The poet who saved St Pancras station

St Pancras station 1

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.

St Pancras station 2

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. 

St Pancras station 3

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.

The 2016 Turner Prize Shortlist: Baffling, Brazen, Banal and Beguiling

Turner 1

Michael Dean

I pluck up courage to visit the exhibition by the four shortlisted candidates for this year’s Turner Prize. I am not sure that anything I have to say is relevant. This is, after all, one of the most prestigious international visual arts awards; it specifically celebrates new developments. Unsurprisingly, it is probably the most controversial as well; especially since that bed business. But Tate Britain asks visitors for their opinion. So, here goes!

I ask the helpful staff member personning the entrance if it’s safe to go in there. She laughs. She is well used to the occasional barbed comment; this is about as contemporary as it gets. We chat. She assures me that there is nothing a five year-old could have done. It’s my turn to laugh. She has a preference but feels she should keep this to herself for fear of prejudicing my visit. She agrees to tell me when I come out.

Turner 2

Helen Marten (Photo: Martin Godwin for the Guardian)

The first space is given over to work stations each housing a construction by Helen Marten. They are bizarre and baffling. However, their placement is careful. Their construction is complex and heterogenous in source material, colour, texture and form. I am drawn in to examine them minutely. The close encounter is gratifying.

Turner 3

Helen Marten

Despite a steampunkish feel, there is, at the same time, something quiet about Marten’s work. It is proportioned. It is unthreatening. It does not confuse.

Turner 4

Anthea Hamilton

The next space is lined by brick-wall-paper. In one corner, a matching suit is suspended on a hanger. Whilst trying to assimilate this easy-on-the-eye juxtaposition, I turn around…….

Turner 5

Anthea Hamilton

On the opposing wall, drawing sniggers from other viewers – one of whom who was kind enough to take a direct sub-anal stance for scale purposes – is…. well…. description is superfluous. It is, apparently, a direct take-off of a 1970s proposal by designer Gaetano Pesce for a doorway into an apartment building in New York. The back door?

Anthea Hamilton’s space is brazen. It provokes a reaction, for sure. My problem is that I am aware that my reaction feeds off a latent schoolboy sense of humour. I struggle to find aesthetic appeal. Is this important? Despite my years as surgical registrar on the proctology unit of University College Hospital, London, I want to by-pass the self-pulled-apart buttocks (‘Ere, Doc, take a look at this!) I want to look away. The cocktail of amusement and discomfort is unique. I feel a creeping embarrassment that, by appreciating it as contemporary “art,” I might become a figure of ridicule. I harbour a forlorn hope that somehow, the trousers of the suspended suit behind me are pulled up over this supersized bum. I would love to know if this paragraph represents mission accomplished for Hamilton.

Turner 6

Josephine Pryde

The next, more modest space is taken by Josephine Pryde. It is something of a relief. It also, I am sorry to say, leaves me a bit flat. In the centre of the room is a model train. I read the Turner Prize text. “The New Media Express in a Temporary Siding (Baby Wants To Ride) is a scale model of a Class 66 diesel locomotive and carriages in DB Schenker livery. The carriages are tagged by graffiti artists from the cities in which the train has previously been exhibited…”

Turner 7

Josephine Pryde

On the wall Pryde has hung a series of closely cropped photographs of well-manicured women’s hands. Each image shows the hands in contact with, for example, clothing, a book or a mobile phone. I read that “our attention is drawn to the point at which the body and the object meet and to the gestures the hands perform.” I’m struggling.

One more space to visit and I am not sure I have yet seen my new friend’s preferred work. And then, as I edge myself into the next space, it is obvious (and is later confirmed when I leave.) I am in Michael Dean’s beguiling white-out-scrap-heap-alphabet-jungle. I am confronted first by tight angry cement fists impaled on a coiled steel reinforcing rod. I feel an immediate little burst of outrage; about what, I am not sure. I squeeze around the margins of this mesmerising jumble of discarded materials. From a visual perspective, I cannot help be drawn into it.

Turner 8

Michael Dean

I am captivated by four standing slats of corrugated iron. Each has two holes near the top. These eye-holes transform the slats into a dull humanoid family whose feet are planted in a thick layer of coppery glittering grit. I move in for a closer look. The grit consists of thousands upon thousands of one-penny pieces. That feeling of outrage is finding a focus.

Turner 9

Michael Dean

The title of this work takes some beating: “United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children: twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds sterling as published on 1st September 2016″ This annual subsistence sum is represented here by 2,043,600 pennies. In fact, there is one penny less. When installing the work, Dean removed one coin meaning that the family has to get by on one penny less than the poverty line.

I later ask myself if I am qualified to judge these works and commit my judgement to e-print. One internal voice tells me this would be unwise; I am not swimmer enough to plunge into such controversial waters. Another voice tells me that not so many people are prepared to take the plunge and I may swim as strongly as anyone who is. Whatever, here’s my judgement for what it’s worth. Dean!

Anywhen: live report day 2

Yesterday’s experience of Anywhen stays with me overnight. I can’t help thinking that, ultimately, what Phillippe Parreno is doing is playing with our absolute desire for certainty in our lives. I decide to give it another go. And so, at 11.45 today, I return to the famous Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Sombre base non-melodic music greets me. And…..  Wow! A helium filled fish drifts by. Children leap in excitement. Adults point their iPhones.

