdam airport

I am in transit at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Everyone is in a controlled rush. Irritated travellers swerve around me when I stop to take a photo of two huge figures that sit in the middle of the walkway. Before I too move on, I feel the surface of a massive bronze shoulder; it is cold and assertive. I tap my knuckle against it and am rewarded with a satisfying note, deep and rich.

Big luggage people

Tom Claassen “Two incredible sitting black snowmen” Bronze 2000

I have seen Tom Claassen‘s “Two incredible sitting black snowmen” before. I wasn’t wowed. However, finding them here really grabs my attention and flicks the mental switch on a little bit of neuronal circuitry that tells me “This is beautiful stuff!” I guess it’s about context.

Claassen’s figures look like two tired people. Their sitting pose is weighty but anatomic nevertheless. I am reminded of a couple of breathless fat kids after PE. At the same time, with their seams and soft corners, they represent battered baggage waiting to be collected. The in-context appeal comes from the fact that they represent us, how we feel and what we take with us when we travel. Passengers and luggage, as far as airlines and airports are concerned, are commodities that have to be moved around efficiently. Inevitably, our air travel experience involves total depersonalisation. So, just look at the lack of any human expression on the faces of our bronze friends!

Another subliminal bobs to the surface. It’s the fat kid thing combined with the resemblance to couches upon which we sit and watch television. The western world is currently gripped by an epidemic of obesity. Hence, these figures are totally contemporary in their placement at Schipol. With a kind of tired ambivalence we just accept the  inconvenience and discomfort of air travel as we expect convenient access to comfort food.

No surprise that, given the chance, I would rename Claassen’s masterpiece “Big luggage people.” Bravo team Classens – Schipol!

The river blindness sculpture at the World Health Organisation

River blindness 1

I am at entrance of the World Health Organisation. People of all nationalities hurry by with laptops and bulging files. There is a sculpture that I too have hurried by over the years. Today, I have time to take a closer look.

When it comes to depicting the human form, what makes the difference between a good sculpture and a great sculpture is what one sees in the eyes. The eyes are, after all, that part of another person at which we look most intently. What I see here is a man and a boy. Both are clearly African. The man’s eyes are clouded over; dead. The boy sees clearly but his expression is that of determined resignation to his lot.

River blindness 2

A son leads his blind father with the aid of a stick. They are both caught in grinding poverty. The sculpture marks the near-elimination of the parasite causing river blindness (Onchocerciasis) in eleven West African countries through the Onchocerciasis Control Programme. There is an element of hope for the generation who might, thanks to the combined efforts of multiple agencies guided by the WHO, be free of this terrible disease. This noble institution gets a political bashing on many fronts but it is well to remember its successes. And these successes are brought about by committed people who hurry by with laptops and bulging files. All that said, this commemorative work is technically accomplished, full of narrative and eye-smartingly poignant. I should have stopped and taken all this in before.

It is a clear bright spring day. I take my time snapping a few photos. I look for the little plaque that gives the name of the master sculptor responsible for this beautiful stuff. There is no plaque. There is no recognition of the genius who made it. Does anyone know whose work this is?