Anywhen day two 1

I take my place on the carpet. I sit down among a hundred others. Amazingly, most are under twenty years old.

11.50 The music continues; it increases in volume. The lights go up. The suspended screens perform a little vertical shuffle with squeaky mechanical noises.

Certainty. It is essential for our mental and social well-being. We look for it in our daily routines, in the sun rising, in religious beliefs and in statistics. The seemingly random happenings in Anywhen deprive us of any certainty in our immediate surroundings. I hear a voice behind from a young lady “I guess it’s all about anticipation!” I guess it is.

11.55 The lights go down again. More music. Some people leave. Others arrive; they wonder why everyone is lying on the carpet. I make a new friend.

Anywhen day two 2

12.04 The ventriloquist lady (Nina Conti) and the cuttlefish-squid are back on the screen.

Anywhen day two 3

12.10 She asks “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” My fellow viewers (experiencers?) are drawn into the hypnotic log-curve forms of the fish.

12.25 I look behind. Everyone has a mesmerised expression. A huge chaotic noise rolls down the hall. A hundred school children arrive in hi-viz vests. This, I assume but without certainty, is not part of Perrano’s “immersive” creation.

Anywhen day two 4

12.32 Lights flash. A woman screams “Attention!” Electronic bips and burps. Then silence. Microphone feedback squeal. “Grass!” an android voice shouts. “Rain!”

12.36 The screens descend but only partially. More people drift in expecting the show to begin. I am certain that this is far from certain. I harbour a little smug feeling that I can anticipate their disappointment.

12.38 Right on cue. The lights come on and the screens are hauled back up. Everyone stays. Scratchy recording of folky guitar song.

12.39 Very noisy airplane swoop. Some of us duck in a startled way. Another fish swims by about two metres off the floor. A young girl tries to catch it.

Anywhen day two 5

13.01 Only electronic sounds. Nobody seems bored. Some snooze. Some kiss. Some check their snapchats, instagrams and whatsapps.

13.10 Nothing new to report. Feeling hungry. Feeling also rather happy I came back.

13.11 Total silence. Surprising.

13.15 I try to examine my very mixed feelings. I remain intrigued. I am not disappointed. Thanks to the others around me, I am far from bored.

13.20 I conclude that Anywhen is a remarkable experience. It seems the uncertainty that this concept serves up appeals to younger people. Perhaps this is because modern life is so full of … well…. certainties. Who knows for certain? Sorry about yesterday’s blog post, Tate Modern. Bravo, Monsieur Parreno!

13.25 Lunch.

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.

Anywhen

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.

Love the Tate Modern

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

Yes, I love the Tate Modern in London. It lifts me up and makes my little beating heart sing.

Tate Modern 1

Alexander Calder, Triple Gong c.1948 Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY

I went south of the river to see the current Alexander Calder exhibition. I now understand why people say he redefined the notion of sculpture. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful stuff. Trademark hanging mobiles turn slowly and majestically in imperceptible drafts. The lighting is brilliant; each mobile casts a complex evolving shadow on the high white walls and those equipped with mini-gongs let out the occasional calming chime.

Tate Modern 2

Alexander Calder, Antennae with Red and Blue Dots c.1953 Photo credit: Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, NY

I was mesmerised. As were many others. One lasting impression I have of this gorgeous exhibition is the vast Tate Modern rooms full of people, jaws agape, gazing up at Calder’s fabulous works. I would love to re-visit with a reclining chair to rest a while and soak it all up.

Tate Modern 3

Fernand Léger and his portrait, Photo: Walter Limot. © Limot / Bridgeman images 1934

Room by room, I stepped though the creative history of this fascinating man. He was one original thinker! In the 1920s, he created a toy circus comprising little mechanical people and animals hence his interest in wire and mobility as a medium. He became fascinated by abstraction after visiting the studio of Piet Mondrian. However, his most astonishing early works were his cartoony wire portraits. He described this as drawing in space. It is beyond me how anyone could consistently achieve effective three-dimensional portraiture with only wire. One such portrait is of the painter, Fernand Léger. I love the contrast between the smooth facial outlines, the tightly coiled eyebrows and the stiff little bristly moustache!

Bravo, Tate Modern! I said to myself. Then I thought I would have a look at what else was on show and I found myself in the heart of the building, the enormous “Turbine Room” O….M…..G…..!!!!

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Abraham Cruzvillegas “Empty Lot” Scaffolding and soil boxes, Hyundai Commission 2015

Now the Tate Modern blows me away with two huge scaffolding structures together supporting hundreds of what looks like triangular seed boxes. This is “Empty Lot” by Mexican sculptor, Abraham Cruzvillegas. The soil in each box is taken from parks, commons, healths or other sites all over London. They are watered and lit by a variety of whacky lamps. But not a single seed has been sown. What grows – and in some boxes nothing obvious is growing – is what is simply there. Just like an empty lot! Cruzvillegas has always had an interest in alternative means of building. He is inspired by the popular Mexican “self-construction” approach to home-making. He says “Empty Lot” is about hope and expectation referring to what may be constructed or what might grow spontaneously. The originality, grandeur and vision of the whole concept takes my breath away. I adore it.

I have a hope and expectation that somebody will send a photo of “Empty Lot” to Talking Beautiful Stuff in a few months time. Pleeeeeease!

Love the Tate Modern too!